DT: You’re supposed to stand WITH Israel, not ON it!

Joel:

American political candidates don’t get very far if they don’t pay proper respect the “special relationship” between the US and Israel. The reasons are quite practical: we share common enemies in the Middle East (Iran, ISIS, Hezbollah), and a mutual relationship—we supply the tech support, Israel provides the eyes and ears—helps both countries achieve their priorities. (Note that I am not saying anything about the validity of those priorities or our total lack of moral imagination in resolving a land dispute about a piece of dusty land the size of New Jersey. That’s too big for this blog post.)

But in selling the American people on a project that requires working with a nation we know has spied on us, politicians have opportunistically connected our political interests in the region with a particular Biblical eschatology, a vision of how history works and what it is working toward. This vision, rooted in the dispensationalist theology of Thomas Darby, says that time is divided into epochs, during which God deals with humanity in a different way. The Biblical timeline focuses first on the Hebrews, God’s chosen people, who become Jews, the people who believe in the monotheistic God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, and who, under the guidance of Moses, Joshua, and Caleb, took the land that would become the state of Israel. After just a few generations, that land was lost–first divided, then conquered–and the Jewish people dispersed. Most of what Christians call the Bible is set during some period when Israel was not yet (Genesis, Exodus) or was split (1 Kings), invaded (2 Kings, Daniel), occupied (1 Chronicles, 2 Kings), exiled (Nehemiah), or a colony of Rome (most of the New Testament).

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Above, a dispensationalist timeline outlining the different epochs of Biblical history—and the future—as understood by premillennialist Christians.

So, for a nation selected by God for a special covenant, Israel doesn’t seem very beloved by God during most of this Biblical timeline.

In this dispensationalist view of time, which is at the center of the popular Scofield Reference Bible, Israel would emerge as a nation again—an event that, when it happened in 1948, gave conservative Protestants hope that God was moving us toward a new dispensation. The premillennialist view, which has taken hold in conservative American Protestantism, says we’re just on the brink of Jesus’ return. “The end is near” folks have been around for awhile now, but they really ramped it up in the 1970s with Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth. (The first, in fact, was the bestselling nonfiction title of the decade in the US. Of all books—not just religious titles.) Since then, the theology has appeared in many other genres, including Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books.

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Above, a bumper sticker expresses the popular premillennialist view that Jesus will take all believers to heaven when he returns. It says, “Warning: In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.”

The central point of this theology is: Jesus is coming and though we don’t know when, exactly, it’s going to be soon. We can tell it will be soon because the world is falling farther and farther into sin. (You can measure how fast we’re speeding toward The End in one of my favorite spots on the internet, Rapture Ready Index. Trust me—you want to visit it. Today it’s at 181, with downward pressure due to declining Satanism but upward pressure from Gog (Russia) and liberalism (anti-Trump fervor).) Jesus will “rapture” true believers from wherever they are, and those who are left will face hell on Earth.

And Israel plays a key role in this.

Obviously, this theology resonates only with select group of Christians. Unfortunately, they include most of the folks on Donald Trump’s evangelical sounding board, Ted Cruz, and perhaps about 20 million Americans who subscribed to Christian Zionism, the belief that Biblical prophecy foretells that Israel will occupy all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates, that the Jews of all nations will return to Israel, that Jews will again worship on the Temple Mount (now the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims worship), and that Jews will convert to Christianity. And they tend to vote at a high rate.

All of this pushes such believers, who run several organizations that funnel money into Israel, to oppose any efforts at peace (even though most Israelis want peace with their neighbors) and to deny the very existence of a Palestinian—something our own politicians have echoed.

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Above, a pin from Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a Christian Zionist organization that rallies Christians to support US and Israeli policies that align with a Christian Zionist vision of the Apocalypse. Check your Senator and Congressional Representative’s official photos to see if this pin appears on his or her lapel. 

The mixing of theology and politics makes it hard for some Americans to distinguish between what is foreign policy and what is prophecy, and Trump supporters have embraced that. Many Americans Christians have a nearly superstitious relationship to Israel, quoting a passage from Genesis 12:3: “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curses thee.” They call of this passage isn’t just to share material gifts (also, spies and weapons) with Israel; it’s also a warning that if you don’t do these things, you’ll be punished—that we, the US, will be punished. (And, interestingly, some far right Jewish leaders hold a similar position: that a Trump administration will usher in the Messianic age when he makes it possible for Jews to rebuild their temple and begin animal sacrifices again (which have already been happening on a small scale), all as part of a plan to practice pre-diasporic Judaism. And these aren’t folks on the fringe; some of them are members of the Knesset.)

