Growing in Kindness, The Trump Presidency: Who Will We Become, Part 3

In a short series of posts leading to Donald Trump’s inauguration, I want to ask the question of Christians who opposed his candidacy: Who will we become as we resist President Trump’s policies that contradict what we believe are God’s political values?

During the 2016 presidential campaign it often seemed our political debate brought out the worst in us. Several of my friends took a break from social media as those venues became too caustic. Following the election not much has changed either on the ground or from our president-elect. The dehumanizing insults continue, including by those of us who call ourselves Christian. Donald Trump’s own ungracious words and actions since winning in November don’t encourage us toward Abraham Lincoln’s vision of working for the healing of the nation, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”

In the midst of this vitriolic environment, I wonder, is it possible to become more gracious, kind, and gentle? We can imagine exiting the bitterness altogether will help us keep our worst instincts check. (Taking periodic breaks from heated discussions is a necessary discipline, especially when we find ourselves obsessed.)

More to the point, is it possible to let the vitriolic environment itself make us more gracious, kind, and gentle? Can we let our engagement with our neighbors with whom we disagree shape us into kinder people?

In the following video from Fr. Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries, he shows us we grow in kindness when our kindness is tested.

 

How might we let this acerbic social milieu shape us into gentler people? How do we let Trump’s demagoguery mold us into people who do not react with insults, but instead respond by telling the truth in love? Make no mistake, our kindness will be tested the next four years and the president-elect may in fact be a wonderful teacher of kindness for us.

When we are angry—legitimately or otherwise—particularly at uncharitable and dehumanizing speech we need to pause and ask the Holy Spirit, “What are you trying to teach me through this situation?” Being reactionary and landing a snarky rhetorical punch feels good in the moment, but it does not bring us closer to a more just society. Choosing to respond with kindness may open possibilities insults will surely close. People might not accept the gentleness and may continue to belittle. Take that as a teaching moment and be gentle anyway. Boyle says in another interview at Truthdig:

Demonizing is always untruth. Always, no exceptions. If I demonize Donald Trump, that is equally an untruth… or those who voted for him. It’s not about normalizing. You don’t have to demonize; you stand against that notion: “I won’t ever do it.” And if you know that the answer to every question is compassion to begin with, then all of a sudden you’re gonna go, “Ah, people carry a lot. I want to be respectful about what people carry.”

You want to be clear about things; you don’t want to give an inch, and you don’t want to somehow lose your sense of integrity and what is purposeful and right and just and good.

Being kind, gracious, and gentle does not mean we avoid rocking the boat. God calls us into controversy and to stand with the oppressed. That is, the boat is going to be rocked. Kindness, graciousness, and gentleness are the means with which we struggle for justice.

Everything Matters: An Advent Reflection

Each Advent we again reflect on how Jesus came to be with us. This world seems to be an undifferentiated heap of chaos. Truth gives way to base opinion. Reason and morality succumb to power. Any gains of human generosity pale in comparison to the equally human destruction that is tearing Aleppo to shreds. We celebrate technological advances allowing us to move people and goods faster and farther, but these same advances have sped up the harm of our planet and made human trafficking easier. We can choose to ignore the turmoil in order to function, dulling our confusion with the glitz of the season. Or we might stare at the violence so long we lose hope. The search for meaning seems fleeting or delusional. In the midst of this existence, which appears at worst deranged and at best absurd, we celebrate Jesus’s birth.

Jesus did not arrive as a grown man or as a resplendent king at the peak of power. He came as a poor infant, born to parents who lived in a land occupied by an oppressive empire. They would have to escape a violent tyrant and seek refuge in a foreign land. Jesus shared our experience. He ate, slept, learned, celebrated, mourned, matured, worked, rested, prayed, and died. Jesus’s very life affirms our existence.

Christians believe that God will one day make the world anew. On that day everything will be completely right and just. Violence, evil, sin, and death will cease to exist. It is telling that Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem was not that moment in which chaos is destroyed and order fully established. His life, ministry, and resurrection inaugurate this new creation, but it has yet to arrive completely.

What are we to make of Jesus entering into our mess? The simple answer, I believe, is this: everything matters. (Admittedly this belief often feels like a weak conviction, a hope against hope.) All stages of life ultimately matter. Through Jesus, God gives human existence a stamp of approval. Jesus was a zygote, infant, toddler, youth, and adult. His eating, sleeping, learning, celebrating, mourning, maturing, working, resting, praying, and dying all mattered. His incarnation and resurrection affirms that none of what we may see as absurd randomness is truly meaningless.

