28: Immigration and kidnapping the Bible
Last week Jeff Sessions used the Bible to justify kidnapping children, separating families, and continuing one of the cruelest immigration policies in US history. We're sickened, so we put out an impromptu episode calling BS on that. Our theology matters because it can lead to death or life. Which will you choose?
Nate: Welcome to Almost Heretical. This is an impromptu episode because if you’re listening to this in June 2018, some really crazy stuff happened this last week and is still happening. The Bible is being used to defend ripping children away from their parents, and we think this is absolutely sickening. We were both really busy this week, so Tim just recorded an episode on his phone by himself, because we think this is so important. As we always say on this show, it’s so important to look downstream of our theological ideas and see what kind of things they’re leading to. Good things, bad things, life or death, or as Jesus said, to see if a tree is good or bad by the fruit of the tree. Friends, we believe our theology is so important because of the things it can lead to, like actual death in the past couple weeks as we’ll hear about on today’s show, or some of the worst atrocities and suffering in our history. I honestly don’t care about talking doctrine or debating theological positions or stances or any of that. I care that the ideas that I believe and share with people I meet and pass on to my children, I care that those ideas bring about life and goodness and love and inclusivity and peace and joy, that I stand with the marginalized and the oppressed. Even if it costs me. And I believe many of you want that as well. And so today Tim is going to dive into a pretty crazy thing that happened last week and a way that the Bible was used to support some just terrible things. And I hope this is encouraging for those of you out there who feel like the Bible, Jesus, and God are constantly being used against you and against the marginalized in our society. Alright, here’s Tim.
Tim: Hey, y’all, it’s Tim here. As I’m recording this right now, it is Wednesday, June 20th. As most of you have probably been following, there’s been a crisis unfolding in American immigration over the last few weeks where we’ve realized that what was already a pretty inept and oftentimes cruel system of border patrol and immigration policy has recently turned absolutely crazy and sickening with this supposed zero-tolerance policy that is actually separating, essentially kidnapping children from their parents at the border and imprisoning little kids. So there’s been all sorts of outrage, there’s been I guess in some ways an impressive number of church institutions and denominations and leaders speaking out against this, including even some of the people who we usually pick on. But then there’s been a shocking defense and justification that has actually used the Bible as the main source of justifying this policy. This morning an article was posted by a guy named Andrew Seidel; or I guess this morning I found the article, I think it maybe came out yesterday, with sort of the inside scoop on a White House Bible study that is the likely source that influenced both the policy decision, the policy defense, and Jeff Sessions’ speech pointing to Romans 13 as a defense for separating families. Which rhetoric was then reiterated by Sarah Huckabee Sanders and others in the White House. And I know for lots, these last couple weeks have pushed people to different forms of an emotional breaking point, and for me this was my emotional point of being totally overwhelmed and just wanting to jam a stick in the machine and burn it all down, so to speak. So I wanted to get on the mic. We’re gonna see if Nate and I could have a chance to jump on together, but what I tried to do was just spend an hour or two to calm down a bit, gather my thoughts, organize some thoughts here, and try to link what’s happening in the news the last few weeks to some of the ongoing conversation we’ve been trying to have listening to voices like Mark Charles and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and many who we haven’t been able to have on the show. Especially people of color who have been raising these issues for a long, long time now, trying to get America to listen, but more specifically trying to get white evangelicalism to listen. So here’s a somewhat raw but at least I had a few hours to collect myself take on what’s going on. And I’ll reference a few articles, we’ll post them all in the show notes so you can follow along and see what we’re talking about.
