“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33)
Two weeks ago the United States Attorney General cited the Bible for the proposition that separating children from their immigrant parents was OK because it was just obeying the law of the land. “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1) The practice he was referring to was the use of detention centers where children of immigrants who enter the United States illegally (and some requesting asylum) were sent after their parents were arrested. In the face of intense public outrage, the administration reversed itself and now detains children with their parents.
Despite the change in policy, the present immigration system in the United States is not working as most Americans would have it. Wherever one falls on the ideological spectrum – from a welcoming, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,”as inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, to a protective, “We’re going to build a wall,” there is no doubt that we are at a political impasse in this country over the issue.
The images from the detention centers rightly caused an uproar among many Christians. Even many who would strictly limit immigration found the practice abhorrent. But what caused me to reflect on the Attorney General’s remarks were two matters that are as ancient as they are modern. These relate to the proper use of Scripture, and the relationship of Christians to the state. Obviously, these are longstanding concerns for people of faith and more complicated than can be covered in a short post. Yet, for those who would pursue Christian virtue we must not lose sight of two principles. First, the pursuit of virtue requires a balanced view of Scripture. And second, the pursuit of virtue means our first loyalty must always be to Jesus and the kingdom of God.
Balanced View of Scripture
Regrettably, the Bible has been used throughout history by the powerful to justify mistreatment of the powerless. For example, apartheid was justified with Acts 17:26 (God separated the world into regions [insert races]); slavery with Colossians 3:22 (slaves obey your masters); and misogyny with Ephesians 5:22 (wives submit to your husbands). In all of these cases, the result has been suppression and repression of basic human rights – which goes against the warp and woof of Scripture that we are to love one another even as Christ has loved us. If the Bible teaches nothing else, it is that our highest calling is to love others. And those radical fringe elements in our world today who would support racism or sexism with the Bible would do well to consider the words of Isaiah, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20)
Romans 13:1, cited by the Attorney General, is another Bible verse that at times has been selectively used to support immoral laws and suppress dissent. Is it really true that we have no response when the government takes extreme action other than to “be subject to [their] authority?” What about the founding of our “Christian” nation – did our forbearers violate the Bible because they rebelled against the king of England? And what about the days before the Civil Rights movement – was it a Biblical mandate to obey Jim Crow laws because they were the law of a given state? One could also inquire about some of the great Christian martyrs such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer – should he have submitted to the Third Reich?
But the real issue is whether a single verse or Biblical principle is absolute. For example, honesty is a fundamental Christian virtue supported by many verses. Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no, no.” (Matthew 5:37) But while all Christians would agree that lying is wrong, what if by telling the truth another person is going to be murdered? In such circumstances shouldn’t the Biblical principle about telling the truth be outweighed by the Biblical principles of loving, caring, and protecting others?
And thus, even assuming separating children from their parents is the law of the land (which apparently it is not given its reversal by administrative decree), there are certainly countervailing Biblical principles. For example, what about the great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself?” (Matthew 22:39) Or verses that tell us to provide special treatment of strangers. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it?” (Hebrews 13:2) Or what about Jesus telling us, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me?” (Matthew 25:35-36).
We need discernment in applying Biblical verses to real-life situations. Particularly verses like Romans 13:1 that don’t have a lot of support elsewhere in Scripture. As Christians we need to take our role as law abiding citizens seriously, and should understand Romans 13:1 in that light. But not, I would argue, by forsaking the weight of Scripture. If there is a conflict of principles in whether to separate children from their parents, isn’t Paul’s command to “Clothe yourselves with compassion …” (Colossians 3:12) closer to the heart of God than being “subject to the governing authorities?”
First Loyalty Is To Jesus and the Kingdom of God
What also surprised me about the Attorney General’s assertion that separating children from their immigrant parents is the law of the land, was that he found it appropriate to speak so directly to those he referred to as his “church friends.” No doubt he was addressing the 75% of evangelicals who consistently and unfailing support the present governing party in our country. Because they make up the largest single voting block for the current administration, it was necessary for the “governing authority” to appeal to them on their own terms. I am guessing that most Christians did not see this as strange. Yet, the mere fact that it occurred speaks volumes about how the governing authorities continue to nurture their relationship with the church. This is a danger for the church because as soon as our loyalties are pulled towards a secular entity we are on the slippery slope away from our first love, the kingdom of God.
Fortunately, some evangelical churches and leaders found separating families to be a bridge too far, and they protested the policy. Even evangelical spokesperson Franklin Graham, a prominent administration supporter and defender, told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “It’s disgraceful, and it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit.” I don’t know if his comments had any affect on changing the policy, but it certainly had the feeling of being too little, too late. For after two years of unwavering support in the face of a staggering array of ethical and moral failings, whatever policy gains evangelicals have made has more than been offset by the loss of our moral voice. And herein lies the danger of the church becoming too cozy with the state – it is good for the state, but bad for the church.
The church must always stand as a moral counterweight to the state. We must never let our loyalties to a particular individual or political party override our loyalties to God. This is not to say that political involvement is wrong, because Christians need to be involved in running our government and various institutions. Nor is it to say that our individual vote needs to be dictated to by others. In most major elections in our country, the choice is binary – and we have to make a choice between two candidates, which can sometimes feel like we are voting for the lesser of two evils. But regardless of whom we vote for, we must never get so identified with that politician or political party that we turn a blind eye towards immoral or unethical actions. For when we do, we compromise our values, our witness, and even our soul.
Politics is a difficult topic for me to write about because I love and respect people on both sides of the political divide. Moreover, I struggle with feelings of anger and self-righteousness because I am unable to square my understanding of Christian virtue with what I perceive as acquiescence by so many Christians to the unrighteousness that abounds in today’s political environment. I sense that we Christians are increasingly finding our identity in politics. And the more we draw our life from a political party or politician, the more we are diverted from seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
The Rev. Dr. Billy Graham learned this lesson the hard way. As a pastor who personally knew every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, Graham got seduced by his unique relationship with Richard Nixon. The story is a good reminder of how power can corrupt our witness. Graham’s support for Nixon has many echoes in our current day. For example, Graham’s prayer at Nixon’s inauguration included, “We recognize, O Lord, that in Thy sovereignty Thou has permitted Richard Nixon to lead us at this momentous hour of our history”– a prayer that sounded like an assertion that Nixon was God’s blessing to our nation. However, Graham’s entanglement with political power would drag him much lower. In 1969, the U.S. was involved in peace talks with North Vietnam. Graham wrote to Nixon that, if the negotiations failed, the dikes in North Vietnam should be bombed. This action would have released floodwaters, wiping out villages and killing as many as a million civilians! And there were other unchristian actions such as disparaging remarks Graham made to Nixon that Jews had a stranglehold on our country and were putting out pornographic material. Graham later denied making these comments until secret Nixon tapes were released by the National Archive in 2002 revealing the truth about what Graham had said.
Billy Graham subsequently apologized to Jews for his comments even as he came to see his choices differently later in his life. In a 2011 interview with Christianity Today, Graham stated, “I … would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back, I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”
Graham’s experience is wisdom for all of us regardless of our station in life. God’s kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”(John 18:36) Those of us who would be loyal to Jesus, would do well to avoid entanglements with politics or indeed any purely secular matter. Loyalty to Jesus means that the narrow path we walk in the political realm should avoid idolatry of those we support as well as self-righteousness toward those we oppose.