The widespread publicity regarding the whistleblower, who disclosed President Trump’s extorting telephone call to the president of Ukraine, should remind us that political whistleblowing is a dominant prophetic role of Christians That critical role comes from Jesus, who is recorded as saying about his mission: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4: 18) Prophetic political whistleblowing is a major role of Christians, because political structures greatly determine who shall be rich and who shall be poor, who shall be free and who shall be oppressed, who shall live and who shall die. Prophetic Christian whistleblowing is also inspired by The Bible’s Jewish prophets, such as Isaiah who spoke moral political truth in his day with, “Learn to do good, Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor, Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1: 17)
Yet Christians have contrary takes on religion and politics. There are Christians who want to “keep religion out of politics,” and punish those in their churches who become too “political.” Conversely, there are other Christians who try to use politics to impose their biblically-based views on everyone else, and want to punish those who don’t conform. And there are those Christians who seek to use politics to empower people, rather than gain power over them. The courageous “insider” whistleblower, who is giving our “perfect” president — and his accommodating Republican acolytes – fits, offers an opportunity to clarify and affirm what should be the dominant prophetic political activism of Christian faith leaders and their church members.
Christians see themselves as the moral arbitrators of right and wrong, but the morality of many is determined by their left and right political leanings. Christian congregations are made up of Democrats and Republicans and Independents – conservatives, liberals, progressives and moderates — who profess the same faith, but don’t necessarily share the same morality. Church members in pews sit on political landmines, which can blow up if triggered by contrary “politics” from the pulpit or the pew. For example, if a minister or priest or lay member morally challenges a particular political party’s policies, or advocates a threatening position, he or she may spark criticism from other church members affiliated with that political party. The call to “keep religion out of politics” effectively circumscribes, and at times neutralizes, a moral gospel that “proclaim[s] good news to the poor” and “set[s] the oppressed free.”
Actually, it is the politics of religion that keeps religion out of politics – out of controversial political issues. Such Christians justify avoiding engagement in risky critical political issues by hiding behind biblical verses: like Jesus’ recorded statement, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) Never mind that Jesus – like other would-be Jewish liberators of his day — was crucified for “sedition” for seeking to liberate his Jewish people from Caesar’s oppressive Roman rule. (See “Report of the Ad Hoc Scholars Group Reviewing the Script of the Passion,” www.bc. edu. May 2, 2003)
Thus for certain Christians it is much safer to believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world, than for seeking to liberate his Jewish people from the sins of the Roman Empire. Here, it is more about a gospel of personal salvation for individual believers, than a model of moral activism for doers. It is much easier to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, and thus one’s own in an afterlife, than in his example in this life. Safer to personally believe in his name, than to act politically on behalf of other persons in his name. Safer to worship him as a memory, than follow him as a model.
Nor is it merely the political power structure that may come down on faith leaders who don’t toe the line. With important exceptions, that censorship often comes from the faith leaders’ own hierarchical superiors, whose primary role is to serve as guardians of the status quo, not as prophets of the people. In fact, many church superiors have succeeded in making it up the hierarchical ladder precisely through their ability to achieve within the status quo. And, as their accommodation to the status quo characterized their ascent, they expect the same of clergy under their authority. They actually keep the consciences of clergy under them through power over their employment and advancement. Thus, for many clergy getting ahead means going along. The pressure of the pocketbook, not the rights of people, often dictates the behavior of countless faith leaders. Not that they completely avoid being prophetic, but that their activism is circumscribed by being vetted and channeled by a status-quo-serving religious power structure.
Such politically accommodating Christians find their justification in Paul the Apostle’s teaching, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there are no authorities except that which God has established.” And since ”the authorities that exist have been established by God, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13: 1-2)
The early Christians were quite different. They faced imprisonment and death for refusing to renounce their Christ-centered god and worship the Roman state’s pagan gods. Many Romans marveled at how Christians loved and supported each other in the face of persecution and death. Tertullian, “the first great African theologian (ca. 160-220) believed that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” (“See how these Christians love one another,” christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine)
Tertullian was prophetic. In 312 AD, Roman ruler Constantine converted to Christianity, and the once persecuted sect of Christians became the religion of the state. Christianity accommodated Roman domination, and expanded on the Empire’s imperialistic coattails. What began as a movement by the prophet Jesus to liberate his Jewish people became an evangelizing religion that sought to gain its own power over people.
