Political Hazards

Posts tagged with "Political Hazards"

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.

Fear and Family

Last week I wrote two blog posts about some of hazards of political discourse. Specifically, I named three hazards, but then only wrote two posts (until now). I confess that I was having a hard time trying to come up with some meaningful content to write for the last point, which is why this post is so delayed. But I think I finally have something.

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, I have observed "intense fear" expressed in the words I read in friends' Facebook posts, relating to politics. There's fear that a politician has a secret, evil agenda which surely means the end for America and all we hold dear. There's fear that a whole nation (or, conveniently, those in it who don't agree with you) have been "brainwashed" or hypnotized into apathy and subjection when they should be protesting. And ultimately, there's the fear that you are powerless to do anything.

Fear never has been and never will be a very productive activity. Nor is any reaction that is ultimately rooted in fear. However, it's important to understand just how challenging it can be for any of us to face our fears and overcome them. An unqualified, "Fear Not!" is often easier said than done.

I still remember when I was about 10 years old, my family and I went to Six Flags Great America. For those of you unfamiliar, Six Flags is an immensely popular theme park, filled with roller coasters, carnival rides, and obnoxiously expensive trinkets. That year was the first year I ever rode a roller coaster. I had been to Six Flags prior, but up until that point I had only ventured as far as "Bugs Bunny Land," the subset of the park specifically geared toward very young children. This was the year I was finally too tall for that section of park, and so now it was time to start thinking about roller coasters.

Except I didn't want to.

Roller coasters were SCARY. It seems so absurd to me now, and in fact I don't even remember the feelings of fear -- I only remember the details that I was very frightened of them at the time. So in a very clever ploy, my uncle made me a deal. He said that if I would go with them on the "Whizzer," which was the smallest and most tame coaster in the park, he would give me a dollar. After a bit of a struggle, I eventually conceded. The ride up that first hill seemed very frightening, but once we got going, I had a blast. And I wanted to ride it again! Hoping he could inspire a little more confidence, he then offered me $2 if I would ride on the "American Eagle" -- a wooden coaster that was definitely bigger than the Whizzer. He could not, however, get me to do that. Not even for $2.

Years later, I've now been on every single coaster in the park more times than I can count, and sometimes backwards. I don't hang onto anything any more; I let my arms dangle freely in the air. I can't get enough of the fast-paced coasters. The idea that I could ever be afraid of those seems so ridiculous. But try telling that to my 10 year old self!

Human beings will always be afraid of something new. It's very much a "human" condition. They will fight tooth and nail to resist thinking about new ideas, or even new presentations of old ideas. This isn't to say that all new ideas are good. But the point I stress is that fear is a phenomenon that every person has to face down in one form or another. So while someone else is dealing with fear (or even when fear is dealing with them), the choice we have to make is how we treat each other along the way. Questions to ask yourself include: how do I love someone that I disagree with, in a meaningful way? How can I bring grace into an argument?

Really removing fear usually requires more of a personal touch, a consistent, patient guiding that can take a lot of time and effort. Platitudes and arguments can never seem to do the trick. It requires the gentle nudging of an aunt or uncle, encouraging you to try new things, but also not chastising you when you're not ready. So in our political discussions with each other, even when feelings seem to run high, remember that ultimately we are one family. And even if that family tends to be rather dysfunctional at times, you are never helpless when it comes to your immediate environment.

Politics and Pedestals

Yesterday I wrote about three qualities that I've observed frequently on display in the political discussions we see going on around us. Today I want to address the second of those three, namely "idol worship." I have friends who are Democrats, and friends who are Republicans. During yesterday's presidential inauguration, there was a post circulating about the President, which quoted a line from Scripture:

Who knows whether you are come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

This was, effectively, a declaration that the President has been appointed by God to fix all of the problems the United States is facing (and perhaps more). On the other hand, I've also seen plenty of posts circulating, ever since December, that have drawn a direct comparison between the President and Adolph Hitler, in fulfillment of Godwin's law.

I disagree with both positions. First of all, to compare any U.S. President to Adolph Hitler is not only outlandish, but is just plain juvenile. Obama hasn't committed genocide, nor has Bush, nor has Clinton, and so on. That kind of comparison is immature, reactionary, and has no place in any educated discussion. That is sheer depravity, the lowest state of mortal thought. But on the other hand, to treat the President, or another politician, as some kind of holy Messiah sent from God to finally fix all of humanity's woes isn't really much better. There was only one promised Messiah, and he's already left his mark.

I prefer a more sober approach when evaluating politicans, one that doesn't so easily get sucked up into the pomp and circumstance of the moment, nor get dragged down into the hypnotic fears and conspiracy theories. Is the President a promised Messiah? No. Is the President Adolph Hitler? No. The President is simply a man -- an inherently good man -- who is trying to do his best, to the best of his ability. And while I'll probably never agree with every policy that a given president makes, I know that he (and other presidents) still needs my support, my love, and my prayers. He needs yours, too. I try to approach thinking about politicans from the perspective that asks, "what would I do if I were in that position?" This is the Golden Rule.

Jesus gave us a helpful hint in how to view politicians in their correct light, when he spoke with Pontius Pilate just before the crucifixion. Pilate, a high-ranking official in the Roman empire -- who had undoubtedly worked long and hard to earn his position -- asked Jesus, "don't you realize that I have the power to crucify you, or to let you go?" Jesus responed, "you would have no power at all, except it were given to you from God."

