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The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: “Biblical” Law in America

Jeff Sessions uses religion to justify America’s treatment of immigrant children on the US border.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has cited the New Testament to justify the inhuman but, in his eyes, legal (and moral) cruelty of separating immigrant children from their parents: “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to [sic] 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.”

Challenged by the media to explain the religious justification given by Sessions, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reduced her exegesis to a minimum, declaring “It is very biblical to enforce the law.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Biblical:

Referring to any phrase or expression found in the Old or New Testament that might serve to justify current political tenets, prejudices or actions, irrespective of their moral basis or their meaning in the original context

Contextual note

The attorney general thought it was necessary to cite a religious justification for a policy that the media saw as not only cruel, but contradictory with the family-friendly ideology of the Republican Party. As any good lawyer would do, he set out looking for a “precedent” in the one place that establishes moral jurisprudence: the Bible.

The Old Testament — the history of the Hebrews, including the wars engaged to occupy and defend the “promised land” — provides plenty of examples of violence, cruelty and smiting one’s enemies that Sessions could have cited, but Christian religions derive their essential moral bearings from the New Testament. That must have been a problem, to the extent that the central message is “love thy neighbor,” accompanied by “turn the other cheek.”

Sessions had to search long and hard to find the passage that seems to justify his policy. Actually, it doesn’t justify his policy. He believes it justifies any policy that a government puts into practice. It would work just as well for Adolf Hitler’s Germany as it does for Donald Trump’s America. “Obey the laws of the government.”

Historical note

American politicians seeking to justify current political orientations generally steer clear of the New Testament because it contains passages such as “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21) or “I’ll say it again—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). Or again, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5), which must be particularly galling for President Trump, who may be asking himself, “If they inherit the earth, will they build condos and a golf course on my beachfront?”

The Old Testament often better serves their purpose because, with its plethora of laws, it contains condemnations of many things that conservatives don’t like while celebrating heroes, like Joshua, who destroy towns (Joshua, 6). And nowhere does it disrespect the military with jibes such as, “all who will take up the sword, will die by the sword.”

Sanders stuck with the neutral term “biblical,” which can include both the Old and New Testament. Had Sessions or Sanders looked for actual references to government in the books of the four apostles narrating the mission of Jesus, they would have had to content themselves with the command, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) and Pontius Pilate’s “what is truth” (John 18:38).

In the first case, answering the Pharisees’ question “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” Jesus makes the simple point that for civil society to exist, governments may legitimately require people to pay taxes. It has nothing to do with religion. In other words, Jesus affirms the separation of church and state. As a good Republican, and perhaps not such a good Christian, Sessions tends toward the Pharisees’ view that taxation by a non-theocratic government, even if legal, is evil.

In the case of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect raises the question of legitimate authority (kingship). Jesus replies that he is a king only in a non-political sense, as the king of those who seek “the truth.” Pilate, a political realist, judges him to be a harmless kook, whose case should be dismissed. For political realists — both at the time of the Roman Empire and the current American Empire — “the truth,” which no law can define, will always be immaterial, imaginary and, therefore, irrelevant. Politicians like Sessions find themselves on the side of Pilate who famously “washed his hands” of the whole problem.

Which is what Sessions and the Trump administration apparently want to do regarding the fate of the children at the US border.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Mark Reinstein / Shutterstock.com