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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 24, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Romans 13:1-10 and Mark 4:35-41
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The administration was contemplating the idea of separating children from their immigrant parents, even if they have an asylum claim, back in March of 2017.  Reuters reported on it 15 months ago, saying, “Part of the reason for the proposal is to deter mothers from migrating to the United States with their children …”[1]

Implementation of the policy was announced on April 7 of this year by Attorney General Jeff Sessions as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy,[2]  a policy that called for the criminal prosecution every person who crosses the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation – regardless of asylum claims.  I haven’t been able to tell when the policy was actually put into practice.  By the end of May, just under 2,000 children had been separated from their parents and placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.[3]  On June 14, Jeff Sessions justified this policy of separating children (including infants) from their parents by referring to Romans 13:1-7.[4]

It wasn’t any one thing that caused the major protests to this policy.  Some people were paying attention.  Over a year ago, the news that the administration was even considering this policy provoked a protest at the White House that included members of the United Church of Christ.[5]

Recently, the release of images moved many of us.  This image has become iconic of the policy.  It is a photograph of a 2-year-old girl screaming while a U.S. border agent pats down her mother as she is arrested.

It was made by John Moore on June 12.[6]  It is not the only photograph he made that night when he shadowed Border Patrol agents.

Moore’s goal was to get some pictures of families coming over the border.  Families usually travel at night and typically surrender themselves to the first Border Patrol agents they found.  They were coming to escape, children in tow – typically coming to escape violence.  So they present themselves to the Board Patrol agents and ask for asylum.

Four rafts came across the Rio Grande that night and the occupants were captured quickly by the Border Patrol agents Moore was shadowing.  “As the guards lined up the families on [that] Tuesday night, Moore saw a woman breast-feed a toddler in the middle of the road.  ‘There was no place for privacy,’ Moore said, so she did it in the headlights of Border Patrol vehicle.”[7]

One by one, the “families were … questioned and searched.  When the agents were done with them, they were loaded into the back of a van, to be taken to whatever fate the U.S. immigration system had in store.”[8]  Moore noticed the Honduran mother “crouched in the dust as she waited for her turn, eyes level with her daughter’s.  In Moore’s photo, it looked like she was tying the girl’s shoes.  But she was not.  She was unlacing them.

Border Patrol confiscates all personal items from everyone.  They take hairbands; they take belts; they take money; they take wedding rings; they take all personal items.  They take the shoelaces from everybody, including the children.[9]

And then it was the Honduran mother’s turn to be processed.  “The mother set the girl down, and an agent began to run gloved hands across her body.  Immediately, the girl began to scream.”[10]

And Moore took this picture.

When Moore made these images, he knew what the U.S. policy was for families crossing into the country without documentation, even if they had asylum claims.  He assumed that the 2-year-old girl and this boy who Moore also photographed that night would be separated from their mothers, shipped off to a HHS holding area, and eventually moved into a state-controlled foster care system.  Their mothers would be jailed and await deportation hearings.  It turns out that the 2-year-old was not separated from her mother,[11] but I do not know what happened to this boy.

He may well be lost in the system.  And I really do mean lost in the system.  There’s a real chance that many of the separated children (and there are still something like 1800 of them) might never see their parents again, at least not until they are adults.

And I’m not the only one saying this.  A former director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Sandweg, says so, too.[12]  When a child is separated from their parents by Homeland Security and placed in the custody of Health and Human Services, the child is suddenly classified as an “unaccompanied minor.”  HHS has a responsibility to move all unaccompanied minors in their custody out of what I can only call concentration camps and into homes.  That means into foster homes.  But the foster care system is run by states with their own laws and rules, and that complicates things.

In the coming months, there will be children who can’t speak for themselves in state family courts.  An advocate will be appointed to represent the best interests of each child.  “Meanwhile,” Sandweg said in an interview on NPR, “the parent is shipped off let’s say to Honduras.  There they are.  They don’t speak English.  They don’t have any money [to] hire a U.S. lawyer.

“And now their child is caught up in the state child welfare system where an advocate might argue it is not in the best interest of that child to be sent back to violence-ridden Honduras to live in a life of poverty and under threat of gang violence.…  [Meanwhile, the parent can’t appear in family court because they’ve been deported or they’re in detention, so they run the risk of losing their parental rights.]  I think there is a very serious risk that of the people who are already deported, that they are not going to see their child again … anytime soon, at a minimum – if not … until adulthood.”[13]

And let’s be clear, the semi-reversal Executive Order recently signed by President Trump does not solve this problem.  It simply “replaces one injustice with another by calling for the federal government to imprison families together – indefinitely.  We need to keep up the pressure until we’re heard – children do not belong in prison of any kind.  Families belong together in communities, not in cages.”[14]

There is, I think, one other thing that has galvanized many people to stand up in protest of this policy:  the Attorney General’s use of the Bible to justify the policy.

