Saturday, January 12, 2019

Jerry, Jeffress and Jesus

On January 1, Joe Heim published an interview with Jerry Falwell entitled“Jerry Falwell Jr. can’t imagine Trump ‘doing anything that’s not good for the country.’” Last week, Robert Jeffress made headlines for defending President Trump’s wall by comparing it to Heaven’s wall. 

I am offering a response if for no other reason than to let those outside evangelical circles know that these two men do not speak for all of us, and that their application of biblical principles is suspect at best and deeply problematic at worst.

I am not eager to step into this mess. I just can’t not say anything.


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THE INTERVIEW

You said recently that conservatives and Christians should stop electing nice guys. Aren’t Christians supposed to be nice guys?Of course, of course. But that’s where people get confused. I almost laugh out loud when I hear Democrats saying things like, “Jesus said suffer the little children to come unto me” and try to use that as the reason we should open up our borders. It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. 

For someone who just called out Democrats for misusing a passage, he misuses this one. In the scenario in question, questioners are trying to trap Jesus. If he says they should pay their taxes, the Jews hate him. If he says don’t pay taxes, he is a seditionist in the eyes of Rome. His answer goes between the horns of the dilemma, forcing his questioners to ask the more important question: what do I owe Caesar, and what do I owe God?

From Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges:  Literally, Give back, pay as being due. “therefore yelde ye to Cæsar.” It was not a question of a voluntary gift, but of a legal due. The head of the Emperor on the coin, the legend round it, and its circulation in the country, were undeniable proofs of the right of the actually existing government to levy the tax. Remembrance of this precept “would have spared the Jewish war, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the downfall of their nation.” …obedience to Cæsar must ever be conditioned by obedience to God. “Render unto Cæsar all that he can lawfully demand, but render also to God, what He requires of you as His spiritual subjects.” “Give to God that which has the image and superscription of God, the soul…” 

From Pulpit Commentary: It is as though our Lord said, "Since you Jews are now subject to Caesar - and there is here this evidence of it, that his coin is current amongst you; you would not use it were you not obliged, because all Gentile rites and symbols are an abhorrence to you; - but since Caesar demands nothing of you but his tribute - the coin stamped with his own image and name - it is your duty to render to him his own denarius for tribute. But spiritual things, such as worship and obedience, give these to God; for these he demands from you as his right, and by so doing you will offend neither God nor yet Caesar…" Tertullian says… "'give to Caesar his image stamped upon his coin, and give to God his own image stamped upon you; so that while you render to Caesar the coin which is his due, you may render your own self to God." 

From Adam Clarke:  The civil government under which a man lives, and by which he is protected, demands his honor and reverence. The laws which are made for the suppression of evil doers, and the maintenance of good order, which are calculated to promote the benefit of the whole, and the comfort of the individual should be religiously obeyed. The government that charges itself with the support and defense of the whole, should have its unavoidable expenses, however great, repaid by the people, in whose behalf they are incurred; therefore we should pay tribute. But remember, if Caesar should intrude into the things of God, coin a new creed, or broach a new Gospel, and affect to rule the conscience, while he rules the state, in these things Caesar is not to be obeyed; he is taking the things of God, and he must not get them. Give not therefore God's things to Caesar, and give not Caesar's things to God. That which belongs to the commonwealth should, on no account whatever, be devoted to religious uses; and let no man think he has pleased God, by giving that to charitable or sacred uses which he has purloined from the state. 
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It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught…

Jesus simply didn’t talk about what kinds of things entire nations can do in terms of public policy in order to please God. I think we are supposed to extrapolate that from his teachings for individuals and the myriad of verses describing justice in the Old Testament. 

  • If individual people are supposed to love their neighbors, and the government is made up of individual people, it would make sense that governmental policy would reflect this in some fashion. 
  • If individuals are not supposed to murder, and the government is made up of individuals, then it would makes sense that governmental policy would reflect this in some fashion. 
  • Our government is not the Good Samartian, but in an ideal world it is full of Good Samaritans, and it would make sense that governmental policy would reflect the heart of Good Samaritans. 

It was made clear to Israel how importance justice was in a ruler in Israel; it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that is a template for what good governance looks like everywhere. 

