Abuse of Scripture

The U. S. Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, was widely reported last week as having said, in the context of administration policy that separates children from their parents at border crossings:

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 them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.

I have two comments. First, about the practice of taking verses of Scripture out of context. I learned as long ago as high school the adage, “A text out of context is a pretext.” You can find people using Scriptural texts to justify pretty much anything; so our Church is wise to direct us to competent interpreters rather than to self-serving advocates of any particular position if we wish to understand God’s guidance in the Bible. The Scriptures, if we are to understand them rightly, have to be understood as a whole and in the context of the history both of their writing and their subsequent interpretation by saints and scholars (and, of course, official Church teaching). Whatever his other credentials, I suspect that the Attorney General has no competence in Biblical interpretation but that we should learn one important thing from this sad instance: Ignore (and, if you have the energy, condemn) misuses of Scripture by anyone who seeks support for a predetermined position, rather than understanding and challenge to one’s own way of thought and life. That’s not what God’s revealed Word is for. Agree or disagree with the position, and argue it on its merits; but don’t misuse Scripture for self-serving purposes. (Many genuine Biblical scholars have pointed out that Sessions turned the meaning of the passage from Paul on its head by his selective quotation; you can hardly miss that if you search. But I did learn – from historians – that this one verse has a nasty historical connection: It was widely misused by pro-slavery politicians before the Civil War to defend horrors like the Fugitive Slave Act. Again, there’s no substitute for in-depth knowledge if we’re to understand things correctly….) Second, I think it appropriate to include a few comments from legitimate authorities regarding the policy the Attorney General was seeking to (mis)use the Bible to defend. Here I rely not on my own judgment, but that of official teachers in our Church:

Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma. Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.

— Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, speaking on behalf of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

On too many occasions our government has taken a posture and established policy which is in principle and in practice hostile to children and families who are fleeing violence, gangs, and poverty, The United States is now openly before the world using children as pawns to enforce a hostile immigration policy. This strategy is morally unacceptable and denies the clear danger weighing upon those seeking our assistance.

— Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston

I usually write a lighthearted column for the final week before the summer break, but it seems to me that our present national moment isn’t the time for that. Something very sick is accelerating in our culture. We need trustworthy guides in such a time, and should be grateful for the deep wisdom of our Church to help us to find our way (as individuals and, unlikely but potentially, as guides to the wider, increasingly pagan culture) back to sanity. In difficult times the saints turn to prayer; to study of the sacred tradition; and to daily charity. The rest, we leave to God in His justice and His mercy.

Have a good summer. My next column will be on September 9. Until then, peace.

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