The Cheap Grace of Donald Trump


Trump and his court evangelicals

One of the Christian right’s favorite ways to excuse Donald Trump’s moral failings as a human being is to say that “God uses imperfect people.” You can read examples here, and here, and here. 

And I get it! God does use broken and imperfect people! I truly believe this; as a process thinker, I think God, in conjunction with each and every one of us, uses every moment of our lives – good, bad and in between – to create new possibilities and realities all the time.

But here’s the thing. I also believe that we are imbued with a sense of right and wrong. We have notions of human dignity and worth, and love for others, embedded within us, as part of the Imago Dei we all carry.

Because of these carried notions, and because humans are amazing, dynamic beings, we have the ability to react to situations, to learn, and the change. In fact, we have a divine mandate to do so. We must learn from our mistakes and shortcomings; it’s bred into our make-up. Human beings would have died out long ago if we didn’t learn and adapt.

In the Christian realm, the leeway we give ourselves and one another to learn and grow and have second chances is called grace. What sets Christianity apart is that grace is unearned, that we get it just because we are.

But, as St. Paul explained, just because grace is unearned doesn’t mean it is free of responsibility. Richard Beck writes, “Grace has been given to us...Therefore. And what follows Paul’s Therefore is a list of obligations and expectations. Like his contemporaries, Paul assumes that grace implies a return. Grace obligates us. Gifts–even God’s gifts–have strings attached.”

Grace without an imperative to change is Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance….Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

God may use broken people, but when God does, it is incumbent on us to acknowledge the grace that that is, and do better next time to not keep perpetuating our own brokenness. The excusing of Donald Trumps’s moral failings without requiring him to show any progress is cheap grace. It is an affront to the God who has shown us grace, but who also expects us to react to that grace, not just keep on what we were doing. The brand of American Christianity that keeps excusing Trump is a brand of Christianity built on a foundation of cheap grace; this foundation is like Jesus’ house built on sand.

I’m not saying Donald Trump can never make mistakes. Obviously, we all do and will. But if he keeps refusing to acknowledge those mistakes or make any changes, then it is the Christian duty of his court evangelicals to call him on it. And if they won’t do it, they are abdicating their Christian responsibility, and choosing power over Christ.

The Bookshelf: “Called to Community”

Intentional Christian community is a way of living that my wife and I have been interested almost as long as we have known each other. Some of our earliest experiences together were attending a talk by Shane Claiborne, one of the leaders of the New Monasticism movement, and visiting Dr. Elaine Heath’s New Spring Communities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for three days.

As a result of these experiences, and through reading and study, we’ve always had a goal of participating in intentional, missional Christian community. During our time in Tulsa, this goal has come closer and closer, as we have gotten involved with those pursuing the same here. Recently, we have begun looking at places to live in Turley, an unincorporated town just north of Tulsa that is hit hard by poverty and blight, and where the Third Way Foundation, led by UU Rev. Ron Robinson, has begun this missional model. Intentional living is finally within reach for us, the culmination of almost seven years of searching and discerning and hoping.

So receiving the latest book from Plough Publishing in the mail a few weeks ago was an unexpected, much appreciated surprise. Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People is a compliation of essays from a variety of Christian figures across the centuries. Divided into 52 chapters focused on specific topics (for instance, “Vocation”, “Transparency”, or “Money”), the book is designed for communal reading weekly for a year.calledtocommunityEN

Obviously, I didn’t go the weekly route; I read it straight through. In doing so, I came to understand that reading it slowly, topic by topic, is what I really would suggest; there is not a narrative theme, so it can start to bog down in a straight read, especially if you are running through chapters that don’t speak to you.

That said, I found Called to Community a great resource, one I intend to keep close at hand as we move into intentional community. The variety of voices represented here (ranging from Dorothy Day to John Perkins to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Thomas Merton), writing from experience on the things any Christian community will run into are invaluable. So many new ideas and questions came to me as I read and contemplated our move.

