Jeff Sessions pushed me over the edge.
I had been watching U.S. immigration developments with my eyes toward elections, legislation and court decisions for the righting of wrongs. I got more worried when Sessions and the Trump administration said they would separate children from their parents at the border to help enforce U.S. policy. Then Sessions, the head of the United States Department of Justice, waved his Bible.
“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,” Sessions said in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on Friday.
This triggered two reactions in me, as fast as flash floods.
The first, as always with theocratic and authoritarian smugness, was simple rebellion.
The second, in an ironic way that I am still trying to understand, was recognition that my objection to Sessions’ emphasis on removing children from parents to discourage illegal border crossings is moral, not just political. And this is to say little for the moment about the fact that most of these parents probably are refugees.
I admit my positions about accepting some laws and rejecting others, accepting one kind of conduct and not another, are not consistent. But, when push comes to shove, views come that I can’t escape. Yes, my favorite president, Barack Obama, can sing to the nation “Amazing Grace,” but I object to Jeff Sessions citing scripture for what I consider unjust practice. How do you decide one is right and the other wrong? As a citizen, how do you elevate what you think is a moral obligation over a “legal” one?
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about similar questions in 1963 while jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, for violating a civil rights demonstration ban. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King wrote:
One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.
As as many times as I have dealt with the question since high school and college in the 1960s, and as much as I admire King, no one yet has been able to completely unravel the conundrum for me.
Meanwhile, I thought the opinion writer Daniel José Camacho did a good job with Sessions’s smugness in a June 15 piece in The Guardian:
Sessions cracked a smile when 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 them for the purpose of order.” The former Alabama senator knows what he’s doing. Surely, he’s familiar with King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. In contempt for a rich tradition of Christian resistance to injustice, he is cherry-picking the bible to serve a despotic white nationalist agenda. Racism under the guise of “law and order” redux.
And I thought Camacho did a good job of helping to explain King:
There is no divine mandate requiring us to accept an unjust policy or law. But, some might ask, how do we differentiate a just law from an unjust law? Who decides? That was a question King addressed with the following principle, “a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself.” It’s the golden rule writ large.
Maybe Camacho nailed it when he noted that Sessions is simply “cherry-picking the Bible.” Maybe he nailed it when he called the movers racist. I just know I oppose Sessions and the Trump administration’s removal of children from parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Whatever else it is, the Trump-Sessions practice is essentially taking children hostage. Surely, there are other answers, although I don’t think they should include refusing refugees.
Regardless of whether Session’s use of the Bible citation falls into the ambiguous territory of separating church and state, I’m just saying it smacks to me of a distorted view of our government and its principles. I’m just saying it reflects to me an unseeing and ultimately cruel disposition toward human suffering.