I didn’t plan to do a followup to the previous post on the Bible and defending slavery.
But there’s been something tragicomic in the scramble by some reporters to get churchy rebuttals to the use, by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, echoed by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, of the Bible to defend their latest, cruelest border policy of splitting up families and penning up children. This scramble also brings up some similar issues & dilemmas.
Speaking to a law enforcement group in Indiana, Sessions turned to the Tyrant’s old standby, Romans 13. And within 24 hours, even the Friends Committee on National Legislation had a statement out condemning it:
“The Bible does not justify cruel, dangerous and inhumane border enforcement practices,” said Diane Randall, Executive Secretary for FCNL. “It teaches us to love our neighbors, not to break up families. We are critical of the use of Biblical teachings to justify an immoral political decision of this Administration.”
Numerous others followed suit. Even the odious Franklin Graham called it “disgraceful” on CBN TV, though he was also very careful to blame it on politicians no longer in office.
The more liberal critics took a familiar line:
Amy Joy Ickes, a nondenominational Christian Bible teacher living in San Antonio, said Sessions broke the first rule of Bible study: He took a verse out of its context. . . .
“Really, Paul’s point is: ‘OK, wherever you’re living, you’re there for a reason,” Ickes said. “And as followers of Christ, you set the examples in how you obey the law and uphold the law.”
But God’s law, Ickes said, is paramount. “And so the question we ask is: What is God’s law?” she said. “All the way through the Bible, God’s law is justice for the oppressed.” . . .
“Romans 13 is not a chapter God dropped out of the sky to say, ‘Here’s how Republicans should support Donald Trump,’” said Eric Costanzo, the pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church in Tulsa. His church has worked with immigrants and refugees.
Costanzo said he speaks often to his church about how it takes effort to read the Bible in its entirety rather than cherry-picking verses.
“I think above any law of people is the law: Love your neighbor as yourself,” he said.
Even the Southern Baptist Convention, gathered in Dallas, passed a resolution calling for immigration reform. While insisting it was not for “amnesty”, and called for “securing our borders”, the SBC resolution was otherwise unusually strong:
WHEREAS, Every man, woman, and child from every language, race, and nation is a special creation of God, made in His own image (Genesis 1:26–27); and
WHEREAS, Longings to protect one’s family from warfare, violence, disease, extreme poverty, and other destitute conditions are universal, driving millions of people to leave their homelands to seek a better life for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren; and
WHEREAS, Scripture is clear on the believer’s hospitality towards immigrants, stating that meeting the material needs of “strangers” is tantamount to serving the Lord Jesus Himself (Matthew 25:35–40; Hebrews 13:2); and
WHEREAS, Southern Baptists affirm the value of the family, stating in The Baptist Faith and Message that “God has ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society” (Article XVIII), and Scripture makes clear that parents are uniquely responsible to raise their children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4); and
WHEREAS, Untold numbers of men and women seeking to enter the United States legally, desiring to become good citizens of our country, often languish at the borders due to the complexity of our immigration system; and . . .
RESOLVED, That we desire to see immigration reform include an emphasis on securing our borders and providing a pathway to legal status with appropriate restitutionary measures, maintaining the priority of family unity, resulting in an efficient immigration system that honors the value and dignity of those seeking a better life for themselves and their families; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we declare that any form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we encourage all elected officials, especially those who are members of Southern Baptist churches, to do everything in their power to advocate for a just and equitable immigration system, those in the professional community to seek ways to administer just and compassionate care for the immigrants in their community, and our Southern Baptist entities to provide resources that will equip and empower churches and church members to reach and serve immigrant communities . . . .”
But does the Bible really condemn bad treatment of foreigners or immigrants? Is its ultimate law one of justice for the poor & oppressed?
Well in some places. But unfortunately for Diane Randall and the earnest Southern Baptist progressives, as we saw in regard to slavery, the Bible also has God explicitly calling on his “servants” to do the opposite. For instance, to utterly exterminate people on the “borders” of God’s claimed “Promised Land,” including women, children and even livestock. And that kind of “family separation” is pretty brutal and final. (Joshua 6, about the Battle of Jericho, and especially verse 21, is only one chilling example.)
Further in the Book of Ezra, Chapter 10, there’s what is to me an especially egregious case: there unflinching eye of God was turned sternly upon “unlawful” immigrant women who had married and had children with Israelite men. And God turned to a strongman ruler, Ezra, to expunge this “evil & “uncleanness,” and, presumably, thereby Make the Promised Land Great Again. Ezra prayed:
Ezra 9: “For we have abandoned the commands 11 You [God] gave through Your servants the prophets, saying: ‘The land you are entering to possess is an impure land. The surrounding peoples have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness by their impurity and detestable practices [aka “abominations”]. 12 So do not give your daughters to their sons in marriage or take their daughters for your sons. Never seek their peace or prosperity, so that you will be strong, eat the good things of the land, and leave it as an inheritance to your sons forever.’ . . .
