In case you’ve missed it, Trump is the presumptive GOP nominee for president after Cruz withdrew from the race yesterday. The news kept me up last night, mostly because my emotional state resembles something like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Handsome and I have been watching a WWII documentary recently, and the episodes describing the political movements that brought Hitler and Mussolini into power left us in dumbstruck horror. I know comparing Trump to Hitler at this point is basically passé, but it doesn’t change the fact that the comparison works for a reason.
While I’m relieved that the theocratic Dominionist-Reconstructionist fundamentalist is out of the race, I’m still terrified of a Trump candidacy and the possibility of his presidency. His campaign has already incited horrific violence against black and queer and female bodies, and I believe it’s only going to get worse. God forbid he’s elected.
As his candidacy has grown more and more successful, winning primaries by ever-wider margins, I’ve looked around at my fellow citizenry and despaired. I honestly thought we were better than him– that sure, maybe some of us were just that bigoted and racist– but certainly not enough of us to get him nominated. Watching this has been a brutal corrective and I’m far more cynical about America than I was back in September.
Aside from his hatred, lewdness, and blatant dishonesty, aside from the fact that he’s advocated for torture and war crimes and directed a miasmic bombardment at women, Trump is the representation of Empire made flesh. He is, quite literally, an anti-Christ in the sense that he stands in direct opposition to everything Jesus Christ taught us to do.
- Trump tells us that we must fear and hate our enemies. Jesus tells us not only to love and forgive them, but to radically resist oppression through turning the other cheek, to carry the Roman conqueror’s pack not one mile, but two.
- Trump tells us to ostracize or exile those who look different, to barricade them behind a wall. Jesus tells us that all people are our neighbors, and that our example is the Good Samaritan who sacrificially brought aid to a stranger.
- Trump calls on us to enact abominations against women and children. Jesus says that anyone who hurts a child deserves to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck.
I understand what he’s appealing to. He is a tool of Empire– he is slavering and rapacious, greedy for power, for control, for prestige, for wealth, for domination. It doesn’t surprise me that when he says “Make America Great Again” he’s pulling on the fear and lust that dwells in all our hearts. We don’t want to feel threatened. We want to feel secure. And, worse than that, we are a nation built on the principle that white men deserve land ownership, deserve enfranchisement, deserve gainful employment– and these white men were quite willing for hundreds of years to enrich themselves off the fact that they literally owned women and didn’t even recognize black people as human beings fully endowed with the imago dei.
Trump is conjuring an image of America for white men where they can have all of that again– all that power, all that wealth, because they deserve it for no other reason than an accident of birth. If they serve Empire, they’ll be rewarded by the restoration of their power.
Jesus asks us to walk a different path than this.
He said that whoever wants to be his disciple must take up their cross and follow him (Mt 16:24, Lk 9:23, Mk. 8:34). It’s clear that he was speaking metaphorically, but I think that over time we’ve lost the bluntness, the absolute starkness, of the imagery he chose for this teaching. Today we think of “bearing our cross” as a form of drudgery– it carries similar cultural weight as putting your nose to the grindstone, and has a feeling of daily wear-and-tear. Our “cross” takes on various forms, usually none of them all that weighty. Fulfilling your obligations as a parent. Chronic illness. A narcissistic employer.
We’ve lost it partly because we abandoned public executions like the crucifixion; today, as despicable as it is that we still execute people, we tolerate it because we culturally accept the lie that lethal injection is somehow humane. We don’t have the absolute brutality of crucifixion as a part of our public consciousness– it’s not something we associate with our government as a daily reminder of their authority and what they will do to us if we try to subvert their power (at least, not if we’re white). We don’t have to move about our day with crucifixion as a constant threat.
The people Jesus was speaking to, though, they did. They knew that if they put one toe out of line, that’s where they could be– hanging on a Roman cross, enduring Roman humiliations, bearing Roman torture. Jesus’ call to discipleship demands that we face that risk, that we stand in the face of Empire and say No!–no, I would rather die a horrible, agonizing death than serve the Empire and Mammon.
Handsome and I were talking about the evangelical notion that the Cross is the pinnacle of God’s love for us– like how Joshua Harris said, that “God’s perfect love for a fallen world is more clearly seen in the death of His Son.” As I argued in response, under the penal substitutionary atonement theory, this doesn’t hold true– but in some theological positions, it could. Handsome argued how God loved us enough, wanted to be with us enough to become Emmanuel, to face what they knew was coming. He said that there was something important enough to teach us that they left heaven and put on a body and walked among us… even knowing that he’d be crucified.
I think that’s true, regardless of what Atonement Theory convinces you most. Setting aside the Atonement for the moment, I think it’s important to concentrate on the “pre-Easter Jesus,” as Marcus Borg puts it. Forgetting all the theological implications for the moment, what does the Cross mean? What does it mean that Jesus suffered this form of death: an execution by the state for treason and sedition?
Like all mythical stories (and, before you clutch your pearls, mythical doesn’t mean untrue), the story of the Cross has a multiplicity of meanings and Truths tied up in it. What it means can change, can flicker, and that is one of the glorious beauties of myth. Today, as Trump ascends to the throne of the Republican party, I think that one of the things that the Cross is meant to teach us is this: we are to resist Empire with all our hearts, souls, strength, and minds. Empire is a siren’s song, luring us in with promises of security and wellness, but those are not our priorities as Christians. In fact, being a follower of Christ means that we’re willing to risk being hung on a tree right beside him because we refuse to bow to our oppressors. We will not give in to white supremacy, or misogyny, or the belief that we have the right to slaughter countless innocents because their communities oppose our nation– either through active war or passively refusing to take in the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
I believe that’s what it means for us today to take up our cross and follow him. Are we going to do it?