Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, raise your throne in our hearts. Created by you, let us live in your image; created for you, let us act for your glory; redeemed by you, let us give you what is yours, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
I will go before you…” Isaiah 45:1-2.
Though it is tempting to reflect on the gospel text for this week, I feel compelled to focus instead on our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. The reason is that this wonderful text from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of many hijacked by the religion of evangelical Trumpism for its own profane purposes. Leaders of the religious right have cited this text repeatedly, likening Donald Trump to the Persian Emperor, Cyrus, identified by Isaiah as the “anointed one” or “messiah” whose conquest of Babylon enabled the return of exiled Jews to their homeland. Just as the pagan emperor, for his own military and political purposes, sponsored and financed the Jew’s return from exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, so too, it is claimed that the rude, crude and prophane president is fulfilling God’s purpose by stacking the Supreme Court with pro-life and anti LGBTQ judges. Moreover, Trump has facilitated movement of the United States Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, another cherished goal of evangelicals.
Examples of this biblical hijacking abound. Mike Evans, an evangelical leader who was invited to speak in front of Trump at a White House faith event had this to say:
“[Cyrus] was used as an instrument of God for deliverance in the Bible, and God has used this imperfect vessel, this flawed human being like you or I, this imperfect vessel, and he’s using him in an incredible, amazing way to fulfill his plans and purposes…” Times of Israel, March 8, 2018.
Another evangelical leader, Lance Wallnau, is now selling Trump-Cyrus “prayer coins.” There is on the face of these coins an image of emperor Cyrus in the background. (It’s hard to be sure about this as we have no idea what Cyrus actually looked like). In the foreground is an unmistakably clear image of Donald Trump. These coins can be purchased for a cool $45 apiece. I am not quite sure how they are supposed to help you pray. But then, I never understood prayer clothes either. Evangelicals are not the only ones lauding Trump as a modern day Cyrus. Benjamin Netanyahu has also made the identification of Trump with Cyrus, no doubt in response to Mr. Trump’s strong pro-Israeli policies in the middle east.
Some evangelicals, among them Rev. Franklin Graham and Rev. Paula White, maintain that Mr. Trump, despite his obvious moral shortcomings, is a “born again” Christian. Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and one of America’s leading evangelicals, claims that the president accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior at a meeting in New York City with hundreds of Christian conservatives. This conversion experience has never been confirmed by anyone else, including Donald Trump. Others concede that Mr. Trump’s conduct, past and present, falls far short of the conduct expected from a born again Christian. Nonetheless, they feel that Donald Trump has given them an audience and, more than any other candidate Democrat or Republican, has taken seriously their concerns. In both cases, evangelicals are convinced that Trump is God’s answer to their prayers for a champion against what they feel is an attack on their faith and their nation by liberalism, moral relativism, atheism, feminism, political correctness and a host of other destructive forces.
Why does any of this matter? It matters because the church is called upon to proclaim Jesus Christ and the kingdom for which he lived and died. It matters because evangelical Trumpism is employing the church’s scriptures in support of a fascist political movement that has consistently lauded, enabled and incited the most violent racist elements of our population. It matters because the Bible is the church’s book and evangelical Trumpism’s misuse of that book misleads the ignorant and gullible while undermining the credibility of our witness to the gospel. As I have said elsewhere, the Bible is a thick, nuanced and complex collection of prayers, poetry and narrative. It has inspired saints to lives of holiness and courageous witness. But it has also given rise to depraved religious cults and has been used to sanction the most vile systems of human oppression, not the least of which is systemic racism. Those of us who regard the Bible as God’s Word need to make clear what we mean by that-and what we don’t mean.
