Sessions Misinterpreting Scripture

I posted Friday that I was struggling with responding to Attorney General Jeff Sessions  and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders using the Bible to justify taking kids away from parents and to try and get their “church friends” to stop complaining about the separation of children from their parents who are seeking asylum. My struggle has been two fold:

  1. the action itself
  2. the attempt to use the Bible to justify the choice of taking the action

I believe many other people have done an excellent job of explaining why the action is wrong (basically just ask yourself “What Would Jesus Do” and I am fairly sure that you will have a hard time coming up with the answer “He would take those frightened kids away from their parents and just tell their parents that they are taking them away to be bathed, and do all of this in such a manner that it will be seen and understood as a threat to anyone else who might seek asylum or try to immigrate to the US from our Southern border.”) Therefore, trusting that subject has been covered I am going to talk about the poor (at best, and evil at worst) use of scripture.

You see just because scripture always requires interpretation doesn’t mean that all interpretation of it is good. When we read the bible we are reading inspired writing from millennia ago. It is a different time, a different place, and a different culture, so therefore, you are always interpreting it when you try to understand what it means in a modern context. Actually we are always interpreting everything we hear and experience. Sometimes our interpretations are good and we understand what someone is saying or writing, and sometimes we misinterpret and completely miss the mark (if we are doing it accidentally) or twist someone’s words to mean something it didn’t actually mean (if we are doing it intentionally). Jess sessions interpreted Romans 13:1-7 when he paraphrased it. Here is what Sessions said.

“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution, I would cite to you 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. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”

By saying this our Attorney General indicated that in his opinion it is proper to use this passage of scripture to address not only the separating of kids from their families but also that those Christians who are criticizing his actions should stop.1 Therefore, we need to consider if he interpreted the scripture properly.

Let’s look at the passage

Romans 13:1-7 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Let’s consider who this passage written too? There are three parties in this passage: 1) God, 2) the ruled, and 3) the rulers. So who is being told to be subject to the law? I know this sounds simple, but if you are going to say you are simply following scripture then you should make sure that the scripture you quote was written to you. In this case the group being encouraged to be subject are those that are ruled. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Communications director Sarah Huckabee Sanders can say they are merely being obedient to scripture and following the law but they are acting as the rulers in their roles and not as the ruled. Scripture had different words for the rulers. It is the responsibility of the rulers to act justly.  But Sessions does not seem to be concerned with whether or not these actions are just. He’s just concerned with the ruled obeying. This is a government official basically saying, “Scripture says you have to obey the law, therefore you don’t get to ask if the law is just or not.” That is why some have pointed out that slave masters used this same bad interpretation of this passage to try and control slaves. It was wrong then and it is still wrong now.

Kierkegaard also wrote “The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.”

Sessions and Sanders made the interpretive mistake of picking a scripture that pertains to someone else2 and trying to use it as a weapon to force someone else’s behavior. In Sessions case it was Christians who have supported Trump who were now saying “No!” to these actions. Sessions wanted those Christians to hush up and stop saying the actions were unjust. But when we read scripture it is our own sins that we should be concerned about and that’s not what Sessions was doing. As the Danish philosopher and believer Søren Kierkegaard wonderfully wrote, “When you read God’s Word, you must constantly be saying to yourself, it is talking to me, and about me.” Sessions and Sanders are acting out the opposite. “When I read God’s word, it is talking about you and what you must do.” That’s not how this works.

So here are a few other passages that talk to rulers concerning God’s expectations of them that Sessions and Sanders might want to consider.

Proverbs 29:12-1412 If a ruler pays attention to falsehood, All his ministers become wicked. 13 The poor man and the oppressor have this in common: The Lord gives light to the eyes of both. 14 If a king judges the poor with truth, His throne will be established forever. ((Good interpretation requires that I acknowledge that this speaks of the poor, but since the “poor” are linked with the oppressed in verse 13 it is applicable to the oppressed too. )) 

Proverbs 16:12 – It is an abomination for kings to commit wicked acts,
For a throne is established on righteousness.

Micah 3:9-10, & 12 – Hear this, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel, who despise justice and distort all that is right; 10 who build Zion with bloodshed, and Jerusalem with wickedness.  … 12 Therefore because of you, Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.

I haven’t yet even broached the subject of whether Paul meant in this passage that we should always follow the law or not. After all, Paul spent more than two years in jail for his actions of preaching the good news of a kingdom of a Messiah who was crucified because he was viewed as a threat to the stability of the Rome empire. I won’t do that in this post because it is already long enough. Yes, I know this is a long post and it is also a dollar short and a day late for most of this discussion. Therefore, I will just end with a reminder that if you are going to use scripture you need to interpret it well.

  1. Let me just add that nothing pleases one’s “church friends” as much as having a person misinterpret their scripture in an attempt to get those “church friends” to stop complain about evil actions. []
  2. Yes. I know we live in a Democratic Republic so technically they are the ruled and the rulers at the same time, as are we all, but they were operating as rulers in their roles. []

2 Replies to “Sessions Misinterpreting Scripture”

  1. Great post. I would also argue that, as an addendum to your footnote about citizens within democratic republics being ruled and ruler may also implicate ourselves in the response to this. That being the case, criticism of these actions is not only permissible biblically, but a responsibility if we recognize it as unjust. Thus, of course, is complicated by the fact that Paul’s writing references a very different government than our own.

    1. I completely agree Will-I-AM (Man I miss saying that). The fact that we have a voice in our government (something that the people during the time Paul wrote this passage would not have had) makes us responsible and as you said it is therefore our responsibility to speak up.

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