Attempting an Intervention
This is an article I think I have to write – for me. One of my biggest challenges right now as an apprentice of Jesus is how to relate to our present political situation. There are two basic questions: 1) how much should I be reading and thinking about our politics, and 2) in what way or ways should I be thinking about them. I’ll begin with a confession: I’ve given them way too much attention. I know that. This post is, in part, my attempt to do an intervention on myself. That may not be realistic, but I’m going to give it a go. I wouldn’t begrudge your help, either by commenting on this post, messaging me, or sending an email. I’m serious.
First, a little background. I’ve had an off and on interest in politics since high school. During my senior year I took a civics class and set my alarm for 6 AM every weekday morning so I could read the entire first section of the Los Angeles Times before driving to school. I knew the names and party affiliations of most of the leading national politicians. I went to the local library each week to read magazines that represented both progressive and conservative perspectives. I minored in political science at both Chaffey College and the University of California, Riverside. I was head of the Model United Nations Club and won a political science award. I also remember heading up a dialogue in my home church about the Vietnam War.
After beginning seminary, my interest in politics was sidelined by my theological studies and field work. After graduating, I began reading the progressive Christian magazines, Sojourners and The Other Side. I took a deep dive into Anabaptist theology, which emphasized Jesus’ teachings about simplicity, nonviolence and community. I participated in a few protests and marches. Thirty years ago I even spoke at one here in Kalamazoo.
Over the next couple of decades my political perspective edged toward left of center and my general interest cooled to a low simmer – until 2016 when Donald Trump ran for election and became president.
Yikes, did that one throw me for a loop. I couldn’t get my head around it. The morning after the election was called, I woke up in a country I didn’t recognize. His becoming president felt not just alarming but bizarre. I mean no disrespect to those of you who are or were Trump supporters, but I just didn’t get it.
Since then politics have become a kind of obsession. I’ve tried to set some boundaries. I read an entire book about the dangers of trying to keep up with the most current news. I’ve tried to follow the author’s advice and focus on longer articles and books. I suspect this approach has made me wiser, but no less fixated.
Of course, I just happen to be interested in this stuff, right, because of my political science background? Like some people are interested in gardening or weightlifting or astronomy. It’s right that I try to be an informed voter and citizen. But how informed?
Honestly, I know I keep crossing a line. Let me give you an example. During my meditation one morning last week I spent the entire time listing pros and cons for Biden’s student loan forgiveness order. I even thought about writing a blog post about it. Yikes, what was I thinking! And while I was thinking about it, I knew I shouldn’t be thinking about it. Which made me realize that if I was going to write about anything, it was how to do an intervention on myself.
I realize the main thing I need to remember is that Jesus is Lord, not Trump. It’s not just an honorary title. There’s a fair measure of sovereignty that goes with the title “Lord,” a lot in fact. Christ doesn’t exercise that sovereignty in the way most rulers do, but that doesn’t mean he’s not at work. Someone like Trump demands center stage – always. He sucks all the air out of the room. When should I pay attention, and when should I look away? Evil can be mesmerizing. I wonder what would happen if every time another absurdity comes out of Trump’s mouth I were to turn to Jesus and say, “I’m sure glad you’re in charge.”
Actually, I think I’ll give that a try.
I’m reading a book called, The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion, by Sean Illing and Zac Gerschberg. The authors argue that the paradox of democracy is that it always carries within it the seeds of its own demise. Free speech means that people can say whatever they want; it doesn’t have to be true. Even our founding fathers found themselves chafing against free speech once they were in office. Most people don’t have the time and means to understand the nuances and intricacies of government policies and the problems they try to address. Whenever there’s been a new media form (e.g. radio, television, Internet, social media), savvy politicians have been able to manipulate people’s thinking and affections in directions that have little to do with actual facts. Now that anyone can have a voice and platform, the possibilities are endless for people to be deceived, corralled and clustered.
Churchill said that democracy was the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried. It’s really quite amazing that we’ve made it this far as a nation. And it’s still an experiment. Having been to Italy this summer, I’m struck by the youth of our nation. We’re still babies at this; in elementary school, at best.
