Listening to The Verge podcast, I was hit with one of my present realities: Everything in the universe is now about Donald Trump!
In case you didn’t know, The Verge website and podcast covers the intersection of technology, science, art, and culture. While I was listening to an episode recently, the host, Nilay Patel, mentioned that even in his fairly narrow niche of technology and tech reporting, in almost every conversation he was being accused on being pro- or anti-Trump. This makes sense when you realize that there is a significant intersection between the tech community and politics (particularly immigration and manufacturing policy), but that’s not what Patel was discussing. He meant that even everyday conversation, writing reviews about tech news, events in Silicon Valley, Facebook posts, Tweets, and every other form of communication he was experiencing blowback from someone somewhere about Trump. He concluded, that right now, Donald Trump is simply soaking up all the oxygen and everything is about him.
A friend of mine, the Executive Director of Christian non-profit, has for years publicly posted hard-won leadership wisdom, but now gets pushback for the most innocuous statements. Well-known leadership quotes like John F. Kennedy’s “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other,” are interpreted as backhandedly about The Donald’s reported disdain for reading and study. Those supportive of Trump quickly jump in to cite his business accomplishments (traits they associate with leadership) while Trump’s detractors bemoan and snicker. Was my friend doing any more or any less than what he’s always done? No. But it’s Trumps’s world now and we’re all reacting to it.
It’s happened to me too.
A Quick Story:
This past Advent I preached on a topic I preach on nearly every Advent, the Slaughter of The Innocents. I was in a series highlighting the nature of spiritual warfare during the birth of Jesus. Because I preach this text every few years, I lifted the description of Herod from a three-year-old set of notes. I described Herod as he was, a thin-skinned, ego-driven, paranoid ruler, who’s chief professional accomplishment was the many sites he’d built. At lunch, several members of my small group questioned me about the Trumpian overtones (which they said where pretty direct). Then one friend, Jonathan Striclyn, looked at me and said, “By the look on your face I don’t think you know what we’re talking about.”
The group went on to tell me that they “just knew” I was talking about the president-elect and that I was not terribly subtle about it. Looking back now I can see how some people made the connection, given some of the criticism Trump received through the campaign. I just didn’t see it. The whole connection was lost on me because, in my mind, Herod is Herod and Trump is Trump. Trump, nor any other living politician, lives rent free in my mind. I just don’t think about him that much! Plus, I have a theological approach to church and state which I’ve written about here, here, here, here, and here. But maybe Nilay Patel is right and people are seeing Trump praise or criticism under every rock.
Maybe you’ve experienced this. Maybe you’ve found yourself making a comment, post, or tweet about something unrelated and someone finds a way to make it about the President. A recent study concluded that since his inauguration people are less productive at work. At the same time, even late-night television shows who have taken a strong stand for or against Trump are flourishing — especially those against. The President is having a very real effect on our basic interactions.
I say all this not to sway your view of the President, but in an effort to highlight the reality that more of our interactions with one another are centering around perceived support or criticism of the President.
Failure To Love
Preachers, professors, and Bible class teachers have a profound challenge. First, as I wrote two weeks ago, we have some percentage of people in our pews who have an unhealthy relationship with politics. While I recently highlighted the temptation to call our partisanship “lord,” there are many degrees below that which are equally problematic, such as over-identifying our lives with what is happening in politics. We allow party positions to shape our interaction with and love for one another.
To be blunt: Some of us have disengaged from people we previously said we loved because we think they feel differently than we do about the resident at 1600 Pennsylvanian Avenue. Think about that! We’ve placed feelings about Trump over people we worship alongside, people we say we love and care for. Who then does that mean we love more? The Christian church is in the midst of embracing a massive, partisan conditioned failure to love one another.
The second challenge is the fact that the Bible host what theologians calls an “anti-imperial-polemic.”
In short, anti-imperial-polemic means that Paul and the writers of the New Testament, view Rome and all other governments and powers as illegitimate, though necessary for basic communal organization. “Jesus is lord, Caesar is not” is a hallmark of Paul’s writing, but the anti-imperial-polemic means that not only is Caesar not lord, neither is Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, or Thomas Jefferson for that matter. Only Jesus can be lord, therefore all other entities calling for worship, fidelity, or allegiance, are counterfeit gods.
