Please Don’t Use Scripture to Rationalize Cruelty
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently quoted scripture to rationalize the Trump Administration’s cruel new policy of separating parents from children at the U.S.-Mexico border. He 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.”
The bald hypocrisy of this statement is laughable. When Obama was in the White House, I bet you Sessions didn’t describe the government as ordained by God. And anyway, the United States is a democracy. God doesn’t choose our leaders, the people do. But I digress, because what I really want to say is this:
Please don’t use scripture to rationalize cruelty. It gives the Bible a bad name. I’m on a mission to reclaim the Bible from people who use it in this self-serving way.
The Bible that I know does not sanction the world’s many cruelties. The Bible as I understand it calls upon us to regard all people as being created in the image of God. It calls upon us to care for the most helpless among us. It calls upon us to be in relationship with a God who knows us, loves us, and supports us when we struggle. In the face of the current crisis, it calls upon us to act out of compassion. Here’s a small sampling of verses that support a compassionate approach:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:20)
“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.” (Leviticus 19:33)
“Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God is the God of gods, and the Master of masters, the great, mighty and awesome God, who shows no [special] favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:16–19)
“God watches over the stranger; He gives courage to the orphan and widow.” (Psalms 146:9)
[Note: Biblical translations are based on the 1985 New Jewish Publication Society translation and Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses.]
It seems to me that if we’re looking for guidance from scripture on how to act in the current crisis, these statements of sweeping moral vision carry more weight than the rather political line from Romans that Sessions chose.
As a Jew and a rabbi, I leave it to my Christian friends to deal with Sessions’ use (or misuse) of this verse from the New Testament. (If that’s you, or if you know of someone who has written something about this, let me know.) I do, however, want to reflect on a similar concept found in Jewish tradition, called “dina d’malchuta dina.” This line, found four times in the Babylonian Talmud, means “the law of the government is the law.” In other words, the law of the land in which the Jewish community finds itself supersedes Jewish law — with respect to taxation, real estate, and other civil matters.
Significantly, dina d’malchuta dina never justifies moral depravity. If the government is doing something morally reprehensible, the Jewish community cannot go along with it. If the government is being inhumane, the Jewish response can never be, “Well, the law of the government is the law, so it’s all okay.”
In fact, another sacred Jewish source, dating from the same time period as the letters of Paul, says this: “Rabbi Hillel said, ‘In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human.’” (Pirkei Avot 2:5) In other words, in a place where everyone is doing the wrong thing, do the right thing. One could point to this as justification for acting from a place of compassion and moral goodness in the face of state-sponsored injustice.
In his 2016 book Putting God Second, Donniel Hartman wisely asks, “When we invoke God as our partner in politics, we identify our will and interests as inherently shared by God. But are they necessarily the same? When God is conflated with country, does it serve the moral and spiritual aspirations of Israel — or undermine them?” Hartman is writing from the perspective of a modern Orthodox Israeli. But his question resonates with me as a spiritually-oriented American witnessing scripture being used to justify that which I know to be morally wrong. When God is conflated with country (ala Sessions), or the policies of any human government, does it serve the moral and spiritual aspirations of the people of that country, or does it undermine them? I would answer the latter: when Sessions claims that God supports a policy that we know is wrong, he undermines scripture, and he undermines the moral and spiritual aspirations of us all.