Crossing the Election with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5:38-48

38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.  43You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing that others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Let me begin by reposting the grounding for this text that has been developed from our gathering.  I am listing some comments on this in parentheses.  These will provide further commentary on both the original context of this text as well as some insights for crossing our current political climate.   In the original context of this text from the Sermon on the Mount, the lex talionis (“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) would have been the legal understanding for responses of retaliation and retribution toward hostility (under Roman occupation in Judea).  Instead of a self-righteous hostility of revenge toward one’s enemies, which would only exacerbate or fuel the hostility, Jesus speaks of love as the solution.  Bob Bertram had a penchant for finding the gospel in the Sermon on the Mount (which otherwise might come off sounding moralistic) in Jesus’ use of the phrase “But I say to you…” (here in vvs. 39 and 43).  Jesus would take the hostility of this world, even the animosity of God’s judgment, and put it to death on the cross.  Having said that, here is the grounding of this text:

  • D1       Living by the legal karma of life (hating our enemies)
  • D2       trusting in our own self-righteousness from this legal-living (the hatred within)
  • D3       facing the judgment of God on our presumed righteousness
  • P4        Christ, our righteousness, enduring the hatred, the scorn, the trial
  • P5        replenished by faith in his endurance for our sake (taking his love to heart)
  • P6        living a new life I Christ (loving those “who do not love you”, our enemies)

I have to confess that, while appreciative of the exercises we have spent in “grounding” the texts of the Sermon on the Mount that surface in the season of Epiphany, together with the marvelous “tracking” of our current American-electoral malaise as described in the marvelous presentations by Steve Kuhl, Martin Rafanan, and Pat Keifert, there is little allowance of time to compress all of this in a formally stated “crossing” that brings the text to bear on the current political crisis.  Moreover, while I have followed the campaigns and the election process avidly, I have not really written very much on the subject.  In part, this is because I have been for the past few years more focused on my research and writing on the subject of “hope”, though that theme is not unrelated to politics, especially in a time when the dystopian vision for America and the world seems to be the one to emerge victorious in this election.   Martin Marty, himself also not prone to writing much about the election, added his own brief commentary for the “many sightings of hope” following Michelle Obama’s candid statement on Oprah, “Now we’re feeling what not having hope feels like.”[1]

I only wrote twice on the subject of the election.  One of the articles was written within days after the election, and while I submitted it for publication, I am grateful it never came to print.  It was written far too much in a spirit of frustration, and I applaud those who felt it is best to let it lay fallow.  The other article, however, was published during the presidential campaign in the Crossings blog, entitled, “Why there is an ’I’ in Donald Trump – and the Rest of Us“ (in the Crossings blog, it may be found under the heading, “The Donald and Me”).  The “I” came from an acrostic on the third letter in the name “Donald” – “n” is for “narcissistic.”   That particular essay picked up on the insights of several psychologists who, objectively observing Trump’s behavior patterns, find that he is incredibly narcissistic.  Some have gone so far as to suggest that he has all the symptoms of a person with narcissistic personality disorder (DSM-IV) (is this narcissism perhaps at the base of  what Bernie Sanders also suggests about Trump in calling him a “pathological liar“?)  When it comes to such psychological analyses, however, there are some caveats that need to be raised.  The first, and this is most important, is that, for professional reasons, no such perspective can be formally made as actual diagnosis without an examination of the patient.  That does not, however, prohibit psychologists from making warnings when it concerns the public good and/or safety of others.  The second caveat is that not all psychologists agree that the DSM-IV diagnosis applies, including some of those who were part of the process of writing the manual on the subject.  Finally, while all do seem to share the perspective that Trump’s narcissism is more than self-evident, some would contend that even if a mental health problem is present, it is not – in an of itself – a prohibition from serving as president, though the words and actions may still be cause for concern.[2]

While I am aware of these differing psychological perspectives, the larger point of my earlier essay was not about psychology, per se, but about theology.  Missed or perhaps glossed over by some Trump supporters who apparently objected to what I wrote (and let Jerry know their criticisms!) is that all of us suffer from narcissism to some degree or another.  That is why I lifted up Christopher Lasch’s classic work which was published several decades earlier that comments on this depth of narcissism in American culture.[3]  The title of my essay specifically mentions “and the Rest of Us” as a reference to the deep theological roots of narcissism:  we all have an “I” problem.  It is not a ranting about Trump‘s problem, but a recognition that Trump demonstrably demonstrates a problem that is recurrent in our own lives.  One can also consider Jesus’ word that comes later in the Sermon on the Mount where he speaks of how we so readily see the speck in our neighbor’s eye and not the log in our own (Matthew 7:1-5).  Fred Niedner has also helpfully commented on this again at this gathering how our constant insistence for ourselves being “right” is the ongoing empirical evidence of our original sin.[4]

