An Eye for an Eye

Journalist Elizabeth Bruenig traveled to my own state of Texas last spring in order to talk to some of the Trump supporters who live here in “God’s Country.” Her summary of those conversations was published in the Washington Post in August 2019 and I’m still pondering her insightful analysis.

The marriage between conservative Christianity and conservative politics has changed both – dramatically.

The amalgam of white evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party is a relatively new development in the United States. But this re-creation of both church and politics has been around long enough so that most people of my children’s generation assume they have always been in bed together.

This unholy marriage shifted the power base within conservative politics while at the same time it has eroded the teachings of Jesus about the true nature of power, service and self-sacrifice.

What happened to “turn the other cheek”

Ms. Bruenig sat with Pastor Robert Jeffress in his swank downtown Dallas office at the mammoth First Baptist Church. He has been senior minister at this conservative bulwark for twelve years and he proudly claims to be Trump’s “most vocal and visible evangelical supporter.”

The report of their conversation together is an eye opener – even to a once-upon-a-time conservative like me. I understand some things now I didn’t realize before.

“I think conservatives for decades have felt bullied by the left, and the default response was to roll over and take it,” Jeffress said.

But Trump enacted a practice of hitting back twice as hard whenever a critic takes him on — not exactly turning the other cheek, I pointed out.

Jeffress chuckled.

Trump’s “favorite verse in the Bible he says is ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth…’”

…the very maxim Christ was rebutting when he taught believers to return offense with peace.

Persecution because of strongly held beliefs is an age old reality within our human history.

  • People of faith who cling to belief even within an unbelieving society
  • Girls who want to go to school in spite of threatening patriarchry
  • Scientists who disagreed with established church doctrine
  • People who want to marry for love in spite of cultural taboos
  • Just about anyone who offends the prevailing status quo

But Mr. Jeffress’s claim – that today in the U.S.A it is conservative Christians who are being bullied – is odd.

Even though some high profile court cases about bakers, florists and same sex weddings may feed this perspective of persecution among many conservative Christians, the irony of the claim runs deep.

The idea is ironic because it is Christian Americans who have most enjoyed historic privilege in this nation.

The claim that this is a “Christian nation” has always been partly true: Christians have indeed been granted special status in the social hierarchy of the United States.

In spite of our Constitution’s guarantee that government should not “establish religion,” the fact remains that Christianity has been culturally established for our entire history.

So this recent feeling that conservative Christians are being bullied is a misinterpretation of what is actually going on. What is happening is a loss of influence.

Loss of privilege is not the same thing as persecution.

The persecution Mr. Jeffress claims is actually the inevitable consequence of a cultural shift: the dis-establishment of institutional Christianity and the redistribution of power.

In recent years, people of other religions and (of no religion) have demanded a fair share of influence and an equitable voice within our public conversations so that Christianity’s unquestioned privilege has been questioned and challenged.

For the first time in American history, members of the US Congress come from a wide variety of religious and philisophical traditions: Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu representatives have joined other minorities of Jews, Mormons and Orthodox Christians.

This displacement may feel like a kind of persecution.

But it’s not.

And even if a Christian IS being persecuted because of their faith, the Christ whom we follow would tell us (and show us!) how to respond. As the journalist pointed out to the pastor: Jesus taught believers to return offense with peace.

Can you hear this pastor chuckle?

He scoffs maybe because too many Evangelicals don’t believe in “turn the other cheek” any more. Too many are quite happy to reverse the way of the humble Jesus and replace it with the power-grabbing way of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

My theory is that this “payback” approach allows a lot of these folks to continue to be nice and pious people on the ground while they let their power hungry, vindictive champion wrestle in the mud on their behalf.

Not really to protect them from bullies, but rather to restore them to a place of influence and privilege.

I know many conservative Christians who reject this kind of thinking and are speaking out with bold voices to challenge the many perversions of their faith. I am grateful for their witness to authentic faith.

But too many others have bought into the perversion (some whom I know and love). They have allowed their faith to be cast into a caricature of Christ.

How To Respond ?

I am angry about this corrupt marriage of conservative Christianity with conservative politics (especially since 2016). I am offended when the cross of Jesus Christ is obscured by the political flag of any nation.

