Children torn from the arms of their parents and encaged, along with other young castaways, under the pretense of following the law. Law? Whose law? This president’s law? This Attorney General’s law? This Secretary of Homeland Security’s law?
And presuming that it is the law, what law has been broken? Seeking asylum by attempting illegal border crossings instead of through the legal points of entry for refugees from violent victimization and murder in their own countries? What happens when the fleeing immigrants with their families await entry at designated legal points-of-entry? They are told there’s “no more room at the inn.” They must give birth or care for their younglings in the “manger.” But wait! Not only is there no inn, there’s also no manger. So out of desperation, the immigrant families seek to cross into our country in whatever way they can.
“However, there’s no need to worry about your children, we’ll do that for you” the caring, intercepting U.S. border control agents say. ”We’ve got just the place for them – and separate quarters for you! Or, if you prefer, you can take your children and go back home. We’re not trying to discourage or deter you from coming here. We’re just giving you a choice – facing violence and death in your own country or suffering torture, abandonment, imprisonment and other nameless traumas in our country.”
I need not detail here the conditions of the separate facilities under which parents and their kidnapped children are currently living. Much has been said and written about that; and there are yet more horrific accounts of treatment of these young children to unfold, I regret to say. I have another purpose, a less dramatic story in mind. I want to return to the subject of law and, specifically, biblical law and, even more specifically, the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the law.
I am doing this because of a recently mentioned biblical passage by our Attorney General (and others). Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. a former Sunday School teacher in the United Methodist Church (Oye! Those poor children who had been subjected to his tutelage!), references Romans 13:1-7. Sessions sees this a proof text that the law is supreme, because it is the implementation of the word of God. Trump carrying out the word of God? Really, Mr. Sessions?
Strange isn’t it, that the word for “law” is not mentioned even once in the seven biblical verses in question. It does mention, however, “authority” or “authorities” repeatedly (“power(s)” in the King James Version). To appreciate what Paul meant in this passage in the Epistle to the Romans, one must understand the historical context of these few verses. Paul was cautioning the Christian community living in Rome at the time not to be disobedient to Roman authority for fear of the harsh repercussions that might ensue. Paul was fully cognizant of what happened to Jesus and many of his followers a little more than two decades earlier (30-33 CE) because Jesus had been perceived as fathering an insurrectionist movement against Roman authority.
These few verses are understood by many biblical scholars as a sudden shift in subject matter from what Paul was discussing before and after. They are considered a later interpolation into the main body of Romans. The text seems to be a self-contained unit (usually called “parenesis”) within the ethical advice of the letter. Paul – or someone else – just wanted to protect the safety and well-being of the Christian community in Rome.
So the verses Mr. Sessions referenced and others parroted – probably without ever having read, much less understood – is the supposed justification for Trumpian “zero-tolerance” law. Not only is this biblical passage a striking departure from Paul’s principal message, but it may not even have been written by Paul!
In contradistinction to those few verses, Paul’s overriding and consistent message throughout his career – after his epiphany and conversion on the road to Damascus – in addition to his accepting Jesus as the Christ, was to defy the law if it were deemed immoral, unnecessary or exclusionary – whether it be Mosaic or Roman law. In the course of his missionary travels in the cities and towns of Asia Minor, Macedonia and Greece, as well as Jerusalem, he nearly lost his life on several occasions as a result of his radical, potentially revolutionary, message. Perhaps Mr. Sessions should have read more of Paul’s writings, or maybe it would be better if he returned to Sunday School, but as a student this time.
Though we don’t know the circumstances of Paul’s death, it certainly occurred in Rome during the reign of Nero in the late 50s CE. If he, in fact, had been executed by the Romans, likely it was because of his opposition to the law – and by implication, Roman authority. Paul believed that above any man-made laws, was the moral law (his understanding of God’s law, with its correlates of “faith” and “grace” – terms requiring explanation not needed here) dictated by one’s conscience and not from duty or obligation to any human construct.
Paul might well have been at one or more of today’s detention centers and children’s “shelters” in states along or near the U.S-Mexico border, actively protesting or being imprisoned (as he was in Rome) or engaged in civil disobedience – at least, I hope he would! – because Trump, Sessions, Nielsen et al are choosing to act against what is right and just and compassionate – you know, the moral law.