Editor’s note: This op-ed has been corrected to remove inaccurate attribution for a claim that Donald Trump is the most Christian president in years. The statement was made as part of a written description of a July 9 YouTube posting of “America First with Sebastian Gorka.” The Sun regrets the error.
Whether one believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ, one should agree that the most direct descriptions of Jesus come from the Gospels. Thus, Christians and critics of Christianity alike should start with the Gospels when describing what they believe or reject about Jesus. If their position contradicts the Gospels, then they are mistaken. It follows that ascriptions or denials of Christian virtues are wrong if they contradict the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus.
Consider two examples: A July 9 YouTube episode of “America First with Sebastian Gorka” was titled “Donald Trump: The most Christian President in years.” And on Nov. 17, national news reported that Paul Ewell resigned as Dean of Virginia Wesleyan University after declaring that people who voted for Joe Biden are “ignorant, anti-American, and anti-Christian.” To be fair, Mr. Ewell did not say explicitly that people who voted for Donald Trump are wise, pro-American and pro-Christian, but he implied it.
As a Christian who voted for Mr. Biden and who loves America, I take exception to Mr. Ewell’s rant. As someone acquainted with Christian theology and philosophy, I take exception to the description of Mr. Trump as the most Christian president in years.
Consider some counter examples from the Gospel narrative. The big one is Jesus’ claim that the basic imperatives for his followers are to love God and to love their neighbors as themselves. This formula is simplified in other New Testament passages that claim that to love one’s neighbor is to have all the commandments. The word for love in the Greek New Testament is agape — an unconditional love for all people, recognizing their inherent dignity. In the teachings ascribed to Jesus, this love manifests itself in at least the following ways:
Love of enemies. This doesn’t mean loving what makes someone an enemy, as one might display in championing the thoughts and behaviors of a brutal dictator, but it means seeing in the enemy a human equal in dignity to oneself. This is captured in the pan-religious and pan-cultural “Golden Rule” to do to others what you would have done to yourself. It is also expressed in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Preferential option for the poor. While Jesus does not condemn wealth, he condemns those who put their wealth before the well-being — love of — the poor, who would benefit from sharing that wealth. To hold onto wealth or to seek to increase it, when it could otherwise help the poor, is not Christian.
Hospitality for the stranger. As an observant Jew, Jesus took to heart the Jewish Bible’s calls to treat the stranger hospitably, and Jesus often demanded the same of his followers. Putting up walls to keep the stranger out or disparaging the stranger as undeserving of the benefits of one’s compatriots is not Christian.
Humility. The most common targets of Jesus’ ire — maybe to save them from themselves — were the self-righteous, judgmental Scribes and Pharisees. The first will be last, and the last will be first, Jesus said, reminding us that no one is more or less precious than the other.
Turning the other cheek. There is much debate about what Jesus meant here, with a common interpretation being a call to nonviolence or avoiding revenge. While it may be impossible to demand categorically of a country’s leader that they refrain from violence, it is reasonable to ask them never to act vengefully. Jesus asks that of everyone.
Forgiveness. Perhaps another way of stating the foregoing is to repeat Jesus’ claim that we must forgive “seventy times seven.” It is difficult, if not impossible, to forgive so intently, while holding the object of that forgiveness in contempt. The former is an act of love, the latter is not.
I have on occasion imagined that if Jesus were to return to Earth and landed in the U.S., he would not head to a church — the Jesus of the Gospels is, after all, Jewish and otherwise non-denominational — but to a street corner on which stands a homeless person with a cardboard sign, asking for help. There Jesus stands with his arm around the shoulder of that person, while shouting at the passing motorists, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
When given a narrative containing a character in obvious contrast to the Gospels’ Jesus, isn’t it reasonable to describe this other character as anti-Christian?
Christopher Dreisbach (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of organizational leadership at Johns Hopkins University; adjunct professor at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute; and a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. He does not speak for any of these organizations in this essay.