The Christian response to government then is to live peaceably under an inherently flawed and evil system. It is inherently flawed and evil because it tries and will continue to try and enthrone persons and ideas as lord. Christians are then to follow the laws insofar as those laws, policies, wars, and actions are in harmony with God’s preferred future. It’s tempting to read texts like Romans 13 in isolation from the greater witness of scripture. We are (when reading the full counsel of God) to follow the laws only insofar as we can do so in “good conscience” and always peaceably. From the Pharaohs to evil Kings of Israel, to Babylon, to Herod, to the Pharisees, to Domitian to the words of Jesus, the Bible critiques empire and condemns a certain orientation to and use of power.
And guess what, for quite some time this anti-imperial-polemic has been taught without people being upset (especially in my tradition), but that seems to be changing. This anti-imperial-polemic was a common understanding and practice in the church of my youth, but has become increasingly contentious depending on who (read: which party) is in the White House. We pastors have either failed to preach the anti-imperial-polemical nature of the New Testament, have failed to preach it well, or, listeners are much more sensitive to the political rhetoric that has always been there. What happens now is when pastors call allegiance to the state into question, it is seen and heard through the partisan domination of the news and in social media.
Where We Go From Here
That being the case, Christians are going to have to deal with the reality that party and politics is on everyone’s mind all the time.
- Grapple With The Reality of the Availability Heuristic – The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. In short, if the news of the day is about the president’s position, say, on climate change, people will hear whatever you post, tweet, or say under that light. I knew Donald Trump to be a hotel magnate more so than a builder, but when I said “builder,” some heard “Trump.” I wasn’t aware that the gas was on in the house when I struck the match. This means paying attention to a broad array of news and being very clear what we are and are not talking about.
- Understand Our Role – I wish I could make this more pleasant, but part of faith-filled communication is to speak truth to power. CAUTION: The powerful won’t like it. Does that mean being pro-Trump or anti-Trump? Well, neither. It simply means being pro-truth. The people who listen to, read, and follow you are owed one thing from you; the truth. All Christians, both communicators and laity, must become obsessed with the truth and speaking truth. That means we may have to sacrifice power and desires in favor of living and speaking the truth. To do less is to abandon Jesus who calls Himself “the truth.” To speak and support lies is a rejection of Christ.
- Resist The Everlasting Temptation – Since the New Testament spends so much time orienting the church to the Theocracy of Jesus over and above false gods, then we need to be equally aware that we face a similar temptation. If the Bible has one central message it’s this: There are a lot of gods saying they are the real God, but Jesus, having been vindicated through His resurrection from the dead, is proved as the true God. That’s what the Bible is getting at and everything else it teaches follows from that. All this means that we are faced with an everlasting temptation to dethrone Jesus as King and place something else as lord instead. Sometimes the temptation is power, money, sex, fame, selfish ambition, but another is also politics. If we fail to acknowledge that very real possibility, it will conquer us.
- Reality Ain’t Reality – Whether you support portions of current administration or not, Christians must be aware of the deeper realities of our existence. People are to be loved. Powers and principalities are to be resisted. If you find yourself raging at people or at ease with the powers and principalities, you’re on the wrong course. As I said recently on my podcast, being peeved with the President doesn’t make you a prophet. If you fail to love Donald Trump, his supporters or his opposition, you’re working against people for whom Jesus died. It is altogether different though, to engage ideas that are not a part of God’s preferred future. My church is full of politically conservative people who feel that those who don’t share their political values have spent that last year calling them bad people and unChristian. It is also full of politically liberal people who feel that conservatives have spent years saying they aren’t “really” Christian. Do you see the problem? When we make flesh and blood our enemy we tear at the fabric of the body of Christ.
It seems that the best way forward for the Christian church is to look back and recover Paul’s view of Christian public vocation — subordinate to the governmental powers, yet subordinate to God first. When the powers cease to be subordinate to God, we cease being subordinate to them in the areas in which they are disobedient to God and dehumanizing to others. This means the God we serve has bested all other pretenders to the throne and those powers are seen, as no more than ruin and rubbish. No. Everything is not about Trump…let’s all choose to see it that way.