The U.S. government has historically used the bible as a weapon, citing it as a means to dehumanize others or to justify atrocities committed in the name of God, country and morality. The current Trump administration is guilty of some of the most egregious violations of human rights in recent memory, and it would have its evangelical constituency believe that all the horror it imposes is the will of God.
But Jesus’ hermeneutic for the text was not literalism or legalism and was never used to condone the vulnerable or marginalized. Instead, Jesus modeled the true way of the entire biblical narrative: sacrificial love for God and neighbor.
Since October 2017, at least 2,700 children have been separated from their families as the result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy to reduce undocumented entry into the United States. The decision to capture and detain individuals isn’t new, but it has evolved since an iteration of it was employed by the Obama administration to respond to a “crisis” of undocumented immigration. What is new this time is the separation of children from their families.
This recent wave of family separations (at least 1,995 during April and May) has resulted in children being placed in dehumanizing and traumatizing environments as their families are sent to detention centers around the country. Children have been placed in a variety of crowded centers, including a converted (and overcapacity) Wal-Mart, not knowing if they will ever see their families again. The U.S. is once again using scare tactics, despotism and cruelty as a disincentive to seeking asylum.
Weaponizing the Bible always benefits those in power when in reality, the whole narrative of scripture is the liberation of the oppressed.
With the highly politicized religious right leading the White House, it is now par for the course for the Bible to be employed to justify such dehumanizing practices. Last week, while talking to a group that he referred to as “church friends,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted the Bible in order to justify the separation of children from their families, saying:
“Illegal entry into the United States is a crime — as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. 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 them for the purpose of order.”
Sessions accused churchgoers of using the Bible against him, and in this game of proof-texting volleyball, shot an out of context verse over the net to defend the dehumanizing of an entire group of people. The Bible is more frequently descriptive than it is prescriptive, so in order to make such a claim about the government’s right to obedience, one must look at the full narrative of the text and see the ways that the law, prophets and Jesus himself viewed an issue, how it has been historically implemented, and the results of such activity.
So yes, Session can claim that one should obey the government, but he must also wrestle with the same text that praises the disobedience of the midwives in Exodus who prevented infanticide at the orders of Pharaoh; Daniel and his resistance to empire worship and government imposed religious restrictions; Jesus with his critiques of Rome, and many many more examples.
It should give us great pause when in the same breath, people in office can describe the dehumanizing practices they are executing and then manipulate scripture to compel people to obey such evil. If the things that you are doing require such a strong backing in order to justify, your problem is less likely the Bible or people’s critique, but the practice or law itself.
This approach to scripture is the rule, not the exception, for how most American Evangelical Christians utilize the spiritual text for personal validation. In Christian culture, the word “biblical” is a catch-all way to say that one’s idea is true because it is in the Bible. Let’s be honest though, you can claim that all sides of any issue are biblical if you pull the right words from the text and claim that they are universally applicable and understood outside of interpretation and the larger context of the scripture.
This type of exegesis is not only lazy, but it is dangerous. Scripture in itself is not a weapon, but proof-texting turns a Biblical story into a tool to take life from some, and to ascribe value to others. This has always been true in the United States. The origins of the U.S on the backs of the enslaved, on the land of indigenous people and the labor of immigrants has always needed a justification narrative and the Bible has always been a good place to start.
We never see God siding with figures in scripture who separate kids from their families nor do we see Jesus employing xenophobia as he establishes his Kingdom.
Weaponizing the Bible also has made the U.S. masters in revisionist history, where, instead of a few generally upper class, cis white men making decisions out of greed, fear or the desire for power, we receive a narrative about God blessing the constant violence that they use or sanction to show why He is on our side.
Proof-texting and weaponizing the Bible always benefits those in power when in reality, the whole narrative of scripture is the liberation of the oppressed. So sure, there is a time when an early church leader asked for obedience, but Paul isn’t Jesus, the law of the Romans isn’t universal and at the end of the day, even if they were, the weaponizing of scripture is not the way of Jesus and strips people of their God-given dignity in the name of theological rightness.
We never see God siding with figures in scripture who separate kids from their families in the name of obeying the law (Pharaoh, Herod), nor do we see Jesus employing xenophobia or exclusionary tactics as he establishes his Kingdom.
When Jesus’ kingdom and His leadership are central to the life of Christians, they will not find themselves unapologetically invested in the rulers of our time who seek political accolades and power. Rather, we will gravitate toward those leaders who divest from power, welcome and provide for the most marginalized, and who critique the U.S. government, questioning how our history of violence, exclusion and cruelty fit into the will of Jesus, a homeless, poor man of color.
Turns out if we truly look at this situation through a biblical lens, the immigrants we are excluding look much more like Jesus than Jeff Session and his “church friends.”
Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.