Pre-Inauguration: We Need to Move On—But How?

Pre-Inauguration: We Need to Move On—But How? January 13, 2017

Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake – Creative Commons

Americans are divided into several camps as a nation over Mr. Trump’s election victory, including those who are ecstatic, those who equivocate, those who have extricated themselves from the political process entirely, and those who are enraged.

For some, moving forward involves making good on the best situation. For others, it involves making the best of a less than ideal situation. For still others, it involves getting by regardless and whatever the political situation. And finally, there are many who wish to make the worst out of a bad situation.

For those Christians who are ecstatic, and who wish to rub the losers’ noses in the filth, they need to remember that pride goes before a fall (Proverbs 16:18). For those who equivocate and who extricate themselves completely from concern for the political process, they need to remember that indecision and detachment are still actions that support the status quo. For those who are enraged and wish to undermine Mr. Trump’s presidency at every turn no matter what his position is, they need to account for the biblical call to respect and submit to governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7).

Much is made today of Jeremiah 29:7: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (ESV). How did the people of faith at the time of the Jewish people’s exile to Babylon do so without becoming Babylonian in spirit? That is not an easy question to answer, though the Book of Daniel offers us insight into how it is done. Daniel and his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah—all of whom were given Babylonian names (Daniel 1:6-7)—served Nebuchadnezzar well, while refusing to bend the knee to him and other rulers in worship (See Daniel 3 and 6). No doubt, Daniel was a loyal subject throughout the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar, Darius the Mede and others, even while praying for the restoration of Jerusalem and God’s people in the land (See Daniel 6:10 and Daniel 9). Moreover, God gave Daniel the ability to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, and while not wishing for his king to be destroyed, called on him to repent of his pride and disregard for those under his rule. As Daniel is quoted as saying in Daniel 4,

this is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king, that you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will. And as it was commanded to leave the stump of the roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules. Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity” (Daniel 4:24-27; ESV).

According to Daniel 4, the dream came to fruition because of Nebuchadnezzar’s pride, and he became like a beast of the field, as the painting by William Blake in this post illustrates, until Nebuchadnezzar repented (See Daniel 4:28-37). There are lessons here in the Book of Daniel and the rest of Scripture for all of us great and small, but especially for those in lofty positions of power.

Here are three things I take from Daniel, and from Scripture as a whole, in preparing for Donald Trump’s inauguration.

First, we need to believe. We need to believe that God alone is Lord: “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:25; ESV). Or as Daniel exclaimed in the context of interpreting another dream of Nebuchadnezzar’s, “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding” (Daniel 2:21; ESV). This may be hard for us to grasp today, and in a variety of ways. Either someone is so charismatic and politically powerful that we bow the knee to them in supreme homage, or the political figure is so diabolical that we cannot imagine God ruling presently. Just think of how Daniel might have felt! On any given day, he might have been tempted to bow the knee in worship to his earthly sovereign given the king’s wealth and might, or try and take matters into his own hands in despair by breaking the knee caps of Nebuchadnezzar due to his pride and oppression! As with Daniel, those who are Christians should place their hope in the Lord God in all situations rather than give way to idolatry or despair.

Second, we need to bless. We need to seek the welfare of the city or land where we are placed. We need to honor political leaders not with agreement at every turn, but with our prayers to God that he will guide them well for the prosperity of all the people, including providing mercy for the oppressed, that perhaps the rulers themselves would prosper (Jeremiah 29:7; Daniel 4:27), and that the gospel would flourish. The Apostle Paul put it in this way:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time (1 Timothy 2:1-6).

