taking the words of Jesus seriously

Who is God? Any human answers fall far short. God is beyond our comprehension and formulation. Anything we say of God is little more than stuttering and mumbling. But that doesn’t mean that every utterance is equally empty of truth. Those of us who look to Jesus as the definitive revelation of God believe that his life and teachings present to us as much truth of God as we can grasp. For us, Jesus is the measure by which we evaluate all claims about God.

Likewise, Jesus is the measure by which we evaluate all claims about what counts as an “imaginary God.” This week the Rev. Robert Jeffress, Dallas megachurch preacher and one of the chief clergy mouthpieces for President Trump, accused Democrats who speak of their faith as having an “imaginary God.” He declared, “When they talk about God, they are not talking about the real God — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who revealed Himself in the Bible. These liberal Democrats are talking about an imaginary God they have created in their own minds: a god who loves abortion and hates Israel.”

I have no great interest in defending the Democratic Party. But I do care about truth about God and truth in general. Jeffress isn’t telling it. Liberal Democrats express neither love for abortion nor hate for Israel. Supporting legal abortion is far from “love for abortion.” People who deplore abortion often oppose banning abortion while supporting measures to reduce abortion that have proven to be far more effective: easy access to contraceptives, universal sex education, and a strong social safety net. And it is not “hate” toward Israel to insist that Israel be judged by the same standards of justice by which every other nation is judged.

Despite claiming to be nonpartisan, Jeffress places partisan commitments at the forefront as he determines what counts as an “imaginary God.” And he ignores Jesus. Jesus never mentioned abortion, and he didn’t hesitate to criticize the shortcoming of Israel even though he loved his nation (Luke 19:41). Regardless, Jeffress insists, “The truth is that when you talk about righteousness and unrighteousness, it is becoming clearer and clearer that the Democrat Party has truly become a godless party. It is a godless party.”

This come from a minister who has blatantly displayed his astonishing moral and spiritual blindness by saying, “I don’t know any policy the president has that is non-Christian,” and by claiming that Trump is “the most pro-Christian president that we’ve had in history.”

Jeffress’ use of the word “Christian” is disconnected from the Jesus of the Gospels. Jesus never favored the rich over the poor. He never supported the interests of the strong over the weak. He never stood with the privileged against the marginalized. He never sanctioned deadly force or threats of violence against people. He never justified ignoring the desperately needy in the name of security. Jesus used every means available to him to care for the poor, weak, marginalized, and threatened. If God is revealed in Christ, then the accusations of being “godless” and of having “an imaginary God” are more justly directed at those who support policies and practices that essentially do what Jesus didn’t and neglect what he did.

A couple years ago, Jeffress proudly revealed, “A Christian writer asked me, ‘Don’t you want the president to embody the Sermon on the Mount?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’” That answer says a lot about the emptiness of his claim that Trump is “the most pro-Christian president that we’ve had in history.” Jeffress touts the words “Jesus” and “God,” but it is the symbolic value that he cherishes — not the moral and spiritual content found in the teachings and example of Jesus.

I believe all presidents fall far seriously short of being disciples of Jesus. But it is one thing to acknowledge that fact and quite another for a high profile, Christian leader to declare he doesn’t even want a president who would actually follow the teachings of Jesus, infamously saying on several occasions that he wants for president “the meanest, toughest SOB.” So Jeffress can say, “I don’t know any policy the president has that is non-Christian,” only because he can’t even recognize what counts as “non-Christian.”

Consequently, Jeffress has no problem with supporting repugnant policies and doing so in the name of the Bible. Of course he has a couple passages he frequently points to, among them Romans 13:1-7, the last refuge of religious scoundrels and a favorite among clergy allies of dictators. Close to it is another frequently abused passage that tumbles from Jeffress’ lips: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” But Jeffress uses these passages to render to Caesar the things that are God’s and to call people to “submit to the governing authorities” even when those authorities are practicing unjust, heartless policies.

Among Trump’s heartless policies that Jeffress considers as not “non-Christian” is the zero-tolerance policy regarding undocumented immigrants and the family separation and detentions of refugees and migrants at the southern U.S. border. Though study after study has shown that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than native born Americans, Trump continues defending his cruel policies by claiming they protect the country from an invasion of criminals. Jeffress echoes that lie.

Jeffress has ignored Jesus’ lesson in the parable of the Good Samaritan by insisting that overwrought concerns over safety be put ahead of compassion and mercy when it comes to refugees and migrants. He thinks the U.S. should “say no to immigration and refugees until the government starts performing its God-given responsibility of securing the borders.” On the other hand, he has not loudly raised his voice to object to the horrible conditions children, women, and men have been enduring in detention facilities. Yet those who have studied such things say that what is taking place meets the definition of a mass atrocity.

Excuse making, blame-shifting, and minimizing the cruelty and injustice of the Trump administration, as is done by Jeffress and the others in what has been called “the Four Horsemen of evangelical hypocrisy,” seems to be strong evidence that he and those like him are the ones with the “imaginary God.” It is certainly not the God revealed in Jesus Christ but a god that deserves no honor at all.

About The Author

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Craig M. Watts is author of "Bowing Toward Babylon: The Nationalistic Subversion of Christian Worship in America" (Cascade Books 2017), an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, and a life-long peace activist.

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