For some, it was that any government official would turn to the holy writings of any religion to justify a policy.  For these people, it was mixing of church and state that got under their skin.

For others (and I count myself among this group), it was the misuse of my sacred scriptures to justify a sinful policy.  I want to spend the rest of this sermon helping you see how Romans 13 was misused.  This is sort of a biblical self-defense sermon.

Session’s use of Romans 13 to support injustice is hardly a new heresy in U.S. history.  During the American Revolution, the passage was used by Tories to oppose the revolution.  It was also used to oppose the abolitionist movement and to support the fugitive slave law.  That’s not exactly the company I’d want to keep when looking for a scripture to support my actions if I held political power.  Still, it’s the one Sessions turned to.

That said, out of context, the passage does seem to call Christians to support the government’s actions.  In context, however …

When you consider that by the time Paul wrote this he had experienced significant hostility from all sorts of authorities, a plain reading of this text makes no sense.  Paul had been threatened and imprisoned for breaking the law and behaving “unRoman” – see Acts 16 and 17, for instance.  Eventually, the Roman government would execute him  It seems to unlikely that Paul would call for blanket support of any government that was in power.

So, what do we make of this passage if we put it in historical and scriptural context?  Here are a few ways to look at it, courtesy of Melissa Florer-Bixler.[15]

Perhaps Paul is trying to say that God is in control of everything, including human political institutions.  “In this reading Paul is telling the church in Rome that Caesar, with his claims of divinity, is no more than a puppet with God pulling the strings.”  Since I don’t believe that God controls everything (even if Paul did), I find this reading unsatisfactory.

Perhaps Paul is warning against religious zealotry.  Don’t go overboard, Paul would be saying with this reading.  Keep paying your taxes; don’t rock the boat.  If you have to resist, do only what is necessary.  Given Paul’s tendency to rock the boat, I’m still not to satisfied with this reading.

Perhaps Paul has included this passage knowing that the letter will likely be seen by the authorities, so he includes it with a wink and a nod so the letter will get past the empire’s checkpoints between Corinth and Rome.  If this reading is accurate, I can understand why Sessions and others in power would read it as a support of their positions, when the rest of us know Paul really meant something different.

Perhaps we should read Romans 13 only after we’ve read Romans 12.  Chapter 12 “speaks to the character of the beloved community, the forms life will take within God’s life in Jesus.  The call in Romans 13 is to live this Romans 12 life in ‘submission,’ but never in obedience.  It may be incumbent upon our witness to the gospel to participate in a sit-in protesting unjust laws, but [then] we submit to the arrest we know will take place.”  This, I think, is the best reading of Romans 13:1-7.

Authority comes from God.  Power comes from people.  And there is a difference between authority and power.  When power aligns with God’s justice, you can support it.  But when power ignores God’s justice, it should be resisted, even if that means needing to submit to the powers as a consequence of the resistance.

There is another idea that came to me as the Romans passage was read this morning.  A question, really:  What if we’ve gotten the punctuation wrong?

We know that Paul’s letters were only half (at best) of a conversation he was having with early churches.  The letters were responses to letters he had received.  What if Paul was quoting part of a letter from the Romans to him back to them?  Because that ancient Greek didn’t have punctuation, translators have been making guesses.  What if we’ve gotten the punctuation wrong?[16]

Here’s something I like to do when I’m interpreting scripture.  I ask myself, does my interpretation support the main thrust of scripture or go against it?  I ask myself, does my interpretation support the gospel of Jesus?  When a particular passage of scripture conflicts with Jesus, Jesus always wins.

Jeff Sessions’ reading of Romans 13:1-7 as a biblical support of his sinful immigration policy conflicts with the gospel of Jesus.  William Barber and Liz Theoharis put it this way:  “Sessions is operating from the same playbook of biblical heresy that was used to support the genocide of Native Americans, lock black people in chattel slavery and segregate people under Jim Crow.  He’s using old tricks that go all the way back to slave master religion.  He’s adding to this the sin of making children the prey – something the Bible clearly recognizes as evil.”[17]

And I would add that he is going against the major thrust of scripture, especially by apply this passage to his immigration policy.  Take a look at this short and incomplete overview of scriptures about refugees.

