The Attorney General’s Saint Paul
See Also: Rabbi Paul: An intellectual Biography (Image, 2004).
By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion
By now pretty much everyone knows that Jefferson Beauregard Sessions flunked his Bible quiz. Might have happened to anyone, but in his case, he failed the quiz that he gave himself.
His failure, many academics and theologians have pointed out, lies in a disregard for the context of what Paul said in Romans. Sessions claimed that Paul said that people needed “to obey the laws of the government,” and there is no question but that Paul had officers of the Roman Empire in mind, for example those who collected taxes (13:7). But Paul also – and characteristically – asserts that “love is the fulfillment of the law” (13:10). The law he has in mind is the most perfect law there is, the law of Moses. Even the Torah does not actually make justice happen; it only shows that people fall short of justice, and so are in need of grace. That is a leading theme of the Letter to the Romans (see 3:19-26, for example). Grace, the ground of love, is what produces justice.
Sessions, of course, was looking for some support for the policy he has championed of separating children from their families when disputes arise in regard to immigration. That policy has drawn criticism from religious leaders and official bodies, Catholic and Protestant. Sessions replied to them by way of rebuke. Calling them “Church friends,” he set out to remind them of St Paul’s “clear and wise command” that “the laws of the government” had to be obeyed because God instituted them. Sarah Huckabee Sanders endorsed this point of view, which she called “very biblical.” Sessions and Sanders left completely out of consideration the consistent teaching of the Bible, in both the Scriptures of Israel and the New Testament, that care for children is a collective responsibility. That was and is a greater contextual failure.
The response to Sessions’s attempt at biblical interpretation has been warranted, as far as it goes. But what he did went beyond ignoring the context of what Paul said in Romans: he put words in the Apostle’s mouth that violate the meaning of the text. Romans 13 is not a long passage, picking up ideas spelled out further in Romans itself and other Pauline letters. The chapter is simple in expression. Two words that do not appear in Romans 13:1, but which Sessions attributed to Paul, are “laws” and “government.”
Now the “government” reading may not be Sessions’s fault: several translations into English paraphrase Paul’s Greek, and so introduce the term. What Paul says is that every person should be “submitted to superiors.” Because he goes on to speak of “authorities,” this winds up as a reference to “government” in some versions of the Bible, but that is a stretch. Political loyalty, as far as Paul was concerned, was truly owed only to heaven (Philippians 3:20). In any case, Sessions can’t rely on the excuse of using a bad translation when it comes to his claim that Paul insisted people obey “the laws.” That is hopelessly inaccurate and actively misleading.
There is a world of difference between accepting the authority of superiors and endorsing particular laws. Paul wrote in an environment in which, as he knew all too well, the Roman Empire could be cruel and wrathful. Before he wrote to the Romans, Paul personally had been beaten by the rods of Roman lictors, local court officers (2 Corinthians 11:25). After the wrote Romans, he was wrongly arrested in Jerusalem by a Roman military officer, and ultimately he was executed. (Sessions seems unaware that Roman officials routinely abused Christians.) Paul was not an apologist for Roman justice. He was the Apostle of God’s justice, and in that role he called for those who heard his message not to confuse their liberty in Christ with contempt for others in society.
What Paul did not know at the time he wrote, and perhaps could never have expected, was the Roman Empire would come to tolerate and then embrace faith in Christ. That happened after centuries of persecution, but the change did come, and since Constantine Christians have had to adjust to a political reality in which they are not merely subjects, but exert real influence. Politics became a major concern among Patristic theologians such as Ambrose and Augustine, medieval thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, and on through the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
That long development produced conceptions of human rights and the role of government that form the basis of a great modern consensus that only emerged after cataclysmic wars. Evangelical Christianity since the seventeenth century has been key within the formation of that consensus. It emphasis on the central importance of the individual’s conversion provided the human person with a value never so acknowledged before; the centrality of conscience meant that government could not usurp the place of the person in questions such as religion. Evangelicals’ commitment to acting socially on the basis their faith as integral to their acceptance of Christ provided an incentive to the recognition that freedom of religion and freedom of expression are inextricably linked.
All this was possible because Evangelicals read the Bible. Their impact in academic and philosophical terms has been vast, but even more important has been their influence on generations of Bible study, church by church, group by group, among people who came to realize among themselves and to share with others a sense of the value of persons in God’s sight.
Until now. Now many Evangelicals do not identify themselves on the basis of their engagement with the Bible, but on the basis of their adherence to an ideology they say the Bible endorses. In public debate, Evangelicalism is commonly identified with opposition to legal abortion and to gender equality, restricting entry to the United States by foreigners, preferring market capitalism over care for people in need, denying due process of law to those deemed enemy combatants, and even with assumptions of racial privilege.
Sessions is an egregious example of an even more egregious tendency. Under the aegis of Evangelicalism, one of the most progressive movements since before the Enlightenment, self-interest has been baptized as if it were a biblical virtue. The Bible has entered into a period of eclipse, hidden by an ideological agenda whose claim to biblical legitimacy is specious. Sessions has shone a bright light on the sordid spectacle of Evangelical tolerance and support for the abuse of children: subjected as a class to disproportional poverty in the richest of nations, today some of them are separated from their families in the name of “the laws of the government.” What might come tomorrow?
Bruce Chilton is the Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Bard College, and the author of Rabbi Paul: An intellectual Biography (Doubleday).