So I know I need to become more realistic about our democracy. Like many people, I’ve assumed that of course it would continue. As they say in AA, I need to start accepting life on life’s terms.
I’m going to go back to a passage I started reflecting upon a few weeks ago. It’s Luke 13:31-35:
At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Given the volatility of the political situation in Jesus’ day, it’s surprising that he said so little about it. If he was in fact the Messiah, people assumed it should’ve been one of the main things he would have addressed. Here are a few of my observations and reflections:
1. Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Herod is clearly a problem for everyone, and a threat to Jesus himself. But Jesus says very little about his religious and political opponents. He refuses to play their game. The Herods and Caesars and Caiaphas’s of this world come and go. They never last – because they can’t. So Jesus keeps the attention on himself and the work he came to do. After all, he’s the world’s only real hope. I say that both humbly and realistically, not to offend anyone else’s religious beliefs. Either Jesus is who he said he was, and who his disciples believed him to be, or he isn’t.
Just because Donald Trump tries to be continually in our faces doesn’t mean he deserves our attention. He’s clearly become an idol to some, but he’s not a god. Is he dangerous? Absolutely, but the danger isn’t absolute. Unlike Jesus, Trump is a mere mortal. While capable of doing considerable harm (especially if reelected), his days are numbered (as are mine). And while Trump may try to steal the show (or an election), I need to focus more of my attention on ordinary people like many of you who do the next right thing day after day, reigning over your lives imperfectly, but with integrity and love.
2. Jesus calls Herod a fox. Jesus is naming, not name-calling. In Genesis the first humans are told to name the animals. We have to name our reality in order to reign over our reality. So Jesus calls Herod a fox. Instead of ruling over his animal instincts, Herod allows his most base instincts to rule over him. Herod, like Trump, hoped that the people would see him as a messiah (in part because of the wall, I mean temple he was building for them). Jesus compares Herod to an animal that’s unclean under Jewish law. Herod is ruled by his passions. Herod had divorced his first wife and married his brother’s wife. He also did something no pious Jew would ever do – had his daughter perform an erotic dance before dinner guests, which, because of promises foolishly tendered, led to the execution of John the Baptist – so a lamb of God is killed by a fox.
Song of Solomon 2:15 reads:
“Catch the foxes for us,
The little foxes that are ruining the vineyards,
While our vineyards are in blossom.”
While Jesus is bringing flourishing to the land and trying to help it blossom, Herod is ruining the land. We saw the effects of Trump’s ruinous ways on January 6, 2021. Cunning and deception, including his lies about the 2020 election, make the word “fox” an appropriate descriptor of our former president. More to the point: Donald Trump is evil in all the ways of the Bible talks about evil. He lies, steals, kills and destroys. The 30,000 lies that have been documented during his presidency, his attempt to steal an election by baselessly claiming it was stolen, his passively watching the January 6 insurrection on Fox News for three hours while people were being killed and injured and his vice president’s life threatened, and his attempts to destroy our democracy by sowing division and discord, make him a worthy candidate for the biblical word “antichrist.” He feeds on celebrity and grievance. There is neither compassion nor substance. The word “satan” means accuser. Trump accuses and blames everyone but himself. He’s even claimed that he can’t think of anything he’s ever done that's required forgiveness.
So this is what I wonder. In dealing with the climate crisis, many of us talk about the importance of even small actions like recycling and using less fossil fuel in our daily lives. What if I were simply to give Trump less of my attention? What if I were to try to be informed about today’s politics without becoming fixated, e.g. check headlines on the Internet less often? What if I were to be on the lookout for whatever is praiseworthy in the public realm, for the voices of reason and civility, and those whose activism on both sides of the aisle serves the common good? What if I chose not to focus on winners and losers, and more on the good that is already being done, without indulging the fear that it may not be enough? And when I need a break from my work, what if I were to read a Psalm or a Jesus story, or step outdoors for a breath of beauty rather than giving in to the compulsion to check out the headlines on MSN? What if I never checked the news without being intentional about it, asking if this is what I should be doing now – or better, asking Jesus if this is what I should be doing.