It turns out that all Jeff Sessions needed to do to get a better understanding of Romans 13:1-7 was to keep reading.  Verses 8-10 explain that all the law – that is, all of the commandments about how we should relate to each other – are summed up in this one word:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  If the Administration wants to fulfill the law, stop enforcing sinful laws, and start loving our neighbors, including refugees who come to our borders.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus and his disciples are traveling.  They are going from familiar ground to foreign ground.  They are moving from the land of the Jews to the land of the Gentiles.  “The other side of the sea represents hostile territory, people presumed undeserving of what a messianic project intends.  I imagine a question mark on the disciples’ faces as Jesus directs them to set sail for this community of others.  Jesus invites them to detach from the familiar shores of Capernaum toward the strange and foreign shores of the Gerasenes.”[18]  Is it any wonder that a storm stirred up?

If we look at this story as a metaphor, if we see ourselves in the boat being directed by Jesus to move away from familiarity to strangeness, then perhaps we can understand the storm the disciples encounter.  Even if the idea of more people from Central America finding safety and a home in the United States is strangeness for you, even if the idea stirs up a storm for you, keep sailing.  Even if the idea of standing up and protesting the policies of the administration, possibly even taking direct action and risking arrest, is strangeness for you, even if the idea stirs up a storm for you, keep sailing.  Remember the rest of the story, the rest of the metaphor:  With faith, we can still the storms, take the risks, and travel into what we perceive as dangerous territory.

And once we’re there, we can fulfill the law by loving our neighbors, whoever they may be.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Julia Edwards Ainsley, “Exclusive: Trump administration considering separating women, children at Mexico border,” Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-children/exclusive-trump-administration-considering-separating-women-children-at-u-s-mexico-border-idUSKBN16A2ES (posted 3 March 2017; accessed 23 June 2018).

[2] Doris Meissner, quoted by Chris Cillizza, “The remarkable history of the family separation crisis,” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/18/politics/donald-trump-immigration-policies-q-and-a/index.html (posted 18 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[3] Jaclyn Gallucci, “1,995 Children Have Been Separated From Their Families by Border Patrol, DHS Confirms,” Fortune, http://amp.timeinc.net/fortune/2018/06/16/children-parents-separated-border (posted 16 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[4] Julie Zauzmer and Keith McMillian, “Sessions cites Bible passage used to defend slavery in defense of separating immigrant families,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/06/14/jeff-sessions-points-to-the-bible-in-defense-of-separating-immigrant-families/?utm_term=.322a0c768db6 (posted 15 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[5] Connie Larkman, “UCC Immigration advocate protesting separation of families arrested at the White House,” The United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/_news_ucc_immigration_advocate_protesting_separation_of_families_arrested_at_the_white_house_06022017 (posted 2 June 2017; accessed 23 June 2018).

[6] Avi Selk, “‘I wanted to stop her crying’: The image of a migrant child that broke a photographer’s heart,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/06/18/i-wanted-to-stop-her-crying-the-image-of-a-migrant-child-that-broke-a-photographers-heart/?utm_term=.3b959967422a (Posted 18 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, updated introduction to the webpage dated 22 June 2018.

[12] John Sandweg interviewed by Mary Louise Kelly, “Former ICE Director Says Some Migrant Family Separations Could Be Permanent,” National Public Radio, (posted 21 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Rev. Jennifer Butler, Faith in Public Life, quoted by Eileen Altman on Facebook, 21 June 2018, https://www.facebook.com/eileen.altman/posts/10156612830039974

[15] Melissa Florer-Bixler, “How Jeff Sessions reads Roman’s 13 and how my Mennonite Sunday school class does,” Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/guest-post/how-jeff-sessions-reads-romans-13-and-how-my-mennonite-sunday-school-class-does (posted 15 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[16] After worship, I experimented with the punctuation.  The result is available on my blog at https://wp.me/pBRG6-sH.

[17] Rev. William Barber and Dr. Liz Theoharis, “Jeff Sessions got the Bible wrong. We care for strangers, not rob their rights,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/19/jeff-sessions-biblical-heresy-immigration (posted 19 June 2018; accessed 23 June 2018).

[18] Willie Dwayne Francois III, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/june-24-ordinary-12b-mark-435-41 (posted 22 may 2018; accessed 19 June 2018).

