Between God and Jeff Sessions: A Rightly Ordered Response
Summer is a time which brings to mind patriotism and love of country. The season begins with a memorial to those who serve and have served, reaches its pinnacle with Independence Day, and ends with a reminder of the labor it took to make this country great. Throughout America, in small towns and big cities, the uniforms of service and the symbols of freedom will parade past children in the crowd and create scenes straight out of Norman Rockwell.
There is much that is right with America, much to laud, and much worthy of celebration. But in truth, behind the Rockwell lies the reality which is often complex and conflicted. Right now, somewhere along the American border, there is an officer in uniform carrying off a child from a parent. Elsewhere, a border patrol officer, clad in the insignia of American exceptionalism, mocks the chorus of immigrant youth crying for their family. These scenes come to us courtesy of a recent shift in immigration policy on the part of the Trump administration.
This spring the administration initiated a “zero-tolerance” policy meant to close the “loopholes” that allowed immigrants and those seeking asylum who have children to be granted special favor and consideration. According to the administration, the United States has experienced a five-fold increase in the number of individuals seeking asylum and attempting to enter the country with children, thus avoiding the typical legal punishment of prosecution and deportation.
The implementation of this policy was met with growing outcries of criticism as images of child internment camps began to flash across America’s collective social media feed. The protests grew in direct proportion to the hyperbole both from the left and the right. To the liberal intelligentsia, this action was tantamount to terror three stops short of the famed rail entrance to Birkenau. To the right wing of the Republican Party, these actions were a necessary tonic to the coming plague of migrants who would soon sweep down by the millions, like locusts in Egypt.
Into this media maelstrom rode the defenders and the justifiers, the malcontents and the critics, four horsemen for this particular apocalypse, each wielding the Bible and scripture to their ends suborning their position. Some quoted Jesus, some interpreted Paul, others stuck to the classics found in the Old Testament.
The past four weeks have provided us with a veritable malaprop cocktail of positions. Liberals and leftist Christians pulled the Jesus-juke of Matthew 19, in which Jesus, speaking at a symposium on Roman immigration (sarcasm intended, he was actually rebuking his own disciples) declared, “Let the children come unto me, do not hinder them.” Conservatives Christians who have a heart quoted Old Testament prescriptions for refugee relations and hospitality. Conservative Christians who back the president towed the party line, saw the left’s Jesus, and raised them the right’s Apostle Paul. A first-century celebrity death match ensued.
It was Attorney General Jeff Sessions (a devout Methodist) who laid down the literal deus ex machina by quoting Romans 13, in which Paul, writing to Christians in first-century Rome, stated, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Sessions was leveraging the valid theological point, one that Providence supports, that God instituted human government to protect the innocent, requite injustice, and punish evil in order to maintain the political goods of order, justice, and peace.
For Sessions, there appeared to be an unbroken line between Christian deference to authority and the public’s deference to the Trump administration. The latter flows logically and theologically from the former, or at least should in an ideal world. Between the order of divinely instituted government and the anarchy of lax immigration policies lies the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security. And between Trump’s policies and liberal polemics lies God. Sessions’ foray into theology was met with predictable criticism and outrage, not all of which was undeserved. But his point was very well taken by our own Daniel Strand, who wrote an apology for Sessions in Providence earlier this week.
An Orderly Defense
To summarize Strand’s defense, Sessions was articulating a biblical position which elevates “order” as necessary for the flourishing of mankind. Order is good and worth pursuing at great costs. Strand writes that “those who only emphasize justice and completely ignore the effects and disorder that may be caused by mass immigration do not have a sufficient appreciation for the great good of the rule of law and peace.” He goes further to state the extent of what we are willing to tolerate for this order: “When it comes to living in a state of anarchy or under a dictatorial tyrant we would all pick the tyrant. Why? Because chaos is intolerable.”
For Strand, apparently, Americans should all extend Sessions the benefit of their considerable doubts, for in the abstract the attorney general has stumbled upon a truth which is hard to dispute. All citizens hunger for order and the peace that attends it, those entering our country should be willing to submit to our laws. Strand issues this reminder: “that peace and order are just as important, if not more so, than justice and compassion and should be part of any moral discussion of international politics.”
This is a common technique among those who defend the administration and their policies, to pit peace and order against justice and compassion. The problems with this defense are many. For the sake of time, I will attempt to enumerate only two.
A Just Peace
Peace and order are not mutually exclusive of justice and compassion. In fact, the presence of justice and compassion typically define the quality of the peace and order citizens enjoy. While chaos is feared and loathed, it is not always clear that given the choice “we would all pick the tyrant,” as a record number of Venezuelan immigrants fleeing Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarianism would attest. America’s own revolution gives credence to the notion that the only thing worse than chaos (which is anarchy of the masses) is dictatorship (which is anarchy of the one). Americans may all hunger for peace and may approve of laws to order that peace, but peace is the fruit of justice enjoyed. As Augustine once wrote, “an unjust law, is no law at all.”
A Right Response
Paul instructed first-century Christians to submit to their authorities in Romans 13, but that encouragement did not negate his admonition to proclaim truth amidst their declining culture or lament their treatment at the hands of that same government. In this fallen world, Christians must recognize that government exists to constrain both the excesses of the governing as well as the impulses of the governed. There is a higher law than that of the Trump administration; or to rephrase, there is a prescription for justice that trumps policy. That prescription both upholds the order of America and protects the dignity of those wishing to live here. Whether he realizes it or not, Sessions does violence to the former when he fails to uphold the latter.
History has a way of flattening hyperbole and putting fear in perspective. Both the left and the right would do well to avoid the trap of zero-sum, fear-based politics. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said that “in politics, what begins in fear usually ends in folly.” The choice is not between open borders or Birkenau. The choice which lies before us is whether or not we will make a government which reflects the divine justice for which government exists.