In appealing to the Bible to justify the separation of immigrant children from their mothers and fathers at the border, Attorney General Jeff Sessions combined religious and political law in a horrific but common misinterpretation of Romans 13. It echoed the ways scripture has been misused to justify slavery, Jim Crow, Nazi rule, unjust wars, apartheid in South Africa – and other instances in American history when those in power separated children from their parents (i.e., Native Americans, African slaves and Japanese immigrants).
The attorney general’s appeal to God and the Apostle Paul failed to address two questions. First, must we separate children from their parents? It seems like an unnecessary, punitive and heartless action. Second, why are immigrants crossing the border and breaking the law in the first place? What would possess someone to risk life and limb to walk across a dangerous desert facing dehydration, starvation, exhaustion, violence, exploitation and rape to possibly be arrested and separated indefinitely from their children?
Dom Helder Camara, in Essential Writings, famously said, “When I feed the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.” We don’t like to ask the question why, because we often discover truths we would rather not know. People who are breaking the law and crossing the border are often fleeing poor, violent and unstable countries. Why are these countries poor, violent and unstable? Sadly, it’s often because as Americans we inserted ourselves into their governments and economies.
Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. military and CIA were involved in disrupting economies, tampering with elections, arming rebel forces, assassinating democratically elected leaders and influencing regime change in at least 22 countries in South America in order to “stop the spread of communism.” These actions may have “protected” the U.S. but they often destabilized the region, leading to civil wars, oppressive dictatorships, economic devastation, extreme poverty and mass migration of people looking for food and safety.
Many of the people who are breaking the law by crossing our border are doing so because our government disrupted their countries, and they are desperate for food, clean water, safety, work, resources and relief. They are risking death because they are desperate for life. We should not be surprised that they are here, nor should we demonize them, harm them or separate them from their children.
It seems we lack the genuine empathy to put ourselves in their shoes and ask, “What would I do if my family was in that situation – if I was living in abject poverty with no hope, if my children were starving, unsafe or at risk? Would I be willing to take a treacherous journey, cross a border and possibly break the law, if it came to that, to save my family? Many of us would.
Desmond Tutu said, “When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political, or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.”
Jesus aligned himself with the poor and the hungry, even breaking the law, for the sake of people. Take the Sabbath for instance. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, and not humanity for the Sabbath.” Jesus said that people are more important than the law, and laws are made for people, not the other way around.
People come before the law. This means that all laws (religious or political) should exist to serve people and not hurt people. It means that it is not always wrong to betray the law, but it is always wrong to betray people. If there is a law that benefits some people (i.e. religious people, politicians or corporations) but hurts other people, then Jesus would oppose it. Jesus was willing to break any law that was breaking the backs of his people.
God does not affirm laws simply because they are put in place by authorities, as our attorney general claimed. God only affirms laws that are created for and serve humanity. The Sabbath was created for human creativity, rest, liberation, peace, justice, joy and delight. It was not created for some humans to enjoy while others go hungry. It was created for ALL human beings to enjoy and flourish, which is why any law that does not lead to the flourishing of ALL human beings – whether they be rich or poor, black or brown or white, male or female, straight or gay, Republican or Democrat, citizen or immigrant, Christian or non-Christian – is an immoral and unjust law that the followers of Jesus must reject. Either a law is for the benefit of ALL people or it is not from God.
Laws are not sacred. People are sacred. So the question we have to ask ourselves as followers of Jesus is, “Are people more important to us than our laws, or are our laws more important to us than people?” Caring for people more than we care about the law is what Jesus called love, and Paul in Galatians said “there is no law against love.”
In fact, if you read a little further in Romans 13, Mr. Attorney General, you will discover the whole chapter is really about love triumphing over the law. In verse 10 Paul wrote that “love does no wrong to a neighbor, for love is the fulfillment of the law.” Jesus said it too: “All of the law hangs on these two commands: ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and body. And love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Without love, we are nothing and our laws are nothing but noisy gongs and clanging symbols. So, beloved, let us love one another for love – not the law – is what truly comes from God.