If you are involved in a missional community, or if you are contemplating it, or if you just want to know how to maximize the sense of community in your local congregation or prayer group, Called to Community can be a priceless, and much used, resource on your shelf. Not necessarily as a single read, but as a collection you can call upon in a variety of situations as you navigate life with others. Give it a read.

Finding Bonhoeffer in the face of American Fascism

I just started reading The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I knew the bare outlines of his life and death, but the edition I have had a great foreword documenting Bonhoeffer’s life and beliefs. Obviously, there was much about his principled and faith-filled stand against Hitler, the Nazis, and consequently, his own country.

This knowledge coincided this week with the visit of Donald Trump here to Tulsa, appearing at Oral Roberts University with Sarah Palin in tow yesterday. To me, Trump’s candidacy and the following he has inspired over the last year is positively fascist in its outlook, rhetoric, and goals.

Now, I don’t mean to say this for reasons of provocation, nor do I mean to intimate that I believe Trump supporters are fascists or Nazis. Far from it. I think the infatuation with Trump, and more specifically, with the message he is spreading, is appealing to a demographic that is feeling threatened and frustrated with the trajectory of America in the Obama era. Trump supporters are no more responsible for his hate and bigotry than average Germans were responsible for the actions of the Nazi Party seventy years ago.

I also know the perils of comparing anybody to Hitler or Nazis, and as former political operative and ongoing politics and history junkie, I fully understand the weight of such an allusion. But it is one I fully intend to make.

One of the actions that inspired this line of thinking from me was Trump’s new ploy of calling out and tossing protestors from his appearances, and specifically, tossing visible Muslims. Especially striking was the taunting and hate directed several weeks ago against a hijabi who was silently standing in protest against Trump.

This video, this whole thing, makes my very soul ache. I have seen few sadder things. I can’t even express the deep level of genuine anguish and sadness this makes me feel as I just think about it, without even having to watch the video again. I can’t watch it again.

Is this where we are America? Is this what animates us, what gets us excited and into the political arena? Pure, unadulterated hate towards a group of peaceful people, towards our fellow human beings?

Over the past months, as a result of the hate emanating from swathes of America, I have had the beautiful opportunity to get to know the Muslim community in Tulsa. I have made good friends, and send beautiful acts of love and tolerance towards people of different beliefs. Some of my friends look strikingly like this woman who Trump targeted. It makes me so sad to picture my friends in that place. It makes me so sad to think about what they must be feeling, as they go about their normal American lives, at the grocery store or the mall or the gas station or in their place of worship or at their child’s school, in constant fear that they will the target of hateful words, or possibly even worse.

In a few weeks, I have the opportunity to sit on a panel at the Muslim Day at the Oklahoma Capital. I greatly look forward to the whole event, and to interacting with amazing people. But I dread the hate and bigotry I will be witness to from my fellow Oklahomans. I fear for the safety of my friends, their physical safety and their psychological safety. I don’t want to see them hurt, but I know I will see it, because people can’t control their hate and their fear.

And I hold Donald Trump responsible right now. I hold his campaign, and the whole twisted premise of it responsible. He is not the first to act this way; he is certainly part of a political party full of power-hungry individuals who view the degradation of Muslim men and women, and the fear they stir up, as effective electoral strategies. It is sickening that an entire party has seized on such a tactic. But Donald Trump is in effect the standard bearer of the Republican Party in 2016, and certainly the standard bearer for right wing hate, and so he is responsible for this moment in American life.

Trump is appealing to people because of their feelings of alienation and disempowerment. His supporters are chiefly white, middle class, and with lower levels of education. This demographic feels like the America they are living in is one they no longer recognize. They feel that the growing diversity and calls for inclusive spaces and speech are aimed at them. They feel that the benefits of being American no longer are reserved chiefly for them, but are instead being bestowed upon minority groups. And by and large, they are right about these things. America is increasingly less white and less Christian. The edifice of white supremacy is being torn down bit by bit, and like a cornered animal, it is fighting back harder than ever. It is almost assuredly a losing fight, but it won’t be conquered quietly. So, just like the mass of German citizens who felt their nation was being humiliated and marginalized, and this turned to a leader who promised to “make Germany great again,” so this class of Americans are turning to a man who scratches an itch for them.

