The Jesus Fallacy
As President Trump was beating swords into plowshares in Singapore, it must have been exasperating for his reactionary critics who mocked him for canceling the summit when he successfully completed the meeting, opening doors to peace. The signs of desperation were apparent when his critics began to invoke the Bible as the political standard for judgment – something that must have given some sense of hope to the president's evangelical supporters. The essence of their fallacious argument is this: the Bible would not allow the government to separate children from parents, as is presently being done in U.S. immigration policy. As a matter of theological reductionism: Jesus would not do such a thing, and all of his Christian supporters should be ashamed of themselves for refusing to denounce the policy forthrightly.
The President's critics have no shortage of self righteous representations, so the argument is not entirely surprising despite all the apparent ironies of a crowd that typically delights in the separation of church and state. Despite this "come to Jesus" moment for his critics, this biblical appeal remains fallacious.
The desire to invoke Jesus on our side and against their side is as old as Jesus himself. The president's critics see themselves representing Jesus's infinite grace and mercy. In his ministry, Jesus was continually played by the local interpreters of the law into precisely the kind of politics we are witnessing now. The Pharisees of the first century A.D. tried to drag Jesus into the role of kingly pretender. But Jesus regularly refused to substitute himself as King Jesus: "So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone" (John 6:15). This incident took place after the public imagined that Jesus could make food infinitely available to them after he fed 5,000.
Jesus would not allow himself to be the new king. The elite of his time also tried to railroad Jesus into statements against the Roman government. The enforcers of the law were certainly the Romans and their oppressive occupying military force. Roman soldiers make ICE officers look benign. Jesus surely enraged everyone in the region when he not only refused to denounce the Roman soldiers executing these laws, but in fact affirmed them:
5 And when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, imploring Him, 6 and saying, "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented." 7 Jesus *said to him, "I will come and heal him." 8 But the centurion said, "Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes, and to another, 'Come!' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this!' and he does it." 10 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, "Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. 11 I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; 12 but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." 13 And Jesus said to the centurion, "Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed." And the servant was healed that very moment. (Matthew 8)
By affirming the Roman soldier as having the greatest faith in all of Israel and suggesting that perhaps the sons of the kingdom would be cast out in his favor, Jesus turned the self-righteous politics of the day on its head. Jesus never denounced the severe Roman enforcement of laws as cruel, unusual, or worthy of God's rejection. The Jacobin reactionaries who are sure that Trump's supporters deserve God's repudiation ought to see themselves in the angry reactions that arise from Jesus's endorsement of the Roman military commander. Those who enforce the law are not evil or worthy of our contempt and derision. Even during Jesus's brutal crucifixion by Roman soldiers, he never delivered a homily on the abuses of government power or even a plain statement against capital punishment. Jesus paid the temple tax required by the government with a coin collected from the mouth of a fish. Jesus rebuked Peter for striking a government servant with a sword he told Peter to fetch. He told Peter and others that "his kingdom would not come with a sword."
We all understandably see Jesus coming to our side of politics. Jesus's life, death, and resurrection are indeed the supreme political statement about the state's power to ruin our lives to the point of a humiliating death. Jesus's cry of "Father, why have you forsaken me" as he died is the cry of every profoundly marginalized person. His gentle call of a prostitute's name signaling his resurrection is the end of history in politics, because the public killing of the innocent is no longer the last word in "justice."
But Jesus is too great to be our earthly king in politics. He told us in the Sermon on the Mount that we should "let your light shine before men that in seeing your good works they glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). He did not say "God's lights" or "God's works." Jesus is good for lordship of our individual convictions and conscience. We must make the decision to love one another and lay aside the expectations of an earthly political kingdom to substitute for that personal demand.
The soldier, the tax-collector, or any other agent of government is not our enemy. These people are as worthy of God's grace as we are.
Ben Voth is an associate professor of corporate communication and public affairs and director of debate at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of three books on American and global politics: The Rhetoric of Genocide (2014), Social Fragmentation and the Decline of American Democracy (2017), and James Farmer Jr.: The Great Debater (2017).