Does the Body of Christ Include Trump Supporters?
Tolerance, Division and the Book of Life
I love arguing politics. I enjoy hearing fiercely held and thoughtful beliefs that stand in opposition to my own. Some of my most valued and trusted friendships are with people who position themselves on a very different place on the political spectrum and who are willing to then debate their opinions with me. We disagree, we get frustrated and hot under the collar, and our respect for one another remains constant. I appreciate voices that stretch me out of my liberal comfort zone, force me to acknowledge that there is much I don’t understand and many views on how we might solve our collective problems.
Trump supporters are not included in any of the above statements.
I confess that the enjoyment I take in political debate and my gratitude for different values have hit a roadblock in recent months. There are two reasons why I struggle with how to be in relationship with Donald Trump supporters. The first reason is that political conversations with Trump fans have quickly revealed themselves to be a different sort of animal from the friendly disagreements I have had in the past. I was traveling outside of my own country of Canada when Trump was elected and thought it to be an excellent opportunity to mine Americans for answers as to why they voted for him. What seemed a perfectly reasonable question, and one that I desperately wanted to know the answer to — “but how could you as a woman vote for someone who treats women the way that he does?” — almost got me punched. Subsequent trips, with similar hopes of finding answers, did not go any better. When I last traveled out of the country, my husband firmly suggested that I avoid political discussions at all costs.
The second reason I am at a loss as to how to get along with Trump supporters is much more significant. When he was first elected, I had read a number of insightful articles which helped me to understand how his successful campaign was not, in fact, primarily about hatred, bigotry, misogyny or even xenophobia, but rather was a symptom of widespread and real feelings of having been sold out by a political system that had primarily served corporate America. There was a distrust in career politicians and “the ruling class” within the established political parties. This insight didn’t make me like Trump any better, or instill gladness in me that people were voting for him. Why he, a rich and famous man born into the privilege he so enjoyed, would represent a change from the ruling corporate class of America continued to baffle me. But I could at least empathize with the zeitgeist of the day.
Now, however, eighteen months in — with Trump’s erratic, narcissistic, impulsive and infantile behavior (possibly irreparably) damaging the climate, trade agreements, national race relations, the possibility of peace in the Middle East, and the golden cow of our global economy, not to mention locking up children — the evidence is conclusive: indefensible gross incompetence, no matter where you are on the political spectrum. There is now nothing about supporting Trump that I understand.
Religious leaders across the globe are speaking out against Trump. I join my voice with theirs in condemning actions which are based in hatred and promote cruelty. As we speak up, however, there is a relational question before us too, and how we might answer it is excruciatingly unclear. The Church includes both those who condemn and those who support this American president. As a priest, I preach tolerance, respect for others, and the value of diversity within our human family. I seek to be part of how churches are nurtured as places that can exemplify and uphold the truth of how we are to be with one another. We are in relationship in the Body of Christ, not by virtue of sharing the same preferences and outlooks in how we understand the world around us, but rather because we have found ourselves among the sinners and the outcasts for whom Jesus has set a place at the table. However, if the common ground between us has become null and void, can tolerance really continue to be expected of us? How could we go forward, even if we wanted to, when we can’t speak to one another?
The mixed company of the Church has always been difficult for Christians to accept. When we heed our Lord’s summons, we are often disappointed by the flawed and failing company we’ll end up finding in those who have also heard and heeded. The late Thomas Merton says, “As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish. There are two things which men can do about the pain of disunion with other men. They can love or they can hate.” I have read Merton’s words countless times over the years and been touched by them. I wonder now whether I ever really understood what they meant. Those broken bones feel unbearably painful as I admit my bitter disgust toward, my sense of alienation from, those who might choose to wear their MAGA hats as they claim to follow Jesus. The divisions between us are not theoretical. They feel insurmountable. Hatred feels like it is winning the day in me too.
