David L. Myers—February 27, 2018
[I am happy to welcome my old friend, David Myers, to Thinking Pacifism as the author of this guest post. David served a number of year as a Mennonite pastor in Kansas and Illinois and as a social service administrator in Chicago. He also worked in the Obama administration for about eight years. We attended the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary together in the early 1980s and before that both grew up in Oregon. He is especially interested in public theology.]
Okay, Evangelicals of a certain type; let’s play a little game of mix and match.
First, a little about the game itself, whose genesis was a headline: “Why is it so hard for Trump to say that evil things are evil?” (Washington Post, February 15, 2018)
Hmmm…why, indeed, I wondered. How can so many (though not all) Evangelicals, who believe someone like Trump has been anointed or been put in the presidency by God, have such a difficult time condemning what they themselves believe to be evil? (I’ll save you the mind-numbing list from Trump’s own twittering fingers and prevaricating tongue—it’s in the public domain.)
Then a series of thoughts fell into place, as if the right key finally unlocked the tumblers. God’s anointed. That’s the key—but not in the way you may think.
The root of Jesus the Christ means Jesus the Anointed One. Here’s the recently deceased R.C. Sproul, a leading Evangelical theologian, commenting on the Gospel of Matthew’, chapter 16:
Then Jesus asked the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 15b). Peter answered with what is known as the great confession, a statement of his belief as to the identity of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (v. 16). With these words, Peter declared that Jesus was the Christos, the Mashiach, the Anointed One.
Jesus: Tempted in the wilderness
A seminal moment in the life of Jesus was his baptism in the River Jordan. It was then that the Holy Spirit announced his Sonship, his anointing. The life of Jesus the Christ, the life of the Anointed One, was publicly inaugurated. And what happens immediately thereafter? The Synoptic Gospels agree: he was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the Slanderer (The New Testament, A Translation by David Bentley Hart).
There were three temptations and there are a variety of interpretations of their respective meanings. I’ll go with Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud’s take on Luke 4:3-13 (from personal email correspondence).
Temptation #1—Command the stones to become bread. This could be seen as a temptation to put one’s own comfort and wellbeing above devoting your life to serve others. Jesus said “one does not live by bread alone.” I think he means, among other things, placing the priority on our own desires and pleasures and not recognizing that a full life involves care for others, especially those in need. Jesus refused to make his own comfort and self-aggrandizement central but to instead be the servant of all.
Temptation #2—Worship Satan and he will give you all the kingdoms of the earth to rule. This could be seen as a temptation to seek power over others even at the cost of making such power one’s highest value. “Worshiping Satan” is equivalent to embracing power that is based on domination and coercion and is not concerned with empowering others. Jesus refused to become a mighty king type of messiah but to embrace a politics of compassion, decentralized power, and generosity.
Temptation #3—Jump off from the top of the temple and the angels will save you. This could be seen as a temptation to seek the acclaim of the religious leaders through wonderworking power rather than through putting into practice the core values of Torah—concern for the vulnerable, generosity, and compassion. Jesus saw the temple structure and religious institutions as secondary to true faith. He did not seek their support but rather appealed directly to the people who were on the margins by addressing their needs.
Jesus refused to be seduced by, refused to succumb to, the temptations. Not that they weren’t real possibilities with real appeal. After all, for something to be a temptation it must have a vortex of attraction that swirls our appetites and imaginations. And not all temptations lead toward darkness and destruction. Not all are lies. As a good friend once said, grace is a temptation. It has a seductive power and when we succumb to it, we are better people and the world is a better place. But not so the Slanderer’s temptations titillating Jesus the Anointed One. Jesus said no to his own comfort (choosing no place to lay his head), to ruling the world by domination (choosing to be a servant), and to religious acclaim (choosing ridicule by the religious powers).
So back to Trump and certain Evangelicals. Let us say, for the sake of illumination, we somehow agree Trump was anointed to be the president. And let us say that after his inauguration he was immediately tempted by the Slanderer with the same three temptations as Jesus the Christ. The temptation to think of himself first; the temptation to rule by domination; and the temptation to seek the acclaim of the religious powers.
We come now full circle to the game of mix and match. Take Trump’s first year of policy decisions; of statements spoken and written; and of actions known first-hand and measure how he did with the three temptations. I’ll give you that no president of the United States of America will come out with a clean bill of health on this test. But then most presidents haven’t been proclaimed as an anointed one, as a chosen one.
That’s an exceptionally high standard. Even starting just from January 20, 2017, when his anointing took place, Trump has been habitually seduced by and succumbed to the three temptations. Indeed, it would be difficult to find an example when he did not give into them. Mix in anything he’s written, said, and done and there’s likely a match with at least one of the temptations.
So then, what shall we say to the question asked by the newspaper headline: Why is it so hard for Trump to say that evil things are evil? Perhaps it is because he daily succumbs to the temptations and therefore he cannot see and name evil because it is through the Slanderer’s eyes he sees and ears he hears? Perhaps that is the reason it is so very, very difficult for him to call evil, evil.
Jesus, the Anointed One, warned about false prophets: From their fruits you will know them. If Trump is an anointed one, we then must ask, based on his fruits: Who has done the anointing?