God embraces our joy, hope, and even pain. The consolation we experience may not reconcile the evil and beauty we see. We may never receive the answers for why we endure terrible loss. But comfort comes to us in the fact of knowing God incarnate came to be with us as an infant, residing with us in our powerlessness. The God of the universe has experienced our confusion. Jesus saw firsthand the heap of chaos comprising our successes and failures, convictions and doubts, hopes and fears, beauty and ugliness. Jesus saw this heap and redeemed it. As Jesus tells his disciples after feeding the five thousand, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” (John 6.12) This Advent and Christmas, may you see God also inviting you to gather up the fragments around you, so that nothing may be lost.

Jesus is here!

God is with us!

Everything matters!

Jesus Loves Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and We Should Too

Just three days into the first of the party conventions and it seems Americans have become only more divided. News stories, commentaries, and my social media feed are filled with voices belittling the other side. Liberal folks are aghast any reasonable person could support Donald Trump. My conservative neighbors are confounded any moral person could vote for Hillary Clinton.

Both candidates have their serious flaws, but I will not detail those in this post. Instead, I hope to encourage my fellow Christians to step back from the vitriol and instead engage in practices that foster a love for your neighbor—even if that neighbor is someone running for president with whom you disagree vehemently, or one of their supporters.

Strong opinions are not the problem. Debates about the size and scope of the government are necessary and even good in our republic. We should not give up our principles for the sake of a facade of unity. Let us have those political debates in good faith.

I am concerned about the dehumanizing language surrounding Trump and Clinton by their strongest detractors, who seem to find nothing good in them. Trump and Clinton are painted as terrible people who embody evil. Taking such a view is a problem for Christians. To be sure, the candidates may have terrible character traits and support monstrous policies. These should be named, rejected, and called to account. But as Christians, we have means to understand that sort of thing. Both Clinton and Trump are sinners. And we know the story that, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5.8)

For Christians it is important to maintain these two theological and political commitments during an election season:

  1. All people, even presidential candidates, are created in God’s image.
  2. Jesus Christ loves all people so much that he died to redeem them—including members of political parties we hate.

If Jesus sees Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton as worthy of God’s love then surely we should too. The fact is neither Clinton nor Trump is perfect, but neither are they utterly evil. We must reject the temptation to think they are and engage in practices that help us see them as God does.

During the conventions when we are drawn to cheer, throw our shoes at the television screen, or withdraw in disgust, let us make it a point to look for the good in other people, even if we might not find anything in their political views or careers that is praiseworthy. Can you engage in an act of service or mercy for someone across the political aisle? Even something as simple as sending them an encouraging note. If not, at least take time this week to think about the candidates and their supporters, especially the one with whom you most disagree, and pray for them as children created in God’s image and for whom Christ died.

God made you in God’s very image. Jesus Christ died for you so that you might be reconciled to God. The same is true of your political opponents.

The Countercultural Act of Praying for the Government

Recently Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, spoke to a group of Christian conservatives (or was it conservative Christians? that’s for another time). In a video posted to Twitter by Bishop E.W. Jackson, Trump says, “Some of the people are saying, ‘Let’s pray for our leaders.’ And I said, ‘Well, you can pray for your leaders, and I agree with that. Pray for everyone.’ But what you really have to do is you have to pray to get everybody out to vote for one specific person. And we can’t be, again, politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders, because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes, selling the evangelicals down the tubes. And it’s a very, very bad thing that’s happening.”

There is a rich biblical tradition of praying for governmental leaders. We see it in both the Old and New Testaments. In my book The Politics of Praise, readers pray through Psalms 72 and 146. Psalm 72 is a prayer for the king at what seems to be his coronation. It gives us a picture of what kind of leadership God blesses.

Along with devotional readings on the two psalms, I also wrote a few essays designed to help people enter the world of these amazing prayer poems. I offer you the essay on Psalm 72. I invite you to read the essay, and more importantly, prayerfully read Psalm 72. I hope you will see why and how we are called to pray for all our governmental leaders, which is not something we do, as Trump claims, for the sake of political correctness. Praying for our leaders is in fact a radical act to bring our leaders in line with God’s political agenda of justice and mercy.


