Some years back I attended a funeral in one of my city’s conservative Catholic churches. On this particular day, the celebrant in inviting the faithful to communion went out of his way to explain to us non-Catholics that we were not welcome at the Lord’s table. We were told to remain in our pews and pray for the unity of God’s Church. I was a bit taken aback at the blatancy aand harshness of this priest’s inhospitality, but the rubric was not unfamiliar. I grew up in a town dominated by two Protestant sects that each believed only its members were destined for heaven.
I’ve never understood such exclusivity. If we are to believe John Dominic Crossan, the unique things about Jesus were that he healed freely without enquiring whether his patients were deserving and that he ate with anybody. The remarkable thing about Jesus’ feeding the five thousand may not be the miraculous multiplication of the five loaves and two fishes but rather Jesus’ specific prohibition of gatekeeping on the part of his disciples. No one seems to have been excluded from Jesus’ healing ministry on that day, or from the meal that followed. On the other hand scripture is replete with examples of Jesus’ eating with ‘publicans and sinners;’ and If we are to believe the gospel accounts, Jesus shared his last meal in the flesh with the disciple he knew would betray him to the Romans and also with a disciple he correctly predicted would deny knowing him before morning.
I have found myself returning to Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography again and again over the years since I first read it, and I find myself returning to it again this year as a discipline for the four weeks of Advent. I have never believed that the question ‘Who is a Christian’ is answered by The Baltimore Catechism or the thickets of proof texts some evangelical Christians use as weapons to protect the territory of faith from incursion by the ritually unclean or by persons whose beliefs particular sects judge to be incorrect. I think with Crossan that scripture does not provide a unitary picture of Jesus; there is no view of him that one can adopt with scriptural certainty, no view that is supported by the entire body, even, of canonical scripture without leaving a scriptural remainder that might support another conflicting view. Indeed, the Bibles as Christians and Jews have fashioned them over the centuries do not support a unitary conception of God, and on that one fact hang all our diverging communities of doxa and praxis. If one adds the Quranic tradition to the mix as we do, for instance, when we speak of the Abrahamic religions, further complications arise.
But I am presently thinking of something I’m describing to myself as the sociology of religious certainty, from which I stand aside as a dissenter and sometime critic. Advent is good for me because it forces me to examine again for the near eightieth time (since I will be eighty soon), my reasons for standing aside and the images of Jesus and of God to which my experience and affection have inclined me. I like the Christian Science appellation for God, father/mother. It could just as well be turned around, mother/father. The metaphor calls attention to itself and moves my mind to the thought of a god without gender, whose attributes I like to think are creativity, empathy, nurturing, and a disinclination to self-glorification. One difficulty I have with some contemporary feminist images of God is that they retain the triumphalism of traditional imaging, having removed gender references only. I’m still back there with Micah, who set it down that God requires justice, mercy, and humility of us humans.
I am a cultural Christian, a Christian humanist, and I have reasonably specific reasons for claiming these things. Christianity provides me with much of my fundamental vocabulary, with the linguistic tools I need to cope with the world as it seems to me to be. I could be a complete pragmatist, like Richard Rorty whom I admire, but for a profound awareness of sin, in myself and in the world I inhabit. I am a humanist in the sense of understanding that the world I experience is a text, composed of many subtexts, some of which I know and some of which remain opaque to me. In this I am not alone. Not even Kant or Einstein could read the world entire. It should be obvious by now that I am describing a position that posits uncertainty as a fundamental. I might have certainty if I had reached the end of the unknown, but to know everything is not a human possibility. I can hear a voice telling me to have faith, but that instruction merely requires me to accept someone else’s partial and interested description of the world and its history. I prefer uncertainty. I particularly prefer uncertainty to the dogmatism and exclusivity of much contemporary Christianity.
And now I am confronted with a new messiah, Donald Trump, who has drawn upon the savior language of past centuries in advancing his rise to prominence, who is recommended to me by an apparent majority of evangelical Christians in my country. “I alone can protect you,” he has told his ardent supporters as he encouraged them to brutalize dissenters at his rallies. Trump’s position as president elect is in part the product of mass dramas recalling medieval Good Friday sermons that whipped up the faithful to brutalize Jews and their communities in pogroms that were a standard feature of European history well down into the twentieth century; that resembled the whipping up of lynch mobs in this country, most of which targeted African Americans but not all. In the East St. Louis riots of 1917 some ten whites were killed along with upwards of one hundred blacks, though the true death tolls will never be known precisely.
My point is that Trump populism was and is of a piece with these past excesses. We saw them at the Trump rallies. If you voted for Trump, this is what you voted for, regardless of how you may try to sugar-coat it. You voted to enable violence against those aliens, those illegals, and you voted to “Lock her up” (or perhaps to kill her) on the basis of a pack of lies invented by unscrupulous people with no purpose beyond their own aggrandizement. The Trump rallies were spectacles designed to force an answer to another question: ‘Who is an American?’ And the answer is rhetorical: ‘Not those others, not those brown people, not those aliens with strange names who don’t worship Jesus.’ The Islamic conception of Jesus is very like that of Judaism, but most Americans are utterly ignorant of Islam, or worse, are informed by anti-Islamic bigotry masquerading as history or news.
Advent invites me to ponder the last things: heaven, hell, death, and judgment. In my eightieth rethinking I am struck by the realization that the last things are not last. The holy is last. But the problem with the holy is that we have located it in the person of a cosmic despot who demands worship and abject obedience. As Christians we have assimilated Jesus to this despot, and before Jesus there was Moses. In the tale of Moses’ conversion the holy had already been imaged as a despotic ruler; as in the tale of St. Paul’s conversion the assimilation of Jesus to cosmic despotism had already taken place. There is a deep truth in the stories of Moses and the burning bush, and of of St. Paul’s blinding. The holy sometimes breaks into common experience when least expected, like a thief in the night, as St. Paul said of the coming of the day of the Lord. But the small among us might have done without the murders, torturings, enslavements, deportations, and other excesses that have come in the wake of our hanging holy robes on bishops, kings, and dictators through the Christian centuries.
Donald Trump has behaved from the beginning of his candidacy for the Presidency, and is behaving now, like the leader of a cult, and his following has many of the trappings of cultic discipleship. Either sense of cult will do here. Trump demands worship and abject obedience. He punishes subordinates who fall short. He has in a few short months gathered a cult following, still a minority of Americans but a very effective one. Will he be able to turn at least the Republican party into the Church of Donald Trump? I don’t know. I decline to join. But the faux holy has been a force to reckon with throughout the history we know. It has broken out into the common life of nations many more times than once in Germany since the Great War. And I fear it is upon us again.