The election of Donald Trump has stirred up a hornet’s nest. One thing that particularly struck me was listening to parents say: “what shall we tell our children? We teach them not to be bullies, and now a bully has been elected to the most powerful office in the world.”
This question is a wake-up call for us. A reminder. We have known for centuries that things like violence and oppression will be supported by whole societies at times. We just thought we were past that sort of thing.
Christianity has certainly faced this sort of problem before. Back when Jesus was first called the Prince of Peace it was a challenge to the powerful man who had that title first: Caesar Augustus. He was called the Prince of Peace because he enforced the Pax Romana: the Roman Peace that said: “if you fight each other, we will kill you all.” It was peace enforced by terror, and people praised this peace because they liked it better than all the little wars that used to go on, which were really bad for international trade.
Back in those days followers of Jesus were called to honour a different kind of Prince of Peace. It was not because Christians believed that the violent kind didn’t work: it obviously did (for a given value of “worked”). It was because Christians didn’t believe that this was God’s way.
Our current situation is really quite unexpected. Donald Trump has bragged on tape about sexual assaults he has committed, along with many other misogynistic words and deeds. He has targeted Mexicans and Muslims for special hatred in his campaign rhetoric.
People have looked at these things and declared that Trump represents all that our society doesn’t stand for. They will point out that our society tries to value people across our differences, and tries to make one nation out of a diverse group of people (with obvious distinctions between “Melting Pot” and “Multicultural” approaches).
But why does our society hold these values?
I would argue that it is because of centuries of Christian influence on our culture and on our leaders. Without a sense that Christian teachings matter, these values are easy to discard. Other philosophies of life can take very different approaches and can be justified by those who support them. Many faith groups share similar values with Christianity, but have not had the same influence on Western history. Currently, bringing faith into politics is a cause for alarm for many people, and “secular” philosophies seem to be easier for our decision makers to embrace.
For example: if you are taking a pragmatic approach (popular these days), your main concern is what works and what doesn’t. I have noticed in recent years that the moral arguments against torture (oops, “enhanced interrogation”), are much less persuasive to many people than the pragmatic argument that information you get under torture is not reliable. I have seen that pragmatic argument used to end a debate on the the ethics of torture. Why discuss whether torture is right or wrong if it isn’t reliable?
Pragmatically speaking, it is certainly possible to demonstrate that bullying and abuse produce results. Stirring up fear and targeting identifiable groups for hatred is a time-honoured method for creating support for leaders and for morally questionable policies and activities.
This has been a challenge to Christian teaching for 2000 years. We know that someone who is prepared to push everyone else around can achieve all kinds of things, many of them bad.
The most extreme version of this is Fascism. I remember talking to a man who had immigrated to Montreal from Italy after the second world war. Even in the 1970s he expressed his admiration for Benito Mussolini, because the Fascist leader made the trains run on time and got young people off the streets and into Fascist youth groups.
People like peace and security. Fearful people don’t mind a bit of bullying if it produces security, as long as the abuse is directed at someone else.
The kind of divisive and hateful talk Donald Trump used in his campaign is incompatible with Christianity. Consider these words from Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
It is one of our principals that things like social class, gender, nationality or culture are no longer supposed to divide us. Historically we have rarely lived up to that ideal, but IT IS STILL OUR IDEAL. It means we are not called to build walls or target identifiable groups.
But we must remember that these are explicitly Christian values, things we have chosen to embrace as followers of Christ. These values are not automatically part of our culture. They are not the only way that works. As history has proven, it is possible to create peace through violence, even if it is only the peace of the oppressed or the cemetary; and it is possible to create order through oppression and fear.
As followers of Jesus we believe it is wrong to live that way. We believe that love should cast out fear. We believe that we were called to a way of love, not hatred.
It has always been possible to be cynical, or pragmatic. We know that some unethical behaviours can produce results.
But we are called to a better way of life. We are called to treat others with respect and even love. We are even called to love our enemies! And we are now faced with the ascendancy of a man who publicly disregards those values; who appears to dismiss them as weak. It alarms us that he has claimed the most powerful office in the world.
How do we tell our children that it’s wrong to be a bully when a bully has just won the presidency of the United States? The way Christians have every time this sort of thing has happened over the centuries.
This is an important lesson for us and for our children. It forces us to remember that being a bully can work, and that we STILL reject that way of doing things.
We are not Christians because it is the only viable choice. There have always been other approaches to life that can be effective. We choose to follow this way because we believe in the values that Jesus taught, in the values Jesus lived out.
We want our children not to be bullies because we believe that being a bully is wrong. It may work sometimes, but it’s wrong. It is against the way God wants us to live.
Jesus has shown us the right way to live, and we are called to choose it every day, in place of the other choices we have.
The way of Christ is a way of respect and courage. It is a way that breaks down walls and builds bridges; it is a way of love that casts out fear; that goes beyond intimidation into acceptance and love.
We find ourselves now in a world that is much closer to the one the early Christians knew. There are obvious differences: We have had official position in the past, and we have lost that. And thankfully we’re not being thrown to the lions. Things could be much worse. But like the early Church we have to stand up for what we believe in. We are in a world where a lot of people won’t hold the values we do. It’s something we have to get used to
A lot of people will have trouble understanding our position. Loving enemies is counter-intuitive, after all. A lot of Christians have trouble with that one. Working past differences is not simple, and without a faith background to explain why these things are important, many people will legitimately ask: “why?”
So if anyone, young or old, needs encouraging in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, don’t be afraid to say that we, as Christians, don’t believe in his divisive, abusive approach. And don’t be afraid to say why:
Because Jesus has shown us a better way to live, and that’s the way we choose.
On Sunday I was reminded of another faith dimension to this. A mother at Knox told me that her young son had said to her: “Mommy, maybe Trump will be like Zacchaeus in the Bible. Maybe he’ll change his ways.”
We do believe in the possibility of change. We believe in repentance and redemption. We believe in hope.
As we firmly reject the abusive and hurtful values Donald Trump has expressed so publicly, let’s not give up on the man himself. Let’s keep him in our prayers, and remember that we are called to love him, no matter how little love he himself demonstrates.
That, too, is one of our ideals. We must not let go of it, or hatred wins.