Immigration: A biblical precedent?

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree
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The Apostle Paul is one of the most intriguing and inspiring biblical figures. 

Many years ago I taught Sunday school. One of the courses we taught was a children’s curriculum called “Roaming through Romans,” which, as its name implies, was a study of the book of Romans.

The book of Romans originated as a letter written in Greek by Paul to the Christian community in Rome during the early part of Nero’s reign.

From a historical perspective, Christians at that time were persecuted for their beliefs, in part, because they believed that they were not required to submit to Roman authority. Paul, himself, was subject to Roman ire because his evangelistic endeavors sometimes resulted in civil disturbances.  Paul realized that he and his fellow Christians had to co-exist with Roman authority if they were to survive and maintain Christianity’s viability.

In his letter, Paul provided a considerable amount of counsel to his Roman colleagues. In verse 12:21 Paul stated, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

His next sentence, contained in verse 13:1, has become controversial over the ages. In his original Greek words, Paul cautioned that people are subject to “higher authorities” and he admonished his fellow Christians to honor and obey those authorities. Although his exact wording did not contain the word “governmental,” it is clear from the context of his letter that the higher authority to which Paul referred was the local Roman magistrate. 

In the early 16th century, when Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he added the word “governmental” to Romans 13:1. While Luther’s change was meant to provide contextual language, some scholars have criticized him for not being literal and have speculated that Luther merely added the term to ensure support from Frederick III of Saxony to defend the Protestant cause from the inevitable Catholic backlash to his doctrine.

The term “governing authorities” has been included in most subsequent Bible translations. 

Not surprisingly, Romans 13:1 has been invoked by those resisting change or those seeking to consolidate political power. Notable examples include the colonists who were loyal to the British crown during the American Revolution, the southerners who sought to uphold slavery laws in the decades before the Civil War, and the Nazis who sought support from Germany’s Lutheran church.

It is always difficult to properly understand biblical passages that are read outside of the context in which they were written. While Romans chapter 13 encourages the support of governing institutions, when read in the context of Romans 12:21, it becomes difficult to see how one could support a government that engages in “evil” actions.

Evil, of course, is in the eyes of the beholder. Today we believe a government that allows slavery to exist within its borders is evil, but 170 years ago many Americans felt differently. 

We are currently confronted with a challenge on our southern border. A large number of Americans believe that our border is too porous and illegal immigration should be stopped at all costs. 

Our government’s response is to deter illegal immigration by taking a tough stance on immigrants, including making families who attempt to cross the border pay a steep rice if they are caught. People seeking asylum are frequently caught up in this regime. Undoubtedly, our government believes that many are not legitimately seeking asylum.

One of the more controversial aspects of this program is the separation of family members, including children from their parents. Recent news reports indicate that many isolated children are detained in separate facilities for extended periods of time. 

Our government apparently believes that the ends justify the means.

Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have publicly stated that Romans 13:1 provides biblical justification for the government’s actions.  Ostensibly, they argue that they are merely obeying the laws of the government as commanded by Paul. 

Their comments raise several disturbing questions. Is family separation a biblically justifiable governmental act? 

Paul’s admonishment to obey laws pertains solely to citizens, not to governments carrying out laws that may be inconsistent with biblical principles.

Does Romans 13:1 require us to blindly follow the government when, unlike the Christians of Paul’s time, we have a say in how the government acts? 

This topic is subject to debate, but will subsequent generations think of us as the 21st century counterparts of those who argued that Romans 13:1 commanded that we continue slavery?

For decades Congress has failed to implement immigration reform.

For even longer, we have supported governments that have oppressed their citizens, many of whom are willing to risk everything to come to America to escape oppression and poverty. 

The long-term solution is to enact substantive immigration reform and to take meaningful steps to encourage Latin American economic development. That is probably the only way we will successfully stem the tide of illegal immigration.

Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident.

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