Come Get Your Boy

Christian Political Critique in the Age of Nero (and Trump).

Ted Olsen has written incisively over at Christianity Today about how much – or, more accurately, what kind of – public criticism of the president Christians should engage in.

With the US midterm elections a few months away, this is not a call to political silence, to a privatized, “spiritual” faith. Rather, this is a call to speak politically as the Bible does. We should be on guard against talking about Trump more than Paul talked about Nero—especially if we’re talking about Jesus less than Paul talked about Jesus.

Given how much I’ve written about this president since the days of the campaign, Ted’s caution is directed at people like me. If I read him correctly he’s not asking the president’s critics to retreat into spiritual quietism, but to reflect on the proportionality of our criticism when compared with our proclamation that Jesus alone is Lord. This is important and I’ll be mulling it over for a the foreseeable future.

But – you just knew there’d be a but – the other thing the editorial makes me think about is the significance of where one’s criticism about the president is directed. Many of my politically liberal friends are regularly, and understandably, distraught over what this presidential administration says and does. A singular vision of what America was, or, at least, was moving toward, appears to be snatched away with every relentless news cycle. These friends rebuke the president persistently; their anger and disappointment pushes hard in the direction of one man and his many accomplices.

I sympathize but it’s hard for me to find the energy to join their cause because, I think, I’m unable to see this country as hopefully as they have. Chalk it up to a childhood overseas and a decade among friends who’ve never seen themselves as the objects of America’s affections, but the good old days don’t seem so good and the inevitability of a just future not so… inevitable. It’s not that this president is benignly tending to the institutions of our democracy, it’s just that the community to which I’m bound – made up of immigrants and the descendants of the enslaved – has long suffered the damage done by these same institutions.

Despite this patriotic ambivalence, I’ve hardly been quiet about this president. He’s an unrepentant racist and a sexual predator whose policies are wreaking havoc on vulnerable places and people.  But the direction of my criticism – and that of many other Christians – is only tangentially directed at the man himself. Ted’s editorial rightly asks us to notice how the early church mostly ignored the empire and its emperors. (My favorite example of this studied disinterest comes in Acts 12 when Herod basks in the blasphemous praise heaped upon him by the disingenuous crowds in Caesarea: “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.” And then, in the very next verse, in a sentence surely constructed to show just how inconsequential this puppet king was to the church’s Lord: “But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.”) But there’s an important difference between the early church in the Roman Empire and American Christians today: There were no first century Christians wearing red Make Rome Great Again hats while claiming that God had raised Nero to the throne to restore church and state to their former glories.

When compared with their risen Lord, no emperor was worth that much of the early church’s time or energy. I’m not sure it’s all that different for us, which is what Ted is getting at. The difference, though, is that today there are many Christians, powerful ones, singing Nero’s praises, tossing our pearls before swine. And this does deserve sustained and vocal critique. It’s true that focusing too much on this president will diminish the church’s witness to our Lord. I’d add that too little criticism of the emperor-loving church in this moment will also gravely damage our ability to point to the Lord in whose presence all other lords must bow. Paul may not have said much about the emperor, but he was plenty vocal about allegiances and idolatries.

In the run-up to the election, back in December of 2015, comedian W. Kamau Bell directed a Facebook post to white people. He wrote, “Stop acting like Trump isn’t the pinnacle and the result of America’s history and tradition of white supremacy. And again, I don’t care if you had no plans to vote for Trump or anybody, if you are white, he is your problem above all else.” And then, in what I take to be an easily transferable appeal to the American church,  “Simply put, white people, come get your boy.” For American Christians who see the sinful damage actively inflicted by this president, our boy to get is the Christian gleefully cheering him on. To this Christian we say, Jesus is Lord, but also, Nero is not.

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk.

The Repentant Resistance

What Saint Augustine teaches us about the key to Christian resistance.

I’ve been insistent – to a tiresome degree I’m sure – that American Christians are to resist the destructive and divisive ideology of our incoming president. It’s been heartening to hear others make this case from their own vantage points. Yet, because of my Christian orientation, I’m convinced that there’s a profoundly unglamorous posture that must characterize any Christian resistance to our next president. I was reminded of this as I’ve begun reading St. Augustine’s City of God.

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, wrote his massive book during the years of Rome’s slow demise before the relentless barbarian invaders. He wrote at a unique religious moment: Christianity had been acceptable for a few generations but the old, pagan, practices were still recalled and occasionally practiced within the empire. All of this led to accusations that Rome’s weakened state could be traced to the spurned pagan gods. Perhaps, the understandably anxious logic went, Christianity was at fault for the incessant attacks and porous borders.

Augustine’s massive book was, in large part, a response to the crumbling empire and the critics it fostered. Early on, as he defends Christianity, he acknowledges a reasonable question about the suffering of believers.

What, then, have the Christians suffered in that calamitous period, which would not profit every one who duly and faithfully considered the following circumstances? 

Augustine admits that any observer would notice that Christians were not exempt from the suffering provoked by the invasions. It seemed that their faith in Christ hadn’t kept them from suffering alongside their fellow, pagan, citizens. He then responds with a theological rationale that I think should be held high by those of us who see opportunities for resistance and, possibly, suffering in the days ahead.

First of all, they must humbly consider those very sins which have provoked God to fill the world with such terrible disasters; for although they be far from the excesses of wicked, immoral, and ungodly men, yet they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer for these even temporal ills.  For every man, however laudably he lives, yet yields in some points to the lust of the flesh.  Though he do not fall into gross enormity of wickedness, and abandoned viciousness, and abominable profanity, yet he slips into some sins, either rarely or so much the more frequently as the sins seem of less account… So that, although the conduct of wicked men is distasteful to the good, and therefore they do not fall with them into that damnation which in the next life awaits such persons, yet, because they spare their damnable sins through fear, therefore, even though their own sins be slight and venial, they are justly scourged with the wicked in this world, though in eternity they quite escape punishment.  Justly, when God afflicts them in common with the wicked, do they find this life bitter, through love of whose sweetness they declined to be bitter to these sinners. (Book 1, chapter 9.)

When reflecting on the sufferings experienced by Christians, Augustine says, basically, of course we suffer because we also sin. God’s judgment on sin, as advanced through “such terrible disasters” as the empire was currently undergoing, was bound to be felt by Christians along with their neighbors. Though he is quick to show the difference between the sins of Christians and those of the pagans – faith in Christ secures the faithful’s eternal security – he also shows that, by our very nature, Christians can expect to experience the same suffering as our neighbors. It’s the reason for our suffering that is important to Augustine: “they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer for these even temporal ills.” This sobering knowledge, that our sin demands judgment, is what makes the Christian respond to suffering and calamity with humility, knowing that we have no high moral ground from which to judge.

This humility, born from a scathing appraisal of our sinfulness and complicity in the world’s suffering, is what must distinguish Christian resistance in the coming days. Our opposition to rhetoric and policies which damage and destroy will be flavored with a chastened view of our limited capacity along with a tangible sense of personal lament for how we’ve benefitted from and contributed to the world that gave rise to the president-elect.

None of this means we won’t resist when we see our neighbors threatened. Humility requires a quiet spirit but it can coexist nicely with loud resistance when necessary. In his own way, long-winded and brilliant, this is what Augustine was doing in his own anxious days as the established order came crumbling down. We’ll need to do the same in the days ahead: resist with courage, with one repentant eye always on our own sin and another on the redemptive move of God who alone is this world’s judge and savior.