Okay, so first piece I just want to touch on, Nate and I have said this a few times. We really came to this when we were talking about doing the podcast before we launched it, and really trying to wrap our heads around why would we do this, why do we think it’s, why do we think the world should have another podcast with two white dudes talking? Which is a serious, valid question. And one of the answers at least to why we wanted to start the podcast and what we wanted to do with this podcast really came down to we believe it’s really important to actually look at and continue exploring biblical interpretation, because in America the Bible rules. And I know there’s been kind of push back from some of the progressive side, especially those who’ve been burned by evangelicalism and left evangelicalism. A lot of people who’ve just had to walk away from religion and Christian faith altogether, at least for a season. And some have been so beat up by the way people have used the Bible, they’ve just had to say, “Listen, I need to not care what the Bible says for a little bit and just try to live a good life, try to understand my own feelings, try to listen to my own conscience and intuition, and people have been bashing the Bible over my head in toxic and abusive ways for so long. We need to stop doing that. So who cares for a sec what the Bible says?” And then there’s another piece of that which is more on the political side, those who are rightly totally enraged by the kind of Christofascism religious takeover that we’re watching the conservative right actually somewhat successfully accomplish right now through the Trump administration. Which is basically trying to use the Bible as a support for the agenda which is this kind of “Christian” takeover of power in the country to legislate and mandate supposedly Christian ethics. And a lot of people want to say, “Listen, let’s stop debating what the Bible says and let’s talk about the fact that that’s not an okay for our government to run. Our government shouldn’t be referencing Bible verses in defense of its policy decisions. There is a separation of church and state here, there needs to be a deconstruction of this entire way of construing the merging of religion and this political administration.” And I totally agree and get that. But I think what we’ve been saying is that in America, because of our history, because of the role of the Bible in our history and what the Bible has been construed as in America, which oftentimes really is just a form of idolatry but bundled up with these ideas of inerrancy and authority and inspiration of scripture, the Bible is the thing that at the end of the day grants enormous power to whoever gets to claim that the Bible is on their side. And that’s the reason why every presidential candidate in history as far as I can see in the United States has at least claimed to be a Christian, even if you can point to various holes in that idea, they’ve all petitioned to the base of Christian voters, they’ve all petitioned on the ground of Christian and biblical ethics essentially, and then recently what we just saw is that Trump’s ability to get elected was far and away, the most significant factor in that was white evangelical vote. 81% of white evangelicals voted in support of Trump. Which made white evangelicals one of the most reliable, consistent voting bases for not only Trump’s campaign but for the Republican party for the last several decades. And so it’s not coincidental when Jeff Sessions takes the microphone at the White House and points to a Bible verse, Romans 13, which we’ll get to soon, as a defense for his policy. He’s specifically playing to his voting base to say, “Look, the Bible’s on my side, I’m doing the Christian thing, I’m doing good Christian leadership, I’m listening to the Bible, therefore you can trust me.” It’s the same reason why last week Mike Pence asked if he could come to the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the biggest gatherings of Christian leaders in the country, so that he could come speak and basically remind one of his top voting bases, white evangelicalism, especially as represented in the Southern Baptist Convention, that he’s with them, he’s on the side of the church, on the side of Christianity, that he and Trump and the administration are essentially on God’s side doing God’s work. And the whole thing was to reinforce this connection between the GOP and both Southern Baptist Convention and evangelical Christianity in general. And though some people within that convention protested it, the majority of people not only sat in and listened to Mike Pence give his speech, but actually gave him an ovation and cheered. And cheered at ideas like being on the side of Trump. And by the way, one of our favorite podcasts to listen to, called Pass the Mic with Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns, just did a really good episode drawing out some really important points about what that meant for Pence to be at the SBC and related that to Paige Patterson and some of the other things that have been going on. So go give that a listen. But anyway, my point here is that regardless of whether you individually think at this stage of your life that you care what the Bible says or you want to give the Bible authority over your ethics or decision-making or worldview or whatever, regardless of whether it matters to you, it matters because it matters to so many Americans. And the Bible is still a source of such great power. Therefore I think even for those who right now don’t care, if you care about resistance, if you care about justice and decency and pushing back against so many of the egregious things we see going on in our very own country, then biblical interpretation ironically should matter. I’m not saying everybody needs to go out and read the Bible in Bible studies even, if you just need to get some time away. I’m saying those who make decisions in this country, those in power in this country, have much of that power oftentimes because they get to claim that they have the Bible on their side, and as long as we are so frustrated with that that we just cede that battle and say, “You’re right, the Bible is on your side,” then we basically are giving into their lie and perpetuating it, that Christianity actually supports these kinds of ideas and policies, but we’re also just giving up part of the battle which is just to say that, “You actually stand philosophically opposed to the Bible and it’s message and the story of Jesus. It isn’t on your side, it’s not a tool in your support. It’s not meant to be the weapon that you’re using it as. It actually is a tool that we want to use to deweaponize your ideology.”