12376373_10153175862422680_2282138454409409886_nThe fact that Donald Trump almost assuredly doesn’t believe the things he says, deep down, makes it that much worse, and that much scarier. Trump has a 30+ year public record, and this tone and attitude has just come out in the last couple of years. If he is nothing else, Trump has an amazing ability to discern what it is the America public wants to hear, and to give it to them. That’s what makes this whole thing so crazy: it’s not that Trump has burst onto the scene with a previously formed worldview, that he is now dressing up in patriotism to win supporters; instead, he is tapping into the sentiment of public discontent, and telling the people what they, deep down, want to say themselves. A deeply committed fascist is bad enough; an opportunistic, pandering barometer of public sentiment who has seized upon fascism because it fits the national mood is a whole other, terrifying animal.

I started this talking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his opposition to Nazism in Germany, and I want to circle back to that. I have no idea what is was like to live in that time or place. I don’t want to insinuate that we are on the brink of anything as earth-shatteringly awful as the Holocaust. But I imagine that the climate we see towards Muslims as a result of Trump is very similar to what Jews experienced in Germany in the ‘30s and ‘40s. This is the chief reason why I attribute the title “fascist” to the Trump campaign. Fascism is primarily distinguished by nationalism, a militant/masculine tone, social conservatism, and the scapegoating of political, religious and ethnic minorities. Who can deny that those are key features of the Trump movement?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a hero and martyr because he stood strong in his convictions, even in the face of horrendous death. Not only that, but he did it in opposition to his nation and heritage. Bonhoeffer was a proud German, and the fact that he, in effect, took the position of advocating for his own nation’s defeat in a world war, for the sake of the human race, is an amazing testimony.

The prevailing Christian attitude in America is a weird amalgam of two seemingly opposing worldviews, one that embraces a religious nationalism that has equated America with Christianity, and one that tries to show how “non-worldly” it is, that revels in the idea of being “not of this world,” and that constantly laments the sinfulness of American society. We are a people who complain about the commercialization of American society while we walk through megamalls loading up on all the stuff we can.

Bonhoeffer showed us a different a way. He was a man who was proud of the nation and people he came from, who despite it’s shortcomings, loved Germany and took pride in his identification as a German. And at the same time, understood that, as a Christian, he had a higher allegiance, not just to God, but to humanity as a whole, to the entire Earth. Thus, when his nation became a menace to that very humanity, he didn’t public lament it’s descent into madness while failing to back up his ideas with his actions. He stood against his nation, it’s leaders and his fellow citizens in the name of love and justice and grace. He recognized that demonizing others isn’t the way to restore a nation. He was the quintessential Christian of the 20th century, and amazing example for all those who strive to exist in modern society while practicing the loving, others-oriented Way of Jesus.

It is for these very reasons that I wrote months ago that one cannot be both an honest Christian and a Trump supporter. I got a lot of pushback for that statement, but I stand by it as much now as I did then, if not more. The actions of Donald Trump and his supporters towards our Muslim brothers and sisters are despicable and heartbreaking. They reveal a deep-seeded, extreme nationalist, bigoted streak of pseudo-fascism that has long existed deep in the American psyche, and is bursting forth like never before. We have a Christian obligation to stand against this attitude, to stand with our brothers and sisters, even if they have a different religion or ethnicity or skin color. We have a duty to be an army of Dietrich Bonhoeffers in the face of ugly fascism, acting with humility and love and a steadfast regard for the oppressed and beaten down. That is what the cost of discipleship looks like. That is what it means to be a follower of the Way of Christ today.