The Gospels of Jesus Christ are politically charged, revolutionary documents, and yet many religious leaders, well-paid theologians and ethicists in comfortable ivory tower positions have spent much energy to neuter the political calls for justice found in the words of Jesus. The radicalness of the Gospels, a message usually missed by those who are privileged to live in houses within the empire, is that the Jesus narratives (specifically the Christmas story) are anti-colonial literature about a native resident displaced by the invading colonial power.
The Gospel narratives depict a careful maneuver which takes place between Rome the colonizer and Jesus the colonized. Not far from the story-telling surface is the real world dynamic experiencing the consequences of empire. We see it throughout Jesus’ everyday experience and how he responded to the circumstances brought about by the economic and political occupation of Judea, as made evident by questions posed concerning paying tribute to Caesar (Mt. 22:20), constantly facing danger for preaching of another reign or kingdom more powerful then the one to which Jews were subjugated (Mk. 1:15), or given a death sentence under the charge of being “king of the Jews,” hence a rival sovereign (Mk. 15:2). Even the very audience that first heard the words of Jesus were fellow colonized compatriots, many of who held an abiding hatred toward the Roman oppressors. From this colonized space, the Gospel message is shaped and formed, and ignoring this historical reality leads to false remembrance, if not pure illusion.
This realization of the Gospel’s political edge was expressed by the Pope as he was ready to board his plane leaving Mexico for Rome, when he urged the modern day empire, the United States, to address the “humanitarian crisis” on its southern border. This is what religious leaders (not just Catholics, but all regardless of faith tradition) are called to do, urging all of us to be more humane toward our fellow being.
Note: the Pope did not urge U.S. Catholics, as some are suggesting, not to vote for Trump. He did, however, question Trump’s Christianity. Specifically, the Pope said: “A person who thinks only about building walls wherever they may be located and not building bridges is not a Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said that I would advice to vote or not vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man [Trump] is not a Christian, if he has said things like that.”
The Donald was appalled his faith would be question. He retorted: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.” Reiterating the hard-line policies he promises to implement if elected concerning immigration, Trump defended his position and declared the Pope out of line. “No leader,” according to Trump, “especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.” Trump went on to claim that the pope was being used by the Mexican government for political purposes. “They are using the pope as a pawn and they should be ashamed of themselves for doing so, especially when so many lives are involved and when illegal immigration is so rampant.”
One would think Trump’s comments would hurt in him the polls, but the reality is that South Carolina (which votes within 24 hours of this article publication) is a bellwether state for the South. The anti-Catholic sentiments among Evangelicals, some of whom question if Catholics are Christians, will not punish Trump for his comments. In fact, it might actually help him. On the other hand, it may also come back to haunt him in rich delegate states like New York and New Jersey.
So the Pope questions the Donald’s Christianity. What happens next is an indication that not only should Trump’s Christianity be questioned, but so too the Christianity of those who claim to be Evangelical, born-again Christians (a question being asked by this author who is an ordained Southern Baptist, Evangelical, Bible thumping, born-again, Spirit filled believer). In a Twilight Zone moment, Jerry Falwell, Jr., stated: “Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country.”
Let us not forget that his father, Jerry Falwell, Sr., launched his political movement as the voice against the Civil Rights Movement. In a 1964 sermon, “Ministers and Marchers,” Falwell attacked Martin Luther King, Jr. as a Communist subversive. Earlier, in a 1958 sermon titled “Segregation or Integration: Which?” he riled against the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools. “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made,” Falwell continued, “The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”
Obviously, a son should not be held responsible for the sins of the father. Yet as president of Liberty University, when he introduced presidential candidate Donald Trump, Falwell, Jr compared him to Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King, Jr. (To paraphrase Senator’s Bentsen’s remarks during his Vice Presidential debate with Dan Quayle: I serve Jesus Christ. I know Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is a friend of mine. Mr. Falwell – Trump’s no Jesus). What concerns me is how far Evangelicals have strayed from biblical principles hoping to regain some voice in the national discourse. I remain flabbergasted that, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll, 42 percent of evangelical voters support Mr. Trump, while 25 percent support Senator Cruz. I recognize that Evangelicals are not a monolithic group, but a 67 percent support for candidates voicing very non-Christian propositions is a staggering amount.
Sadly, the Trumpmania experienced by Falwell, Jr. has led him to make the oddest statement imaginable during a recent CNN interview. “Jesus called the religious leaders of his day . . . hypocrites, a generation of vipers, and he called them wolves in sheep clothing, if what Donald Trump said is bad then also what Jesus said is bad, because Jesus questioned religious leaders who judged others and that is exactly what Donald Trump said in his comments today.” Yes, Falwell Jr. again compared Trump to Jesus, and the Pope to those religious leaders Jesus called hypocrites, a generation of vipers, wolves in sheep clothing.
So, who is the Christian? Is it the Donald? Is it Falwell, Jr.? Is it the Pope? Or is it the author of this op-ed? If a tree is known by its fruit, then the answer should be easy to determine. Jesus gives us a vision of a day when the Heavens will roll away and the son of humanity returns in all his glory, accompanied by the host of Heaven, gathering all the people and separating them as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goat. He will invite the sheep to enter the reign prepared for them since the foundation of the earth. “I was hungry and you gave me some food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a glass of water to drink. I was naked, and rather than debate the morality of my appearance, you clothed me. I was an alien, without proper documentation, and you welcomed me. I was infirm, wasting away, and you visited me. I was incarcerated, and you took the time to come and encourage me, regardless if I was or was not guilty.” (Mt. 25:31-36).
When the virtuous, as well as the condemned ask how their salvation, or lack thereof, was determined, Jesus responds by indicating that it was he who was the person most normatively avoided, ignored, or shunned. Jesus does more than simply show empathy for the poor and oppressed, more than simply express some paternalistic concern. Jesus is the poor and oppressed. “Inasmuch as you did it to one of these, the least of my people, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:40). If you want to be gaze into the eyes of Jesus, look into the eyes of the undocumented immigrant caught and abused while crossing artificial borders. If you want to place your hand in the hand of the one who calmed the waters, then shake the hand of the homeless. The sheep are not separated from the goat due to the faith tradition they proclaim membership; nor by what house of worship they attend; nor by the doctrines that they profess to believe; not even by their confession of faith. Sheep and goats are separated by what they did or did not do to the least of these.
If the purpose of religious and theological critical thought concerning the personhood of Jesus is to serve humanity by transforming the normative oppressive social structures to a more justice-based reality preached by Jesus; then neither Donald Trump, nor any other presidential candidate (neither Republican or Democratic) come close. Christians who look for saviors among politicians only find anti-Christs. To honor the Gospel message of liberation, Christians must hold politicians to concepts of justice, not crown them as God’s chosen. If this is true, then we must ask if those who use and abuse the disenfranchised, even if they are running for President, Christians? And more importantly, are those who pledge allegiance to oppressors, even though they call themselves born-again Evangelical Christians, saved?