This post is directed to friends who have found my “political” Facebook posts this year strange or off-putting.
Yes: they are strange. For me, this is an opus alienum, a strange work, a thing I am doing that is not the thing I have been primarily called and trained to do, not a thing I like doing, and what is worse a thing that is alienating for some of my friends.
In the family sphere, I was called—if not in any formal sense trained!—to be a loving and supporting son and brother and husband and father, and these are roles I embrace wholeheartedly and with deep gratitude. In the sphere of school and work, I trained to be a Christian pastor, a classicist, Bible scholar, theologian, and professor, and then found my calling in theological publishing; I am immensely grateful for all that I have been given in this realm, and I fully embrace this work to which I am called. In the larger sphere of life in God and in the world, I am called to be a follower of Jesus, a humble learner from and loving companion and servant of all who fear God and all whom God loves; this is my deepest and most important call, the one to which I most fervently hope and pray to attain to the goal, and in which I am probably always at greatest risk of failing. These things constitute, as far as I am able to discern, my opus proprium, my proper work, the thing I should do.
When I was doing my doctoral research, I focused on the life and writings of Athanasius of Alexandria, a fourth-century pastor, bishop, and writer who is remembered in the church as the most persistent and effective advocate for the homoousion, the strange and problematic word in the Creed of Nicaea that named Christ as being of the same substance as the one eternal God. Christians today who honor him as a saint and a hero of the faith are generally unaware that in he own day he was generally, by the Christian leaders and people of his day, regarded as an inveterate trouble-maker, a royal pain, a nitpicker who simply refused to get along with everyone else. He was accused (in some cases not without evidence) of acts of violence. He became deeply enmeshed in imperial politics, using, and being used and abused by, emperors and their delegates. His polemical treatises make for ugly reading in places. One modern historian compared him (in print) to a mafia thug. Another (in private conversation) suggested to me that he was a pious dolt. His ceaseless arguing definitely put a lot of people off.
And I came to the conclusion, and stated along the way in my dissertation, that I do not believe it was at all what he wanted to be doing. It was his opus alienum, strange to himself and alienating to others. All he ever really wanted to be was a monkish pastor, learning prayer and devotion from the monks of upper Egypt and teaching the urban Christians of Alexandria how in the midst of their married, familied, and secularly working lives it was possible for them also to seek the face of God even if they could not go live as ascetics in the desert. His pastoral work was his opus proprium. But he believed, given the circumstances, given what he saw as the inevitably disastrous consequences of some ways of thinking and talking in the 430s and 440s that nearly everyone else was seeing as normal and acceptable, that he had to speak, had to act, could not just smile and encourage and teach people to pray.
Now a little theological excursus: The terminology opus alienum / opus proprium, as far as I know, originates with Martin Luther’s understanding and teaching about who God is and what God does. The proper work of God—the thing God is centrally out to do in our world—is the work of salvation. It is a work of restoring and building up and blessing.
Why, then, all the words of judgment and condemnation in scripture? Why all the trouble and grief in the lives of believers and those on their way to belief? Because some clearing away has to be done before the building up. Some tearing down. In scripture the words of judgment and tearing down are unavoidable, they are everywhere. Anyone who knows the Bible at all knows this, and anyone who knows the history of Christianity knows that these words of tearing down have played out repeatedly, sometimes in ways that have been eventually edifying and sometimes in ways that have simply been permanently and lamentably damaging. Salvation and building up is God’s opus proprium, God’s own proper work; it expresses God’s love, and I believe God loves doing it. Judging and tearing down is God’s opus alienum; we do not like it, and at the risk of overstepping, I daresay God does not much enjoy it either. Any Christian who revels in judgment and tearing down, who can participate in it without experiencing anguish and regret, is sick and needs to withdraw and heal. But judgment and tearing down, while an alien work, is unquestionably part of what God has done and is doing in our world.
