I appreciate their challenge not to judge the President. But usually mercy is accompanied by justice.
“What to Make of Donald Trump’s Soul?” was the title of the editorial in the May issue of Christianity Today. In a featured sentence set in capital letters, editor-in-chief Mark Galli suggests that, “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 have loved Jesus since I was a child and have spent much of my life trying to respond to his encouragement to love those who hurt us. I regularly struggle to pray for—not against—President Trump. God loves President 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 Jesus, who said never to ridicule someone or call them a fool. I want Jesus to approve of the way I treat this man, whom many revile, but for whom Jesus died.
The evangelical church provides little guidance for how to treat opponents. Even before Barack Obama was inaugurated, evangelical leaders questioned his legitimacy, assassinated his character, and plotted his failure. I kept wondering how evangelicals could ignore everything Jesus taught us about how to treat others. Today, in direct contrast to their own actions toward President Obama, these same evangelical leaders want my acceptance and patience for a president they concede is immoral.
I want to follow Jesus even when his way appears complicated or dangerous, and I cannot simply ignore Christianity Today’s call for outrageous mercy. Shouldn’t God’s love be our model for this? In the early scriptures love was not merely an emotion, but a legal term. God loved his kings even when they rejected him by choosing to trust in national strength. Yet God in his love held them accountable, sending prophets to condemn their misplaced trust. God disciplined the whole nation when their king failed to use his power to protect the poor and the strangers within their gates. What does this mean for how Jesus wants me to treat President Trump?
God answered that question for me through an encounter with “the angry man.” That was how I thought of the neighbor I had seen stomping down the middle of our street, spewing invective. I spent days asking Jesus how on earth I was to love this neighbor. How could I start a conversation?
Late one night I was awakened by music blasting from the man’s car. Perhaps this is my answer, I thought. So, dressed in bathrobe and slippers in to appear non-threatening, I went out 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 been asking Jesus how to start a conversation with him. He was surprised and non-defensive. Eventually he told me he was having a hard time because his mother had just died. I shared about how I had felt when that happened to me and added that I would ask God to comfort him until the pain had begun to heal. Then I asked him to pray for me about a problem I faced. Since that night my neighbor and I greet each other with, “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 hope of being a better man and his genuine desire to help people.
Since that day my prayer has been that God will grant every prayer and hope of President 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, and I admit to God that I do not exist on a higher moral plain. Still, I cannot deny the damage President Trump is causing as he pursues his obsession to destroy everything accomplished by President Obama. And so I try to pray for our current president the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and the black worshipers in Charleston prayed for those who exercised power against them. I pray that President Trump will seek wisdom in the advice of diverse counselors and feel less need to defend his ego. I pray that President Trump will be more careful with the words he chooses so as not to get himself into so much trouble (and I feel a twinge of God’s sadness when commentators ridicule this child God loves). I pray that President Trump will humbly recognize the vast difference between being a CEO who gets rid of problems by firing those who challenge him and being the president of the United States. Finally, I ask God to strengthen President Trump’s best intentions and reward his hopes of being a good president.
I have seen God honor my feeble attempts to “speak mercy” to those I am tempted to judge. But Christianity Today’s focus on mercy ignores its essential companion: justice. Yes, in the story of the prodigal son Jesus encourages limitless mercy. The son who demands half his father’s wealth, and then wastes it all, returns home powerless and repentant. His father responds by exuberantly embracing him and fully incorporating him back into the family.
But Jesus responded differently to the powerful and arrogant. When the Pharisees brought Jesus a woman caught in adultery, he condemned their injustice and exposed the self-deception in their belief that the woman was a law breaker and they were not.
God desires both mercy and justice. The two are radically different. In mercy, the Good Samaritan lifts a bloody victim onto his donkey, interrupting his own plans to take the wounded man to a doctor. Then, having done what he can personally, he pays 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 that often accompany personal handouts, and it serves the overwhelming majority who are never picked up off the side of the road by those with resources. It is easy to give a hundred-dollar 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. And if he does not stop doing reprehensible things, I will seek justice—and President Trump’s removal from office—to limit the damage to those I was called to serve.