Tag Archives: N.T. Wright

The Third Door: Donald Trump As God’s Servant

In 2012, a respected friend in my church asked me, in passing, who I was supporting in that year’s presidential elections. “Do you like Romney?” he asked. “Or maybe Gingrich or Santorum?”

For a moment, I was at a loss for words. It wasn’t that political conversation was off limits in our church, which is evangelical and Reformed, but not openly partisan. It was the unexamined assumption that my support would go to one of those three, or perhaps Bachman, Cain or Perry –all vying for the GOP nomination.

In fact, I wasn’t crazy about any of those candidates. I was one of the millions of Christians who, four years earlier, had suspended past party allegiances in the wreckage of the banking disaster, the Great Recession, climate denial and reckless unfunded wars – to vote instead for “hope and change.” The awkward fact was, four years later, I wasn’t ready to go back just yet.

Evangelical Christianity among white Americans in recent years has seemingly become almost synonymous with allegiance to the Republican Party. The Pew Center tells us that 56% of evangelicals identify as Republicans, a gaping 28-point spread over the 28% who identify as Democrats.

Evangelicals are presented with two "batch ideologies" today

Evangelicals are presented with two “batch ideologies”

But it’s not necessarily intuitive, is it? For argument’s sake, some might imagine that Christians would gravitate toward political platforms focused on “good news to the poor,” maybe? For better healthcare for those who can’t afford it, and for livable wages for the disadvantaged? For medical assistance to the poorest, such as Medicaid? Or for wider voting rights assuring a voice to every person?

We might suppose that those who affirm that “the earth is the Lord’s” would be among the first to support efforts to clean up toxins in the air, soil and water. As followers of the Prince of Peace, they might be among the most cautious regarding runaway military spending and the use of deadly force abroad. At home, they might entertain serious doubts about the proliferation of weapons that can snuff out sacred human lives in an instant. They might prioritize biblical welcome for “sojourners,” immigrants fleeing hunger or violence in their homelands.

But curiously, few of these moral issues seem to have mattered enough yet to shake evangelical allegiances to the GOP. One issue would seem to silence all others: If you’re a “pro-life” politician regarding abortion, evangelicals would seem to be willing to overlook all manner of life-threatening postures that would seem strange to many readers of the biblical Gospels.

It’s not that it’s so strange that evangelicals haven’t become Democrats. What’s strange is that so many are so unquestioningly aligned with the Republicans, libertarians, or free-market conservatives.

But this year, things might possibly be different. I have the hardest time imagining any of my fellow congregants asking me seriously if I intend to support Donald Trump. No matter how many times Trump waves his confirmation-class Bible and swears that it’s his favorite (or second-favorite) book, Christians understand that he has little clue as to its contents, nor much interest in its directives.

And that’s why I’m wondering – seriously – if Trump doesn’t perhaps have a special place in God’s plans for his church in America. Trump, I believe, just might be God’s anointed servant in 2016.

Trump? God’s servant? I admit, it does sound outlandish. But consider biblical history. The prophet Jeremiah must have sent shock waves throughout Judah when he proclaimed to Jerusalem that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was God’s servant. The pagan King of Babylon, poised to carry them into exile, was specially chosen by God: “I have given all these lands to … my servant …. All nations shall serve him” (Jeremiah 27:4-8).

The prophet Isaiah bestowed the same honor on Cyrus, the King of Persia, naming him as God’s anointed.  “I will go before you,” Isaiah prophesied regarding the pagan Cyrus. “I call you, I name you, though you do not know me…” (Isaiah 45:1-6).

If God anointed the kings of Babylon and Persia as his servants, why couldn’t he use the Boss of “The Apprentice?” The Master of Trump Tower?

Okay, in theory at least, I might just have a point. But what on earth might God have in mind for the vulgar real estate billionaire? What role could megalomania and narcissism have in God’s plans?

Well, maybe it’s this: What if the greatest obstacle to God’s purposes for America was something other than ISIS, underemployment, or intrusive bureaucracy? What if it had something to do with political idolatry that has crept into the community of faith – merging the Way of Jesus with the way of Ronald Reagan? And what if Trump’s crassness, egotism and petulance should simply prove too much for evangelicals – driving them to critically evaluate those seeking positions of power from either Party?

In our day, religious people are presented with two “batch ideologies” to choose from – two brightly painted doors at the end of the hallway to the voting booth. Behind the Red Door is public declaration of faith in the Christian tradition, individual liberty, gun ownership, opposition to abortion, law and order, military muscle, aggressive foreign policy, American exceptionalism and tax cuts. Behind the Blue Door is secular tolerance, assistance for the poor, legal abortion, multilateral foreign policies, inclusive governance, racial reconciliation, progressive taxation, regulation of commerce and protection of the environment.

In our world, it seems that there are only two doors. We must enter one or the other, and check all the boxes as our own. For the most part, white evangelicals have chosen the Red Door.

