Earlier this summer, when the practice of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border captured the attention of the nation, a friend of mine and former police officer, made an apologetic explanation of why he felt the actions by the federal government were justified. Prefacing his statement with “I’m sorry, but . . . ,” he rationalized that children are removed from parents who commit a crime all the time under the United States legal system. Since these families were crossing the border illegally, he maintained, the parents were subject to the same criminal consequences as anyone else in the United States.
His rationalization and reference to law was voiced by many in support of the actions to control immigration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions went so far as citing Romans 13 in his justification: “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,” Sessions said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”
For my friend, beginning his statement with an apology was a sincere way of acknowledging how difficult and painful the border situation was for him. He did not like the idea of children being taken away from their families. But for him and for many, the situation was black and white. People were breaking the law and justice had to be served.
Yet this unwavering commitment to the laws of the state, without a deeper consideration of the true meaning of justice, creates problems. While the law may be a tool used to secure and maintain justice, the two concepts are not always aligned — especially for Christians. The Old and New Testaments state clearly that justice seeks “right relationship,” both with God and with our fellow man, and not retribution and punishment.
Chapter 61 in the Book of Isaiah is one of the best places to start studying the true meaning of justice: “For I, the LORD, love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, an everlasting covenant I will make with them.” (Is 61:8) If we understand “robbery and wrongdoing” to be the enemy of justice, we can make the logical conclusion that our laws are designed to prevent them from happening. However, if we focus on “they” with whom the Lord will make an “everlasting covenant,” we see that God’s notion of justice importantly relates to people as much as actions.
Reading earlier in Chapter 61:1-2, the prophet proclaims: “[T]he LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted.” These are the ones for whom the Lord seeks justice: the brokenhearted . . . captives. . . prisoners . . . and all who mourn. Justice, in the biblical sense, seeks to right inequities — to “give recompense” to the poor and vulnerable. Wrongdoing may often apply to breaking the laws of human society, but only insofar as mankind’s laws are consistent with God’s commandments, the greatest of which, as Jesus teaches, is: “[Y]ou shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength . . . [and] . . . [y]ou shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31). Interestingly, Romans 13 references this commandment as well: “Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Rom. 13:10)
In this way our laws do not, nor have they ever always achieved justice. One of the clearest demonstrations of this is the fact that abortion remains a legal option in the United States despite its clear violation of the call to love and treat every human life as sacred. Similarly, separating immigrant children from their parents and holding them in detention centers may well be in line with the law, but there is no justice in the application nor in the results.
This is not to suggest that we ignore the law altogether. There are valid reasons, both biblically and politically, for managing the borders of our nation. Justice, however, calls on us to do it thoughtfully and in ways that do not exacerbate the suffering of those fleeing violence and profound poverty.
To this end, the President made a commendable and brave decision in issuing his executive order in June to end the policy of separating families. President Trump said when he signed the order, “We’re going to have strong — very strong — borders, but we are going to keep families together.” It was an action that further complicated the issue of how our nation deals with the very real challenges around immigration, but acknowledged the human lives that were being impacted. The law may make it easy to determine a course of action, but to seek justice, we often must travel the more difficult path.