Kings, Prophets, and Presidents: A Warning about Power Abuse (Part 3 of 4)
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. Elie Wiesel
The stories about Kings David and Ahab abusing their power are the basis of these few posts. Though this practice was not characteristic of David throughout his reign, Ahab and his wife Jezebel were serial power abusers.
It was prophets (Nathan and Elijah) that confronted them about their exploitive behavior and brought them back to their senses. Who can know whether or not either king would have repented without these brave ambassadors for God? Typically, power abusers will persist in their sin with impunity unless someone risks it and speaks the truth to their power.
Last time I gave my take on just a few of President Trump’s abuses of power, the most recent of which was how he hurdled over Congress to declare a national emergency in order to get his wall built. Whether or not you agree with my assessment of his presidency in general or this action in particular, read on.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Proverbs 31:8
Many of us have applied this passage to our pro-life activism and actions on behalf of the unborn, and rightly so. But there are many others who need an advocate for justice, people “who can’t speak for themselves.” Justice is perverted not only when the powerful take advantage of the powerless, but when no one speaks truth to the powerful and calls them to account.
Pope Francis said, “Our defense of the innocent unborn needs to be clear, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and the elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”
Part of what it means to speak up for the vulnerable is to speak truth to those who exploit them. God sent prophets to kings in the Bible days and still sends people with a prophetic mission to the “powers” today.
I wonder if we have too narrow a view of that “prophetic mission.” As Nathan and Elijah stood up to their kings, who could very well have removed their heads for so brazenly rebuking them, the Church today has a mandate to speak, either TO power if we have that level of access, or ABOUT power when it runs afoul of morality and exploits the weak.
With respect to Jim Crow laws Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
“The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
I wonder how King would evaluate today’s Church.
Our president brings his own cadre or preachers into the White House for a meal, a pep-talk, and a photo-op. In my opinion these men and women of God go not merely affirm to and sanction, but also to confront him and his policies. They should, as Stephen Mansfield says, “maintain prophetic distance and to be guardians of a moral vision for life and government.”
Though I agree with those who criticize Republicans in Congress for not standing up to the president, I don’t know what it’s like to be a congressman. But I do know what it means to be a son of God and ambassador for Christ, and I’m often ashamed of the Church for its “weak and ineffectual voice” in relation to our president’s outright interminable abuses of power. “If liberty means anything at all,” said George Orwell, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Either by their public defense of Mr. Trump or their self-indicting silence, certain prominent evangelicals — including Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Paula White, and James Dobson — are effectively blessing a leader who has acted in ways that are fundamentally incompatible with very basic Christian ethics. They, in my opinion, squander their moral authority and undermine our testimony.
“For those who are the guardians of morality,” writes Mansfield, “and whose role it is to call for stronger character and deeper souls, to support Trump publicly without distinguishing between the virtues and the vices is nearly an act of idolatry.”
I don’t believe, as some do, that Mr. Trump has hijacked the country. But there’s no doubt in my mind that he has identified and exploited our darker impulses and marshaled them effectively to further his own fame and power. He is only a symptom of a deeper moral malady in our country. And the saddest part of it all is that much of the Church remains silent, or worse, reports for duty as some of his staunchest rally-goers. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to tell my granddaughters than “Stormy Daniels” was a meteorologist and that the children who were caged at the border were playing hide and seek!
Whoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favor rather than one who has a flattering tongue. Proverbs 28:23
The president surrounds himself with people who are more apt to fawn over him than tell him the truth. Instead of speaking truth to power they partake of the power and get their picture taken with it. I can only surmise that they thought having a place at the table meant an opportunity to eat his the table.
“The self-righteous upsurge of party loyalty that blots out conscience and absolves every criminal tendency in the name of Class, Nation, Party, Race or Sect . . . are putting conscience and personality to sleep and turning free, reasonable people into passive instruments of the power politician.” Thomas Merton
Next time we’ll talk about how we as Christians manage our own power and privilege. In the meantime, what do you think?
- Do you agree that it is the responsibility of the common Christian speak truth, if not TO power, ABOUT it? If not, on what Scriptural basis do you have for your opinion?
- What have you done to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves?
- What advice would you give to a Christian who is invited to counsel the president?