Donald Trump and His Christian Supporters Hate Jesus (Sunday Homily)

trump-jesus

Readings for the feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe”: 2 SM 5: 1-3, PS 122: 1-5; COL 1: 12-20; LK 23: 35-43.

How on earth were USian Christians able to elect a man like Donald Trump?

After all, Trump represents the polar opposite of the values embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, Jesus was the kind of person Donald Trump and his supporters actually hate.

I mean, the Nazarene was poor, dark skinned, the son of an unwed teenage mother, and an immigrant in Egypt. Jesus was viscerally opposed to an empire very like the United States. And that empire (Rome) executed him as a terrorist. Jesus ended up on death row and finished as a victim of torture and capital punishment. To repeat, Trump and the Republicans hate people like that. They want Middle Easterners like Jesus out of their country at best, and dead at worst.

Again, how could followers of Jesus elect his sworn enemy?

The readings for today’s feast of “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe” provide the answer. They explain what might be termed the great “makeover” of Jesus of Nazareth changing him from the leader of an anti-imperial revolutionary movement into a pillar supporting the very institutions that assassinated him.

In other words: through 4th century sleight of hand, the Jesus who sided with the poor and those oppressed by empire was made to switch sides. He was co-opted and domesticated – kicked upstairs into the royal class. He became not only a patron of the Roman Empire, but a “king” complete with crown, purple robes, scepter and fawning courtiers.

Reza Aslan’s best-seller, Zealot, explains the process in detail. The book centralizes today’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke, Chapter 23. There Aslan pays particular attention to:

  • Jesus’ cross,
  • to the Roman inscription identifying Jesus as “King of the Jews,”
  • and to the dialog between Jesus and the two “thieves” presented as sharing his fate.

Take the cross first. It was the mode of execution reserved primarily for insurrectionists against the Roman occupation of Palestine. The fact that Jesus was crucified indicates that the Romans believed him to be a revolutionary terrorist. Aslan asks, how could it have been otherwise?  After all, Jesus was widely considered the “messiah” – i.e. as the one, like David in today’s first reading, expected to lead “The War” against Israel’s oppressors.

Moreover, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God,” a highly politicized metaphor which could only be understood as an alternative to Roman rule. It would return Israel, Jesus himself promised, to Yahweh’s governance and accord primacy to the poor and marginalized. The Romans drew logical conclusions. Put otherwise, the Roman cross itself provides bloody testimony to the radical threat the empire saw personified in Jesus.

That threat was made specific in the inscription the Romans placed over the head of the crucified Jesus. It read, “King of the Jews.”

Typically, those words are interpreted as a cruel joke by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate – as if he were simply poking fun at those who saw Jesus as the worthy successor of Israel’s beloved King David.

However, according to Reza Aslan, nothing humorous was intended by the inscription. Instead it was a titulus. Every victim of crucifixion had one – a statement of the reason for his execution. The motive for Jesus’ crucifixion was the same as for the many others among his contemporaries who were executed for the same crime: aspiring to replace Roman rule with home rule – with an Israel governed by Jews instead of Romans. The titulus on Jesus’ cross, along with the cross itself identify him as the antithesis of what he eventually became, a Roman tool.

And then there are those two thieves. Aslan says they weren’t “thieves” at all. That’s a mistranslation, he points out. A better translation of the Greek word, lestai , would be “bandits” – the common designation in the first century for insurrectionists. And there probably weren’t just two others crucified the day Jesus was assassinated. There may have been a dozen or more.

In this context the dialog between Jesus and two of the terrorists crucified with him takes on great significance. Actually, it documents the beginning of the process I described of changing Jesus’ image from insurrectionist to depoliticized teacher.

Think about it. Luke’s account of Jesus’ words and deeds was first penned about the year 85 or 90 – 20 years or so after the Roman-Jewish War (66-70 C.E.) that utterly destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. In the war’s aftermath, defeated Christians became anxious to show the Roman world that it had nothing to fear from their presence in empire.

One way of doing that was to distance the dying Jesus from the Jewish insurgents and their terrorist actions against their oppressors. So in Luke’s death-bed dialog among three crucified revolutionaries, one of the terrorists admits that Jesus is “under the same sentence” as he and his comrade in arms. Given what Aslan said about crucifixion, that fact was undeniable. All three had been sentenced as insurrectionists.

