If patriotism is the “last refuge of a scoundrel,” the biblical proof-text is one of his favorite diversionary tactics. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ use of a passage — from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans — to support the Trump administration’s policy of separating mothers from their children at the border is a particularly egregious example.
In addition to being susceptible to a facile cynicism, there are a number of obvious problems with proof-texting (the practice of quoting an isolated Bible passage to support a particular opinion).
First, a verse or passage separated from its context can almost always be countered by another proof-text. For example, Sessions’ use of the Romans passage (“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God …”) to call for unquestioning support of the government is contradicted by the text in St. Matthew’s nativity account, which describes the decision of the wise men to “go home by another way,” in direct disobedience to the directive of King Herod that they should report back to him. (So much for “let everyone be subject to the governing authorities … .”) In any event, a few verses after the Romans passage cited by the attorney general, St. Paul tells us that “love is the fulfilling of the law” — the law that Sessions wants to make sure we fulfill. (By the way, the passage that follows immediately after the AG’s reference encourages everyone to pay their taxes willingly — a quote that we will no doubt hear in some future speech.)
An often-overlooked cause of the distorted use of proof-texts is the simple presence of chapter and verse headings. These markers, which were added by scholarly monks just a few hundred years ago as an aid to Bible study, can lead some to believe that every single verse in the Bible is an isolated spiritual gem, each verse of equal value to the other, which of course is not the case. Versification of the accounts in the Bible’s rich and varied library often serves to break up, rather than to clarify, the whole scope of the message.
Perhaps the most insidious problem with proof-texting is that (almost) any opinion or practice, however morally questionable, can be supported. Once, in a conversation with a friend — a self-described Biblical literalist — I tried to challenge him by pointing out that the Bible can be used to support slavery. His response was, “You know, those slaves didn’t have it too bad.”
And is there any despotic policy of any demagogue or rogue state that could not find validation in a self-serving application of the very passage cited by Mr. Sessions? “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities … ; whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” To supply tyrants, past and present, with this kind of bogus and ignorant use of scripture is to make a mockery of one of the most profound works of literature and spiritual counsel in human history. And it is to desecrate the memory of this same St. Paul — the author of the letter to the Romans — who wrote some of his most profound and encouraging messages while sitting in the prison of the very tyrants who would execute him.
So, regarding how to deal with the “huddled masses” and frightened families who show up at our border? Let me at least expand Mr. Sessions’ index of proof-texts with two more: one from the Old Testament, one from the New. From Deuteronomy: “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And from Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Richard Jorgensen, of Faribault, Minn., is a retired pastor with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.