The Words of Christ are no longer sufficient for Trump’s favorite evangelical

How seriously do we, and should we, take the ethical guidance and commands of Christ? This is a question that has long interested me as a Christian. Christ is fairly explicit throughout the Gospels, and especially in the Sermon on the Mount, that an ethic of nonviolence, mercy, and compassion is required of those who would be disciples. Jesus instructs in his sermon that we are to love our enemies, give quietly and without great fanfare to the needy, refrain from judging, and, most famously, to turn the other cheek.

These commands are key points of contention between realist and pacifist Christians arguing in the political and social realm. Should an ethic of nonresistance and even submission guide a Christian’s engagement in politics? While the more Niebuhrian will clearly answer no, they almost never go so far as to disparage these words of Christ; rather, their opposition is grounded in a realpolitik approach to social engagement, in which hard realities must be met, even if that means that we at times, like all sinners, fall short of our calling. (It is here that I think Niebuhr’s grounding in Reformed theology really shines through most clearly.) Christ’s words are the ultimate good, in this view, but our own sin, and the sin of the world, often prevents us from living up to them.

Jerry Falwell Jr’s new Falkirk Center at Liberty University, however, takes things in a completely anti-Christian direction in its mission statement. Apparently, the very words of Christ are just simply unacceptable to Donald Trump’s favorite court evangelical. According to Falwell, the specter of “leftism”, and the driving urge he feels to defend America first and foremost, takes precedence over the words of Christ:

Bemoaning the rise of leftism is no longer enough. Turning the other cheek in our personal relationships with our neighbors as Jesus taught, while abdicating our responsibilities on the cultural battlefield is not sufficient. There is too much at stake in the battle for the soul of our nation.

“There is too much at stake” for us to take the words of Christ seriously any longer. Being a follower of the Crucified God is all well and good, but winning the culture is much, much more important. God and Country, after all, right?

This is disgusting, frankly, and it really strains the bounds of what can really be considered Christianity. It’s one thing to grapple with these commands and come down on the side that they are sometimes simply unrealistic in the face of realities today. I don’t personally subscribe to this view – I am quite confident that the example of Christ is never deficient; it may sometimes result in our own personal discomfort, deprivation or even death, but such is the price we pay for following the One who offered himself up to death. But it’s another thing indeed to just declare, as a Christian, that the words of Christ just simply aren’t good enough anymore.

It’s enough to make me think that, if Christ were here today giving his Sermon, living his life of nonresistance and peace, that there would be large swaths of the American church who would label him a “snowflake” – or worse.

The words of Christ are never deficient. Are they sometimes inconvenient, hard, or unpopular? Will they sometimes ostracize us, separate, or even put us in bodily danger? Absolutely. But they serve a greater good than immediate political victory and support of conservative political causes. It seems like Jerry Falwell Jr – and many conservative Christians – seem to have forgotten this. Political achievement has replaced Christian principles.

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“Whoring After Other Gods”

Members of the clergy lay hands and pray over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights
Members of the clergy lay hands and pray over Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on September 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Rev. William Barber took to NBC News earlier this week to lend his powerful moral voice to the condemnation of Donald Trump’s news making infidelities. The infidelity Barber wrote of, however, was not Trump’s affair with porn star Stormy Daniel:

The infidelity that we must concern ourselves with is called “whoring after other gods” in the Bible (see Hosea 9:1 or Amos 7:17). Whenever a nation chooses to hurt the poor, oppress the stranger, mistreat the weak and corrupt the courts in the Bible, prophets accuse political leaders of public infidelity. Unlike in a marriage, such adultery is not a private matter; it must be challenged and called out in the public square.

Today, too many preachers are willing to overlook personal moral failings in exchange for access to power. Jerry Falwell, Jr., responding to critics, claimed Jesus’ teachings are about private morality, not public policy: “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome,” he wrote on Twitter.

Though this is a common distinction among white evangelicals in the U.S., it is not a distinction the Bible makes. Jesus himself says that, at the final judgment, “all the nations” will be gathered before him to give an account for how they treated the most vulnerable among us. The prophet Isaiah, whom Jesus quotes often, condemns “those who legislate evil” and exhorts the faithful to “loose the bands of injustice”— a political act in any society. It’s hard to imagine someone who proclaimed the “kingdom of God” in the first century not having a vision for the transformation of society.

Taking care of the poor and the vulnerable is not a left wing political agenda, or a specifically SJW concern. It is the very work of Christ himself, and by our identification with Him, it is our work to. If we want to claim to be the Christian nation that people like Falwell and Perkins claim we are, we must do better. Trump’s policies towards the vulnerable of the world are as anti-Christian as one can imagine. The court evangelicals and the millions of American Christians who continue to support him need to wake up and realize this, and hold him to a Christian standard.

Looking for Jonah

I saw this headline the other day, while scrolling through Facebook. Like so, so, so many things having to do with our President, it made me angry, it offended my sensibilities as an American, a Christian, and a human being, and most of all, it just made me sad.

But it also made me think about the story of Jonah.

