Families Separated at the Border: Genesis 12 and Romans 13

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By Craig Keener

My wife and kids are legal immigrants from Africa. All came from very dangerous situations, but given the limited number of refugees brought into the U.S. each year, probably none of them could have come as refugees. As of two years ago, the estimated total of involuntarily displaced persons globally was 65 million. The U.S. currently has a cap of 50,000 refugees allowed per year, which would be just over 0.08 % of the total.

Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13:1-7 with respect to taking children from their parents at the border. To be fair, the larger context of his statement was that nations need to be able to legally protect their borders. But the larger, larger context was a response to the issue of separating families. Although this article will touch on biblical thoughts related to immigration policies (which will not be resolved here), it is the Attorney General’s appeal to Scripture, specifically, that has invited my wading into the issue.

Is there biblical precedent for separating families at borders?

Well, sort of: when Abram entered Egypt as an economic migrant or refugee, Pharaoh took Sarai from him (Genesis 12:10-16). God judged Pharaoh’s household for what Pharaoh did to God’s servants (12:17). Some families separated at the U.S. border today might also be God’s servants, yes?

Obeying the government in Romans 13

But the Attorney General was referring instead to Romans 13:1-7:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of precedent in church history for governments exploiting this passage to justify conformity to laws that they did not have to create or apply the way they did—including by slaveholders, and the Nazi and apartheid regimes.

I am not implying moral equivalence with Hitler’s regime. I am just saying that quoting Romans 13 does not prove its applicability for every situation. Paul wrote that lengthy (paragraph-long) admonition to just one church—the one in the capital, where Christian witness and relations with the imperial government were most at stake. There had also been recent unrest about paying taxes. Add to that unrest in Judea, which in just over a decade would break out in war. It already had a number of other Jews trying to explain to the government that many Jews were loyal and not about to start a revolution.

Speaking of revolutions, the British applied Romans 13 differently than the colonists during the States’ War of Independence. (I personally think the British had a better case than does the Attorney General. But now, aside from stepping outside my expertise, I may be getting too controversial.) For further comments on the proper context of Romans 13:1-7, see especially the comments of Wheaton College professor Lynn Cohick (soon to be provost/dean at Denver Seminary and president of the Institute of Biblical Research) in USA Today.

When I was a young Christian, my father at one point forbade me to talk further with my brothers about the Bible. When I tried to persuade him of his need to accept Christ, he said I was disobeying the verse that says to honor one’s parents. The Bible said to obey one’s parents. What was I to do? I felt guilty either way, but chose what I thought was the lesser of two evils. I met with my younger brother Chris to disciple him when my parents were asleep. I kept attending church and sharing Christ on the street despite being aware of my father’s displeasure. I wish I had understood back then that Jonathan and Michal were right to protect David from their father Saul, who wanted to kill him.

My father and I eventually developed a wonderful relationship. But I share this account reluctantly (and, for the first time, publicly) to point out that sometimes we have to disobey authorities, though it must be only when absolutely necessary.

The Bible and immigrants

There are more complex issues about immigration, Scripture, and security that I cannot address here, but I will survey some Scripture before going on to questions of application.

God commanded his people to welcome and care for foreigners (see especially Leviticus 19:34 and 23:22; and Deuteronomy 10:18; 14:29; 24:14, 17; 19-21; 26:13), even embracing as “citizens” (members of Israel) those willing to become part of their people (Numbers 9:14; 15:14, 16, 26, 29-30; 19:10; 35:15; Deuteronomy 1:16; 26:11; 31:12). (Thank God: this provides some of the Old Testament basis for gentiles being grafted into God’s people in the New Testament. Any of us who are ethnically gentile should appreciate God’s kindness in welcoming us as fellow citizens with his people—Ephesians 2:19.)

  • “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).
  • “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
  • “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge” (Deuteronomy 24:17).
  • “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow” (Deuteronomy 27:19).

What might apply to economic refugees might apply even more to refugees from violence, such as the family of Jesus traveling to Egypt to evade Herod’s brutal regime.

The hard part: how does this apply to public policy?

I will offer some suggestions about what I think, but a reader who might protest, “You are outside your expertise!” would be correct. We all do our best to apply the Bible as wisely as possible. I am doing my best, but I admit this is not where my qualifications lie.

Security issues differ today from those in ancient Israel, and that I am not sufficiently qualified regarding modern public policy or economics to speak as directly to these issues. Most nations back then did not restrict entry or control borders to the extent practiced today. It would have violated ancient protocols of hospitality, not only for Israel, but also for most of their “pagan” neighbors. Of course, individuals or families migrating differed from a massive group like Israel passing through someone’s territory. Edom and some other nations perceived them as a threat and turned them away (Numbers 20:18-21).

So some rightly point out that Abram was not an “illegal” immigrant. (In fact, he was warmly welcomed, albeit partly because Pharaoh took a liking to his wife. A great #MeToo passage, but that is for another time.) Neither, however, was Abram a “legal” immigrant in the modern sense. I don’t know how much paperwork he had to fill out, but he certainly didn’t have to wait six months or a number of years to enter the country.

