Tag Archives: Christianity

Why It Would Be Sinful of Me to Support Trump

I wrote this months ago but have been reluctant to post because I’m worried it may damage some of my relationships. Wary of big claims, I also wanted feedback from a conservative pastor I respect and several others who know the Bible well. The good news is that they are still my dear friends—always. The bad news is that I’ve run out of reasons not to post. Looking at myself in the mirror after November 6th seems to require a good faith effort to articulate what I believe and assume that others will fairly consider it. I hope this article serves for a foil for reflection and useful conversations. Don’t forget to vote. 

This article lays out why I believe that it would be sinful of me to support Donald Trump politically. Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear to me why my reasons don’t apply to others, but I don’t like pissing people off for no reason with inflammatory titles.

Before I get to Bible verses, I want to clarify a few things.

  • First, these are reflections about which actions or values are sins, not who among us are bigger sinners (whew!).
  • Second, my argument is not dependent on recent or controversial information. I will not discuss alleged crimes or scandals like affairs with pornstars, sexual predation, fraud, or abetting Russian cyberwarfare—all of this may be real or scary, but is unnecessary for my argument. All my arguments today could have easily been made at any point during the last few decades.
  • Third, this article is not about policy. I will not discuss the poor, immigrants, race, gender, the environment, trust in American institutions, America’s international reputation, the stability of the global order, and so forth.
  • Fourth, this article is also not about mistakes, whether it be in the form of gaffes, job performance, or basic competence.

Though all these things can be used to make strong cases against Trump, I’m ignoring them. This is a discussion of the biblical text. It is written for Christians. Others can read along, but you are not my main audience.

Defining Sin

My definition of “sin” is simple. It involves no lists of deadly sins or sophisticated historically-informed theories of salvation, atonement, or justification. I don’t claim to know anything about how the mechanics work and, to be honest, sin typologies feel weird. Instead, I define sin as what Jesus was super against (#technicalterm). You can phrase the same thing another way: sin is the opposite of what Jesus was super for (#ivyleagueeducationtotallyworthit).

I expect that, regardless of your own definition of which actions qualify as sin, practically speaking, there’s probably lots of overlap with my definition. For example, one pastor thought my definition missed the mark because sin is more about being in “wrong relationship” with Jesus, but that seems to me to be a distinction without much difference. I’m not sure how one can be in right relationship with Jesus—or one’s wife for that matter—and not care about what they care about. Augustines revived sentiment of “Love God and do as you please” only works when what God wants becomes what pleases you.

Ok. So what did Jesus care about? Well, lots of things. In fact, too many. For example, the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10 suggests that Jesus cared about taking breaks from event prep. Of course, the event prep point was probably secondary to something deeper that Jesus cared about more. This is something lots of “Christians” (i.e., people who say they follow Christ but actually kinda suck at it) miss: you can’t just make a list of all the things Jesus was for and against because it super matters to Jesus what he was super for and super against (#technicaltermforreal).

First, there’s a common sense argument. Nobody, God included, cares about everything the same. Agency and action requires caring about some things more than other things. Second, there’s the biblical argument. Making what is minor major and what is major minor is itself a major thing that Jesus was explicitly super against (#technicaltermforreal). You see this in why Jesus despised who he most despised: the religious authorities of his day, the Pharisees, who constantly screwed this up like it was their super power.

For example, the Old Testament exhorts in multiple places that good Jews should take scripture and bind it on their foreheads, write it on the tablets of their hearts, tie them around their fingers, and tie them as a sign on your hands,and so forth (e.g., Deuteronomy 6:8, 11: 18; Proverbs 7:3, 3:3). So the Pharisees do that. Good? No. Jesus is furious about it in Matthew 23. He yells at them for writing scriptures all over their clothes and making big showy sashes with verses covering them. Why? Because they missed the major point about what was important and focused on a minor point about setting up a reminder system the whole point of which was NOT to forget what was important, which is exactly what they were forgetting.

Another example of Pharisees doing exactly what most irritated Jesus comes a few verses down. It touches on the Old Testament suggestion about tithing saying: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Jesus values some things, in this case justice, mercy, and faithfulness, over other things, like tithing cumin.

