I'm A Pastor, And Romans 13 Should Never Be Used To Defend Family Separation

"I would caution against the passage he cited about obeying the government as being one worth relying on to justify state violence."

Father Robert Hendrickson is the rector at St. Philip's In The Hills Episcopal Church in Tuscon, Arizona. This is a letter he sent to his congregation this week after Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 to justify a zero-tolerance immigration policy on the border.

As many of you know, there are two ways by which I am familiar with the pain of family separation.  First, my mother died when I was quite young after divorce and a long illness.  Second, and more recently, Karrie and I adopted boys from difficult circumstances.  Each day we navigate the land mines that the trauma of separation creates even as we forge new bonds of connection and attachment.

These experiences inform my perception of what is happening at the border now.  We can debate immigration policy, border controls, and more from a variety of points of view.  I'm afraid, however, that the pulling away of innocent children, brought without their input, consent, nor complicity is a moral evil that is not debatable.  Churches across the country are now actively condemning this policy choice — and it is that.  We are choosing to create fear, heartache, and anguish.  We can recognize that people will come, as they have for generations, across our borders with a mix of hopes, fears, and papers and treat all those who arrive with dignity even as we debate the legalities of the situation.  It is another thing entirely to willingly, and with the express purpose of causing maximum horror to families, choose this course.

Churches across the country are condemning this because it is evil, callous, and cowardly.  When the richest and most powerful nation in human history fears the influx of those fleeing violence, persecution, and murder for fear that it will marginally erode our economic security then that is sin. The economics of migration are, according to all solid data, a net positive.  Even if that were not the case — even if there were profound costs to bear — then taking one child in to give hope would be worth it.


May 01, 2006; Los Angeles, CA, USA; During 'A Day Without an Immigrant' , more than 500,000 people marched down Wilshire to protest a proposed federal crackdown on illegal immigration Shutterstock / Krista Kennell

This is the foundation of our religion — taking one child into our hearts is the heart of hope.  Our nation now joins Pharoah and Herod as those who victimize babies for fear of the other.  Christians cannot let this be done in our name.  We can debate policy.  We can debate a wall or documents.  We cannot debate that pulling nursing children away from mothers is evil.  We cannot debate that telling a parent who has nothing that our guards are taking the child for a bath and then not returning them is evil.

Our Attorney General cited Scripture to condone this violence against children.  I would caution against the passage he cited about obeying the government as being one worth relying on to justify state violence.  The Nazis used the passage.  Slaveholders used the passage.  Segregationists used the passage.  Apartheid South Africa used the passage. Paul, in the very same passage, declares that love is the ultimate law.  When Paul was exhorting followers of Christ to obey he was counseling the downtrodden to avoid being hurt or killed by the government - for love's sake.  His was a minority faith trying to keep as many of its women and children from being punished or martyred for declaring Christ as Lord.

For the state to use the passage to exhort obedience is a violent misapplication of scripture.  More than that it is a violent appeal to our worst fears.  We need not fear.  Scripture has far, far more verses about welcoming the stranger than it does about obeying the empire.  We need not fear because Jesus is in a Honduran baby's eyes.  We need not fear for Mary might be seen in a bedraggled Mother nursing a baby that a guard will soon pull away.  We need not fear because angels and archangels and all the company of heaven are singing "peace to his people on earth!"

Peace is not the absence of dissent or conflict.  Peace is the absence of despair.  Peace is the active, willful, foolish belief that we can stop evil in its tracks and make war to cease.  The war that must cease now is well within our grasp because the question is simple.  Will we fear the child?  Will a superpower demand that a mother and child cower in terror?  Or will we look and see Jesus looking back?  Will we look and know that God is with us and we are with him - when we say no more.  No more to willfully terrorizing those who have nothing.  No more to pretending to be victims so that we can freely victimize.  No more to tearing apart families in the name of the law.  No more.

These passages give us the courage to say no more:

Deuteronomy 10:18-19 – "For the Lord your God...loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

Ezekiel 47:21-22 – "The aliens shall be to you as citizens, and shall also be allotted an inheritance."

Matthew 25:31-46 – "…I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

Romans 12:13 – "Mark of the true Christian: …Extend hospitality to strangers…"

Deuteronomy 6:10-13 – "The people of Israel are made aware that the land had come to them as a gift from God and they were to remember that they were once aliens."

Deuteronomy 27:19 – "Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien…of justice."

Isaiah 16:4 – "Be a refuge to the outcasts of Moab."

Jeremiah 7:5-7 – "If you do not oppress the alien…then I will dwell with you in this place…"

Matthew 5:10-11 –"Blessed are those who are persecuted."

Zechariah 7:8-10 – "Do not oppress the alien."

Hebrews 13:1-2 – "…show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels…"

I urge you to call your legislators.  I urge you to contact ICE.  I urge you to pray.  The duty of every Christian, as described in the Book of Common Prayer is to "work, pray, and give for the spread of the Kingdom of God."  God's Kingdom is not one where children are taken from mothers in the name of security.  We promise, at every baptism, to persevere in resisting evil. We promise to seek Christ in all persons.  We promise to love our neighbors as ourselves.

My friends, it's time to decide if we've been crossing our fingers every time we've made those pledges.

Cover image via Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com.


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