I also recognize that part of the stated reason the U.S. government separated children from their parents is to prevent detaining them with their parents in unhealthy or penal settings. Part of the stated reason for detaining the parents is that the influx of immigrants is becoming too great for the social systems around the border to handle. (I dislike this reasoning, but while my biblical expertise informs my ethical convictions, nobody consults me on public policy matters.)

It is also true that few nations can think of absorbing all the tens of millions of refugees fleeing violence around the world today, whether from governments or gangs. Happily, some nations, such as Germany, Lebanon, Uganda and Jordan, have been accepting and sometimes absorbing massive numbers of refugees, despite many problems along the way. More prosperous and stable nations naturally do become greater magnets for those in need.

I do not have a solution, but I believe that one ethical component of such a solution that would benefit everyone is to invest heavily in improving the stability of economic development of other nations, not least those at one’s borders. We all know that various factors make this ideal impossible in many places, but a country that could invest in building a massive wall on its southern border (for probably much more than $20 billion) might also be able to invest in making staying at home safer and more attractive for people in some countries.

According to the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which supports democracy and market economics, the U.S. ranks a respectable second (at some $31 billion) only to the European Union (at some $92 billion) in development aid to other countries. In terms of its development aid per capita, however, it ranks eighteenth, and in gross national income, it spends closer to 0.17%, ranking twentieth. That is almost $100 for every U.S. resident; many of us as Christians give far more than that through Christian or other NGOs. But Norway, by comparison, invests more than $800 per resident. What we learn from such figures certainly is limited: how money is used often matters more than how much money is used. But my point in citing these figures is to remind us that there remains room for us to do better—at least for those of us with biblical values.

Applying biblical ethics to secular governments?

Again, I have to concede that my above considerations from Scripture do not dictate what the United States must do. Ancient Israel was a theocracy supposed to obey God’s virtues; as an individual Christian I recognize that non-Christian nations will not abide by specifically biblical virtues, such as loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18), loving foreigners as oneself (Leviticus 19:34; cf. Deuteromony 10:19), or loving or defending the value of all human life. Aside from the issue at hand, I also understand why a nation not exclusively composed of Jesus’s followers might not want to practice Jesus’s even stronger ethic, given to his disciples, of turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39; Luke 6:29).

Secular nations or businesses or other institutions will not work by Christian ethics. Still, those of us who are Christians had sure better heed these principles ourselves. Moreover, those of us who live in democracies are expected to use our voice and vote to promote values that we hold. Love of neighbor, by the way, also appears as the epitome of biblical ethics later in the chapter that Jeff Sessions cited, in Romans 13:8-10.

Before returning to matters of immigration, one more digression for U.S. readers: what precipitated this piece was a Bible quotation used in a political context, not a particular U.S. political party. I believe that, for those of us who do not believe that human life begins only at birth, caring for the vulnerable includes caring for the unborn. Loyalty to Christ must trump any partisan loyalties, whether on the right or the left.

Immigrants in life-threatening situations

Obviously, many people migrate for better economic opportunities rather than life-threatening circumstances; further, some nations might limit others’ immigration for the sake of the economic welfare of current residents (I admit my lack of expertise here).

Nevertheless, sometimes people’s lives are in danger, as is the case for at least some immigrants to the United States from Central America. A law restricting entry in their case would be clearly unjust. I for one would ignore such a law if genuinely necessary to save lives, and would recommend other endangered persons to do so.

Before some readers take me as a political subversive, let’s make that hypothetical situation more concrete. U.S. immigration policies during the Nazi genocide in Europe denied entry to thousands of Jewish refugees, many of whom then died under Hitler. The U.S. did not yet know about the gas chambers or ovens, but by 1938 they knew very well that Germany was persecuting Jews. Congress, apparently in keeping with the general sentiment of the U.S. public, rejected a bipartisan bill to admit 20,000 Jewish refugee children in 1939. You know what came afterward.

What about famine? Abram didn’t face danger from violence, but he did face danger from famine, which can kill people. My wife’s entire neighborhood became refugees during the civil war she was involved in (for more details, see our book, Impossible Love). They lacked adequate food and clean drinking water. When, after the war, she returned to the ruins of her home, she was overwhelmed by the silence. Most of the neighbor children had died.

Does Romans 13 justify the issue at hand?

Some issues might be debatable, but others are not. The question that started this piece is not just immigration. It is the use of the Bible to justify, as ethical, detaining families at the border even to the point of separating children from their parents. The Attorney General may have been quoting the verse simply to say that it’s unethical to break a nation’s laws by entering it illegally. In ordinary cases might be true, though again, most Christians would make exceptions for danger to life, smuggling Bibles for persecuted Christians, and so forth.

But Romans 13 hardly resolves the question of whether those laws themselves are ethical. And when given in answer to questions about separating children at the border, an answer implicitly addressed instead to the immigrants is beside the point.

Dr. Craig Keener is a professor of the New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of over 20 books, including the IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament.

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