The rain fell at the inauguration of U.S. President Donald J. Trump. Supporters and critics interpreted the rainfall differently: the former as a good omen and the latter as a bad omen (Refer here and here). While not quite the occasion of a downpour, the event did lead to an ensuing uproar.
In addition to the strong differences of opinion over the symbolic import of the weather, debate also raged over the size of the crowds in Washington, D.C. during President Trump’s inaugural and President Barack Obama’s second inaugural (Refer here). Saturday, there were massive marches to protest Mr. Trump’s presidency in the United States and across the globe for women’s rights and human rights (Refer here). Pope Francis struck a more neutral yet still prophetic tone, as he continued the tradition of sending a congratulatory note to the incoming President on the day of his inauguration. His telegram stated, “Under your leadership, may America’s stature continue to be measured above all by its concern for the poor, the outcast and those in need” (Refer here).
The ways in which supporters and detractors of various presidents respond at times make it appear as if they have ascended not simply to the presidency, but also to the right hand of God Almighty (or, in some cases, depending on the reactions, have descended to the very depths of hell). Certainly, there is a great deal at stake with U.S. presidents and their policies for America domestically and in terms of foreign policy. And so, I do not wish in any way to discount the weightiness of the situation before us now. Even so, I am concerned when those on the right and left and those somewhere in between hail their chosen candidates as inaugurating the kingdom of God. At least, as highlighted in Christian Scripture, no country is the ultimate agent of Jesus’ kingdom; that role belongs to the church. As Peter exclaims in his address to the church in one of his epistles,
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10; ESV).
This point should be taken to highlight the public nature of the church; it is not a private organization of spiritually pious individuals; it is Jesus’ kingdom community. It is a public engaging diverse publics such as nation states and markets, all of which reflect overarching value systems which at times overlap and at other times conflict with one another.
With these points in mind, it is worth noting that the “uproar” surrounding the Apostle Paul’s missionary activity had to deal with Jesus’ life and work. Period. Paul was always diplomatic in his missional endeavors as a model ambassador of Jesus’ kingdom. While others opposed him for what they took to be a threat to their national or regional loyalties and economies, he did not set out to undermine them, but simply to bear positive witness to Jesus Christ.
Speaking of uproars, note the following passages accounting for responses to Paul’s missionary work (all taken from the NIV):
Acts 16:19-24 reads:
When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
Acts 17:5-6 says:
But other Jews (note: Greek Ioudaioi probably refers here to Jewish religious leaders, and others under their influence, in that time) were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd.
But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here.”
Acts 19:29 states:
Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together.
Acts 20:1 recounts:
When the uproar had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia.
Acts 21:30-32 reveals:
The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.
Paul did not attack people of other religions in his public addresses, for example, but engaged them respectfully, as illustrated in his sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17:16-34. He was proactive in pointing to Jesus, not reactive in pointing the finger at other traditions. Note also Acts 19:21-41. This passage documents a riot in Ephesus that erupted because of fears that Paul’s message about Jesus might bring about the downfall of Artemis and the trade in idols through which many gained their wealth. It is quite striking that the town clerk came to Paul and his friends’ defense. This city official called for the crowd to stop rioting and disband after claiming that Paul and company were “neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess” (Acts 19:37). Christians today could learn from Paul’s ambassadorship, as they engage Muslims, for example. Instead of calling them abominations, it would be abominable to treat or refer to them disrespectfully. Paul was also attentive to the needs of the poor rather than discounting them in his missional endeavors, as we are told in Galatians 2:7-10.
Those who proactively bear witness to Jesus will show respect for such religious groups as Muslims, as well as the poor, and others on the margins of society; such proactive witness and care reflect Jesus’ own character and engagement of people. If people are in an uproar about our public persona, we need to ask: is it because we are taking a stand for Jesus and his gospel that breaks down divisions between Jews and Gentiles, males and females, slaves and free? (Galatians 3:28) Or is it because we are building walls of separation? If the latter, we are not really bearing witness to Jesus.