What Jesus was Super For and Super Against

The question for us, therefore, is not what was Jesus for and against, but what was he super for and super against (#sin)? Fortunately, while there’s definitely room to debate around the edges, it’s not too hard to figure this out. Major cues are (1) things he said were super important and (2) things he said a lot. For space reasons, I’ll focus on the first.

Probably most scholars, theologians, and pastors would agree that the things Jesus cared most about are decently summarized by four key passages, though other verses could arguably be included. These four passages are (1) the start of the Sermon on the Mount in Mathew 5 where Jesus gives the Beatitudes and rejects Eye-For-An-Eye ethics; (2) the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2 where Paul describes the particular quality of Christ that Christians should strive the hardest to imitate; (3) the fruits of the spirit passage in Galatians 5; and (4) the love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13.

I’ve pasted these passages below (New International Version). I started bolding what I thought relates to Trump, but I stopped because I was bolding like 70% of it. Instead, I ask that you take your time to read and reflect for yourself and think about what Jesus super cared about. What was he most passionate about in these passages? I also provide some quotes from Donald Trump that are not gaffes, but what I think are fair representations of what Trump really thinks about some of these topics and has for years.

Passage 1: The Beatitudes and Eye-For-an-Eye Passage in Matthew 5

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Trump on Eye-for-an-Eye

But when somebody tries to sucker punch me, when they’re after my ass, I push back a hell of a lot harder than I was pushed in the first place. If somebody tries to push me around, he’s going to pay a price.
Trump, Playboy, March 1990
For many years I’ve said that if someone screws you, screw them back. When somebody hurts you, just go after them as viciously and as violently as you can.
Trump, How to Get Rich, 2004
My motto is: Always get even. When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.
Trump, Think Big: Make it Happen In Business and in Life, 2008

My Takeaway

Matthew 5 suggests that Jesus cared enormously about meekness and turning the other cheek. Trump encourages the opposite: self-promotion and attacking people harder than they attack you.

Passage 2: The Christ Hymn in Philippians 2

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.

Trump on the Value of Humility and His Opinion of Himself

Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser.
Trump, December 2013
Every successful person has a very large ego.
Trump, Playboy, 1990
Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.
Trump, Republican National Convention, June 2016 
I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world.
Trump, May 2016
Nobody knows banking better than I do.
Trump, February 2016
Nobody knows more about debt.
Trump, May 2016
I know more about renewables than any human being on earth.
—Trump, April 2016
I understand money better than anybody.
—Trump, June 2016
Nobody knows more about trade than me.
—Trump, March 2016
Nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump.
—Trump, July 2016
There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am.
—Trump, June 2015
I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.
—Trump, November 2015
I was successful, successful, successful. I was always the best athlete, people don’t know that. But I was successful at everything I ever did.
—Trump, January 2018
I have a very good brain…My primary consultant is myself.
—Trump, MSNBC, 2016
I’m very highly educated. I know words. I have the best words.
—Trump, December, 2015

My Takeaway

Philippians 2 could not be more strongly worded. Paul is saying that if someone wants to claim to be a Christian in any way, shape, or form, then you have to follow Christ not in all ways, or many ways, but in this one super and specific way that is by far the most important: humble yourself. Trumps opinion is the opposite; humility is not just unimportant, but the path of “losers.” Trump very successfully avoids the path of humility and encourages others to do the same.

Passage 3: The Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Trump on “Selfish Ambition”

If you don’t win you can’t get away with it. And I win, I win, I always win. In the end, I always win, whether it’s in golf, whether it’s in tennis, whether it’s in life, I just always win. And I tell people I always win, because I do.
—Trump, Trump Nation: The Art of Being The Donald, 2005
I do whine because I want to win, and I’m not happy about not winning, and I am a whiner, and I keep whining and whining until I win.
—Trump, CNN, Aug. 10, 2015

My Main Takeaway

Christ is super against selfish ambition and super for love and humility, which is nearly the identical point made in the Christ Hymn and Matthew 5. Trump takes an opposite view: winning is everything.

Passage 4: I Corinthians 13 “The Love Chapter”

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Some of Trump’s public statements about others just via Tweet for the 8 months prior to July 1st, 2018

This list does not include any twitter insults from July, August, September, or October 2018, like when Trump called his former staff member Omarosa a “dog” and “crazed, lying lowlife,” insulted basketball star Lebron James’ intelligence, called CNN anchor Don Lemon “the dumbest man on television,” and said that former CIA Director John Brennan is “a loudmouth, partisan, hack.”

