Last week I found myself saying (at least in my head), “Really? You are going to act in the church according to Trump’s playbook? You are going to remake our dialogue and maybe even our values into replica’s of Trump’s?” I’m not talking about “those people” out in some imagined countrified place; I’m talking about people in my own church going for revenge, participating in lies and creating division in the pursuit of power, justice for grievances and so-called “freedom.”
The postmodern/hypermodern era has been hard on us Jesus-followers. The state overwhelmed us, the corporations outwitted us and the local authorities decided it was best to marginalize us. When you listen to us, we often sound just like the masters we feel forced to serve. Our arguments sound like them. Our outrages mirror them. Our actions support them, or at least give them credence.
According to Peter Beinhart in The Atlantic, “over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans…were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.”
Some people applaud abandoning the dying church for a better rendition (Circle of Hope could certainly be tagged with this!). Others applaud the exodus because they think it will kill off the culture war that has been plaguing politics for decades. But after many have left the church, the warfare has not diminished one bit. It has become worse. A more “secular” population is more tolerant of gay marriage and pot legalization; but, as Beinhart describes, “it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.”
People often blame Evangelicals for supporting Trump. But not everyone who claims to follow Jesus actually does it (as Jesus made plain before he rose from the dead). When the pollsters go looking for Evangelicals they find many who just claim the name. One last quote from The Atlantic: “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.”
I hope we are the church, not just going to one so the state can label us and pundits can argue about who is to blame for what. But I am writing this because I can’t be too sure. Sometimes we look remarkably like whoever made a convincing argument about what we care about instead of like discerning people eager to express the very word of God.
So I want to note three things today that Trump and his fellow-travelers on all routes of the road to destruction the U.S. is on seem to think is normal — three things things that are trying to creep into our church (and probably yours, too!).
Revenge is never good even if it works
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. —Jesus, Matthew 5:38-9
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. — Romans 12:17
Giving up revenge is at the core of Christianity, isn’t it? Our whole mission is reconciliation!
For Trump, revenge is religion. In 2011, he addressed the National Achievers Congress in Sydney, Australia. He told them the most important lesson they never teach in business school is this: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.” He tweeted his faith as a proverb in 2013: “Always get even. When you are in business, you need to get even with people who screw you. – Think Big.” He thought big this week when he pressured Attorney General Sessions to fire acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe days before his pension kicked in.
Sometimes we have discussions that can get rough like Trump. If someone does not agree with you, what do you do? Listen? Or do you make sure they understand the full, moral impact of not agreeing with you? We’ve had people gossip some retaliation in honor of one of the partners in a divorce. Some people have left the church over a comment they never even checked out with the perpetrator — they showed them! One man even told the newspaper about our sins. They were all getting even, and it did not lead to reconciliation.
Lying is for liars
You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” — Jesus to people without eyes to see, John 8:44
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. – Paul about people who undermine the truth in Jesus, 1 Timothy 4:1-2
Jesus, the truth, sets us free from the constant fighting with people who will say anything to get their way and achieve their self-interest.
Andrew McCabe’s firing caused John Brennan, former CIA Director and advisor to Bush and Obama, to reply to Trump’s tweets like this: “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you.” Brennan gives us our vocabulary word for the day: “venality” — the quality of being open to do anything for money or whatever reward you seek.
Trump will say anything. He floods the airwaves with lies. The Washington Post keeps a lie-o-meter that reached the 2000 mark in January. James Lamond in Newsweek says that his lie addiction is also a page from Putin’s playbook. When normal lies don’t do the trick, Putin resorts to extreme ”whataboutism” and broadcasts full-scale conspiracy theories not based in any form of reality. Lamond references the invasion of Ukraine (where MCC began with its first relief effort in 1920). He claims that “after Russian-backed separatists shot down a commercial airliner, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the Kremlin and its supporters in the Russian press advanced multiple alternative explanations for how the flight could have been shot down, including the possibility that it was an attack by Ukrainian fighter jets, that it was at the direction of the Obama administration, and even that the actual target of the strike was President Putin as part of a NATO-led assassination attempt. These were all, of course, lies.”
