Tuesday, June 19, 2018

"The Same [Bible] Passage Sessions Cited Has Been Used to Justify Slavery and Nazism": Valuable Commentary on Sessions' and Huckabee-Sanders' Use of Romans 13

Tara Isabella Burton, "The racist history of the Bible verse the White House uses to justify separating families": 

This is not the first time someone in the inner circle of the Trump administration has used Romans 13 to justify Trump's authority. Last summer, for example, pastor Robert Jeffress — one of the most influential members of Trump's unofficial evangelical advisory council — cited Romans to say that God had given Trump the "authority to do whatever," up to and including nuclear war, when it came to dealing with North Korea. 
Another closely Trump-affiliated pastor, the prosperity gospel preacher Paula White, advocated that Trump was chosen by God more generally, emphasizing in interviews that Trump was “raised up by the hand of God” and those that opposed him were fighting God himself. (She later walked back her comments.) 
In other words, this is nothing new. Trump, and the evangelical apparatus that supports him — from his evangelical advisory council to Pat Roberton’s Christian Broadcasting Network, whose journalistically dubious news programs doubled as theological propaganda for the Trump administration — has systematically promoted a theology that promotes political submission as an act of Christian duty. Evangelicals have compared Trump to the Persian biblical king Cyrus, and suggested (and even made films arguing) that his presidency was prophesied
This latest use of Romans should be read — like Romans itself — within its historical context. The Trump administration is using a distinctive and reductionist biblical reading affiliated with slavery advocates and British Loyalists to prop up a wider strategy of religiously infused propaganda. In so doing, they’re strengthening the already ironclad relationship between GOP party politics and white evangelicalism — and promoting a Christian nationalist agenda that’s far more nationalist than Christian.

[Professor Matthew] Schlimm [of Dubuque Theological Seminary] noted that people often misuse the Bible. In fact, the same passage Sessions cited has been used to justify slavery and Nazism
"So, it's not surprising that slave traders tore children away from their parents and tried to justify it with the Bible. Or that Nazis tore children away from their parents and tried to justify it with the Bible. Sessions follows the pattern of history," he said. "What's chilling is to think that we again live in such morally deranged times."

Slaveholders invoked the Bible to justify their system. So did Jeff Sessions earlier this week in defending his own ruling.  "Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution," he declared. "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," he intoned, noting further that "orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves.’" 
By this reasoning, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela would have been out of line. But Bull Connor, the British colonizers and apartheid South Africa would have been in step with the Good Book.  

It's fitting that Sessions turned to Romans 13. The text has a long track record of being used by Christians attempting to defend immoral public policy. In the 1850s, when slave masters paid preachers and public theologians to defend the plantation economy against abolitionists, Romans 13 was one of the most cited texts of slaveholder religion as well.
Indeed, the sad reality of American Christianity is that it has been used throughout our nation's history to justify and endorse injustice. 
The Rev. Robert Dabney, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian in mid-19th century Virginia, explained in a letter to one of his colleagues why using the Bible to defend slavery was so important. "Here is our policy then: to push the Bible argument continually, drive abolitionism to the wall, and compel it to assume an anti-Christian position. By doing so we compel the whole Christianity of the North to array itself to our side." Without a false moral narrative to counter the moral movement of abolitionism, slave owners knew that human bondage could not last. 
But while slavery officially ended after America's Civil War, slaveholder religion did not go away. The Redemption movement that sought to reverse Reconstruction in the south was led by white Christians with Bibles in their hands, celebrating the restoration of an order "ordained by God." Richard H. Rivers, a Methodist professor of moral philosophy in Florence, Alabama, explained that the duties of whites to blacks "are no longer the duties of masters to slaves. They are, however, the duties of superiors to inferiors." Whether Jeff Sessions parents still had a copy of Rivers' "Elements of Moral Philosophy" on the shelf at home, his slaveholder religion permeated the culture of the Southern Methodist Church into which Sessions was baptized. 