But now comes the distancing between Jesus and Israel’s liberation movements. Luke has the “good thief” (read good terrorist) say, “. . . indeed we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”

In other words, Luke (writing for a post-war Roman audience) dismisses insurrection as “criminal,” and removes Jesus from association with such crime – a fact endorsed, Luke asserts, by insiders like the honest lestai crucified with Jesus. Luke’s message to Rome: the killing of Jesus was a terrible mistake; he meant no harm to Rome. And neither do we, his followers.

After the 4th century, Luke’s message became the official position of the Catholic Church – adopted subsequently by Protestantism. The message transformed the poor, brown, bastard, revolutionary martyr from a tortured and executed criminal into “Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.”

So by now in 2016 Jesus has changed color and class. He is the white, rich, bigoted “American” champion of U.S. empire. Those pretending to follow the one-time immigrant from the Middle East show they want to keep riffraff like Jesus, Mary and Joseph out of their land of the free and home of the brave. They want enemies of empire like the Nazarene tortured and executed the way Rome tortured and killed the historical Jesus. Their president-elect even wants to go after Jesus’ parents while he’s at it.

We’ve come a long way, baby! Or have we?

The truth is that only by rescuing the historical Jesus – the antithesis of his Republican version – can we be saved from Jesus-hating Trumpism.

Published by

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.

9 thoughts on “Donald Trump and His Christian Supporters Hate Jesus (Sunday Homily)”

  1. Excellent analysis. As George Orwell pointed out in 1984, The ruling elites turn language on it’s head. War becomes peace, slavery becomes freedom, and radical reformer Jesus becomes a great “King” supporting their evil empire. And the deluded sheep they rule over just love it. Those who elected Trump identify with his wealth and power; they inwardly wish they had his money and freedom to do anything he pleases. They live their fantasies of worldly success through him. He will wield the magical dominance they dream of, and destroy anyone they hate. He is their surrogate to rule the world with authoritarian power, answering to no one. This American Dream is of course what is destroying the world and making a life together based on love nearly impossible.

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  2. You make a good point Mike. It seems safe to say that Jesus was re-interpreted to suit later politics and power struggles, a process that is very obviously ongoing, but I wonder. I would have thought he had more important things on his mind than the Roman occupation. It seems to have been some of his followers and maybe the Romans who saw him as a political revolutionary. He said ‘Render unto Caesar…’

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  3. Okay, I agree with your (and the Jesus Seminar’s) understanding of who Jesus was. But don’t you think that headline is way too strong? Surely even Christians who have not had your privileged education, but understand Jesus in the way that most of the churches have presented him all these centuries, should not be depicted as hating Jesus. Way too judgmental and, if you’ll pardon me, seems rather arrogant. How about a little of the who-am-I-to-judge version of Christianity.

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    1. We are not to criticize Muslims or Hindus or Christians who pervert and dishonor those precious teachings for their own evil purposes? If you can’t say anything nice about them, then just don’t say anything? We are not to stand up for the truth and call lies what they are? That’s just a little too PC for me. Who was it who said, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good people to remain silent”?

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  4. OK. I looked up the quote. It really said “do nothing” instead of remain silent. But to me, remaining silent is equivqalent to doing nothing. I believe in speaking out for what you believe to be true. People’s being offended by such speech is often a defensive gesture to deflect the truth.

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  5. I have little quarrel with the article. I directed my comments to the headline. No one is suggesting silence, certainly not failing to speak out. My criticism (speaking out, if you will) was aimed at what I consider slanderous invective against people who believe they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Just so, I would speak out about a headline that said “Mike Rivage and his supporters hate Jesus.” To my lights, “hating Jesus” are fighting words. People who have a different understanding of Jesus think he was God. Stating that they hate God because they have a different understanding is, perhaps, PC. I know that in Donald Trump’s United States PC is unpopular. But stating that they hate God is also unfair and cruel. The headline was unnecessary and over the top. But I liked the sentiments expressed in the article — with the exception of some of the last comments. Matthew 5:43-48.

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  6. When someone tells me, “I love Jesus” I wonder who their Jesus is? People have vastly divergent ideas about that – and it really matters what those ideas are. Is it the one who said “Do not give what is holy to dogs, or cast your pearls before swine, lest they turn and rend you”? Or, “”If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.”

    The desire to avoid the difficult and sometimes harsh side of Jesus’ teachings leaves us with a sentimental Christ who is all too easy use in avoiding the hard choices that spiritual life presents. People who are easily insulted are hardly worth talking to about real spirituality. They will be quick to accuse you of being holier than thou or full of spiritual pride. Best to avoid such useless encounters. It is unfortunate but life is not all sweetness and light, and polite chit chat, but that’s the way it is. When you realize that humankind is on the brink of extinction, the time for tea party pleasantries is over.

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