Election Results: Why So Many Christians Support Donald Trump – and Conventional Morality

Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wis. 6:12-16; Ps. 63: 2-3; I Thes. 4:13-18; Mt. 25:1-13.

Last Thursday, Juan Gonzalez of “Democracy Now” provided the best post-election analysis of voting trends that I’ve heard. It sharply departed from the conventional wisdom that, he said, routinely wonders about the “under performance” of black and brown voters in the just-completed general election.

Instead, Gonzalez pointed out that African American, Latinx, Chicanx, and even Native American voters stepped up in an unprecedented way with more of them voting than ever – and most of them, of course, casting their ballots for the Biden-Harris ticket.

True, he said, there was a 2% increase in the number of them voting for Donald Trump. But he pointed out, it’s not percentages that win elections, but actual votes cast. Gonzalez asked, “Would you rather have 70% of 12 million votes, or would you rather have 68% of 20 million votes?”

The real surprise, Gonzalez noted, was in the increase of white suburbanites – and especially white suburban women – who voted for Donald Trump. If anything, that was the real “under-performance” calling for further analysis.

Why is it that Republicans are increasingly becoming America’s “White Party” with white women exhibiting decreasing difference in their voting preferences from white men who actually shifted a bit away from Trump?  And why do so many Christians continue to support someone like DJT?

Gonzalez answer? There is a surprisingly significant number of Americans – white, black, Latinx, gay, straight, atheist and Christian – who are quite comfortable with Donald Trump’s imperialist message of “America First” global dominance. Whether they’re aware of it or not, they (at least subconsciously) don’t want the sun to set on the declining U.S. empire. So, they respond positively to imperialism’s conventional wisdom of maintaining “full spectrum dominance” over the rest of the world. It’s an American thing divorced from any “identity politics.”

Today’s Readings

I bring all of that up because today’s readings call attention to the difference between the conventional wisdom that Gonzalez decried and the radical wisdom of Jesus the Christ who had no time for empire or for making Rome or even Israel great again.  

To show what I mean, here are my “translations” of the day’s selections related to Jesus’ profound wisdom – with a surprise twist in today’s Gospel parable of “The Wise and Foolish Virgins.”

There, the anonymous and conservatively Jewish evangelist called “Matthew” turns the unconventionally wise Jesus into a teacher of the world’s conventional wisdom of taking care of #1. In effect, he transforms Jesus from what we might call a “progressive” (or what I would call an anti-imperialist “radical”) into something like a contemporary Republican. No wonder today’s Christians feel comfortable supporting Donald Trump!

Please read to original texts here to see if I’m exaggerating. The first three readings reflect Jesus’ approach to wisdom. The last one seems to contradict it.

Wisdom 6: 12-16

Goddess-like Wisdom is easily encountered by those who seek her out. In fact, she lovingly looks for us even before we start our search for her. She is nearer to us than our jugular veins. Honoring her is actually the height of informed intelligence. You might say that human beings are naturally wise. 

Psalms 63: 3-8

Whether we know it or not, wisdom is our shared quest. It’s more valuable than life itself. Without wisdom our lives are parched, meaningless and deprived. Wisdom’s nourishment brings us gladness and everlasting joy.

I Thessalonians 4: 13-18

But what about those who die before achieving the full enlightenment offered by wisdom’s goddess? Have their lives been wasted? “No,” says St. Paul.  Mysteriously, even they will be enlightened by the same cosmologically irresistible powers that were manifested in the person, life and teachings of the master of wisdom, Jesus the Christ. This is no idle fantasy, though the hopeless claim it is.  

Matthew 25: 1-13

Even the evangelist called Matthew found Jesus’ unconventional wisdom about sharing to be a bit much. So, in his version of Jesus’ parable about the wise and the foolish bridesmaids,” he turned Jesus into a teacher of a conventional wisdom that the world could more easily endorse. “Take care of yourself  first,” he has Jesus teach in his story. “Your selfishness will be rewarded,” Jesus seems to say. ‘Foolish people – especially thoughtless women – will be shut out of God’s kingdom, just as they deserve.”

Jesus Republicanized

Let me say a bit more about the parable that tries to domesticate Jesus. It’s about those who embody the characteristics of wisdom described in the first reading – the wise virgins. It is also about those who lack such qualities – the foolish bridesmaids. The wise ones brought enough oil to keep their lamps alight while they waited to escort an unexpectedly delayed bridegroom to his ritual rendezvous with his intended. The foolish ones made no such provision.   

Obviously, this is a women-oriented story. And that’s quite fitting for exploring the topic of wisdom traditionally identified as feminine – almost as a goddess.  The story is full of wisdom symbols: not only wise and foolish virgins, but wedding feasts and bridegrooms, sleeping and waking, lamps, oil and light, closed and locked doors. All of these are archetypes. Their richness suggests an enlightened storyteller; it suggests someone like Jesus.

And yet there are also elements in today’s gospel that suggest a voice that does not belong to the prophet from Nazareth. For one thing, this is perhaps the only instance in the gospels where women are presented in a negative light. Here I’m thinking of the foolish bridesmaids. Throughout the Gospels, women appear consistently in a positive light. It seems Jesus took care not to reinforce the prejudice against them that so endemic to his deeply patriarchal culture – and to our own.

For another, this parable doesn’t contain any of the reversals or “unconventional wisdom” that we’ve come to associate with Jesus’ teachings and method of story-telling.  Parables, you’ll recall, are stories which present a problem meant to engage their audiences. They do so by addressing a real-life concern (often expressed in a question presented by one of Jesus’ opponents). Typically, Jesus’ answer turns the tables on the questioner surprising him with some version of Jesus’ great dictum: “The first will be last and the last first.” Think of the “Good Samaritan” or the “Prodigal Son.” We don’t find any of those kind of surprises in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.

On the contrary, instead of unconventional wisdom and surprising reversals, we find that this story concludes with a highly conventional moral. It’s embodied in the strange refusal of the wise virgins to share their oil with the foolish ones.  Again, the lesson seems to be “Be prepared and take care of #1. Let the improvident take care of themselves and reap the consequences of their ‘foolishness’.”

Of course, that runs counter to a theme that earliest Gospel traditions firmly centralize, namely that of sharing even in the face of scarcity. As you recall, that motif appeared in the feeding of the 5000 in Mk. 6:30-44 and in the feeding of the 4000 in 8:1-10.  Both instances embodied a “miracle enough” made possible because Jesus inspired people to overcome selfishness and share the little they had. The surprise was that in sharing scarce resources (five loaves and two fishes) there was more than enough for all.

The bottom line here is that Matthew seems to have domesticated Jesus – as I said, making him very Republican-like.

Conclusion

Last week in OpEdNews, RJ Piers wrote an extremely insightful article called “Letting Go of Christianity During the Trump Era.” There the author recalled years of commitment to a Christian faith that required faithful observance of conventional morality centered around avoidance of drinking, drugs and premarital sex.

In the light of his abstinence, the author found it more than disappointing to see Christians rallying around a character like Donald Trump with his three marriages, assaults on unsuspecting women, and separations of children and babies from their mothers and fathers. For Piers (as for so many of us), Christian faith was all about conventional morality. And to see Christians deserting that morality to endorse someone like Trump was enough to suggest his own abandonment of Christian faith itself.

Personally, I found the argument intriguing.

However, even a casual reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus was not about such conventional expectations. His focus wasn’t drinking, drugs, or premarital sex. On the contrary, he transgressed community moral standards at every turn. He repeatedly broke the sacred Sabbath law, forgave a woman caught in flagrante with an anonymous man, was accused of being a drunkard and friend of prostitutes, intermingled with despised foreigners, heretics, and n’er do wells. He finished his own life completely disgraced on death row, a victim of torture and of a form of capital punishment specifically reserved for enemies of Roman imperialism.

Remembering all of that is important not only for helping us see how churches have followed Matthew’s lead in domesticating Jesus.  It also helps us see Jesus for who he was despite that process of normalization that began less than two generations after his assassination.

Matthew’s parable of the ten bridesmaids is a case in point. Ironically, its domestication of the radical Jesus juxtaposed with the rest of today’s readings calls us to return to the master’s unconventional wisdom. That wisdom rejects obsession with conventional morality.

Again ironically, Matthew’s attempts at taming Jesus remind us of the master’s more important focus. As shown by his crucifixion, it must have been on politically radical rebellion against the kind of imperialism that Juan Gonzalez correctly suggests has seduced so many of our fellow citizens despite their claims to be followers of Jesus the Christ.

(Sunday Homily) Matthew’s God as Mafia Don: The Religion That’s Killing Us

Mafia Don

Readings for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 27: 30-28:7; PS 102: 1-4, 9-12; ROM 14: 7-9; JN 13:34; MT 18: 21-35

Today’s gospel is a confusing one. For me, it’s troubling. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it illustrates what’s wrong with religion.

What’s wrong is that too often religion is made to justify violence, guilt, fear and economic exploitation. Its God is like a Mafia Don who intimidates, punishes, tortures, and never forgives. For the sake of money (!), He even engages in child trafficking and leg-breaking extortion.

That’s ironic, isn’t it? I mean, the gospel reading begins with Jesus’ comforting and challenging logion about forgiveness. How often should we forgive, he is asked? Jesus’ answer: “Always! In fact, you can’t put a number on it. But, if you insist, how about 490 times – 70 X 7?”

Jesus would surely say something like that. Seven times is not enough. Seventy times seven is more like it. That formula probably represents an authentic saying of the Master whose followers eventually saw as divine. His teaching: always forgive; that’s God’s way.

But then comes the confusing illustration that seems to contradict those comforting and challenging words. Matthew presents Jesus as identifying the God whom the Master embodied with a cruel king. The ruler’s actions contradict not only Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness, but everything the rest of today’s liturgy of the word says about Jesus’ compassionate God.

Think about it. In the first reading, Sirach says that anger and vengeance are hateful. Don’t cherish wrath or refuse mercy, we are told. Instead overlook the faults of others and heal, rather than punish.

In that respect be like God, the Responsorial Psalm tells us. God is always kind, merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion. The Divine One heals rather than punishes. In fact, in God’s eyes, we are for all practical purposes guiltless. He doesn’t even see our sins. As the psalmist puts it, the gap between us and guilt is infinite – as wide as that between east and west. That’s the way we should see each other too – entirely guiltless.

The alleluia verse continues in the same vein. It reminds us of Jesus’s words: “Love one another as I have loved you.” That means, as Paul says in the reading from Romans, living and dying as Jesus did – with a prayer of forgiveness for his executioners on his lips: “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” Jesus pardoned even his assassins and executioners.

But then comes that troubling illustration. Matthew presents Jesus as identifying his Father with a money lender – with a king whose first impulse towards his debtor is to sell him and his entire family – including his children – into slavery. That’s human trafficking. That’s trafficking in children.

Put otherwise, for the sake of recovering his money (!), no cruelty seems excessive. That’s evidently why the money lender employs torturers on retainer. Their job, as we see in the parable’s conclusion, is to squeeze blood from a turnip. If a debtor can’t pay with money, he’ll pay with pain. Here torture’s purpose is to intimidate – to send a message to others who might be tempted renege on their debts. Does that remind you of Mafia leg-breakers?

Nonetheless, at the end of the parable, Matthew has Jesus saying: “So will my heavenly Father do to you unless each of you forgives your brothers from your heart.” Contradictions, anyone? Silliness? Intimidation?

Yes!

In fact, Jesus could never have spoken these words because, as I said, they run counter to the instructions that precede them. They also contradict the descriptions of God exemplified in biblical teachings as found in today’s reading from Sirach, Psalms, Romans, and the Gospel of John.

Not only that. Jesus’ audience was filled with debtors whose lives were imiserated by Shylocks like the king in this morning’s story. They would never have listened to a teacher who identified God with such oppressors.

So what’s up with Matthew? Why does he insist on a punishing God who seems to support economic exploitation and Mafia ethics?

Fact is: right from the beginning it was difficult for Jesus’ followers (especially those like Matthew who never met him) to leave behind their religion’s overwhelming concept of a violent, punishing God. Moreover, despite Jesus’ teaching about the entirely new order represented by God’s Kingdom, they found it nearly impossible to distance themselves from the contradictory normality of economic exploitation, human trafficking, slavery, torture, war and violence.

So early on, all those elements crept back into Christianity – again, despite Jesus’ teaching and example. And those elements covered with a veneer of faith are precisely what is killing us today. Or, as Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer has put it: that’s why Religion is Killing Us:Violence in the Bible and Quran.

Christians have no trouble seeing that with Islam. But as Nelson-Pallmeyer has explained, it’s just as true of Christianity.

So, as I just said, Christianity like that presented in today’s gospel has been made to support everything Jesus stood against.

In the face of such contradictions, what are believers to do? My answer:

  • Be discerning.
  • Realize that Christianity is just as threatening to the world as we imagine religions like Islam to be.
  • Accordingly, embrace atheism before violent, exploitative images of God like the Mafia Don Matthew presents.
  • At the same time, embrace Jesus’ forgiving Father.
  • After the usual sermon today, question your priest or minister about the king in this morning’s gospel.
  • Most importantly, strive to act like that God as embodied in Jesus practice on the cross.

Seventy times seven is only the beginning!

Jesus Is Cutting Your Lawn! (Sunday Homily)

immigrant jesus

Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wis. 18: 6-9; Ps. 33: 1, 12, 18-20, 22; Heb. 11: 1-2, 8-19; Lk. 12: 32-48. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/081113.cfm

Today’s liturgy of the word invites us to consider the hot-button issue of immigration. The issue is contentious because conservatives in our country generally oppose immigration reform. More accurately, they tie changes in the legal status of immigrants to strengthening border security with Mexico and the building of walls along our southern border to keep undocumented immigrants out. Until such measures are foolproof, conservatives generally promise to oppose reform of immigration laws.

That’s ironic because Evangelical Christians make up the strongest component of the U.S. conservative party, the GOP. So the dominant attitude of that party on immigration ends up militating against American Christians’ brothers and sisters in faith. After all, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, an estimated 83 percent, or 9.2 million, of the 11.1 million people living in the United States illegally are Christians from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Our readings this morning call into question such exclusionary attitudes about immigration. They suggest that far from excluding immigrants, insisting on observance of law, and building walls to keep them out, Christian response to immigrants should take the form of welcoming, wealth-sharing and service.

Let me show you what I mean.

To begin with, today’s first passage from the Book of Wisdom underlines the point that the biblical People of God were all immigrants. They were unwanted strangers whose ancestors had come to Egypt to escape famine in Palestine. Remember those Bible stories of Joseph and his brothers? Read them again (Genesis 37-50). Those legends explain how the families of Jacob’s sons came to be enslaved in Egypt in the first place. As you no doubt recall, Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery.

However, in Egypt, Joseph landed on his feet and eventually became the Pharaoh’s Minister of Agriculture. That meant that when famine struck Joseph’s former homeland, his brothers were forced to come hats-in-hand to beg food from the very one they had betrayed. However, when they came into Joseph’s presence, his own brothers didn’t recognize him. In one of the most beautiful stories in all of world literature, the unrecognized Joseph finally discloses his true identity. Instead of punishing them for their betrayal, Joseph feeds his brothers and invites them to join him in Egypt.

In other words, Joseph’s response to immigrants and refugees was to recognize them as members of his own family and to welcome them “home.”

In today’s second reading, Paul digs further into Israel’s past only to find that Abraham himself (the original father of Israel) was himself an immigrant. He entered a land that God decided was to belong to Abraham and his descendants though the ones dwelling there didn’t share that secret understanding. (The Canaanites, of course, thought Canaan belonged to them.)

So Abraham and his sons were forced to live in poor housing – in tents, Paul recalls for us. All the while, however (like most immigrants) they dreamt of better lodging “with foundations.”

Meanwhile Yahweh saw to it that Abraham’s family grew prodigiously. They begat and begat until they seemed to everyone to be “as numerous as the stars of the sky;” they were as plentiful as grains of sand on the beach. Such legendary fertility eventually came to be seen as threatening and led one pharaoh to order the death of all of the Hebrew immigrant boys (Ex. 1:22). By Yahweh’s special intervention, Moses alone was saved from such genocidal population control.

Again, this was Israel’s God protecting immigrants as his chosen people. That’s the point today’s responsorial psalm underlines with its refrain, “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” Ironically those people were persecuted immigrants.

Then in today’s Gospel, Jesus presents a riddle about the identity of his faithful servants. Jesus asks, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?” His answer has implications for immigration reform measures.

In any case, you can imagine a lengthy interchange between Jesus and his audience about his riddle. No doubt, some identified “faithful and prudent stewards” with those who kept the absolute letter of the law. Others probably cited the Jewish purity code and said fidelity meant keeping the bloodline pure; it meant keeping foreigners out of the Holy Land and preventing inter-marriage with gentiles. Still others may have responded in economic terms. For them the faithful and prudent steward was probably the one who defended Jewish livelihood by keeping foreigners from taking Jewish jobs.

Jesus’ own response is different. He replies in terms of generosity, as well as in terms of service with its “law of abundance.” Jesus also invokes the law of karma. God’s faithful servants are those who sell what they have and give it to the poor. They are not the ones who are served, but those who serve. Meanwhile those who mistreat God’s servants will reap what they sow.

Above all, notice that the emphasis in Jesus’ words today is on service. His riddle brings us entirely from the “upstairs” culture of dominance into the “downstairs” culture of servants. The steward is the head servant. He’s in charge of others, but his service consists in distributing food allowances to his fellow servants. Even the Master ends up serving. When he returns from the wedding, his servants don’t wait on him. Rather as an expression of gratitude, he brings them upstairs, sits them at table and waits on everyone! (How consoling is that?! The “law of abundance” says that what we receive in life is determined by our own generosity.)

Similarly, we can’t mistreat others without harming ourselves. The law of karma decrees that we reap what we sow. Jesus endorsed that law in today’s reading. More specifically Jesus says that those who mistreat God’s servants will find themselves similarly mistreated. Here Jesus gets quite graphic: to the degree that they beat others, they themselves will be beaten. Again, it’s the law of karma; and it’s inescapable.

What does Jesus’ riddle have to do with immigration? First of all, remember it’s told by a former immigrant. According to Matthew’s story, Jesus lived in Egypt when Mary and Joseph sought refuge from Herod’s infanticide. Yes, Matthew’s Jesus must have known first-hand the experience of being an unwanted immigrant. In Egypt he spoke with a Jewish accent. Or maybe his family didn’t even bother to learn Egyptian.

Remember too that the riddle about faithful servants is posed by the Jesus who identifies with “the least of the brethren.” He said that whatever we do to the least, he considers done to him. In terms of today’s considerations, does that mean that what we do to immigrants, we do to Jesus?

As for Jesus’ response to his own riddle, it reminds us to receive immigrants as we would our Master returning home – yes, as our Master, Jesus himself – the one who ends up serving us! Again, Jesus identifies with the least of our brothers and sisters.

Does that mean that Jesus appears to us today in our service industries and in the informal economy where immigrants work as our kids’ nannies, our house cleaners, as construction workers, hotel maids, and gardeners?

At this very moment might Jesus be out there cutting my lawn, roofing my house or cleaning my bathroom?

When our border guards beat “illegals” (and worse!) are they beating Jesus?

And what does that mean for their karma – and for ours?

Those are riddles worth discussing and solving!

The way we answer will determine the side we come down on in the immigration debate.
(Discussion follows)