WARNING: This post (which at times is flagrantly sarcastic and borders on being inflammatory) is a projection of my own fallible theories. If you are an ardent progressive or Trump supporter, oops. Try to find it in your heart to forgive my ignorance (if it has yet to enter its last phase of transformation into a black hole). I am a sinner, just like YOU!
I can’t think of a more opportune occasion to use the ubiquitous “love the sinner, hate the sin” cliche. A favorite of pharisaical evangelicals who live in the Bible-belt, I use this phrase reluctantly, as it contradicts itself (THIS article expresses why more eloquently than I ever HAVE). However the further and further our current president drives our nation’s factions apart, I’ve come to see how necessary it is to refer to this convenient, if contradictory, dictum. We all know the famous “he that is without sin may cast the first stone” scene of John’s Gospel, and have no problem using it when it comes to mainstream society’s most cherished of sinners: gays, sluts, alcoholics, and the like. They’re sins are easy to forgive-we all struggle with sexual temptation, many of us have had a tricky relationship with alcohol… We get it. It’s tough. Many of us have also struggled with the temptations of pride and egotism. Few of us, however, have struggled with those temptations while being the head of state of one of the most influential nations in the world.
When we have never experienced the same temptations as a person who is currently giving in to those temptations and is violently harming us in the process, it gets pretty tempting to start casting stones at that person. We aren’t incited to notice the log in our own eye when we can’t see the “bigger picture story” of our brother who is currently clobbering us due to the obstruction of his vision that is being caused by the log in his eye. But is this an excuse to condemn the sinner? Does Jesus’ commandment to love our enemy (but not what he does) still hold true when our enemy is none other than President Donald J. Trump?
“Come on, Jesus! It’s Donald Trump! You can’t expect me to love someone who has inflicted so much hardship upon your children! Sure I could love him when he entertained us all on the Apprentice…I mean, how could you not love his signature combover and the way it flopped when he animatedly exclaimed ‘you’re fired!’ But now…”
Americans struggle in particular with the whole “love the sinner” schpiel when we consider our puritanical roots and the moral formation they have affords us, even if involuntarily so. In his book An Anxious Age, Joseph Bottum traces the thread that connects the puritanical religious mores of the early colonists to the orthodoxies of political correctness that are the fruit of secular progressive ideology. Though their surfaces may seem stridently opposed to each other, their masks unveil a markedly identical moral orientation. The dualistic belief in good and evil as distinct entities flows in the veins of both the colonists and contemporary secular progressives. Thus their conviction that there are some people who are good (the “saved”) and others who are condemned for their evil ways (the sinners), and a sharp line that divides the two. If only those evil sinners would come over to the good side (“get saved”). But until they do, we must continue to parade our righteousness by proclaiming ourselves as morally superior to them. Perhaps if they see how good we are, they will be convinced to leave behind their evil ways and get saved! And by saved, do we mean “accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior,” or “accept the dogmas of progress and political correctness”? Doesn’t really make much of a difference. Because it looks like I’ll burn in hell either way. If I don’t live up to the ideals of puritanical Christianity, then I’ll burn in an eternal state of torture and suffering after I die. If I don’t conform to the norms of “acceptance and tolerance” as dictated by the liberal elite, and continue to find traces of “hate” in my heart and assert my “white privilege,” then I will be condemned to ridicule and perhaps lose my job. It seems like I can’t live up to either of those standards, no matter how hard I try to “make myself good.” No matter where I turn, my future looks pretty bleak…who will save me from myself!
When good and evil are two separate entities that we are told to choose from by a mere act of the will, it becomes pretty easy to condemn those who choose the latter. Why can’t they just be good!? I don’t know, I guess because they are evil, crazy, sick bigots. So let’s rub our moral righteousness in their faces so we can feel better about how good we are. This is precisely why Jesus condemned the pharisees. As much as we may see that another person’s actions are more objectively sinful than our own, we will never have the license to condemn them. We can never call ourselves good, no one is thoroughly “moral” or righteous. “No one is good-except for God alone.” Thus his insistence on the application of mercy and the reservation of moral judgement-in ALL circumstances, even if that means we find ourselves in the same circumstance with the same person 77 times, or if their sinfulness is 77 times worse than our own.
Of course, Jesus encourages and even exhorts us to judge certain actions as morally wrong, and that it would in fact not be loving to tell someone that their sinful actions are morally acceptable. Thus I stand with those who have expressed their moral reservations about Trump’s actions as president. What concerns me is seeing those who extend their condemnations of Trump’s actions to Trump, the person. To claim that Trump (and his supporters) is an evil, crazy bigot, is charitable neither to Trump nor to ourselves as American citizens. The problem with judging the sinner is that in the process we determine the trajectory of his life by assigning him the label of “sinner.” By determining that he is an evil crazy man, we determine that he is only capable of making poorly formed moral decisions, and that he has no chance to convert. “Sinner” or “crazy hateful bigot” has now become his identity. He can’t be saved, so let’s not bother to pray for him as our enemy. This ignores the problem that Jesus as redeemer and savior presents to us in his ministry. If we are free to simply choose between good and evil, then there is no need for a savior, who “alone is good.” This view toward Donald Trump ignores the particular ways in which he may struggle to confront the damage that Original Sin has done to him. Rather than condemn him, he (and our nation) would be better off if we were to fixate our energy on exhorting him to recognize the good and conform his policies to it. Of course, if he displays a firm will to persist in his sinful ways, then perhaps impeachment is the best route to take. But until we reach that point, it seems to me that the best course of actions is to resort to the spiritual acts of mercy, namely to instruct Trump’s ignorance and pray for his conversion.
Implied in a merciful attitude toward Trump is the willingness to look at the “bigger picture,” or the story behind his sinfulness. Why is he doing the things he is doing? Jesus always took the sinner’s “full story” into account when correcting them. What may be of greater concern is looking at the full story of those who support Trump. This calls for us (including those who voted for Trump while “holding their noses”) to withhold our condemnation of his supporters as “evil, hateful, bigots,” and taking the time to ask, why do you support Trump, and what good do you see in him? In other words, the greatest act of charity in our times may be to simply generate a dialogue. We seem to be so good at screaming our opinions at each other and shouting condemnations back and forth. It feels good to yell at people, to tout signs, and to post hashtags on instagram, in an effort to proclaim our righteousness, while condemning “the other side.” But if we are wise, we will see it is precisely this mode of communication (or lack thereof) that has led us to our current predicament. Perhaps the antidote to presidential candidates that shout down the opposition because they are so convinced of how “right” they are is a listening ear.
My efforts to listen to Trump supporters and withhold my self-righteousness have proven to be rather enlightening experiences. I was surprised to discover how much I share in common with them. And behind the morally concerning conclusions that they have come to is a profound wound, that is only growing as they continue to be shouted down by the cries of the “saved.” Most of the Trump supporter I know are males who come from working or upper-middle class white families (like me). Many of them attended universities that are controlled by progressive elitists, where their voices were dismissed or even silenced because of their identity, let alone because of their political views (like me). Their resentment and woundedness have played roles in influencing them to support Trump, who took advantage of their wound by claiming to be a voice for them. I can confidently say I understand why most Trump supporters voted for him and continue to support him, and that they are not crazy, evil, or inferior beings.
I attended an elite university in the heart of Manhattan, which was run by a left-leaning Catholic religious order. The majority of the professors were not Catholic, openly rejected the validity of the Church’s doctrines, and pushed progressive ideology onto students. My first week of orientation included a thorough catechesis in the dogmas of poststructuralist race ideology, alerting me to the original sin of white privilege, which I would be wise to begin publicly repenting for, lest I be ostracized by my professors and classmates. I was to begin a long and arduous path of penitence to cleanse myself of my sins of privilege, only to find out that my opinion didn’t matter and would never matter. No amount of confessions, penitence, or sacrificial offerings could adequately blot out my sins of having oppressed women, people of color, non-heterosexuals, and any other minority group that has and will exist. Lost, alone, and without hope, I began to look at my non-white, cisgender, male, heterosexual, Christian, upper-middle class professors and classmates with resentment and a thirst for vengeance. I was constantly being pelted with accusations of racism and of using microaggressions. When I was on my best behavior, I was sometimes given a reprieve, and was told that “you’re not like the other white men, you’re one of the good white men.” Perhaps now my voice could be heard! No, it was no use. My filthy mix of identities rendered my voice, experiences, and opinions null; a mere contaminating agent in the dialogue (or better yet, monologue) that sought to understand current events.