So honestly just think about this for a second. It looks pretty clear, based on this article, that it is these White House Bible studies, and we’ll get into some of the details. It’s this guy named Ralph Drollinger who works for this entity called Capitol Ministries, who itself is connected to this larger group of Christian entities that sort of border on lobby groups, church denominational affinity groups. It’s basically this whole wing of kind of the Christian conservative movement, and this guy with basically zero theological background or expertise has somehow wiggled his way into a position of being able to run weekly Bible studies in the White House. Which Jeff Sessions and Mike Pence and several others within the Presidential cabinet take part in. Trump gets a memo everytime they have one of what was happening in the Bible study. And recently just led a Bible study on immigration and on Romans 13 connecting ideologies around parenting and governing. And it looks very clear that it is this Bible study that caused Jeff Sessions to go take the stage and defend this zero-tolerance policy on the basis of Romans 13. Which means that a Bible study just led the United States White House to defend one of the worst forms of state-led cruelty I’ve ever personally seen from my country. That means Bible studies can lead people and communities to stand up for justice and resist evil and Bible studies can lead people to perpetuate evil. So Bible studies have fueled the black resistance movement in America for generations, and yet a childhood of Bible studies also led Dylan Roof to walk into one of the iconic churches of that resistance movement, join one of their Bible studies, so that he could murder nine black people. People use the same book, this Bible, to produce and disseminate and justify both racist ideas and antiracist ideas. And that runs through the entire history of our country going all the way back through the early colonies. And it’s not just here in America, because part of the America project, the American imperial experiment, was that the United States and Britain and Western Europe felt like it was part of their Manifest Destiny, their divine sanction by God, to colonize the world in the name of Christian mission, to spread these ideas. Which means the very worst of American theology and ideology has been disseminated almost everywhere. And some of the best ideas have also gone with it. But it basically means we’ve gotten ourselves into this massive mess, and if you’re listening to this podcast from other parts of the world, you’re not an American, you’re not invested in American politics or society, I totally get the last couple months of conversations have been very much American-centric. But in a way, these conversations do touch on issues in other places because of basically how much we have force-fed our theology, which has been riddled with toxic, evil ideas, on the rest of the world. So we’re hoping, actually, that some of this deconstruction project of trying to see where bits of slaveholder religion and racist ideas and ideas which have flipped power on its head and coopted Christ to be in defense of the powerful and the empire rather than a means of subverting it, it’s important all sorts of people in all sorts of places to undo those ideas and unpack them and see, especially for Christians, especially for Christians who are in anyway connected to the Christianity of the last several hundred years in America, to see if there’s anyway that some of the atrocities and ideological evils of the early American project of building a country on slavery and the construct of race, if any of those ideas are perpetuating forward. And so again this to me connects to why, even for those who are burnt out on church world, why biblical interpretation matters. It’s because people are out there across the world, even our own president, President of the United States, is using the Bible based on some clown’s ridiculous statements about what that Bible says and means to justify the policy of the United States of America! This stuff has massive, dramatic effects on the world. Whether you’re Christian, whether you’re not Christian, no matter what you believe about the Bible, the fact is we live in a world where this book has incredible sway. Okay, enough on that.