Steve Bannon is “Sloppy Steve,” “cried when fired,” and “dumped like a dog”
Barack Obama is “Cheatin’ Obama”
Jeff Zucker is “Little Jeff”
Adam Schiff is “Little Adam”
Jeb Bush is “low-energy Jeb”
Chuck Schumer is “Cryin Chuck”
Maxine Waters and Robert Deniro are “low IQ persons”
Ted Cruz is “Lying Ted”
Hillary Clinton is “Crooked Hillary”
Eric Schniederman is “sleazy”
Tim Kaine is “a total stiff”
Clair McKaskil is “phony”
Jeff Flake is a “flake”
Samantha Bee is a “no talent”
Sam Nunberg is “a drunk/drugged up loser”
Nancy Pelosi is “absolutely crazy”
Joe Biden is “crazy Joe”
Maggie Haberman is “a flunky”
Alec Baldwin has a “dying mediocre career”
Oprah is “very insecure”
John Brennan, James Comey, Adam Schiff, James Clapper, and Mark Warner are called at different times “one of the biggest liars and a leakers in Washington”
James Comey is a “slimeball” and “Lyin James”
Jim Acosta is “crazy”
Dianne Fienstien is “sneaky Dianne”
Michael Wolff is “mentally deranged” and “a total loser”

My Main Takeaway

The point of I Corinthians 13 is that love is more important than anything, even faith and hope, let alone cumin-tithing. Without love, you’re just a “clanging symbol.” Trump takes an opposite approach.

The Point

These four passages suggest that, above all, Jesus wanted to promote certain virtues and discredit certain other qualities: humility and love and things that come from them like gentleness and patience vs. pride and what comes from it such as selfish ambition, discord, envy, boasting, and meanness. Promoting the former and discrediting the latter is what Jesus said he cared more about than anything else, even other central stuff like faith and hope.

How Does One Promote or Discredit Values like Humility and Pride?

Everyone has the opportunity to promote or discredit virtues in two spheres: personal and social. In the personal sphere, everyone individually works (or not) on their own growth. But that sphere’s a bit off limits for others except God to judge because it’s often hard to see people’s hearts. In the social sphere, however, it’s different. Here we signal to each other and our children by what we do and say which virtues and vices we should care about and which ones aren’t a big deal. Because everyone can see each other’s signaling, we are influenced by it and must speak up if important virtues are being discredited (as I’m trying to do right now) or we become implicitly supportive bystanders.

So what does it signal socially when a person continues to offer political support for a politician by, for example, voting for the politician, liking the politician’s tweets, being quick to believe and spread the politician’s statements, and so forth. It can depend on a variety of factors of course, depending on the actions and the attitudes. But generally speaking, what these actions signal is that you value and support what that politician represents.

What does Trump Represent?

Trump represents several things that are not bad. For example, Trump is not one bit guilty of drunkenness, one of the vices mentioned above in Galatians 5. Trump’s brother was an alcoholic, Trump’s been known to speak against drinking, and to some people he might be a bit of a symbol of the fight against drunkenness. But the problem is that the one thing that Trump embodies to absurd—even farcical—degrees happens to be the one thing that Christ was also super against (#technicalterm #sin).

Today I stand before the United Nations General Assembly to share the extraordinary progress we’ve made. In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country. America…[laughter]…so true…[laughter]…didn’t expect that reaction but that’s ok.
—Trump, The United Nations General Assembly, September 2018

Trump’s conceit is not the garden variety pride of normal people like me and you. When we are selfish or conceited, we feel disappointed in our selves. We sense it in our stomachs. We apologize and express remorse. And we try to do better next time. The late great John Mccain was an example of this. He hated it when pride and ambition got the better of him, admitted it, and would commit himself to trying to do better next time.

We’ve all played some role in it [the current state of political polarization]. Certainly I have. Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.
—John McCain’s last speech in the Senate, July 2017

If Trump was ashamed of his pride or unkindness, or even kept his exaltation of conceit and selfish ambition to himself, my conclusion would be much weaker or wrong. Voting for him, spreading his statements, and otherwise continuing to support him in the social sphere would be less about an assault on humility and could be more about various sets of policies and we could return at least to somewhat normal politics where we vote for fairly prideful politicians who are ashamed of their slightly higher than average conceit.