So, yeah, I think God’s ideal is that our nation be a loving, generous and just nation not because Jesus taught that to nations, but because he taught that to people who populate these nations and make the laws. 
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…The government should be led by somebody who is going to do what’s in the best interest of the government and its people. And I believe that’s what Jesus thought, too.

Here’s why I think he is reluctant and cagey when asked about the character of leaders and defaults to utilitarianism: he can’t possibly make the argument that President Trump is a godly leader by any Chriitan, biblical standard.  From an article called “Qualities of a Godly Ruler”: 

  • Godly rulers fear God. This leads to humility and reverence for God’s laws, ultimately knowing that they will be held accountable before God for their actions.
  • Godly rulers uphold justice through their integrity, impartiality, and compassion.
  • Godly rulers have wisdom and understanding to make sound and moral decisions. They speak deliberately and listen intently.
  • Godly rulers are truthful, not only in their knowledge and presentation of the facts, but in their faithfulness and obedience to God’s law. A ruler who is truthful surrounds himself with advisers who are also truthful.
  • Godly rulers have self-control. Having mastery over their physical and emotional desires gives them better judgment and makes them less susceptible to outside manipulation and abuse of power.

Ask yourself, does President Trump reflect any of these five? This puts Falwell in a bind. He cannot talk about character. He must talk about policy. 
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In 2016 you wrote in a Washington Post editorial that voters in the 2010 and 2014 midterms sent a message they were “tired of the leftist agenda.” What message did voters in the 2018 midterms send?This midterm, the president did better than the average president does in his first midterms. So I think the message is that the American people are happy with the direction the country is headed and happy with the economy, happy with our newfound respect in the world. It’s a better result than you normally see in the first midterms.

Other than adding a couple seats to a majority in the Senate, nothing else suggests Falwell is correct, and this lack of honesty bothers me. The President did worse in the House in midterms than the past three Republican presidents did in their first midterm. Democrats increased their vote share in 239 districts; Republicans increased theirs in only 67. Democrats flipped 6 governor seats; Republicans flipped 1. Democrats gained at least 332 seats in state legislatures. The battleground states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – all of which Trump won in 2016 – went to Democratic governors in 2018. 

As for respect in the world, it’s simply not true.  Read Pew Research, and Pew Global, and Gallup, and The Guardian, among many sources that will confirm this.
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You and other white evangelical leaders have strongly supported President Trump. What about him exemplifies Christianity and earns him your support?What earns him my support is his business acumen. Our country was so deep in debt and so mismanaged by career politicians that we needed someone who was not a career politician, but someone who’d been successful in business to run the country like a business. That’s the reason I supported him.

“What about him exemplifies Christianity?” (Silence) Because the answer is ‘nothing,’ and Falwell knows this.

 “Business acumen” is the top reason for support. So Bill Clinton was right: “It’s the economy, stupid.”  Evangelicals, when polled care a lot about money right now. Might I just say that valuing money above all else is about as opposite a stance from a biblical hierarchy of values as is possible. #gainswholeworldlosessoul
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Is there anything President Trump could do that would endanger that support from you or other evangelical leaders?No.That’s the shortest answer we’ve had so far.Only because I know that he only wants what’s best for this country, and I know anything he does, it may not be ideologically “conservative,” but it’s going to be what’s best for this country, and I can’t imagine him doing anything that’s not good for the country.

I am almost without words. This flies in the face of everything the Bible says about human nature and human leaders. There is NOTHING that would change his support? If that is true, then Trump is what the Bible would call an idol.

And did anyone catch that even if he does not do things that are ideologically conservative, it will be what’s best for the country? That seems like a HUGE concession. “Anything he does is going to be what’s best for the country.” So if Trump closes or opens borders, it must be good for the country. If he cuts or increases funding to Planned Parenthood, it must be good for the country. If he enacts tariffs or lifts them, puts us in climate treaties or removes us, was influenced by Russia or not, he is incapable of doing anything wrong for the country.

There is just no precedent whatsoever in the Bible for a human being to be given this kind of unquestioning trust. 
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Is it hypocritical for evangelical leaders to support a leader who has advocated violence and who has committed adultery and lies often? I understand that a person can be forgiven their sins, but should that person be leading the country?When Jesus said we’re all sinners, he really meant all of us, everybody. I don’t think you can choose a president based on their personal behavior because even if you choose the one that you think is the most decent — let’s say you decide Mitt Romney. Nobody could be a more decent human being, better family man. But there might be things that he’s done that we just don’t know about. So you don’t choose a president based on how good they are; you choose a president based on what their policies are. That’s why I don’t think it’s hypocritical.

“You don’t choose a president based on how good they are; you choose a president based on what their policies are.” And presto – no more email problems for Hillary! If that’s the argument he wants to make, I hope he uses it consistently. Every evangelical making this argument now owes the Clintons and Anthony Weiner an apology. I await the next presidential election with great anticipation to see if Falwell will enforce this policy for any presidential candidate from either side. I’m looking for him to be the voice of reason: “Hey, now, let’s stop talking about taxes and affairs and anything in their personal life. Let’s stay focused on policy, people! We aren’t electing a pastor!”
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There's two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom, the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.

True story from the Bible: Jesus applauds a widow who gives a mite, because it was such a huge sacrifice for her. He rebukes the wealthy who gave more in raw money but far less of their percentage, and who wanted praise for being so ‘generous’.  

True story from the United States: the Development Assistance Committee, which is made of 30 countries, charts foreign aid. The US is number one in DAC countries in real dollars, but there is more to the story. Within DAC, we give .18 of our GNI, which puts us 21st in a list of 30 countries.  Twenty-one out of thirty. We have been given much, and we give little. 

I don’t disagree that in the Christian worldview there is a two kingdom theology. Where I disagree is that they are disconnected, that we somehow shed the Golden Rule as we move from one to the other. Isn’t the very nature of being salt and light such that when we go into the kingdom of the world, our presence is supposed to bring along the values and the light of the Kingdom of God?  
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You’ve been criticized by some other evangelical leaders about your support for the president. They say you need to demand higher moral and ethical standards. You disagree with them on that?It may be immoral for them not to support him, because he’s got African American employment to record highs, Hispanic employment to record highs. They need to look at what the president did for the poor. A lot of the people who criticized me, because they had a hard time stomaching supporting someone who owned casinos and strip clubs or whatever, a lot them have come around and said, “Yeah, you were right.” Some of the most prominent evangelicals in the country have said, “Jerry, we thought you were crazy, but now we understand.”

So, once again, he didn’t answer the question about morals and ethics in leaders, and brought it back to money. 

Though I was no fan of Obama for many reasons, Trump is riding an economic wave Obama started. Here is a chart from the US Congress, posted by a Republican leader. You can see this for yourself. I’m glad the trend is continuing, but it would have under any president. 

I’m not convinced from what I’ve seen of his policies that he is doing good for the poor. In fact, I’m pretty sure many of his policies are hurting those most in need of financial assistance. Don’t take my word for it. 

Also, Falwell dismisses casinos and strip clubs, but casinos bring poverty. Just google “gambling and poverty.” Strip clubs support an industry of exploitation and human trafficking, and they are a hotbed for crime. 

Dear God, how is this dismissed so casually? 


THE WALLS OF HEAVEN

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas Church in Texas, defended Trump’s wall this way: “The Bible says even Heaven itself is gonna have a wall around it. Not everybody is going to be allowed in. So if walls are immoral, then God is immoral.”

  • First, if we want to pick and choose language about walls and barriers, I can play that game. ‪Ephesians 2:14: Jesus breaks down barriers between us. ‪"By my God, I can leap over a wall," said the Psalmist (18:29). I don’t know - maybe it’s a bad idea to take one comment about a wall and isolate it from everything else, and then tie God’s character and nature to it? 
  • Second, Jeffress is referencing the book of Revelation. It’s a genre of writing called apocalyptic literature. It’s highly symbolic and figurative, loaded with meaning for a first century audience that is hard for us to grasp today. Revelation also talks about dragons, and huge locusts, and beasts, which nobody says are literal (at least I hope not). Revelation says there will be no more sea, which is a clear metaphor for chaos, not a promise that the earth will lose all its oceans. Just…listen to Shane Woods explain Revelation far better than I can here. 
  • Finally, even if that wall is entirely literal, there’s nobody to keep out at that point. There’s no threat to heaven. Nobody will be trying to leave. A wall would be ornamental at best. Sigh.


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We Christians, of all people, ought to be lovers and defenders of truth. 

We can do better. 

We must.

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