Are we ‘willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake?’ American Christians and Donald Trump

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The savior?

Dear Rebecca:

I’ve been perusing the Mennonite Confession of Faith recently, pondering where I — a person with one foot in and one foot out of the church — fit in, when I came across this sentence in the section on “Peace, Justice, and Nonresistance”:*

“As followers of Jesus, we participate in his ministry of peace and justice. He has called us to find our blessing in making peace and seeking justice. We do so in a spirit of gentleness, willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”

“Willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” That’s an extraordinary claim to make on the lives of believers, and I think it gets to something about why a large section of the American Church — I’m speaking here of broader Christianity, not just Mennonites — has thrown its weight behind Donald Trump: Because the church really isn’t willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

This section of the confession points straight to the Beatitudes as its inspiration.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The first thing to point out is: This is very, very counterintuitive. Nobody feels blessed when they’re insulted and persecuted. The temptation is not to rejoice and be glad. And frankly, it depends on a pretty deep faith — one I don’t really have — for a payoff: You’ll be rewarded in heaven.

Here on earth? Not so much.

Again, it’s interesting to view the relationship between Donald Trump and the church in this light. Because so many Christian leaders seem not to “rejoice and be glad” in the face of difficulties. They are not “willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Instead … they throw down.

One can argue how much American Christians really are persecuted, but it’s certainly less and less the case that society is ordered along the lines they desire. It’s hard to feel bad for folks if they feel persecuted because other people can get married, because other people don’t say “Merry Christmas” at the holidays, because, frankly, they’re no longer dominant.** But they feel persecuted, and that’s where Donald Trump comes in.

Donald Trump promises we’ll all say “Merry Christmas.” Donald Trump gives conservatives the judges they want. Donald Trump, in essence, promises American Christians they won’t have to be the persecuted, ever. He promises, essentially, that they shouldn’t ever feel all that uncomfortable.

That’s got to be really appealing.

When Christianity manifests itself as just another American tribe, jostling for dominance, it seems very much to me like an act of unbelief, then. There’s not a trust that the reward is coming in heaven, only a need to win battles right now. It suggests that even believers don’t really believe in a “reward in heaven.”

It’s possibly hypocritical for me to note this, because I’m unsure of a reward in heaven, too. But it suggests to me that a Christianity whose prime concern is winning today’s political debates is one that, ultimately, doesn’t really believe in what it’s selling.



*I’m glad the Mennonites use the Oxford comma. Is that weird?

**I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to people who don’t want to make cakes for gay weddings, in the sense I wouldn’t want my creative work to be used for causes I disagree with, either. I also don’t think it’s wise of them to refuse, based on the whole “if your brother asks for your coat, give it to him” understanding of scripture, but YMMV. I suspect the Supreme Court will eventually weigh in on that matter, on the side of the bakers. Ethically, it’s a conundrum! But that said, the sense of Christians being persecuted in America mostly comes from no longer dominating the culture.

In politics: Purity, pragmatism, or something else?


Dear Rebecca:

In 1996, I became convinced by my understanding of Mennonite theology that participating in the presidential election was a fool’s game — with no 100 percent honorable selection for me to make, I skipped the contest.

In 2000, I slipped a bit, but tried to keep my purity: I voted for Ralph Nader. We know how that turned out.

And in 2004, I had given up on entirely on any question but beating George W. Bush. I voted for John Kerry.

Which is all a way of saying, once again, that you’re right: George W. Bush was an awful president, and having him speak out against Donald Trump doesn’t mean, suddenly, that he wasn’t an awful president. People are still dying in the Middle East thanks to some of his misguided choices.

But I’m not sure that’s sufficient.

As you know, I had a column at today suggesting Democratic-leaning anti-Trumpers need to do a better job of making outspoken anti-Trump Republicans feel welcome in the, um, “resistance.” Democrats don’t have the political power to contain Trump on their own, and besides, having Republicans join the bandwagon — even timidly and tentatively — lends some legitimacy to the effort.

We don’t have to forget that John McCain is overly hawkish, or that Bob Corker wanted to be Trump’s secretary of state, or that George W. Bush was a historically awful president. But right now, the priority for lefties should be to contain and eventually end Donald Trump’s presidency. They shouldn’t be so eager to turn away allies. Liberals must learn to take “yes” for an answer.

 But of course, liberals don’t have to learn to take yes for an answer, do they?

Mennonites have long struggled over the best way to approach the politics of this world. “Mennonites have taken one of three or more approaches to civil politics,” Caryl Guth wrote at The Mennonite in 2009. We jump in as the world does, in a partisan way. Or we become fundamentalist and participate like dogmatists. Or we remain ‘pure’ and don’t vote at all.”

That sounds right — hell, I think I’ve done all three. For lots of Mennonites, for lots of citizens, there’s a constant struggle between the desire for purity, to remain true to one’s principles, and the temptation to be pragmatic for the sake of effectiveness. For now, I’m choosing the latter, as you can probably tell from the column.

