- Teaching ReflectionThinking with Paulo Freire about Jeff Sessions and the Bible
Last fall, the first semester of my first teaching job, I was writing a syllabus for a class on the Letters of Paul at Drew Theological School when Jeff Sessions gave a speech to police officers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, using Romans 13 to argue in favor of the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.1 The policy of separating children from their families creates a humanitarian crisis, and here, too, was a crisis of biblical interpretation. Both are also crises of white supremacy. These are ongoing crises: Associated Press recently reported 69,550 migrant children held in U.S. government custody over the past year2—enough infants, toddlers, kids, and teens to overflow a typical professional American football stadium in the United States. That number represents more children detained away from their parents than any other country, according to United Nations researchers. Scott Warren, a humanitarian worker with No More Deaths, was recently acquitted for providing food and water to immigrants after being charged with a felony.3 And former U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry recently [End Page 171] used a variety of intertexts, including echoes of Rom 13, describing a conversation with Donald Trump on the show Fox and Friends.4
In response, I decided to make my entire last class day about this topic. In a way, I saw the whole semester as building to this day. I am committed to feminist pedagogy in the classroom, and one of my course learning objectives is "to investigate the Pauline correspondence as a record of struggle and debate over key social, political, ethical, and theological issues, and to understand and articulate your own ethics of interpretation."5 If my class on the Letters of Paul could not prepare students to articulate a response to Sessions's speech, then they were not yet able to articulate their own ethics of interpretation.
I assigned some readings for the day. In addition to Romans and the speech, I also offered some scholarly responses: Margaret Mitchell's "The Apostle and the AG," which offered historical context for Rom 13; Margaret Aymer and Laura Nasrallah's op-ed, "What Jeff Sessions Got Wrong When Quoting the Bible," tracing the history of interpretation of Rom 13; and Hector Avalos's article for Biblical Interpretation, "The Bible Is Not a Friend to Immigrants," an atheist scholar's argument that the Bible should not be used for political or ethical debate.6 I asked students how they would respond in their communities to the speech not to demand a particular form of response but to allow them to work through together their own responses. I will be honest that the conversation went well, but not as well as many other classes in the semester. Students took a "Duh, this is bad biblical interpretation," approach and parroted back points from the Aymer and Nasrallah and Mitchell pieces without fully engaging with Avalos's argument that the Bible should not be used to make ethical/political arguments.
Reading Freire with my colleagues has helped me think a lot about why this might be. One of the forces that can contribute to anti-dialogical action is what Freire called "cultural invasion," when invaders penetrate the cultural context of another group, impose their own view of the world, and inhibit creativity.7 White supremacy was doing cultural invasion—using white supremacist biblical [End Page 172] interpretation by flipping the script, using the language of "cultural invasion" to cover what it was doing and what it was using the Bible to do. Freire, presciently, connected "cultural invasion" to social structures of child rearing. "All domination involves invasion—at times physical and overt, at times camouflaged, with the invader assuming the role of a helping friend."8 The separation of children from their families is an extreme, militarized instantiation of "child rearing," under the guise of helping or protecting children, but which led to the deaths of six children in government custody in the first half of 2019 after a previous decade with no fatalities.9 Sessions was...