On the morning of January 20, Donald Trump attended a service at St. John’s Episcopal Church in D.C. In that service, Trump heard a sermon by Rev. Robert Jeffress on a passage from Nehemiah. Jeffress’ sermon drew comparisons between the leadership of Nehemiah, the governor of a Persian province in the 5th century BCE, and the man who would be sworn in as the President of the United States in a matter of hours.
The premise of the sermon was, at some level, innocuous: he used a biblical passage to encourage and exhort someone who was moments away from becoming the most powerful person on earth.
Yet Pastor Jeffress performed an act of biblical interpretation that was contextually careless and theologically pernicious. We ought to be disturbed by such a sermon, not because Trump heard it, but that Jeffress felt he could, as a Christian minister in good faith, preach a sermon like this at such a critical moment. We should be disturbed that the bible could be interpreted on the national stage with a remarkably cavalier disregard for context, fact, and the message of the Gospel.
What makes this sermon so irresponsible comes down, in part, to the problem of analogy. Drawing analogies between the bible and contemporary life sits at the heart of the preacher’s task. The critical question in preaching becomes how you draw those analogies. To whom or to what will you liken the figures in the biblical passage at hand? To whom or to what will you like the prophets? The Good Samaritan? Jesus? His disciples? His enemies? The poor and the disenfranchised Jesus socialized with and healed?
These connections matter, because they effectively recreate biblical stories in real time. These connections tell us who we should pay attention to now, who we should challenge now, and who we should follow now.
Jeffress preached on the premise that America is like Judah; that a 5th century BCE Persian colony is like the United States of America in 2017. It is not. Judah was an imperial backwater two and a half thousand years ago; a tiny, struggling province in the midst of a massive Persian empire. Socially, religiously, economically, militarily it bears no resemblance to the United States in 2017. America, by contrast, is a nation of over 300 million people, boasts the world’s second largest GDP, and an active military presence in over 25 countries. No matter whatever very real and painful narratives we can tell about its job losses, crumbling infrastructure, and the ongoing legacy of the 2008 recession, America’s power economically, militarily, and culturally is imperial in scope and scale, much more comparable to the empires that oppressed and overshadowed the Judeans, than Judah itself.
Sure, you might say, but the connection doesn’t have to be so specific in a sermon. If it did, how would we ever draw any comparisons? Any nation or group, of any size, can be plagued by recession, internal discord, and attack. The book of Nehemiah simply offers us a way to face these general national challenges faithfully. Indeed, this is how most preaching connections are made: drawing general, often metaphorical lessons from a very specific story in a very different context.
But building a wall, in Jeffress’ sermon, is not a metaphor. It is a real wall, unblinkingly transported from 5th century Judah to the 21st century US/Mexican border. It is in fact a very specific, material, physical solution to a very specific political problem. It is, in a sense, a kind of over-literal interpretation that ignores critical contextual differences to all of our peril. If we appeal to Deuteronomy, Joshua, or 1 Kings for the same type of direct political advice, we will find instructions to commit genocide and mob-style assassinations (e.g. Deut 20; Josh 6; 1 Kings 2).
Okay, okay, you might say. But maybe the wall was really beside the point. The ultimate point of the sermon was to encourage Trump to be like Nehemiah, to stand unmoved in the face of detractors and to seek God’s help in the face of extreme challenges.
I agree that this was likely the point of the sermon. But I disagree with the comparison. Or rather, I disagree that we should want a leader like Nehemiah. The story of Nehemiah is written mostly as Nehemiah’s first-person account of his own work to revive Judah still under the thumb of the Persian Empire. Nehemiah’s memoir reveals the profile of a hot-headed, vindictive, and self-aggrandizing leader (2:19; 4:4; 5:19; 6:14) who assaults his own people because they married “foreigners” (Neh 13:25). Nehemiah prohibits the marriage with “foreign” women, an only slightly more charitable echo of the policies of his predecessor Ezra, who mandated the removal of all “foreign” women who had married Judeans and the children they had together (Neh 13; Ezra 10). Whether any of these policies had even short-term benefits for prosperity or cohesion is never mentioned.
What about Nehemiah’s alleged faithfulness to God? Nehemiah talks a lot about God’s blessing upon him for how faithful he is (Neh 5:19), and his assurance that God is condoning his actions (Neh 4:20; 6:16). There is nothing necessarily wrong with a leader drawing strength from faithfulness to God But we have no indication that Nehemiah is correct in his assumption that God is in fact supporting him in all things, from his rash decisions, to his many political conflicts, to his prohibition on foreign marriages.
If you’re a Trump skeptic, you may be beginning to see connections between Nehemiah and Trump. The point is, however, that we shouldn’t want this sort of a leader. The fact that Nehemiah’s story is preserved in the bible does not automatically make him spiritually or politically exemplary, nor does it make him immune from rigorous critique. The bible is full of stories of failed protagonists and dubious heroes.
If anything, we should read Nehemiah’s leadership as a cautionary tale. Perhaps all the more so if we see any faint resemblances between him and our president. As Americans, moreover, that is, as citizens of the political and military equivalent of a biblical Persia or Babylon or Rome, it is our responsibility to be exquisitely cautious about what biblical figures we liken to ourselves and our leaders, and what stories we draw upon to shape our religious and political aspirations.
Hours after this sermon was preached, Donald Trump placed his hand on a bible and took the oath of office to be the President of the United States. During the ceremony, parts of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount was read, though with a slightly different translation and without a hint of irony:
One of the gaping omissions of Rev. Jeffress’ sermon was its shocking lack of references to Jesus or his teachings, like the Beatitudes above. There was no consideration of how drawing analogies between us and “the merciful” and “the peacemakers” might force us to re-frame our political imaginations. There was no thought of who the “poor in spirit” (or in Luke’s version, just “the poor”) and “those who mourn” might be.
At the inauguration, the Beatitudes were rendered as “God blesses the poor in spirit; God blesses those who mourn.” But the Greek, makarios, usually translated as “blessed,” is actually more ambiguous, inviting us to consider just who the agent of blessing might be. Is it God? Is it us? Is it both?
Given Jesus’ repeated invitations to welcome the poor, hungry, and despised in his name, we might ask whether the indefinite “blessed” here is an invitation to partner with God in this work of blessing. We might also ask whether likening these “poor” and these “mourners” to, say, immigrants and refugees, might demand that we consider whether it is in fact we who are being called upon to bless them.
This week, Trump’s unflinchingly xenophobic policies are looking more and more like Nehemiah’s. But remember: such policies within the biblical context unleashed pain and discord without clear political gain or divine support.
We should not want a Nehemiah-like president.
So who then should our president be like? The bible has, frustratingly enough, left no direct blueprint for how the president of a 21st century world power should be governed, nor what actions we should take as citizens living within it. Preaching and interpreting the bible is work that merits wrestling with its historical, literary, and ethical complexities. Applying it to our lives and our leaders unreflectively discredits the church and the God that we claim to serve. The work of drawing biblical analogy to our own lives is difficult work, with serious consequences for how we live and love, and who we support. But it is not impossible. If you want to begin the hard work of thinking biblically about how to live and lead in our time, the Beatitudes might be a good place to start.