It is no good attributing the opus alienum to the harsh God of the Old Testament and the loving opus proprium to Jesus. Taken to its logical conclusion, that is the way of Marcionism and anti-Judaism and the other bad things that follow from them. Grace and judgment flow inseparably through the whole Bible, and as Bonhoeffer taught us well, grabbing for the grace without the judgment cheapens the grace to the point where it is worthless, where it works not salvation but damnation. People who think Jesus was all loving and affirming all the time have simply not read, or have chosen to forget or disbelieve, the canonical gospels, in which he is quoted speaking with immense kindness to some while calling others vipers and whited sepulchers and promising that for them the flames of Gehenna will never cool and the worms never die. A Jesus of unconditional positive regard would never have been crucified because he never would have offended anyone. He would have made some people smile, either in genuine appreciation or indulgent disregard, but he could not have conquered sin and death, could not have bound Satan and liberated those long held captive. He would have done you and me no good whatsoever. He took the tearing down upon himself (both actively in his life and teaching and passively in his suffering on the cross) so that you and I could be built up; and as the whole of the New Testament shows, those who take up their cross and follow him will like their lord and master have as their proper work, their opus proprium, the work of building up, but they will also be unable, if they are consistently faithful, to escape their turn at the opus alienum, the tearing down, the condemning, the introduction of discomfort and discouragement—but never despair!—into the lives of those among whom they are called to serve and love and share life in God.
Those who know the Bible will know that this dialectic of tearing down and building up is present in nearly all the saints who are given to us as models for imitation—the biblical characters and writers from Abraham, Moses, and David through Elijah and Jeremiah to Peter, Paul, and John, as well as the life of our Lord himself. This is why the life of a pastor, or of any faithful Christian, is a trail not of consistent rejoicing and blessing but also of tears and strife, of desolation as well as consolation. To deny either side is to tell a lie about God and life in God.
Back to this year and my Facebook posts. Early in the rise of Trump I had the amusing but discouraging experience of watching while an old elementary-through-high-school friend discovered my Facebook page and glowingly commented to another that “James is brilliant”! Then a few minutes later she discovered something I had said that was critical of Trump. She went back and erased her “James is brilliant!” comment. She doesn’t know that I ever saw it, but I watched this happen. I am glad the comment is gone, because I don’t think I’m brilliant; but I was perplexed to see that Trumpitude had become the criterion by which she was willing to reverse in an instant her opinion of a friend from long ago. Was this wise on her part? I know, or at least strongly suspect, that some Facebook friends who are church friends who formerly may have seen me as a kind of spiritual leader have recently concluded that I am not anyone they will particularly want to pay attention to in the future, because when they read my Trump-averse posts they recategorized me as a liberal Hillary-admirer (which I have never been, at least not until the Republicans nominated Donald Trump), or as one who unaccountably has taken to harping on political themes when they expected me to say nothing about politics but only to teach and pray and serve—the very things that I most want to do. Their opinions of me have altered. This is a price I have paid for this year’s opus alienum.
I do not regard myself as a prophet. I claim no special revelation. But I have felt every bit as called to the opus-alienum “political” posting I have done on Facebook as I have ever felt called to my opus-proprium work, because the brand of Christian discipleship in which I have been formed has never been world-ignoring. The heavens are full of the glory of God, and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea, and while the kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink but of peace and joy in the Holy Spirit the teaching of the prophets and of Jesus himself is clear that we are not to ignore the world around us or willingly consign it to the powers of hell or neglect the poor and the oppressed or support—insofar as we have the power to support or resist—the powers of greed, violence, oppression. Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess. All truth is God’s truth. Consequently every appearance of the demonic is a call both to prayer and to action. And especially is it the case that every appearance of idolatry and apostasy within the household of faith is a call not only to prayer but to resolute and uncompromising correction. When I pray every day “thy will be done on earth as in heaven” I am not thinking that I have been given a box seat from which to watch in serene detachment while it happens; I am thinking that I have consented to being dragged into a messy conflict that is in a certain theological sense already over but in the concrete is certainly not yet over, and in which I may—no, definitely will—be dirtied and bruised and in certain ways (since I am fallible) compromised. Did you know that the Apostle Paul’s normal Greek word for our walk as Christians is politeia? We should not draw too much from that lexical phenomenon, but it’s worth noting.
Moreover, I do not think it is wrong for a Christian to love his city and his country, and I do love America. This is my country, and while the history that I was taught as a child covered up much that was heinously unjust in its founding and growth, that history also conveys certain ideals, including ideals expressed here and there in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the speeches of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and George Bush and Barack Obama. There is gold along with the dross in all these sources, and—subordinate to the gospel always—I am deeply moved by and committed to this heritage, which for all its flaws nevertheless in imperfect ways deploys the teachings of the prophets and apostles as well as various secular sages for the sake of the construction of a just human society. I do not think that political action—i.e., concrete involvement, alongside believers and unbelievers, in the life of my city and our nation, including paying taxes, voting, and even if necessary taking up arms in defense of the homeland—is forbidden or even optional. It is part of the web of obligations that I accept as a Christian who is still also an embodied human being in a world of dirt and water and air and fire and highways and houses.