Both the Church and our nation are poorer for the perversion.

But I need to move beyond my gut; I need to balance my gutwrenching emotional responses with the wisdom of my head and heart.

I can’t do much about Robert Jeffress or Donald Trump or Mike Pence perpetuating this myth of mistreatment in order to play to their religio-political base.

But I can blog.

Somewhere out there, maybe someone will happen onto my words just as their blinders begin to fall away; just when their hearts start to open to soul-searching questions.

This was true for me. Only when I was ready was I was able to ask the kinds of questions I needed to ask; the questions that finally revealed my past understandings and allowed me to see new possibilities.

(This continues to be true of us humans: shame and ridicule will never help people move to trust, question and change.)

That means my cyberspace communications MUST be respectful.

My friends on the Left constantly complain about incivility from the Right, but I can testify that disrespectful and dysfunctional communication covers the gamut these days.

  • If we who think of ourselves as “liberal” or “progressive” want to be heard;
  • if we want our arguments taken seriously;
  • if we really do believe we have a brighter, higher vision …

… then we must find better ways to challenge this current dystopia without contributing to its bedlam.

I shall not be a bully. But I will be strong.

So – for this current discussion – if I want my communications to counter the myth that conservative Christians are being bullied then I must not be a bully. And I must stand up to bullies wherever I find them.

Surely my one little effort will not change our world, but I refuse to stoop to the “eye for an eye” response. Not only because that way of living is ugly and base, but also because it’s weak.

Leading the way to a new vision of the world through service and self-sacrifice requires strength. Peace-making and peace-giving demand a special kind of courage and stubborn stamina.

The eternal wisdom of “turn the other cheek” is the high way; the way of Jesus, Ghandi, Mandela and Martin Luther King.

I’ll stand here.

7 thoughts on “An Eye for an Eye

  1. Excellent summary full of insight. It seems ironic that there is probably more persecution WITHIN Christianity than of Christianity. Those of us with a broader perspective on the meaning of Christianity have often felt like second class citizens, at least in the Bible Belt, since fundamentalism is dominant. It seems to me that it is only in the last decade that some churches, like Jeffress’, have felt free to overtly preach politics from the pulpit. That seems to be a clear violation of a long held interpretation of the separation of church and state since those churches continue to benefit from favorable treatment by the IRS. The Trump administration’s clear message that the government would ignore this obvious violation of policy is just another indication of Trump’s willingness to ignore the law when it suits his purposes.

  2. I read the piece when it was published and share a similar reaction. Your summary observations are spot on. This portion is a crystallizing insight:

    “In spite of our Constitution’s guarantee that government should not “establish religion,” the fact remains that Christianity has been culturally established for our entire history.

    “So this recent feeling that conservative Christians are being bullied is a misinterpretation of what is actually going on. What is happening is a loss of influence.
    Loss of privilege is not the same thing as persecution. ”

    Good stuff

  3. Thank you, Charlotte, for your usual pure insight on a subject that all should find troubling. It should not matter to others what one’s preferred religion or non-religion is. What should matter is how those religions show respect and acceptance of each other. They should never be used to claim “betterness”(new word) or to subjugate others. To each his own. Sadly, I, and many others, feel that our President is using Christianity to manipulate those who will allow it or who will try to take advantage of it. Let there be peace.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with your stance. I am a United Methodist; I’ve always been at the “take the log out of your own eye” place; and I sense great danger in the attempt to merge church and state that I see as a growing move amongst white evangelical-conservative political circles. I have colleagues in ministry who are nasty on each side of this great divide, and it makes me incredibly sad. Having read much about the distortion of Christian belief in Nazi Germany in the 1930s because of Bonhoeffer’s work trying to restore a more classical understanding of Christianity to his people, I am concerned that we are going down a similar path, and invective upon invective will not help a similar attempt to move us toward a classical understanding of Jesus’ teachings and examples for the life of a disciple. Thanks for your article today! It is an encouragement.

    1. Oh George, I know how sad and maddening it is to have “colleagues in ministry who are nasty on each side of this great divide…” We really do need more authentic disciples demonstrating Jesus’ life and teachings. The Bonhoeffer connection is so very relevant right now. Thanks for reading and for the conversation! Peace.

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