Unfortunately, that is not what Trump does, nor should we expect it of him. Being regretful about being prideful is not consistent with his stated views. Instead, Trump is unapologetically narcissistic, sees his narcissism as a great aspect of his personality, and is a symbol of narcissism to billions. While the cross that Jesus chose to die on is (supposed to be) a symbol of love and sacrifice for others, Trump Tower is a symbol of naming things after yourself.

Trump Tower: Donald Trump's Unofficial Headquarters

Trump has named hundreds of large modern buildings and golf clubs after himself, as well as over 250 currently existing companies and many more defunct ones, including “Trump Books,” “Trump University,” “Trump Steaks,” and “Trump Pageants.” These monuments dotting the world are seen as striking symbols of self-promotion.

Old-Rugged-Cross-Christian-Stock-Photo

The ancient Roman way of executing thieves and criminals—-the dregs of society—was to crucify them on a cross. It is the symbol of sacrifice that Christians try to emulate. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son…” John 3:16a

Two Philosophies

The cardinal virtue that Trump has consistently preached and lived throughout his life is the virtue of “winning” and rewarding winners. His philosophy—if one can call shameless self-promotion a philosophy—is a flavor of an older anti-Christian school of thought made famous by Nietzsche, who thought that the “great man” or “ubermench” should seize glory and power for himself by crushing those who are less important—the act of dominance is itself self-justifying. For that reason, Nietzsche famously hated Christ’s ethics for elevating the weak and the poor.

Since I first read Nietzsche in college, my response has been “Hell yeah; guilty as charged; you’re right about the core of Christianity and that’s what I love about it.” As can be seen again and again in both the Old and New Testaments, God vastly prefers “losers”—the poor, prostitutes, tax-collectors, slaves, women, second-sons, and so forth—to “winners”—the rich, the powerful, and the first born. For those of us who easily confuse the importance of tithing one’s cumin or writing verses on clothing, the passages above make the implicit message of the biblical narrative explicit.

Christ’s religion is first and foremost one that elevates meekness, kindness, love, and gentleness. Our greatest hero chose to shed his power, to be born poor among barn animals, and die a criminals death. Humility is our teaching. Humility is what we are about.

So, if I’m right about Trump and about Jesus, what does it mean to support Trump politically?

Based on what I’ve said above, I’ve got to conclude that if I was to support Trump, then I would be signaling in my social sphere—to my friends and family; to Christians and non-Christians; to my fellow-citizens and to the world community; to children; to God—that humility is not that important and is even the path of losers. Boastfulness is not that bad, it’s even good. Treating others as better than yourself is for chumps. Turning the other cheek is just dumb—you should always strike back and way way harder. Unkindness is fine, selfishness works, and bullying is smart. Perhaps most jarringly, laying down your life for others—Christ’s example we are both grateful for and supposed to emulate above all else according to Philippians 2—is the choice of fools.

In 2016, 75% of American evangelicals made the choice to vote for Trump and approval numbers in this community remain largely unchanged two years later. Trump’s rise and continued power would not be possible without this ongoing support.

What about Abortion?

Many Evangelicals might agree with everything I’ve said so far, but also believe that continuing to support Trump is not only not sin, but laudable, because life starts when sperm fertilizes eggs and thus all abortion is murder.

To be honest, I sympathize with this position. It’s an upsetting predicament—how crappy a person am I willing to vote for in order to stop mass infanticide?—because the answer is and should be pretty upsetting. In my opinion, supporting Trump or even a more Trumpy Trump in order to stop some abortions is a logically consistent and respectable religious view.

My only problem with it is that it’s not Christian.

How Much did Jesus Care About Abortion?

As I’ve talked about again and again throughout this essay, Christ cares about some things more than other things. When we forget that, we quickly become cumin-tithing morons Jesus hates. Thus, again, we need to pay close attention to (a) what Christ said he was super for and (b) what he talked about a lot. So let’s look at it? Where does abortion rank in the hierarchy of Christian values?

While Jesus at least talks about tithing and taking breaks from event prep, Jesus says nothing about abortion—ask your pastor. Indeed, in the whole Bible, there are only a handful of oblique references about it. These references come mainly in the Old Testament in collections of songs (especially Psalms 139, 127, and 22)—not something that is supposed to be treated like a philosophical treatise—that suggest that babies at birth don’t instantly go from not-at-all-persons to full-persons. They claim that there is something that becomes each of us that was present in utero. I agree. In fact, I don’t know any liberal (or biologist) who wouldn’t.

Furthermore, it’s extremely hard to argue that there is a biblical case that life starts when a sperm fertilizes an ovum by burrowing through the jelly coat of the egg because Ancient peoples knew that none of these things happened or existed. They also lacked even the most basic comprehension of the developmental stages of the fetus. In other words, He knit me together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139) is not remotely specific to a trimester.

But hasn’t the Church Thought that Life Begins With the fertilization of the Egg for like 2000 years?

Nope. I want to write a blog post just on this, but here’s a quick and dirty summary of my research so far:

As you might expect, next to nothing was known about fertilization, implantation, and early pregnancy until scientific discoveries in 1875. When we finally did figure it out, there were debates about what stage in the process the word “conception” should be used to describe. Some people thought that it should be used to describe implantation, not fertilization. For a time, that’s exactly what some researchers did, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In other words, it’s partly a fluke of history that the ancient word “conception” has come to mean what it means today.

While most early Christians thought all abortion was wrong, most defined “abortion” as only possible after “quickening” happens. In fact, early Christians compiled and shared lists of herbs that were thought to terminate pregnancies before quickening and prominent medieval scholars (one became pope) recommended them without seeing a problem with it.

“Quickening” is when mothers first feel the baby kick, which usually happens about four months or so in (15-20 weeks). It was thought by many as the moment of “ensoulment,” when the soul comes to inhabit the body, and scholars debated it for centuries. In the meantime, major thinkers and leaders had different opinions. For example, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Pope Gregory XIV were among those who believed that the fetus had no soul until quickening. Pope Stephen V and Pope Sixtus V came down on the other side. The official position of the church would change every few hundred years or so until the late 19th century, when the Catholic position hardened into what it is today.

Before Roe in 1973, the evangelical position was also fluid. For example, there was a major symposium of Evangelical leaders and doctors in 1968 sponsored by the Christian Medical Society. They described themselves as “conservative or evangelical” and sharing “a common acceptance of the Bible as the final authority on moral issues.” Yet their statement held abortion is appropriate when it “safeguards greater values sanctioned by scripture” including “family welfare and social responsibility” and that “each case should be considered individually.” They also clarify that “from the moment of birth [not conception] the infant is a human being with all the rights which Scripture accords to all human beings.”

And that was not a fringe evangelical group. In 1971 the Southern Baptist Annual Convention passed a resolution that called on evangelicals to work in favor of legislation making allowances for abortion, including cases when the emotional and mental health of the mother would be damaged.

Be it further RESOLVED, That we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.
Southern Baptist Annual Convention1971
The Christian physician will advise induced abortion only to safeguard greater values sanctioned by Scripture. These values should include individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility…[while] the potential great value of the developing intra-uterine life cannot be denied. There may, however, be compelling reasons why abortion must be considered under certain circumstances. Each case should be considered individually, taking into account the various factors involved and using Christian principles of ethics.
Christian Medical Society Symposium, 1968

Thanks for the History Lesson. What’s your Point?

When it comes to when life begins, church history is far from unanimous and, much more importantly because I’m a good Bible-thumping Protestant, the Bible is nearly silent about it. Of course, while we can draw connections and use the Bible to inform our thinking, the only way that continuing to support Trump is not sin because of abortion is if one could have asked Jesus about abortion and gotten a response in the realm of something like this:

“Oh yeah. Totally. If abortion is on the table—or, more specifically, if the opportunity to have government punish women who have abortions is on the table—you can forget about all this humility stuff. Get really involved in politics. Alter the balance of high courts. Make this the central issue.”

There’s many reasons why that’s crazy and lightyears away from the sort of thing Jesus would say. For example, Jesus hated solving moral problems through political means and said so often (e.g., Romans 13:1). He encourages Christians to stay out of politics, to submit to the governing authorities, and focus on cultivating in themselves (personal sphere) and encouraging in others (social sphere) the personal virtues of love and humility. So, while it might make a modicum of sense for Christians get political to defend humility and love (which would mean getting into politics to be against Trump, which is what I guess I’m doing), there is no Christian justification to get political—something Jesus didn’t like—about abortion—something Jesus didn’t discuss—at the expense of humility and love—the thing that Jesus said was far and away the most important.