Some Christians through the ages have heard a call to withdraw, to drop out, to separate, to maintain a pure witness unentangled with, feeling no responsibility for, the plight of the Christian and non-Christian brothers and sisters among whom they live. God bless them. I am sure that we need their witness and their ministry. I have experienced no such call. I am called to the messiness of living as a human being among human beings in the midst of economic and political entanglements that I do not particularly enjoy. I have felt called mostly to be quiet in my public socio-politico-economic engagements. I have never been or aspired to be an activist and don’t think I would make a very good one. I would rather carry out my civic responsibilities quietly so as not to distract any more than necessary from my opus proprium, my life as a theological publisher, and a family man, and above all as a follower of Jesus in the community of Jesus-followers, doing whatever I can to make this community supportive and edifying for those on the inside and inviting and welcoming to those on the outside. But the first time I voted in an election, the die was cast. I am responsible for what my city and my nation do, and I can no longer opt out.
To get to the point—and here I want to emphasize that I am speaking primarily to those who have known me, have considered me their friend, who have therefore seen at least some of my weaknesses, but who nevertheless have had occasion to form some kind of positive impression of my learning, my discernment, my judgment, whether in history or scripture or theology or in any other branch of wisdom. I am therefore speaking to very few people! But to people who matter greatly to me. So to you who have ever thought that I see anything clearly, I will tell you what I have seen this year.
This year I have seen folly and blasphemy of a sort that I have not seen before. I have seen a selfish, immoral man who like the horn of Daniel’s beast boasts arrogantly, who like Matthew’s false prophet spouts nonstop obvious lies that nevertheless, miraculously, deceive many. I have heard this man tell us as clearly as anyone could, that while he claims (with no support from his pastor or anyone else) to be a Presbyterian, he has in fact never been and is not now a Christian (in that he has never believed that he needed to repent of anything and has no understanding at all of the central rite of our worship—he eats the little cracker!). I have heard him speak abusively and disrespectfully about almost everyone that he has ever spoken about at all. I have heard him slander the sitting president (especially with lies about his birth). I have heard him slander Hillary Clinton—a politician whom most of us (myself included!) never really trusted or liked but nevertheless a credible Methodist Christian and—unlike himself—a plausible and in some ways outstandingly qualified candidate. Among other things, he had the audacity to label her as “lying Hillary” when by any objective measure her record for truth-telling in political discourse places her among the most truthful and his makes him the most consistent and outrageous liar in the history of American politics. (Pop quiz: who is the father of lies?)
On the world stage, I have heard Trump express admiration for, and receive support from, no credible leaders anywhere but only thuggish, self-enriching, other-oppressing dictators. I have heard and seen him solicit and receive vandalizing, espionage-based assistance in his election campaign from the most dangerous trouble-maker on the current scene, an unreconstructed KGB officer who is out to destroy everything that post-WW2 American foreign policy has so laboriously accomplished. I have seen him dismiss the knowledge and judgment of the military and intelligence leaders upon whose knowledge and judgment any sane incoming president would be planning to rely, while at the same time recruiting some of the bad apples among them to serve in what is shaping up to be an excessively militarized administration. I have watched him deliberately stir up mistrust and hatred of foreigners and immigrants. I have watched and heard him cultivate the support of white supremacists. I have heard this unrepentant adulterer brag that he can commit sexual assault with impunity, and I have listened and watched while—with nothing at all in his history to make the claim credible—he has called himself pro-life and suggested that he will appoint pro-life judges in order to enlist the votes of those who (rightly!) were put off by Hillary’s pro-abortion rhetoric; and I saw that strategy succeed despite the well-documented fact that abortion has risen under putatively anti-abortion Republican presidents and declined under pro-choice Democratic administrations.
We have seen and heard Trump Tweet and spout inanely and voluminously on every topic, always in a petty, self-centered vein, demonstrating to all the world that our president elect is—there is no other word for it, and as many have pointed out he fits the biblical definition of this word perfectly, so that in this case it is not a term of angry abuse and I will not go to hell for saying it—a fool.
