Just a reminder, none of this is normal
Trump called immigrants animals last week. Did you catch the news? You might have been distracted by the turmoil in Gaza or yet again another school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. There’s no end to bad news around here, it seems.
When my friends were talking about Trump’s comments, many were quick to remind them that the context of the commander-in-chief’s comments were really relevant, since he was talking about the murderous gang known as MS-13. I was ashamed that so many Christians were quick to jump to the president’s defense! I get the Trump supporters defending their leader, to some extent, so I’m not surprised when I hear the takes views expressed by some pundits. They are speaking to their base, getting their advertisers more views, and trying to get paid. It’s reprehensible, but hey, it’s capitalism.
The market adapts to insanity, but that doesn’t mean you need to. We do not need to normalize this rhetoric. I’m fine with moderate political discourse; I obviously have an opinion about it, one that I hope is informed by Jesus and the Gospel, but I’m open to debate. I like that dialogue. But there is rhetoric (on the left and the right) that is dangerous. I won’t entertain Maoist/Stalinist philosophy anymore than I will white supremacist/fascist philosophy. There are some views, quite frankly, that do not deserve air time because they are senseless.
The American media doesn’t select for these things, it selects for what sells and that is majorly problematic. The media tries to normalize radical political discourse, because people in the United States love the horserace. If we can keep “both sides” in dialogue, newspapers sell.
I do not want to normalize it because normalizing wicked rhetoric leads to violence and death. In my lifetime, no president has been this egregiously and unapologetically racist and hateful. It’s a serious problem, and one I passionately care about as Christian. Sometimes I hear rhetoric about the danger of political division and so some pastors shy away from making their God-given morals and ethics known for fear of being too political. I think the social construction that results in that kind of philosophy is actually dangerous. There is truth to speak. We certainly need to do it in love, but you are more than your political opinions. And so are the people that are directly threatened by Trump’s comments.
Christians are hypocrites if they don’t stand up
I am not shocked when the people who don’t follow Jesus defend Trump. But I am shocked when Christians jump to the President’s defense, because when we do that, we actively hurt our witness. Trump’s unhinged comments are dangerous. And I know MS-13 is dangerous too. I also know Muslim fundamentalist terrorists are dangerous, but loud insults about them, have actually affected my own livelihood as an Arab. So I am concerned about and quite aware of how dehumanizing rhetoric can spread to innocent people. Let’s be honest, Trump wasn’t being precise or nuanced in his comments. There are many ways to condemn MS-13 actions without calling them animals in a vague way and easily misunderstood way. (And if you want context, how about ICE classifying people as MS-13 members without any evidence they are in a gang. That’s some context for intentionally or unintentionally defending Trump.)
I’ve been more openly prophetic in my decrying of the Trump because his behavior is so obviously condemnable, but too many Christians have failed to call it out. I won’t stand by. So I did my part. It wasn’t much, to be honest, but I couldn’t stay silent. I posted something simple to Facebook, especially to the folks trying to contextualize and thereby justify Trump’s comments.
The post was basic: “There is no context in which a Christian calling people animals is OK.”
Many of my friends, and yeah I guess I do kind of live in an echo chamber, liked the post. But some asked questions. It was a sort-of absolute statement. Memetic language tends to be; it’s effective for some things, but nuance it wasn’t—Trump was meming and, from my tiny platform, I said something back. And I did so because too many Christians are not. Some Christians actively support the president, but too many are too silent, because they don’t want to be political or inflammatory. My salvation isn’t found in a better political order or state, but I do know that Christian witness is damaged when we don’t speak up, and I do know that racist rhetoric can actually harm people.
But what about when writers of the Bible say people are animals?
I found it interesting that some Christians, who definitely didn’t intend to defend Trump, cited passages in the Bible when it seems like Paul or Jesus were calling people animals. I found this to be a surprising reading of the text and application of it—that is norms from the First Century Palestine and the Mediterranean should be applied to Christianity in the United States in the 21st Century. I don’t think the Bible is a cultural or rhetorical handbook and I think if it is indeed living and breathing it transcends cultures instead of forming them. The Bible writers are not necessarily interested in changing cultural norms, but rather applying the Gospel within them.
A brief comment on one passage. A famous passage is when Jesus calls the Syrophoenician Woman a dog in Mark. In this passage Jesus is well out of his area of ministry; he’s in Tyre, which is North of Israel, in modern-day Lebanon. He’s out of his zone and he’s experiencing new things. He is purposely hiding, and he wants his presence to be secret, but he can’t. People are moved by him.
He sees this unusual woman who is asking him for something. He’s a Jewish Rabbi and he responds as such: “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
What is Jesus even saying here? He seems like he is being prejudicial. And really, Jesus did have a specific mission in Israel to Jews and not Greeks, but even understanding his mission is moving. The unmovable is moving again. Moving north in this case and encountering people who are demonstrating faith that is even impressing him!
She gives him a response that is relatively brilliant: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus is impressed by her reply and he heals her possessed daughter.
What does this mean? In one view, Jesus actually changed his mind in this moment. He came in with a prejudice and he got convinced of something else and he moved. He was moved by that which he created through his movement.
Jesus shows that you can change your mind, seemingly. What’s written in the Bible, word-for-word, isn’t our guidebook. It seems immaterial to me to incidentally defend Trump by citing Jesus here.
A supposed out-of-context quote becoming state-sanctioned language
I thought I had cooled down from the weekend’s festivities and Bishop Curry had chilled me out a bit with his reputation-restoring message he offered at the Royal Wedding. But then I saw something bizarre a few nights ago. It was the White House’s official page on MS-13. It used, and intensified Trump’s language. The official page is entitled, “What You Need To Know About The Violent Animals Of MS-13.” Trump’s off-the-cuff comment is now official state-sponsored language. It is a move out of the fascist playbook, to overemphasize the crimes of a group of people you generally want to oppress. And it’s not something Christians should stand for.
So, no, it is not OK to dehumanize anyone, criminal or not; it is the antithesis of the Gospel. I am grateful there are brothers and sisters who are standing up for what’s right. We need to elevate their voices not just so that the Gospel isn’t tarnished, but because our vulnerable brothers and sisters aren’t further hurt and terrorized by the United States’ leaders evil behavior.
Golgotha was the hill to die on, and the fella who did was making that point, among others. https://t.co/90MduBjX3j
— William Dailey, CSC (@wrdcsc) May 17, 2018
No one is an animal. Every person has infinite human dignity, including the worst of criminals. This is an essential Christian teaching. Calling people "animals" led to genocide in Nazi Germany, where Jews were "vermin," and in Rwanda where Tutsi were "cockroaches." It is sinful.
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) May 21, 2018
Christians can’t be supportive or complicit. There is no middle ground here. Jesus stands on one firmly, in my opinion. The entire Gospel is rooted in love casting out fear, grace expressing itself through love, and oneness in Christ extending beyond race, class, and gender, but also social status or record of wrong-doing. People who commit crimes are people too, loved by God, saved by Jesus. That is the Gospel. Jesus became human to save us. He didn’t reduce us to an inferior species; he elevated us, joined us, became one with us, and transformed us. The Gospel of Jesus Christ squarely opposes the President’s rhetoric and so should every Christian.