taking the words of Jesus seriously

Editor’s Note: originally published at Word & Way, A Public Witness, by Brian Kaylor, President & Editor-in-Chief, Word & Way and is reprinted here with permission. 

Over the weekend, former President Donald Trump predicted he will be indicted this week — even claiming it would occur today (March 21), though officials have not confirmed that. A grand jury in New York has been investigating a hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels after she allegedly had sex with Trump (and even if that grand jury doesn’t indict him, there are others that might soon for different possible crimes). So Trump utilized a message he pushed before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” he wrote on Truth Social.

Trump also insisted he was innocent and that no crime occurred, even though his former lawyer Michael Cohen already went to prison for his role in Stormygate. Additionally, Trump used antisemitic conspiracy rhetoric by suggesting that George Soros was somehow behind the prosecution. Thus, in light of Jan. 6 and Trump already trying to incite his followers, law enforcement officials in New York and elsewhere are increasing security in case an indictment comes.

All of this isn’t just upsetting the former president, who issued multiple statements attacking the prosecutor overseeing the grand jury. Numerous Republicans in Congress, some of his potential GOP opponents in the 2024 presidential race, and a horde of conservative commentators are already claiming it would be wrong to indict Trump (apparently believing that some people are above the law). For some, this situation is even reaching biblical proportions.

“President Trump will be arrested during Lent — a time of suffering and purification for the followers of Jesus Christ,” tweeted Joseph McBride, an attorney who has represented Jan. 6 defendants. “As Christ was crucified, and then rose again on the 3rd day, so too will @realDonaldTrump.”

McBride’s outspoken in his faith declarations and even got a Catholic archbishop to endorse a call for days of prayer and fasting for Jan. 6 defendants ahead of the second anniversary of the insurrection. As people criticized his tweet, including former U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican who served on the Jan. 6 House Committee, McBride doubled down. He attacked Kinzinger and others with homophobic comments. He posted photos of conservative evangelicals putting hands on Trump and praying. And he tweeted out Bible verses that seemed to add to what he saw coming this week.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and … one’s foes will be members of one’s own household,” McBride tweeted from Matthew 10.

While it might be tempting to dismiss McBride as some outlier who forgot to give up blasphemy for Lent, he’s far from the first to make the Trump-Jesus comparison. The mindset behind these statements seems to be that Jesus and Trump were both innocent and persecuted by political opponents. As McBride put it in a follow-up tweet: “All wrongful convictions & malicious prosecutions are comparable to the crucifixion, especially the mob driven political ones!”

Such arguments, however, miss the point of what is happening to Trump. And, more importantly, they misunderstand the treatment of Jesus in the leadup to the cross. So this issue of A Public Witness looks at the history of Trump-Jesus comparisons before reflecting on Christ crucified.

Trumping Jesus

Many Christians supported Trump for president and during his multiple impeachments. And numerous self-proclaimed “prophets” insisted God chose Trump to win (both in 2016 and again). But occasionally, the rhetoric goes a bit further to christen Trump not merely as ordained by God but as a messianic figure.

Last year, Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming who lost her reelection for voting to impeach Trump, said that shortly before the Jan. 6 insurrection she watched as a Republican colleague signed his support for objecting to Joe Biden’s 2020 win while referring to Trump as “the orange Jesus.” Cheney’s Republican colleague Adam Kinzinger similarly complained about how people talk about Trump.

“You have people today that literally — I think in their heart, they may not say it — but they equate Donald Trump with the person of Jesus Christ,” Kinzinger said. “And to them, if you even come out against this amazing man, Donald Trump, which is obviously quite flawed, you are coming out against Jesus, against their Christian values. And when you go after their religion, that violates the depth of who they are.”

Although Cheney and Kinzinger didn’t name people who made this comparison, one Republican congressman did so on the House floor during Trump’s first impeachment (the one prompted by Trump’s attempt to get a personal political favor done by shaking down the Ukrainian president — the same guy now leading Ukraine to stand up to Vladimir Putin’s aggression). Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Republican from Georgia who later led a Capitol tour the day before the insurrection that some of his colleagues called a “reconnaissance tour,” was outraged people were criticizing Trump.

“Before you take this historic vote today one week before Christmas, I want you to keep this in mind: When Jesus was falsely accused of treason, Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the opportunity to face his accusers. During that sham trial, Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded this president in this process,” Loudermilk declared as he loudly milked the story beyond the facts.

Congressional lawmakers haven’t been the only ones to push Trump as Jesus memes. When the real estate mogul was running for president during the 2016 Republican primaries, Jerry Falwell Jr. welcomed him to speak at Liberty University. During introductory remarks, Falwell compared Trump to his father (who founded the fundamentalist Baptist school in Virginia), Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus who “made public statements that were so radical and unpopular that the religious and political establishment of his day crucified him.” Although Falwell’s endorsement helped Trump, Falwell later resigned amid scandals involving allegations of sexual immorality and hush payments — after first reportedly getting help from Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen.

In 2021, a billboard appeared on a busy highway in Georgia featuring a photo of Trump, an American flag, and large white letters declaring, “Unto us a son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulders.” After some local pastors criticized it, whoever paid for the billboard took it down. Not to be outdone, a man the next year published a book declaring Trump to be the fulfillment of biblical prophecies: President Donald J. Trump, the Son of Man — The Christ. The author also argued that just like Jesus was betrayed by Judas, Trump was “betrayed by Pence.”

With the news of the possible indictment of Trump, the group “Pastors for Trump” also joined the Jan. 6 attorney in going for over-the-top religious claims. Jackson Lahmeyer, a regular preacher at ReAwaken America Tour events (or RAT for short), leads the group and immediately scheduled a prayer call-in for Trump last night.

“The war against Trump is a war against Christianity,” Lahmeyer insisted as he announced the event, adding that the investigations into Trump are an effort to “completely remove God from our society.”

Lahmeyer led the prayer event with RAT regulars who received pardons from Trump after their own legal troubles: former general Michael Flynn and political trickster Roger Stone (who called me a “Marxist pastor”). Trump even phoned into the “prayer” time, which led Lahmeyer to gush that the event could be “one of the most important prayer calls in American history” (take that, Alexander Graham Bell!).

“Father, we thank you that you’ve raised up a man in Donald J. Trump for such a time as this,” Lahmeyer prayed after also predicting Trump would be the 47th president. “The people of the United States of America will come to rejoice because, Father, you have anointed him and you have blessed him.”

Even before the prayer call, Trump himself encouraged and even engaged in such rhetoric. While standing on the lawn of the White House in 2019, he looked upward and said, “I am the chosen one.” He also affirmed a declaration made about him on social media that he was “the King of Israel” and is loved like he was “the second coming of God.”

But there are serious exegetical flaws with the comparisons of Trump to Jesus (as the line from Monty Python’s Life of Brian puts it: “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”). Those pushing such an analogy don’t just inaccurately claim Trump is innocent, they also misread the story of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Indicting Our Faith

As former Rep. Adam Kinzinger rightly criticized the Jan. 6 attorney for comparing Jesus to Trump, the former Republican congressman from Illinois questioned the idea of Jesus as “a political figure.” It’s a common mistake to try and reduce Jesus and his death to just a spiritual mission. And in doing so, we tell ourselves Jesus was innocent. We build that story by saying Jesus was crucified between two thieves. And since he wasn’t a thief, he was innocent. Falsely charged. Wrongly killed. Thus, anyone else we believe is innocent can be cast as persecuted like Jesus.

But that’s not quite the whole story. And it’s King James’s fault. Or at least the Bible stamped with his name. That influential text and most other English translations since then do put Jesus between two thieves. But that’s not the best translation of the Greek word (lēstai) for them or their presumed colleague Barabbas, nor does that match the historical accounts of Roman crucifixions.

“Barabbas was an insurrectionist,” Jason Porterfield, author of Fight Like Jesus, explained on a recent episode of Dangerous Dogma. “He wasn’t in jail for just some petty misdemeanor or tax invasion. It says that he was in jail because he murdered someone in a past insurrection attempt.”

The word used to describe Barabbas and the other two men describes more than just common thievery. Back in the 1960s, Clarence Jordan translated them as “revolutionaries” in his Cotton Patch Gospel. A couple of other translations more recently captured this meaning. The New Living Translation also uses “revolutionaries.” And the newest version of the NIV (Newer New International Version?) and the NASB capture this by calling them “rebels.”

That difference matters. Jesus was hardly the first person to end up on a cross. The Romans crucified thousands upon thousands of people who attempted to revolt against Roman imperial rule. It was very much a political punishment for a political crime, like for an enslaved person running away or for a group of Galileans rebelling.

To make matters obvious, the Romans even attached the charge against Jesus above him: “King of the Jews.” That title was one the Roman Senate bestowed upon the man often called “Herod the Great” (who killed the babies in Bethlehem because he was paranoid about losing his power to another king). While Pilate was merely a governor, Herod’s grandson Herod Agrippa (referenced in the Book of Acts) later also received the king title from Roman Emperor Claudius. So if Jesus claimed that title, it would usurp a power Rome claimed only they could bestow. The Jews didn’t get to elect their king, which spared the Herods from saying they needed to find 11,780 votes in a “perfect” carrier pigeon message.

In that regard, Jesus was guilty. He really did challenge the way of Caesar. He really did assert a kingship. So the Romans viewed Jesus as a threat to their law and order, just as they did previous would-be messiahs they crucified.

Trump’s supporters thus miss the point when they insist Trump’s innocent like Jesus. And if Trump’s not innocent (which seems like a pretty small “if”), the test of whether he’s like Jesus is to consider what crimes he’s accused of breaking. Paying off someone he had an affair with doesn’t make him like Jesus. That’s more like former Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards (who was indicted for payments to his mistress). And it sounds more like the biblical example of the hedonistic Herod the so-called “Great” rather than Jesus.

Or if Trump ever faces charges for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election (such as from a grand jury in Georgia), that would seem less like the nonviolent kingdom of “the first shall be last” that Jesus proclaimed than the take-power-by-any-means gospel of Barabbas. So far, Trump has managed to slip away while others got punished for the crimes. Similarly, Barabbas went free even as a couple of his rebels hung on crosses next to Jesus.

There on those crosses we see two different visions. One that sought to take power from the Romans by being a mirror image of their bloody rule. Another that taught to turn the other cheek and love enemies. Jesus may have hung between two Proud Boys, but they were not like him.

Invoking Trump as a persecuted Jesus grossly redefines the teachings, life, and death of Jesus. It’s an attempt to craft a new version of Jesus. The kind of Jesus we want. A crass Jesus who takes vengeance against our enemies and helps us feel comfortable with our vices.

“If your Jesus is standing in the way of that, your Jesus has to go, or be replaced, or rewritten,” wrote Michael Budde, a professor of Catholic studies and political science at DePaul University, as he criticized the desire for a “mafia leader” version of Jesus in his book Foolishness to Gentiles. “We do not want to see anything contrary to the Christ of violence, and we are prepared to take drastic steps — including killing — to protect our right to a Savior armed and at our beck and call, or at least one willing to bless us in whatever roles require us to kill. We like this picture of Christ, and for us to give him up, you will have to pry him loose from our cold, dead hands.”

So we shout for Barabbas. We declare we have no king but Caesar. Anything to not take up our cross daily and follow.

The biggest problem isn’t comparing a politician with authoritarian tendencies to Jesus. It’s that too often we want to give up the real Jesus for Lent.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor

About The Author


Brian Kaylor, a Baptist minister with a Ph.D. in political communication, is the president and editor-in-chief of Word&Way. He hosts the Dangerous Dogma podcast and writes about faith and politics for the Substack newsletter A Public Witness. An award-winning author, journalist, and speaker, he is the author of four books on religion and politics. Brian also serves as the associate director for Churchnet, a Baptist network of churches in Missouri. He and his wife, Jennifer, were married in June of 2004 and have a son.

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