The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Jeff Sessions got wrong when quoting the Bible

Placeholder while article actions load

A complete reading and understanding of Romans 13 — and the Bible more broadly — reveals more love and care for neighbors and immigrants than Attorney General Jeff Sessions would have us believe. On June 14, Sessions spoke in Fort Wayne, Ind., to a group that included law enforcement officers and others in the community. His remarks directly addressed “religious leaders” and “church friends.” Sessions used the words of the apostle Paul to justify current policies of separating children from parents, as families seek to enter the United States:

“Illegal entry into the United States is a crime — as it should be,” he said. “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. 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 cites Bible passage used to defend slavery in defense of separating immigrant families]

Sessions referred to a passage that Americans and biblical scholars have debated for a long time. It begins, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1 New Revised Standard Version).

We write as biblical scholars and as Christians to argue that Sessions has misused this passage from Romans.

First, the Bible shouldn’t — and can’t — be used to argue against immigration. Passages from Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and the prophets argue for care for the stranger and the immigrant: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34 NRSV).

We can turn to the New Testament, as well. Jesus’ words as cited in the parable of the Good Samaritan call Christians to ask “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). These words demand that we expand our definition of neighbor — as did the Samaritan — to include the stranger and the foreigner, and that we serve that neighbor with our own time and financial resources.

Second, Romans 13 is the most-cited text in the Bible in debates in revolutionary America, according to James P. Byrd’s “Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution.” Christians then knew that the passage might be read to demand loyalty to Britain. So instead they read this passage to argue that they should obey only just rulers, not tyrants, and that just rulers supported liberty. They used it to argue that the Bible spoke for freedom.

[Why the Southern Baptist Convention shouldn’t have allowed Mike Pence to speak]

Third, using this passage from Romans is dangerous. It has been used to argue for theocracy and unquestioned obedience to law even in the fact of oppression. Within the United States, Romans 13 was used to undergird the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which required U.S. citizens to return individuals who had escaped from enslavement to their owners. In the 1980s, Reformed Christians such as H.C. Hoeksema used Romans 13 to argue against resisting apartheid in South Africa. Sessions’s argument that U.S. citizens should unquestioningly submit and obey to governing authorities follows these lines of argumentation.

Finally, if we do take Romans 13 as a keystone for action, then we have to put the small portion Sessions quotes within a larger context. The apostle Paul also argues in the same passage that all commandments are summed up in the teaching “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9). Paul continues, pointedly, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). Paul here echoes the law (Leviticus 19:18) and teachings of Jesus (Matthew 22:19). This is a central message of the scriptures.

If we’re committed to using the Bible to argue about immigration, let us not start by taking Romans out of context. Instead, let’s listen to the overwhelming witness of scripture on behalf of the foreigners in our midst. Let’s start with love.

The Rev. Margaret Aymer is professor of New Testament Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Laura Nasrallah is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Harvard Divinity School.