By Rev Dr William Barber and Rev Dr Liz Theoharis
June 19, 2018
Last week, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, used scripture to justify closing America’s borders to those in need of refuge and tearing children away from their families.
“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” Sessions said.
His remarks smack of theological heresy.
First of all, he’s misinterpreting the text. Paul was arrested by the government because Christians challenged the government. That’s one of the reasons Paul ends up getting killed. The rest of the text talks about how government should be used for good.
What’s more, the Bible is clear from the Old Testament to the New Testament that one of God’s primary concerns is we care for the stranger, that we do not rob children of their rights and mothers of their children, that we make sure the stranger is treated like a brother or sister. Nowhere do Jesus or the prophets say we should be taking children from their families.
Sessions is operating from the same playbook of biblical heresy that was used to support the genocide of Native Americans, lock black people in chattel slavery and segregate people under Jim Crow. He’s using old tricks that go all the way back to slave master religion.
He’s adding to this the sin of making children the prey – something the Bible clearly recognizes as evil.
And let’s not ignore the role race plays in this all. The separation of children from their parents goes back to slavery. The white supremacist Richard Spencer has said immigration is a proxy war and may be a last stand for white Americans who are undergoing the painful recognition that unless dramatic action is taken, their grandchildren will live in a country where they’re minorities.
We also can’t lose sight of the fact that while tearing children from their families is evil, Sessions has been against every form of immigration reform, even bipartisan proposals. Yes, the children part is evil. But Sessions has also backed voter suppression measures, attacks on the poor and giving welfare to corporations. All of that is wrong. As is written in Isaiah 10: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed.”
We need a comprehensive response. That’s why the Poor People’s Campaign is fighting against the false Christian nationalism that is contrary to the gospel on almost every policy coming out of this administration. When you map out the states and regions that have the highest poverty rates and child poverty rates, lowest wages, most people denied health care, worst environmental protections, worst immigrant and LGBTQ protections, highest rates of voter suppression, these states also boast the highest number of people who profess to be Protestant evangelicals.
This battle over the Bible recalls the battle that took place in the Abolitionist movement. Slaveholders produced a Bible that did not include the Exodus, the prophets or the teachings of Jesus where he comes to release the slaves and preach good news to the poor. Abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and preachers and religious leaders like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison referenced Leviticus and the jubilee, took up a resistance religion of the slaves, and would not concede the Bible and theology to extremists and bigots who defile the deepest values of love, mercy and justice.
As leaders of faith and co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign we believe that for too long the accepted moral narrative in America has blamed poor people for their poverty, divided people against each other, separated systemic racism from poverty and ecology and the war economy, and spread the lie of scarcity: the idea that there is not enough to go around. We believe every policy decision is a moral decision, especially when it deals with poor people, children and healthcare, living wages. We must have moral dissent and people willing to challenge the status quo.
Dr Martin Luther King, who helped lead the first Poor People’s Campaign 50 years ago, said we have a responsibility to challenge any law that’s against God’s law and the laws of justice. And so, instead of following Sessions’ interpretation of the scripture, we choose to follow Jeremiah 22:3: “This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood.”
- The Reverends Dr William Barber II and Dr Liz Theoharis are co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival