(Palm Sunday Homily) Christians Supporting Donald Trump: How Luke’s Passion Narrative Prepared the Way

Trump & Jesus

 Readings for Palm Sunday: LK 19:28-40; IS 50: 4-7, PS 22: 8-9, 12-20, 23=24, PHIL 2:6-11, LK 22: 14-23:58.

It’s puzzling to see white Evangelicals rallying around Donald Trump. He’s the presidential candidate who owns casinos and strip clubs, and who has been married three times.

His pre-candidacy positions on social issues conflict with those Evangelicals have considered sacrosanct in the recent past. As Michael Moore points out, Trump has been pro-choice, pro-gun control, and a supporter of Planned Parenthood. He’s been in favor of gay marriage, raising the minimum wage, and single payer health care. Trump has been pro-union (at least in the private sphere), and has proposed a one-time 14% tax on the accumulated wealth of the super-rich in order to retire the U.S. national debt (i.e. to enrich the banksters).

In the foreign policy sphere, Mr. Trump advocates torture beyond water boarding. His desire to “make America great again” leads him to propose intensified wars in the Middle East, building a wall across the U.S.-Mexican border, filling Guantanamo with even more prisoners, and evicting Muslims from the United States.

How is it possible for white evangelicals to support such a candidate? On the one hand, his personal life and long-standing positions on the “social issues” conflict with what such believers have deemed undebatable in the past. And on the other hand, Trump’s foreign policies conflict with the teachings and example of Jesus himself.

After all, Jesus was a poor laborer who criticized the rich in the harshest of terms. He and his family knew what it was like to be unwelcome immigrants (in Egypt). He was a victim of torture, not its administrator. Far from a champion of empire, he was executed as a terrorist and enemy of Rome.  His followers were not about accumulating wealth, but shared what they had according to ability and need.

When you think of it, all of this seems antithetical to not only to Trumpism, but to the positions of virtually all the candidates for president this election year. They’re all imperialists. All of them (except Bernie Sanders) are friends of the one-percent. They all want to increase military spending which now costs taxpayers about a billion dollars a day.

How did all of that happen?

Today’s Palm Sunday readings provide some clues. Luke’s Passion Narratives reveal a first century Christian community already depoliticizing Jesus in order to please Roman imperialists. The stories turn Jesus against his own people as though they were foreign enemies of God.

Think about the context of today’s Palm Sunday readings.

Note that Jesus and his audiences were first and foremost anti-imperialist Jews whose lives were shaped more than anything else by the Roman occupation of their homeland. As such, they weren’t waiting for a Roman-Greco “messiah” who, like the Sun God Mithra, would die and lead them to heaven. They were awaiting a Davidic messiah who would liberate them from the Romans.

So on this Palm Sunday, what do you think was on the minds of the crowds who Luke tells us lined the streets of Jerusalem to acclaim Jesus the Nazarene? Were they shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” (Save us! Save us!) because they thought Jesus was about to die and by his sacrificial death open the gates of heaven closed since Adam’s sin by a petulant God? Of course not. They were shouting for Jesus to save them from the Romans.

The palm branches in their hands were (since the time of the Maccabees) the symbols of resistance to empire. Those acclaiming Jesus looked to him to play a key role in the Great Rebellion everyone knew about to take place against the hated Roman occupiers.

And what do you suppose was on Jesus’ mind? He was probably intending to take part in the rebellion just mentioned. It had been plotted by the Jews’ Zealot insurgency. Jesus words at the “Last Supper” show his anticipation that the events planned for Jerusalem might cause God’s Kingdom to dawn that very weekend.

Clearly Jesus had his differences with the Zealots. They were nationalists; he was inter-nationalist who was open to gentiles. The Zealots were violent; Jesus was not.

And yet the Zealots and Jesus came together on their abhorrence of Roman presence in the Holy Land. They found common ground on the issues of debt forgiveness, non-payment of taxes to the occupiers, and of land reform. Within Jesus’ inner circle there was at least one Zealot (Simon). Indications might also implicate Peter, Judas, James, and John. And Jesus’ friends were armed when he is arrested. Whoever cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant was used to wielding a sword – perhaps as a “sicarius” (the violent wing of the Zealots who specialized in knifing Roman soldiers).

But we’re getting ahead of our story. . . Following his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus soon found himself and his disciples inside the temple participating in what we’d call a “direct action” protest. They were demonstrating against the collaborative role the temple and its priesthood were fulfilling on behalf of the Romans.

As collaborators, the temple priests were serving a foreign god (the Roman emperor) within the temple precincts. For Jesus that delegitimized the entire system. So, as John Dominic Crossan puts it, Jesus’ direct action was not so much a “cleansing” of the temple as the symbolic destruction of an institution that had completely lost its way.

It was this demonstration that represented the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest and execution described so poignantly in today’s long gospel reading.