I got off lucky. I was never an ardent conservative, and probably never will be. Those white men didn’t get off as easily as I did. The worst I did was to declare that I believe in objective Truth and accept the infallibility of the Pope. Thank God those convictions never hardened into an ostensible political position in my case. I was never publicly ostracized as some of my classmates were, for their politically conservative views. As for them, they have seen the depths of the belly of the beast of radical secular progressivism.
Thus when Trump came along, and saw that he could capitalize on their anger and resentment, they flocked to his side. Finally! Someone who could give us our voice back, who could tear down the draconian doctrines of political correctness…who take the power back from the liberal elite. This Savior, in addition to carrying the promise of their salvation in one hand, carried something much darker in the other. Yes, I will pay attention to you, working class conservative white men! I will even give you a voice! Better yet, I’ll bring back the glory of your former position as the loudest voice in the country, the TRUE Americans. Let us make this country great again, let us put America first. You are the true Americans, not this ruling class of tyrants who disguise themselves as the prophets of progress, diversity, and equality. They are false prophets who have wreaked nothing but havoc on our formerly great and glorious nation. They, with their false doctrines, have welcomed in rapists, terrorists, and scoundrels of all the sort. They have silenced your voices, accused you of being unAmerican-for the purity of your race, for your traditional values, for your status as working men. But this country is yours, you the white, protestant, working class men. This country was founded upon the toil of your ancestors, the true Americans, and will continue in its legacy with us at the forefront once again.
No wonder this poisonous “promise” garnered so much support from at least half of the country. The glamorous facade of this dangerous proposal appears as a delectable drink that will quench the thirst of those who yearn to be heard once again. To be told that their opinions do indeed matter, that their experiences aren’t invalidated by the color of their skin and the anatomical parts that hang between their legs, and that they would be freed from the unfathomable potential burden laid upon the soldiers by their progressive oppressors. And yet, is this promise true? Is this man the messiah? And is his plan for “making America great again” indeed “great,” in a moral sense? The “true” Americans have been duped. They have been fed lies by someone who sought to take advantage of their hunger. Their blind obedience to the apparent savior has led them to categorically defend all of his actions, and to defend his blatant shortcomings.
Now, is shouting them down for the errors of their ways going to make them less “crazy, evil, or hateful”? The reason why they are “crazy, evil, and hateful” is that they are exhausted by the constant condemnations that they have been receiving ever since progressive elites haves taken over mainstream American institutions. Yes it’s all good fun to make fun of Trump, his cabinet, and his supporters. But at a certain point while watching SNL tear Trump and his cohort apart, we will take a break from our fit of laughter and ask, how could a Trump supporter bear to watch this? They probably couldn’t. The mainstream media (except for that glorious beacon of truth and light owned by the prophet known as Rupert Murdoch) is further alienating those who are supporting Trump because they already felt alienated. You are fanning the flames of “lunacy, derangement, and hate” that you already ignited quite some time ago. We complain about Trump constructing a wall between the border of the US and Mexico, and yet we seem to have no problem creating even grander and sturdier walls of an ideological nature within our own nation. Do we love America, or ourselves? Do we love all Americans, or our own idea of who a “real” American is? Do we love the righteous and hate the sinner, or do we love all people, including the sinner and our enemy.
