Posts Tagged Trump

I’ll get to hope. For now, I need to sit in the ashes and mourn – Susan Shaw


If you often find yourself uninspired by online church services, yelling at the nightly news on TV or just generally cranky over all the unjustified optimism about reopening the United States economy, this is for you. Rather than serving up more sunniness and positivity, I offer a lament.

As I’ve watched Christians leap to Bible verses about hope and share words of support and cheer on social media, I have at times felt like the Eastertide equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge. Bah, humbug! I am not encouraged by images of neighborhoods cheering healthcare workers or inspirational stories about recovery from the virus. Upbeat Facebook posts just annoy me. I don’t want to have a virtual cocktail hour huddled with others around our computer screens or listen to another church choir sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” while individually sheltering in place.

“We need to mourn and rage and contemplate what led us to this moment.”

I have been trying over the last month to make sense of my reaction, my absolute rejection of a seemingly endless number of attempts to help me feel better about the situation in our world. I’ve realized that in reaching for hope beyond the pandemic, we may be trying to avoid the hard step in between pandemic and normalcy (whatever that becomes) – namely, grief. Raw, unadulterated grief and, at least for me, its attendant rage.

The scope of devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States was largely preventable. If we had been blessed with competent, responsible and empathetic leadership in the White House, if President Donald Trump and his administration had acted six weeks sooner (or even one week sooner), if we had universal healthcare, if we had a guaranteed minimum income and living wages, if our political leaders had listened to the scientists and pandemic experts – the horrific levels of death and disaster could have been mitigated.

Instead, we must now live with the consequences of our collective choices.

Before we rush to hope, I think we first need to sit for a while in the ashes. We need to mourn and rage and contemplate what led us to this moment.

We know that COVID-19 disproportionately affects the most vulnerable. We also know it has disproportionately spread in communities of color. The impact of the novel coronavirus is yet another consequence of our long national history of white supremacy.

We know that the poor and economically vulnerable feel most deeply the economic impact of the pandemic. This is the consequence of our embrace of an unbridled capitalism that has left so many people behind even as it has multiplied the vast wealth of a few.

We know the U.S. government knew about the pandemic as early as January when the World Health Organization sent out alerts, and yet the president chose to minimize the risk, to suggest any criticism of his refusal to act was a Democratic hoax and eventually to offer up the WHO as a scapegoat in a stunning act of cynicism and cruelty. This is the consequence of Americans’ choice to elect a greedy, selfish, incompetent and amoral narcissist who over the past month has been more concerned with the ratings for his daily televised press briefings than the health and welfare of the citizens he was elected to serve and to protect – especially those who are the most vulnerable.

We know that a faction of the evangelical church has made things worse by defying stay-at-home orders and minimizing the danger of the virus, as if all we need to do is pray the pandemic away. This is the consequence of the choice of a bloc of white evangelical leaders and voters to become nothing more than a wing of the Republican Party and to sell its soul to the cult of Trumpism.

So, before we move to hope, we need to sit for a while in the ashes of democracy and the evangelical church.

To be clear, I’m not pondering the why of all this suffering. I’m not asking why bad things happen. I’ve come to terms with the intellectual question of human suffering. Sometimes bad things happen because we live in a world with earthquakes and tornadoes and deadly viruses. Bad things also happen because people commit evil acts.

This pandemic is not a theological crisis. It’s a moral one. And we would do well in this moment to take the prophet Jeremiah’s advice: “Because of this put on sackcloth, lament and howl” (4:8, NRSV).

“Sometimes, despite our best efforts, evil wins. Perhaps for now we should just sit with that a while.”

We need to mourn. We can’t just jump right to hope. People are dead. In the United States alone, nearly 60,000 – SIXTY THOUSAND – people have died from confirmed cases of the coronavirus, a monstrous figure that is both certain to be higher than the reported total and that will continue to climb. Like Job’s children, they are dead, and new children don’t make up for the ones who died.

We can’t gloss over their suffering or their families’ suffering as if death is not real. Sometimes Christians treat death that way. They deal with their grief by jumping to resurrection without making space to mourn real loss. In this pandemic people have died needlessly, especially those who were already marginalized and vulnerable – the very people for whom Jesus had greatest compassion.

We need to sit with that loss and its utter futility. So many did not have to die. This is the consequence of our choices.

We also need to mourn that so many people in the U.S. think vulnerable people are dispensable for the sake of the economy. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, an outspoken evangelical, suggested grandparents would be willing to die to save the economy. A few weeks later, he underscored his stance, saying, “there are more important things than living.”

We must mourn who we have become as a culture. Mary Oliver warned us in her poem, “Of the Empire”:

We will be known as a culture that feared death and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity for the few and cared little for the penury of the many. We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say that this structure was held together politically, which it was, and they will say also that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days, was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

As a culture and a nation, we are mean – and a number of conservative Christians are leading the pack in meanness, particularly in the face of COVID-19. R.R. Reno of the conservative Christian website, “First Things,” warns about the “sentimentalism” of trying to save lives. “There are many things more precious than life…. There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.”

I can’t imagine that the biblical notion of laying down your life for your friends includes laying it down for the capitalist economy.

I recognize that many progressive Christians have tried to do the right things. We’ve voted our convictions, written our legislators, protested, stayed at home, worn masks and donated to churches, nonprofits like Feeding America and other organizations trying to help the most vulnerable. Perhaps for us, that makes our grief and rage even greater. No wonder we often feel hopeless.

Some might find this lament to be unchristian in its despair and fury. I think sometimes Christians believe that it’s not OK for us to mourn and be furious. We’re supposed to be positive and optimistic, to live in the hope of the resurrection. But even Jesus grieved at Gethsemane and on the cross. We gloss over that sometimes. We think Jesus knew the end of the story and so somehow his suffering wasn’t quite real. But I think when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane and cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” there was no hope, no resurrection in his heart and mind. There was overwhelming grief and doubt and suffering.

“I can’t imagine that the biblical notion of laying down your life for your friends includes laying it down for the capitalist economy.”

Rather than jumping right to hope and resurrection, I think we would do well to follow the advice of the prophets and “take up a lamentation.” Or the poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Suffering and death are not always meaningful. Sometimes it’s just death; sometimes it’s unjust, unnecessary and unwarranted.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, evil wins. Perhaps for now we should just sit with that a while in sackcloth and ashes.

I’ll get to hope. I’ll get to resistance and radical love and a vision of God’s beloved community to come. But not today. Today I just need to sit here and mourn.

Read more BNG news and opinion related to the coronavirus pandemic:





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Whose ‘principles of faith’ are being manifested on Trump’s watch?


White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney declared at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast this week that faith drives the Trump administration’s policy proposals, arguing that “the principles of our faith (are) being manifest” under the president’s watch. My shock threshold is high, but I reeled when I read Mulvaney’s remarks. As a Christian and a theologian, I believe the torrent of hateful words, brinkmanship executive orders, racist dog whistles, sexist behavior, malignant deceit and national idolatry are uneasily linked with anything we might call Christian.

Yet President Donald J. Trump’s popularity with evangelical Christians persists, and to their delight, he consistently says things out loud that they think but – with a few notable Baptist pastors among the exceptions – are too self-protective to say.

“When Trump mused that he could not remember ever asking forgiveness for anything, he basically forfeited any claim to Christian identity.”

Last month, Pew Research Center found that Trump had a 69 percent approval rating among white evangelical Protestants, compared to around 40 percent among all Americans. This is astonishing. Indeed, the willingness of Trump’s base to overlook the absence of a moral compass, much less Christian values and practice, only seems to grow with each passing month. With Trump’s judicial appointments and a flurry of policy changes and legislative proposals, moral traditionalists see their ends-justifies-the-means long game coming into view. For this, they will put up with reckless leadership that cares little for an authentic Christian theological vision for life.

In one sense, I concur with Mulvaney’s statement. The “principles of faith” that drive the Trump administration and its Republican sycophants in Congress are, indeed, manifest. But the principles on my list are different.

One clear principle is xenophobia, fearing and reviling the stranger, which is a stark contradiction of a prominent biblical theme. Welcoming the stranger is a way of remembering God’s providence in the life of an insignificant people; it is also a way of being enriched by holy presence. A corollary principle regularly manifested is racism, as we witnessed when Trump referred to nations where persons of color predominate with an epithet.

Immigration policies reflect both of these principles. Honoring every person as created after God’s likeness, bearing the image of God, is absent from the insulting rhetoric employed and actions taken.

Egregious in its impact, another principle is protecting the rich at the expense of the poor. The Bible’s prophetic literature and the ministry and teachings of Jesus accent justice for the poor and warn of judgment upon the rich who will be “sent away empty.” Current tax law is a windfall for those who least need it. The widows and orphans of our day are ground underfoot in wage disparity, lack of educational privilege and shrinking access to varied health and social services.

“Perhaps the most glaring of the principles I find to be antithetical to Christian theology is the arrogation of power to one individual.”

Similarly, the attempts to marginalize sexual minorities are growing. LGBTQ rights are in the cross-hairs, and for the foreseeable future case after case will wind its way through the appellate system on the way to the Supreme Court. A conservative majority will be predisposed to beat back recent gains as this central issue draws untoward attention in the current culture war. Clearly the New Testament makes space in the reign of God for non-traditional expressions of human sexuality, as the story of the Ethiopian eunuch attests.

Incessant saber-rattling and projected military growth ignore the biblical admonition to “be at peace with all, so far as it depends upon you” (Romans 12:18). Threats to bomb nations into oblivion go far beyond national security; these bellicose words are more about presidential swagger. Even the attempts at negotiation with other nations are so full of ego that every encounter is a win-lose drama rather than a genuine pursuit of common ground. Further, the “America first” quest arises from a distorted doctrine of exceptionalism, which includes claiming divine preference for national interests.

Policies that roll back environmental protection also defy God’s directive to humanity to care for this creation as God’s own representatives. Demonstrating an incomprehensible, dismissive attitude toward the consensus of climate scientists worldwide and the dire warnings from the United Nations and other international bodies – namely, that environmental disaster looms unless radical action is taken in the next two decades – this administration is accelerating its support of destructive practices. The unwillingness to curtail pollution of the atmosphere, to participate in global environmental accords or to prevent rampant oil and gas drilling and fracking, are having a deleterious effect. These profligate actions are tantamount to humanizing the eschaton, i.e., bringing about the destruction of the earth.

Perhaps the most glaring of the principles I find to be antithetical to Christian theology is the arrogation of power to one individual. While in humility Christ Jesus gave power away, the current president presumes to be the final arbiter on most matters of governance in our system of democracy. With Caesar-like imperiousness, this administration claims a kind of sovereignty that eschews bowing the knee to any higher authority.

When Trump mused that he could not remember ever asking forgiveness for anything, he basically forfeited any claim to Christian identity. The very heart of authentic faith is knowing the gap between what God’s righteousness calls us to do and what we actually do. Forgiveness is that shattering experience that acknowledges our sinfulness and the grace of God that draws us near.

Mercy, justice and humility are the marks of authentic Christianity. I see none of these in the principles of faith by which the president of the United States operates. Indeed, the only thing worse than the failure or refusal of people of faith to see this reality is to remain silent.

*Rev.Dr. Molly Marshall spoke twice at the Hamrick Lectureship at First Baptist Church of Charleston. She is a congregation favorite.



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A Bonhoeffer moment – Bill Leonard* –

Bill LeonardIs this “a Bonhoeffer moment” in American political, cultural and spiritual life? A lot of people, across the theological spectrum, seem to think as much, or at least find the question worth pursuing. A cursory Google search reveals varying views and contradictory interpretations linking Bonhoeffer’s courageous dissent against the Nazis with events and ideas fostered by, but not exclusive to, the Trump Kulturkampf.

German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a major force in the Confessing Church that offered resistance to National Socialism; he led in founding an alternative seminary; and worked diligently to protect and rescue Jews. Accused of plotting against Hitler, he was imprisoned in 1943, and executed two years later. In works such as The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics, his powerful ideas have impacted generations inside and beyond the church.

Liberals have long claimed Bonhoeffer, particularly his reflections on “religionless Christianity.” Harvard’s Harvey Cox opens the final chapter of his classic work, The Secular City (1965)by citing Bonhoeffer’s prison-essayed assertion that, “We are proceeding toward a time of no religion at all”; and his question: “How do we speak in a secular fashion of God?” Conservatives long interpreted Bonhoeffer’s denunciation of “cheap grace” as a rebuke of liberalism’s accommodation to culture at the expense of orthodoxy. (Not that conservatives haven’t pedaled a little cheap grace here and there.)

