That was the title of the editorial in this month’s Christianity Today. Capital letters proclaimed “Instead of being quick to speak truth to power, we might also, from time to time, speak mercy to the immoral.” And that is my dilemma, virtually a crisis of faith.
For fifty years I have lived in the black community and worked—I believe at God’s instigation—for political and economic justice and against racism in the church. I don’t like a lot of what Donald Trump is doing. Yet I also have loved Jesus since I was a child, and tried to respond to his encouragement to love those who hurt us. I regularly struggle to pray for—not against—President Trump. God loves Mr. Trump as much as he loves me, and I require no less mercy and forgiveness. In not too many years I will be face to face with the Jesus who said never to ridicule someone or call them fool. I want him to approve of the way I treat this other child he loves, this one whom many revile and for whom he died.
The evangelical church provides little guidance for how Jesus would have us treat opponents. Before Obama was even inaugurated its leaders questioned his legitimacy, assassinated his character, and plotted his failure. I kept wondering how evangelicals could so ignore everything Jesus said about treating others. Today they want my acceptance and patience for this “immoral” president, in direct contrast to their own actions toward Obama. Yet I want to follow Jesus even when his way appears complicated or dangerous. I cannot simply ignore the outrageous mercy CT calls for.
Shouldn’t God’s love be our model? “Love” in the early scriptures was not merely an emotion. It was a legal term: “I, King X, love King Y, and the evidence of this love is that our troops will not poison his wells, etc.” God loved his kings even when they rejected him by trusting in national strength. Yet God’s love held them accountable. God sent prophets to condemn their misplaced trust, and punished the nation when the king failed to use his power to protect the poor and the strangers within their gates. But what does this mean for how Jesus wants me to treat President Trump?
Ironically, I think God answered that question through an encounter with one I simply thought of as “the angry man.” I had seen him stomping down the middle of our street spewing invective at various people. I asked Jesus how on earth I was to love this neighbor. How would I ever start a conversation? Then late one night I was awakened by music blasting from his car. Perhaps this is my answer, I thought. So I went out in bathrobe and slippers (to appear non-threatening), and tapped on his car window. When I began to talk he turned down the radio to hear me. I told him that for days I had asked Jesus how to start a conversation with him. He was surprised, and non-defensive, and eventually told me he was having a hard time because his mother had just died. I shared some feelings from when that happened to me, and added that I would ask God to comfort him until the pain had begun to heal. I asked him to pray for me about a problem I faced. Since that night we greet each other as “Hi, friend.” Occasionally I remind him to keep praying for me. Now, when I see him acting out, I rarely feel spiritually superior. Instead I feel sorrow for the burdens he bears. I ask God to strengthen his very best intentions, his hopes of being a better man, his genuine desire to help people even though he does not know how to do that and ends up hurting them instead.
Since that day my prayer has been that God will answer positively every prayer or hope of Mr. Trump that fits God’s purposes. I pray for his healing from the childhood abuse that convinced him he was only acceptable if he was a winner. I admit to God that I do not exist on some higher moral plain. Still, I cannot deny the damage Trump will do by his obsession to destroy everything accomplished by President Obama. I pray that he will seek wisdom in the advice of diverse counselors and feel less need to defend his ego. I feel a twinge of God’s sadness when commentators ridicule this child God loves. I pray that Mr. Trump will be more careful with the words he chooses so he will not get himself into so much trouble. I pray that he will humbly recognize the vast difference between a President and a CEO who gets rid of problems by firing those who challenge him. I ask God to strengthen Trump’s best intentions, and reward his hopes of being a good president. I try to pray for Donald Trump like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and the black worshipers in Charleston prayed for those exercising power over them.
I have seen God honor my feeble attempts to “speak mercy” to those I am tempted to judge. But CT’s focus on mercy ignores its essential companion: justice. Yes, Jesus encourages limitless mercy with his story of the prodigal son. The son was powerless and repentant. His father exuberantly embraced him, fully incorporating him back into the family. But, toward the powerful and arrogant Pharisees, Jesus expressed condemnation for their injustice toward the woman caught in adultery. Jesus was disgusted by their self-deception that she was a law breaker and they were not.
God desires both mercy and justice. They are radically different. In mercy, the Good Samaritan lifts a bloody victim onto his donkey, and interrupts his own plans to take him to a doctor. Then, for justice’ sake, having done what he could personally, he paid someone else to cover the man’s ongoing health care. Mercy is personal and direct. But we dispense justice impersonally through governmental and economic systems and laws. This protects poor people from the humiliation and manipulation of personal handouts, and serves the overwhelming majority who are untouched by those with resources. It is easy to give $100 donation of mercy while taking away thousands of dollars’ worth of justice.
So in mercy I pray for Donald as if he were my own brother doing things I find reprehensible. And I will seek justice—if there are no major changes—by helping remove him from office to limit the damage to those I was called to serve.