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Jeff Sessions and St. Paul’s Clear and Wise Commands

Photo by Office of Public Affairs | CC BY 2.0

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is urging obedience to the law requiring the separation of families of undocumented immigrants, separating 11,000 children from their parents so far, 2000 in the last six weeks, by citing scripture. Christian scripture, specifically. Responding specifically to criticisms from “our church friends” about the forced separation policy, he cites a passage from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in the New Testament. This was written probably in Corinth between 52 and 55 CE and addressed to “all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints.”

Let’s look at that Pauline text in context, just for fun. Paul writes of wanting to visit the imperial capital, and to eventually proceed to Spain to preach the gospel there (Rom 15:24). (There were Jewish synagogues in Spain, and Paul always initially preached in these establishments, where Gentiles were often welcomed and who could be won over to the Christian gospel as Paul understood it. This just shows how ambitious Paul was as a world-traveler, and how important his role was in spreading the emerging cult of Jesus centered in Judea throughout the eastern Mediterranean, establishing a world religion.)

Paul was of course originally Saul of Tarsus, a Jew from the port city of Tarsus in Cilicia, which is to say what is now southeastern Turkey. He was a tent maker and initially a fierce opponent of Christianity after its inception around Jerusalem circa 30 CE. He supposedly “persecuted” Christians in Judea and was on the road to Damascus intending to do more harm in Syria when he had his vision of the risen Christ. This was sometime around 36 CE. Thereafter he began to proselytize his understanding of the message of Christ, focusing on the conversion not of Jews but of Gentiles. Peter and James saw him as the “apostle to the Gentiles.”

Part of his message as any serious Christian knows is that the “old law “(the Laws of Moses in the Old Testament, including the many dietary laws, male circumcision requirement, rules on ritual purity, etc.) no longer applies, even to Jews accepting Christ; the Christian redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice need only have faith to be united with God in Heaven. In that sense the Christian enjoys freedom from the law (Romans 7:1-6).

On the other hand, the nascent Christian movement was under attack by civil authorities as Paul wrote. (Paul himself may have perished in Nero’s persecution in 64.) Some members of the community were inviting unwanted attention by law-breaking or provoking authorities. Paul was writing to believers in the city where Roman law was authored, where the Senate met; the city that (not that he could anticipate it) would within three centuries become the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. It made sense for him addressing a Roman congregation to focus on observing the secular law.

His message was: obey the authorities to avoid trouble. It was a practical pastoral message. But for the current U.S. attorney general it has broader application, presumably to all government everywhere. Sessions actually said to critics of the child separation policy: “I would cite you to [sic] the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”

Clear and wise, indeed! A command from God! That’s the attorney general speaking, two thousand years after Paul, after twenty centuries of obedience. Mr. Sessions surely knows as a devout Methodist and student of the Bible that Paul also told wives to obey their husbands, children to obey their parents in everything, and slaves to obey their masters (Colossians 3:18-22). More wise and clear commands that Sessions might cite in a legal opinion.

Trump meanwhile, in his clarity and wisdom, tells Fox & Friends that Kim Jung Un, his new friend, is “the head of a country. And I mean, he is the strong head. Don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.” And he wants NFL players to stand up during the national anthem because he says so, or face fines or worse. He wants obedience and abject deference; recall the first Trump cabinet meeting in which each member expressed a personal admiration for Trump and gratitude for the opportunity to serve under him. He wants obedience from the Justice Department and Republicans in Congress and his hand full of media sycophants including Sean Hannity. And of course obedience from the moms and dads torn from their children at the border, and from the children who following the ordeal of migration are scattered around the country in detention centers unsure about the future.

People are sitting up at attention, for sure. (Trump wants his people to sit up for him; does he mean his 40%, or the people of the U.S.A.?) The knowledge that kids are being ripped from their moms, some indeed from their breasts, and traumatized makes people with a modicum of moral sense perk up. The idea that reports about the separations will discourage further illegal immigration do not make them seem more humane.

Sessions followed up with more Biblical exegesis, citing the Old Testament book of Nehemiah that describes the Israelites’ conquest of Jerusalem and their building of a wall around the city (because God told Nehemiah to do this). “There’s no scriptural basis for open borders,” he declared (implying that Trump’s wall to keep out Mexicans might have the requisite canonical authority).

