Romans 13 and the Thorny Moral Questions Posed by Illegal Immigration

People participate in a protest against a recent immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, outside the Tornillo Transit Center, in Tornillo, Texas, June 17, 2018. (Monica Lozano/Reuters)
The family-separation controversy is a lot more complicated than it’s made out to be.

Jeff Sessions has been under fire lately (what else is new?) for citing the Bible to support the Trump administration’s harsh enforcement of immigration law, including criminal prosecutions of illegal border-crossers that result in parents’ being separated from their children.

“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 the government for his purposes,” Sessions said during a speech to law-enforcement officers in Fort Wayne, Ind., last Thursday. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent and fair application of the law is in itself a good and moral thing, and that protects the weak and protects the lawful.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, herself the daughter of a Baptist minister, backed Sessions up:

“I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible,” she said. “It’s a moral policy to follow and enforce the law.”

Though the Bible may not be the source of moral authority for every American, for Christians (and, in the case of the Old Testament, Jews) its proper interpretation remains an urgent consideration in deciding what we may do, what we must do, and what we can’t do. Sessions has a point worth considering, but the moral question of separating families when detaining illegal aliens at the border cannot be waved away simply by reciting the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Romans 13

Let’s start with what Paul’s letter says. Romans, of course, was a letter written to citizens, subjects, and slaves (many early Christians were slaves) in the capital of an empire that ruled the peoples of many distant lands. Indeed, a good deal of the epistle is concerned with Paul’s own people, the Israelites, and their condition under an increasingly heavy-handed imperial occupation. Here is what Paul writes in Romans 12:16-13:10:

Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Rather, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.

Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.  Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil.  Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it, for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience. This is why you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.  Pay to all their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, [namely] “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law. [Emphasis added.]

Even just from reading this passage in isolation, you can see that Paul is setting up a dichotomy, just as he does when discussing the obligations that run between wives (who are enjoined to submit to their husbands) and husbands (who are enjoined to love their wives as Christ loved the Church — i.e., sacrifice for them even to the point of enduring torture and death for their sins), which is often similarly misunderstood in modern America. The rulers who enforce the law are obliged to be “ministers of God,” the people as a whole are enjoined to be kind to their enemies, and the discussion of authority is followed immediately by another injunction to love thy neighbor.

The Gospels, upon which Paul rested, repeatedly stressed that not just the law-abiding or the members of our own nation or tribe should be considered our ‘neighbors.’

Christian denominations and sects vary on how literally to read Bible passages and how much to consider history and tradition, but basically every Christian recognizes that individual passages need to be read in the larger context of the message of Scripture as a whole. The Gospels, upon which Paul rested, repeatedly stressed that not just the law-abiding or the members of our own nation or tribe should be considered our “neighbors.” Jesus commended obedience to the law by taxpayers and tax collectors alike. The stories of the Bible are full of examples like Daniel, who stood against the state when it commanded him to violate his conscience and faith. In the end, Christianity is a faith founded on the fact that God came to live among us and the government killed Him.

Unsurprisingly, there is a whole lot more in the Bible, and in the writings of Christian theologians and philosophers, on this subject than you can capture simply from reading Romans 13, which is why efforts to cite the verse to support obviously unjust laws (like those enforcing slavery) or to oppose liberating revolutions (like the American Revolution) have typically met with Christian doctrinal resistance. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

The Catholic Perspective

Let me add here the perspective of my own Church, which has much to say on the topic. Catholics have debated the tension between legitimate authority and moral, just authority for centuries. Indeed, from my perspective as a Catholic, one of the Church’s great virtues is the fact that it is ancient and massive, embodying the collected wisdom (and trial and error) of billions of believers across the entire globe over two millennia; all those years of tradition, reflection, and disputation by the greatest minds of many ages come in handy. Very few things can be debated that the Church has not considered before. We are rarely on our own, to answer these questions as if they have not arisen countless times before.

The Catechism (the Church’s official book of doctrines, dogmas, and rules) concludes that Christian faith does command obedience to law — up to a point. First, it affirms that governmental authority is legitimate and necessary in human society (for the sources of the material quoted in Catechism below, follow the link above):

“Human society can be neither well-ordered nor prosperous unless it has some people invested with legitimate authority to preserve its institutions and to devote themselves as far as is necessary to work and care for the good of all.” By “authority” one means the quality by virtue of which persons or institutions make laws and give orders to men and expect obedience from them. Every human community needs an authority to govern it. The foundation of such authority lies in human nature. It is necessary for the unity of the state. Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society. The authority required by the moral order derives from God: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” [Emphasis added.]

Second, the Catechism requires a “duty of obedience” to legitimate law and authority, but introduces a qualification regarding regimes that do not pursue the common good or respect fundamental rights:

The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will. . . . If authority belongs to the order established by God, “the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens.” The diversity of political regimes is morally acceptable, provided they serve the legitimate good of the communities that adopt them. Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed. [Emphasis added.]

Third, the Catechism explicitly states that unjust law or illicit means are not “binding in conscience” so as to require obedience:

Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a “moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility”: A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence.

Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, “authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.” “It is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the ‘rule of law,’ in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of men.” [Emphasis added.]

