Since summer 2015, the most important figure in American life has been Donald J. Trump.
Every time some of us hoped we would be through with him, he has shown he is not through with us. His exhausting presence and terrible impact on our country have not ended and apparently will not end even after he is arraigned this afternoon, accused of various crimes against the state of New York.
I have sought to write about Trump as little as possible. Knowing that, above all, he appears to want attention, I have not wanted to give it to him. However, on the occasion of this unprecedented indictment of a former president, today I offer several reflections I dare to describe as “biblical” — that is, only the Bible’s vision seems big enough to name what it is we are living through.
So it is to the Bible I turn.
‘The man of lawlessness’
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition. — 2 Thessalonians 2:3
The older translation is the best and most literal here. The text speaks about the man of lawlessness — anomias — the man utterly without law, the man who believes himself to be above the law, the man whom no law, divine or human, moral or civil, seems able to constrain.
“We ought to be able to see we have had at the forefront of our national life for the last decade a man of lawlessness whom this passage aptly describes.”
In this passage in 2 Thessalonians, the author is spinning out an eschatological scenario about the events before Christ returns. But that does not mean the passage has no value in any other context. We do not know how soon Christ will return. But we ought to be able to see we have had at the forefront of our national life for the last decade a man of lawlessness whom this passage aptly describes.
Donald Trump’s first brush with the law came 50 years ago, when his family’s real estate company was charged with discriminating against Blacks, a case finally settled out of court. He has been in and out of court ever since, suing or being sued thousands of times. Many of his associates have been jailed.
He never has admitted wrongdoing in anything. He always has responded to legal actions by attacking his accusers and filing every possible delaying action. He has proceeded with impunity, using every bit of leverage and seemingly endless money to fight legal action against him.
But now this lawless man, this man of lawlessness, has been indicted in a criminal case for the first time. Other indictments, by Georgia and the U.S. Department of Justice, may follow. We will soon see whether human justice is, at last, to some extent, finally catching up with Donald Trump.
Why do the wicked prosper?
As for me, is my complaint addressed to mortals?
Why should I not be impatient?
Look at me and be appalled,
and lay your hand upon your mouth.
When I think of it I am dismayed,
and shuddering seizes my flesh.
Why do the wicked live on,
reach old age, and grow mighty in power?
Their children are established in their presence
and their offspring before their eyes.
Their houses are safe from fear,
and no rod of God is upon them.
They spend their days in prosperity,
and in peace they go down to Sheol.
— Job 21:4-9, 13
It is one of the oldest laments in human history: If God is just, and God sees all, and God is involved in human history, why do the wicked live on, grow mighty in power, spend their days in prosperity and die in peace?
The text here is from Job, the greatest single exploration of the problem of innocent suffering found in the Bible and perhaps in world literature. But it should not be overlooked that Job also explores the flip side of the problem. It is not just that the innocent suffer but also that the wicked prosper.
“It is not just that the innocent suffer but also that the wicked prosper.”
Why is it that innocent people can be thrown in jail while guilty ones get off scot-free time and time again? Where is justice, either human or divine, in this world filled with law codes and supposedly ruled by a just God?
The fixation on Trump that some have belittled as Trump Derangement Syndrome often is simply a thirst for some measure of justice in this unjust world. People — not just religious people — want to see justice done. They sense that with Trump we see evil walking on the earth, laws skirted or broken left and right, and genuine harm done to individuals and the nation.
When our God-given, innate sense of justice is violated, we know it.
Is this the time when the House of Trump is no longer to be “safe from fear”? Is this the time when Trump’s power, prosperity and peace finally end? Or are those of us hoping for justice merely being toyed with one more time?
With all wicked deception and strong delusions
The son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming. The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with pretended signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. — 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12
Donald Trump’s character has worsened with his taste of, and loss of, and effort to regain, great political power.
If one compares the Trump of 2015 with the Trump of 2023, what comes to my mind is the distinction drawn in Catholic moral theology between venial and mortal sin. He was a garden-variety louse in 2015, but by now he is responsible for much greater sins and crimes, with real blood on his hands — not just the blood shed on January 6, but the many who have threatened or committed violence in his name or upon his instigation, until today.
His lawlessness has grown. Restraints of all types have weakened. His political party, his family, his friends, his conscience, if he has one — where are they now?
Did you notice the idolatry described in this passage? Think of the many “temples of God” in which Trump has “taken his seat.” Think of the many priests and preachers of God who have declared him God’s anointed. Think of the many “pretended signs and wonders,” all the “wicked deception” that has misled so many, all the lies, all the “strong delusions, to make them believe what is false.”
“Think of the Christian people who even this week will apotheosize Trump and confuse him with Jesus, identifying a New York arraignment with a Cross on Calvary.”
Think of the Christian people who even this week will apotheosize Trump and confuse him with Jesus, identifying a New York arraignment with a Cross on Calvary.
Villains and saints in full public view
Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood the difference between ordinary times and apocalyptic times. In his Ethics, written in Nazi Germany during World War II, he offered the following amazingly appropriate lines:
Today we have villains and saints again, in full public view. The gray on gray of a sultry rainy day has turned into the black cloud and bright lightning flash of a thunderstorm. The contours are sharply drawn. Reality is laid bare. Shakespeare’s characters are among us. The villain and the saint have little or nothing to do with ethical programs. They arise from primeval depths, and with their appearance tear open the demonic and divine abyss out of which they come.
Donald Trump is a Shakespearean character of fatal flaws and villainous wickedness. We do not know when — or if — he will finally be defeated by the forces of law, morality, courage, decency and maybe even a merciful God. But, by God, he must be defeated. This nightmare must end.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. serves as distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, chair of Christian social ethics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and senior research fellow at International Baptist Theological Study Centre. He is a past president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics. His latest book is Introducing Christian Ethics. He’s also the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
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