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Romans 13, Jeff Sessions, and Separating Families at the Border

June 15th, 2018 | 10 min read

By Matthew Loftus

In Dr. James Dobson’s Letter from 2012 predicting the dire consequences of an Obama election, he included the possibility of homeschooling families being forced to flee to Australia or New Zealand to continue educating their children at home. Imagine, if you will, that this scenario might come to pass under a Sanders Administration and that homeschooling families might make perilous journeys across the United States, dodging Child Protective Services workers and Antifa paramilitaries before setting out on boats from California to New Zealand. Imagine, then, that when these families wash up on the shores of the island begging for protection from persecution for their beliefs, they are arrested and separated from their children for breaking the law and entering the country illegally. The parents and children are kept in separate facilities or separate cells after having their A Beka textbooks snatched away; these Christian parents who sought only to honor God and keep their children from indoctrination in public schools can hear their children weeping themselves to sleep at night. After several weeks, the parents are deported back to America, sometimes separately from their children.

I begin with this slightly farfetched scenario because no matter what one’s opinion of immigration and education are, the vast majority of Christians believe that the law of human governments must in some way reflect a higher law (be that natural or divine) and that we can imagine all kinds of scenarios in which we as Christians would choose to circumvent or break the law because of what we believe about the Bible and families. There is, indeed, within the conservative Christian world of homeschooling in which I was raised an entire subculture focused around trying to avoid the long arm of the law when it comes to child welfare services nosing around in the business of homeschooling families.

This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appealed to Romans 13 in his defense of a policy that separates children from parents when they illegally cross the border, even to seek asylum. He specifically spoke several times to church leaders, responding to calls from many religious leaders over the last several weeks demanding an end to the policy of separating families who have entered the U.S. In his words:

First- illegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be. 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.

Our policies that can result in short term separation of families is not unusual or unjustified. American citizens that are jailed do not take their children to jail with them. And non-citizens who cross our borders unlawfully —between our ports of entry—with children are not an exception.

There are at least two separate issues here: the illegality of crossing a border specifically and the immorality of separating families in general. (It is also unclear whether Sessions is speaking truthfully when he says later that “families stay intact” when they seek asylum at a lawful port of entry, as several families have claimed otherwise.) We shall then examine the question of how Romans 13 may be used (or misused) in this context.

Crossing a border illegally

Sessions is of course correct when he says that “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.” However, this does not mean that orderly and lawful processes are by definition good in themselves; any number of orderly and lawful processes go on today in America which do not protect the weak (e.g. abortion) and there are any number of ways to impose order on a disorderly process.

For example, if a man with a mental illness is yelling and setting a fire in a public park, he can be arrested or he can be sent a hospital emergency room. If we categorically arrested all men who set fires in public parks, this would indeed by a lawful process that would protect the public from errant violence and harm. However, this policy would cause many people would suffer unnecessarily at no benefit to the public due to a delay in psychiatric treatment, while others suffering from a reversible medical cause of their acute agitation could even die if not seen by a medical professional in a timely fashion.

Thus, we have to inquire into what sort of orderly processes best protect the weak and what kind of laws are being enforced. The category of law here is relevant — Sessions himself observes that illegal entry is a misdemeanor, and the law itself provides for either a fine or jail time up to 6 months. (An explanation for why families cannot be held indefinitely together can be found here.) One can prosecute misdemeanors at an appropriate level, which does not in any way require arrest.

Furthermore, when one considers how this policy is being applied specifically to asylum seekers, it is all the more important to take seriously the context of the law. Sessions wants to emphasize that only 20% of asylum seekers are found to have meritorious claims — which was still 26,124 people in 2015. The severity of the threat to Central American asylum seekers cannot be downplayed. Even if we assumed that someone without a meritorious claim could justifiably be separated from their children (see below), it is unjust to put thousands of people through the trauma of separation when, in fact, they are genuinely fearing for their lives and seeking asylum. Anyone who willingly risks their lives and the lives of their children to come to the United States and says that they have come in order that they might not be killed should be taken seriously and their children not be taken away from them because they have committed a misdemeanor.