And so, fealty to Israel must be paid—and that has made it much easier to push through US policy toward Israel that may or may not always serve the interests of the people in those nations.

And then came Trump, who, as much as any politician, promised loyalty to Israel at all costs. American Jews voted for him in about the same proportion as they are registered Republican—about 1/3. They were either unconvinced or unbothered by his anti-Semitism or felt that he was still a candidate preferable to Clinton.

This week might be changing that.

Within a few hours of Trump’s sharing highly sensitive intelligence with Russia, a nation that has aligned with Iran and Syria, two nations that have threatened Israel, it became obvious that the source of that information was Israel. We don’t yet know the outcome for the asset, but it’s very possible that Donald Trump endangered the life of an Israeli intelligence officer. At minimum, he made it impossible for Israel to trust him with information. Indeed, Israel had, in a bizarre conversation, already been warned by US intelligence not to share information with our president or his administration because it was not clear he could be trusted.

Then, today, Trump reneged on plans to speak at an ancient fortress is Israel, Masada. It is an UNESCO heritage site, and Trump was not permitted to land his helicopter there because the dust damages the site. Trump was informed that his helicopter would need to land at the base of the site, not on top of the monument, and then he would take a cable car. It appears that, in a fit of pique, he just canceled the visit instead.

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Above, Masada, an ancient fortress where Jewish rebels faced Roman soldiers and, according to Jewish history, committed suicide rather than surrender. It was later a monastery and is now a tourist site and museum. No, you can’t land your helicopter on it, you world-class ass.  

Trump will have other opportunities to insult our closest ally in the most volatile part of the world during his visit there.

These mistakes are potentially deadly. For American Christians who believe that we can’t survive unless we support Israel, they should be evidence that they may have voted for the anti-Christ.

 

 

Politicians Who’ve Had it Worse

Joel:

Poor Donald Trump! As he whined during a commencement speech to the Coast Guard Academy, he, no politician has ever been treated worse.

Since Donald Trump is no historian, let’s help him out by making a list of politicians who have, indeed, been treated worse.

I’ll get started with US presidents:

  • James Garfield
  • William McKinley
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • John F. Kennedy

President Abraham Lincoln's hearse, Springfield, Illinois.

Above, Lincoln’s hearse. Below, the White House decorated to honor the death of James Garfield. 

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Above, the. body of William McKinley lies in state. Below, First Lady Jackie Kennedy weeps over the casket holding the body of her husband, John F. Kennedy. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Daughter Caroline at John F. Kennedy's Coffin

I think it’s also fair to add

  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Ronald Reagan

Andrew Jackson, Trump’s presidential model, was also the target of an assassination attempt. Our first president to face one, Jackson successfully defended himself against his attacker after the man’s guns—two of them–misfired.

And though we don’t have any news stories of bullets flying at Mr. Obama, the secret service somehow let a potential assassin sneak into the actual White House and get close to the president. Plus, Obama had to deal with years of racist hecklers showing up to his events. Unlike Donald Trump, he somehow coped with this without hijacking the graduation of the Coast Guard in an effort to garner pity.

We might even argue that the slobbering of Republicans during the unnecessary, expensive impeachment of Bill Clinton was a form of harassment to him. It was surely embarrassing to the rest of us, even if Newt Gingerich didn’t have the decency to sense his own hypocrisy.

To this list, we might add some international figures, including

  • Nelson Mandela
  • Vaclav Havel
  • Indira Gandhi
  • Benazir Bhutto

Of course, we should not expect a man who won’t read a briefing that doesn’t mention him a lot to read history. And we shouldn’t expect a known narcissist to be able to put his own experiences into a larger context.

Who would you add?

 

Worse than Impeachable

Joel:

Look at this: You, David Brooks, Rod Dreher (who we both struggle with),and I agree: Trump’s effort at witness intimidation, tweeted at James Comey, is a line that Congress cannot ignore, paling only in comparison to his reckless neediness on display when he gave away security secrets to Russia.

Both events this week indicate not merely a thuggish approach to the office of the presidency but also prove the impossibility of ever conducting politics in good faith with Donald Trump. Trump, always a projector, accused Obama of surveilling him, but Trump’s tweet seems to suggest that he think it’s perfectly acceptable to surreptitiously record others, and former associates have said that this is, in fact, business as usual for Trump. His carelessness with sensitive information reveals that that he has no respect for vulnerable allies. That Trump doesn’t think this is a problem isn’t a surprise: he’s never loved freedom, civil liberties, the Constitution, the law, or even just the norms of political life. He has never demonstrated true respect for others or care for them. He lacks enough knowledge of history to understand how this abuse of power echoes Watergate or how it endangers lives. That Congressional Republicans are not acting swiftly is what is more telling (and repulsive). Never believe Republicans when they tell you that the party believes in the rule of law.

