Note: This is not a simulation. This is exactly the state of my prayer life right now.
“It feels like a bill has come due and God is collecting.”
—White House source to Joe Scarborough, Twitter, 8:38 a.m. October 7, 2020.
I am feeling a spark of hope about our nation’s future for the first time in four years. I have been so enraged, appalled and grief-stricken for so long that I hardly dare to allow myself to hope. But right now, it feels like maybe you are intervening in a way that is going to spare us much further abuse at the hands of Donald Trump.
What a mercy that would be. Is this what you are up to at this moment?
Lord God, I have been wondering ever since November 2016 whether Donald Trump’s election should be interpreted as your punishment upon our sin-sick nation. Maybe more metaphorically than literally, but that idea of Trump as national punishment has never left me.
You know that I never, ever, ever do this kind of thing. Ever since I read The Late Great Planet Earth around 1979, I knew I never wanted to be like Hal Lindsey reading the end-times tea leaves from the latest developments in the Middle East.
But you also know that after Donald Trump was somehow elected president in 2016, it didn’t take me long to wonder whether to interpret this awful event as somehow an expression of your anger at us — especially at us white Christians, who did more than anyone else to elect this reprobate man to America’s highest office.
I was thinking — wouldn’t it be just about fitting for a country that has never renounced white supremacism and all its evil works to elect a dangerous, unqualified, obtuse demagogue con-man to be president just because he offered the ultimate form of post-Obama white backlash? And wouldn’t it be just about fitting for America to have to pay a horrific price for this latest iteration of our oldest sin? Of course, in 2017 I could not have imagined what 2020 actually would look like.
You know I think the best expression of public theology in American history was Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in March 1865. It has come to mind often in these years.
In that amazing speech, Lincoln suggested that perhaps the agony and bloodshed of the war might represent a fitting expression of your judgment on America for the sin of slavery:
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
It is in that spirit that I have wondered whether Trump’s election might also be interpreted as your punishment. We fooled around with white backlash one more time, and we got ourselves the “mighty scourge” of Trump’s misdeeds and their awful consequences.
Of course, while Trump’s foul misdeeds have hurt all of us to some extent, they have hurt some of us more than others — and those most hurt are mainly (not always) those least likely to have supported him. I think of the way COVID has affected black Americans more than white Americans, the way the COVID recession has affected working-class folks more than white collar workers, and the grotesque way immigrants have been treated at the southern border.
“If what you have been doing is a collective punishment, then like most collective punishments, it hasn’t been fair at all.”
So: If what you have been doing is a collective punishment, then like most collective punishments, it hasn’t been fair at all.
But still …
And now I am wondering if your judgment is relenting, and if a time of mercy is at hand.
When Donald Trump fell ill, I did not rejoice. But I did wonder what to make of it. I remembered that your prophets sometimes said that God was about to punish the very people God had earlier used to punish Israel. Could this be what is now happening?
As your word says, in Isaiah 10: “When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride.” This passage says you selected Assyria as a means to punish your people. But Assyria in its arrogance and pride had gone beyond its writ. Therefore, you would bring down Assyria.
What if Donald Trump was the “rod of your anger” but now it is time for even that rod of anger to be brought low?
Is it out of bounds for our thoughts to reach for such a parallel? These events are so epic, their timing so sublime, that normal historical analysis doesn’t seem quite enough. The president who fatefully mismanaged a pandemic and taught his fans to flaunt public health measures is now struck by the disease himself — along with the White House, his campaign and dozens of his closest advisers? Four weeks from an election that was supposed to be close? Leaving the whole awful apparatus of his power crippled at just the wrong time? God, it feels like judgment on him, and mercy toward us, sparing us a seriously contested election or four more years of Trump.
“Dare I hope that you are about to do a new thing among us?”
Lord, I have been praying every day for the smashing defeat of Donald Trump and for the complete discrediting of Trumpism. I have been praying that we can start over in January, that we can have some grownups attempt to get on top of COVID, and that we can move toward building a more just democracy at last. Am I catching a glimpse that this is what is about to happen? Dare I hope that you are about to do a new thing among us?
Lord, I don’t know whether I dare such hope. But I do know that this is my heartfelt prayer: that Donald Trump will be overwhelmingly defeated in a free and fair election. That he will not be able to cling to power. That his most shameless defenders will be likewise defeated. That his toxic ideology will be discredited. That the endless fight for a better America will gain a substantial victory. May it be so, for the sake of this land that I love so much and have grieved so deeply. Amen.
David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the past-president of both the American Academy of Religion and Society of Christian Ethics. He is an author or editor of 25 books. His most recognized works include Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Kingdom Ethics, The Sacredness of Human Life, and Changing Our Mind. He earned the Ph.D. from Union Seminary. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta.