Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Bible to defend a biblically indefensible immigration policy. He cited Romans 13 for the proposition that government laws—specifically, in this case, laws that allow for families to be separated during immigration detention—should be obeyed “because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later defended Sessions’s position, saying it was “very biblical to enforce the law.”
As a biblical scholar and former Jesuit priest, it’s clear to me that Sessions, as well as his defenders in the Trump administration, fundamentally misunderstand the biblical concept of justice.
In the ancient command, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), the Hebrew word that is translated as “justice” is tzedek. I found when studying biblical languages that most of the time the English translation of the underlying Hebrew or Greek words accurately conveys the meaning of the original text. But there is no word in English that captures the rich and full meaning of tzedek.
Sessions is pursuing justice understood as the strict and impartial application of the law. That shriveled understanding of justice is captured in the statement by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen: “In the United States, if you break the law, you go to jail and you’re separated from your family.”
From that viewpoint justice and mercy are opposed, because mercy could impede the administration of strict justice. But tzedek, and its derivative tzedakah (which is a commandment to give as an act of social justice), mean justice and mercy working in unison.
Great Britain’s former chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, cites Deuteronomy 24:12-13 to illustrate the rich concept. In this passage, a lender has taken a poor man’s only cloak as a security against a loan and has a strict legal right to keep the cloak until the loan is repaid. But he is enjoined by God as a matter of mercy to return the cloak before dusk, so the poor man does not shiver through the night.
“If a man is poor, you may not go to sleep holding his security. Return it to him at sundown, so that he will be able to sleep in his garment and bless you. To you it will be reckoned as tzedakah before the Lord your God.”
That is how biblical justice works, and that is the sweet spot Trump and Congress should strive to find in order to forge an immigration policy worthy of our immigrant nation at its welcoming best.
From a biblical perspective, we should be especially concerned about welcoming poor strangers seeking a better life for themselves and their loved ones. Loving our poor neighbors as ourselves requires doing for them what we would want done for us if our situations were reversed.
In the Old Testament, God consistently shows a special concern for those who are poor and vulnerable, especially the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. And in the New Testament, Jesus goes so far as to say God’s final judgment will rest in part on whether one has welcomed strangers: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)
Let us strive in the simmering immigration debate to measure up to the ideal of biblical justice, and to the American ideals that inspire so many—including all my grandparents—to risk so much in the hope of being welcomed at our borders.
Joseph Holt is a business ethics professor at the University of Notre Dame and a former Jesuit priest.