Sunday, 17 June 2018

Jesus the Sinner: On the Theology of Jeff Sessions

Jesus is a sinner. Such, at least is the position of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Consider.

Mr. Sessions holds that Romans 13:1-2 necessitates unqualified obedience to governing authorities. And with this we can agree: a prima facie reading of these passages suggests exactly that. But as anyone with a basic theological education knows, the prima facie reading of Rom. 13:1-7 is one of the most contested in the history of Christianity. Part of the reason for such contest is that we simply know from experience that governing authorities sometimes act in ways that are utterly at variance with the highest aspirations of Christian values. To select a random instance, they sometimes pursue policies that entail separating children from their parents and crowding them into giant kennels barely fit for stray dogs. But even beyond that experiential aspect, Romans 13 itself gives us good reason to rethink the prima facie reading, for if we read vv. 1-2 as does Sessions then we must conclude from v. 3-4 that Jesus was an wrongdoer.

This will be obvious if we look at Rom. 13:1-4 in full, quoted from the NRSV:

13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.

Vv. 1-2 indeed say that all should be subject to the governing authorities, as Sessions argues, and it indeed provides no qualification on this. V. 3 gives the reason for the position taken in vv. 1-2: "rulers are not a terror to good, but to bad." The passage further explains that if one does what is good, one will win the authority's approval, and that if one does what is wrong one should fear violence from the authority. On a "hard reading," Paul does not allow for the possibility that the authority might execute wrath on good people. On a hard reading, Paul states that anyone who experiences the wrath of the authorities must be a wrongdoer.

And of course, as we all know, Jesus experienced the wrath of the authorities. That in fact is how he died. As such, if Sessions is correct in his reading of Romans 13:1-2, Jesus must be a wrongdoer. Jesus must be a sinner. So Jeff Sessions.

Put otherwise, Jeff Sessions is a heretic who has radically departed from the fundamental tenets of the very Christian faith by which he tries to justify the administration's policies. He presents a litmus test not just for whether or not American society has sufficient decency to be morally shocked and outraged by this intentional attack upon children and families, but also whether or not self-proclaimed Christians have sufficient commitment to their religion so as to reject rank heresy.

Returning to the man Paul, I don't think that he thought that Jesus was a sinner. That is too clearly excluded from his writings more generally. As such, I think that there are two possibilities in thinking about Romans 13 from the perspective of the author. First possibility: Paul supposes but does not say that there are authorities that act in ways contrary to the good. Second possibility: Paul has not thought through the implications of his position as articulated in 13:1-4, as it pertains to Jesus' death. I rather suspect that the latter is more likely the case. Remember that Paul is writing to Christians in Rome, Acts shows a pattern of conduct on his part of turning to Roman authorities for aid. I think it entirely plausible that as someone who (I suspect) grew up in relative comfort, born a citizen in a time when citizenship still entailed a decent amount of privileges, Paul's experience of the Roman authorities was largely positive. (I've often wondered if he would write Romans 13 exactly the same the day after his execution by Roman authorities). I suspect that he has not yet reflected upon the fact that it was specifically the Roman authorities who ordered his Lord's death. I further suspect that if confronted with the fact that his words in Romans 13:3-4 necessarily entail that said Lord was a sinner, he'd say "Heaven forbid!" and rethink the matter.

In either case, the use of scripture in a contemporary context is informed but not dictated by what the scriptural writers intended. Christian theology must always remember that all persons operate at the level of their time, including the persons responsible for producing sacred scripture. As such, as much as one might recognize that the scriptural writers were inspired so as to reveal divine truth in a peculiar fashion, they did so as persons embedded in particular contexts. As we translate their insights into our contexts, with our own horizons, some things will inevitably be lost and some things inevitably be gained. Lost will be an immediate, direct connection with their horizons. Gained will be two to three millennia of historical experience and more crucially reflection upon the very words of scripture that we are reading.

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