Quoting the Bible in Context

Some of the scriptures Jeff Sessions failed to quote

robert rayBy Robert J. Ray

First, a confession: I’m not a biblical scholar. But I have attended a conservative Methodist college and a lot of Sunday school classes. I’ve sat through innumerable sermons. I’ve read the Bible considerably. And my grandfather was a old-time Methodist preacher.

So I’ve been around religion enough to know that Romans 13 does admonish everyone to obey the laws—just as Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently claimed. Government is essential to a stable social order. Lawlessness and anarchy wreak havoc with human wellbeing. So of course government is divinely ordained.

But there’s more to the story.

Whether occupying their position by lineal descent (monarchy), by election (democracy) or by wresting power through strong-arm tactics (dictatorship), human rulers don’t automatically have unlimited divine backing just because God supports the concept of government. At least not the way I read the Bible.

Scripture is replete with instructions about how leaders and the led are to live: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).

But what if rulers ignore God’s commands to rule fairly? “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning . . . .?” (Isaiah 10:1-3).

Such commands don’t apply just to rulers. “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow” (Deuteronomy 27:19).

Indifference toward the plight of the disadvantaged is particularly egregious when coming from people whose heritage is one of disadvantage: “Do not oppress a foreigner,” Moses told the Israelites, [because] “you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

Most Americans today are here because we, our parents or some distant forebears came to these shores seeking a better life. So of all people we should have sympathy toward the plight of those who are following the example, set by all of us collectively, of seeking freedom and safety in another land.

Government leaders who seek control through reminding the populace that government is divinely ordained should likewise remember that the same Bible portrays God as working behind the scenes to bring down governments when the leaders lose their perspective and forget their real reason for existence.

1 Kings 11 and 12 tells a tragic story about a king, Rehoboam, whose lineage was specifically ordained by God to rule, but who refused to listen to the legitimate concerns of his people. As a result, 10/12ths of his subjects gave their allegiance to a rebel leader—but a leader who had likewise been ordained by God specifically to correct Rehoboam’s ineptitude and intransigence. (Some might see parallels to a historical event in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.)

So far I’ve been quoting from what we Christians call the “Old Testament.” Even though most us declare it inspired, it often gets short shrift because it contains a lot of harsh stories from a harsh time. For example, it lists a couple of dozen reasons to execute. The “New Testament,” made up of seemingly more gentle writings influenced by the teachings of Jesus, isn’t so much into executions. Generally.

But if I were Jeff Sessions, that’s the very reason I’d be shaking in my boots about my support for dragging children from their mothers’ arms at our southern border.

You see, the turn-other-cheek Jesus, the forgive-70-times-seven Jesus, the neither-do-I-condemn-thee Jesus, commenting on those who mistreat children, said: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves” (Luke 17:1-3).


Robert J. Ray, a risk-management specialist, is a member of the Executive Committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.