What I found most interesting about your posts questioning Trump’s fitness for office, though, was that you said that you were now open to impeachment talk. I appreciate your caution, though I’ve not shared it. (I think Trump’s violations of the emoluments clause were already clear enough to warrant action.) It reminded me of a recent post by historian John Fea, who writes the blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home. A member of the faculty at Messiah College, Fea warns us against claiming that every president in our era is the worst president in history. History is long, of course, and how we rank people depends on our own position. Andrew Jackson was terrible for Native Americans, Andrew Johnson for African Americans, George W. Bush for the people of Iraq. Any president in the nuclear age is potentially more dangerous than any who had power before the invention of such weapons, so an even-tempered Barack Obama has more potential for harm than the feisty Teddy Roosevelt or the lazy Warren G. Harding.  In short, how we rank a president depends on a lot of criteria, including some that change frequently. (Obama looks pretty good right now to a lot of people, but if history shows that his commitment to neoliberal economic policies led to the despair that pushed voters toward Trump, how we he be ranked then?)

Years ago, I purchased a set of  presidential playing cards at the Smithsonian. I wondered at the conversations that the designers must have had as they picked who to assign which card to. Kennedy was the king of hearts and Nixon the ace of spades, which were pretty easy, I imagine, to assign, but how to rank those whose legacies are both impressive and awful–Jefferson’s radical belief in democracy as measured against the fact that he bought and sold human beings? FDR’s leadership during World War II and his invention of the welfare state (making him a savior or a devil, depending on your view) during a time when he was also interning American citizens in prison camps? LBJ’s effort to eradicate American poverty and insure that older Americans could live in dignity while also bombing Viet Nam?

If no US president (sorry Carter fans!) has a record free of the deliberate killing of innocents, does this mean that the job itself cannot be carried out without unnecessary violence. (The answer for many of my Mennonite friends is yes, which is why they can’t in good conscience vote.) And if that is the case, should we ever honor any president? Can you imagine, on a personal level, excusing the violent actions that our presidents have undertaken because of a person’s good behavior? (“Sure, Tom enslaved his own children, but he was a product of his times. We can’t really expect anything else.” “Maybe William took us into a war that killed 200,000 Filipino civilians, but he did it because he wanted to build a naval superpower and there was just no other way to get that done.” “Okay, I’ll admit that Bill accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Serbia, but his heart was in the right place!”)

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Above, talk show host Ellen Degeneres shares a sideways hug with former president George W. Bush, who has been able to rehabilitate his legacy, despite foreign policies that have killed more than a million people. He’s just like your grandpa, if your grandpa killed 5% of the Iraqi population. 

Any praise we give any president is tainted by survivor’s bias. Those of us who live because a past president did not enslave, annihilate, or degrade our ancestors have a duty to remember those who were killed: the more than 300,000 enslaved Africans brought to America as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the more than 70,000 Japanese killed in a single day when Truman dropped the atomic bomb, the 20% of the civilian population decimated (No, that word is wrong–it means 1/10 of the population. Truman’s leadership killed twice as many. We have no word for that kind of horror.) in North Korea when he waged war there, the more than 100 civilians killed by drone strikes under Obama.  It’s easy to claim that Trump is the worst if we ignore the 1 million Iraqis dead under George W. Bush.

Is Trump a thug? For sure, but we knew that when we elected him. Is he guilty of crimes against humanity? Maybe not yet, but if he’s anything like most of our presidents, he will be.

 

 

Approval Junkie Would Kill Us All to Get His Fix

Joel:

So, we’e a little more than 100 days into the misery of a Trump presidency (and what I hope is at least 90% of the way done with it), and I can honestly say that it’s gone better than I expected. So far, Trump’s ego has killed just one Navy SEAL and an American child in his botched raid in Yemen back in January. And think of all the places we haven’t yet had a war with! We’re somehow NOT exchanging nukes with with North Korea or China, which I consider a win.  Sure, Trump is pointlessly escalating the largely pointless war in Afghanistan (Did you think that was over? Wrong!), but if fighting there could keep him distracted from starting a new war, maybe we can call it “harm reduction” rather than “waste of human life.” Sorry to the US soldiers about to lose life and limb for that, but it seems like reality TV just isn’t enough to occupy our fine leader these days, so someone’s gotta do it.