Recent references to “a Bonhoeffer moment” appeared with evangelical resistance to government legalization of same-sex marriage. Conservative commentator Larry Tomczak wrote in 2015: “And with what’s happening in America, we must get ready to take risks in standing for truth, especially as it relates to marriage. We are facing a ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer Moment.’ You recall that he chose civil disobedience and disobeyed Nazi law that stated that protecting Jewish people was against the law. He was hung for his stand. He also said prior to his death, ‘Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.’”

In response, Rhodes College professor and Bonhoeffer specialist Stephen Haynes cautioned against pressing the Bonhoeffer model too far, implicitly advocating violence in a society where, unlike Hitler’s Germany, “free speech and open debate” remain intact. Haynes noted that while “advocates of traditional marriage” had freedom to express their opposition to the court ruling, their use of “hyperbolic slogans” should not suggest that the U.S. government was comparable to the one Bonhoeffer worked to destroy.

Last year’s presidential campaign and election results revived the question of a Bonhoeffer moment as dramatized in Eric Metaxas’ book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010). The bestseller again brought Bonhoeffer into the evangelical sphere, made even more controversial by Metaxas’ strong endorsement of Donald Trump for president. He called the election “A Bonhoeffer Moment” for Americans, and urged defeat of “Hitlery Clinton.”

In a Huffington Post response, Professor Haynes observed that most Bonhoeffer scholars “do not respect Metaxas as an interpreter of Bonhoeffer and view his invocation of Bonhoeffer in support of Trump as an egregious misappropriation of the theologian’s legacy.” He concluded: “We have to make a careful case that thinking with Bonhoeffer during this fraught time in our political history means embracing our responsibility to those under threat, those who, like the Jewish victims of Nazism Bonhoeffer alluded to in Ethics, are the ‘weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.’”

To speak of a Bonhoeffer moment does not mean that the U.S. is in the midst of a Hitlerian assault on democracy. Nonetheless:

  • when mass murders occur in elementary schools, houses of worship, music festivals, night clubs, shopping malls, and parking lots;
  • when Neo-Nazis surround a church chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us”;
  • when courts find that voting law revisions have racist overtones;
  • and Christian leaders respond with contradictory visions of gospel, church and state;

then a Bonhoeffer moment may be at hand.

Bonhoeffer’s insights are worth revisiting when we feel “no ground under our feet,” a situation he describes in an essay written early in his imprisonment, now the first chapter of his Letters and Papers from Prison. In it, Bonhoeffer lists certain noble qualities by which religious people respond to evil, qualities that may become ineffectual when confronting wickedness masquerading as “light, charity, historical necessity, or social justice.”

  • Reasonable people” fail because “in their lack of vision they want to do justice to all sides, and so the conflicting forces wear them down with nothing achieved.”
  • Representatives of “moral fanaticism” (intensity) fail because they get “entangled in non-essentials” and fall “into the trap set by cleverer people.”
  • People of “conscience” fail because evil overwhelms them “in so many respectable and seductive disguises” that conscience becomes “nervous and vacillating.” They lie to themselves “in order to avoid despair.”
  • Those who “flee from public altercation into the sanctuary of private virtuousness” become numb or blind “to the injustice” around them.
  • At certain times, even these noble traits must be sacrificed, transcended by those who make their entire lives “an answer to the question and call of God.”

But it is Bonhoeffer’s description of “folly” as “a more dangerous enemy to good than evil” that seems eerily pertinent to our own historical moment. He writes: “Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.”

Before we send that message to the White House, we’d best email a copy to ourselves. It’s too long, and too true, to tweet. Gott segne.

*Both Dr. Bill Leonard and Eric Metaxas were speakers at the John A. Hamrick Lectures in Charleston, SC at First Baptist Church.



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Love Is Stronger Than Hate*

Hate is too easy. It relieves us of any responsibility.  Donald Trump has made hate speech acceptable to thousands of his followers. His rhetoric encourages those who are dissatisfied to blame other Americans for their problems. He wants to divide us by appealing to our worst emotions.

We in Charleston have a stronger message. “Love is stronger than hate.”  We will not be bullied into hatting.  A year after the savage murders of worshipers at Mother Emanuel AME Church an act that was intended for evil has instead been transformed into acceptance and community.

Let us all use our words to create relationships, build each other up, encourage one another and build a stronger community. Let us build bridges of understanding and destroy the walls of bigotry and hatred.

*Published in the Charleston PostandCourier. June 19, 2016

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