Subtitle: A personal reflection on the politics of salvation.
During yesterday’s televised episode of “The Jim Bakker Show,” the televangelist declared that to support the President Donald Trump “is a test whether you’re even saved.” Further clarifying his remark, Mr. Bakker added, “Only saved people can love Trump” and “You (have to) really be saved. You (have to) forgive. You forgive when you’re saved.”
The reaction, swift and pronounced, and, largely, as far as I can discern, from liberal and anti-Trump groups and individuals, has two primary expressions. Many dismiss Mr. Bakker’s perspective given his initiation and involvement in the scandals of the 1980s that rocked his previous PTL television ministry and empire and led to his imprisonment. And these same and others decry what they consider his manipulation, for rank political purposes, of the Christian mandate to love; thereby weakening, indeed, sullying the proclamation of the gospel.
I am as opinionated as the proverbial next person; truth to tell, depending on the subject (as, I think, is true for anyone given our individual perspectives about what matters to us and what makes for meaning in our lives), perhaps, more.
Nevertheless, regarding the first critique, that is, regarding Mr. Bakker’s presumed lack of moral character, thus, vitiating, for some, the value of his viewpoint, I share a maxim that I have held fast for many years (which, in my active application of it has kept me open to listening and understanding “the other,” those who think and feel, believe and behave differently than I): Though one be adjudged in the wrong does not mean that one never speaks a word of truth.
Therefore, taking Mr. Bakker at his word, that is, that he declared what was true for him, as I consider his point of view in the light of my (admittedly, as human, limited) understanding, this is my opinion.
As unconditional love (not feelings or emotional affections, but rather benevolence actively rendered without the exercise or imposition of standards of deserving, merit, or worthiness) is the heart of the gospel, I can and will make a case that I am called to love Donald Trump, Jim Bakker, and everyone else.
That said, as I also seek to perceive Mr. Bakker’s point from his perspective, it seems to me that he has blurred the distinction of which Jesus testified when responding to those who sought to entrap and discredit him, asking, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
If Jesus replied, “Pay the tax,” he would have lost credibility among a Jewish populace oppressed by the Roman Empire.
If Jesus answered, “Do not pay the tax,” he would have been guilty of sedition against the governing state.
Jesus, requesting of his inquirers a Roman coin, asked, “Whose head is this and whose title?”, the answer to both questions being “the emperor’s.” So, Jesus said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Though Jesus set down no lists of what pertains to the emperor and what pertains to God, in this instant case, as the coin belonged to the emperor, then the implication was that it was to be returned to the emperor.
In this and in broader, that is, all other applications, it seems to me that the possessions of the emperor (or any other earthly authority, including presidents), by definition, are temporal and spatial, therefore, necessarily limited and transient. Contrarily, indeed, overarchingly, God’s possessions are eternal, thus, boundless.
As I apply this view to myself, when I, as a Christian, recognizing the legitimacy of the state and my acceptance of government-provided services, pay taxes, I am obligated to do so with a spirit of integrity, honesty. However, paying taxes, in and of itself, no more or less than loving and forgiving Mr. Trump, Mr. Bakker, or anyone else, is not and cannot be proof of my salvation or, to employ another term, righteousness. For salvation is God’s gift alone and righteousness, God’s judgment alone.
Hence, granting Mr. Bakker the benefit of the doubt, in his enthusiasm to support the president, at best, he overstated his point. At worst, whether knowingly or unknowingly, he misinterpreted the gospel warrant, for he implied that forgiveness is to be granted free of any essential challenge to the less than wholesome behavior of the one to be forgiven.
The words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer come to mind: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Biblical Reference: Mark 12.13-17
(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), German pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, who, staunchly opposed to Germany’s genocidal persecution of the Jews, was accused of taking part in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Tried and convicted, he was condemned to death by hanging.
Illustration: Caesar’s Coin (1790), Domingos Sequeira (1768-1837)