Separating families in general

Mere Orthodoxy has already discussed the historical context of the immorality of separating parents from their children. Christians who recognize the God-given institution of marriage and family should be able to recognize that the sanctity of the bond between parents and their children are not to be taken lightly; it is only in cases of severe threat to the child’s life and health that violating this bond is justified. A government that does not honor and value families and facilitating their responsibility to children is one that is itself contributing to disorder.

The sanctity of a nation-state border, on the other hand, is a product of the modern imagination with far less support in “scripture or church history or reason.” This is not to say that nation-state borders don’t matter at all, but merely that crossing such a border in no way justifies the separation of families. Borders between countries are meant to protect citizens, but no one is better protected when families are separated. It is a category error to use the words “orderly process” to describe something that unnecessarily and cruelly disrupts the natural order.

Furthermore, this is an even more grievous injustice against those who are seeking asylum with their children, for it is the undisputed duty of parents to protect and safeguard their children against severe harm whenever possible. Indeed, many Christians in the United States would, in defending the Second Amendment, assert that the natural order of the family is such that a father has the right to shoot and kill anyone who would try to harm their child away from them in any other circumstance. International asylum law recognizes that sometimes governments fail to protect their citizens; and so families who have chosen to seek asylum should be celebrated for their courage and heroism rather than castigated for loving their children more than they love a line on a map.

Romans 13, order, and punishment

In returning to Romans 13, I want to quote Fleming Rutledge on the tension between Romans 13 (wherein Christians are called to honor their earthly authorities) and Revelation 13 (wherein the beast out of the earth puts those who refuse to worship the idolatrous beast out of the sea to death):

It is common to contrast Romans 13 with Revelation 13 as though they were total opposites. According to this understanding, if the governing authority is benign, then it is from God and Christians should obey it (Romans 13). If the governing authority turns oppressive, then it is Satanic and we should resist it (Revelation 13). This is the most familiar interpretation of the two texts. No better formulation of it exists than that of Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, shot in the back at his own altar. In a sermon he said, “Let it be quite clear that if we are being asked to collaborate with a pseudo-peace, a false order, based on repression and fear, we must recall that the only order God wants is one based on truth and justice.”[15]

 As certain other commentators have pointed out, however, the relation between the two passages is even more subtle and more radical than the familiar interpretation allows.[16] Both of the passages call government into question because both of them make clear that government is only provisional. Neither Paul nor Revelation give ultimate legitimacy to any human institution. Once we know this, it keeps us from taking any present arrangement with anything more than temporary seriousness. So what Paul is saying is that we should take the government seriously, and we should not take it seriously.

Paul’s appeal in Romans 13 to honor earthly authorities is premised on the assertion that “[t]he authorities that exist have been established by God.” This means that Jeff Sessions only wields power because God has established it; but it is not for any reason: in verse 4 we learn that Sessions and Border Patrol are “agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” A family running for their lives may have crossed a border, but that does not categorically make them wrongdoers according to Romans 13: their rebellion against the authority of the United States (v. 2) is like Daniel’s defiance of the king’s order to only pray to him because it is in service to the lawful order of God’s creation.

“Secular” authorities like Sessions are ruling in the saeculum, the time between Christ’s Resurrection and Second Coming when his authority on earth and in heaven shall be made complete. The law and the order it brings to societies on earth is a gift, but failing to conform that law to what God has revealed in creation and resurrection is a dereliction of duty. Sessions’ stewardship of the law brings with it a responsibility to inquire into whether his stewardship is honoring the families that God has created and blessed. Indeed, our entire immigration policy should be reconsidered in this light.

Sessions, then, has a choice like all other magistrates. He can simply take the law as a given and treat the border as more sacred than the bond between mothers and children. Or, he can heed the words of James K.A. Smith in Awaiting the King:

Earthly rulers remain in place, but their authority is a kind of lame-duck authority. Or rather, their authority is not ultimate; they are now answerable to the King of kings.

Jeff Sessions cannot prooftext his way to justifying the unjustifiable and hide behind the curtain of authority, he must be able to say that his exercise of authority is truly against punishing the wrongdoer. He has a king besides Caesar. And he, like the rest of us in a representative form of government, must ask ourselves how we will answer to the King of kings when he returns to earth with a scepter in his hand.

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Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at