The comments below were written last week by me and my friend and colleague Robyn Whitaker from Trinity College Theological School. It is a response piece, taking up an article by The Age‘s former religion editor Barney Zwartz, now of the Centre for Public Christianity. You can read that article here. The Age didn’t publish our response, so I am posting it here. Much more could be said, of course, not least in light of the events of the past weekend.
Donald Trump: Respect or Resistance?
In Tuesday’s Age Barney Zwartz argued that his Christian faith instructed him to pray for President Trump and to trust God’s sovereign purposes. It is not that simple. We share his view that Trump is ‘manifestly unfit for office’ and we are also convinced that handwringing is not the appropriate response to his election and occupancy of White House. We too are committed to praying for the US President and for all those who lead and exercise authority. However, we disagree vehemently with the suggestion that prayer, honour, and respect are the most important things for Christians, or anyone for that matter, to focus on at this time.
Zwartz lands on a selection of texts from the Christian Bible that promote the values of honour and respect in relation to those in political authority. This is not the only, or even the primary, way in which such issues are understood in the biblical tradition. In these texts attitudes towards political authority run across a spectrum ranging from accommodation (pray for the king etc.) through prophetic critique (naming injustice and speaking truth to power), to the encouragement of various forms of active resistance to oppressive and unjust political regimes. Much of the Old Testament is taken up with the witness of Israel’s prophets that challenge kings, rulers and their unjust regimes; from Moses, through Elijah, to Amos and Micah. This critique continues in the teaching of Jesus, who envisages an alternative kingdom, marked by love of neighbour, compassion for the poor, and the creation of alternative forms of community that were profoundly different from those envisaged by the ruling orders of his day. Jesus was executed by a State known for its concern for centralised control, ideological manipulation, and rule through military power.
While some parts of the early Christian movement sought to protect vulnerable communities by offering advice equivalent to that offered by Zwartz, other Christians sought to confront imperial power through words and action, challenging its captivity to economic injustice, systemic violence, and neglect of the marginalised. Nowhere is that critique more pointed than in the Bible’s last book, Revelation, which unveils the ugly side of political power, bears witness to the suffering caused by unjust and oppressive rulers, and calls Christian disciples to resist it. Revelation may yet become a necessary text for contemporary Christian responses in the Trump era. This vision of the demands of Christian discipleship has shaped the theology, spirituality and action of key figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany and Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement.
Historically, the Book of Revelation and the prophetic traditions we have described were important texts for black churches in their resistance to apartheid. The texts quoted by Zwartz were, along with others, often used by the white majority churches and the apartheid regime to encourage conformity and subservience to a distorted and oppressive form of political power. To appeal to them now is to neglect the necessary response to Trump and his agenda. Our responsibility is to speak the truth, build community, and resist, even at cost.
Robyn Whitaker is Bromby Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Trinity College, Parkville
Sean Winter is Associate Professor of New Testament at Pilgrim Theological College, Parkville
Both teach within the University of Divinity in Melbourne.