In light of Trump’s cavalier attitude about sharing top-secret information with a Russian that our experts say is a spy, some conservatives are coming around to the idea that Trump maybe just maybe doesn’t have the temperament for a job as a bingo caller, much less to be president, though others are still willing to defend a president who is “unschooled” (as if ignorance of how the office of the presidency works is something we should just tolerate in the honest-to-God-I-still-can’t-believe-it POTUS). I suspect that if they didn’t mind his bringing the nuclear football to lunch and showing up in selfies, they won’t mind him revealing sensitive information about vulnerable allies in the fight against ISIS (which was, I think, supposed to be solved in February, right?).

All of this is predictable. After all, senior intelligence officials warned about it during the campaign.

As a Christian, I like turnaround stories–the scales dropping from Paul’s eyes and his conversion from the chief persecutor of Christians to the architect of the early church. Those who anticipated such a dramatic change between Candidate and President Trump were looking for an equally large miracle, and they were foolish. At 70 years old, Trump’s character was pretty well-formed (or, rather, ill-formed); changing it would be difficult even if Trump himself wanted to, and he doesn’t–and why should he? It, along with inherited millions, got him this far.

Trump’s character is familiar to any of us who have had extended contact with those with fragile egos (by which I mean sense of self, not arrogance). Apparently, 60 million of us didn’t learn this simple playground lesson: the vacuum inside a bully can never be filled from the outside.

Trump’s decision to compromise the safety of allies who provided us with information about ISIS was not even a decision–it was a way for him to get the approval he needs like you and I need oxygen, and he doesn’t hesitate to suck up flattery like we suck in air. Trump, when facing a man his own fragile masculinity recognized as savvier than him,  did the only think a fragile ego can do: he begged for approval. Oh, he can’t ask “Do you like me? Am I the best? Do you respect and fear me?” So instead he brags about his intel–he has “the best intel.” (Of course you do, you rube. You have all the power of the presidency. No one is impressed that you have intel.) Like so many other fragile men, he needs flattery and is willing to trade anything for it. He gave away important, dangerous information, jeopardizing our relationships with our allies, in exchange for the chance to brag about it. He isn’t “the best”; he is the neediest.

Trump’s embarrassing dependency on other’s approval threatens us all. We need to recognize it as a permanent condition, not a temporary lack of judgment. 

That kind of emptiness can never be filled. In exchange for others telling him he is a big and powerful man, Trump would give away every secret, endanger every member of the US military, alienate every ally, stuff the nuclear football in Kim Jong-un’s Christmas stocking, hand Xi Jinping the keys to Fort Knox, and appoint Vladimir Putin as the new Secretary of State. And he would still not be satisfied  because a person without a core, without an identity apart from the admiration of others (which is easy to get when you are rich, even though those who claim to love you–perhaps your wives–despise you), can never have that need met. It’s bottomless.

Which means this will not stop until Congress makes it stop.

Which means, really, it’s up to us.

Everything wrong with American Evangelicalism in “the Best Commencement Speech Liberty University has ever had”

Joel,

Did you listen to Donald Trump’s commencement address at Liberty University, the dominionist university started by Jerry Falwell and now headed by Jerry, Jr?

As usual for Trump, it included ample bragging about his surprising electoral win in November and another crass reference about how vital their support was for his campaign (“And I want to thank you, because boy did you come out and vote, those of you that are old enough, in other words your parents. Boy oh boy, you voted, you voted.”). The speech has the usual vacuous references to the graduates’ futures, a quotation misunderstanding Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and some lousy theology (“Jerry, I know your dad is looking down on you right now, and he is proud, he is very proud,”) that frankly should have offended the premillennialists, but, really, evangelical Christians have no standards at all any more, so it’s not surprising that they are unbothered by this detail. For Trump, it was almost coherent.

Falwell and Trump

Above, two lying, talentless conmen who have benefitted from nepotism: Donald Trump and  Jerry Falwell, Jr., who has called Trump evangelicals’ “dream president.” They stand in front of a framed cover from Playboy. Jerry Falwell, Sr., campaigned against the placement of pornographic magazines in convenience stores and sued Hustler in a case that went to the Supreme Court. “Jerry, I know your dad is looking down on you right now, and he is proud, he is very proud.”

One passage, though, strikes me as as almost prophetic:

“A small group of failed voices who think they know everything and understand everyone want to tell everybody else how to live and what to do and how to think, but you aren’t going to let other people tell you what you believe, especially when you know that you are right.”

Here, Trump is talking about Washington, DC–a “small group of failed voices” (you know, the ones elected by the people), but, “boy oh boy” could he be describing evangelical Christians. American evangelicalism has failed to turn its adherents into Christians, and those who claim that their evangelical Christianity prompts their conservative politics… well, they are failing too. They can’t persuade the majority of Americans to vote like them, and they can’t staff a Supreme Court who will ignore the Constitution in favor of their dominionist views. But they’ll keep at it because the know that they are right. Sigh.