I would argue that the myth of Yahweh telling his chosen Abraham that his progeny would receive all the land between the Nile River of Egypt and the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia (as God’s gift to his Chosen People) in Genesis 15:18 is a reference to open borders. The myth of Joseph in Egypt includes the arrival of Hebrews welcomed in such numbers that they (supposedly) come to constitute a great nation in Egypt. The Sinai border, in the story, seems to be pretty open.

Biblical mytho-history includes themes of inclusion and exclusion. The Book of Ruth defends and romanticizes intermarriage between a Hebrew woman and a Moabite; Nehemiah in contrast condemns intermarriage. During the mythical conquest of Canaan by Joshua, whole peoples are wiped out, at the Lord’s command, including babies. Gentiles are generally treated negatively but Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor who allowed the Judeans to return from their “Babylonian Captivity” to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, is actually depicted as a “anointed by God” (Isaiah 45:1-3) who fulfilled the message of God (Ezra 1:1-4). And of course St. Paul wrote that in Christ there was no Jew nor Gentile, nor male nor female, nor slave nor free. Jesus’s concept of the “kingdom of heaven” is thought by some New Testament scholars to reflect a concept of empire inspired by the Roman state; it was a concept of “God’s heavenly empire” far more powerful than any earthly institution.

Rome was a multi-ethnic empire; the nascent Christian church as described in the Book of Acts begins with the Pentecost miracle in while people from all of the world are possessed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:9-10). I submit Sessions doesn’t know much about the scriptural basis for border control. That he should even find value in the lack of one reveals a mind muddled by biblical literalism. He’s mentioned before that the Bible says nothing about global warming, condemns gay marriage and prohibits abortion as murder. Its story of Creation is more credible than the theory of evolution, for Sessions.

Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders (and preacher’s daughter) follows up Sessions’ remarks: “It is very Biblical to support the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.” ” Please, evangelicals, stick with us! The Bible’s actually on our side, don’t you see? St. Paul wants you to keep silent as Trump and the Congress work on a DACA compromise bill that would maybe end the family separations that the president (falsely as usual) blames on the Democrats. In this you show obedience, to Trump and God alike. As long as you continue to believe.

But Christian belief rapidly declines in this country, especially among youth—who see Sessions and Sanders as ludicrously ignorant people. Their clumsy efforts at biblical exegesis
in defense of a manifestly inhuman practice can only discredit, not just them for being the obvious opportunists that they are, but the practice of random Bible verse citation absent understanding of historical context. Sessions’ righteous tone as he cited Paul, and his soft smiling eyes and smug grin as he explained that the Trump administration was “ordained by God for his purposes” (such as building a wall to keep out illegal immigrants) might have been acceptable in a talk to a Sunday school class in Alabama in the 1950s. But he appears to be a total dunce and I sense alienated more Christians than he won over by his statements. Sanders in echoing Sessions’ theme of biblical support for obedience to law was delivered unsmilingly, somberly, and in her simple ignorance appeared condescending.

These are unwise, unclear people. Lacking compassion, they are like sounding brass or a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1). They see through a glass darkly, and always will (13:12). They don’t understand the meaning of St.Paul’s life and work, which is well examined in the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (2003). In his view, Paul was a revolutionary who shattered both Jewish law and Greek logic in favor of a new subjectivity which validates the subject’s resistance to the world as we know it, prompted by new form of monotheism. Paul was all about breaking barriers. His epistles (Galatians 2:10; 1 Corinthians 16) urge support for the poor. Paul is worth reading, critically, with some awareness of his times. The Epistle to the Romans has been described as his magnum opus and is the place to begin to understand his historical meaning.

To exploit him to validate Trump as Sessions does is to do violence to that meaning. The attorney general insults and abuses the apostle, along with immigrant families. One hopes that while trying to wrap himself in a religious cloak (to defend the indefensible) he shows that he is in fact an emperor with no clothes.  No deep Bible knowledge. No moral compass. Just the impish goofiness and cheerful immorality so well imitated by SNL’s Kate McKinnon. May he continue as the country’s top legal officer to flash his Christian credentials when he thinks it useful to do so. Let there be polarization, and yes, let’s make biblical exegesis part of the discussion.

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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