I have heard and seen a small number of the most spiritually and intellectually stunted so-called evangelical leaders endorse Donald Trump while the vast majority of wiser evangelical leaders (not to mention Christian leaders more broadly) have denounced him or distanced himself from him or at most remained silent. I personally am privileged, through my work, to know many dozens of deeply learned, wise, and good Christian thinkers, teachers, and writers, people much smarter and better than myself, and I will tell you—without intending to insult anyone among my friends who may on some occasion have let slip some kind of support for or openness to Donald Trump—that I am not aware of a single person whose Christian learning and character I greatly respect who thinks that Donald Trump is anything other than a charlatan and an outrage. Read that sentence again. I have never been in a position to say that about anyone on the American political scene and hope never to be so again. And yet I have read that a high percentage of white evangelical Christians voted for this man, and I can only believe that many of my friends have done so. I am astounded and dismayed.
I am not omniscient. It is always the case—always—that anything I say may be mistaken. Maybe Donald Trump could become president and hold that office for four years or eight years, and the country would be OK and the world would be OK. But that is not what I am seeing. I am seeing a threat to democracy in America. I am seeing threats to large sectors of our diverse population. I am seeing a threat to the stability of the global political order. I am seeing a very great likelihood that what this presidency will be about will be about getting more money and power and notoriety for Donald Trump while he continues to deceive, abuse, and betray everyone else. Everyone. Or everyone but his richest cronies in this country and his similarly treacherous and deceptive comrades in high places overseas—or in the case of Putin, the much smarter operator who will dupe him and ruin him, and us. I do not think that he knows or cares about our poor, our working people, our minorities, our majorities, our culture, our constitution, our environment, or anything else that is dear to all of us. He has massive financial conflicts of interest and has given every possible indication that he will not free himself of them but will to the contrary draw his family members into his governmental duties while continuing to involve them in his financial affairs precisely in order to use the power of the office of the presidency to increase his own personal power and wealth. He has promised to appoint cabinet secretaries who have no competence to run their departments and have expressed ignorance-based hostility to the missions of those departments.
Worse than that, I believe he has given every sign one could possibly give of being a nascent tyrant in the mold of Hitler or Mussolini. I am aware that the name of Hitler has far too often been thrown about as a term of abuse in the political arena, and I am also aware that as things stand Trump has done nothing, and could not threaten to do anything, rivaling the horrors inflicted on the world by Hitler. But for me (and others whose historical judgment and political awareness I respect) the mood and feel of the Trumpist movement is far too close for comfort to the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s, and the utter moral, spiritual, and intellectual vacuity of the man means that he could readily become, if he is not already, the host of any number of malignant demons who may through him accomplish things that will dismay even the most devoted deceived Trumpists.
So I have reflected: what is the duty of a Christian of my sort, in my position, under such circumstances? Is it so be quiet, aloof, dignified? Is it to say encouraging things like “God is in control” or “Set your mind on things above”? Was that the responsibility of a (real) German Christian in the 1930s as Hitler successfully enlisted churches and biblical scholars and theologians for his (counterfeit, coopted) “German Christian” church of blood and soil and xenophobia and Aryan supremacism? I think not. We are not that far down the road, but we have taken the first steps down the road. We have brothers and sisters among us who are deceived and corrupted. We have “leaders” in the Christian movement who are sold out to a profoundly sub-Christian ideology and who urge their followers in that direction. For the sake of the church I could not be silent. For the love of whatever good America has stood for, I could not be silent. As long as there is any chance—and at this moment I think there is still a slender chance—of avoiding the election and inauguration of this person as president of the United States, I had to say something. In a setting where I have heard other Christians counsel that we must encourage and build up, I hear a clear call to denounce and discourage. This denouncing and discouraging is an opus alienum, a strange work, but it is unavoidable and essential. There is a time to bless and a time to curse, a time to build up and a time to tear down. When you see a red sky in the morning you say that bad weather is coming. Should we refuse to read the signs of the times? When the storm is past, please God, we will return to encouraging and blessing and building up. If it worsens, we will once again have to discern our calling under even worse circumstances.
There you have it: my account of my recent, and perhaps not yet finished, strange work. It’s just a handful of Facebook posts, mostly just a few words of my own, framing a reposted article by someone else. A pitifully weak contribution, really, for good or for ill. This strange work has brought me no joy; I feel sickened by it. And I know that it has been enough to give offense, or at least to cause concern, among some of my friends. Hence this apologia. My question to you—and this is a bold and deliberately challenging question of a sort that one would only dare pose to a trusted friend: if my perceptions in these matters do not coincide with your own, how quickly, and on what basis, knowing me as you have known me, will you conclude that I am wrong? You are welcome to let me know. Perhaps I will learn something from you. Or at least, knowing where I am coming from, you may forgive me for being so wrong.