Jun 20th 2018

What the Bible’s Romans 13 says about asylum – and what Jeff Sessions omitted

by Casey Strine

 

Lectuter in Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature, University of Sheffield

 

The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, kicked up a storm when he invoked a line from the Bible to defend the Trump administration’s policy of separating thousands of parents and children during immigration investigations.

Sessions quoted a line written by the apostle Paul to a small community of Christians living in Rome around 55AD to defend the Department of Justice’s approach. He said:

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 used the Bible because one of the most vocal opponents of the crackdown on asylum cases has been the Catholic Church. It’s no surprise that Sessions appealed to Romans chapter 13 verse 1 in response: not only did he hope to undermine Catholic authority by using the Bible against them, he cited a statement so broad that one might use it to defend anything a government does, good or bad.

The problem for Sessions is that the historical situation in which Paul wrote his letter to the Romans does far more to undermine his policy than to support it.

The origins of Paul’s letter

The actual date and origin of the letter is not totally certain, but scholars think it was sent to the Christian community in Rome around 55AD. This was a few years after the Roman Emperor Claudius exiled Rome’s Jewish community in 49AD. That Jewish community included many people who had become Christians and were connected to other Christians in Rome. Paul himself was a Jew who had become a Christian. After his conversion he began travelling around the Mediterranean, starting Christian communities, and instructing them how to live.

Shortly before Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome, many of the Jewish people who had been forced to leave Rome began to return, the city now safe for them again after the death of Claudius. Paul wrote the letter in part because he was worried that things would go badly when these Jewish Christians tried to integrate back in with the non-Jewish Christians in Rome. Paul feared their earlier exile by the emperor would keep them from being welcomed back.

St Paul writing his epistles. By Valentin de Boulogne, via Wikimedia Commons.

It is for this reason that Paul spends so much time in his letter discussing the way Jews and non-Jews should live with one another (see, for example, chapters 2–4, 9–11 and 14). Paul argues that the Romans should openly welcome those Jewish members who had been forcibly removed some time ago; the church should return them to their places within the community and honour them. Perhaps these Jewish people were not completely unknown to the Christians left in Rome, but they were returning after a long absence. They were, for all intents and purposes, immigrants entering a host community that wasn’t sure it could trust them and probably didn’t want them around.

Paul is vehement about one thing that those who remained in Rome should not do: conclude they were any better or different than these Jewish migrants. That is why Paul famously says that “all” – Romans and Jews – “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Paul marvels that anyone would “pass judgement on your brother or sister” (14.10), for “each of us will be accountable to God” (14.12).

Love a foreigner

In the 21st century American context, Paul’s statements serve to emphasise the similarities between immigrants and non-immigrants, not any differences between them.

Sessions argued that the current approach “protects the lawful”. He also suggested the policy was an extension of the revocation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which had suspended immigration enforcement against undocumented migrants brought to the US as children. Defending the end of DACA in September 2017, Sessions said a failure to enforce immigration laws strictly had “put our nation at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism”.


Read more: Post-DACA: How Congress can replace Obama's program and make it even better


This particular point makes Romans an even worse defence of the policy Sessions is pursuing. Just before the line Sessions recently quoted from Romans 13, Paul wrote that:

If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.

And just a few lines after requiring respect for the government, Paul sums up his point by encouraging the audience to: “Love your neighbour as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Paul’s familiar language about loving one’s neighbour – like Jesus of Nazareth before him – alludes to Leviticus 19, verse 18. While few people today know the content of Leviticus 19, Christian and Jewish audiences in the first century AD would have known it. That texts also commands people to create a system of economic care for migrants from potentially dangerous foreign countries at their own financial expense:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field … Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.

The command to love a foreigner and to let them freely gather food that belongs to you puts us a long, long way from Sessions’ arguments about obeying governments to ensure safety for Americans.

The logic of Paul’s words might have sounded helpful to Sessions in isolation, but the letter they come from undermines nearly everything Sessions wants them to support.