But I think there’s a place for purity, in witnessing to the “right” way to do things as opposed to the easy or easily available. I think, in the church, this is known as having a “prophetic” voice.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other. But if you do choose the pragmatic path, it means having to make peace with the idea that we’ll need to build coalitions with people we considered compromised, who have taken actions we think are bad, whose motivations we do not share, whose ultimate aims might diverge wildly from ours, just because — for a second at least — we share a common goal.

I think Donald Trump is not merely an awful president, but uniquely dangerous to our norms, institutions, and rights in this country — indeed, possibly dangerous to our very survival. Which is why I’m choosing pragmatism. And why I’m even choosing to make a little peace with the idea of having George W. Bush as an ally. I can’t say it’s thrilling. I do think maybe the times demand it.

But it may not be for everybody.



The destructiveness of Trumpian immigration enforcement


Dear Rebecca:

I’m so glad that Kishwer Vikaas shared her experience with us of being a DACA attorney and how that effort is rooted in her faith. I’ve got some additional immigration thoughts today, myself.

The folks at Splinter did an open-records request of President Trump’s Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) hotline and found some ugly stuff: “Internal logs of calls to VOICE obtained by Splinter show that hundreds of Americans seized on the hotline to lodge secret accusations against acquaintances, neighbors, or even their own family members, often to advance petty personal grievances.”

Here are the kind of reports VOICE is getting:

Caller requested to report her mother-in law and sister-in law. Caller stated these individuals came to the U.S. as tourists and stayed in the U.S. in order to get legal status.

Caller stated the undocumented individual is destroying her family and is committing adultery.

Caller requested to report his ex wife that is undocumented as an overstayed on her visa.

Caller requested to report the illegal alien because the illegal alien will not let her see [her] granddaughter.

It gets worse. Splinter reports “there are also multiple calls from people hoping to turn ICE enforcement against the people who have accused them of domestic violence.” It would appear the hotline, then, is being used by abusers to rid themselves of battered women who stood up for themselves.

A few months ago, I asked if some kinds of immigration enforcement were more criminal, in a sense, than illegal immigration itself. “A key feature of any crime worthy of the name, it seems to me, is that the act of committing it is clearly and negatively disruptive, either to an individual life — a person may be injured, killed, deprived of property or merely their sense of well-being — or to the community at large.”

Governance under Donald Trump is more destructive than the ills it tries to solve. Not a surprise, but breathtaking to see it in action.

In anger,

Dear Christians: Donald Trump is discrediting your witness

Dear Rebecca:


Rod Dreher is, as you’d expect, largely on board with The Nashville Statement, with some caveats. But he acknowledges it’s a disaster among young people, and you probably won’t be surprised to find out why.

An older pastor said that it is impossible to separate the Nashville Statement from the massive support white Evangelicals gave to Trump. Impossible to separate, I mean, in the mind of the young.

“But Russell Moore signed it, and other Trump critics among Evangelicals,” I said.

“I know, and I’ve tried to tell people that,” said this pastor, a conservative Evangelical. “It doesn’t matter to them. All they see is a bunch of leaders of a movement who voted for a sexually corrupt man like Donald Trump are now trying to take a public stand on sexual morality for gays. It’s totally hypocritical to them. I don’t know how the Nashville Statement drafters and signers didn’t see this coming.”

Indeed. My very first reaction to the statement — despite Russell Moore’s involvement — was that I wasn’t very much inclined to take moral instruction from people who supported Donald Trump for president.

The main defense of The Nashville Statement has been that it constitutes a rather orthodox expression of Christian thought on homosexuality, historically, and that while the culture has moved on, the Essential Truth of God has not.

Fair enough. But here’s the funny thing about your witness: People want to make sure that you’re consistent in it. That you’re not a hypocrite. Otherwise, they’re less inclined to believe you when you insist on orthodoxy.

So if you disdain sexual sin except when it occurs by a powerful man courting your vote and willing to pander to you, welp, that sure makes your values look terribly convenient. In short: An evangelical movement that hadn’t tied itself to Trump might’ve had more credibility with The Nashville Statement than it did.

Me? I don’t care much for the orthodox Christian view of things either way. What I see in my life, and among my friends, makes a mockery of the idea that such loving relationships are disordered. Shit, man, we’re all disordered.

But I’ve tried to respect that people with orthodox views on the topic really believe that’s what God requires of them, and they’ve got — at the very least — quite a bunch of tradition backing them up on the matter. That same tradition, though, would’ve cast Donald Trump out of polite society long ago. That’s not what happened. Which means The Nashville Statement has been accorded more or less precisely the level of respect that’s deserved.

What are we willing to trade for DACA?

Dear Rebecca:

I take it as a given that — following Donald Trump’s DACA announcement — we’d both like to see Congress pass a law giving the so-called “Dreamers” a chance to stay in the U.S. legally and even create a pathway to citizenship for them.

