Preaching in the Age of Trump
How are preachers to deal with Trump from the pulpit?
These days I preach about once a month and as a guest preacher. So my situation isn’t that of someone preaching regularly to the same community. But I do think about preaching in the age of Trump, both for myself and for other preachers. It does constitute a challenge.
Ignoring Trump and what he represents, particularly his distortions of truth, seems unwise. But it is also unwise to be pre-occupied with him and thus give him more power than he deserves.
In my sermons I have found myself emphasizing the faith that we live in a universe that has a moral shape and meaning. In the midst of daily life and history, moral meaning is sometimes or often hard to find and injustice prevails — but not forever. So in a recent sermon I said,
“It may be that for a time, certain people and certain priorities are exalted, proclaimed from the tops of proud towers. But in the end God is God. In the end, those who exalt themselves will be cast down. It’s not a proud tower, but a lowly manger, and a man on a cross, who sway the future.
“In the end, truth and love shall prevail because God is faithful. In the words of the apostle Paul, God is not mocked. There is a moral shape to the universe. “The arc of history,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “is long, but it bends toward justice.” This is our hope. This is our faith. It is a faith that shall sustain us and shall uphold us in these troubling times.”
I am saying this to myself as much as anyone else.
Another thing I’ve tried to do in my preaching has been to encourage action and witness, but also humility. I’ve quoted H. Richard Niebuhr’s paradoxical injunction, “Take your stand and pray for forgiveness.” We must take stands and act, but always with an awareness that our knowledge is incomplete and our own virtue assailable. I am as put off by the absolute certainty and smugness of the left as of the right. I recall the axiom of the other, more well known of the Niebuhr brothers, Reinhold, who observed that we are never more dangerous than when absolutely certain of our own virtue.
In the end of course the task of the preacher is to proclaim the good news of the gospel. What that is varies some from situation to situation, context to context, but there are certain themes that abide: God is faithful, God’s ways are not our ways, the truth will out, and that the gospel often as not inverts the world’s values and perceptions: what the world counts mighty is humbled. What the world counts insignificant or unimportant is exalted. (That theme is one that can be contemplated in the current sexual harassment/ assault reckoning: the exalted — powerful men — have been brought down, while the lowly — silenced women — are lifted up.)
So these days I find myself thinking of the way the Christmas Story begins in Luke with the decree of Emperor Augustus (Caesar) sending everyone to be registered in an imperial census. Joseph and Mary head to Joseph’s ancestral home, Bethlehem. It appears that Caesar’s power is absolute. But Luke knows another story, God’s story and God’s resolve to fulfill ancient prophecy of a child borne in Bethlehem who will initiate a new age and a different kingdom. So the seemingly apolitical and innocent Christmas story puts Caesar in his place, as an unwitting instrument of God’s purposes. Caesar’s empire is not final, his power not absolute. There is another power, another King.