Like a lot of Catholic teaching on society, these injunctions leave a fair amount of room for the informed judgments of each individual’s conscience, but only within the ultimate constraints of Church moral teachings. Many other Christian sources (like Dr. King’s writings) reach similar conclusions: Christians are supposed to follow the law and respect authority, but we also ultimately answer to a higher law. In the famous last words of St. Thomas More, the Catholic patron saint of the legal profession, before his beheading for refusing to bend to an unjust rewriting of the law of marriage: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

For Christians Making Immigration Law

The injunction to follow the law rests differently on government policymakers — they can’t just recite rote formulas about obedience to law to solve difficult questions of conscience when they are the ones making the law. As More put it, “When statesmen forsake their own private consciences for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.” Which brings us to the specific immigration controversy of the hour.

The spectacle of children’s separation from their parents shocks us, and it is good that it shocks us. Families are a precious thing, and the decision to break them up — even for a short period of time — should not be undertaken lightly.

The spectacle of children’s separation from their parents shocks us, and it is good that it shocks us. Families are a precious thing, and the decision to break them up — even for a short period of time — should not be undertaken lightly. The Christian position on the primacy of family is ancient, going back to Pope Adrian I’s ruling in the late eighth century that slaves could not be barred by their masters from marrying. The fact that liberals mostly did not care about this when the Obama administration was doing it tells us a lot about them, but nothing about what we should do. If Congress can be moved to act to alleviate or eliminate the problem, it should. At the same time, Sessions and other administration policymakers are responsible for their own choices no matter what Congress does.

The issue of separating children from their parents at the border is more complex than it is often made out to be. As a policy, it did not originate with the Trump administration, but the administration has unquestionably expanded its use. At the broadest level, the separations are driven by a number of factors:

  1. The law allows every illegal alien caught at the border to be criminally prosecuted — and it provides escalating punishments for subsequent offenses. The Trump administration has endeavored to prosecute all of these cases under a “zero tolerance” policy that is pretty clearly designed to send a stern message and deter border crossings. The law does not require this, any more than any other law explicitly requires charging everyone who violates it, but if we don’t want the government to treat federal crimes as federal crimes, the answer is to change the law.
  2. No law explicitly requires children to be separated from their parents when the parents are charged in the immigration system, but a 1997 federal court settlement does restrict the government’s options in ways that make it much more difficult for children to be held together with their parents for any length of time.
  3. Children are routinely separated from their parents in the domestic criminal-justice system, whenever the parents are criminally prosecuted. It is fairly unusual for both parents to be criminally charged together, except in the context of illegal immigration, which, by its very nature as a crime, makes such prosecutions much more likely. That then creates the problem of children in the custody of the federal government, which has a series of unsatisfactory options for dealing with them, from housing them in orphanage-style detention facilities to sending them to foster care.
  4. Because the dramatic escalation in the number of prosecutions and detentions has exhausted the money and facilities allocated for handling detainees, those unsatisfactory options have gotten worse. (That’s how we ended up with detainees in cages and other facilities inadequate to the task of housing them.) The judicial system is also overwhelmed trying to process all the cases seeking ways to avoid prosecution or deportation (e.g., asylum claims), and that adds to the delays and overcrowding.
  5. Congress has failed repeatedly for the past decade — under both parties’ control — to reach a consensus on “comprehensive” immigration-law reform. Thus, the Trump administration is stuck trying to address problems that have been left to fester for years without new guidance or action from lawmakers. Any solution, as a practical matter, will require all sides to focus on a narrow compromise that gives at least a little something to many different factions.

The policy dispute here is thus not simply about whether or not to follow the law; Sessions and others in this administration have choices to make, and they have exercised those choices in ways that have caused more family separations. At the same time, simply declining to enforce the law at all would lead to the kind of destruction of civil order that Romans 13 and other Christian authorities warn against. (Also, yes, families who bring their children into the country in these conditions are themselves flouting the Biblical injunction to respect the law, and bear some moral responsibility for the consequences. But just as they are responsible for their own choices, so Sessions is responsible for his.)

Democrats have proposed a “Keep Families Together Act” that would effectively leave the administration no choice but to stop enforcing the law against most parents who cross the border illegally with a child. That’s the solution many liberals prefer, but aside from the obvious problem of crippling enforcement of the law, it would further encourage trafficking in children (a very real phenomenon), whenever it is not immediately apparent that children are being used for this purpose. House speaker Paul Ryan has publicly pledged to bring Republican legislation to a vote soon that would solve some of the problem, mainly by eliminating restrictions on detaining parents and children together. Unsurprisingly, this has led to some delicate diplomacy with the White House, including contradictory statements by Trump and his own team on which bills he would and would not support.

People of good faith can disagree on how best to reduce or eliminate family separations, but Christians in both the Trump administration and Congress should agree that a higher law demands they use their authority to do so. Deterring lawbreaking is important, but if you find yourself punishing a lawbreaker’s children to do so, it’s time to examine your conscience. The duty to enforce the law and exercise legitimate authority may sometimes require harsher measures than we would use in our individual lives — and Christian public officials may at times have to enforce laws they would not personally have supported — but harsh measures should be used only when truly necessary. Claims of conscience do not stop merely at the invocation of law.

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