Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a United Methodist layperson. Somewhere along the way in his spiritual journey he was taught the interpretation of Romans 13 that he used to justify the new ICE policy that separates immigrant children from their parents and criminalizes all immigrants without visas, including refugees seeking political asylum who do everything by the book. Christians across the theological spectrum have recoiled from Sessions’ use of scripture, but his interpretation is entirely consistent with the law and order approach to interpreting scripture that is presumed by many American Christians.
Law and order Christianity defines morality as submission to authority. So when law and order Christians look at social issues in our world, the question they ask first is whether people are being obedient to authority figures. That’s the first thing they see when immigrants enter the county without a visa, regardless of the hardships the immigrants have faced. That’s the first thing they see when a black teenager is killed by a police officer for “mouthing off.” That’s the first question to be asked about feminism, queer inclusion, sexual violence in the church, and every other social issue. Is whichever person who has official authority in the situation being obeyed, respected, and deferred to?
When the first question you ask is whether obedience to authority is happening, then it doesn’t matter how many verses in the Bible give direct commandments about how to treat immigrants. If immigrants are undocumented, the problem is that they didn’t obey authority, case closed. Ripping infants from their mothers’ breasts is simply “tough love” for disobedient sinners. As long as you’re obeying the authority figures in your life, you don’t need to feel bad about the babies who are going to be psychologically traumatized for the rest of their lives, because their parents broke the law so it’s their fault, end of story.
Now it’s fairly easy for most American Christians to recognize the obvious cruelty of this mentality, but most of them default to the same basic law and order understanding of morality in their interpretation of scripture. They just apply their law and order views selectively. For example, when someone says that homosexuality is a sin because it doesn’t conform to God’s design for humanity, they are using the same law and order premise that guides Jeff Sessions in his reading of Romans 13, because the question being asked is not whether harm is occurring but whether authority is being obeyed.
So what does it look like to read the Bible with a lens other than law and order? Well first of all, we ask what vision of divine authority the Bible actually presents us with. Law and order Christianity presumes that authority belongs to people who are officially vested with power: police officers, army generals, judges, chief executives of companies, etc (a.k.a. white men in suits). God is presumed to be the great white man in a suit in the sky. So what does it mean that God showed us through Jesus he wasn’t a white man in a suit in the sky but a naked poor brown man on a cross?
But if the crucified Jesus is the universe’s actual ultimate authority figure, that’s not very good news for Jeff Sessions and the other white men in suits in the world. Because that means that our default for understanding who will judge humanity is to look for those who are being crucified by the world. In other words, if Jesus’ cross is what authority looks like, then the authority figure in our immigration crisis is the refugee woman whose infant was ripped away from her breast. She is the one who will judge us alongside Jesus. What biblical justice looks like is not whether the laws made by white men in suits are being obeyed but whether the brown refugee woman and her child are being provided for.
This indeed is what James 1:27 says: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” It’s not an accident that these two things are grouped together. When we’re stained and corrupted by the world with addiction, greed, outrage, gluttony, etc, we neglect the orphans, widows, and other marginalized people in their distress. The purpose of keeping oneself unstained by the world is to be empowered and entirely available to do God’s work of mercy and justice, which is particularly defined by the needs of the world’s outsiders.
I would contend that true biblical ethics is not about submission to authority for authority’s sake but about purging our hearts of idols so that we are available to love our neighbors. When you read scripture starting from that assumption, it’s impossible to come away with a callous law and order perspective like Jeff Sessions has. My hope is that this ugly age will bring full exposure to the theological fruit that is toxic so that the church can finally be healed.
Check out my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity!