Throughout the Gospel narratives, the Jesus we most often encounter is one of kind and encouraging words delivered with a divinely-inspired and gentle grace, purposeful poise, radical hospitality, and an unconditional love — which is why it can be startling to read many of his interactions with the religious leaders of his day.
Jesus wasn’t nice to them.
He called them names: hypocrites; white-washed tombs, full of rotting corpses; unwashed dishes; serpents; a brood of vipers; murderers. He even called them “children of the devil.”
He challenged their God-concept within the public square and warned others not to follow in their wicked footsteps. He mocked their prayers as “meaningless repetition,” and challenged both their integrity and ability to make a distinction between what is morally right and wrong, or to even speak anything worthwhile to the people.
“You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good?” ( Matthew 12:34)
Jesus accused his contemporary religious leaders of creating and employing heavy burdens on people which they themselves were either unable or unwilling to follow, warning the crowds not to emulate their hypocrisy. He called out their motivation to feigned and self-righteous piety as nothing more than a desire for public recognition and a hope put not in the God of Abraham, but rather in their positions of prestige and their coveted seats of power and honor.
He told the religious authorities their attempts at proselytizing merely made folks “twice as much a child of hell” as themselves. In one story, Jesus even has himself a “Temple Tantrum,” taking the time to make a bull-whip which he used to interrupt the religious leaders while zealously running the animals of sacrifice out of the area, flipping over tables, and pouring their ill-gotten sacramental coinage out onto the floor.
He said they turned the holy place of prayer into a “den of thieves.”
Jesus wasn’t pulling any punches.
Neither should we.
Much ink has been spilt analyzing the fact that an overwhelming 81% of white American evangelicals voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016 — and just over two years into his first term, an astonishing majority continue to pledge their allegiance to the president. Trump enjoys a favorability rating nearly double the rest of the country among white evangelicals, which make up the majority of his GOP’s #MAGA base.
Despite a litany of what many previously hoped would be moral deal breakers for the party once described as, “the party of family values” (such as his braggadocious admission to sexual assault in the Access Hollywood tapes, the proven hush-money-payments to cover up his adulterous affair with a porn star, and at least two dozen credible accusations of rape and other sexual misconduct, etc.), Trump continues to reap the benefits of an almost cult-like support from the voting bloc which traces its roots to the 1980s Moral Majority movement.
The echoes of that era’s cries to “Make America Great Again!” come aligned with a renewed, emboldened, and even blatant racism. From Trump’s imagined Obama-birther-ism conspiracy, to announcing his own presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “murderers and rapists,” to hailing tiki-torch-toting Nazis in Charlottesville as “very fine people,” culminated this week in his tweeted attacks of four freshman Democratic Congresswomen of color to ‘Go back’ where they came from, Trump’s propensity to pander to white supremacists is nothing new.
His lack of compassion to the plight of migrant families from Central America at the country’s southern border is now accompanied by sworn testimony of the horrific conditions in the detention camps from journalists and government representatives alike, along with irrefutable images, court documents, Congressional testimony, and all kinds of definitive evidence of innocent young children and toddlers lacking even basic sanitary conditions or care. This, on the heels of being forcibly removed from their parents and guardians and housed under armed guard on overcrowded concrete floors surrounded by chain-link fencing as a result of the “Zero-Tolerance Policy” enforced by the administration.
As I review the president’s executive orders, his press interviews, and daily Twitter feed while simultaneously reading the supportive reactions from folks within my own religious tradition of Evangelicalism, I’m reminded of another seemingly harsh saying from Jesus:
“Whoever receives a child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have a heavy millstone tied around their neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the seas” (Matthew 18:6).
Damn. Seems a bit harsh.
So might this — yet it is entirely appropriate and perhaps necessary to avoid confusion over what it means to be a follower of Christ. One simply cannot be a follower of the life, teachings, and example of Jesus and also support Donald J. Trump and his policies.
It’s just not possible.
While most often a unifying figure, the Jesus of the scriptures was downright divisive regarding his willingness to stand up against bigotry and religious hypocrisy, and equally steadfast in his commitment to standing in solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed. Imputed with divine wisdom, Christ was deeply dedicated to defending the defenseless, and seemed entirely comfortable with calling out the fundamental errors found in what he described as the faithless teachings of the religious leaders of his day.
If we are unwilling to do the same, how dare we call ourselves followers of Christ?Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are.”
Even our secular institutions are doing more. Recently, the United States House of Representatives voted to condemn Trump’s use of race-baiting language by a vote of 240 to187. Only four Republicans broke with their conservative colleagues and called his racist attacks unacceptable, while others such as Sen. Lindsey Graham obfuscated the context and instead directed his animosity toward the Congresswomen whom he described as “…a bunch of communists. They hate Israel. They hate our own country.”
In coming days, it seems we’re destined to repeat a familiar dynamic that has thus far defined this administration in the midst of deep-seated partisan disagreement. Republicans will continue to claim the condemnation is clearly inspired by partisan politics and a Democratic party preoccupied with bitterness and hatred toward the president and country. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are literally going on-record offering a formal rebuke from Congress of a sitting president for the first time in more than 100 years, sending what one lawmaker called “a message that the country will not tolerate bigotry, racism, hate, xenophobia, Islamophobia.”
But what about white evangelicals?
Are Trump’s biggest and most staunch supporters willing to abandon the teachings of the founder of their faith in favor of supporting the politics of this president? Will white evangelicals continue to turn a blind eye to his repetitive racist rhetoric and willfully voice their support of Trump?
Will they remain relatively apathetic to the mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse — even deaths! — of immigrant children confined to cages at our nation’s southern border simply because they don’t have appropriate documentation?
Will these self-professing Christians carry on ad nauseam with their excuses of supporting Trump’s immoral actions and policies, regardless of their direct conflict with even the most simple and elementary teachings of the very Jesus they claim to follow?
As unfortunate as it is unconscionable, it appears many are…and while saying so may not be popular, and is likely to invite ample amounts of criticism and disagreement, it must be said again: One simply cannot be a follower of the life, teachings, and example of Jesus and also support Donald J. Trump and his policies.
Based on the red letters in the scriptures, I am convinced if Christ were physically present, he too would join me in unleashing his harshest chastisement for those who hypocritically claim to follow his teachings, yet are seemingly marching in the opposite direction.