Third, we need to bear witness to justice and truth. The first and second points should not be taken to induce complacency. Since when is faith or prayer signs of complacency in Scripture? They themselves are forms of action, just as Daniel’s exhortation to Nebuchadnezzar to repent of his pride and care for the oppressed was. A quote attributed to Karl Barth reads, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” The same goes for what it means to subject oneself to the ruling authorities; it should never be taken to suggest blind allegiance. In an article I wrote for the Evangelical Immigration Table titled “Reforming Our Understanding of Romans 13 on Immigration Reform,” I quote Barth: “the last thing this instruction implies is that the Christian community and the Christian should offer the blindest possible obedience to the civil community and its officials” (Karl Barth, “The Christian Community and the Civil Community,” in Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings, 1946-1952, ed. R. G. Smith, trans. E.M. Delecour and S. Godman {London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1954}, page 24). According to Barth, the church is to submit to Christ in the sphere of the state (See page 29). The church’s ultimate allegiance to Jesus Christ puts a significant check on its submission to the dictates and whims of any state or empire. The church and state (and not simply individuals) are subject to Jesus Christ, who alone is Lord over all domains and spheres.

Building on this third point, Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed the way forward in this country with his emphasis on civil disobedience and his letter from his jail cell in Birmingham:

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Such bearing witness to justice and truth should follow the contours of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the African American Church community. Contrary to many secularist accounts, King’s approach was not as Charles Marsh reasons, “a secular movement that used religion to its advantage” (See Marsh, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today {New York: Basic Books, 2005}, page 4. See also page 5). In keeping with Marsh’s claims, Richard Lischer points out that King envisioned Ebenezer Baptist Church as the Ark of the Covenant, which he took with him on his various Civil Rights campaigns (Richard Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America {New York: Oxford University Press, 1995}, page 17).

Christians should not abandon the church, but be watchful so that the church does not become an arm of the state. William Willimon, James Montgomery Boice and Colin Gunton offer us perspective on the problems so often associated with the Christian left and right and how we should guard against using secular politics as our chief means of addressing political power. As Willimon asserted,

Pat Robertson has become Jesse Jackson. Randall Terry of the Nineties is Bill Coffin of the Sixties. And the average American knows no answer to human longing or moral deviation other than legislation. Again, I ought to know. We played this game before any Religious Right types were invited to the White House. Some time ago I told Jerry Falwell to his face that I had nothing against him except that he talked like a Methodist. A Methodist circa 1960. Jerry was not amused. (William H. Willimon, “Been There, Preached That: Today’s Conservatives Sound Like Yesterday’s Liberals,” Leadership: A Practical Journal for Church Leaders 16, no. 4 (Fall 1995): 76.

The late Evangelical pastor and theologian James Montgomery Boice reflected upon Carl F. H. Henry’s 1947 classic work, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, and claimed (in 1998): “Evangelicals had been avoiding the great social issues of the day, above all racism and the plight of the poor, and we were uneasy about it somewhere deep in our inmost thoughts and hearts.” Boice called for another book to be written titled “The Easy Conscience of Modern Evangelicalism.” Boice referred to Martin Marty’s claim that the worldliest people in America at the twentieth century’s close would be Evangelicals. Boice agreed with Marty’s assessment: “We have fulfilled his prophecy, and it is not yet the year 2000.” Boice contended that Evangelicals have fixated on gaining the world’s kingdom and “have made politics and money our weapons of choice for grasping it” James Montgomery Boice, “Our All-Too-Easy Conscience,” Modern Reformation 7, no. 5 (September/October 1998): 44.

In a manner reminiscent of King’s approach, Colin Gunton wrote in The Promise of Trinitarian Theology of the public challenge the church offers to the broader sphere: “Insofar as there is a political programme in the divine economy it is realized by the gathering of a community around the crucified and risen Lord. Insofar as it depicts a mode of human action, it is manifestly non-coercive.” (Colin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, 2nd ed. {Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997}, page 173. For Gunton, “the church is indispensable to society as a minority community calling upon the wider world also to worship, and prepared to pay the price for that witness.” The church does not compel worship or devotion to its spiritual vision; rather, it embodies it. The church’s most effective means of engagement

in the modern world is as a church, perhaps generally a minority church, which does not trim its teaching to the fashions of the present but actively orients its life to the cross and resurrection of the incarnate Lord. This means that the church as an institution has to learn the lesson that the best way to gain its political life and influence is to lose it (Gunton, Promise of Trinitarian Theology, page 177).

The best way Christians in America can prepare for Mr. Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States is the same way we should prepare for any inauguration: through belief, blessing, bearing witness as individuals, and ultimately as the church—not of the left or the right, but of the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the Lord Jesus Christ.

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