In a flurry of other tweets about the border wall, the federal shutdown, legal charges against his advisors, and frigid weather conditions, Donald Trump weighed in this week on the controversial push to introduce Bible classes in public schools. He tweeted:
Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 28, 2019
There have been various responses to his tweet and hundreds of people using the hashtag #BibleLiteracy — raising questions about what the Bible really says about poverty, welcoming the stranger, and doing justice. This is just this week’s iteration of a battle for the Bible that is going on in our society today. Politicians cloak extremist policies with religious rhetoric and faith leaders serve as priests of the empire, not chaplains of a movement. At the same time, multi-faith social justice leaders remind us that what is at the central core of our sacred texts is protecting the poor and vulnerable and lifting the load of poverty and oppression.
What is at the central core of our sacred texts is protecting the poor and vulnerable and lifting the load of poverty and oppression.
The overall move of politicians to cut people off healthcare and block the raising of people’s wages at the same time as advocating for Bible study in public schools connects with statements made just weeks ago by Jerry Falwell Jr., who recently came out with his full support for Donald Trump, joining the ranks of other so-called evangelical leaders willing to cloak Trump’s extremist politics in Christian apology and justification. Falwell is the President of Liberty University, an evangelical college that attracts many devout Christians.
As a New Testament scholar, an ordained evangelical, and a Christian activist I feel compelled to respond to this discussion on #BibleLiteracy and Falwell’s endorsement of Trump. The following are five things that Falwell gets wrong about the Bible and the moral teachings of Jesus on caring for our neighbor, poverty, immigration, and justice.
1. Early in his interview Falwell states, “It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation.”
However, Jesus is clear throughout the New Testament that his teachings are expressly for the nations. In the Last Judgement described in Matthew 25:31-40, Jesus says,
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
This classic text names the audience for this great teaching as the nations and the main concerns are how to treat the poor, the imprisoned, and the stranger.
This principle of how you honor God by treating your neighbor right, by doing the work of justice, and providing ministries of care and kindness, is not only found in Matthew 25. The whole book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic Code is about worshipping God by caring for your community. The prophet Micah is clear that what God requires of God’s followers is the work of justice. Amos proclaims that God wants justice to roll down like water, righteousness like a mighty stream. To claim that sacred teachings do not apply to whole societies is a misreading and misunderstanding of the whole of the biblical texts.
2. Falwell continues along these lines. He writes that Jesus is clear in the Bible that, “I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”
This text on rendering unto Caesar has been (mis)used for generations to uphold unjust regimes and to use religion to justify oppression and the status quo. But to discern the larger political and social critique that Jesus is actually making with this statement, it needs some literary, historical and theological context.
“Render unto Caesar” takes place within a debate about paying imperial taxes. The religious authorities question Jesus on his position on paying taxes and Jesus responds. Matthew 22:18-21 states, “Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and Jesus asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
The creative maneuver that Jesus makes in this passage is in line with some basic theological tenets in the Bible. Genesis is clear that God is the creator of the skies and the earth and all the forms of life living on it. The sacredness of life and the power over creation of God is made clear throughout the Old and New Testaments. What is also clear throughout the Bible, especially the gospels, is a critique of money and of the extractive economy of the Roman Empire, where Rome looted and enslaved the conquered nations to enrich a tiny few in the Roman imperial court. Money stamped with Caesar’s face symbolized this economy of conquest and oppression.
In Matthew’s gospel, money is used to betray Jesus and to bribe the guards at his tomb to keep his resurrection secret; luxury items and an economic system that sells bodies and souls of human beings alongside fine linens, perfumes and oils is critiqued throughout Revelation; followers are implored to not store up money and treasure in this life but instead to give all your money and possessions to the poor and follow Jesus in Mark, Luke and Matthew.
On the other hand, the Roman emperor has built up towers and monuments in his name and image. It is Roman emperors who decorate the coins used throughout the empire — coins that are used to pay taxes that impoverish the people, coins that are used to buy and sell slaves, coins that are used to expropriate huge quantities of grains and fish out of Roman provinces, dispossessing the people and lining the pockets of the wealthy and powerful.
So when Jesus says “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” he is reminding the people who is responsible for money and monetary exchange and the poverty and hunger that come from that. He is saying that the people should return those coins and monuments to their creator and return their poverty and suffering to this unjust leader at the same time. They should pay taxes to the empire with the coins of the empire, not the fruits of their labor and the resources extracted and stolen from their communities.