Following the temple demonstration, Jesus and his disciples became “wanted” men (Lk. 19:47). At first Jesus’ popularity affords him protection from the authorities (19:47-48). The people constantly surround him eager to hear Jesus’ words denouncing their treasonous “leaders” (20:9-19), about the issue of Roman taxation (20:20-25), the destruction of the temple (21:1-6), the coming war (21:20-24) and the imminence of God’s Kingdom (21:29-33).

Eventually however, Jesus has to go underground. On Passover eve he sends out Peter and John to arrange for a safe-house to celebrate the feast I mentioned earlier. The two disciples are to locate the “upper room.” They do so by exchanging a set of secret signs and passwords with a local comrade.

Then comes Jesus’ arrest. Judas has betrayed Jesus to collect the reward on Jesus’ head – 30 pieces of silver. The arrest is followed by a series of “trials” before the Jewish Council (the Sanhedrin), before Pilate and Herod. Eventually, Jesus is brought back to Pilate. There he’s tortured, condemned and executed between two other insurgents.

Note that Luke presents Pilate in way completely at odds with what we know of Pilate as described for example by the Jewish historian Josephus. After the presentation of clear-cut evidence that the Nazarene rabbi was “stirring up the people,” and despite Jesus’ own admission to crimes against the state (claiming to be a rival king), Pilate insists three times that the carpenter is innocent of capital crime.

Such tolerance of rebellion contradicts Crossan’s insistence that Pilate had standing orders to execute anyone associated with lower class rebellion during the extremely volatile Passover festivities. In other words, there would have been no drawn-out trial.

What’s going on here? Two things.

First of all, like everyone else, Luke knew that Jesus had been crucified by the Romans. That was an inconvenient truth for Luke’s audience which around the year 85 CE (when Luke wrote) was desperately trying to reconcile with the Roman Empire which lumped the emerging Christian community with the Jews whom the Romans despised.

Luke’s account represents an attempt to create distance between Christians and Jews. So he makes up an account that exonerates Pilate (and the Romans) from guilt for Jesus’ execution. Simultaneously, he lays the burden of blame for Jesus’ execution at the doorstep of Jewish authorities.

In this way, Luke made overtures of friendship towards Rome. He wasn’t worried about the Jews, since by the year 70 the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple along with more than a million of its inhabitants. After 70 Jewish Christians no longer represented the important factor they once were. Their leadership had been decapitated with the destruction of Jerusalem.

Relatedly, Jesus’ crucifixion would have meant that Rome perceived him as a rebel against the Empire. Luke is anxious to make the case that such perception was false. Rome had nothing to fear from Christians.

I’m suggesting that such assurance was unfaithful to the Jesus of history. It domesticated the rebel who shines through even in Luke’s account when it is viewed contextually.

And so what?

Well, if you wonder why Christians can support Donald Trump . . . if you wonder why they so easily succumb to empires (Roman, Nazi, U.S.) you’ve got your answer. It all starts here – in the gospels themselves – with the great cover-up of the insurgent Jesus.

And if you wonder where the West’s and Hitler’s comfort with xenophobia in general and anti-Semitism in particular come from, you have that answer as well.

The point here is that only by recovering the obscured rebel Jesus can Christians avoid the mistake they made 80 years ago. Then instead of singing “Hosanna” to Jesus, they shouted “Heil Hitler!” to another imperialist torturer, xenophobe, and hypocrite.

The readings for Palm Sunday present us with a cautionary tale about these sad realities.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

7 thoughts on “(Palm Sunday Homily) Christians Supporting Donald Trump: How Luke’s Passion Narrative Prepared the Way”

  1. Hi Mike,

    I had a few questions arise from this blog:

    1. Have you any direct evidence that Jesus shared the zealots’ abhorrence of the Roman presence”?

    2. Do you think it is possible for people who live by the ideal of forgiveness and pacifism (Amish-lke?) to live without the structure of nationhood? i.e. a Christian Anarchy?

    3. Does being an “internationalist” mean you believe in a world organised into many nations rather than just a few empires? If so, do you favour nations simply because of their smaller scale? i.e. the oppressions enacted by nations are smaller (tend to affect fewer people, often less severely perhaps) than the oppressions enacted by empires? Or do you see qualitative virtues of nations over empires? Do you think the partial peace achievable by an empire (e.g. Pax Romana) is more flawed than the partial peace achievable by nations?

    4. This question has a bit of an intro: I think the OT demonstrates that even a God-chosen nation is unable to achieve a society charaterised by godliness and justice and that both the downfall of Israel prophesied by Jesus and the coming of the Church instituted by Jesus, constitute Divine rejection of Nation-building as inadequate. I think the New Covenant is meant to enable a system of Christian Anarchy called “the Kingdom of God” by rebirth of individuals in Holy Spirit. Furthermore, I read that this plan of God was opposed by those who valued nationhood and their comfortable survival with a relative absence of God in their hearts… initially by Jewish Nationalists:
    viz:
    “the chief priests, therefore, and the Pharisees, gathered together a sanhedrim, and said, `What may we do? because this man doth many signs? if we may let him alone thus, all will believe in him; and the Romans will come, and will take away both our place and nation.’ ” (John 11:47-48 YLT)

    And later, following Constantine, by ‘Christian’ secularists: who favoured the Roman Empire and much later their various individual nations.