In addition to publishing this earlier essay, I have also been privileged to lead a series of adult forums at St. Louis area congregations where the subject matter of this election has either been the topic or a side-topic of my presentation.  My field is theological ethics, but lately I have been asked to speak a lot about politics.  It is quite obviously on the hearts and minds of many persons.  In my presentations, I have noted that we should take seriously the political divide in our nation, a divide that has been with us at least for 25-30 years if not longer, and a divide that is regrettably only showing signs of becoming increasingly deeper and more divisive.[5]

I would lift up one final reference source that applies to this particular crossing of this text and the election.  Every year in mid-January I have found some way to participate in marches with my African-American brothers and sisters and/or attending gatherings to commemorate the faith and life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   But this year, I chose on that day to listen to one of his sermons, a sermon that is based on this text from Matthew 5:43-45, “Loving Your Enemies.”[6]   There are three points that King himself makes in this sermon that are worth lifting up for our gathering today.  First, there is a need for deep introspection and seeing what it is within us that is deserving of repentance.  The text of Matthew 7:1-5 bears itself out again on this point.  “We begin to love our enemies and love those persons that hate us whether in collective life or individual life by looking at ourselves.”  Second, there is a need to see what is the good in our enemy instead of what is only darkness and destructive.  And third, there is the continuing hope that all are redeemed, including our enemy; and so we don’t try to destroy our enemy, but love him.  “Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men [and women].  It is the refusal to defeat any individual.  When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems.  Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you only seek to defeat the system.”

What I have from here is to bring all this to bear on seeking to cross this text with our current election trackings that have been graciously provided by our earlier presenters.  This may come off a bit sermonic or  homelitical, but it is deeply personal and true story from the heart.

I begin with an admission that I am one who has been, for some time now, clearly left of center on political matters, as many are in the ELCA.  Living with us at this home is my mother-in-law – it is, after all, her house, and we are the guests, though we are here to consciously tend to her in these her later years of life (she is 84).  She was born and bred in Kentucky, and I would say hillbilly Republican – the kind that J.D.Vance talks about in his recent best seller.[7]  She is also a lifelong and contributing member also to several Republican clubs and committees in the area also.  She voted by absentee ballot well before the election, and cast her ballot (not surprisingly) for Donald Trump.  I really didn’t say too much to her about the election.  I surely found Trump’s comments and campaign typifying all that the left had to say about him:  he was (still is) misogynist, xenophobic, bigoted, bullying, and the like.   And while I would share that with my wife, Karen, I didn’t vocalize those concerns too much to her mother.  Nonetheless, I do recall my mother-in-law’s comments whenever Hillary Clinton was on the televised news:  “I can’t stand that woman!  I can’t even stand listening to her!!”  It was as if she herself sensed that Hillary Clinton might win, and she was vocalizing her presidential perspective in advance.  For me, this was more an occasion for chuckling that commentary.  Even though I fully expected Missouri to go for the Republican ticket, I truly thought as many (most?) Americans that given the nature of the campaigns and the polls, everything seemed to point toward a clear victory for Hillary Clinton   But, as we all know, that’s not how it all turned out.  What’s that saying of Jesus, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn” (Luke 6:25).  I was glued to the election results, and as the evening wore on the evidence was starting to grow that Trump was going to win the electoral college and, therefore, the election.  I was shocked!  In fact, it would be safe to say that I was in a state of shock for several days, even weeks.  My mother-in-law, however, was beaming with joy, basking in the delights of this victory for Trump, as were all his supporters.  She also stayed up late to watch the election results, but clearly went to be with a totally different spirit than me..

As you might imagine, this created some tension in the house.    And the tension continued for a long time.  And it finally came to a head earlier this month.

I watched the Golden Globes as Meryl Streep gave this most carefully-crafted and graciously-framed statement:

An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like.  And there were many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that.  Breathtaking, compassionate work.  But there was one performance this year that stunned me,  It sank its hooks in my heart.  Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it.  But it was effective and it did its job.  It made its intended audience laugh, and show their teeth.  It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter.  Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back.  It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie.  It was real life.  And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing.  Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence.  And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.[8]

I was in tears listening to these words that Sunday night.

And so, on the following Monday night, watching the evening news in the living room with my mother-in-law, I heard from Trump, the president-elect, in his tweet-storm that apparently started the following morning at 5:27 a.m.:  “Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes.  She is a Hillary flunky who lost big.  For the 100th time, I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him ‘groveling’ when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad.  Just more very dishonest media!”