When Jesus says to give back to God what is God’s, he is saying that everything is God’s. The grains and fruits and land and sea belong to no man. Not to the wealthy; not to Caesar. There’s no justification of the powers-that-be and status quo going on in this passage — instead, there’s a condemnation of economic exploitation.
Money stamped with Caesar’s face symbolized this economy of conquest and oppression ... When Jesus says to give back to God what is God’s, he is saying that everything is God’s.
3. Falwell continues to fall short in his interpretations of the teachings of Jesus. He says, “It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world.”
Even if Falwell fails to follow it, the Bible and Jesus are quite clear on the topics of love and forgiveness of individuals and nations. John’s Jesus implores his followers to love one another. Jesus also reminds the people to love our neighbor (not just next-door neighbor, but neighboring country), even to love your enemies and those who hurt you — including social groups and relations and nations. Jesus travels through the land healing and forgiving sins and debts. One of the most central teachings of Jesus is the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer that Jesus teaches his followers speaks to what all of us are required to do:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
The Lord’s Prayer is very clear that the material position of the people is of great interest to God. It exhorts people and nations to forgive debts, release sins, feed everyone and resist the temptations and trappings of the unjust, those who pass policies that hurt women and children and the poor. Forgiveness is a key theme. And it is a theme connected to generosity, overturning unjust systems, and community prosperity.
In Matthew again, Jesus instructs the rich young man who wishes to inherit eternal life to give literally everything to the poor and come follow him. In fact, the logic of Jesus’ teachings, the Deuteronomic Code, and the Bible overall is that if you forgive debts, release slaves, pay workers a living wage, and lend out money never expecting to be paid back, your whole society will have community prosperity. That economic logic may not be the belief in the capitalism and U.S. hegemony that Falwell promotes, but the Bible is clear that society is supposed to be moral and just. It follows that nations should spread love and justice, they should forgive debts and trespasses throughout the whole world.
4. Falwell also gets wrong some truisms of the generosity of the poor and the path out of poverty. He says, “A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume.”
Having spent two decades working and living among homeless families, farmworkers earning poverty wages, mothers whose children have been taken away because of poverty, daughters who have had to bury their mothers because of the lack of healthcare, I beg to differ. I have witnessed the deep generosity of poor people — West Virginians who have had their water poisoned by mountaintop removal and coal run-off driving skids of clean water to families in Flint whose water was poisoned with lead, Philadelphia families pooling their food stamps to feed other people’s children, grandmothers in the Mississippi Delta offering everything they have to other families who need it. Some leaders with the Marysville Homeless Union recently sent a photo of one of the homeless encampments of refugees of the Paradise wildfire in Northern California that read, “The homeless are the only ones who have helped us.” The rich are not the saviors of the poor. They are the ones who profit from impoverishment and dispossession.
This all reminds me of the story of the widow’s mite in the Bible. Mark 12 reads,
A poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything — all she had to live on.’
Perhaps we can hear the critique in this passage — that even if it means going hungry, the poor are generous, they offer mutual solidarity, while all too often the wealthy hoard their resources and give charity only when it benefits themselves and keeps their empires intact.
5. There is one final statement from Falwell in his interview about Trump that begs mentioning. Claiming that it is immoral for people to not appreciate Trump, Falwell states, “They need to look at what the president did for the poor.”
To this I agree with Jerry Falwell Jr. Indeed, let us explore what Trump has done for the poor. He has attempted to attach work requirements to Medicaid resulting in tens of thousands of poor, disabled people losing their health coverage; he has ripped immigrant families apart and thrown innocent children in cages; he has given the largest tax cut for the wealthy in history; he has threatened to cut SNAP and other vital food and heat programs for the poor; he has transferred FEMA money from storm and wildfire victims to build a wall at the border. Indeed, Jerry Falwell Jr., as Jesus instructs us, we should judge our politicians for what they do for the poor. Too bad so many are falling short.
We should judge our politicians for what they do for the poor. Too bad so many are falling short.
In fact, there are many lessons from the Bible that Falwell and other religious and political authorities seem to be missing. Falwell advocates blind allegiance to the political leaders of the United States who are enacting policies that hurt the least of these and in fact all of God’s children. He fails to hear Jesus’ caution to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves — to resist following those with power blindly; to admonish religious leaders to be chaplains and midwives to a social, economic, moral and political movement for transformation that is breaking through to challenge the powers and principalities, rather than serve as priests of the empire.
If truth be told, it seems that Jerry Falwell Jr. either doesn’t know the Bible, or twists the meaning of the Good News (eungelion in Greek) to support today’s Caesars.