Straining Credulity: Trump the Presbyter


On January 18, 2016, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump sojourned to Lynchburg, Virginia to the campus of Liberty University, the brainchild of the late Jerry Falwell, Sr., to deliver an address for Martin Luther King Day. The speech, at least to this author, was Trump’s blatant attempt to ingratiate himself to the Evangelical Right, who are disproportionately represented in the student body. Trump regularly claims that the Bible is his favorite book, but until Monday has refused to name his favorite verse. That all changed at Liberty.

“Two Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame,” he said. “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” he continued, conveniently citing the school’s official verse which is displayed prominently throughout campus. Either this is a great coincidence, or Donald found an easy way to avoid cracking open the Bible he purports to respect so much.

I try not to attack other people’s faith stances and attitudes toward religion. I am clearly to the left of many of my colleagues, at least in terms of social issues. I am rather orthodox theologically: I proclaim Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior; I believe that sin and death are not the final words; I confess the four ecumenical creeds that bind Catholic, Orthodox, and Mainline Protestant Christians together; and I serve as a pastor in the denomination to which Donald Trump claims to be “very proud” to belong, the Presbyterian Church (USA).

But I find Trump’s claims that 2 Corinthians 3:17 is the “whole ballgame” to be quite disingenuous. He operates under the assumption that Paul’s “liberty” is the Western, secular, humanist, capitalist liberty of a laissez faire marketplace. Paul was writing within a context in which Christians were deemed atheists because they did not believe in the Roman pantheon of gods. Paul’s liberty–or, more properly, the Christian liberty about which Paul writes–is one that allows a community the freedom to acknowledge and proclaim the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph.

This, of course, is the same God proclaimed by Muslims, the very same Muslims whom Donald Trump wants to keep from entering the country until we, nebulously, “figure out what is going on.” How is that in keeping with liberty? Of course, it is not. But it fits in well with a zeitgeist of American Christian persecution (which, unlike in Syria, does not include beheading but rather the inability to say “Merry Christmas” to anyone without shouting distance).

I cannot imagine that Rev. Dr. King would have been in attendance at Liberty University yesterday, were he still alive, and I certainly don’t think that he would echo Trump’s call to ban an entire religious group from entry into the country because of a woeful understanding of geopolitics and the Constitution of the United States of America. I further stand with the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in his denouncement of Trump’s rhetoric.

Presbyterianism operates on the principle of lay persons serving as elders and deacons for terms of service, usually three years; the term presbyter means “elder.” We are lay-driven and beholden to the Book of Order. We have ancient rules, all of them aimed at creating a community in which the stranger is invited into the community and is encouraged to become a member; we have a long, proud history of being engaged with social justice and civil rights. We are the denomination of Fred Rogers (see the piece by my colleague Rev. Derrick Weston), and we continue to push ourselves to live into the radical message of Jesus of Nazareth.

It simply strains credulity that Donald Trump knows anything about who we are in Christ Jesus.


The Gospel According to Luke (Skywalker)


I was born in 1976, too young to remember seeing A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back in the theater, but old enough to have had both the films firmly in my grasp when my father took me and my best friend, Kevin Cooney, to see Return of the Jedi for my 8th birthday. I’ll never forget the wonder, the magic, the sense of adventure and satisfaction that filled me. I demanded that we see it again, and sure enough, I convinced my grandmother (who thoroughly hated it) to take me a few weeks later. Thus began my lifelong fandom.

I’ll never claim to be the biggest Star Wars fan in the world; I don’t do cosplay; I don’t read the books; I don’t watch non-theatrical releases; my T-shirt collection is sparse; my toys are long since lost or broken. But Star Wars was my entire childhood; my brother, of blessed memory, was Han Solo. There was no question about roles when we played Star Wars. He was the cool, suave, impossible, handsome renegade and I was the cute, somewhat annoying whiner who was too smart for his own good. Even at the time, I was the most spiritual person in my atheist family. When my brother died in 2002 and I officiated his memorial service, I told the story about how we used to go riding on his Kawasaki KZ-650, and before he’d open up the throttle, he’d yell to me as I held on, “You’re all clear kid!”

Star Wars has shaped my life.


