Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have pointed to the Bible to defend the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, but now more than 600 members of his own denomination, the United Methodist Church, have slapped him with a formal complaint because of it.
In a letter dated June 18, hundreds of Methodists all over the United States accused Sessions of child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of the United Methodist Church.” The charges each relate to Sessions’s “zero-tolerance” border crackdown that has evoked bipartisan outrage, while the last is specifically linked to his use of the Bible to defend the policy.
Sessions’s support and advocacy for “holding thousands of young children in mass incarceration facilities with little to no structured educational or socio-emotional support” and for “directing employees and staff members to kidnap children from their parents” falls in violation of the Methodists’ Book of Discipline, the Methodists contend in the letter.
The letter is addressed to the Rev. Sterling Boykin of Ashland Place United Methodist Church in Mobile, Ala., Sessions’s home-state church, and the Rev. Tracy Wines of Clarendon United Methodist Church in Arlington, Va., his current church.
“While other individuals and areas of the federal government are implicated in each of these examples, Mr. Sessions — a long-term United Methodist in a tremendously powerful, public position — is particularly accountable to us, his church,” the Methodists wrote. “He is ours, and we are his. As his denomination, we have an ethical obligation to speak boldly when one of our members is engaged in causing significant harm in matters contrary to the Discipline on the global stage.”
The formal complaint process within the Methodist Church is typically reserved for members of the clergy. But in their letter, the complaining Methodists say they are using it against Sessions, a layperson, because of his immense political and social power and the severity of his actions.
According to the church’s Book of Discipline, when a formal complaint is filed, it launches a process called “just resolution.” Pastors or other church leaders may first try to talk through the problem with the person who is the subject of the complaint, a process that may involve mediation with the complaining party.
But if no “just resolution” can be reached, the complaint may go through a “church trial,” with the most extreme outcome being the person’s expulsion from the church, as the Rev. William Lawrence, professor emeritus at Perkins School of Theology, explained to the United Methodist News Service.
The Rev. David Wright, who spearheaded the complaint against Sessions, told USA Today that he hoped Sessions’s pastors could persuade Sessions to change his mind after realizing the harm he is doing to immigrant children.
“My ideal outcome is that his pastors in church leadership who know him will speak with him,” he said, “and that in those conversations he will be challenged to think through the level of harm he is causing and have a change of heart — which is about as Methodist as you can get.”
The Methodists who signed onto the formal complaint Monday are among myriad faith leaders who have widely condemned the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration agenda. As The Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer reported, sermons from pulpits nationwide — from Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, Presbyterian, Mennonite preachers and others — decried the Trump administration’s immigration policies and urged congregants to speak out against xenophobia and injustice. Some faith leaders told The Post that they usually tried to avoid discussing politics — but couldn’t help it this week.
On Wednesday, Pope Francis criticized President Trump’s immigration policies in an interview with Reuters, saying that “populism is not the solution.”
Sessions’s pastors could not immediately be reached for comment, but the bishop in the Alabama-West-Florida Conference, where Sessions’s home church is located, issued a statement Monday condemning family separation at the border. The bishop, David Graves, was copied on the letter.
“It deeply troubles me and burdens my heart that innocent immigrant children are being separated from their parents,” he wrote. “It was difficult to celebrate Father’s Day knowing these unjust acts were ongoing in this country.”
Graves also pointed to a statement from the United Methodist Board of Church and Society that found it “unimaginable that faith leaders even have to say that these policies are antithetical to the teachings of Christ.”
“The Christ we follow would have no part in ripping children from their mothers’ arms or shunning those fleeing violence,” said the statement by the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe.
Henry-Crowe said the Trump administration’s attempts to justify the policy through the Bible verse Romans 13 was a “shocking violation of the spirit of the Gospel.”
Addressing “church friends” in a speech last Thursday, Sessions 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 the government for his purposes. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”
The same Bible verse had been used by slaveholders in 19th-century America, by Nazis and by South Africans who supported apartheid.