That brings us to Cyrus. Clearly, the prophet Isaiah saw in the geopolitical events of his day God’s creation of a new beginning for Israel. Persia’s conquest of the Babylonian empire and Cyrus’ self interested policy of allowing a right of return to peoples exiled by the Babylonians, of which the Jews were one, made it possible for the people of Israel to regain the land of promise, rebuild their temple and renew the covenant with their God. This does not make of Cyrus a hero or a champion of Israel. His return proclamation, made ahead of his attack on Babylon, was doubtlessly calculated to destabilize that empire by creating within its borders pockets of support for Persia. Isaiah acknowledged as much, but insisted that, whatever Cyrus’ intentions or the Persian political agenda might be, God’s redemptive purposes for Israel were being worked out “in, with and under” the clash of empires.
Note well, that Isaiah does not encourage his audience to join forces with Cyrus, sign up to serve in his army, support his military and political objectives or champion his policies. Israel is not to emulate Cyrus or admire his character. We are told next to nothing about Cyrus’ character because that, too, is irrelevant. Isaiah is not really interested in Cyrus or what he is up to. Cyrus is only God’s unwitting instrument. Isaiah is chiefly concerned with God and God’s agenda. For the prophet, God is the only real actor in this drama:
I will go before you
and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things. Isaiah 45:2-7.
The point is that God is turning Cyrus’ military and political ambitions toward God’s own gracious purposes. Nowhere do we find Isaiah encouraging the kind of slavish devotion to Cyrus as preachers like Rev. Franklin Graham claim for Donald Trump. The church has no need of a human leader to “champion” its causes. If Jesus needed Donald Trump to defend him or his people, he would be a poor excuse for a savior. Evangelical Trumpism therefore amounts to rank idolatry and it is time for us all to speak up and say so. The church of Jesus Christ must be distinguished definitively from the church of Donald Christ. Sadly, that distinction is getting lost on a growing segment of the population for which Trump style evangelicalism equates with Christianity generally.
That said, evangelical Trumpists might be correct in asserting that Donald Trump is God’s tool for accomplishing some good purpose. As I have said many times before, the one positive contribution made by the present administration may well be its exposure of our country’s deep, abiding and systemic racism. In the face of Charlottesville, the killing of George Floyd and the brutality exercised by law enforcement against peaceful protests in its wake we can no longer hide from this reality. Maybe, just maybe, we have reached the point where we can accept responsibility for our nation’s past and take the bold and difficult steps required to dismantle systemic racism.
It is also possible that God has determined the continued reign of the United States of America is inconsistent with God’s good will for all the earth. What better way to bring the empire down than to place it in the hands of an incompetent man baby and allow it to implode. Maybe all our frenzied, well meaning efforts to “fix” America are actually at odds with the direction God is taking us. Because our faith has been so thoroughly blended with patriotism, we cannot imagine the world better off without the American Empire. But again and again, God’s imagination transcends our own imaginative limits. Of course, I don’t know any of this to be the case, lacking as I do Isaiah’s prophetic instincts. What I do know is that however chaotic and violent the times, God is working redemptively at the center of it all. What I do know is that, for disciples of Jesus, there is one “champion,” one “anointed” and one “chosen.” It is neither Cyrus nor Donald Trump.
Here is a poem by Robert Lowell reflecting on the dark places to which our moral imagination can sink when fear of the future and longing for safety lead weak minds to seek solance in strong leaders.
Inauguration Day: January, 1953
The snow had buried Stuyvesant.
The subways drummed the vaults. I heard
the El’s green girders charge on Third,
Manhattan’s truss of adamant,
that groaned in ermine, slummed on want….
Cyclonic zero of the word,
God of our armies, who interred
Cold Harbor’s blue immortals, Grant!
Horseman, your sword is in the groove!
Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
Look, the fixed stars, all just alike
as lack-land atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.
Source: Life Studies, (c. 1953 by Robert Lowell, pub. by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.) Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977) was an American poet. He was born into a Boston family that could trace its origins back to the Mayflower. Growing up in Boston informed Lowell’s poems, which were frequently set in Boston and the New England region. He was appointed the sixth Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a post he held from 1947 until 1948. Lowell won the National Book Award in 1947 and the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1947. He won the the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1974 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977. Lowel is widely considered one of the most important American poets of the post-World War II era. You can read more about Robert Lowell and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.