The transformation of Jesus from liberator to evangelizer is instructive. He was seen as a Messiah who would set his Jewish people free from Roman occupation, as Jewish nationalism and religion went hand in hand. But he was crucified, and the Jews continued to endure extreme persecution by Rome. So much for him being a Jewish Messiah. Thus the “Good News” went mainstream in the Roman world: an assumed resurrected Jesus, proof of him being the only Son of God and savior of the world, had supposedly appeared to his disciples and commissioned them with, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28: 16-20) His followers put wings on his feet and words in his mouth in the Roman world, and the liberator became an evangelizer, joining the state in seeking to conquer the world. Affiliation with political power became the means by which to dominate unbelievers, impose Christian beliefs on them and punish those who resist.
Traditional Christianity is imperialistic, claiming authority as the one true revelation of God. It was just a matter of gaining the power to impose its authority on the world. Once Christianity was recognized as the religion of the state, the state provided the power.
An example of using politics to advance Christianity is the 11th, 12th and 13th century Crusades in which Christian armies, blessed by the Catholic Church, went to war against Muslims, pagans and heretics to take back holy land cities and shrines. The Crusades were seen as a way for Christian warriors to obtain forgiveness and salvation by “taking up the cross,” and fighting Muslims, heretics and pagans on behalf of their one true faith. The result was millions dead, cities and towns destroyed and needed resources wasted. (See “The Crusades: Motivations, Administration, and Cultural Influence,” By Rachel Rooney and Andrew Miller, The Newberry)
Another example of using politics to expand Christian influence is the Doctrine of Discovery issued by Pope Alexander VI’s Papal Bull in 1493. The Papal decree reportedly “aimed to justify Christian European explorers’ claims on land and waterways they allegedly discovered, and promote Christian denomination and superiority, and has been applied in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Americas.” (“Doctrine of Discovery,” upstanderproject,org) It did not matter that people already inhabited the land. The Upstander Project states that the Doctrine of Discovery “supported the dehumanization of those living on the land and their dispossession, murder and forced assimilation.” Also, “the Doctrine fueled white supremacy insofar as white European settlers claimed they were instruments of divine design and possessed cultural superiority.” (Ibid)
Here, white European Christians believed that their “discovery” and settling of the Americas was God’s doing: they saw themselves as the embodiment of Jesus’ teaching, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5: 14) And their God-given “manifest destiny” led them to build their “City” on the backs of enslaved Africans and the bones of indigenous peoples. Their “light” meant darkness for so many they judged to be culturally inferior. It was about heavenly authority and earthly power that relegated The Other to disposable means.
The use of Christianity to gain authority and political power over others continues. That’s part of the story of “Jesus changed my heart” George W. Bush’s presidency. The 9/11 attacks against America should have elicited a wakeup call for national soul searching in an attempt to discover America’s oppressive policies against Muslim peoples that led to such reactive violence. President Bush denounced any such national self-examination, declared that the Muslims who attacked America were “evildoers” who “hate our freedom,” and used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to declare a global “war on terror.” Bush portrayed it as a holy war in saying, “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.” His global “war on terror,” beginning with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, was enthusiastically supported by a large majority of white evangelical Christians, who saw the world-wide “war on terror” as an opportunity to convert Muslims to their one true Christian spiritual realm. This unending war also proved to be especially good for the military/industrial/intelligence complex’s temporal realm of unending profit.
But the falsely-based, criminal war against defenseless Iraq was not good for the Iraqi people. America supposedly bestowed “God’s gift” of “liberty” on them, but you could not prove it by them. Today Iraq is wracked with unrest and violence. A recent report stated: “At least 48 people have been killed since the protests resumed this week, after 149 were killed in a wave of demonstrations earlier this month. “ Also, “The spontaneous leaderless protests are directed at the political establishment that came to power after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which many blame for sprawling corruption and poor public services.” (“7 More Killed in Iraq as Anti-Government Protests Continue,” By Qassim Abdul-Zahra, AP, Time, Oct. 26, 2019) This unrest in a country that has such vast oil wealth. It appears that oil is the “prize” and not “God’s gift” of “liberty”.
