“And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass.”
-- Numbers 22:21 (KJV)
Maybe Jeff Sessions needs a Balaam’s ass.
Among many of the odd stories of the Old Testament is the tale of the diviner Balaam. Diviners were sometimes called “seers,” because they were presumed to be able to see things that more ordinary mortals could not see.
Balaam the seer apparently had a mercenary reputation: divine blessings and curses to be had for hire. Whoever he blessed was going to be blessed; who he cursed was going to be cursed. He, like other powerful people in human history, just had that power. Apparently there remain powerful people who like to hire those kind of powerful people who will bless and curse on behalf of their agendas.
In our story, Balaam gets called on to do some cursing-for-hire. But God warns him: don’t do that, man. So Balaam reports in: No, I’m not gonna go, even for a bucket-load of money.
But, he thinks about it some more, and decides to check it out. Just in case. No need to leave money on the table.
So, old Balaam mounts his ass and heads out. This angers God, as one might expect, who in turn sends one of those sword-wielding angels who can morph in and out of being visible.
Angels that cannot be seen play key roles at various points in the Bible’s story-telling. On occasion they are the ones who show up as strangers, wandering about like foreigners and immigrants. The extension of hospitality leads to an immense blessing to the host who “entertains angels unawares.”
But not in this story. This is a different sort of “angel unawares” story, and turns out that Balaam’s ass is a better seer than Balaam. The ass, not the Seer, sees the sword-wielding angel in the road. And, fortunately for Balaam, his ass is no dumb ass; he smartly wanders off into the field.
Balaam, not so smart, and not so good a seer as the ass, beats his ass.
Now this is just the first of several embarrassing episodes: The angel blocks the way in a narrow street. The seeing ass averts death again, and in doing so crushes Balaam’s foot against the wall. Angry Balaam beats the ass. Or another: the angel blocks the exit of another impassable spot, so the ass simply and stubbornly sits down. Dumb unseeing Balaam beats, yet again, his smart seeing ass.
The otherwise patient ass loses his patience and starts talking: Dude? What’s your problem, Mr. Big Shot? Mr. let-me-see-how-much-I-can-get-away-with-in-the-name-of-God? Mr. Seer who curses and blesses? You can’t see, can you?
Now that I think of it, people have on more than one occasion called me an ass. So maybe I should be Jeff Sessions’ ass. Now I steadfastly refuse to accept that I am an ass—I am a man, not an ass. But if I were, I might say something like this:
Dude, come on. What’s your problem? Yes, I know there are problems at the borders. And yes, I actually did read your speech that you delivered last week. I think I understand your argument. (I’ve even summarized my understanding of your logic in a footnote. While asses can on occasion apparently talk, I should note that they can’t really write footnotes.)
Undoubtedly policies about borders are complicated, have a great deal of unforeseen implications, and it’s a messy deal. And from what I’ve read, there were also some serious problems—though not nearly so widespread in numbers or, from all appearances, not nearly so agenda driven or harsh—with the former presidential administration’s approach as well.
But Romans 13? Really? Nope. Just no. Here are three reasons:
1. The world’s super-power can’t use the Bible to critique its critics, because it’s not a super-power, or imperialist, or nation-state book.
Especially Romans 13. As you no doubt know, the apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians was written during the time of the Roman Empire. The first century Christians suffered persecution on occasion at the hand of the Roman imperial forces. And Paul’s admonition to “obey the laws of the land” was not written as a weapon of social conservatism. It was in fact one element in a sort of subversive radical social liberalism. Not an imperial liberalism, or a national liberalism, but an intentional communal liberalism, convinced of the immense power of suffering love. (Mr. Sessions, if you’d like a really good article on Romans 13, you may get that below. I’m happy to be of service.)
Romans 12 says, in effect: God has shown all sorts of grace. So, how shall we respond? By being radically gracious people. “Let love be genuine.” “Love one another with mutual affection.” “Be patient in suffering.” And, especially pertinent here: “extend hospitality to strangers.”
Even more, it says:
Bless those who persecute; bless and do not curse them…. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty; but associate with the lowly…. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. … Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Mr. Sessions, don’t trot out Romans 13 to try to shut up Christians for criticizing you for your refusal to take Romans 12 seriously. I mean, we find ourselves in a time in which people are arguing about what to call the spaces in which children are being held, separated from their parents: "cages" or "chain-link enclosures." This seems a bit problematic, you know. A bit violating both spirit and letter of Romans 12. After all, you and your cronies are the ones pulling out all the “law and order” rhetoric which, consequently, has little interest in the likes of Romans 12, or Matthew 5-7, or in the Jesus who says on multiple occasions to the professional lawyers of his day, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”
2. It’s bad form. You’re from Alabama. You surely know the history of the way slave-masters and their clergy allies used Romans 13 in an attempt to manipulate the Christian sensibilities of their slaves: “The powers are ordained by God. Don’t disobey the powers, ahem, us. Otherwise you disobey God.”
You’re embarrassing the rest of us from Alabama here. Show a little class.
3. It short-circuits all manner of important conversations about what it means to be a Christian, and appears to do so in a way that pours yet more fuel on the fire of the unthinking Christian nationalism consuming too much of our land.
While Romans 13 does in fact grant a forthright legitimacy to the notion of civil and police power, it is clearly provisional. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament both recount repeated and powerful episodes of civil disobedience because there is always a trump card, which is not the President or his AG or the emperor or the traditions of law or religion, but the will of God, best we understand it. “We must obey God rather than men,” said the apostles.
Come on, sir. You’re the one who’s supposed to see. Stop your merciless beatings. There may be some angels unawares.
 I understand Sessions’ logic in his speech to run this way:
Immigration into any given nation-state is no right or entitlement. Nations have the right to establish some sort of immigration policy based on law. Current laws in the United States prohibit certain forms of entry into the United States, so violators of that law will be prosecuted. When anyone—including American citizens—break local or federal law, they are arrested and put into jail to await trial. If this leaves their children without care, the children are remanded into the custody of officials who are charged with good care—including education in their own language, health-care, room, and board—for those children. Consequently, this very same process is being observed with regard to those entering the country illegally.
The goal is not to keep all immigrants or asylum seekers out. The goal is to have an orderly process of immigration that cuts down on the abuses, the dangers to children, and the honoring of those who truly need asylum. Families who show up at ports of entry designed to address the calls for asylum are not separated. And a completely open border is not feasible, would and has created all manner of social problems. An orderly immigration system is, in the long-run, much preferred and requires the current difficult practices.
Download a free PDF of an essay on Romans 13 here: