Faith seeking understanding

Bad leaders cannot
ultimately 'trump' God

Even though we may despair at the disastrous leadership of President Trump, we can take comfort from Scripture that he and other bad leaders will not ultimately thwart God's loving providence for humanity, reflects Mark Lindsay from New York.

August 5 2018I write this column sitting at my desk in the Episcopal Cottage, at the extraordinary Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. I’m here at the invitation of Bishop Bill Franklin, Bishop of the Diocese of Western New York, to be Chaplain to the Episcopal Community that gathers at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd for ecumenical and interfaith conversations about politics, literature, religion, and the arts.

This haven of genuinely civil discourse has been operating since 1874 and has hosted speakers such as Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton, as well as Amelia Earhart, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald.

The theme for the week that I am here is “Russia and the West”. This has turned out to be remarkably serendipitous, given that the first lecture on the week’s theme, by Democrat Senator Chris Coons, coincided to the minute with the Helsinki summit between President Trump and President Putin, and the mind-boggling press conference which followed. In the days since then, the atmosphere here, and around the country, has been one of shock, dismay, and anger. “Treason” is a word that is playing frequently on people’s lips, not only from the Democrats’ side, but increasingly also from the Republican commentariat. There is a palpable sense that the USA is at its lowest geo-political ebb for perhaps a century.

And in that context, I was asked, as a chaplain and theologian, to provide a comforting word for the times. The specific request for this came over Tuesday morning breakfast, just before the 7:45am Eucharist. The immediate difficulty in knowing how best to respond was that I knew what the Scriptures were on which I had to preach – Isaiah 7: 1-9, and Matt. 10: 20-24. On the one hand, Isaiah’s prophetic warning to King Ahaz of Judah just before his disastrous oath of allegiance to the Assyrian emperor, Tiglath-Pileser III; and on the other hand, Jesus’ condemnation of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. How, I wondered, could these texts possibly be leveraged to give that word of comfort for which I had been asked?

In the end, of course, my doubts were assuaged, not by my own exegetical cleverness (ha!) but by the gracious provision of God. For as I struggled for ideas, as I strove for inspiration, I realised that most unlikely of truths: that King Ahaz – who sacrificed his own son to Molech, who actively encouraged his people to worship at the idolatrous “high places”, who led Judah into devastating subservience under Assyria, and who died in shame and was buried apart from his Davidic forebears – is nonetheless listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.

A king who led his people into disaster, who turned his back on YHWH, and taught the people of his kingdom to do the same, is nevertheless honoured in St Matthew’s Gospel as an ancestor of the Messiah.

Is he there just as the “embarrassing uncle”, of which most families have at least one, and whose omission from the family tree would cause even more comment? Or is he there as a witness to the glorious truth that not even the worst of us, and not even the worst that we can do, can in the end obstruct the will of God?

This second option was, at least, the interpretation that I chose to give to my Chautauquan congregation that Tuesday morning. Neither the idolatry of Judah’s king, nor the dangerous instability of a modern-day President, can undo the gracious intentions of the God before whom all rulers and all people will ultimately bow.

America’s self-proclaimed “favourite President” is confounding and angering his allies even more than his enemies; his intemperate tweets and his hardline policies may well be (and are) causing embarrassment to his inner-circle, and pain to their victims; his unrepentant misogyny and racism underscore not only his own hypocrisy but also that of his so-called “court evangelicals”.

Yet the lesson from King Ahaz – or at least, from his inclusion in Jesus’ family tree – is that none of this need inevitably lead to

irredeemable ruin. A mere seven chapters on from Isaiah’s prophecy against Ahaz, we read of another prophecy, this time proclaiming God’s intention to restore Jacob and again choose Israel, to found them in their land – and, moreover, to join them together with the alien and outcast!

In the midst of America’s current trials, not least of all its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers (the principles of which Mr Trump says he received from Prime Minister Turnbull!), it turned out that this was in fact that comforting word for which I had been so ardently asked. Just as Ahaz could not ultimately thwart God’s providence, neither will President Trump – and nor, for that matter, will Presidents Putin or Rouhani, Chairman Kim, or even PM Turnbull.

As I stressed to the Episcopal congregation, none of what I hoped to say by way of encouragement was to be taken as some sort of analogy between Israel-Judah and the USA, as if America has any right to think of itself as similarly chosen, or of its Presidents as analogous to the Davidic kings. (And yes, that is a point that sometimes has to be made!) The main point – the only point – I wished to remind them of, was simply this: if you feel as though your country is being led down a pathway to disaster, then take heart from the Gospel’s testimony, that corruption even as deep as Ahaz’s is powerless in the face of the loving end, the gracious telos, that God has planned for all his people.

The message to Australians would be no different. Whether we despair at our treatment of asylum seekers and our own First Peoples, or at the chasms that have opened up between otherwise kindly and faithful people on the vexed question of marriage equality, or at the shallow artifice of our political leaders, we can be comforted in the knowledge that our own frail attempts to resolve these matters, whether good or bad, will pale in relation to God’s divine resolution of all corruption and cruelty. And that resolution will bring all those who are outside into the inside – with all margins, all exclusions, and all prejudices done way with. Come, Lord Jesus!

The Revd Prof Mark Lindsay is Interim Dean and Joan FW Munro Professor of Historical Theology, Trinity College Theological School.

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