In any religion, there should be a high bar for overturning the most important teachings in that faith. By any reasonable biblical standard I can find, abortion does not come close to that bar. Prophesying in Jesus name, driving out demons in his name, and performing miracles—things Jesus actually talked about more than once and was explicitly a fan of—also don’t make the cut. How do I know? Because Jesus said so at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about that miracles and prophesy, he just doesn’t care about that stuff remotely as much as humility. When evangelicals stand at the pearly gates and say, “Did we not elect Trump and get Gorsuch and Kavanagh on the Supreme Court in your name?” I’m predicting a lot of disappointment. The Sermon on the Mount ends with a final word for those who have been faithfully tithing their cumin at all costs.

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.

Conclusion

I’m an academic whose trained to never introduce new ideas in conclusions. That’s silly. I think a new idea ties all this together nicely.

A folk religion is a form of religious practice that adopts the rituals and trappings of a religion but displaces its central teachings in favor of a variety of culturally-based views. I have argued that the obvious non-controversial center of the true Christian faith is love and humility and that what sin is is treating this center as bad, peripheral, unimportant, or stupid. I have also argued that continuing to support Trump is a strong statement that says exactly that and that abortion—not to mention homosexuality, gun rights, immigration, tax cuts, and so forth—are more important. I’m fine if people ground their views in their religions convictions, but I’m not fine calling their religion Christianity. It’s a folk Christianity, an obvious bastardization of Christ’s central teachings.

Maybe that’s an overstatement, right? After all, it’s just politics. Different strokes for different folks. Who you support politically can’t define you and isn’t damning. Aren’t you just hyperbolizing to make a point, Jer?

God, I hope so. But it’s not about policy or politics. It’s not even about lying or sexual immorality. It’s about actively tearing down the thing Jesus cared about the most…gosh. It’s hard to think of something worse that a Christian could do.

I wish I had a more optimistic note to end on. I look forward to your thoughtful comments.

 

 

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Part III: Crimes Against Criminals Don’t Count

In this, my thrilling and final series conclusion, I will explore problems that ex-cons face, as well as articulate a path that I see moving forward.  

After people get out of prison, society never truly stops punishing them for their crimes.  In many states you can’t vote or sit on a jury.  Ex-cons are often not eligible for food stamps or public housing.  Finally, it will be hard to attend college, and, of course, to get jobs–discrimination against ex-cons is seen as entirely appropriate.

Of course, ex-cons need jobs desperately.  In addition to often being low-income and ineligible for various forms of assistance, many ex-cons leave prison with debt from accumulating child payments, court fees, probation fines, legal fees, etc.  Steady employment, ironically, is also a condition of parole — a catch 22.  To avoid violating parole, prisoners have to take very low paying jobs even if it does not make sense (e.g., they have to take a 30 minute taxi-ride to work everyday that costs $40 where they make $55 a day at minimum wage).  Unfortunately, within 3 years, 70% of realeased prisoners are rearreested and half are sent back to prison.  Many of them have not commited new crimes, but have instead merely violated parole in one way or another.

So why doesn’t the explosion in our prison population, the prison rape issue, and these other injustices get so little attention? Why is society not interested i?  One obvioius reason is that the victims usually have no voice: they are poor and they cannot vote, which means they can’t back campaigns financially or vote in them.  Another reason, and this was news to me, is that the supreme court has ruled that the first amendment does not prevent prison authorities from barring the press.

Perhaps more importantly there are, in my personal opinion,  five significant cultural dynamics at work that make the American penal system deeply dysfunctional:

