Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that if immigrants enter the United States without documentation and with a child, “we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.” In recent weeks, as Americans have, rightly, become increasingly outraged by this practice, being carried out in our names, he has tried using the Bible to justify these actions: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13,” Sessions said, “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”
It was a poor scriptural choice. As Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote last week, Sessions breaks from Christian teaching, “inventing a faith that makes order itself the highest good and authorizes secular governments to achieve it.”
And his view runs counter to the theology and values of the United Methodist Church, to which Sessions belongs, and of which we are ordained ministers. That’s why we, and hundreds of our clergy colleagues and parishioners, wrote a letter of formal complaint to Sessions’s local church leadership, charging him with child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of the United Methodist Church. Though President Trump announced Wednesday that he’ll sign an executive order allowing detained immigrant families to remain together while in custody — a welcome development — we remain troubled that family separation was ever contemplated, or implemented, by Sessions.
Our early movement in America was, partly, an act of civil disobedience — a rejection by our founders of the decision of British leaders of church and state to withdraw the ministry of the Anglican communion from the colonies during the Revolutionary War. Through the course of American history, many Methodists have resisted some of the worst legacies of this nation. At our best, we have fought against slavery, argued for women’s right and been at the cornerstone of the labor movement. As individuals and as a denomination, we often fall far short of our ideals; but we try to live by the words of our founder, John Wesley, who said, in part two of his sermon, “The Law Established Through Faith”: “do good, as we have time and opportunity; to do good, in every possible kind, and in every possible degree, to all men.”
That prescription reveals a key aspect of who we are: the Methodist tent is very broad. Our beliefs are built around a wide range of ways of being Christian. We are encouraged to do the hard work of engaging scripture, tradition, reason and experience while trusting in the spirit of God to help us understand how to believe, live and act in a complicated and challenging world. While we’ve maintained, from our earliest roots, processes for calling clergy and laity to account for violations of the core of our faith, these options have rarely been used — particularly in relation to a layperson.
That changed this week.
The intersection of Sessions’s public United Methodist identification with his role as the nation’s highest law enforcement officer — and the scale and scope of human suffering among thousands of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers that he currently oversees, and tries to justify, in part, based on religion — moved more than 600 United Methodists to formally complain, against a United Methodist layperson, Sessions, seeking to call him to accountability.
This is not an attempt to punish him. The United Methodist Church does not excommunicate or shun. The harshest outcome that could result from this type of complaint would be leaders of his local congregation removing him from full membership in the church, meaning that he could no longer vote at church meetings or be elected to church offices. Even in that scenario, he could still fully participate in the life and ministries of his congregation. But that isn’t our goal; to us, that would be a tragedy.
Rather, we remember that Sessions is our sibling in Christ, and the very form of the complaint process itself (spelled out in The Book of Discipline, the guide for United Methodist structures and practices) is explicitly intended as an invitation to reconciliation. We hope this complaint begins a process in which Sessions’s pastors and bishops engage with him, explore our shared theology and practice with him, and work together through the spirit of God — the one who loves all and invites all into just and equitable relationships — to bring about a change of heart. Our hope is that this might become a story of redemption, in which someone who we believe has wandered far from the practices and values of his faith will return and do everything in his power to right the wrongs in which he has participated.
To be clear, we believe in the separation of church and state. We don’t believe we can dictate how the government makes or applies the law. But we feel it imperative to challenge Sessions’s misuse of our tradition and scriptures to justify appalling acts of child abuse and discrimination.
One of the core rituals of our tradition is baptism. In the standard form of that ritual, each individual is asked: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” It is our conviction that our actions to try to bring Sessions to a change of heart, and of practice, are demanded of us by our shared identity as members of the United Methodist denomination. We hope that he will join us in living out those vows, resisting the evil, injustice and oppression we face in our world in whatever forms they present themselves, even as embodied in the bastions of political power and the lives of world leaders, when necessary. We hope that he will return to our shared values, that include long-standing commitments to the full humanity and inclusion of those on the margins of society, including immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and people of all races, beliefs, faiths and cultures. These values are among those at the heart of the United Methodist Church, values that Sessions has betrayed, but values we yearn for him to return to.