But it wasn’t always so. In the 1960’s, American Christians split their votes about evenly between the two Parties. Before Reagan, they supported Carter in droves. Perhaps they somehow recognized that allegiance to Christ superseded any single ideology. Maybe they knew that the call of individual rights found its basis in the Bible, but so did the communitarian vision of “Shabbat shalom.” Maybe the scripture enshrined personal liberty, but also mandated practical equality among all.

Can there be a Third Door for Christians?

Can there be a Third Door for Christians?

Maybe God was neither Republican nor Democrat.

Today, perhaps, maybe there is a Third Door. Maybe that door is neither Blue nor Red, but one that stands apart, supporting and confronting politicians from an ethic rooted in the Prophets, in the Gospels, in the Torah. Maybe “Jesus is Lord” means that Caesar is NOT Lord – nor Kennedy, nor Reagan, nor anyone else.

The Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright sums this up possibly as well as anyone: “The followers of Jesus are to live under the rulers of the world, believing them to be appointed by God but not believing that that makes them perfect or that they do not need to be held accountable. On the contrary. Because they are God’s servants they may well need to be reminded of their duty, however dangerous and uncomfortable a task that may be.”

If so, then surely, Donald Trump could be God’s servant in this age, sent to break the bond that shackles evangelicals to one single incarnation of Caesar in our day. Surely Trump could be the man who can lead us as Christians – unknowingly, perhaps – to the Third Door.

Herod and Caesar, Then and Now

My pastor preached a great sermon yesterday morning from the Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 2. It’s the story of the Magi, wise men who studied the heavens, finding a new star, and seeking the newborn King of the Jews. There was problem, of course. The Jews already had a king – Herod. “Herod the Great,” he was called. And he wasn’t amused at news of potential newborn rival kings.

We like to think of Herod as unusually brutal, and perhaps he was. There are all kinds of flawed rulers, governors and congresspersons who don’t resort to murdering their wives and children, as he did. Or to ordering the wholesale slaughter of baby boys in a district rumored to be harboring a new child-Messiah. But in fact, in ways subtle or brutal, kings and governors don’t get along at all well with the Messiah. To their credit, they understand the words of the apostle Paul: “The Kingdom of this world has become the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ.” As Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright puts it: “God is king, and the kingdoms of the world are thereby demoted.” And nobody wants to be demoted, especially kings.

Leon Cogniet, 1824, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France

Leon Cogniet, 1824, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France

This understanding was second nature to the early Christian church. Paul told the Corinthians that no one could affirm that “Jesus is Lord” without the Holy Spirit’s aid. Because in so doing, such a person was also affirming that Caesar is not Lord; that Mammon is not Lord; that he or she is not Lord. And each of these carries costs which can hardly be borne without the help of the Holy Spirit. Maybe it’s poverty; or humility; or injustice; or martyrdom.

How I wish for a renewal of this awareness in the church today! If Jesus is Lord, then Herod and Caesar are not Lord. And neither are progressives, or conservatives, or free marketeers, or Keynesians, or Republicans, or Democrats. Neither are oligarchs, or monarchs, or capitalists, or socialists. Neither is the Chamber of Commerce or MoveOn.org. Jesus is Lord, and the kings of this world aren’t happy about it one bit. None of them.

N.T. Wright again: “In almost every letter Paul demonstrates that Jesus is Lord, and that Caesar isn’t; that the ‘gospel’ of Jesus upstages the ‘gospel’ of Caesar; that the true salvation is achieved through Jesus, not Caesar; that the world needs God’s justice, not Roman justice; and with great irony, that the cross, a hated symbol of Roman rule, had been transformed into the life-giving symbol of God’s self-giving love.”

What have we lost in the church of our day? At least in part, it’s this: We’ve come to believe that our political and economic brands are, to a degree, endorsed by the Refugee of Bethlehem. We can choose “the package of the Right,” says Wright: “rigid social structures, hierarchy, law and order, a tough-minded work ethic and a strong view of national identity. Then there is the package of the Left: freedom and revolution, overthrowing hierarchies, blurring old lines, doing things in new ways. It is assumed that, with local variations, you are basically in one camp or the other, and that many other decisions are determined by it.”

Well then, do we argue that Christ-followers should withdraw from engagement with the power structures of our world? Hardly! What the gospel offers us, says Wright, is inaugurated eschatology: “Like the Israelites under their monarchy, chafing at its imperfections and looking for the fulfilment to come, the followers of Jesus are to live under the rulers of the world, believing them to be appointed by God but not believing that that makes them perfect or that they do not need to be reminded of their duty, however dangerous and uncomfortable a task that may be.”

In this time of the American election cycle, we can hardly escape the cacophony of Herods and Caesars demanding our allegiance to their lordship. But for some of us – for me, I hope – Jesus is Lord, and the rest are just governors, or senators, or billionaires, or the latest ideological fashion-mongers.

If Jesus is Lord, then I’m just beginning to fathom the list of all the things that are not. Caesar, Herod? You had your day, I suppose you top the list of the Demoted. But you’ve got plenty of company from our day.