The Countercultural  Act of Praying for the Government

In the debate a week before the presidential election in 1980, Ronald Reagan posed the now-famous question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”[i] Ever since that debate nearly every challenger to an incumbent leader or an incumbent party has asked this question in one form or another. Republican and Democratic candidates alike ask it every election cycle. Many people use this question as their main lens through which they assess how well an elected official does her job. This question perfectly fits our self-centered culture. In the United States we are consumed with self-realization, self-help, self-actualization, rational self-interest, self-assertion, and being self-made.[ii] We think all institutions—like our government, economy, schools, and even churches—exist to help us discover and make the best versions of ourselves.

Reagan’s question is powerful in its simplicity and clarity. It cuts to the core of many of our values and concerns. It is not, however, a Christian question. If we follow the prayer of Psalm 72, we see that we are to assess the quality of a leader’s job by how she uses her power to help marginalized people. Therefore the question we are to ask is not, “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” but, “Is my neighbor, especially my poor and needy neighbor, better off than he was four years ago?” Jesus Christ calls us as his followers to focus not our own interests, but on the interests of others, particularly the interests of the most vulnerable in our society.[iii] This is a countercultural move and the ability to focus on the needs of others before our own does not magically appear in us. We have to pray God would shape us into generous and compassionate people. Psalm 72 is a prayer that does exactly that.

The author of Psalm 72 calls us to engage in another countercultural act: praying for our leaders. We have a national pastime of complaining about our government and its officials. We argue about them around dinner tables, at work, and in all forms of media. Political punditry is a giant industry in the United States and those who sling the most mud receive the majority of our attention. These voices demand we support or oppose our leaders, depending on whether those leaders align with the pundit’s positions. We rarely hear calls for us to pray to God for our leaders. Perhaps at the inauguration of a president or at the beginning of a legislative term we might stop and offer a pro forma prayer, but sustained, considered prayer for our government officials is not a discipline that many of us readily practice.

The psalmist calls the people of God to pray for Yahweh’s blessing on our governmental leaders. This prayer will probably cause discomfort. Depending on the leader in power, we may not want to pray, “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (72.8). We can quickly think of political leaders throughout history we are glad God did not bless with long reigns. Thankfully, the psalmist does not say the blessings for the leaders are merited simply because they are in charge. In fact, he implies Yahweh blesses those leaders who pursue God’s agenda of peace and justice.[iv]

To the extent a leader pursues God’s political agenda of helping the marginalized, we pray for Yahweh to bless her. We know a governmental leader who stands for what God values, who uses her authority to end oppression and violence, is refreshing to all people, “like rain that falls on the mown grass” (72.6). If an official does not prioritize the poor and needy, we use Psalm 72 as an indictment against her leadership. We hold up this psalm as an example of what godly political leadership should look like. When a leader prioritizes her own career advancement above the good of the community, vilifies the poor and needy, unfairly privileges the rich and powerful (or even the middle class), feeds our self-centered natures, or worse, engages in oppression and violence, we use Psalm 72 as a guide to pray for her repentance.

We should pause for a moment before wading into these psalms. Readers will note the psalmists do not address many of the specific political debates we face today. We receive no instruction on whether we should adopt the liberal vision of a larger government or the conservative vision of a smaller government. The psalmists do not say how much a government should manipulate financial markets. They do not mention whether more power should rest at the local or the federal levels. The silence on these matters means they are open for Christians to debate in good faith and in doing so we have an opportunity to set an example for our society on how to discuss and disagree civilly. But as we debate the shape and size of government, as we consider what laws we should have, as candidates propose their agendas, Psalm 72 gives us a lens through which we evaluate all these matters.

The values the psalmist describes should frame the discussion. God calls all of us to make the case that our political positions will best give deliverance to the needy. If a member of Congress believes businesses should run without much government interference, we who pray Psalm 72 will demand he show how free enterprise can better help the marginalized. If a city council member believes corporations need to be more closely regulated, we readers of the Psalms will demand he show how such regulation can better help the dispossessed. If we are shaped by this psalm, we will ask, “Who primarily benefits from this proposed law? Will this law help people suffering under oppression? What size and shape of government best helps poor people?” As we listen to politicians, we will require they show how their agendas will help our most vulnerable neighbors.

The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146 is available in paperback and the Kindle format at Amazon.com.


[i] Reagan’s expanded on the question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago?” “October 28, 1980 Debate Transcript,” accessed December 21, 2014, http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-28-1980-debate-transcript.

[ii] See Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is, for a wonderful treatment showing how praying the psalms takes our focus away from the self and places it back on God.

[iii] See: Philippians 2.4.

[iv] As we pray these psalms we also become aware of the differences between our context and the political contexts when these prayers were written. Psalm 72 in particular raises questions of how we pray for political leaders when the Church is not tied to any particular nation.