  1. America prefers to punish than rehab; we do not feel that others deserve forgiveness or protection once they have failed us to a certain extent–they are now “criminals.”  (Three personal encounters of American passionate punitiveness: inner-city residents I worked with in Buffalo would very often fervently prefer to punish those they thought were responsible for the decline of their neighborhood rather than take steps to arrest that decline, even if punishing others directly contributed to neighborhood decline.  Secondly, in my work in housing court, I saw how Judges might love to throw homeowners and slumlords in jail for violating housing codes, but throwing a slum lord in jail is the only way to ensure that his/her property will not be fixed.  Finally, after I rescued that guy on the subway, I was dumbfounded by how often I was asked if I would have still risked my life if knowing the guy was drunk; as if being drunk and doing something dumb meant that you did not deserve to live.)
  2. The second cultural factor that makes our prison system worse comes from American Christianity.  Too often the church has equated state justice as God’s justice and forgiveness and rehabilitation with weakness.  Fortunately this is solvable.  I would argue that true Christianity is about forgiveness.  There is a debate here that can be won.
  3. Thirdly, while Americans love the entrepenurial spirit and those who take risks when it comes to business, while Americans love taking risks with their health and eating whatever they want, Americans won’t accept risk when it comes to safety.  Americans are willing to keep another million people a year in prison if they think it lowers the chance of their daughter getting raped even .3%.  (I remember moving back to America from Taiwan, and I was amazed at the vast apparatus involved each morning in the task of transporting children to school–those same kids are packing capri-sun, jello, PB&J on white bread, and string cheese for lunch.)
  4. Americans, because we are rich, can afford to indulge our love of segregating ourselves.  The old, the young, the mentally ill, the disabled, the “low-lifes,” the dying, and even the dead, will be curtained off and put out of view as long as we can afford it.
  5. There is little money, passion, or organizational support around protecting men from getting raped.

So what can we do?   Christopher Glazek identifies 7 tasks.

  1. Put up with increased risk in our daily lives by letting people out of prisons.  (Pooling risk, he claims, is the liberal insight.)  I agree, but this is relatively minor.    
  2. Parole needs to be less strict.  Agree.  
  3. He asserts that “we must be ready to sacrifice the trational progressive agenda on the altar of criminal justice” and he offers an example of the death penalty.  For the last three decades, about 30 people a year have been executed.  This, he claims, is a tiny injustice compared to the millions of prisoners and communities that suffer from our penal system generally.  Therefore, “Prison abolitionists should be ready to advocate for a massive expansion of the death penalty if that’s what it takes to move the discussion forward.”  Probably wise to an extent.  
  4. Stop wasting time on gun control; it helps little.  I’m not sure.  
  5. Legalize narcotics.  I agree strongly.  
  6. Lower standards for life sentences.  Agree.  (Interestingly, unlike rape, homicide has one of the lowest recidivism rates of any crime–you can only murder your wife once, suggesting that death row inmates may pose less of a security risk than other categories of offenders.)
  7. Lower standards for prison sentences across the board.  Agree.

These suggestions are mostly good, but I think he widely misses the mark.  These policies are fine, but our first policy aims must be that which has a catalytic effect and increases energy around a host of policy goals.  Here is my list:

  1. I would suggest that the most important task before us is fully reinstating criminals after they have paid their debt to society.  In other words, all discrimination against ex-cons must be illegal.  Specifically, they must be allowed to vote and get jobs.  This would grease the skids for all prison reform by giving the victims more power.  Also, a true 2nd chance would hopefully descrease recidivism rates and allow “ex-cons” to reinvent themselves and gain self-respect.   )This might sound goofy, but I tend think we should have civil reconciliation ceremonies after which ex-cons are declared full citizens again.  These events should be as celebrated as weddings.)
  2. We need the disinfectant of light; the press must have access.
  3. We need to count crimes against criminals as actual crimes, in the data and in our own heads.
  4. This means we need to address the cultural factors that might be mutable.  The goal of prisons must be rehabilitation instead of punishment and we need to push back on all forms of Christianity that advocates for harsher sentencing.

Lastly, and this may sound weird, but I think each of us needs to forgive “the other” for all the anonymous crimes that have been commited against us.  For example, I am still mad at the thief who stole a beautiful leather jacket in college.  I had bought it in Tuscany when I was 17, spending way too much money.  I think there is a part of me that assigns to known criminals all the frustration of unsolved crimes against me.

But whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that the real problem with our penal system is that you and I, and others too, care more about other things.  This is a political issue; it can only be mitigated through public will.  Certainly, there are many other important issues vying for our attention, but I hope that prison reform will be on your list of issues worth paying attention to going forward.

In other news, Alicia probably won’t get to Sri Lanka until late June!  Argh!  But I did make a friend today.  He is 18, a hotel receptionist and a massage therapist, and his name is Anwas.  He walked around with me today and we went to the History Museum together.  Also picture is a tuk tuk ( 3 wheeler Colombo taxi), and a beautiful pool in a restaurant I checked out.  Forgive the bad quality iPod pics.