Trump vs. Jesus?
November 4, 2016 § 5 Comments
Recently The Greenville (SC) News ran an opinion piece by Clemson University Ph.D. student William McCorkle that, as I see it, sums up rather well the assessment of many religious-minded “Never Trumpers.” McCorkle’s thesis is that Christians have either to twist or abandon what Jesus taught in order to defend their support of Donald Trump. Because Donald is himself a man whose message is “the polar opposite” of the message of Jesus, those who call themselves Christians cannot in good faith support Donald Trump.
The problem I have with accepting McCorkle’s thesis is that it springs from a clear ignorance of biblical and theological truth. His attempt to shame his target audience (white evangelicals) is founded on a misunderstanding of biblical Christianity and the very person of Christ.
An example of this ignorance is his criticism of Trump’s statement that one of his favorite Bible verses is “an eye for an eye” (Ex.24:21; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). It is an odd “favorite verse” to claim, to be sure, but McCorkle seizes on it because he believes “Jesus explicitly rejected [it] in the Gospels.” McCorkle is obviously referring to what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)
Since context is our friend, let’s give this passage its proper reference point. Several times in Matthew 5 Jesus contrasts what was commonly understood regarding the Law with a deeper exposition of the spirit of the Law. The best-known example is what he teaches about adultery:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)
By McCorkle’s reasoning, Jesus is “explicitly” rejecting the Old Testament’s teaching on adultery. That, of course, is not at all what Jesus is doing. Instead, he is teaching his hearers that they have made the command not to commit adultery a mere external reality, as if the real issue here was actually having intercourse with someone who is not one’s spouse. Jesus effectively corrects this thin, external view of marital faithfulness by saying that adultery is ultimately spiritual in nature—and that a man has already been unfaithful once he has looked lustfully at another woman. Each of the subsequent contrasts Jesus makes emphasizes that the Law addresses much more than surface righteousness and goes directly to the heart, revealing the sinfulness deep within us.
The key to understanding Jesus point in his teaching about the “law of retaliation” is recognizing that, in its Old Testament context, it is actually a law designed to regulate excessive punishment by preventing vengeful retaliation. It is essentially where we derive the idea that punishment or restitution must be commensurate with the infraction. In the contrast he makes in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ point is that when the godly are on the “paying end” of this law they do not merely pay what they owe in restitution (think of Zaccheus’ repaying fourfold those he defrauded); instead of saying, “I did what the law required, and that’s enough,” the people of the Kingdom willingly go beyond the letter of the law, responding with an overflow of grace.
What’s the point I am making? Just this: Far from rejecting the law of retaliation, Jesus actually reinforced it by going to its core—as he did in each example in which he referenced the common misunderstanding of the Law. This is in perfect harmony with Jesus said about his view of the Law:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19)
McCorkle’s ignorance is further reflected in his apparent view that Christianity is primarily a moral philosophy to be embraced; throughout his piece he speaks of the “message” of Jesus as the core of Christianity. As is often the case with those who make this error, he calls Jesus a “revolutionary,” as if Jesus were the Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. of his day. It is no surprise that McCorkle’s Jesus rebukes Trump supporters, because he is made completely after the image of a 21st century social studies Ph.D. student. This Jesus surely would be in favor of marriage equality—and maybe even free college tuition on a campus with plenty of safe spaces.
But the Bible does not present Jesus as a social and moral radical standing against the status quo with his revolutionary moral philosophy but as God in sinless flesh—the literal embodiment of his grace—who gave himself as the sin sacrifice for sinners in fulfillment of God’s promise to give his people the very righteousness he requires of all who would stand in his presence. He rose from death to ascend to a throne of sovereign authority, and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is Lord. Those for whom Jesus gave himself indeed are called and empowered to live lives of righteousness through the obedience of repentance and faith, but Christianity is no mere moral philosophy; it is rather the pronouncement of God’s accomplishment of salvation—from start to finish—by his grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Simply put, McCorkle’s profound ignorance of who Jesus is, what he taught and how it is to be understood in context with the whole of Scripture demonstrates he is unqualified to marshal Jesus as a witness against Christians who support Trump.
Having said these things, I don’t at all mean to minimize Trump’s apparent moral train wreck of a life: three marriages, admitted affairs, and, as most recently discovered, past demeaning and dishonoring comments about women. Many have pointed out that much of Trump’s wealth was made through casinos and, early on, strip clubs. He is, at times, beyond coarse and, in fact, offensive. I can hardly say any of these things are “all right.” So I won’t. But neither can I see how any of these things make him incompetent to serve at the top of the executive branch or our government.
McCorkle’s argument is typical of many Never Trump Christians, stating that Trump is a racist and misogynist demagogue whose presidency “could be greatly destructive to racial harmony, international stability, free speech and democratic values.” This is an ominous accusation, the kind that is usually attached to an apocalyptic figure. Is he the beast? The antichrist? Take your pick, apparently—you could hardly go wrong when the result is the end of the world as we know it!
There are many things that trouble me about the way Christians who support Trump are both vilified and dismissed by other Christians, but the thing that bothers me the most is their sheer hypocrisy. Has every candidate before Donald Trump passed the morality test with flying colors? Christians voting the Libertarian ticket—are you seriously offering an argument that there is neither moral inconsistency nor contradiction in voting for Gary Johnson? And my brain simply short-circuits when I hear evangelicals attempt to justify their support of Hillary Clinton and their condemnation of Trump in the same sentence.
Many of these Never Trump evangelicals will patiently bear with individuals who are struggling with same-sex attraction because of their commitment to being gracious and open; they will readily give an audience to those who offer vicious rants against “the Church” on the grounds that the former have a right to “be heard.” But their Trump-supporting brethren can’t gain a fair hearing because they are heartless, greedy, ease-worshiping cultural Neanderthals who have made the Constitution the third testament and could not possibly have any understanding of the Gospel. They apparently don’t even qualify for Gospel pity—only open contempt. Who could have ever known that the unforgivable sin was supporting Donald Trump?
Others have written more capably and convincingly on this subject, but it seems incontrovertible that, in a fallen world, every vote is ultimately a management of how much sin we are willing to tolerate in a given candidate. There are no sinless people running for any office, at any level, anywhere. Period. I can find nothing in Scripture that insists that my support of a candidate is a necessary endorsement of that candidate’s morality (or lack thereof). If it is, how can Paul command us in Romans 13 to honor the King—especially when the “King” Paul had in view was Nero?
In addition to the moral assessment we also make a political assessment. Paul also states in Romans 13 that the primary role of human government is to restrain evil and reward good. For this reason—and knowing that all candidates are sinners and most may not even be believers—it seems to me that I am obligated to support the candidate that will restrain the most evil and reward the most good. Again, remembering that the political context of Romans 13 is Nero’s Roman empire, are we really going to insist that it is immoral to cast a vote for Donald Trump?
I pray not.