Zero-Tolerance: To obey or not to obey

Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent all of Washington scurrying for their Bibles recently when he defended his immigration policy by quoting Romans 13 to justify strict interpretation of applicable laws.

“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 argued.

Before taking up the consequences of his quotation of scripture used to oppose the Revolutionary War and support slavery, I would applaud his courage in suggesting that something in the Bible may have application to the policymakers in a “Christian” country.

There is a wide gap between the compassion of Christians on Sunday and the public policies they support the rest of the week.

“As individuals, men believe they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other,”

Reinhold Niebuhr explains in Moral Man/Immoral Society. “As racial, economic, and national groups, they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.”

Sessions’ use of Romans 13 brought sharp criticism of his zero-tolerance policy for illegal immigrants because it separated children from their parents. That’s the law, he stated flatly.

But the religious leaders of the country would not countenance this use of the law to mistreat persons seeking to escape violence and oppression in the failed governments of Central America.

The U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned zero-tolerance as immoral, with one bishop suggesting that the Church ought to refuse Communion to any Catholics giving aid and comfort to the policy.

Martin Luther agreed.

In his treatise on secular authority, Luther said: “Tyrants have issued an order that the New Testaments be delivered to the courts everywhere. In this case, their subjects ought not deliver a page or a letter, at the risk of their salvation.”

Meanwhile, Methodists in his home church labelled his zero-tolerance policy as child abuse, immoral and racial discrimination. They started an internal process that could lead to his excommunication.

The uprising of the religious community was too much for the Administration so the policy has been abandoned. But it leaves the basic question unanswered.

Sessions is right in that the Bible does urge Christians to be obedient to all authorities. Because of the numerous Bible verses stressing behavior that would bring honor to the Gospel, we can suggest that Apostle Paul saw civic obedience as good for the Christian image.

So on what basis can Christians insist that disobedience would be more godly than obedience?

In the Book of Acts, Peter and John were teaching and the Jewish authorities ordered them not to preach the name of Jesus, to which they answered; “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge.”

Apparently, Peter and John thought it right for Christians to disobey those in authority when it was the right thing to do. So what is right in the sight of God when it comes to zero-tolerance?

Perhaps the teachings of Christ can furnish the criteria for making a determination. He taught unlimited compassion, love, sharing, tolerance and sacrificing for strangers, none of which can be found in the zero-tolerance policy.

By their unanimity in opposition, the religious leaders of America have made it clear that in their view disobedience to zero-tolerance is justified; compassion is more godly than legalism.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.