To stick with the moral argument, though, Jesus is absolutely, 100%, crystal freaking clear that the law is made for humanity, not humanity for the law. (In this he is very Jewish.) When Jesus is challenged for healing on the sabbath, he asks: 
"Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath."
If a law produces inhumane results—say, for example, that it results in the deaths of thousands in deserts or in their home nations, or the forcible separation and jailing of entire families—Christians can and should act to change that law. It is not enough, as Mr. Sessions does, to mewl and puke and whine about "enforcing the law on the books" or "if only people would follow the law." In short, Jeff Sessions is a gutless coward, without the courage of his professed religious beliefs; without even a rudimentary moral compass beyond White America Good. Brown America Bad. 
That's really what all of his attempts at moral justification boil down to: White America makes the rules, I get paid to enforce those rules, so that’s what I’m going to do. Suck it, breastfeeding babies and their mothers. 
It is pure "might makes right," and it is absolutely, completely, utterly morally bankrupt and contrary to the spirit of the gospels and Paul's message to the Romans—at least as I understand them.

Christians in America, especially evangelicals, have supported all of these actions, and many others that contradict the teachings of Christ: cutting food stamps, lying, and denigrating the poor and helpless in society. Evangelical deference to authority and fealty to Trump has resulted in a potent, dangerous rise of theocratic fascism for which American religious leaders simply are not prepared. While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptists make statements of concern about family separation, the Department of Health and Human Services is moving to construct a temporary site in Tornillo, Texas, to house unaccompanied minor children.  
As Douglass told us a century and a half ago, this is not what Christianity looks like. This is an Americanized, nationalistic Christianity that promotes white families over and against brown families, black families and other families that do not conform and embrace their biblical worldview. It has justified keeping people in chains, slaughtered, interred, persecuted and separated from families. It hides behind Bible verses and proof-texting to affirm white supremacy, while denying the humanity of everyone else. 
Sessions may quote Romans 13 as a way to support his harsh immigration policies, but later in the same passage, the law is summed up as one rule: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Sessions is ripping his neighbors’  families apart and insisting the Bible gives him the authority. This is America. 

So we've really got to revisit the whole "Romans 13:1-7" thing again? Sigh.
I say "again" there because we Christians spent a huge chunk of the 20th century dealing with the same pernicious, obtuse and Orwellian manipulations of this passage that we saw this week from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Official White House Liar Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The same exact misuses of this passage for the same exact reasons. 
This was an argument fought — and won — by the Confessing Church that rose in opposition to the rise of fascism in Europe. An argument relitigated and reaffirmed after World War II by a world and a church that struggled to grasp the full horrors of what unjust, evil leaders enforcing unjust, evil laws were capable of accomplishing with the compliance of complicit Christians citing this verse as their rationalization. 
The argument continued throughout the Civil Rights Movement here in America, with segregationist white pastors advocating the same Session-ist Vichy interpretation advanced by the complicit idolaters of the Reichskirche. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged that spiritual darkness with an overwhelming light, but the darkness comprehended it not, because those Romans 13-quoting Christians loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (That last phrase from John 3:19, I am repeatedly told, is not "civil." Jesus is imputing malice and impugning the motives of his opponents there, and the civility police tell me that is never legitimate.) 
It was an argument fought again, with great theological depth and ferocity, by Christians and church leaders opposed to South African Apartheid. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches declared Apartheid to be a heresy, shredding the Vichy interpretation of this passage that Sessions endorses with an authority and thoroughness that you’d be foolish to challenge. 
And all of those 20th-century iterations of this same one-sided theological argument about Romans 13:1-7 were also "again" because the church had convulsed through this same dispute all through the long centuries of slavery before it, with slavery-defending white Christians awkwardly taking the Sessions/Vichy side despite themselves having argued and apparently understood the opposite during the American Revolution. (Much the way the same people now likeliest to quote this passage Sessions-style are also likeliest to spout off about “big government,” cramming all discussion of the role and responsibility of government, instead, into a too-small dispute over its size.) 
We don't need to revisit and rehash all of the details of this argument. It is, and always has been, a lop-sided, one-sided affair. The side endorsed and advocated by Sessions and Sanders and Goebbels and Calhoun and Botha and L. Nelson Bell has always been flaccid, dishonest, inconsistent, and transparently self-serving. So we don't need to plow through the scorching texts from Isaiah denouncing those submissively complicit in oppressive rule. We don’t need to revisit the whole library aisles of theological works contrasting the normative prescription of government in Romans 13 with its descriptive counterpart from Revelation 13.

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