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If you follow this blog, you know that I hoped Secretary Clinton would be elected President. More than that, I really didn’t want Mr. Trump to be elected President. That hope and wish were not fulfilled. Instead, a man who I have seen as misogynist, racist, and dangerous (his denial of climate change, his openness to using nuclear weapons) has won enough states that, assuming the electoral college votes as they are pledged, he will be the next President of the United States.

I’ve been told that in 1960, after John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, staunch Hollywood conservative John Wayne declared, “I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my president and I hope he does a good job.”

I’m having a hard time following John Wayne’s lead. Yes, I hope Mr. Trump does a good job, but based on his campaign and the signals coming from his transition team, I don’t think he will. I’ve read his plan for this first 100 days in office. If he follows through on his plan, he will wreak havoc on the economy, the environment, the Supreme Court’s protection of freedom, our public schools, the incomplete health insurance net that’s being stitched together through Obama Care, families that include at least one undocumented worker, and the national debt.

While the plan does not say anything overt about removing right of religious, ethnic, or sexual minorities, the rhetoric surrounding the Trump campaign and the people he has named to his transition team is frightening. Since election day, many people – especially women, minorities, immigrants, and members of the lgbt community – have felt vulnerable. Not surprising, since the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted as significant spike in acts of “hateful harassment and intimidation” since the election. And now, with the naming of white nationalist Steve Bannon to be “Chief Strategist to the President,” the pit in my stomach that had been slowly dissolving has re-solidified. White male privilege is, I fear, solidifying in our culture, right along side the pit in my stomach.

Bishop Dwayne Royster’s words in this blog post posted late on election day resonate with me – particularly when he rights about his anger that people who say they follow Christ voted for a person whose words during this campaign paint him as sexist, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, and not someone to be trusted with nuclear weapons. And I like that he calls us to be “Prophets that will speak truth to power unequivocally and will speak truth to the people as well.”

Senator Bernie Sanders (the presidential candidate I supported in the primaries) issued this statement the day after the election. In four sentences he says where I want to be politically.

Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media.  People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.

To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.

And while I want to be ready to work with Mr. Trump where I can (and vigorously against him where his proposals and policies are harmful), I am worried about how we respond to people who are vulnerable now, as attacks continue. I turn to my Twitter feed as I write this, knowing that there are other people who have posted things that have inspired me or at least given me hope, but what I’m reading about are instances of people of color being threatened by whites, of people of Muslim faith afraid to express it. Trump has turned a populist anger into hatred for “the other” by turning economic resentment into racial, religious, and gender resentment.

As a pastor, I wonder what my congregation can do. My greatest personal fear about the Trump presidency is that the little progress we’ve made as a nation to combat climate change will be reversed and the struggle to address this (the most important moral issue of our day) may be too late. Others have different primary fears as they try to imagine the coming Trump presidency – and with good reason; check out “Day 1 in Trump’s America.” The Rev. Michael Denton, Conference Minister of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, identified how the Trump presidency will make the lives of so many less safe and more traumatic – and some ideas for churches on his Facebook page:

For millions of people in our country and beyond, this world is suddenly and significantly less safe. Hate crimes had already increased in recent months and will even more, now. Many hard fought for laws that had protected the rights and lives of the queer community are in danger of being rolled back. Survivors of sexual assault will have to look into the eyes of someone who bragged about assaulting others every time they turn on the news. Those with disabilities will have to look into the eyes of someone who has mocked them. Migrants and refugees who found a home here are wondering if they’ll have to be migrants and refugees, again. People of color who already knew the life threatening daily reality of systemic racism are faced with one more blatant systemic expression of it. Those whose religious expression does not fall into a relatively narrow expression of Christianity can expect to be treated as suspect. Someone who has talked about his intention to use military force preemptively and often now has the ability to do so.

The idea of providing sanctuary is not a new one. It is the idea of opening up our churches and making them a safe space for people who are feeling threatened by the world. Over the coming hours, days, weeks, months and years more and more people are going to be asking for us to provide some sort of sanctuary; everything from providing a space for prayer and a listening ear to a place where they can find physical safety from a world that endangers them. We need to start that conversation of how to do that within and between our churches, now.

When it was becoming clear that Mr. Trump was going to win the electoral college, I honestly wondered if it was time to consider emigrating. I have a friend in New Zealand who said she will take me in while I look for a job if it’s ever needed. But then I read a tweet (I don’t remember who posted it) that called those of us who have privilege and care about justice not to abandon those who do not have privilege. Privilege comes in many forms in the USA. I have gender (I’m a cisgender male), race (I’m European-America of British descent), and economic (within the USA I’m probably upper-middle class) privilege, privileged enough to be able to seriously consider emigration. But I will stay and look for ways to justly use my privilege to protect those who are vulnerable and to dismantle the system that makes this privilege possible.

