Clearly disturbed by the widespread moral outcry against the Trump administration’s decision to separate children from their parents at the U.S. border, Attorney General Jeff Sessions used a Biblical passage on Thursday to justify extreme immigration enforcement. “I would like to cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13,” Sessions said in a speech to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Sessions went on to insist that the Bible argues Christians must “obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order."
It’s fitting that Sessions turned to Romans 13. The text has a long track record of being used by Christians attempting to defend immoral public policy. In the 1850s, when slave masters paid preachers and public theologians to defend the plantation economy against abolitionists, Romans 13 was one of the most cited texts of slaveholder religion as well.
Indeed, the sad reality of American Christianity is that it has been used throughout our nation's history to justify and endorse injustice.
The Rev. Robert Dabney, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian in mid-19th century Virginia, explained in a letter to one of his colleagues why using the Bible to defend slavery was so important. “Here is our policy then: to push the Bible argument continually, drive abolitionism to the wall, and compel it to assume an anti-Christian position. By doing so we compel the whole Christianity of the North to array itself to our side.” Without a false moral narrative to counter the moral movement of abolitionism, slave owners knew that human bondage could not last.
But while slavery officially ended after America’s Civil War, slaveholder religion did not go away. The Redemption movement that sought to reverse Reconstruction in the south was led by white Christians with Bibles in their hands, celebrating the restoration of an order “ordained by God.” Richard H. Rivers, a Methodist professor of moral philosophy in Florence, Alabama, explained that the duties of whites to blacks “are no longer the duties of masters to slaves. They are, however, the duties of superiors to inferiors.” Whether Jeff Sessions parents still had a copy of Rivers’ “Elements of Moral Philosophy” on the shelf at home, his slaveholder religion permeated the culture of the Southern Methodist Church into which Sessions was baptized.
The Redemption movement that sought to reverse Reconstruction in the south was led by white Christians with Bibles in their hands.
But the slaveholder’s reading of the Bible — and indeed of Romans 13 — has never been the only way to read it. Sharing with St. Paul the experience of living in bondage, enslaved Christians always understood that the New Testament didn’t offer a blanket endorsement of authority. The God who raised Israel out of Egypt and Jesus from the dead wanted people to be free. A government that denied freedom wasn’t an instrument of God’s will, but its adversary.
Thus Harriet Tubman carried the same Bible Sessions quoted when she led hundreds of people out of slavery, defying state laws and the federal Fugitive Slave Law at every turn. A hundred years later, when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was criticized for leading a moral movement against segregation, he quoted St. Augustine: “An unjust law is no law at all.” To submit to the governing authorities, as St. Paul instructs in Romans 13, was to submit to jail as a form of civil disobedience, King insisted. It was to challenge with our bodies an unjust order that denies the image of God in our fellow human beings.
Christians need to stand up and push back against Sessions’ personal interpretation of the Bible. And plenty of them already are.
Christians need to stand up and push back against Sessions’ personal interpretation of the Bible. And plenty of them already are, including Rev’s William Barber, Liz Theoharis, and hundreds of other ministers and Christian lay people in the Poor People’s Campaign. Just before Paul exhorts the Romans to submit to governing authorities, he offers this clear instruction: “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” That is the true context of this passage, and one Sessions seems to have conveniently overlooked.
“Before this campaign fails, we’ll all go down to jail,” members of the Poor People’s Campaign have sung in state capitals across the U.S., submitting to the governing authorities as St. Paul did 2,000 years ago. If Sessions wants to have a Bible study in the public square, we’re ready.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is author of "Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion" and a steering committee member for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.