This shows Jesus' acknowledgement that Pilate was in his position because God had put him there. But he places no emphasis, whatsoever, on Pilate himself having any power to help or to harm. Instead, he sees things from the perspective that God's government is perpetually intact. I don't believe in a God who creates a universe that keeps falling out of alignment and subsequently has to find the right politician to fix it. That is a poor estimate of Omniscience. I believe each and every one of us, politicians included, are always right where we need to be in this divine adventure called life. We are each learning more about the realities of life, learning to love our neighbors better, and being who we were made to be more fearlessly, each and every day. I believe that I found the career I'm in by the grace of God, and so I similarly believe the President (as well as former presidents) have been led into their positions because God has ordained them. This does not put them on a pedestal, but instead recongizes that we each have a God-given purpose and place in life, no more or less needed than another's.

To view any person as having a special power or authority exclusive to only them, idolizes them as a god. But to fear and condemn them, hanging onto every word they say, idolizes them as a demon. Both perspectives are ultimately dissatisfying. So I say let's take people off these pedestals, and look less to people but more to ideas. Ideas don't belong to a political party. And most importantly of all, let's continually watch that we are practicing the Golden Rule in our lives and in our thoughts about others. Would you want hoards of people comparing you to Hilter because of a policy suggestion? Or would you want hoards of people displaying captioned pictures of you to show off how righteous and perfect and better than others you are? The Golden Rule is always sound advice.

Casting the Beam out of Political Discourse

I don't participate in a lot of political discussions. But I do like to stay informed on current events (often through the Christian Science Monitor), and over the last couple of months I've seen an increased number of political discussions taking place on Facebook. Often these political "discussions" end up being entirely one-sided, or if someone does work up the courage to express an opposing viewpoint, it's quickly cut up into little pieces by an army of defensive friends. And this takes place on both "sides" of the political spectrum.

Frankly, a lot of the issues themselves don't really concern me. Or at least, they don't concern me nearly as much as the thoughts and behaviors of my friends who are expressing them. I already know where I stand on many political issues, and honestly... no Facebook status message (even one in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS!) is likely ever going to change another's viewpoint, when that viewpoint is already shaped by experience. But the political issues we so vehemently debate rarely touch on the real issues that people care about, deep in their hearts. Politics are often used as a filter, or a mask, for the underlying fears and frustrations that we face. So even after someone debates the popular issues until they're blue in the face, they're still left with the same lingering concerns about life and the future. Those concerns are what I try to discern, and what really matter.

Through this filter of politics, I have observed the following three qualities seep through most frequently, each of which I want to address separately:

  1. Self-righteousness
  2. Idol worship
  3. Intense fear

I'm only going to touch on the first one in today's blog post, namely "self-righteousness." What's the first thing you think of when you hear "self-righteousness"? Do you think of someone else, someone who has acted in a self-righteous or judgmental way toward you, or others? Maybe it's not even a specific person, but a hazy archetype that you've conceived in your head? Well, I've found it's been more helpful to check my own behaviors first, before condemning the behaviors of others. This isn't a new idea either. Here's a quote from Jesus:

How can you say to your brother, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.

When I speak of "self-righteousness," I urge you to first examine yourself and no one else. This is what Jesus taught and practiced. Are you a self-righteous person? "No." Well if you say "no," do you really believe anyone else would respond to that question saying, "oh yes, that's me"? Few people ever truly think of themselves as being self-righteous. Yet we observe the phenomena anyway. So rather than focusing on correcting everyone else, start by watching for it in your own thinking.

If someone else has expressed a dissenting opinion, ask yourself: have I honestly been willing to listen to them? Or have I judged them to be a "hater," or "ignorant", or any other dismissive adjective? People sometimes believe that our politics will ultimately determine our legacy. They think that if we're just on the "right side" of things, we'll be remembered as loving and righteous. No, no, no! Be loving right now. How you treat others -- especially those who disagree with you -- says a lot more for how you'll be remembered. That doesn't mean you have to acquiesce to an opinion you don't agree with. But just because you don't agree with someone doesn't mean you can't have a civil conversation with them. And it certainly doesn't mean you can't still love them!

Jesus taught that to mistreat or malign the "least" of people was to mistreat and malign himself. But when he spoke of the "least of them," he spoke in relative terms. In other words, you don't get to pick who the "least of them" are in advance. The "least" are whoever comes into your experience, not only the predetermined social groups that you already love to defend. Ask yourself: am I equally willing to see, and defend, the divinity within those that I disagree with?

And you know, you're going to fail at this. I've failed at it before, and I'm sure I'll fail at it again. But that is where grace comes in, to rescue us. People have an innate desire to love and to forgive; it is hard-wired in the very fabric of our being. So what if you were dismissed or alienated in a political discussion? Be willing to forgive and forget, however many times it takes. What if you were the one who made someone else feel alienated or unwelcome, and you're just now realizing it? Well hopefully you can actually see that (which is a huge step!), and then trust God to present an opportunity for reconciliation, an opportunity for grace. When you see something in yourself that is in error, acknowledge it as wrong, learn from it so that you don't do it again, and then forgive yourself and move on.

This may make for some rather messy discussions. But I know that God doesn't care about what political party you voted for, or whether two people have differing opinions on taxes and gun control. He cares about what's in your heart, and how we treat others along the way. To close, here is an excerpt from The Master's Men by William Barclay, without further comment:

The constitution of the twelve [apostles] presents us with a situation which is nothing less than a miracle in personal relationships. Within that society there was Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot -- Matthew who had accepted the political situation, and who was profitably engaged in help to administer it, and Simon who would have assassinated any Roman whom he could reach and would have plunged a dagger into any Jew who dared to cooperate with the Romans.

The plain truth is that, if Simon had met Matthew under any other circumstances, he would have murdered him. [...] Here is one of the greatest of all examples of personal enmity destroyed by common love of Christ.