I could have just chalked this all up to what I knew was Trump’s inferiority from his ever-active narcissism that cannot permit him to be ever seen as being less than perfect, even though I know that he (1) isn’t perfect and, in light of the gospel, (2) doesn’t need to be (i.e., we find our only perfection not in ourselves but in who Jesus re-makes us; cf. Matt. 5:46) .  But other words crossed my lips from the seething rage that I had been carrying and repressing for some time.  And the word just slipped out over my lips:  “Jackass!”

My mother-in-law, who would not have any such criticism’s echoed against this new god of hers in Trump-the-president-to-be,  shouted back at me, “Mike, don’t you ever say that!”  Then all the emotions of this election-cycle came to the surface for both of us, and there was, shall we say,  a very passionate exchange of opinions, finally resulting in her statement, “If that’s the way you feel about all of this, you should just stay out of this room when I’m in it!”  So I did.  I honored her request.  I got up and left the room, and watched the balance of the evening news in my bedroom.  For a whole week, we would see each other, but we didn’t talk to each other except in very basic words – “yes“, “no” – not exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said to use such language in oaths (Matt. 5:37).  Far from the gospel.  In fact, this loss of open-and-honest communication really didn’t change until the morning of Martin Luther King day (January 16), after I had listened to his 40-minute Martin Luther King sermon on “Loving Your Enemies.”  Penitently listening, as all good sermons lead us to hear them.

And by chance, when she got up later that morning, closer to noon, she began scuffling about because she couldn’t find my wife Karen at the house.   (Karen, God bless her, managed to keep a spirit of peace and calm in the midst of all this tension, something which did not come as easy to me.)  So she saw me in my office, and asked me to do what Karen did for her just about every day.  “Mike, can you take my vitals?”  I could tell it was said with a bit of an edge, as if I were the last person in the world she would have wanted to help her with this task, even though I had done it for her in times prior.

So I said, “Sure.”  And we went into the living room (it had been some time for me to even set foot in this place), and I gently placed the blood-pressure cuff on her bruised-older-aged arm to take her blood pressure; and then gently helped her up on the scales to measure her weight.  Body-touching-body.  Something we heard from Pat Keifert in his marvelous tracking-presentation the other night about the importance of our bodies, fallen and feeble as they are, and how our thoughts about all this election-stuff in the nation has been much too body-less.  It brings back to mind the importance of bodies which I had learned many years earlier from dear friend and mentor Bob Bertram in his writings and discussions on Sain Sex.  How much we have become immune from the bodies of others in this nation, and most especially the bodies of those with whom we disagree or maybe even count as enemies?

This taking of vitals was of vital importance to both of us.  It was a vital moment.  A Christic-moment, where bodies had to be touched in order to do it all.  Christ, who took on our human body, shared with us the fullness of his body even in death so that no-body is ever too distant again.  No-body is immune from his love.  And no-body is separated from the love of God.  We have lived far too long with the silence of God, which is never comforting, but leading us again to the silence of the body on the cross.

It is this which restores our faith and our confidence to be embodying the promise.

My mother-in-law and I more often in the same place now, talking more these days.

Even laughing again, together.

[1] Martin Marty, “Many sightings of hope”, published on-line, https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/many-sightings-hope

[2]  There are a flurry of professional commentaries and editorials that have surfaced on this matter of Trump‘s mental and emotional health and its bearing on his competency to serve.  I can particularly recommend a series of such commentaries recently published in the New York Times in February 2017 that helpfully provide a divergent range of analyses:  “A Mental Health Warning on Trump” (February 14, A26; also published on-line under title, “Mental Health Professionals Warm About Trump“); “An Eminent Psychiatrist Demurs on Trump’s Mental State” (February 15, A26); “Diagnosing the President” (February 19, SR 12; also published on-line under title, “Is It Time to Call Trump Mentally Ill?”).

[3]  Christopher Lasch, Culture of Narcissism:  American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations, (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1979).

[4]  Cf. also Frederick Niedner’s foreword in The Divorce of Sex and Marriage:  Sain Sex by Robert W. Bertram (Chesterfield, MO:  Crossings, 2012):iii-iv.

[5]  There are several sources about this divide and its causes, including the Pew Research studies that are available on-line.  Cf. http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/political-polarization/.  I can also recommend a reading of the tome by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York:  Pantheon Books, 2012).

[6] The sermon was delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on November 17, 1957.  The text is available in print in Martin Luther King, Jr., A Knock at Midnight, (New York:  Warner Books, Inc., 2000):37-60; and also available on line, with an audio of the sermon:  http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_loving_your_enemies.1.html

[7] J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, (New York:  Harper Collins, 2016).

[8]  The full text was published under “Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes Speech” in the New York Times (January 8, 2017).