Commentary Religion

Cherry-Picking the Bible to Mistreat the Stranger: Religion on Family Separation

Toni Bond Leonard

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and Attorney General Jeff Sessions would do well to leave biblical interpretation to religious scholars. Though we don't need formal training to have compassion.

Last week, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders gave us a textbook example of how easily religion can be weaponized to oppress others when she said “it is very biblical to enforce the law” when answering reporters’ questions about the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from families seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Doubling down in her use of Scripture to defend an indefensible policy, Sanders continued that enforcing the law “is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.” When media pressed her to elaborate, she could only vaguely reference the number of times upholding the law is mentioned in the Bible.

We should not be surprised. It’s not the first time that a Trump administration official has cherry-picked the Bible, taking a few key words out of context and without considering that those words or ideas were more applicable to the historical time when it was written than the present.

It’s not even the first time this month.

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Sanders’ failed attempt to draw moral justification from the Bible for the Trump administration’s cruel family separation policy follows on the heels of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ erroneous interpretation of Romans 13. In that New Testament passage, the Apostle Paul offers counsel about obeying laws created by the government: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).

But what are the laws that Sanders and Sessions are so fond of invoking with blanket assertions about what the Bible says? While enforcement of the law is referenced numerous times throughout both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, it is not one law. Are we talking about the law as outlined in the words of the covenant given to Moses by God, in the form of the Ten Commandments, which were to be followed by the children of Israel? Or are we talking about the laws instituted by man and carried out through governmental authorities? Sanders herself seemed unclear about the distinction, and yet she readily offered a biblical interpretation of the moral validity of separating children from their families.

For his part, Sessions’ argument that “orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful” has little merit, because the law as applied lacks any sense of goodwill. The primary motivations behind this administration’s commitment to separating immigrant children from their families are to scare and deter would-be immigrants and to push Congress to support the administration’s proposed immigration policies. Both motivations are grounded in retribution and punishment.

There is nothing moral about mistreating the stranger. In fact, separating children from their families goes against the ultimate law of God. If Sanders and Sessions had thoroughly comprehended the text (and read the entire text, including all of the additional Scripture referenced), they would have understood that God’s law overrules man’s law. In his letters to the Galatians, Paul argues that the overarching teaching of the law was that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). In Romans 13:8, Paul observes that we “owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Finally, he repeats in Romans 13:10 that “love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is [emphasis mine] the fulfilling of the law.”

From this perspective, the Trump administration’s policy falls horribly short of observing the law and has no moral standing. Both Sanders’ and Sessions’ use of religion to justify this iniquitous immigration policy sheds further light on the administration’s exploitation of religion to provide cover for its immoral and inhumane policies that infringe upon human rights.

It also is important to note this is not the first time Romans 13 has been used to silence those who challenge corruption and the evil government officials perpetuate upon the disenfranchised. We need only look at its use to argue in support of Southern slaveowners. Slavery may have been legal, but there was nothing good or moral about it. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referenced Romans 13 in his Letter From Birmingham City Jail, calling upon white religious leaders to be attentive to the difference between obeying just laws and our responsibility to resist unjust ones.

Sanders and Sessions fail to note Paul’s teachings on how those who follow the Christian tradition should live with and treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ and extend hospitality to the stranger. Romans 13 should not be understood as Paul’s advocacy of complete abdication of our responsibility to challenge the injustices propagated by empire. The dismantling of immigrant families is a xenophobic attack against people who look and are different from those of the dominant European culture. This attack is grounded in American nationalism, white supremacy, and Christian exceptionalism, all of which should sound deafening alarms for anyone who believes in democracy, human rights, and individual autonomy.

Sanders and Sessions’ misuse of biblical text raises the question of why politicians are using religion to craft and set policy in the first place. The First Amendment protects the populace from Congress making and imposing any laws respecting an establishment of religion or that prohibit the free exercise of religion. When politicians and public officials apply the doctrines and dogma of particular religious tradition to public policy, it skirts up against the boundaries set by the Constitution to protect individual freedom of religion. The religious teachings applied by Sanders and Sessions come from the Christian tradition, and while Christianity may by the predominant tradition practice in the United States, it is not the only tradition. We must interrogate the motives of politicians and public officials who craft and implement public policies that they justify with religion. That is not democracy, but rather moves dangerously close to the realm of theocracy.

Sanders and Sessions would do well to stop trying to slyly impose one religious tradition (Christianity) upon everyone. But they would also do well to pick up a Bible commentary, in which religious scholars explain the meanings of a passage of Scripture. And they should read some of the scholarly writings from Christian ethicists, who use Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to develop and critique ethical norms.

Even better, they should just leave the exegetical interpretations to those trained to unearth meanings of biblical text.

But then again, we don’t need formal training to know how we ought to treat each other—and how we ought not. All we need to do is practice reasoning skills and compassion.

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