It is in the book of Revelation that I find a way forward. This final book of the Bible was written in a context of profound division in the life of the early church. In the face of violent and terrorizing persecution, Christians found themselves reacting in two radically different ways. There were those whose strength and courage refused to bow to Rome, whose willingness to die in order to not deny their faith in Jesus offered such a compelling witness to the rest of the Empire that it arguably built the church which we know today. There were many others who loved Jesus but whose resolve caved under pressure. Surely God didn’t mind them burning a little incense to the Roman gods in order to save their and their families’ lives? God could see that spiritually they were crossing their fingers, right? The writings of John in this apocalyptic piece of Scripture wrestle with defining true faithfulness in light of these fair-weather believers. The imagery describes in violent and poetic detail the epic battle between the powers of good and evil; how human beings get caught in the crossfires of this battle and must declare their allegiance; and, given how impactful human decisions can be in either feeding the flames of goodness or of evil, why it is so important for people of faith to align themselves unwaveringly with the goodness of God, no matter what the cost.
The communities of faith to whom John is writing are people who have paid the cost, and who have seen their loved ones pay the cost, of unwavering faith. They are people who are virulently opposed to Christians of another stripe now making their way back into the fold when they came under the same fire and chose to pay so much less. Interestingly, although Revelation is born out of this divisive context, it has ultimately been included in the canon of Scripture and understood as revelatory because it transcends its context to say a word that can only be said to be divine:
“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:12–15)
In these words, I hear the limits of human tolerance clarified by the mysterious expanse of God’s welcome. Our works are recorded and brought before the judgement seat of God. And yet, there is another book too, and it is the “Book of Life.” What is ultimately consumed in the lake of fire is not the Christians who didn’t pass muster, but rather Death and Hades themselves. It is possible to imagine that the Book of Life might bear all of our names once those dark pits separating us from God have been destroyed. When the Holy City of the New Jerusalem is revealed as the culmination of God’s relationship with humankind, this Scripture notes that “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood,” but this seemingly narrow definition of who will make it to this final promise is distinctly tempered by the assurance that the gates of this city will remain resolutely open (Revelation 21:27). Most importantly, what is offered in this New Jerusalem is the tree of life, with leaves that are given to heal the nations. It suggests that God’s work continues mending our broken relationships from the utopic city and will not rest until the ways of death and division that have marred all of us are obliterated.
Which doesn’t let us off the hook in the maddening struggle before us today. The book presents a vision that is refreshingly free of sentimentality. This is not a “let’s all get along, then” happy ending; it is viciously honest in describing the very real evil that can get loose in the world and our responsibility in calling out and fighting against that evil. God’s love will triumph in these open gates and these healing leaves, but that truth does not deny that relationships between neighbors here and now feel like little more than Merton’s collection of painfully broken bones.
The Body of Christ does not ask that we pretend away these divisions for the sake of some superficial presentation of unity. I can’t unify the Body of Christ, but I can acknowledge that I too need those healing leaves on the tree of life. That is a start. I reach for those leaves, and I ask that God make one small thing in me possible, even when all else feels impossible: let me at least see the ones I don’t understand as human. If I can’t keep track of the humanity of my brothers and sisters, no matter their political stripes, then I am incapable of entering those gates of the New Jerusalem too.
Maybe in acknowledging again the fractured and flawed self I bring to the table allows me to swallow a bit of the bitterness I feel in the indecipherable flaws of others. Maybe tolerance isn’t enough, maybe my tolerance and our tolerance has its limits and always has, no matter how much we like to preach it as the ultimate 21st century value. Maybe God never promised tolerance, but only mercy. Maybe the vision of the Book of Life allows me to name as God’s beloved people those that confound me, and maybe if God’s love is as promised and is big enough to call them by name, and to call me by name too, that is enough common ground to grant me that one thin thread of grace I requested.
Maybe this side of the New Jerusalem, that thin thread of grace is the best we can do.
 Merton, Thomas (2007). “New Seeds of Contemplation”, p.72, New Directions Publishing.