Gordon Myers

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A tale of two Sauls

Prior to the election, I heard a number of conservative commentators and religious radio programs comparing candidate Donald Trump to Saul from the New Testament. For those of you not familiar, Saul was an infamous and merciless persecutor of Christians, who went through a dramatic transformation that eventually led to him become perhaps the most ardent supporter of the Christian faith, outside of Christ himself. God completely reformed Saul's character, so much so that he chose to change his name to Paul out of shame over his former self. And St. Paul went on to write nearly half of the books in the New Testament, and established lasting Christian churches where some of the other apostles had failed.

The point of making this comparison was to say that God can use anyone, no matter how morally-questionable they may be, to accomplish greatness. And as Donald Trump has appropriated the word "greatness" for himself, it's not surprising that his supporters eventually drew this comparison. However, as someone who's actually read the Bible, I have to say that this comparison is utter garbage, and anyone who makes it might just have scales on their eyes, blinding them to the truth.

The reasons why this comparison fails are manifold. First, even before Saul of the New Testament went through his remarkable transformation, he was already what you might call a Biblical scholar. Of course the Bible as we think of it hadn't yet been written, but there were the Jewish laws of the Torah, the Psalms, and the other Old Testament stories of King David, Elijah, and all the other prophets - all of which Saul knew like the back of his hand. Saul was a Pharisee, or what they called a "doctor of the law," so he had carefully studied and examined these texts since boyhood. His religion and intellect informed his every decision, and while immoral, nothing he did was irrational. In other words, he had tremendous intellectual prowess, and basically had his PhD in Hebrew and Old Testament Studies. On top of this, he was a powerful and persuasive speaker, motivated by the same youthful zeal that has led revolutions to success. Powerful and persuasive public speaker, historian and scholar, and highly respected religious authority... do any of these sound like monikers you would ascribe to Mr. Trump? The answer is obvious.

But okay, even though their backgrounds are very different, isn't the message of God calling the most unlikely sinner to greatness still a valid argument, with regard to Mr. Trump? There are two reasons why I say, resoundingly: no. First, to witness the reformation and transformation of a sinner into God's chosen requires that the sinner, y'know, actually reforms. Donald Trump has been utterly unrepentant, as a symptom of his own vanity. Baptist Pastor John Piper penned a piece titled How to Live Under an Unqualified President, in which he enumerates a list of reasons why Trump is immoral. (Side note: I was a little annoyed at how Pastor Piper quietly dismissed Hillary Clinton as equally unqualified without any real discussion, because while she definitely had issues with integrity, he is tacitly promoting a very large false equivalence there).

Similarly, Jesuit Priest James Martin has a piece titled I was a stranger and you did not welcome me in which he explains that the policy ideas which Trump has put forth are, in a very real sense, the anti-Christ. And Pope Francis famously declared that Trump's attitude demostrates that he is not a real Christian. Of course none of these criticisms would matter if they meant this was all leading up to a great transformation of character, that will help usher in God's kingdom. But that's not what the Trump supporters on the radio were talking about, and certainly not what Trump is interested in doing. The message of Paul's transformation has somehow been changed from genuine, heartfelt repentance... into brushing aside any lapse in moral judgment, so long as the offender is wearing the right team's colors. They voted for the immoral Saul, with no serious demand to ever see him changed into Paul.

Secondly, and even more importantly, is that Saul of the New Testament was not transformed by a vote of the people; he was transformed by the Holy Spirit. We don't get to dictate how/when the Holy Spirit works, or campaign for God's plan to occur only within our predetermined framework. "His ways are higher than our ways," as Isaiah says. Saul of the New Testament already had the approval of human institutions when he was authorized to round up and slaughter members of the Christian sect. It was not man's will, or the electoral college, that changed him. It was the genuine power of Christ. We cannot be so vain to imagine that a human popularity contest has the same power to compel a real change of heart, least of all from someone who's spent their career craving attention. While I do believe that God is changing and molding the characters of all of us, all the time, He does so on His schedule, not on our election cycle.

So to any of my Christian friends who may have been enticed, during the campaign, by this comparison of New Testament Saul to Trump, I ask you: can you imagine that God could have used someone like Hillary Clinton to do His will? "Have we not all one Father?"

Having categorically brushed aside this comparison between Trump and NT Saul, I will concede that there may still be a valid Biblical comparison to be made. If I had to pick between the two, I'd say Trump is a lot more like Saul of the Old Testament. Old Testament Saul, aka King Saul, is not nearly as well known as New Testament Saul. But his story is fascinating in its own right. It begins by explaining that OT Saul was the son of an incredibly wealthy and influential father - in other words, he came from money and grew up with a silver spoon. The story continues by explaining how he spent his youth essentially chasing tail (or "seeking asses," as the Bible puts it), with no strong sense of purpose in life. Then, through a series of unexpected events, Saul of the Old Testament becomes king of all Israel, to the complete surprise of everyone - including himself! And even after having accepted this prestigious appointment, he shows a reluctance to lead, and instead returns to continue to run his family business, tending to his field.

When King Saul eventually does take up his mantle, he displays utter disregard for even his own most-trusted advisors. And his brutal foreign policy, while at first appearing successful, eventually leads the kingdom into division and disarray, embroiling them in conflict with the Amalekites for generations. Moreover, in the face of an actual terrorist threat, OT Saul proved to be utterly unqualified and helpless. When the Philistines besieged them, Saul could do nothing, and it was his eventual-successor David who had to clean up the mess for him. David became a war hero, and while at first Saul congratulated him for this, he quickly grew jealous of David's renown. He went on to insult, betray, and persecute the war hero unjustly. And famously, King Saul struggled with irrational and erratic outbursts that became increasingly difficult to manage. He refused to let go of perceived slights and pursued his offenders relentlessly, blinding himself to reality.

The story of Saul of the Old Testament quickly starts to resemble watching a train run off the tracks, in slow motion. As his reign continued, Saul became increasingly unhinged. His mind started to unravel. And this happened at the alarm of his closest aides, who proved to be incompentent themselves and unable to deal with their troubled leader. Eventually, Saul did himself in, committing suicide when he was forced to come face-to-face with his own failures. I sincerely hope President Trump is never inspired to commit suicide. But outside of that final point, which of the two comparisons do you think is more fitting?

Am I being a little bit unfair by making this second comparison? Perhaps. (I certainly employed a few clever plays on words.) But just as I believe King Saul was doing his best, but ultimately was not the right man for the job, I can concede that Mr. Trump has what he believes are good intentions. But if the history of King Saul taught us anything, it's that unhinged leaders are unreliable and eventually and inevitably bring about their own demise.


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