“I settled the suit with no admission of guilt” (Donald Trump’s atonement theory)

“I settled the suit with no admission of guilt” (Donald Trump’s atonement theory) September 27, 2016

"Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore 3," Wikimedia Commons C.C.
“Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore 3,” Wikimedia Commons C.C.

“I settled the suit with no admission of guilt.” It was Donald Trump’s best line in the presidential debate. He said this in response to the charge that he had been sued for discriminating against black people in rental properties that he owned in New York City in the 1970’s. But there’s something poignantly theological about Donald’s statement. It describes a certain perverse understanding of atonement, in which accounts can be settled with God without an admission of guilt. I wonder to what degree this atonement theory is shared by the 80% of white evangelicals who will be voting for Donald Trump this November.

What happens when Jesus dies on the cross for our sins? How does it “settle” our accounts with God as humanity? Our answers to these questions depend on how we understand what problem Jesus’ atonement needs to address. Many evangelicals define the problem as God’s intolerance for our sin. God expects perfection; we’re not perfect; therefore we must burn in hell forever in order for there to be “justice.” Unless we accept Jesus as our personal Lord and savior (however one does that), in which case the account with God is “settled.”

The question is whether we can have our accounts settled with no admission of guilt. This is where white evangelical rhetoric can be very slippery. We teach that part of accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and savior means recognizing that you are a “guilty sinner.” But it’s easy to say that I’m a guilty sinner as a doctrinal statement without experiencing any guilt for my sin (and actually as a substitute for facing my personal sin directly). Here’s the key question. Does Jesus’ cross make me right or empower me to face my wrongness?

I believe the latter. I don’t think the problem Jesus’ cross resolves is God’s intolerance for our sin, but rather our inability to face our guilt. To put myself under the mercy of God doesn’t mean sweeping my sin under the rug; it means that I face my character flaws with full sobriety knowing the empowering unconditional love of God that makes me vulnerable and teachable. The degree to which I’ve accepted God’s grace can be measured by how easily I admit when I’m wrong.

What’s incredible to me is how many Christians have both a very harsh theology of sin and an acute inability to admit their mistakes. Perhaps what makes Donald Trump attractive to such Christians is how good he is at talking about how terrible everyone else is. If talking disparagingly about the world’s sin is the primary measure of someone’s Christian commitment, Donald Trump pulls it off pretty well. His rhetoric is very much in line with a theology of the total depravity of everyone else.

How much has Jesus liberated you from your need to be right? I really think that’s everything. Because if he hasn’t, then maybe you’re just another Donald Trump who’s learned how to speak with better-sounding Christian piety.

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