2. Jesus refuses to be ruled by his fears. He's told, “Herod wants to kill you.” Jesus’ answer? “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’” Did Jesus feel fear? He was human. In the garden of Gethsemane he was so afraid of his impending crucifixion that he sweat drops of blood. It’s been said that courage is doing it scared.
Whatever the future holds for our country and for the world, I need to remember these words from Hebrews 13:14-15: “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.” This verse identifies both parts of our human calling – to reign and to worship, or to be a “royal priesthood.” There is nothing that happens in this life that can keep me from that call – i.e. doing whatever I can to contribute to the flourishing of others and giving thanks to God for his many gifts. “And on the third day I will reach my goal.” Jesus would die, but it wouldn’t be the end of the story. On the third day, the day of his resurrection, his kingdom would rise out of the ashes of human violence. Neither Donald Trump nor climate change can prevent the New Creation from coming – partially in this life and fully in the next. What ultimately matters is not today or tomorrow, but the third day, the day of New Creation. So our efforts to be good citizens of our country and of our planet, while bound to experience setbacks, are not doomed to failure. They are training us for the age to come, and I daresay, may be actually planting seeds for that fullness of time.
So I want to learn to rule over my fears about political leaders and political parties. It’s not that those fears are ungrounded and may ultimately prove to be prophetic. They just aren’t the end of the story. My faith is ultimately in God, not in political leaders or parties or election outcomes. Jesus lived in a reality, a kingdom, that made the Roman Empire look like a fleeting shadow. So I want to reign well in the life I’ve been given, whatever each day brings. That will be enough.
3. Then there is the church, this community set apart to be the bride and body of Christ, a city on a hill, the salt of the earth. When Jesus used the words “city on a hill,” his audience would’ve thought of Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been destroyed once; people couldn’t imagine it ever being destroyed again, but in 70 A.D. it was. It was religious zealots, some resorting to violence, that prompted such a catastrophic response from Rome.
Jesus said to love our enemies. In a recent article, conservative Christian commentator David French wrote:
The longer I live the more convinced I am that our Christian political ethic is upside down. On a bipartisan basis, the church has formed its members to be adamant about policies that are difficult and contingent and flexible about virtues that are clear and mandatory.
Adamant about politics and flexible about virtue. French bemoans Christians’ contribution to an “American political culture [that] is a toxic, hyperpartisan, corrupt, and an increasingly violent mess.” Jesus said:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate.
My heart is not right towards parts of Christ's church right now. A hen gathers her chicks and protects them. A fox destroys and devours them. I want and need to recapture the spirit of a mother hen towards my brothers and sisters, no matter their political views. It’s okay and right to be critical, and even prophetic – “for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” But the heart of a prophet must be the heart of a hen, not a fox. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
So I want to keep my heart soft towards Christ's church. For better or worse, it is my spiritual family. Later in Luke's gospel Jesus will weep over Jerusalem. Hardening my heart keeps me from the vulnerability Jesus experienced when his physical body suffered on the cross. I am a part of a church that the New Testament calls the body of Christ. It has many wounds, many of which are self-inflicted. Will I distance myself from Christ’s body? Is that even possible? All genuine love must be willing to suffer. Because we are one body, one community, the sins of my brothers and sisters are my sins. Will I forgive them, as Christ has forgiven me? Will I allow my embarrassment about my spiritual family make me distance myself emotionally, relationally and physically? Will I allow the public attention given to misguided leaders who have distorted understandings of the gospel blind me to the thousands of people who are faithfully and sacrificially loving one another and others in Jesus’ name? There are just so many good Christians and good people in general to celebrate and learn from.
It’s tempting to explain the problem away by trying to sort the true Christians from the false Christians. But Jesus warned against that. He said it’s like trying to pull tares (a weed that looked like wheat) out of a wheat field. Family systems theory talks about how difficult it is to be honest and also stay close. Most of us tend to do one or the other. Distancing myself isn’t an option biblically. I must be willing to bear the sting of my association, as Christ does every day, while encouraging my heart in the direction of faith, hope and love.
Okay, I think that’s enough to work on for now. Please let me know what's been helpful for you.