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What would I do if Trump visited my church?
I’m sympathetic to David Platt
I’d love to think of that question in a purely rhetorical sense, but in fact this very thing happened to an unsuspecting pastor of a large church in Virginia. After a golf outing, the President of the United States showed up to David Platt’s church, the McLean Bible Church, to ask for prayer. What a weird and unusual circumstance.
David came up with a strategy on-the-fly, and managed to get through his meeting. I am deeply sympathetic to a pastor that gets thrown into an unexpected circumstance, especially in a church in Virginia, that is likely to have a lot of diversity, political diversity notwithstanding. I also want to note that what Trump did and how he did it was extremely unusual and quite possibly a dirty trick. Put in Platt's shoes, in his time and place, I’m not sure what I would have done, to be honest. I think he handled it as well as he could have. See for yourself (this is the letter he wrote to his church after after he learned the experience hurt some of his people, as well as a video of the prayer with Trump).
Platt and I have different theologies and I don’t think it’s helpful to list out how we differ. We have different views of the state, its leaders, their roles, and how God has assembled and organized them. So at the jump, we have different approaches. This adds to my empathy with the pastor because I do not expect him to approach the office of the priest or the president in the same way I do. I have a low view of the former, and an indifference (and occasional hostility) toward the latter, I admit.
Platt did name Jesus as Lord and as the Supreme Leader of the world. His prayer was authentically Christian in many ways, a sort of intercession for Trump’s conversion to Christianity. His prayer for justice, equity, and compassion was appropriate for a President who has decidedly not been a transmitter of those things, to put it lightly. Prayers for wisdom make sense, too, since I think Trump is lacking in it.
I’m being much glibber than I would have been in that circumstance, obviously. Because I do think it’s hard to be that courageous and bold. And thus, again, I’m sympathetic to pastors put into that situation. His letter to his church asking for prayer was admirable, too. I think he was trying to make the best of his moment. I’m sure he would have done it differently with preparation, or if he could do it again. I have the liberty of those things, as I consider this an impossible and highly improbable circumstance in my own life as a pastor.
We’d all like to be Ambrose
My friend reminded me that we’d all like to be like Bishop Ambrose (Bishop of Milan, 374 to 397) who told Emperor Theodosius that he couldn’t come into the sanctuary until he repented. We’d all like to be like Ambrose, until the emperor shows up. Ambrose excommunicated the emperor for the slaughtering of 7,000 people at Thessalonica. He called on him to repent like David, and eventually included him in the church again, but not without penance and repentance. Here’s what Ambrose said (read this unusual and interesting letter he wrote to the Emperor if you like).
Are you ashamed, O Emperor, to do that which the royal prophet David, the forefather of Christ, according to the flesh, did? To him it was told how the rich man who had many flocks seized and killed the poor man's one lamb, because of the arrival of his , and recognizing that he himself was being condemned in the tale, for that he himself had done it, he said: I have sinned against the Lord. Bear it, then, without impatience, O Emperor, if it be said to you: You have done that which was spoken of to King David by the prophet. For if you listen obediently to this, and say: I have sinned against the Lord, if you repeat those words of the royal prophet: O come let us worship and fall down before Him, and mourn before the Lord our God, Who made us, it shall be said to you also: Since you repent, the Lord puts away your sin, and you shall not die.
He continued later, in the same letter:
The devil envied that which was your most excellent possession. Conquer him while you still possess that wherewith you may conquer. Do not add another sin to your sin by a course of action which has injured many.
American Christianity is so fused with American politics and power that even our occasion is different than Ambrose’s. But nevertheless, Ambrose’s courage is noteworthy and laudable. We all want to be like Ambrose; we know his story, and the stories of all the great prophets before us because they were courageous in the face of evil. So I want to note that it is unusual to have this courage. But despite being unusual, it is still important that we do.
Maybe his hands were tied
I don’t know his people, I don’t know his circumstance. I don’t know how forthright he could have been with the president. Listening to his messages on racial reconciliation and justice, though, it seems to me like Platt would have sharp disagreements with Trump. In his context, a prophetic voice may be exactly what he delivered. Pastors often get in trouble for the most mild statements. Their prophecies and messages are reduced to partisanship too often in our deeply politicized and polarized world. So I don’t want to be too critical of Platt in his occasion, because maybe he did the best thing.
I know I would have behaved differently, though, and if I were a member of his congregation I would have been disappointed. I know it’s hard to be prophetic and courageous in unexpected circumstances, but I do not want to mince words when I say this: the church seems to lack a prophetic witness and voice. In the face of great evil, we are too often silent. I think it is because we have a lack of instinct to fight evil, since the instinct our state has given us is to assume that whatever result democracy gives us is a moral one. Or at least a moral enough one: you know, maybe not great, but good enough. Certainly not evil and certainly not enough to have a conflict over. Our prophecy is reduced to politeness, it seems. When we have a word from the Lord against evil, someone might call us divisive or rude.
This, of course, is a theme in the Bible. It’s exactly what the very evil King Ahab told Elijah after he convicts him of his sins. In 1 Kings 18:17, Ahab calls Elijah “a troubler of Israel.” That same notion occurs now, and might stifle our prophetic spirit. I’m not saying that’s what happened with Platt, but I am saying that’s what can happen with us.
My friend Drew reminded me that it’s not just a matter of prophetic instinct. He tweeted to me and said, “It is a failure of our discipleship and formation. Prophetic instincts don't come from good decision-making in the moment, but from being shown how to live the Way over the long haul.” I agree with him. We have to be taught and shown the Way of Jesus in order to weave it into the very fabric of our being. I do wonder how much journeying we need to do, though, to call out the plainest of evils. I may need to be more patient, but I feel a sense of urgency and demand with the looming problems in the world. I feel the need call out evil.
The evil is plain; ours words need to be too
I told Drew that I thought Christians needed to be forthright in the face of evil. And I admit, my heart was heavy after I read a column on how concentration camps for immigrants are being built in front of our eyes. Or how the recent deaths of ICE detainees were preventable. Or how my heart broke and stomach turned after I learned about the man Platt prayed for covered up the death of a child; making her the sixth dead child after none died in the previous years. The migrant children were kept in vans for four hours during family reunifications. The evil is palpable and it’s real and it’s getting worse.
We need to be able to say it plainly. Jesus makes it plain all over the Gospels, and it is manifestly clear in the Bible. The central piece of policy and rhetoric that Trump won the election on revolves around anti-immigrant rhetoric. And the fruit of it isn’t just more hate crimes, but more deaths by the hands of his administration. He’s Ahab to Elijah, he’s Theodosius to Ambrose, he’s the Third Reich to Bonhoeffer.
If Trump came to my church, I don’t know what I would have done in the moment. There’s a reason we debrief everything after it happens. But I know what I would have liked to have done: to assertively name the evil done in his name and by him. And to ask him to repent and change.
I think we’ve come to a time where we can’t be too careful with our words and that we need to speak plainly. People are dying. Lies are being told. Deaths are being covered up. Christians need to be prophetic. We need to resist evil and restore good. I don’t think that excludes praying for the President, and I don’t think that means what Platt did was wrong, necessarily. I’m sympathetic, but I am also disappointed. His response to the unexpected gave me a chance to think about what I might do and the courage I need to muster up in order to do it.