So this article. It basically shows, and I think this is why this is kind of breaking point to me, it’s just a snapshot into the mechanics inside of the machine of how the Bible is being co-opted to support conservative politics. And I think Trump’s regime and the last two years, or even I guess three going back to the campaign, it’s worse than what I think conservative politics used to mean. It’s almost an uglier, worst version, this kind of monstrous distortion of what was already a very unhealthy idea or set of ideas which was conservative politics. And I’ve said before, and we’ve said on this podcast, that Puritan theology and Calvinistic theology, especially when you see this in ideas like an exaggeration of total depravity and original sin that downplays the glory of human creation and human autonomy as co-rulers with God on earth, is an idea that’s been used to basically support the idea that the human will is something that needs to be suppressed, even destroyed, even snuffed out. And so one seemingly small way that this plays out is the debate over spanking or corporal punishment. And so often you get people pointing to these verse like from Proverbs of, “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” and then looking at the cross and interpreting the cross in terms of a retributive, punitive punishment doled out by God to the world that Jesus takes so we don’t have to take this great big punishment. And we get this picture that retribution, punishment, for the sake of deterrence, is the great mandated, divinely mandated means of enacting change in the world. Basically, retributive punishment is the golden tool. It’s the hammer that gets used for every job. And so to not spank your child is to risk letting your child grow up into rebellion not knowing what it’s like to know how to submit and to put themselves under God’s rule. So we’re actually supposed to participate in breaking the will of our children. And I’ve talked about, that idea makes me sick, makes me sick to my stomach. I’ve seen it play out in various ways in people’s lives as adults and children, and now myself as a new dad, I just cannot imagine actually believing that to be true. I cannot imagine approaching parenthood as trying to destroy what to me is the most tender, precious little thing that I’m trying to protect in my son Camden, which is his little will, his little life that he is, feels to me like this wick that I’m trying not to snuff out. It’s so fragile. The idea that I would be trying to suppress that thing feels to me just totally crazy. But that idea, that logic, has gone right through Puritan and Calvinistic theology through American history, and it is completely connected to this project to use Christianity to support a reverence for power and to create a politics, a governmental politics of retribution, especially of retribution for those who are perceived as rebellious. Just think for a second, talking about slaveholder religion. The ways that slaveholders specifically distorted Christianity to make it useful to support the institution of slavery based on the ideas of white supremacy. And you can see how the ideas that the worst thing to be feared is the human will which tends toward rebellion, rebelliousness of the human will. So that needs to be smothered up front so we never have the risk of rebellion in the future. And that those in positions of power, so parents but also not just parents, those in any form of parental power or governance, that what it means for them to be Christian is to do the work of smothering any of that rebellion. And that the main way to do that is through violent, retributive punishment. You see, that literally is a way of saying, “Oh, that’s how we could create a religion based on these distortions of Christianity that perfectly fits slavery!” It perfectly fits upholding the status quo of the slaveholder and creating this submissive, subjugated class of slaves that will stay submissive. And you can also see how when slavery ends but you don’t want white supremacy to end, you can just kick the ball forward into mass incarceration, where the way to respond to anything that can get deemed as a kind of unlawful, rebellious threat to the status quo, “Oh, you just throw them in prison and that’s the Christian thing to do.” So that we have, supposedly, this great American country which incarcerates more of our own people than any other country. Okay. That’s getting off course a sec, but look at this. In this article by Seidel, he actually has the Bible study. I read through it. Honestly, it was, it made me feel sick to my stomach to read through this. But this is a copy of the Bible study. Again this guy’s name is Drollinger, he works for this, leads this crew called Capitol Ministries. They literally have on their website right now, you can go capmin.org, and the front page is a defense of Sessions’ remarks and references to this Bible study on immigration defending everything that the White House has said over the last week. And I just want to look at this, skim through it, you can go look at the details, I just want to look at this so we can see the mechanics of how this co-opting of Christianity and co-opting of the Bible happens.
Okay, so step one. This guy Drollinger points to verses like, “Spare the rod,” as I mentioned, in Proverbs, as a divine sanction of retributive violent punishment as the key means of deterrence. And then he puts this forth as the one and only Christian way to deal with children and anyone in positions under authority. Okay, so deterrence, that is the God-ordained way of dealing with people, dealing with evil, dealing with issues, dealing with unlawfulness, whatever. Deterrence via punishment, even violent punishment. This is all contingent on a basic paradigm of viewing God as the retributive God of penal substitution. And again, when we’ve made these cases about the way penal substitution and some of these ideas create distorted theology that hurts people, we’ve been accused of unfairly caricaturing Calvinism or presenting a false caricature of evangelical religion. But guys, this supposed caricature just played out in real life through the White House. The president, vice president, attorney general, the White House of the United States not only listened to this supposed caricature, they just put it into policy and defended it. This is as real as it gets. This is as far from being an unfair caricature as it gets. Okay, so step one is you paint this picture of retribution and deterrence. Step two, this guy Drollinger, he puts this complete B.S., and this honestly, this step two, I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. I don’t even think oftentimes people go through the length of doing this step because it’s so crazy. But this guy, again he has no formal background in biblical languages, in theological study, doesn’t have any bachelor’s degree in anything in theological training. And I’m not saying everyone should have a bachelor’s degree or you should only listen to people with degrees or scholars; that’s not what I’m saying. But he throws out this complete garbage, but he makes it sound like he knows what he’s talking about by making the claim that he’s operating out of the Hebrew. So he does this thing where he says, “You know what, there are actually three words in Hebrew in the Old Testament that refer to various people in Israel. And the three words, we translate them as countryman, sojourner, and foreigner. But you know what they really mean? Is legal citizen, legal immigrant, and illegal immigrant.” So he goes, “You all have been misconstruing it. When you read all these passages about God’s love for the orphan and the immigrant and how Israel’s supposed to take care of the immigrant and don’t you ever abuse the immigrant because you’re an immigrant.” He’s saying, “Wait, wait, wait! Many times that word means illegal immigrant.” And he’s quoted as saying that, “God’s word says He frowns on illegal immigrants—just like He says He frowns on children ruling the roost!” So he makes this ridiculous, completely bunk claim that somehow this text from over 2,000 years ago in a society that has nothing like our modern constructs of governments and government policies and border treaties and border policies and all that, that somehow what that word actually means is illegal immigrant. It’s referring to, essentially in his idea, Mexicans coming across the border into the United States. That’s what that word really means. And, by the way, so because of that, we can say, “Not only is Israel not supposed to care for the immigrant, not only does this not truly mean that God loves immigrants, it actually means God frowns on immigrants.” Okay so step two is complete B.S., but people have bought this. The Vice President of the United States bought this! And what step two accomplishes is to frame a group of people who we want to deem the outsiders who are threatening our position, our status quo, our society as we like it. In this case it’s brown people. It’s Mexicans, South American and Central American migrants. And we deem those people as people that God doesn’t like, God frowns on them. This is, Drollinger’s specific move of point to these Hebrew words is kind of a rare move that I haven’t seen before, but this bigger step of somehow getting the Bible to claim to support your disdain for a people group has been repeated over and over and over again. It’s shown up in anti-Semitism that led to World War II and the Nazi regime, it’s shown up in the American theological history of trying to distinguish between white people and black people and pointing to the Genesis of different species of human beings. It’s the same kind of move, to use the Bible to say that God is against whatever people you are against. Then we go to step three, last step. And this is the one we saw on the stage where Jeff Sessions gets up and regurgitates this guy’s idea. By the way, one of the lines in this article is this guy who leads the Bible study was bragging about how teachable and faithful Jeff Sessions is because he will sit in one of these Bible studies and then the next minute, he’ll be up on TV repeating whatever he learned in one of these Bible studies! So this guy’s literally celebrating and praising in a TV interview that what we just saw was Jeff Sessions regurgitating in the form of a defense of American policy that has led to people dying, that he pointed back to his little Bible study as the inspiration for this defense of this policy.
Okay, so step three. He points to Romans 13, which is a part of a letter written to marginalized Christians about how they should relate to the empire by a guy who spent much of his life in prison writing most of his letters from prison and he suggests that God is on the side of the government, i.e., the empire, over against the lawbreakers, and that the Christian ethic is to always follow the law and the highest Christian good is for the heroes like Pence and Trump and Sessions to enforce the law with perfect retributive deterrence just as the Bible commands. So in step three you distort Paul and the story of Christianity, which is consistent all the way through the story of Israel in the Bible, which is there’s always a faithful, subversive subculture who is undermining the power structures of the empire. And this guy aligns Jesus and the Bible with the power structure, with the empire itself, as the great God-ordained hero to mandate Christian rule in the land. This is the essence of Christofascism. And the bad guys are anybody who breaks that law. And now we go back to step one, and we say that the way those good heroes, the way the government is meant to deal with this is with perfectly retributive punishment that will create an incredibly strong deterrent. And then we go back to step two and say, “Who are