 

Casey Strine, Lectuter in Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Feb 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Beyond the usual economic and policy risks that most financial analysts worry about, a number of potentially seismic white swans are visible on the horizon this year. Any of them could trigger severe economic, financial, political, and geopolitical disturbances unlike anything since the 2008 crisis."
Feb 18th 2020
Extract: "In late 2019, Zogby Research Services (ZRS) once again had the opportunity to poll public opinion across the Middle East and North Africa about many of these issues that are of such critical concern to the region and its peoples..............One of the more intriguing results in our 2019 survey were the changes in Arab views toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Arabs still blame the US and Israel for the absence of peace and have little confidence that the conflict can be resolved in the near future. Maybe as a result of this despair, this issue now ranks low as an Arab priority. Also noteworthy is the fact that majorities in most Arab countries now say that normalization with Israel, which they acknowledge is already happening, may be a good thing. This development shouldn’t be overstated, however, since there is still no love for Israel. It appears, from our survey, to be born of frustration, weariness with Palestinians being victims of war, and the possibility that normalization might bring some economic benefits and could give Arabs leverage to press Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Global dissatisfaction with democracy has increased over the past 25 years, according to our recent report. Drawing upon the HUMAN Surveys project, the report covered 154 countries, with 77 countries covered continuously for the period from 1995 to 2020. These samples were possible thanks to the combination of data from over 25 sources, 3,500 national surveys, and 4 million respondents. Not surprisingly, the gloomy headline finding – rising democratic dissatisfaction – attracted the most attention. Less widely discussed, however, is the “good news” – that a small sample of countries has bucked the trend, and have record high levels of satisfaction with their democracies."
Feb 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "This is how dictatorships begin. As the US prepares for its next presidential election in November, it is every citizen’s responsibility rationally to examine Trump’s dictatorial impulses, which reelection would only reinforce. It is not safe to assume that he won’t go too far, or that he is too much of a “mediocrity” – as Leon Trotsky called Stalin (an assessment with which many Bolsheviks agreed) – to transform his country......Vladimir Lenin, himself a ruthless Bolshevik, wrote in 1922 that, “Stalin concentrated in his hands enormous power, which he won’t be able to use responsibly,” owing to traits like rudeness, intolerance, and capriciousness. Trump has all of them in spades. The more power he concentrates in his own hands, the dimmer the long-term outlook for American democracy becomes. His reelection could mean lights out."
Feb 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Does this mean that the dream of European unity is over? Does the exodus of a member state obliterate the vision of Victor Hugo and Václav Havel? Does Europe now fit the description of what the great American president Abraham Lincoln called a house divided against itself? Not necessarily. History is more imaginative than we are. The EU still has the option of keeping Britain close in heart and mind. We can still benefit from our absent partner, by resurrecting the partnership through our actions."
Feb 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "There, no formal change from a republican system to an autocratic system ever occurred. Rather, there was an erosion of the republican institutions, a steady creep over decades of authoritarian decision-making, and the consolidation of power within one individual – all with the name “Republic” preserved.........Will the GOP-led Senate’s endorsement of this defense clear a path for more of the manifestations – and consequences – of authoritarianism? The case of the Roman Republic’s rapid slippage into an autocratic regime masquerading as a republic shows how easily that transformation can occur."
Feb 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "So all that is why Cramer is talking about the death knell of petroleum stocks. We probably agree on almost nothing else, but when people are right, you have to give them credit. He is right."
Feb 3rd 2020
EXTRACT: "........as the citizens of the remaining 27 states have observed the destabilising impact that the referendum decision has had on British politics, they have been inoculated against the desire to secede from the EU. Outside the UK, national-populist parties have moderated their anti-EU rhetoric and nowadays profess to want to change the EU from within instead of destroying it."
Feb 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Senators will soon decide whether to dismiss the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump without hearing any witnesses. In making this decision, I believe they should consider words spoken at the Constitutional Convention, when the Founders decided that an impeachment process was needed to provide a “regular examination,” to quote Benjamin Franklin. A critical debate took place on July 20, 1787, which resulted in adding the impeachment clause to the U.S. Constitution. Franklin, the oldest and probably wisest delegate at the Constitutional Convention, said that when the president falls under suspicion, a “regular and peaceable inquiry” is needed."
