Praise, Lament, and Thanksgiving, The Trump Presidency: Who Will We Become, Part 2

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?

I used to have an instrumental view of prayer. That is, I thought prayer was a means to a relationship with Jesus. Now I see prayer is the relationship itself, for interpersonal connection demands spending time with each other, listening and speaking. Christians historically learned to pray through the Book of Psalms. In those prayer-poems we find the whole gamut of the human experience, including politics, brought before God in a raw beauty.

The psalmists lived in a cycle of praise, lament, and thanksgiving. They would praise the greatness of Yahweh, Israel’s God. When circumstances led to disappointment and suffering, the psalmists would lament, calling on God to rescue, redeem, and restore. After God acted and brought some salvation, the psalmists would burst forth in thanksgiving.

In order for Christians to oppose Donald Trump when he acts in ways that contradict God’s purposes, we must become people saturated in the Book of Psalms. Through praise we align our priorities and declare our allegiance to God, above any other commitment. In lament we name the darkness and go to God with our protests and demand, “What are you going to do about this?” In thanksgiving we acknowledge God’s generosity in delivering us from our lamentable situations.

We need praise, lament, and thanksgiving for the next four years. Through true prayer God will motivate us to action, and in prayer we bring our experiences to the Holy Spirit. Without praise, lament, and thanksgiving, we lose sight of God at work in the world. Our relationship with Jesus thins to the point where he is nothing more than an intellectual concept. When we lose sight of our true hope, we grow more cynical and succumb to the temptation to seek power. Fostering our relationship with Jesus, that is, praying the Psalms, will strengthen us to work for justice and keep us from dehumanizing our neighbors with whom we disagree.

I recommend starting with three very political psalms that fall into the categories of praise, lament, and thanksgiving. Chew on these psalms, make them your prayers, and let them stimulate you to other prayers. Find a community who will pray these psalms with you.

Praise: The writer of Psalm 146 makes a wonderful juxtaposition in this beautiful hymn of praise. He contrasts the powerful and good God of Israel to the ephemeral political leaders of his day. In this psalm we see the broad strokes of God’s political agenda: creation, justice for the oppressed, restoration for those on the margins.

Lament: The writer of Psalm 73 confesses to being envious of the prosperity of leaders who shirk God. The psalmist’s confusion is apparent. We can see him almost succumbing to the temptation to ditch God’s ways and instead seek political and cultural power. His lament keeps him from despair, however, and realigns him with Yahweh.

Thanksgiving: The writer of Psalm 124 leads the community in a song of thanks to God for rescuing them from their enemies. Their situation was dire, but God proved to be good and faithful. The short prayer brims with rich imagery.

I offer one additional prayer, Psalm 37. Here the psalmist calls people to be patient and remain faithful to God in the midst of an environment where wickedness seems to reign. Let us hear the psalmist’s exhortation again, “Trust in the Lord, and do good.” (37.3) This verse reminds me of something Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “The time is always right to do what’s right.”

Praise sets our hopes correctly on the God of the universe. Lament keeps us from despair and helps us stand against injustice as we name that evil and call the Holy Spirit to act. Thanksgiving reminds us there is still good in the world because Jesus has not grown tired of his redemptive work.

Advertisements

The Trump Presidency: Who Will We Become, Part 1

As the presidency of Donald Trump begins, many Christians who opposed him wonder how do we constructively work against policies shaped by the racist, xenophobic, and sexist views he expressed on the campaign trail? I want to step back and ask a more basic question:

Who will we become as we oppose President Trump’s policies that contradict what we believe are God’s political values?

In a short series of posts leading to Trump’s inauguration, I want to consider values and practices Christians will need as we work for justice and mercy. Will we detest our neighbors or love them? Will we become more cynical and jaded, or more hopeful? Will we react to Trump’s demagoguery with derision and self-righteousness, or will we commit to “speaking the truth in love”? (Eph 4.15) Will we allow our anger to become resentment at President Trump (and our neighbors who support him) or will we allow the Spirit to use our anger to compel us to stand with people on the margins?