the bad guys? Oh, it’s illegal immigrants! God’s never liked illegal immigrants, and illegal immigrants are breaking the law.” So now you’ve just in three steps, in these three simple steps of completely misleading interpretation, the Bible has been successfully co-opted to support white America’s agenda to keep America white and maintain the supremacy of whiteness. These steps that right now are being used to justify the state’s kidnapping and imprisonment of brown children are the same interpretive steps that have been used to justify the state’s imprisonment and public execution of black children, and they’re the same steps used to justify separating children from their families as a part of slavery and to justify lynching black people throughout the Jim Crow era. It’s the same process; this is the same mechanics. So the way it sums up, the thing that these guys are accomplishing in these distortions, is produce this idea that we are a Christian nation sent by God to see that God’s will is enforced in our nation doing just what we think God does, which is doling out cruel punishments to any who are, “Rebellious toward God,” i.e., rebellious toward the status quo and powers that be, because, here’s another quote, “The child never learned the value and fruit of correction at a young age. No one ever broke his self-will and as a result he carries around a rebellious spirit today.” Do you hear this? It’s the same rhetoric used by evangelicals to support spanking, and it just led most of the White House to actually believe that they are doing God’s will by teaching immigrant children not to be rebellious by stealing them from their parents and locking them in prison! They actually believe this is Christianity at work, Christianity at its finest. This is not a caricature! The idea that ideas and especially religious ideas flow down a stream, produce very real results, consequences that are either toxic or healthy, and that an idea, the same idea that is in this argument about how people should parent, whether they should spank or not, and how a parent should approach discipline, is the same idea that just led to our own country, the United States of America, kidnapping and locking up children! Separating them from their parents! Which, by the way, one dad in the last couple weeks, after being ripped apart from his family, after fleeing some form of crisis which is why he was willing to subject his family to this risk in the first place, was so distraught he killed himself! The same theological ideas about God as retributive, about us as enacting God’s retributive justice in this world, about how God feels about the other and the role of Christians in government, it just killed someone! It is not a caricature to say that the uglier forms of Calvinism or of Puritan theology have devastating effects. This is something people just need to argue about while you grab a beer. This has real life consequences.
Okay, let me pull back for a second. Can we look at Matthew 2? So I just want to show the opposite of what it is to co-opt the Bible for your own racist political agenda. So Matthew 2. Herod, the king, self-propped up false king over the Jews who’s complicit with the Roman empire, hears word that there’s going to be a new king, someone born who is going to pose a great threat to his empire. So what does he do? He sends out agents to the far off lands of the country to go find the child. This is, Herod is Pharaoh. He feels threatened, and his response to feeling threatened is to go snuff out, i.e., execute, all of the possible threats. And catch this part: Pharaoh [Herod] claims this is an act of worship! He says, “Go find him because I want to worship this guy.” But of course the author of Matthew and the people in the story see through it and they realize he’s just using religion as a guise. He actually want to execute his enemies. He actually wants to use religion and this supposedly religious motive to justify what will end up being a desperate defense of his own power so great that he’s willing to kill children. And then what does Jesus family do? They illegally escape to Egypt where they live as refugees. And don’t you dare pretend that there was some sort of legal immigration process that they went through. There wasn’t. And why did they go? Because God through an angel told them to go! God commanded that Jesus’s parents illegally flee his government, breaking the law of the king of the land in order to save their own life, to save the lives of their children. And eventually Herod becomes so scared and fragile and protective of his power that he orders the execution of every child in the country. So right here, Jesus was an illegal immigrant. This is according to the same Bible just quoted by Jeff Sessions. And the antiChrist characters like Herod, like Pharaoh, who rule the empires of the world against Christ are willing to destroy the lives of children to protect their power. This is freaking chapter two of the New Testament! Chapter two! Jesus is an illegal immigrant. Herod, the Pharaoh, the antiChrist figure, is the one enforcing policies that detrimentally affect children because he’s willing to sacrifice the lives of other people, other families, in order to protect his own social power. To read the Bible well is to see Donald Trump and Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions and white evangelicalism and white America as a whole as largely being complicit as the Herod-Pharaoh archetype of the antiChrist. Not, not the great heroic rulers instituting God’s rule in the nation. That right now is what it means to read the Bible as a Christian in light of immigration. Or it’s one example of how to do that. And it’s literally the second chapter of the New Testament. And can we talk about the Magi for a second? So in this story the Magi, the ones sent out to go find Jesus, and then they’re supposed to find his whereabouts and go back