By T.C. Moore
The United States is neck-deep in an unprecedented election season. Suffice it to say, people who have spent their entire careers reporting on partisan politics continue to be amazed, sometimes daily, by the candidacy of Donald Trump. One of the latest examples is a recording of Trump making explicit statements about the sexual assaults he has perpetrated on women because he is a wealthy celebrity.
As if Donald Trump’s actions and statements aren’t infuriating enough, there are also the routine justifications by Conservative and ‘Evangelical’ spokespersons. Many of the same figures who never tire of moral conversations concerning American ‘family values,’ ‘sexual ethics’ and ‘integrity,’ are some of the same who are now performing acrobatics to justify their support of Trump. Because Trump has made certain calculated decisions to align himself with Conservative political philosophy (i.e. running as ‘pro-life’ and promising to defend ‘religious liberty,’ etc.), many Conservative Evangelicals consider themselves unswervingly obliged to support him. But there’s an even deeper issue at work than simple partisan politics. Trump supporters may not be aware, but they are guided by a conception of power that the cross of Jesus Christ directly defies.
In their book, Metaphors We Live By, linguistic philosophers Johnson and Lackoff explain how the concepts behind our words are formative not only of our beliefs, but of the resulting actions we take. In one example, they detail how we describe argument in terms of warfare. “He attacked my point,” “I defended my position,” “He shot down all my arguments,” etc. They propose that the conceptual metaphor “argument as war” drives not only the way we talk about argument, but also how we carry it out. “Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently.”
Something similar is going on behind the inexplicable Trump-support of many Evangelicals. Rather than the cross of Jesus Christ framing their concept of power, power is conceptualized as totalizing control. Yet, it is precisely this conception of power that the apostle Paul denounces in First Corinthians chapter one. Paul confronts the Corinthian Christians who are divided along partisan political lines. They have lined up behind their preferred teacher instead of seeking oneness in their shared union with Christ. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
This is also what Paul teaches the church at Philippi when he uses the term kenosis (self-emptying or self-giving) to describe how God is revealed in Jesus’ cross. Rather than revealing God as one who exercises totalizing control over others, Jesus’ cross reveals that God’s character and nature is self-giving love. Jesus’ cross, not control, should frame our perception of power.
It is God’s essential nature of kenosis that Tom Oord has described in his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. In a chapter called “Models of God’s Providence,” Oord confronts the concepts of power which lurk beneath the surface of our thinking about divine providence. Many Christians aren’t aware that the concept of power as control subtly shows up in how we talk about miracles and justice. Since suffering and injustice are evident in the world, explanations must be provided for how God can be providentially reigning. One of those explanations, which Oord takes on, is the “God is voluntarily self-limited” model. God has chosen not to intervene in the world in ways that violate the free agency of creatures or the regularities/natural laws of our world. However, just out of sight, the presence of the concept of power as control is still felt as, “This model maintains a view of God’s power that says God could withdraw, override or fail to offer freedom/agency to creatures. God could violate the regularities/natural laws of the universe. God could intervene in these ways if God chose to do so because God can control others.”
In this model and others like it, power as control is God’s ‘trump card.’ And with this proverbial trump card, God can win the game at any moment.
Yet, this is precisely what God does not do on the cross. Jesus’ revelation of God is decidedly not power as control but power as self-giving love. This is the center of our life together as communities of Christ-followers. As we worship the God who is revealed in Christ crucified, we are being transformed more and more into human beings who live lives of self-giving love—not seeking to control others, but, instead, to serve. God’s love manifested itself in Jesus’ servanthood, not coercion. Therefore, it is this ‘attitude’ or spirit of humility and servanthood that we are empowered to embody in and through our lives.
The ‘trump card’ concept of power manifests itself in many ways. It’s not always as blatant as using one’s wealth and celebrity to sexually assault women. In most of our lives it is far more subtle. We demand conformity from those around us. Or we only feel powerful when we ‘win’ an argument. The concept of power as self-giving love demonstrated in Jesus’ cross reveals and provides us a better way.
God neither has nor seeks any trump card, nor should we.
T. C. Moore is the husband of Osheta Moore and together they parent three wonderful school-aged children. He serves as a pastor for an intentionally inclusive, multi-ethnic, multi-socioeconomic, and multi-generational congregation that gathers in Downtown Los Angeles. He is a designer and theology nerd who writes at his blog: TheologicalGraffiti.com. And he graduated from Gordon-Conwell’s Center for Urban Ministerial Education.