He sees Putin’s tactic in Trump: “The White House and its allies are using these same methods in their attacks on the Mueller investigation. There’s whataboutism around the funding of the Fusion GPS dossier. There’s muddying of waters by continually re-raising the Uranium One deal, a manufactured controversy that has been repeatedly and consistently debunked, as well as the fantastical claims of liberal bias at the FBI. And now we are seeing full-fledged conspiracy theories entering the mainstream, throwing around words like ‘coup’ and ‘assassination.’”
This kind of logic is creeping in to how we do theology. I know plenty of people who can deny any conclusion in a discussion by clever “whataboutism” (like “What if Jesus were really an alien?” or “Aren’t Oreos potentially offensive to diabetics?”). Sometimes, especially when we dialogue about difficult or controversial subjects (which we do!), we have trouble even agreeing on what words mean. There is a power struggle for the dictionary — who owns the lexical rules and whose definitions, “ours” or “theirs” will empower the agenda?
It is a real struggle to “truth” together. People often assume some unknown, untrustworthy thing is happening behind the scenes. The more people whose secret lives get exposed, the more we suspect everyone. Paul calls us to stop lying, since we have put off our old selves and we are now members of one body. We are to stop negotiating with the snakes in our personal gardens — that lying voice that assures us that we are good enough to never die or condemns us enough to convince us it doesn’t matter what we do. It is hard to perpetually sort out lies on the way with the Truth, but we need to do it together.
Protecting our autonomy and rights while dividing up the church is deadly
I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. — Romans 16:17-18
These are grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage. But you, beloved, must remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; for they said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, indulging their own ungodly lusts.” It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions. — Jude 1:16-19
Jesus is bringing people together; he is holding everything together. Our instinct, as Jesus followers, is to do the same.
In a completely contrary fashion, relentlessly, Trump sows the seeds of division. Often we get caught up in the same mentality and presume division. Meanwhile, Jesus looks out over the world of beloved people and hopes for them to live together as beloved children.
Again, in the Washington Post, (owned by the richest man in the world) Jennifer Rubin talks about how most Americans agree that Trump is divisive. “From the beginning of his term, President Trump has pitched both his rhetoric and his policies to his base, not to the country as a whole. He has continued his baseless slurs on immigrants (coupled with a Muslim travel ban and crusade against so-called sanctuary cities) and pushed a tax plan that very obviously penalized Americans in blue states. He began his presidency with the most divisive agenda item — repealing Obamacare — rather than one that could have united Democrats and Republicans (e.g. infrastructure). He nominated extreme and unqualified Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials who promptly went to war with their own departments. He’s done more to accentuate tribalism (from backing failed Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore to accusing former President Barack Obama of sundry crimes and misdeeds) than any president in memory. He’s gone to war with the executive branch (the intelligence community in particular) and any independent source of truth or check on his power. You are either with him or a criminal, a traitor and a purveyor of “fake news.” He’s managed to deepen the country’s divide along ethnic, racial, political, philosophical, educational and geographic (rural vs. urban) lines.” This week he has everyone waiting with abated breath to see whether firing Andrew McCabe is the first step toward firing Robert Mueller and plunging the country into some darkness we can only imagine.
Many people who have been schooled by the cutthroat politics of the last decade or more are much more prone to finding a reason to pull apart than get together. Look at the divorces among us this past year. They are often characterized by the incapacity of the partners to work through real problems and come to a better future together. When the pastors ask everyone to learn unity, some people feel overwhelmed and retreat to some small version of their relationship circle. Try to make a Circle of Hope that can unite South Jersey with Philadelphia on the basis of a common covenant and mission when people are tempted every day to divide – it is tough!
We will overcome temptation
Are we so unaware that we might unwittingly conform to Donald Trump’s playbook after just a year of his horrible leadership and immoral example? I have to say “Maybe” – I think he is influencing us. And, unlike John Brennan, I am not sure America will defeat him, since America is like him. Will we end up losing our faith over the most godless president ever? I seriously doubt it. But when we live out our faith we are tempted to react to the circumstances in new ways. We are getting barraged every day with the temptation to take revenge, live a lie, and divide up. Some of us are learning to hate, overstate and vacate — and we might even call it self-preservation!
Each of us matters; every action counts; and every drop of those poisons we ingest as the Body of Christ has to work its way out of the system. We get weak and preoccupied trying not to die instead of giving people life. We need to slap the Trump kool-aid out of whatever hand offers it to us. We are a strong body, but we live in a toxic environment — let’s be careful. The church in the United States has great resources — but let’s be careful everyone.