and report it to Herod. And like I just said, why are they going to report it to Herod? So that he can come murder Jesus. Now the reason I bring this up is it’s rightly been said over and over again for eons that it isn’t the Trumps of the world who lead to the ultimate evil, it’s the 99% of people around the Trumps of this world that refuse to stand up to him. Like we talked about in our last episode, there is the temptation to gain power for yourself and for your institution and to use that in abusive ways over others. That is real, but there is also an equally egregious temptation which many more of us, the 99% of us, are much more likely to encounter in our lives and on a daily basis, and it’s that we will refuse to acknowledge and recognize the various forms of power that we have to stand up to the more powerful, to stand up to the egregious things going on around us, and that we will refuse to take responsibility to use that power for good because it will have negative consequences against us. It’s those who default to trusting and siding with power and become the very tools that people like Trump use to accomplish evil. It’s all the generals and soldiers in Nazi Germany who said they were just following orders. It is the people who believe that just obeying the law as they want us to think, and that just submitting to your leaders is the Christian ethical thing to do, that that is the highest virtue. Guys, that is not the highest virtue. To think that it is is idolatry. That’s the whole point of the New Testament witness that the best way to sum up Christian faith is the statement, “Jesus is Lord.” Implying that if hits the fan, as the book of Daniel depicts, if there is a tension point between loyalty to the way and person of Jesus, which is also the way of Yahweh, and the way of your leader, whether that be your parent, your boss, your emperor, your president, that the faithful way of resistance is not to take up swords and try to kill your president or your emperor, but it is simply to say, “I will not be faithful to you. I will be faithful to Jesus, whatever the consequences may be.” That is Christian ethics. That is virtue in the light of an evil world. And in the context of a world where the people in power are not Christ. They are evil, selfish, deceiving, hurtful people. Which is the state of this world, and it’s especially the state of the United States right now. That is Christian ethics. So the Magi, they’re supposed to go report Jesus’s whereabouts to Herod. But they refused. And again, right there in chapter two of the Bible, the only reason we have the rest of the New Testament, the only reason we have Jesus, is because these Magi refused to submit to their boss, to their leader, to their government in Herod, and refused to tell him where Jesus was. And again, why did they do that? The text says it’s because an angel warned them! Warned them. I wish so bad an angel would warn every time one of us is complicit in evil, that an angel would come and warn us that further complicity is going to be punished. Because that is not what we think. We want to put all the blame on Trump, we want to put all the blame on our boss or the guy in power and deflect our own complicity, deflect our own responsibility. That is the story, one way of telling the story, of what white evangelicalism and white America has been doing for generations, is refusing to accept the responsibility that we have to not only refuse to continue to be complicit. It’s for the SBC to refuse having Pence come give the speech at your annual convention! To refuse to continue to be complicit with racist, xenophobic politics and policy, and it’s to actually participate in dismantling it, to give away the privilege and power and supremacy, to see it undone. And that comes with consequences. And the Christian virtue, the example of Christ, is to say, “Okay, you’re right.” There’s going to be backlash. There will always be backlash if you subvert the emperor, the empire, those in power, even those around you who just want to be a part of the empire will persecute you just for undermining it. There will always be a cost. The sacrifice of Jesus is the proof that there is no cost that is too great to be worth it for our own soul and for the soul of the world. To accept the cost in order to stop being complicit in evil, that’s the Christian story!
Okay, I’m riled up. I’m trying to calm down. I’m trying. Because America thinks the Bible matters, it matters what America thinks the Bible says. And theological crooks like Jeff Sessions and Sarah Sanders and this guy Ralph Drollinger will always find their following. They’re always going get some people to believe them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t resist. In fact, if I’m trying put on hopefulness and gratitude and celebration in the midst of a lot of anger and frustration and cynicism, I think what the United Methodist Church is doing right now in response to this is a really good example. So Jeff Sessions is just a lay member of the United Methodist Church, but the UMC just filed a long list of church sanctions against Jeff Sessions, both for abusing children via his policy decisions, and importantly for misleading people regarding the Bible and doctrine. I think this is a great example of Christians recognizing the power that they have, so this is an entire denominational entity recognizing that they actually have institutional church power over Jeff Sessions who is a member of their church, who falls under guidelines of church discipline. And they’re realizing they have a responsibility to put that power into place by standing up to the abusive people who are abusing the power that they have and speaking truth to it. And so while the church has largely sided with the powerful and the empire for most of its history, ever since Augustine helped join Christianity to Constantine’s empire, the church has constantly