So. What are we willing to give up?

Republicans control Congress, after all. Not all Republicans are immigration hardliners — lots, with the business community, love them all the cheap labor that immigration, legal and otherwise provides. But it remains the case that a unified GOP is probably going to want to pass a bill that lets them tell their constituents: “See! We made the country safer!” Just giving the Dreamers a legal pathway to stay isn’t going to get the job done. Giving the GOP a win might.

So I say: Give them the wall.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Trump’s wall is stupid. Probably ineffective. Mexico certainly won’t pay for it. And it goes against everything we’ve been taught about our country being a hope for people around the world who needs hope.

I also think most Republicans recognize that failing to come up with a solution on DACA will be a disaster — condemning people who are here to a lawless grey zone, at best, or requiring their deportation to “home” countries they don’t know at worst. That’s why President Trump, for all his anti-immigrant bravado, punted the issue back to Congress.

Still, I don’t trust the GOP simply to do the right thing. Do you?

So. A compromise of sorts will be probably needed. One that lets them look tough on immigration. Maybe it’s increased funding for ICE, or reduced numbers of legal immigrants. Of all the options on the table, building a wall seems like it might be the least bad.

There’s going to be a temptation among Democrats to hold out. And certainly, nothing should be conceded before both sides get to the negotiating table. There’s also no reason to give away the store. But if we truly believe that anything but legal status for the Dreamers amounts to a disaster — and I do — then we probably have to be willing to compromise, to not let perfect be the enemy of accomplishing something good. That means we’ll have to give up something we’d rather not give up. In politics, this is how it often works.

So. What are we willing to give up? There are real lives depending on the answer.

Sincerely, Joel


You can’t spell “resistance” without “rest.”


Dear Rebecca:

This morning in church I was asked to read from the writings of “Kansas poet” William Stafford. Stafford died in the 1990s, but these particular passages seemed very well suited to our Internet-Trump era.

He speaks of writer whose work seems to be to

Find limits that have prevailed and break them; be more brutal, more revealing, more obscene, more violent. Press all limits…

Fascination with things as they are becomes addictive; stronger and stronger shocks become necessary. People want even their entertainments to satisfy their lust for fear, cynicism, and disgust…

We must suspend the old course in current events, in order to protect the young. And even the old, battered, disoriented, blasé, can no longer register human feelings in the blizzard of our time.

Sanctuary, sanctuary — what lives needs sanctuary.

Sound familiar?

It seems to me these days we are governed by provocation and provocateurs. On social media, we swim in a tide of constant outrage — the “blizzard of our time” — and our passions, my passions certainly, are governed by the need to respond to those outrages, to make them right. “Someone is being wrong on the Internet” is a motto for our generation.

And more specifically, we are literally governed by a man who seems to want to find limits that have prevailed and break them, to be more brutal and obscene and violent.

What if we stopped being provoked?

I’m not suggesting we absent ourselves from politics. As many have pointed out, that’s something you can do when you’re privileged, when politics don’t happen to you.

But I am suggesting maybe it’s time to disarm, to stop responding to every provocation with a torrent of outrage. What if we don’t go apeshit every time our leader pokes us with a stick?

What if we follow the logic of sabbath? You can’t spell “resistance”without “rest” after all.

I don’t know exactly what this looks like. I don’t know how, precisely, to avoid being provoked when our leader’s every action is provocative. But I suspect that finding such an approach would rob the provocateurs of their greatest power, their greatest advantage. Maybe the slyest rhetorical weapon we have in this age is … the shrug.

There’s so much to be angry about. Our rage is earned, and righteous, but I increasingly suspect it’s a way of controlling us. There are benefits to dispassion, after all, to the pulled punch and the shot gone unfired.

Sanctuary, sanctuary. What our lives need is sanctuary.

Restively, Joel

Arpaio, Trump, and Nazis

Dear Rebecca:

Donald Trump’s pardon of  Joe Arpaio re-emphasizes something we already knew: The folks who say they only have a problem with illegal immigration often aren’t being totally square with us.


See, Arpaio got in legal trouble not because he was hunting illegal immigrants, but because — for all practical purposes — he was hunting Latinos: native-born, naturalized, or undocumented. Trump’s pardon says that’s OK.


A 2011 Justice Department report concluded that Arpaio engaged in “unconstitutional policing” by systematically targeting Latinos for racial profiling. That same year, in response to a lawsuit, a federal judge ordered Arpaio to stop detaining and harassing residents of largely Latino neighborhoods. He ignored the order and continued to perform sweeps, claiming they were lawful.

And, uh, yeah: That does put Trump on the side of Nazis, Confederates, and any other group of racists you care to find deplorable. It singles out a less-powerful group for legal harassment and possible arrests based on nothing more than the color of their skin.

That is racist. That is racist. That is racist. Period.

Respectfully, Joel