As Pope Francis once quipped (in a low-key shade match between him and Trump), “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.” Whether it is a wall to keep out Mexicans, or a wall to keep out our ideological enemies, we can’t be free, united, or fulfilled if we construct walls around ourselves and those who agree with us. This was Jesus’ message to the pharisees, who actually didn’t have the grounds to construct walls around their ‘righteousness’ and to keep out the sinners, because they themselves were sinners. They actually had the same need for salvation as the sinners.
We all share in this condition of poverty, this need for salvation, for someone to lead us to our fulfillment. What conditions will best allow for Americans to pursue their ultimate fulfillment? What is it that Americans need most? I don’t know. I can’t claim to have a monopoly on the truth just because I’m oh-so-moral because I don’t support Trump. ? At a certain point, our self-righteousness must be overcome by love for our own happiness as well as that of our compatriots. Our desire for unity must overcome our rigid idea of the “true” America. And above all, we need to begin listening to each other. We can claim to have the answers as much as we want, but that won’t change the fact that we are not God, we are not our own saviors, and that we actually need the other, even if I totally disagree with him about everything. Now we must begin to ask, how can I look to the “other” as a partner on the journey toward true greatness, even if we have different political views and come to different conclusions? It is the spirit of self-sufficiency, self-righteousness, and selfishness that had brought us to this point…at some point we need to recognize that shouting down the opposition and telling them how right we are isn’t actually helping us. What’s probably most needed is a healthy dose of humility and the opening of our hearts, minds, and ears.
It definitely feels safe to hide behind my wall of “look how righteous I am,” to throw the stone and wash my hands clean. It feels good to walk in a protest and carry signs that condemn the Magdalene. I’m on the right side! I have nothing to worry about. Let me also post a picture on instagram one more time just to prove to people how right I am. I’m saved! I’m not a Magdalene! I’m not Nicodemus! Like masturbation, outward gestures of self-righteousness are gratifying, but are not unitive. Moral masturbation keeps us from living true morality, which is relational in nature. It is predicated upon sharing a common need for salvation, and helping each other to move closer and closer to the object of true morality. Thus the need to come out from hiding behind the protest lines or our instagram hashtags and start communicating with each other. We often feel perfectly comfortable making statements or talking about ideas, but do exchanges of ideas constitute a truly human dialogue or conversation? Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us that “real dialogue” requires true “communication” in which “man brings himself into the conversation.” Only this way can our humanity emerge in a conversation. “…The [truth] is inaudible where language is no more than a technique for imparting ‘something.’ The truth does not occur in logistic calculations.” Ideological banter is safe because it is removed from reality. It doesn’t require us to risk being vulnerable in front of the other person. Easier as it may be, does it really help us to live more human and fulfilling lives? I don’t know. Ask our president.
I personally enjoy getting together with non-Trumpy people and bashing Trump. But then I realize I don’t have any license to be casting stones at him and his peeps. I also deserve to be stoned. The more I learn to break down my own walls of self-righteousness, I’ve become more open to talking to Trumpy people and actually communicating with them. Not that awkward tiptoe around the big orange-colored elephant with an unconvincing combover in the room kind of conversation, but a real human conversation. I’ve started to ask them why they support Trump. What matters to them as Americans, as my compatriots. As much as I usually don’t end the conversation on the same page with them, I find that I’ve learned something new from them. They offered something of value to me. And I can definitely say that Trumpy people aren’t all raving racist lunatics, but people who have valid concerns and needs: protection from being bullied by liberal elitists, defending ourselves from the attacks of violent terrorists, and affirming moral values that are conducive to human flourishing. Is Trump the solution to all of these valid concerns, I don’t think so. But these concerns do indeed need to be addressed.
At the end of the day, communication can’t happen with hatred in our hearts…neither can progress, growth, or flourishing. Jesus’ simplistic exhortation, naive and sentimental as it may sound, may just be what is needed most in these bleak times. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon on this exhortation rings just as true for America 50 years later: “It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption…There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.” Sounds pretty first grade to me, but with a president whose narcissistic tendencies makes him look like a first grader, it looks like we need to go back in time and relearn those basic lessons.