Feb 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Britain will be celebrating its glorious independence from the complications of international cooperation at a time when the intellectual, political, and economic hostility between China’s communist leadership and liberal democracies is becoming ever clearer. If liberal democracy is to survive, it must stand up for itself. And we should be under no illusion: open societies under the rule of law, from the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia, are in China’s hostile sights. The West should not aim to encircle or pen in China. But liberal democracies cannot allow it to distort international norms in its own favor."
Jan 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Switzerland and Denmark have gone furthest into negative territory, both offering unprecedentedly low rates of -0.75%. The Swiss National Bank, which has kept its rate at this level since 2015, signalled recently that it intends to stick with this experiment and is not ruling out going even more negative. It has said that negative rates were boosting the economy and that the country’s fundamentals were not being significantly affected."
Jan 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "Electricity will dominate the future global energy system. Currently, it accounts for only 20% of final energy demand,......Without assuming any fundamental technological breakthroughs, we could certainly build by 2050 a global economy in which electricity met 65-70% of final energy demand,....."
Jan 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the world economy operating dangerously close to stall speed, the confluence of ever-present shocks and a sharply diminished trade cushion raises serious questions about financial markets’ increasingly optimistic view of global economic prospects."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Gibson’s diagnosis is supported by international attitude surveys. One found that most Americans rarely think about the future and only a few think about the distant future. When they are forced to think about it, they don’t like what they see. Another poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 44% of Americans were pessimistic about what lies ahead. But pessimism about the future isn’t just limited to the US. One international poll of over 400,000 people from 26 countries found that people in developed countries tended to think that the lives of today’s children will be worse than their own. And a 2015 international survey by YouGov found that people in developed countries were particularly pessimistic. For instance, only 4% of people in Britain thought things were improving. This contrasted with 41% of Chinese people who thought things were getting better."
Jan 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "........while over 80% of the ECB scheme buys government and other public sector bonds, a huge chunk still goes into corporate bonds and other assets. At the time of writing, the ECB holds €263 billion worth of corporate bonds – a very significant amount in relation to individual firms and the sectors in question. According to the ECB, 29% of these bonds were issued by French firms, 25% by German firms and 11% each by Spanish and Italian firms. As at September 2017, the sectors they came from included utilities (16%), infrastructure (12%), automotive (10%) and energy (7%)."
Jan 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Thanks to cutting-edge digital technology, cars are increasingly like “smartphones on wheels”, so manufacturers need to have access to the latest patented 4G and 5G technologies essential to navigation and communications. But often the companies that hold the patents are reluctant to license them because manufacturers will not accept the high fees involved, which leads to patent disputes and licensing rows."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Recent polling from Pew Research demonstrates how the public’s attitudes toward the US and President Trump have witnessed sharp declines in many nations across the world. In Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East favorable attitudes toward the US went from lows during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency to highs in the early Obama years to lows, once again, in the Trump era. And in our Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling we found, with a few exceptions, much the same trajectory across the Middle East."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "In the absence of a declaration of war against Iran, the killing of a foreign official – by a drone strike on Iraqi territory – was possibly illegal. But such niceties do not perturb Trump. The evidence is that Trump’s decision was taken without consideration of the possible consequences. The national security system established under Dwight D. Eisenhower, designed to prevent such reckless measures, is broken to non-existent, with ever-greater power placed in the hands of the president. If that president is unstable, the entire world has a very serious problem."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is possible that Trump’s reverential base won’t be sufficient to keep him in the White House past 2020. But such ardent faith is hard to oppose with rational plans to fix this or that problem. That is why it is so unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result."