I have returned to the commitment card produced by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, the Birmingham affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—the civil rights organization Martin Luther King, Jr. led. The practices members of that movement committed to would help ensure that they became more loving and hopeful in their work against oppressive systems. Here are the ten commitments each person made:

  1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
  2. Remember always that the non-violent movement seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory.
  3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
  4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
  5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
  6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  8. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
  9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

If we together follow practices like these every day we will be saturated in the love of God that frees men and women from the sin of selfishness. We will then love our neighbors who suffer under injustice so much that we will seek to make their freedom from oppression a reality. We will love those committing the oppression so much that we will seek to make their freedom from their sin a reality. We will know God, the love that loves us, so intimately that we will become conduits of the Holy Spirit’s love in the world.

We will encounter a number of temptations along the way. We will be lured to dehumanize Trump and our neighbors who voted for him. We will be tempted to find superficial comfort that we are not like our Christian brothers and sisters who supported Trump’s candidacy. But in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18.9-14) Jesus warns us against self-congratulatory spiritual pride. We may want to define ourselves by what we are not. Finding identity in being a Christian who didn’t vote for President Trump doesn’t tell us anything about our true convictions or hopes. Such a self-definition won’t sustain us for very long, nor will it protect us from the very real sins of wrath and pride.

For this work to be resilient, lasting, and truly reflective of the radical love of God, we need to commit to the affirmative. We have to define ourselves by our allegiance to our lord Jesus Christ and his purposes in this world. There will be seasons in which we will see only stagnation or failure. We need hope in a God who is love, who has conquered the world, and who is making all things new.

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.

Praying for God to Damn the Trump Presidential Campaign

Donald Trump’s recent statement on preventing Muslim immigration to the United States deserves to be rejected and condemned with the strongest language possible. This call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” is another in a string of statements and positions that should disqualify Trump from holding elected office in the United States. This statement against Muslims goes against America’s most central values.

I refrained from writing about Trump on my blog because I viewed him spouting buffoonish statements in an effort to stroke his ego. I thought drawing any attention to him, even in the form of negative criticism, only gave him what he wanted. His current lead in national GOP primary polls has not concerned me given the diluted field of candidates. My assumption has been if there were fewer candidates, more voter support would coalesce around a more mainstream Republican.

But when a figure gains regular national attention and has been able to shape political debate, it is responsible to name and condemn his malicious rhetoric. This uncivil rhetoric has been particularly aimed at Latinos, African Americans, women, and Muslims. As others have pointed out, we have seen throughout history how language like Trump’s marks the beginning of nativistic movements and scapegoating of minorities, including the internment of Japanese Americans. I applaud members of the Republican party, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, for unequivocally condemning Trump’s recent statement.

Trump preys on human fears. He does not call us to be better versions of ourselves. His ugly and imprecise language pulls on emotions, but does not lead us to rational thought. Xenophobia, racism, and sexism are entirely unwelcome in our body politic.

Trump calls himself a Christian. I see little of Christ in these and other divisive statements he has made. Jesus did not belittle others. He did not engage in demagoguery. He certainly did not vilify whole swaths of people in response to the evil actions of a few. Christ calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10.27). He goes further and demands his followers love their enemies (Matthew 5.44). Trump’s positions show little love for others unlike himself. He professes a love for an imaginary America that never existed and would be a nightmare if it did. Selfless love for the orphan, widow, and stranger dominate God’s political agenda (see: Psalm 146). Trump’s fictional America is marked by xenophobia and utter selfishness.

I largely stayed silent as Trump maligned my Latino, female, and African American friends and neighbors. But my silence was a mistake and I will no longer keep quiet as he demonizes my Muslim friends and neighbors.

I pray for God to forgive Trump the man and to bring him to repentance. I also pray God would damn his presidential campaign.