Friday, December 9, 2016

Rethinking John the Baptist in light of Donald Trump

After a nasty election ordeal and the rise of Donald Trump as President of the United States, John the Baptist starts to make some sense to me for the first time. Maybe we now have a political and religious context that begins to bring John's life and message into focus.

This year's Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings for Advent in the Gospels are taking us through Matthew's writings about John the Baptist. Week after week, the RCL keeps rubbing our noses in this iconoclastic character's stark life and startling words. Where's the comfort? Where's the hope? Where are the endearing pastoral scenes of Mary being chosen and shepherds being visited and angel choruses singing? Instead, we get a wilderness wild man acosting everybody with his one-word harangue: "Repent!"

A year-long campaign season featured daily lies, fake news, ugly scandals and relentless mudslinging. Just about everyone seems to have been dirtied, contaminated, and somehow diminished. Seductively, Hillary supporters, Bernie people, Trump followers, and even innocent bystanders were mimetically drawn into a costic back-and-forth. Wouldn't a dunk in the Jordan River feel refreshing? Might raw repentance and cold baptism help us break from the recent past and turn us, clean and fresh-faced, to the future?

In Trump we have a morally and emotionally flawed governmental leader as slippery and conniving as Herod--playing the ends against the middle, promising prominence to religionists while co-opting their integrity, slyly working the angles to maximize his power and image at the expense of, well, just about anyone and everything.

Particularly, single-issue religionists have been taken in, sacrificing much of the predominant message of Jesus for the hope of finally rolling back Roe v Wade. Flying the banner of religious liberty, today's Saducees and Pharisees feel their power: the fleeting satisfaction that they have put in place a leader who will do their bidding on abortion. Yet, the handwriting is already on the wall that their champion new Herod will do his own bidding in his own way in his own time at their expense, just as their chosen heroes of the past have done.

Then, there are progressives (like me) who feel let down and forelorn and lost as much as resentful and angry and resistant. To many of us, this election wasn't just a shocking loss, but a thirty-year rollback of basic liberal democratic values. The conversations in my circles continue to include lots of disbelief and grief and handwringing. Democrat-type folks are fearing the worst and trying to figure out where to go from here.

And into this politcal and religious paradox steps John the Baptist. He comes from out of nowhere. He doesn't figure into the religionists' grand compromise. He doesn't care about progressives' losses. John has no respect for the latest Herod and his coercive plays to consolidate power. He is deaf to political subtleties and cares less about offending the lowest and highest. John speaks truth equally to the powerful and powerless.

To all, he calls: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matthew 3:1-6). I suppose who and where we are at the moment conditions how we hear his call. Some hear it as a threat to political arrangements they've just painstakingly won. Some hear John as one more desperado trying out yet another cynical spin on the disenfranchised. Some hear it, however, as a compelling invitation.

Religionists will try to use John in the same way they think they've successfully used the new Herod. Who couldn't use a little repentance and isn't it nice that someone is back to baptizing reprobates like in the good ol' days? But John will have none of this. He calls them out: "You brood of vipers!" To those who hide pride behind faith and hatred behind banners of religious liberty, John commands: "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!" (Luke 3:7-9).

To disheartened liberals and cynical millenials and disenfranchised citizens and aliens, John calls: "Share what you have." (Luke 3:10-11). Open your doors. Open your closet. Open your heart to those you've disregarded or demonized. That's how this coming kingdom works. In the face of ideological vascillation and rollback of essential social and healthcare safety nets, expressing rudientary, practical love for neighbors has never been more critical.

To those being payed to work for the new Herod, who carry out his alt-right inspired policies, John beckons: "Be fair!" (Luke 3:12-14). Don't falsely accuse people. Don't distort truth to get a conviction. Don't bully vulnerable aliens. Don't be taken in by tax reforms and economic policies that extort the poor and diminish the middle class while lining the coffers of the rich. If you work for the government or implement its policies in your company, use all the leeway you have to help people live well in spite of a flawed and mean-spirited system.

To the new Herod, John just tells the inconvenient truth. He doesn't tip-toe around him. He doesn't avoid confronting him. He does what the relgionists, in their compromise with this devil, failed to do: John rebukes him for his infidelity and adultery. John also rebukes Herod "for all the other evil things he had done." (Luke 3:19). Someone had to do it. The moral universe demanded it. The future needed it. The way for a future of hope had to be cleared and the ground of justice and grace prepared.

Of course, no one stopped Herod. Herod did what Herods do: he used his power to add evil upon evil and threw John into jail. Ultimately, he had John beheaded and served up the Baptizer's head on a platter for entertianment. Such is the brutality of coercive power then and now.

John didn't survive. But survival was never the issue for John. Maybe it's not the critical issue for us, either. Preparing the way for the future was the issue for John. It called for a radical break with idolatrous political and religious arrangements and reliance on mere ideologies and systems. It called for repentance--a remorse and turnaround deep enough to bear fruit in changed lives and socially transformative behavior. Preparing the way for a fair and just and grace-filled future may require speaking truth unflinchingly to power today--and that may come with a high price.

The new political and religious reality helps me understand and appreciate John. I'm starting to like him. I salute John. But shall I join him? Shall we?

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

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