Ezra 10: Let us therefore make a covenant before our God to send away all the foreign wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the command of our God. Let it be done according to the law. 4 Get up, [Ezra], for this matter is your responsibility, and we support you. Be strong and take action!”
5 Then Ezra got up and made the leading priests, Levites, and all Israel take an oath to do what had been said; so they took the oath. 6 Ezra then went from the house of God and walked to the chamber of Jehohanan son of Eliashib, where he spent the night. He did not eat food or drink water, because he was mourning over the unfaithfulness of the exiles.
7 They circulated a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem that all the exiles should gather at Jerusalem. 8 Whoever did not come within three days would forfeit all his possessions,[b] according to the decision of the leaders and elders, and would be excluded from the assembly of the exiles. . . .[And] 16 The exiles did what had been proposed.”
Historians tell us that in those days, such banishment was tantamount to a death sentence by starvation in the desert for the expelled wives and children.
So as is true with slavery, the actual texts of the Bible are a mixed bag. Is it enough that the Bible makes many references to treating the poor and “the stranger” compassionately? That’s a very different and welcome message, but is it enough to tear out the pages in the Bible that are “pro-immigrant/children and stack them on one side of a balance, and pile up the others that condemn “foreigners” to often heinous ill-treatment and declare that whichever stack weighs more embodies the Bible’s “real teaching”? If one side outnumbers, does that cancel out the other?
And what about Romans 13 itself? The actual passage in contention is seven verses. Few liberal Quakers or church folks in general are very familiar with it. So let’s take a look:
Romans 13: 1Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
(Note that the last phrase in verse 7 could be and likely has been applied to NFL football players who “take the knee”; certainly blowback from many appears to regard such gestures as intolerable acts of blasphemy. One wonders what is the god that’s seen as being “dishonored” or blasphemed here: the small one made of pigskin? The larger banner billowing in three colors? Or the idol of the militarized nationstate? But that’s another story.)
Many liberal Friends, thus apprised of this text, have shown revulsion, and insisted that all such talk is inherently un-Quakerly. Many refer to the classic letter to King Charles II written in 1660 as repudiating it in favor of complete pacifist nonviolence.
But that’s not so. When read more closely, the 1660 letter is shown to affirm not once but twice the use of the “sword” upon “Sinners and Transgressors, to keep them down,” which is a direct reference to this Romans passage. The difference here is not nonresistance vs war, but only the choice of targets: the Letter’s authors insist that Quakers are innocent of plotting any rebellions, and thus should not be targets of the “swords” as borne (properly, in their view) by the magistrates, the ruler, the powers that be.
But what about civil disobedience, which many Friends point to as a revered part of theirs Quaker heritage.
And there’s the rub. The Bible, despite its affirmation of “law and order” in Romans 13 and numerous other places, also records a number of instances of “righteous” law-breaking, including what looks a lot like modern civil disobedience. (My personal favorite is Jesus’ declaration in Luke 4, quoting an ancient Hebrew prophet, that his divinely-imposed mission its to deliver “liberty to the captives & oppressed.” But do I join much in that mission? Um — didn’t he also say somewhere, “Judge not”??)
After all, if one looks around with one’s eyes open, it will be evident that most of us, most of the time, obey almost all the laws of our society, almost all the time. that includes mostly paying without objections the taxes that finance the “justice” system, no matter how much we fret about its many serious flaws.
So there it is again: biblical ambiguity, “mixed bag-ism,” and being both “wrong” and “right,” a tool for both liberation & oppression. Is it any wonder that the Bible is used by various people in service to various divergent agendas?
Those who prefer to ignore the Bible entirely in one sense have a good case, based on this moral elasticity.
But besides personal benefit, which I find in the Bible nonetheless, my conclusion is that this stance is unsupportable and self-defeating in our current social and political setting: the Bible is simply too much with us to ignore and treat as a collection of memes & prooftexts.
If we’re to get out of the hellacious mess we’re currently in, taking on the Bible and its misuse in too many places is just part of the work. And one abiding rule comes from Luke 7:15, attributed to Jesus: “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.”
And there’s two places where this applies with special force: One is the border. The other is everywhere else.
NOTE: For another, very different Quaker take on this, check out my Friend Scot Miller’s blog here.