    So my question is Have you any comment about the above analysis?

    5. With reference to John 11:49-50:

    “Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’ ” (NIV)

    – What’s your position: Do you accept or reject the notion that it is better that (one or more) individuals are sacrificed for the sake of one’s nation? And if you hold to some form of Just War theory – as presumably your relatives who are critical of your “internationalism” do also – how do you distinguish your politics from theirs really? Are you not just someone who will always be critical of the status quo despite the impossibility of real justice for all? i.e. you choose not to be a realist but your relatives choose to be realists? (The politics/view/hopes I hold are also regarded as unrealistic – but I reject that. Do you too reject the accusation that your politics/view/hopes are unrealistic??)

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    1. A very full comment, John. Thank you. I’ve tried to respond to many of these questions in my blogs under the “historical Jesus” heading. By “internationalism” I was referring to the understanding that sees all human beings as brothers and sisters. That, I think, was Jesus’ vision — and that of all the world’s great prophets. I don’t think the prophetic tradition (which Jesus embodied) ever comes to terms with the status quo in the name of “realism.” That’s what Jesus’ discourse about the Reign of God was about. He, I believe, was anything but a realist in the sense of accepting the status quo. No Jewish prophet could possibly accept a foreign god (and that’s what the Roman Emperor pretended to be) ruling their God-given inheritance, the land of Israel. And, of course, (as is the case with so many of the prophets) it cost him his life.

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  2. I don’t want to interrupt an interaction between John Wallace and Mike RS.

    All the same, want to throw a few thoughts into the pot. Judaism and traditional Roman values both contained a strong strain of anti-monarchy. The prophet Samuel warned his tribe that kings would enslave them, when they asked him to anoint a king:
    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+8&version=RSVCE

    The Romans overthrew King Tarquin after the abuse of Lucretia and vowed not to have another (although they eventually ended up with emperors).
    https://legacy.fordham.edu/Halsall/ancient/livy-rape.asp

    So, the Romans did have something to fear from a Jewish/Roman hybrid movement that was underwhelmed by corrupt imperial leadership.

    Even before Jerusalem was razed, Nero murdered Senator Pudens, a respectable leading Roman citizen and a student of St. Paul, who probably found Nero disgraceful and antithetical to traditional Roman values. People like Pudens might have wanted to restore a republic instead of living in a corrupt monarchy; and to combat them, the corrupt politicians spread baldfaced lies about the Christians and instigated persecution against them.

    One of the first pontiffs was Pope Evaristus, who ” came from a family of Greek Judaeans living in Bethlehem…” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Evaristus

    The Roman Empire was huge and diverse, a tremendous intermingling of different peoples with different customs and ideas. For example, Jesus may have encountered Buddhists or spiritual seekers from India and the Far East, while living in Alexandria, which was a major melting pot of cultures.

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  3. My earlier post went into moderation. When you get to it, you may enjoy this National Geographic article about “Rethinking Nero”:

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/09/emperor-nero/draper-text

    ….”For all its openness, what the Domus ultimately expressed was one man’s limitless power, right down to the materials used to construct it. “The idea of using so much marble was not just a show of wealth,” says Irene Bragantini, an expert on Roman paintings. “All of this colored marble came from the rest of the empire—from Asia Minor and Africa and Greece. The idea is that you’re controlling not just the people but also their resources. In my reconstruction, what happened in Nero’s time is that for the first time, there’s a big gap between the middle and upper class, because only the emperor has the power to give you marble.”

    Mike, you’re a Socialist like the Mayor Bruschetti of Anzio who celebrates Nero… what do you think of Nero who killed his mother, among other victims? (since much of your emphasis in the post above is on slamming political parties and their supporters, LOL) Could there be a tendency for socialists to prefer highly centralized imperial powers run by abusive strongmen?

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  4. Mike,

    I really enjoyed your reflection on Luke’s Passion narrative. I listened to the Gospel yesterday with new ears. I also enjoyed the blog post on Fr. Griffin, from your seminary days. I had a teacher like that at Notre Dame (actually, across the road from Notre Dame at St. Mary’s–Sr. Franzita Kane). Did you know the greatest influence on Robert Frost was also Palgrave’s “Golden Treasury”? I liked your professor’s advice about simple sentences–about simplicity and directness of expression. I mostly follow that rule and encourage my students to follow it. Bob

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    1. It’s true that re-reading the gospels again for the first time (as Marcus Borg put it) supplies the “new ears,” you refer to, Bob. The Golden Treasury remains one of the most important books in my own education. The SVO ideal also hovers over my writing like a superego.

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