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

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 6.40.50 PM
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.

Respectfully,

Joel

*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.

The Nashville Statement

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 10.23.43 AM
Some real evangelical “heavy hitters” signed onto The Nashville Statement.

Dear Rebecca:

Have you heard about The Nashville Statement? Here’s a taste:

WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenantlove between Christ and his bride the church.
WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.

WE AFFIRM that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing.
WE DENY that such differences are a result of the Fall or are a tragedy to be overcome.

There’s more of this stuff, but you get the idea.

I never really want to tangle with people who express this stuff. Either you believe it or you don’t. I don’t. But I’m operating on different premises than these folks, and arguing with them would be like a German person and a French person debating, in their native languages, without use of a translator. You’ll get that there’s a difference of opinion, but not much way to bridge the gap.

But in a time when we’re led by a president who values women more as trophies than as individuals, who issues pardons that make it possible to oppress Latinos, who makes casual threats of nuclear war … to look at the country and decide that the real problem is that two men might love each other, or that a woman might try to be a soldier … strikes me as misguided. It’s a triumph of learned theology over lived experience.

It certainly doesn’t make me think a return to evangelicalism is in order for me.

Respectfully, Joel

What Thomas Jefferson Had in Common With Hillary Clinton

Rebecca:

When you get discouraged about politics — and it’s easy to do that these days — it’s always good to remind yourself that we’ve been through this (bleep) before.

I’m reading “American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon” by Stephen Prothero, an excellent overview of how Americans have viewed Christianity’s central figure — sometimes by untangling him from a religious context — and how those views of have shaped America. Early in the book, he delves into the now well-known story of how Thomas Jefferson created his own “gospel” by taking the King James Bible and cutting out all the parts referencing Jesus’ divinity and miracles, leaving only the parts that made him sound like a wise sage.

jefferson-bible-clippings
Thomas Jefferson took scissors to the Bible — in the name of a purer Christianity.

Jefferson, of course, only dabbled as a theologian — we remember him as a politician. (And we remember him as embodying some of the contradictions built into our country’s founding.) But his theological work created some political backlash:

A “Christian Federalist,” no less alarmed, viewed the prospect of Jefferson’s election as the beginning of the end of his Christian nation. “han serious and reflecting men look about them and doubt,” he wrote, “that if Jefferson is elected, and Jacobins get into authority, that those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin—which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence—defend our property from plunder and devastation and shield our religion from contempt and profanation, will not be trampled and exploded.” Such vituperations did not prevent Jefferson from winning the White House, but they did send Federalists into a postelection frenzy. After a rumor circulated that President Jefferson had decreed a bonfire of the biblical vanities, housewives in New England reportedly squirreled away their scriptures in wells, to prevent them from being burned by the flames of Jeffersonian free thought.”

I don’t have much to add to this at the moment. But the hysteria — the belief that one’s opponents will rob you of your right to practice religion, the baseless rumors, the assertion that violence against our women is just a hair’s breadth away — all are prominent parts of our modern discourse. It sucks. But we have survived and lived to see better days.

That’s not to say we should get complacent. But if you get discouraged, well, we Americans have been down this road before. If we persist in upholding our values, there’s reason to hope for a light at the end of the tunnel.

—Joel