It Is Your Destiny

My favorite film has been and will always be The Empire Strikes back. I think part of the reason is that this was the only film in the original trilogy that I owned on VHS for about five years. I would watch it at least once a week, with particular attention paid to Luke in the Dagobah System. Upon arrival, he is the same impatient brat who was eager to leave Tatooine; certainly, watching Obi Wan being struck down has shaped him. He’s joined the Rebellion and he feels the nascent seeds of spirituality growing within him. He has tapped into the Force, and he is hooked. Like his father before him, Luke feels his own power but is conflicted as to why he desires it. Is it to be like the hero Annakin he has heard so little about from his Aunt and Uncle? Is it to destroy Darth Vader, his nemesis, and the Emperor? With Yoda’s tutelage, Luke begins the Dark Night of the Soul. He explores his own limits, his own preconceptions, his own ideas about what it means to be a Jedi. Before George Lucas nearly ruined the entire franchise with the midichlorians, Empire presents a hero on a spiritual journey. Learning that Vader and Anakin are one and the same is an assault on who Luke thinks he is; it causes him to question his identity and his role in the world. It creates, first and foremost, a spiritual crisis. After losing his hand–a trope throughout the films–Luke must lose other things as well: his anger, his confusion, his desires.

did-return-of-the-jedi-s-alternate-ending-inspire-episode-7-672411 So when we first see Luke in Return of the Jedi, he is a changed man. His vocal cadence is slower, more confident. He is able to easily manipulate the mind of Bib Fortuna. He is in complete control of a seemingly impossible situation. We assume that his training has continued under Yoda, but we also sense that he has had to come to terms with himself; we can imagine many long walks, many sleepless nights as he wrestles with the legacy of his parentage. We speculate that he has felt rage, betrayal, confusion, and all the other emotions that come with devastating news.

But we should never forget that being a Jedi is a spiritual pursuit. The Force is not a weapon, but rather an energy that creates, pervades, and destroys all things, concepts that are equally applicable to Christianity and Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism, Islam and Taoism. A Jedi Knight is equal parts monk and warrior, teacher and minister.

luke-skywalkerFAThe Force Awakens (and spoilers abound)

I was antsy upon sitting down to view The Force Awakens, in no small part because of the prequels. Most of us fans know this conversation, so I need not repeat it. My friend Derrick Weston, who encouraged me to write this piece as part of a larger project a group of us Star Wars geeks are unfolding, had messaged me and, without any spoilers, simply wrote, “JJ did it.” So while I was nervous, Derrick’s assurance let me know that I was in for a treat. The film unfolded and I found myself grinning from ear to ear, but in the back of my mind I was wondering, Where’s Luke? I perked up upon learning that Luke had been training new Jedis, only to have them destroyed by Kylo Ren (Ben Solo), who is seeking to complete what his grandfather (Annakin or Vader, I wonder) had started. Sadly, some jackass on a political thread had ruined the major plot points, so Han’s death did not surprise me, although I still gasped and felt a part of my childhood die as his body, like Darth Maul, Luke, and the Emperor before him, fell into a vast space toward an unknown bottom. Still, I wondered, where’s Luke?

And then it came. Rey’s arduous climb up the steps; the wonderful helicopter shots establishing the remoteness of place, a scene wholly unlike the CGI-rendered worlds that plagued the prequels. A solitary, hooded figure, wearing the robes of Obi Wan Kenobi, of Mace Windu, of Qui-Gon, of Yoda, of Annakin Skywalker. Turning around and pulling off the hood, there he was. Luke. Older. Bearded. His eyes–owed to masterful acting by Mark Hamill–betraying knowledge, confusion, surprise, trepidation, and peace. The lightsaber that had been passed from his father to Obi Wan to Luke to…now in the hand of Rey (who has an as yet unknown relationship to Luke), extended as an offering. For the second time, I gasped. Cue music and credits.

Its been three weeks since I’ve seen the film. I need to go back and watch it again; I know that there things that I’m missing, but luckily I am part of a group of smart people willing to spend their time having online discussions about this aspect or that aspect. It is fun to be part of such a community.

But today would have been my brother’s 47th birthday. He is on my mind and on my heart. And I am thinking about my journey and how it mirrors Luke’s. I was an atheist learning toward agnosticism when Stephen took his own life in 2002. I won’t write much about it; if you want to know the story (shameless plug), buy my book The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide. Stephen’s death led to my conversion, which led to attending a church, which led to suggestions that I go to seminary, which led to a three year process toward ordination, which ended in my pastoring a small church in my hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio. My own impatience and need to go out to conquer the world has required some truncating and training; I have been impetuous; I have wanted to get away from where I grew up and to join something big and exciting. I’ve wanted to pastor a big church and have thousands of people follow my blog and read my books. I’ve felt jealousy at colleagues who have achieved that.

Yet, I realize that I am ultimately looking to be Luke on that island. At least, what I am projecting upon him. A man who prepares for his calling; one who sees the world around him in trouble, but who has the wisdom to wait. To connect with the Force (or God) for direction. A man who no longer allows himself to be directed by passions and desires for greatness, but rather to serve. To protect. To love. To combat evil, but out of compassion and understanding.

After all these years, I still want to be Luke.