Editor’s Note: Candida R. Moss holds a chair in theology at the University of Birmingham and is co-author of “Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Childlessness and Procreation” (Princeton University Press, 2015). The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
In a speech to law enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the Trump administration’s family separation policy for asylum-seekers at the US-Mexico border by stating that this practice is consistent with the teachings of the Bible.
More precisely, Sessions said, “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
When questioned about Sessions’ statement during a White House briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders admitted that she was unaware of the precise nature of Session’s statements but added, “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law.”
It is true that in Romans 13, Paul instructs his audience of Jesus followers to obey the laws of the government. It is a generic statement about obedience that does not refer specifically to families, children, or immigration. As a result, it has been a fruitful Bible verse for those looking to squelch political dissent.
In American history, as historian John Fea has noted, this passage has historically been invoked in two contexts: by loyalists who opposed the American Revolution and by defenders of slavery in the 1840s and 1850s.
If we want to use the Bible as guide for American government, as Sessions and Sanders seem to do, then we need to get more specific. This is easy enough in the case of immigration because the issue of migration, the movement of peoples, and care for those away from their homes is one of the most consistently treated topics in the Bible. From the stories about the patriarchs, to the biblical prophets, and Jesus himself, the Bible is insistent that foreigners, strangers, and travelers deserve hospitality and care.
To quote a different verse: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in Egypt.” (from Exodus 23:9)
The iconic story of what happens to those who reject outsiders, however, is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis. Often erroneously cited in Christian circles as a story about homosexuality, the sin of Sodom is that the people of the town sought to mistreat and abuse outsiders. The punishment? Their behavior is such a breach of the principle of hospitality that God rains down fire upon their heads.
The New Testament is full of similar stories in which Jesus suggests that welcoming outsiders is a basic expectation. When he dispatches his disciples on missionary journeys, he tells them that if they are not welcomed by locals they should shake the dust off their feet when they leave, as a forewarning of the dire punishments those people would receive on Judgment Day (Matthew 10:14).
Given that both the Hebrew Bible and Jesus have particular concern for the treatment of orphans and children in general (Psalm 68:5, James 1:27, Matthew 19:14), it seems especially strange to suggest that separating families is somehow biblical.
This isn’t an area in which ancient Jews and Christians are exceptional. The principle that outsiders should be welcomed and provided for was a cross-cultural theme in ancient cultures. Hospitality was a critical building block of ancient society.
Every ancient Mediterranean society, including the Romans (about whom Paul was actually writing) believed that people have a moral obligation towards visitors and guests. It was fundamental to how the world worked. It would simply not have occurred to Paul that anyone could disagree.
Perhaps the biggest problem here is that the power dynamic is off. When Paul and Jesus say “obey laws” or “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” they are advising the disenfranchised and powerless about how to interact with an (immoral) government with which you sincerely and morally disagree. It is advice for the vulnerable, not the powerful (Matthew 22:21).
When the government cites these passages in this way, they are aligning themselves with the Romans, not the Christians.