The Bible is a collection of texts that in varying arrangements are sacred to Jews and Christians. These texts are scripture, not a constitution. The biblical texts have differing authors, editors, and originating contexts. They speak through multiple genres. They employ a variety of literary forms. Like any work of art, act of communication, or experience they cannot be engaged, read, or heard without interpretation. They are no substitution for the Constitution of the United States of America, not even in consideration of its flaws.
Biblical interpretation is as much a cultural practice as it is a religious one. The interpreter interprets through the lens of her own culture, her beliefs, and assumptions both conscious and unconscious. So when Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III invokes Romans 13 to crush dissent by positing that any and every law must be followed because government is an extension of God, he is reading through his white, patriarchal, confederate Christianity that marshaled the same argument using the same passage to defend slavery on the grounds that it was both biblical and lawful.
The life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of thousands of migrants and their children should not depend on how–or how badly–Jeff Sessions interprets Scripture. The collection of texts that make up the Bible is not the US Constitution; their interpretation and misinterpretation is not the basis of our democracy. We do not live in a theocracy. And we do not have a king or an emperor, though it appears in some quarters that we are inching ever closer–or should I say back.
When the revolutionaries who would become the founders of this new slaveholding nation on the land of occupied peoples decided they no longer wished to obey the laws of their government they disregarded Romans 13 and declared themselves independent of the king and his laws.
While there have been recent interpretive efforts to conflate an elected president with a theocratic Iron Age monarch, democracy is not a biblical notion.
Jeff Sessions and Sarah Sanders attempted to use the scriptures for cover in the face of moral outrage over the treatment of asylum seekers and other migrants and their children. The theological implications are that one can do anything no matter how morally reprehensible as long as one can find a passage of scripture that appears to say or support the same thing.
By this reasoning slavery and stoning would be the law of the land. Raped women would be forced to marry their rapists. In our nation’s wars soldiers would kill women and children, smashing babies heads against rocks and keeping young nubile girls for their own sexual use. On the other hand, the wealthy would sell all that they have and give the proceeds to the poor.
I have no need for Jeff Sessions or anyone in this administration to interpret scripture to or for me. What I require is that they exercise the responsibilities of their offices with integrity and compassion.
I invite the Attorney General and the White House spokesperson to audit or enroll in an academically rigorous biblical studies course such as the introduction to interpreting the Hebrew Bible course at Brite Divinity School that I teach. And in the meantime to look with compassion on his fellow human beings remembering that love of neighbor, stranger, and even enemies are fundamental concepts in and beyond the scriptures of many traditions and cultures including those that are not religious at all.