More repulsive, though, were Jerry Falwell, Jr’s words praising Trump for dropping the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US military’s arsenal in Afghanistan. Falwell sees this as a defense of Christians in the region, who are persecuted by ISIS. Neither Falwell nor I can speak to the theology of Christians who are facing genocide at the hands of ISIS. What I can say is that, whether the US bombs ISIS or not, Christians, even those at Liberty University, should not rejoice in the death of those who would persecute them.

 

Wolf by the Ears: Why the GOP Can’t Stop being Racist

Joel:

This week you quite rightly pointed out the Republican Party’s anti-immigration policies are aimed at reducing the number of Democratic voters. Republicans have owned up to it, just as they’ve admitted that efforts to suppress black votes are efforts to suppress Democratic ones. And this is the history of white people since the founding: to insure that the votes of people of color will never overcome their own votes, that non-whites will not be able to pull the levers of power.

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Above, anti-immigrant protestors hold a sign saying “Send them back with birth control.” They don’t just want no immigrants in the US–they want fewer brown-skinned people in the world. 

To the argument you lay out, I will this:

Republicans fear non-white votes because Republicans (who are overwhelmingly white and less reflective of the national population than Democrats) have used elected office and government policy to hurt minorities and bolster structures that maintain their power.  They fear nonwhite power because they themselves has used power to hurt nonwhites. They fear retaliation because they know they deserve it. We can see it in the words of Thomas Jefferson, whose own relationship with slavery was–what is the polite way to say this?–conflicted, though not enough for him to act right. Despite the polymath’s genius in imagining a new form of government and his statesmanship in bringing it to life, he couldn’t see how powerful whites could do anything except maintain power over enslaved Africans and African Americans. Writing in 1820, he said:

But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

Today’s Republicans see a similar issue: to maintain power, they must be racist.  And they have embraced racism as a political strategy with a kind of glee that suggests it might not be strategy alone that drives them.

This isn’t just the hard kick of a dying mule. It’s an immensely cynical strategy and one that is self-defeating. There are good reasons why many immigrants are more politically progressive than the average Republican. Unlike nearly anyone in Congress, they have often seen the effects of US warmongering up close, and the sound of American military jets flying overhead don’t inspire patriotism but fear. They have lost family members killed by American soldiers or with American-made guns and bombs. Too, they have lived in colonies and former colonies in places whose economies and landscapes have been decimated by the forces of capitalism. Today, the largest numbers of refugees settling in the US are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Burma, and Iraq–not all places where we’ve messed up, though, historically, we had to take in large numbers of refugee after bungling wars in Viet Nam and other parts of Southeast Asia–but places where our policies have not necessarily helped the local situation. Our undocumented immigrants come mostly from Mexico and points south--places where our economic and foreign policy has long contributed to instability.  They may be fleeing civil wars, genocidal dictators, drug wars, and grinding poverty, but that doesn’t mean that they love Ayn Rand or Paul Ryan.

But, while Trump advisor Michael Anton worries that such immigrants have “no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,”  they, like African Americans, should not be presumed to be default Democrats. Very often, immigrants and refugees from the “Third World” that Anton despises so much as well as native-born people of color embrace gender and sexuality norms that align more with Republican’s so-called “traditional family values” than with the Democratic Party’s stances on abortion, divorce, parental authority over children, women’s rights, or gay rights. The Hispanic and African American students at my own university aren’t majoring in Queer Studies or Radical Leftist Rioting, after all, but in business and criminology. (In fact, criminology is the most popular major for black and Hispanic students at my university.)  International students are pursuing degrees in STEM and economics, not The Overthrow of Capitalism.

So why can’t Republicans imagine appealing to the foreign born and people of color? Is it because, like Jefferson, they cannot imagine the victims of their own racism doing anything except murdering them? Is it because they know that a coalition of social conservatives and robber barons doesn’t really make sense and that, eventually, social conservatives will realize it, too? Or is it because their racism isn’t merely strategic but also heart-felt?

It’s not just the Republican Party losing here. (Remember that the GOP has not been able to place a truly new candidate in the White House by popular vote since 1980. I was in diapers. Every Republican president who won the popular vote since then was either an incumbent president or VP.)  Our democracy would be richer if people of color could contribute to the national political conversation without having to go through the Democratic Party. There is no reason why the huge diversity of black voters so overwhelmingly chooses to vote Democrat–except that the Republican Party (and individual Republican voters) are so racist.  If anyone should be angry about the racism of the GOP, it should be conservatives of color.