Colbert vs. Sessions: Who's Right?

The troubling debate over scriptural authority

Posted Jun 17, 2018

Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruffled many feathers this week by citing the Bible to justify taking immigrant children from their families. The practice, which the government says is intended to deter undocumented immigration, had been sharply criticized, so Sessions apparently felt it wise to use scripture in its defense. “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 the government for his purposes,” Sessions told a crowd.

Photo by David Shankbone, Creative Commons license
Stephen Colbert
Source: Photo by David Shankbone, Creative Commons license

The backlash was quick and predictable. Late-night host Stephen Colbert, for example, not only described the policy of separating children from parents as “evil,” but also argued that the policy contradicts biblical mandates. The same Bible passage that Sessions quoted, Colbert points out, also says, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Colbert was joined by others, such as nun and social justice advocate Simone Campbell (who argued that scripture “speaks of making sure that children are honored and cared for”) in insisting that Sessions's biblical interpretation was misguided.

So who’s right? The answer, biblically speaking, is not so clear. As both Sessions and his detractors demonstrate, the same scripture can be cited to support or refute the government’s immigration policy. Pick your passage.

This fuzziness highlights a point that humanists and others have made for years, that the Bible’s numerous contradictions and ambiguities make it a poor guidebook for morality. You should love thy neighbor, scripture says on one hand, while on the other it condemns that neighbor, as a non-Christian, to an eternity in the fiery pits of hell. Indeed, if the deity who wrote or inspired the Bible was all-powerful and all-knowing, he was nevertheless either unable or unwilling to write in a clear, unambiguous manner that would eliminate contradictions and conflicts over interpretation. 

The “open-to-interpretation” flaw applies not only to somewhat obscure matters such as immigration policy, but even to fundamental, central issues. Consider, for example, the question of war or peace, where the Bible has been cited as a basis for both pacifist and militaristic views. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is quoted as telling his disciples to turn the other cheek and to love one’s enemies, seemingly unambiguous instructions. Yet the New Testament also quotes Jesus as saying, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Jesus is also associated with violence in both the cleansing of the temple and, perhaps most notably, the Book of Revelation.  

Christian theologians from Augustine to Aquinas have subsequently provided the theory of “just war” as a basis for militarism. Even in recent times, biblical authority has been cited to urge warfare, such as with the famous Land Letter, wherein evangelical leaders wrote to President Bush in 2002 to advocate for war against Iraq by claiming that “just war theory" would define an American invasion of the small desert nation as “defensive.” 

Sessions and Colbert could no doubt spend hours debating the “correct” biblical interpretation of these and other issues. For example, what does the Bible say about the treatment of women?

One could argue that God wants women to be treated with utmost respect (eg., “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Ephesians 5:25), but scripture is also a key source of authority to justify oppression (“Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” Colossians 3:18) and violence toward women. (See Deuteronomy 22:28-29, which requires a rape victim to marry her rapist: “If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered,  then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days.”) And of course, as Paul famously writes in the New Testament: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” 1 Timothy 2:11-12. So, depending on the outcome sought, pick your passage.

Shall we turn to the issue of slavery? Again, pick your passage. As is well known, the Bible served as a source of moral authority for both the slaveowner and the abolitionist. 

To humanists, the question is not whether the Bible can be used to lead a good, moral life, because surely it can if the decent passages are carefully cherry-picked. The real question is whether the Bible should be used as such. Just because commendable passages can be found, with the existence of horrifically misguided passages nearby, is it really wise to treat the book as, overall, a valuable source of moral authority? Doesn’t exalting the book itself necessarily validate the horrific passages as well? Why would we want to do that?

This problem isn’t unique to the Bible. Similar debates occur among Muslims over the “right” interpretation of the Qur’an. You want peace and tolerance? It’s in there. Feeling a bit more militaristic? No problem, justification for that can be found too. To humanists, such inconsistencies can be understood when these ancient writing are considered objectively and rationally for what they are—ancient writings of men, not gods (and not men who were receiving special messages from gods).

Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, commenting on studies that show secularism and atheism dramatically on the rise among the younger generation, attributes the rise in part to contemporary “Christian” politics. "Younger Americans are fleeing Christianity in droves," he writes. "They are disgusted by the likes of Sessions, Sanders, De Vos, Pruitt, Trump, etc." Citing scripture for immoral public policy no doubt adds to that disgust.

For these young people, the question isn’t which interpretation of holy scripture is “right,” because Colbert and Sessions don’t define the framework of the discussion. The Colbert-Sessions squabble couldn't be more irrelevant to the moral analysis that is truly necessary. If you want moral authority, start with humanistic values and then apply knowledge, reason, and logic. No ancient texts needed.

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