The Problem with Trump

The Clown or the Ring Master? 

I don’t know Donald Trump.

It’s possible that his wealthy extravagance, immeasurable narcissism, outrageous statements and obnoxious style are a public persona which he has honed to perfection for the sole purpose of drawing attention to himself.  He is, after all, a salesman whose primary product is Trump.  It’s possible that behind the power-hungry, bragging bully there is a compassionate human heart.  It’s possible that hiding inside the clown costume there is a real human being whom I might even like if I got to know him.  It’s possible.

The problem is that we have to assume that what we see is what we get.  We have to buy what he is selling.  Or not.  It isn’t pretty.

I practiced the personal discipline of ignoring him when he was just the dark clown who portrayed the sinister underbelly of American pride, arrogance and greed.  I took seriously the warning that when you mud wrestle with a pig you both get dirty, but the pig enjoys it. But now that the clown is running for Ring Master, he’s a lot harder to ignore, particularly in light of the support he has drawn from a segment of the fans in the bleachers.

Our Worst Angels  

For a number of reasons, this is a good time to remember Abraham Lincoln’s closing words in his  First Inaugural, addressed to those who were preparing to secede from the Union.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

That’s what a President ought to do.  By contrast, Donald Trump is appealing to “the worst angels of our nature” by touching the chords of fear, racism, xenophobia, greed, and arrogant nationalism.  It’s not as if other politicians (of both parties) have not touched those chords before, but that Trump does it so blatantly, without shame and with total disregard for anything like civility or respect for people who see things differently.  To Trump, they’re all “losers.”

The good news is that Trump has not played the political “God-card.” To this point, he hasn’t attempted to dress himself up as the bearer of biblical truth or the preacher of evangelical values. The bad news is that some self-defined “evangelicals” share the same political convictions but hide them more effectively.  Which brings me to my problem with Trump.

My Problem with Trump

Evangelical social activist, Jim Wallis simply said, “Everything about Donald Trump’s life indicates that Jesus is a stranger to him.”  I can find nothing in his public persona that bears witness to Jesus’ way of life revealed in the Sermon on the Mount.  By contrast, he personifies the values and attitudes that the Old Testament books of Amos, Hosea, and Jonah were written to mock or condemn.

Sadly, I can find nothing in his public persona that evidences the “fruits of the Spirit” which Paul named as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) He would blast any “loser” who suggested that “humility” is a virtue.  If those things are there, they are very effectively hidden behind the clown costume.  

All of which leads me to the deepest and most challenging problem I have with Donald Tump.  My problem is that all of the sins that are so blatantly on display in Trump are the same temptations that in more subtle ways are present in all of us.

For followers of Christ, watching Trump’s performance should lead not simply to the kind of condemnation that every responsible politician and editorial writer has expressed, but to confession.

Wherever we are along the way that leads toward “Christian perfection,” we are called to confess the ways in which we are infected by the same sin and to pray with David in Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.

I don’t know Donald Trump.  I’d never vote for him.  But I know myself and I know that I constantly need the purging fire of God’s love to flow through my heart and life.  I’ll bet you do, too.

Grace and peace,

Jim

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Orthodox…Evangelical…Liberal?

A Preacher in “The New York Times” 

David Brooks has been sounding like a revival preacher lately.  The New York Times columnist said he wrote The Road to Character out of a need “to save my own soul…I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like.”

Methodists have another word for “character.”  We call it “holiness.” John Wesley called it “Christian perfection,” i.e. being made perfect (complete) in love.  The road we follow is “sanctification.”  We wrote A Disciple’s Heart to provide practical steps for people who are traveling that road. (How’s that for a shameless bit of book promotion?)

In his final chapter, Brooks wrote, “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.”  He gives some of the best definitions I know of sin, humility, and spiritual discipline, coming to the conclusion that “we are all ultimately saved by grace.”  Can I get an “Amen!”?

This week, Brooks was at it again.  In a column titled, The Next Culture War, he challenged conservative Christians to “put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations from any consideration of religion or belief. Put aside an effort that has been a communications disaster, reducing a rich, complex and beautiful faith into a public obsession with sex.”  He recommended that Christians offer the world “more Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day than Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham; more Salvation Army than Moral Majority.”  Amen to that!

But Brooks also fell into the trap laid by the popular media when he used the adjectives “orthodox” and “evangelical” to refer to  “conservative” Christians for whom orthodoxy is largely defined by opposition to same-sex marriage and evangelical has become a segment of the Republican party base.

Redeeming Abused Words 

I’m weary of the widespread abuse of those words.

In the Christian tradition,”orthodox” has referred to those who affirm the core elements of the faith expressed in the Nicene and Apostle’s creeds.  “Evangelical” described people who are personally committed as disciples of Jesus Christ and share a burning passion to invite others to follow Him.  The terms were more theological than political although the convictions growing out of those commitments always result in political action.

I know faithful Christians who are orthodox in their faith and evangelical in their witness whose social convictions are “conservative.”  I also know faithful Christians who are equally orthodox in their faith and passionately evangelical in their witness and whose social convictions would be labeled as “liberal.”

While I respect people on both ends of the conservative-liberal continuum, I resent the way the social conservatives have dominated the public discussion as if theirs is the only way of interpreting scripture.  Brooks is correct that it has alienated large segments of the population from serious consideration of the Christian faith.

The Road to Holiness

Brooks puts us on the right road.  It’s time for more Schweitzer and Day (names that the vast majority of American church-goers probably don’t recognize) and less of Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham.

It’s time to let the world know that Clemente Pinckney and the people of  Mother Emanuel Church are more representative of the gospel than the speakers at the “Faith and Freedom Coalition.”

It’s time to say that conservative politicians do not have sole ownership of the bible.  In fact, some of their supposedly “biblical” positions are light years removed from the Old Testament prophets or the Sermon on the Mount.

Perhaps it’s time to put aside the terms “conservative” and “liberal” — neither of which are biblical categories — and learn to walk the road to holiness which Jesus defined when he said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they? So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48) 

From Brooks to the Bishop 

In response to the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, Bishop Ken Carter offered a practical word to faithful disciples on both ends of the conservative-liberal continuum.

What if…

1. Those on the left side of the aisle allowed space for conscience (as Kennedy does) for people of faith who cannot interpret marriage in this way.

2. Those on the right side of the aisle began to focus on fidelity in marriage relationships.

3. Preachers began to teach counter-culturally about marriage, acknowledging the profound brokenness in our culture, in relation to grace and holiness.

4. We clarified the distinction between marriage as a right (in the state) and marriage as a gift (in the church).

5. We repented, on both sides of the aisle, from speech that reduced those different from us into one-dimensional people.

6. We repented, as well, from the historical reality that Christians have been an obstacle in each movement toward greater civil rights in our country.

7. We recovered a passion to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

What if followers of Christ followed the road to holiness, defined by the love and grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ?

Grace and peace,

Jim