My conservatism as a Reformed and Evangelical Christian compels me to speak out against the misuse of the Bible to justify the mistreatment of others by those who hold influence and power.
The Trump administration has made it clear that it believes undermining the fundamental building block of humanity—families—is an acceptable means of solving the country’s illegal immigration problem. In their effort to uphold the laws of the land, border agents have been enforcing a “zero-tolerance policy” that involves children being forcibly taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. One undocumented woman from Honduras told CNN that she was breastfeeding her daughter when agents took her away.
The administration has boldly attempted to justify these inhumane actions with the Bible. Most recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended these actions by quoting one of Jesus’ most prominent followers, the Apostle Paul. In his Letter to the Romans, found in the New Testament, Paul tells fellow 1st century Christians to obey governing authorities.
“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. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful,” Sessions stated in remarks the Justice Department calls a response to “Recent Criticisms of Zero Tolerance By Church Leaders.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders appeared to support Sessions’ statement, claiming when asked by a reporter for clarification on the attorney general’s remarks that, “It is very biblical to enforce the law.” In both instances, Sessions and Sanders referenced the Bible as a divine thumbs-up for separating families.
However, I’m not surprised in the least that members of Trump’s administration would make such bold and misguided appeals to the Bible to justify the abuse being inflicted upon undocumented parents and their children, some of them seeking asylum, at our border. To those who have studied an unbiased history of Christianity in the U.S., or to those who have been historically marginalized and dehumanized in this country, Sanders’ and Sessions’ words are all too familiar. Officials, pastors, theologians, and everyday Christians have co-opted the Bible to justify all kinds of heinous acts of injustice for centuries in our country.
To preserve power, Southern Christians began claiming in the 19th century that the Bible’s Old Testament story of the “Curse of Ham” (or “Curse of Canaan”) was justification for African or Black enslavement. These White Christians theologized that Ham and his descendants, divinely cursed to an existence of servitude, were Black—
Christians in the 1960s, fighting hard against desegregation laws, imposed onto Acts 17 the assertion that God had divinely appointed “boundaries” for different races and was, like them, for segregation and against miscegenation. Using this “biblical” justification, Bob Jones University, a leading Evangelical conservative Christian institution, prohibited interracial dating and marriages until 2000.
Christians have misused the Bible to claim that the United States is uniquely chosen by God, set apart, and blessed as a Christian nation. They have presented America as a “city on a hill” shining forth the light of Jesus, all the while stealing land from Native Americans and enforcing Jim Crow laws, among other injustices, to maintain a culture of white supremacy.
Further examples of how Christians have abused the Bible to justify injustices are myriad. Whether we like it or not, the history of our country is stained with the misuse of the Bible for unholy ends. The misuse of the Bible is as American as apple pie. It is no surprise that Sessions, Sanders, and others feel emboldened to use these same tactics in our current political discourse. It is unfortunate that there are Christian leaders providing the playbook for such tactics.
If you happen to be reading this and don’t identify as a Christian, I want you to know that Sessions’ and Sanders’ claims about the Bible are actually in complete opposition to the Bible and Christianity. Jesus calls his followers to stand against injustice, regardless of whether it has legislative, societal, or religious approval. Don’t close your ears to the message of Christianity because of corrupt messengers. Perhaps you’ll encounter a Jesus who is not White, American, and on the side of power, but a meek Jewish man who has always stood with the marginalized and oppressed.