“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” Lamentations 1:6-12-15;
“You will know them by their fruits.” Matthew 7:15-20
I hesitated longer than usual before deciding to go public on the unbelievably crass Republican race for presidential nomination in the United States, but the time has come to do so And I do so not only because of the way in which the campaign is bringing out the worst in politics and bringing Christianity into even more disrepute than it already is in, but also because of the attacks being made on the dignity of those deemed outsiders or who happen to be poor. And, of course, what is happening over there has implications for us in South Africa in this electioneering year as well. .
If it is true that Christians are known by their fruit, as Jesus put it, then the Pope is right, Trump is not a Christian whether evangelical or otherwise. He is an imposter who claims to be a Christian in order to attract votes. His life-style, values, and brash arrogance in saying he has never had to ask God for forgiveness, puts him beyond the pale even of being a proud Presbyterian as he claims! Of course, Trump does not care in the slightest what we think any more than about what he says. He has hoodwinked the so-called evangelical vote, appealing to their ill-informed prejudices and baseless fears, and exposed the truth that they are not really evangelical at all if they can’t distinguish between a wolf in sheep’s clothing and the good shepherd.
Now let us be clear, it does not really matter whether or not Trump is a Christian in running for President of the United States. There is nothing in the American Constitution, or our own for that matter, which says that the President must be a Christian let alone a “born again” one. And rightly so. You do not have to be a good Christian or even a religious person, to be a good political leader. John Calvin, the Protestant Reformer dear to evangelicals knew that and said as much. What makes a good political leader is not religion but honesty, intelligence, wisdom, strength of character, and a commitment to the public good. If he or she is also a good Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Buddhist,, that might be a bonus, but it does not mean anything if the other virtues of political leadership are absent. When politicians seek the endorsement of churches and other faith communities in the way in which Trump and his fellow Republicans are doing, red lights begin to flash, warning us of a potential unholy alliance that bodes ill for both politics and religion. And that is as true in South Africa as it is anywhere else.
I don’t know whether to laugh at Trump with Trevor Noah, which I certainly do most evenings, or to weep with those genuine evangelicals and many other Americans who are dismayed, saddened, and angry at the way in which Trump and his trumpets are behaving while he drags Christianity through the mud under the banner of protecting it. I guess my lamenting is greater than my laughter because the consequences of this campaign are already frightful and we are still months away from the end. So I am lamenting now with my American friends as Jeremiah and Jesus lamented over Jerusalem because it did not listen to the prophets of justice and compassion, but pursued policies of self-interested national idolatry.
Lamentation is part of the Lenten journey. Jesus wept over Jerusalem as he entered Jerusalem because the people were unrepentant for their sins, insensitive to the suffering of the poor, and oblivious to the disaster awaiting them. “Is it nothing to you all you who pass by to see such suffering?” That is the prophet’s call to lament. It may seem a trifle to lament what is happening in American politics given all the pain and suffering in the world, but we all know that what happens in American politics affects the whole world. Just as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in the Orient may cause a storm in the Amazon, so a decision in the White House can mean the raining down of bombs on towns and villages in the Middle East.
So we lament with American friends over Washington because the Republican race is bringing out the worst side of America and bringing Christianity into disrepute at the same time. While each presidential contender claims to be more Christian than the others, they all seem equally brash and self-centred, engaging in fear-mongering, and appealing to ill-informed people with promises of greatness and security that cannot be kept. Just recently, Mr. Trump declared, “We are going to get greedy for the United States, and grab and grab and grab.” Is that what makes a nation great? It certainly does not give it any right to be regarded as Christian. After all, what makes a country great is not its fire power that enables it to dominate others, or its material wealth, but its striving for justice and its care for the poor.
I also I lament because unlike Trump and his more cynical speech-writers and campaign managers, I do care for evangelical Christianity. Evangelical simply means the good news about Jesus, his life, death and resurrection and what this means to us as Christian. I was nurtured in the womb of evangelical Christianity. It was not without its right-wing fundamentalist faults even back then, and I am very glad I grew beyond all of that. But I did learn much that I treasure. I learnt that we are made whole by God’s amazing grace, I came to know the forgiveness of sins, and step by step as I grew beyond the narrowness of fundamentalism I discovered that the love of God for the world is so immense that it embraces everyone, not least outsiders, the stranger and disinherited. And because evangelical Christianity taught me to take the Bible seriously, I discovered in its pages that God loves justice, mercy, and compassion, and wants us to do the same. I also came to know the church as a community of caring people committed to serve the needs of the world.
This is the evangelical Christianity I espouse, the good news about Jesus who declares that he had been anointed by the Spirit to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and announce the year of the Lord’s favour in which wealth and land will be redistributed fairly and justly. This good news is the very opposite of what Trump and his so-called evangelical trumpeters stand for. That’s just bad news. And that is why I lament. But I also laugh. I laugh because I know that God has a record of bringing down the proud and the mighty from their seats, and exalting the poor and humble. And that is as true in South Africa as it is in America. So as this year of electioneering hots up let us take a stand for justice in our own backyard and trust God to do the rest. Let God take care of Donald Trump, but let us make sure that we are known by our good fruit not bad.
John de Gruchy
3 March 2016