Anyone who grew up in Sunday school knows the broad contours of the story. God tells Jonah to do something, Jonah disobeys and runs away from God, a big fish (maybe a whale?) swallows Jonah for three days, during which time Jonah decides he’s sorry for disobeying God, the fish spits him out and Jonah goes and does what we he was told.

In this version of Jonah, the story is all about obedience and disobedience, not just of God, but also of our parents, our teachers, or really, any authority figure. Obedience to authority is a pretty important value for most parents, and this seems like a tailor made tale for teaching such a lesson.

But, this is a really shallow way to read the story of Jonah. There is a lot more going on here. There are a lot of different lessons to learn from this little book, and a lot better contemporary issues to apply those lessons to than whether or not Johnny is listening when Mom tells him no cookies before dinner.

Like, for instance, American imperial hegemony in the Middle East.

Stick with me here.

Jonah is a story that is obliquely about imperial hegemony in the ancient Middle East; in this case, Assyria is the hegemon. God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, Assyria’s capital, to deliver a message of impending judgement and possible redemption to the Assyrians. And Jonah really, really doesn’t want to. Why is that? Because if you imagine Jonah being an American (and that’s a really problematic assumption we’ll return to), then the ancient Assyrians were like Iran, ISIS, or maybe more accurately, like imperial Japan. They had a mission of global conquest, and they were constantly attacking and invading ancient Israel. Over the course of a century, they invaded Israel at least three times, capturing the northern capital of Samaria, carrying it’s people off to captivity, and besieging Jerusalem.

So the Israelites really, really didn’t like the Assyrians. You can open to just about any pre-exilic prophet in the Old Testament and find some condemnation and judgement from God for Assyria.

So, imagine one day, you are chilling on your front porch with your dog and a some really good red wine, and then God goes:

“Hey, you, I want you to go to Tehran, and I want you to tell the Ayatollahs that I’m gonna destroy them.”

I imagine you’d be simultaneously like,

“Hey, great idea, God! Way to show those Iranians who is boss!”

and also “Wait, I can’t go to Tehran and do that, I’ll most definitely be arrested and thrown in an Iranian prison and I really don’t think that sounds great.”

And then God says, “Also, tell them if they repent of their violence, I’ll bless them and make a great nation of them,”

and now I imagine you aren’t thinking this sounds like a good idea at all.

You’d run away too, I imagine. Bless the Iranians? Or ISIS? Or imperial Japan? Make them a great nation? Not cool. They’ve all done some pretty terrible things, invaded places and beheaded people and made life pretty difficult for us. The destruction part sounds good, but the blessing, not so much.

But that’s the point. This story isn’t about obedience and disobedience (at least, not primarily.) Rather, this is a story about the universality of God’s redeeming love. As much as we want to think God’s love is mostly reserved for us good, church-going, tithe-paying Christians, it is simply not. God’s love, as we find in so many places in the Bible, cannot be contained or rationed. It extends to any and all people, no matter their transgressions, no matter their background or creed or problems. God showed love to tax collectors, to persecutors, to murderers, and even to Nineveh. So, chances are good that God also loves ayatollahs and jihadis and kamikaze bombers, just as much as he loves Presbyterians and Baptists and Methodists.

And that’s some really good news for us Americans, too. Because we need it.

Remember above, when we imagined Jonah as an American and I said that was a problem and we’d come back to it? Well, we are coming back to it.

Because, as much as we want to read a story like Jonah and imagine ourselves the hero, the fact is, we really aren’t.

In fact, in this case, America is more like Assyria.

Jonah isn’t getting sent from Akron to Aleppo. Most likely, Jonah is getting sent from Jalalabad to Washington, to deliver a warning of destruction and opportunity for repentance to us. In America, we are the ones in need of God’s love and grace. 

And that brings me back to that headline. It’s really gross and disgusting to see an arena full of self-proclaimed followers of the Prince of Peace cheering wildly at the idea of bombing the very part of the world that Prince hailed from. It’s also nothing new; America Christians were the biggest, most fervent supporters of an unprovoked war in Iraq, for death-dealing forays into Central America in the 80s, for the ill-fated effort to combat communism in Vietnam. This news item is only the most recent, and most blatant, example of the American-Christian war machine. And it is so blatant this time because we’ve been taught and conditioned for so long to associate the glory of Christianity with the success of American imperial power.

News flash: that’s not the Gospel. That’s kind of the anti-Gospel.

So, in the book of Jonah, we don’t get to play the part of Jonah. Instead, we are imperial Assyria, conquering Israel and carrying the people off and besieging their capital. We are the ones God’s anger is kindled against, the ones in danger of destruction, the ones in need of redemption.

In the book of Jonah, the Assyrians hear Jonah’s message. They repent. They wear sackcloth and cry out to God and are saved. They shelf their imperial arrogance and hubris, admit that being the biggest, most powerful country on earth, with the biggest, baddest military and the most money and the biggest egos hasn’t served them very well.

Let’s hope our Jonah shows up soon. Let’s hope we pay attention.