The Great Good of Order: A Partial Defense of Jeff Sessions
When Christians think about justice and love between and among nations, there is a tendency to think about it in modern terms of idealism vs. realism. These two schools of foreign policy thinking have dominated twentieth- and twenty-first-century American thinking about global engagement. Idealism presented an optimistic humanitarian view of the world as a community of nations that could work together to advance economic and humanitarian goals. Realists, on the other hand, were steely-eyed about realities of power and conflict. Flying under the Hobbesian banner that humans are fearful creatures, realists did not see a community of nations but a competition among powers for their own advancement. The “community of nations” was a sentimental illusion.
Humanitarians stress justice and love, while realists stress national interest and order. These dynamics are played out and repeated in many Christian responses to international issues, especially certain humanitarian ones. I stress “certain” because apparently a civil war in Syria that has killed more than 500,000 people causes many to barely raise a whimper while 2,000 children separated at the border is compared to Nazi Germany. I expect so much more from Michael Hayden.
The greatly maligned attorney general, Jeff Sessions, started off a bit of a firestorm with his invocation of the Bible to defend the current administration’s family separation policy. It was quite entertaining to watch Wolf Blitzer give a breakdown of various interpretations of Romans 13 and then provide counter-evidence to Sessions’ reading with passages on loving one’s neighbor. Most Christians were falling over themselves to denounce Sessions, including most evangelicals, but the way the immigration debate is carried out too often mirrors the political debate. Love and compassion for immigrants crossing the southern border are pitted against cruel “law and order” politics. Elizabeth Bruenig, an opinion columnist at the Washington Post, went as far as saying Sessions had completely departed from Christian tradition. On CNN, Russell Moore told Blitzer that Sessions “needed a little more time in Sunday school.”
I would encourage everyone to read Sessions’ speech. Many Christians and pundits in the media presented a rather skewed version of what he actually said. It seems that love should express itself in the ways that we engage with one another in public debates, and that means, even in disagreement, we try to understand one another and put the most charitable interpretation on positions with which we disagree.
Sessions, in a very civil manner, argued that lawfulness, as expressed in Romans 13, is a core Christian principle. And he’s right. Order and peace are great goods. Preserving law and order is not antithetical to Christian love but actually a profound expression of it. Laws provide for justice and peace for all in our society. Enforcement of those laws deters crime and provides the basis for all of the higher goods of social life.
Perhaps no one was more emphatic about the great good of peace and order than Augustine of Hippo. In City of God he writes, “For peace is so great a good that, even in the sphere of earthly and mortal affairs, we hear no word more thankfully, and nothing is desired with greater longing: in short, it is not possible to find anything better.”
It is worth putting Augustine’s words in context. Writing in the late Roman Empire, Augustine lived in an increasingly violent and unstable society. But, even with his harsh criticisms of Rome, he always argued that seeking peace was an incalculably great good because peace is the prerequisite for every other political and social good. There can be no justice without peace, at least no justice worth having. If chaos and anarchy are not kept at bay, then justice is meaningless.
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, and we will bear almost anything in order to escape anarchy. On this point Hobbes is absolutely right.
Sessions argued that if the Obama administration’s policies encouraged illegal immigration through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and lax enforcement, then people from Central America would be more likely to make a perilous trek through Mexico with their children, causing potential harm to themselves and creating the chaos that mass migration causes. Jeh Johnson, Obama’s secretary of homeland security, admitted the current problem is serious and that they resorted to similar solutions as the Trump administration.
I sympathize with those fleeing violent and dysfunctional conditions, but the disorder caused by a more generous policy could cause greater harm to all involved, including American citizens. Sessions encouraged lawful and orderly immigration rather than illegal immigration. Is that so antithetical to Christian love? I do not think so.
Those who only emphasize justice and completely ignore the 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. Spend some time in countries where there is little respect for the rule of law, and you will return with a renewed appreciation for how glorious American lawfulness is. It is imperfect and Christians should not ignore injustice or the need for reform. But peace and order are just as important as, if not more than, justice and compassion and should be part of any moral discussion of international politics.
Many will respond that Trump provoked this whole melee with his family separation and “zero tolerance” policies. I grant that may be the case. Trump appears to have been trying to cynically leverage the issue for political goals. We should not let political machinations sidetrack us from the serious questions that these political challenges pose. There are real moral and political questions that should be debated, and cutting through the media circus and political fireworks should be the job of all serious people.
We could do a much better job of affirming first principles before we launch one more time into the breach. Perhaps what Christians can bring to political strife is a bit of wisdom from our own tradition that helps us to appreciate a broader set of concerns than what our polarized society is currently capable.
Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: Attorney General Jeff Sessions attends the twenty-fourth annual Blue Mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington, DC, on May 1, 2018. The mass is held annually at the beginning of National Police Week to remember those who have fallen while serving in law enforcement and public safety. Photo by Shane T. McCoy for US Marshals.