struggled with wanting to align with power. But also there have always been small examples of this kind of resistance where the church took church discipline against the supposedly Christian emperors. There are other stories going back to the earlier centuries of the church where emperors, the Roman empire, who claimed to be a part of the Catholic church, and who by and large didn’t rule in any way conformed to the teachings of Christ, there are times when the church said, “Okay, we are going to use our power and condemn you as breaking the communal boundaries of the church community, both in your behavior, your character, and in your doctrine, your teachings, the way that you’re representing what it means to be a Christian.” And I think that’s a great use, a great example of the use of power to stand up to the bad use of power. And lastly, I think it’s worth noting that this is kind of thing that drove Paul to write all these passages we see in the epistles warning against false prophets and bad doctrine. It’s because bad theology can literally kill people, like it just did in the past couple weeks, and it can ruin children’s lives like it is doing right now. Ironically, the Neo-Calvinistic wing of evangelicalism has used these same passages, focused on protecting against bad doctrine, to reinforce a kind of theological gatekeeping power structure that actually gives them, as the gatekeepers, power to maintain the slaveholder religion that I think Paul would have warned us to stay away from. So progressive Christians and so-called liberal Christians and anyone like me who pushes against penal substitution, we’re dubbed threats that need to be put down. Meanwhile, Mike Pence is invited to speak at the largest gathering of Christian leaders in the country. The irony here is that we actually should take care to protect against so-called false prophets and bad doctrine. Why? Because some teachings kill people, some teachings and ideas lead to death, not to life, and we have to take responsibility for that, the church more than any other entity in the world and those who claim to speak on behalf of the church, people like me who grab a microphone and get on a podcast, have to take responsibility for the way our ideas affect people. That I think is Paul’s concern. He is taking responsibility, modeling it for us, and demanding that everyone else who speaks on behalf of the church takes responsibility that your theology doesn’t hurt people. That you don’t distort Jesus and distort the Bible into a message in the way that we just saw our government doing, that demonizes immigrants and justifies separating children from their families. That is what Paul means when he warns against bad doctrine. It is not the way people want to use it today, to co-opt Paul to condemn anybody who stands up against any of the ideas and ideologies of evangelical church. That is not protecting against bad doctrine. That is protecting your own status quo. That is once again asserting yourself into the Herod/Pharaoh/antiChrist figure, the archetype in scripture who is more obsessed with one’s own power and protecting that power and finds themselves somewhere down the road willing to do things to other people, willing to cause harm and to turn a blind eye to that harm that they never would have expected, because that’s what defensiveness and self-protection does. It allows us to rationalize and justify and spiritualize further and further and further extents of evil while all along the way we think we’re doing more and more and more and more good.
Okay, so that’s it. I’m going to sign off. I just want to say, immigration policy is complicated, political theology is super complicated, especially in our globalized world and especially in the context of a post-colonial world that is the way that it is because of American and European imperial colonization in the name of Christian mission. This stuff is a mess, it’s a big mess. I don’t think there’s a simple solution to immigration. I’m not advocating for some sort of simple solution. It’s really easy for Drollinger and Jeff Sessions and all these guys to say anyone who’s pushing back on him is just advocating for open borders and it’s just kind of this white-washed, overly simplistic view of immigration and national politics. I’m not saying that. I don’t have a solution. But our current administration’s solution is evil. And it’s not a solution to the problem of immigration. It is a solution to the threat against white supremacy. That is what this current zero-tolerance policy is working toward, is preserving white supremacy and preserving the whiteness of America. I hope this is helpful. I love y’all. I might need to go take a nap.
Nate: Alright, so Tim’s off to take a nap, and I just want to thank you for listening along to this impromptu episode. I know it can feel a bit hopeless and frustrating. I have to admit, I feel that right now myself. But I just want to say, don’t lose hope. Blessed are you that hunger and thirst for what is right, for you shall feast. I just hope and pray that you are able to continue to stand for the oppressed and marginalized today, that you continue to call out the theology that perpetuates that oppression, even when it costs you socially and changes the way your friends and family and church view you. May you use any bits of social power that you have to help the oppressed, to prioritize the marginalized and to call out injustice, and by doing so you can give your power away to those who have none. Don’t lose hope. We’re for you, and we’re here on this journey with you. And we’d love to hear how you’re processing all of this or anything else on your mind. We read every single email that comes to email@example.com And if you want to help the show, consider sharing an episode with a friend. That would help a ton, or you can also give a few dollars at give.almostheretical.com. We’ll see you next time.