As a university professor of Theological Studies I have always engaged current events, and have always done so with a high degree of objectivity. By the same token, as a theologian, ethicist, and practicing Christian, I have always asserted that the church ought to stand outside partisan politics while working across party lines for the common good, remaining free to offer a prophetic critique whenever the state overreaches or neglects its duty. In other words, I have taken the apostle Peter’s advice as my guiding mantra for navigating church and state: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29, NRSV).
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that in the context of serious class discussions I have been critical of the Trump administration’s policies separating children from their families and creating border detention centers. Just as I am critical of Trump’s immigration policies now, I was critical of Obama’s use of drones and W’s use of torture then. However, unlike previous students, my most recent batch of first-year undergraduates is unable to grasp that I am not being partisan when making a serious theological critique of politicians.
Though I have explained to them how I leveled equally harsh—yet justified—criticisms at previous administrations regardless of party affiliation, for these kids so much of this is ancient history. Even though I argued cogently and fairly that Congress was justified in initiating impeachment proceedings against both, Bill Clinton in 1998, and Donald Trump in 2019, all they see is the now—and since Trump is currently in office, it leads to comments like this in my course evaluations:
“Sometimes I felt uncomfortable when the professor would share some harsh political views that I didn’t fully agree with. I’m always interested in learning about the point of view of others, [but] I just felt that as a teacher it’s important to share both sides of an issue even if you have a bias towards one.”
One of the things I like to model in my class is a fair and balanced presentation of opposing viewpoints, so these words really cut to the quick. A colleague argues these students’ inability to transcend their point of view stems from the widespread perspectival approach to morality and ethics. In other words, “You may believe it to be true, but that doesn’t make it true for another.” To which I respond, “Yes, but as a teacher it is my responsibility to challenge these students to move beyond mere opinion and offer clear, defensible reasons why they believe one thing and not another.”
Truth has been devalued to such a degree that those who cannot recall a time before the post-truth era find it increasingly difficult telling fact from fiction. Thankfully, we have been here before, and can learn from the past. During the rise of fascism in the 1930s, journalist and novelist George Orwell observed that useful lies were preferred to harmful truths, and truth had been replaced by propaganda. Consequently, “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” In such times, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” In the aftermath of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, President Trump vacillated. Instead of immediately repudiating the heinous acts of white nationalism that led to the death of Heather Heyer, a peaceful counter-protester, and the beating of DeAndre Harris, an African American counter-protester brutally beaten by six white men, the President claimed there were “very fine people on both sides,” and that the mob chanting hateful racist propaganda included, “a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest.”
Ostensibly a protest against the removal of a Confederate monument to Robert E. Lee, the rally was also a calculated move to draw national media attention to the various factions comprising the Alt-Right in an effort to move from the Internet fringes of U.S. politics into the Trump-era mainstream. Protesters included white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and various, heavily armed, militia groups. Amidst the chants of “white lives matter,” “Jews will not replace us,” “Whose streets? Our streets!” (co-opting a Black Lives Matter slogan used during the Ferguson protests), and the Nazi slogan, “Blood and soil,” marchers carried signs with anti-Semitic slurs, brandished Nazi swastikas and waved Confederate flags, while also carrying “Trump/Pence” signs.
This is not respectful conversation; when one’s interlocutor brandishes symbols of hatred and genocide—and even calls for violence against others—there is no duty to present “both sides.” However, as a Christian, I have a moral duty to condemn hatred and violence, and I recognize there are times when remaining silent is a morally reprehensible act. This we learn from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred in a Nazi concentration camp for resisting Nazi racial policies: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Anti-Semitic attacks worldwide rose 13 percent in 2018 from the previous year, most notably in the US and Western Europe. While it would be dishonest and slanderous to link the rise of anti-Semitism to the election of Donald Trump, it is fair game to critique his administration’s lukewarm condemnation of anti-Semitism. Five years ago such acts were deemed intolerable and the public outcry from pastors and elected officials would have dominated media coverage. Today there is too much silence from Christian leaders and elected officials in light of this increase. It started with vandalizing Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, then mass shootings in synagogues, and most recently a weeklong series of vicious attacks in NYC targeting Jews during Hanukkah.
In seminary, my first ever theology professor was the late James H. Cone. To this day I carry with me the words he shared the first day of class at Union Theological Seminary in New York: “The task of theology is saying ‘Yes’ to some things and ‘No’ to others.” Theology is an inherently political undertaking—not partisan but political—and as such Christians cannot remain neutral in matters of truth, justice, and ethics. We can respectfully disagree on matters of policy—i.e., on how to address the problem of hunger and food insecurity in our public schools—but we cannot ignore the reality of poverty. We can propose different solutions to the problems created by undocumented immigration, but that does not give us license to discriminate, marginalize, or in any way mistreat undocumented immigrants.
Consequently, students in my classes will continue to be exposed to “harsh political views” they might not necessarily agree with. I don’t expect my students to agree with me on matters of politics. I do expect them to present evidence for why they believe one thing and not another. Most of all, I expect them to see beyond political posturing and demagoguery in order to evaluate all politicians (and their words and actions) from the perspective of Christian truth. And I will not tolerate Pilate’s evasive response, “What is truth?” (John 18:38, NRSV), in my classroom.