Those of us with privilege must not abandon those who do not have privilege. Those of us who follow Christ must serve, lift up, empower, and follow the vulnerable who are all the more vulnerable now.

I’m staying at a friend’s home on the east coast of the United States right now. I sat up with him and his wife into the wee hours last night watching the returns come in. The three of us were stunned that our nation had elected Donald Trump to be our next President. I supported Hillary Clinton and my friends worked hard for her election.

My friend’s wife’s question as we went to bed was this: “How do we explain this to the kids tomorrow?” Their boys are 4 and 6.

I wondered about such a question. They’re at an age when the question, “Why?” is often on their lips. I suspect there are lots of reasons why my fellow countrypeople voted for Mr. Trump. Some people probably thought that his tax proposals will put more money in their pockets and didn’t care about the consequences for the wider community (their neighbors). Some probably thought that he will change the economy in such a way that their lives and their neighbors’ lives will be better. Some probably voted out of their sexism, not wanting a woman to be our President. Some probably voted against Hillary Clinton and would have voted for anyone as long as it wasn’t her.

And many, I think, voted from their fear.

So what would I say to a 6-year-old who asked me why Mr. Trump won and Secretary Clinton lost? Recognizing that I couldn’t explain the electoral college to a 6-year-old, I think I would say something like, “He won because he got more votes in more states.” And when this 6-year-old asks, “Why did people vote for him?” I’d say something like,”When people are afraid or jealous or angry, they don’t make the best choices. So some people voted for Mr. Trump because they really liked him better than Secretary Clinton, and some people voted for Mr. Trump because they didn’t make the best choice.”

I don’t know if that answer would satisfy a 6-year-old, but it’s the best I have today, a day when I am disappointed, and maybe even a little fearful myself about what the next four years will hold.

Before the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan asked voters (and encouraged votes to ask themselves), “Am I better off now than I was four years ago?”

In this presidential election year, my answer is, “Yes. Yes, I’m better off than I was four years ago and eight years ago. And that’s the wrong question to ask.”

Or maybe it’s only one of may questions we should be asking.

How about my neighbor (whom I’m supposed to love as myself)? Is my neighbor better off them she was four or eight years ago? And not just my next door neighbor. I should be asking this about all my neighbors in my city and state and country. And I should be asking this about my neighbors in other countries.

But let’s not stop there. We should be asking it about other species and the environment as a whole.

And lest you think this is just about the current presidential election, it’s not. Let’s consider the TPP – the Trans-Pacific Partnership – under consideration by Congress right now. The TPP is a complex trade agreement between 12 Pacific Rim countries (including the United States). And when I say, “complex,” I mean complex. It took ten years to develop and has over 30 chapters.

I have yet to hear any politician speak to the particulars. In this election year, the TPP is really not much more than a symbol, a symbol that is being spun primarily to represent global trade that threatens American jobs. “A Trump Administration will end [the war on the American worker] by getting a fair deal for the American people. The era of economic surrender will finally be over,” is how Trump is spinning the symbol.

The Clinton campaign isn’t much different. “I will do everything in my power to defend American jobs and American workers. Any trade deal must meet three tests to earn my support: it must create good American jobs, raise wages, and advance our national security.”

Both candidates are only asking if the TPP will make us better off in four years than we are now. What about asking how it impacts our international neighbors? What about asking how it impacts the environment? What about asking how it circumvents legal system in the partner countries, perverting justice? What about asking how it protects (or fails to protect) the environment?

The TPP aims to cut 18,000 different tariffs, all in the name of “free trade” across international borders. If the only thing I have to trade is my labor and I can’t freely transport it across international borders, is it really a “free trade deal”?

Given the complexity of international trade – including national differences in resources, worker skills, labor supply, labor laws and protects, markets, and political and social conditions – the terms of mutually beneficial trade can’t be reduced to a bumper sticker or a 30-second sound bite in the spin room.

I oppose the TPP and will until my questions are satisfactorily answered. But that’s really not the point of this post. The real point is that we need to move beyond our shortsighted, self-centered questions and think about our local and international neighbors (and not just our human neighbors) when it comes to trade deals and elections and really any policy decision we make.

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