The scratching of each other’s backs is especially seen in the mutual courtship between President Donald Trump and white evangelical Christians. Trump created an Evangelical Advisory Board, whose members are often pictured surrounding him and putting their hands on his back in prayer. This pious scene is enough to make disappear his psychopathic lies, narcissism, constant depreciation of perceived enemies, and sexual abuse of women. His divisive authoritarian personality is not a problem for these evangelicals, as long as he meets their biblically-based demand for pro-life judges and the “religious freedom” to discriminate against LGBTQ persons. The bottom, line for Trump’s evangelical supporters is the authority the Bible gives to them over other people’s lives. They prostitute themselves in the service of the state for a piece of imperialistic power. Democratic give-and-take is an anathema to them.
The separation of Church and State does not mean the subservience of the Church to the State. Politics greatly determine the well-being and ill health of people. Therefore, all people of faith have a definite role to play in politics. Their role is to use politics to empower people’s “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” not impose sectarian beliefs on them.
Thus when a political party uses its power to serve destructive special interests or pursue exploitive imperialistic ends, people of faith are called to be whistleblowers. And when public servants become whistleblowers and face risks for revealing the truth about a secretive political policy, it is the responsibility of people of faith to publicly intervene on their behalf and confront those who rebuke and threaten them.
Such protests of faith leaders are very much needed today. A reported insider disclosed President Trump’s phone call to the president of Ukraine, in which Trump leaned on him to seek dirt on Trump’s 2020 Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden, as a condition for Ukraine receiving military aid – which had already been approved by Congress. Trump called the whistleblower a liar, and wants him or her outed. He threatened, “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right? We used to handle it a little differently than we do now.” (“Trump Attacks Whistle-blower’s Sources and Alludes to Punishment for Spies,” By Maggie Haberman and Katie Rogers, The New York Times, Sept. 26, 2019) Never mind that there is a bipartisan-passed Whistleblower Protection Act that protects federal whistleblowers.
Never mind also that the whistleblower’s disclosure of President Trump’s extortion for personal political gain has been corroborated by the testimony of other witnesses. But Trump’s authoritarian aggression knows no bounds. At the very moment former Ukraine ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch was testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, Trump, in a tweet, “denigrated her . . . insulting her diplomatic career and asserting his right to remove her.” This intimidation is on top of him having called her “bad news” in an earlier call to the Ukraine president, and saying, “She’s going to go through some things.” (“Key Takeaways From Marie Yovaunovitch’s Hearing in th Impeachment Inquiry,” By Peter Baker, The New York Times, Nov. 15, 2019)
We just observed Veterans Day in which we honor American service men and women who have risked and sacrificed their lives and limbs to protect our freedom. Ironically, at this very time we have a president threatening the lives of public servants who are exercising that freedom to uncover the truth for the common good.
Quite possibly, President Trump is “going to go through some things.” There are “more than 100 progressive Christian leaders” who are on record as supporting the impeachment inquiry. Their signed statement says, “We welcome the light of truth, honesty and transparency that this moment affords our country, whatever may be revealed.” They “call for an open inquiry that shines light on this administration’s dealings behind closed doors and petition people of faith and integrity to join us in calling for this light.” (“More than 100 Christian leaders sign statement supporting impeachment inquiry,” By Justine Coleman, TheHill, Oct. 9, 2019)
Over a hundred Christian faith leaders is a good start. But revealing the truth and protecting truth tellers call for the support of countless more Christian leaders – and their congregations.
The United State Conference of Catholic Bishops, The United Methodist Council of Bishops, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the leaders of American Lutheranism, The National Council of Churches, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association and other faith leaders should be issuing public statements lauding the courage of the whistleblower and those federal employees who are testifying in support of his or her revelations. Their public statements should also condemn President Trump’s attempts to intimidate and his Republican allies’ efforts to divert attention from his extortion – and intimidations — for personal political gain. And the support of these faith leaders’ congregations should also be quite visible.
Whistleblowing goes to the heart of the Christian faith, as it reveres the truth, which sets people free. There are also those whose freedom enables then to testify to the truth on everyone’s behalf.
They deserve the public and pronounced support of all people of faith.