Viewpoint

The White House is abusing religion to defend its abuse of children

Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border by citing a passage from the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border by citing a passage from the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Bloomberg photo

In recent days the White House and members of the administration have used Biblical passages from the New Testament to argue that this government is ordained by God. They have also argued that separating children is justified under both American and Biblical laws. Disgracefully, the administration cited controversial Biblical verses that were previously used in arguments against the American Revolution by British loyalists and by those defending slavery from abolitionists. The promotion of xenophobia and the reckless abuse of children, cloaked by the veneer of a warped pseudo-biblical patriotism, makes a mockery of both American and Judeo-Christian values.

Even the members of our community who claim no religious affiliation are familiar with the Biblical narratives that tell of the ancient Israelites fleeing slavery, servitude and oppression in Egypt. Through a splitting sea and miracles, the book of Exodus explains that the Israelites made it to Mount Sinai, where they received the laws and the principles that serve as the basis for all western religions.

Among those laws is the injunction: “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger.” The book of Leviticus adds, “When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Hebrew word for “stranger,” ger, refers to immigrants and refugees.

The message could not be clearer. The God that gave the laws on the mountaintop cares deeply about what happens at the mountain’s base. The promise and potential of spiritual horizons is intrinsically bound up with the ethics of the marketplace, the town square, the everyday path, and in how we care for those in need.

Not unlike many people of faith, our Jewish story is fundamentally an immigrant story. We know, too well, what it was like to fear for our lives and seek safety and security. We know, too well, what it is like for our children to be ripped from our hands and put into camps. This is not an abstract matter for members of the Jewish community. No matter how many generations we have been here in the United States – no matter how many thousands of years ago the Exodus took place – the timeless call to care for the stranger still compels us.

As a country, we now have a choice to make about how we want to be remembered. Do we want the administration to instruct the security forces and police to stand at the border, rip children from their parents, and tell parents to go home without their children? Do we want children to face extreme trauma at the hands of our government? Or, do we want the administration to value each and every person as though they were created in the image of God?

The children are at risk. So, too, are our religious and secular values. We must reject the hostile attitude in which previous generations of immigrants would slam the door behind themselves, and from behind that closed door make self-righteous and hateful pronouncements about what America stands for. History creates responsibilities: our experiences as strangers and immigrants obligate us to support a just and generous system of protecting these children.

Knight is Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth El in Charlotte. Email: rabbiknight@templebethel.org.

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