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Another Voice: Zero-tolerance policy has little resonance in Bible

By Dennis C. Duling 

On June 14, in Fort Wayne, Ind., Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended President Trump’s controversial “‘zero-tolerance’ prosecution policy at the border” (Sessions’ words) with the 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 them for the purpose of order.”

Columnist Michael Gerson challenged Trump and Sessions in a piece titled, “Trump backs away from border cruelty, but the tale of heresy has already been told.” I agree.

Trump has modified, but not abandoned, zero tolerance and there are still the issues of reuniting children with their families and Trump’s unconstitutional desire to deny immigrants due process.

As for Sessions, a Methodist Sunday school teacher, 640 Methodist clergy and laity have charged him with child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of the United Methodist Church,” specifically, “misuse of Romans 13 to indicate the necessity of obedience to secular law . . .  in stark contrast to  . . .  (Methodist) commitments to supporting freedom of conscience and resistance to unjust laws.”

Romans 13:1-7 has been used as a proof text before by ecclesiastical officials who demand obedience to the horrific federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, or who insist that German Christians observe the principle of “passive obedience” (1930s), or who urge that South Africans obey apartheid law (1980s).

Romans 13:1-7 begins, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” What should be said? Paul’s ethical exhortations are not always consistent. He held that authorities who were subordinate to obedience to God took precedence and they were instituted to punish evil doers, not bad ones (13:4).

Note: Its context is Christian love, highlighted by “he who loves his neighbor fulfills the law” (12:8). Paul had not yet been to Rome and was introducing himself to the poor Roman congregations; he did not want them to risk offending the powerful Emperor. So he urged paying taxes (13:7).

In general, the Bible is not a handbook of universal ethical norms, but revelation in the form of ancient human opinions. Recall, for example, that biblical passages also teach the prophetic rebuke of rulers and the identification of the evil Beast in Revelation as 666, a number the letters of which in Hebrew spell “Nero Caesar,” the Roman Emperor (13:18).

The Bible was also an authority for anti-slavery abolitionists, anti-Nazi members of the German Confessing Church (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer), and anti-apartheid members of South Africa’s Dutch Reformed Mission Church, all of whom appealed to the Bible’s higher law, as do today’s faithful Methodists and others who are reflective about moral values.

Dennis C. Duling, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus in religious studies and theology at Canisius College.

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