On Friday religion–specifically Christianity– was on the front pages of major newspapers, which were covering the latest Jeff Sessions statement that The Apostle Paul’s writings in Romans 13 justify the Trump Administration’s policy of taking away infants and toddlers from their immigrant mothers when they are caught illegally crossing the border and placing them indefinitely in detention centers. Some estimates show more than 1,500 children now in these centers without their parents or guardians.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders enthusiastically supported sessions during her press conference. And she should know, since her father is a famous Evangelical minister turned politician. It will only be a matter of time, I suppose, before Franklin Graham and other conservative church leaders weigh in supporting Sessions. As of this writing I am not aware of any Republican who has come out against these remarks.
Of course, this is nothing new. Christian churches were split down the middle during the civil rights movement. I remember attending a church service in Birmingham’s largest, white, Methodist Church in 1963 and hearing the minister preach to a jubilant congregation about how the Bible supported segregation and how slavery was accepted by Jesus and was commonplace throughout the Holy Land. Other churches, however, certainly the Black church, but also many Catholic churches and mainstream Protestant churches located outside the South, were very much involved in supporting the “Movement.”
The civil rights movement was a watershed experience for me and for Embry, which I wrote about in Civil Rights Journey. But it also got me in trouble. I was studying at Union Seminary in New York City and had planned to become an ordained Episcopal priest. My bishop was a conservative, old school kind of guy, feisty and outspoken. I actually liked him though we did not agree on what it meant for Christians—especially ordained ministers—to get involved in politics or social reform movements. For me putting your life on the line for a cause like racial equality was the very essence of what it meant to follow the teachings of Jesus. For him it was not necessarily wrong per se but surely was a distraction from the job of being a pastor to a flock of white people in an Episcopal church in the late 1960s in Tennessee. And this was the job I was being trained for. It is easy to make the bishop into a foolish, backward old man, but in hindsight I can see that he did have a point. In any event we agreed to part ways, and after graduating from Union, I headed to urban planning school and eventually pursued a career building affordable and seniors housing. I have not regretted the decision for a moment.
I think that Christian churches should take a stand on social issues. But I also understand it is not all that easy. The Evangelicals have been doing this for decades. But the stand that they take is totally at odds with the stand I would take or that progressive Protestant churches would–or at least should– take on many issues. They are also at odds with Catholic churches on issues related to social justice. Who is right? Well, I am right! But others feel just as strongly on the other side. In short, it is a very delicate situation, which has divided churches and caused grief on both sides from time immemorial. If you are a pastor to a congregation, you have to minister to all of your flock. This means you are obligated to minister to people who may not share your views on social issues. It is a tough job. Developing housing is a lot easier.
The story that I like to tell about my parting ways with my calling to be an Episcopal priest is this: After hearing my bishop admonish me about the pitfalls of letting social and political issues stand in the way of ministering to a congregation, I protested vehemently that this was a true calling and that it should not keep me from being ordained.
Over the course of two years at Union Seminary I had had several sessions with the bishop, some of them dealing with theology and personal faith.
“Hell, son,” he responded one day, red-faced, “You are not even going to an Episcopal Seminary. You are going to a heretical, Protestant one, and from all our talks I am not even sure you believe in God!”
I responded, ”Since when did that ever keep a self-respecting Episcopalian from being ordained?”
But, alas, that is fake news. We departed on good terms, and the rest is history.
Surely Sessions is dead wrong and is using Biblical text out of context to score political points. Surely there will be push back from Democrats and progressives. Hopefully some of these will be from church leaders. But just as surely life will go on in its muddled, complicated way: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”