Sunday, 22 January 2017


The official Christmas message from the American Republican National Committee created a Twitter storm because many felt the party was trying to liken then President-elect Donald Trump with Jesus.

Here it is: 
"Merry Christmas to all! Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a saviour who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new king."

It was that reference to a ‘new king’ that got the Twitterati going - you be the judge.

One must, however, concede that there are similarities – two superb communicators, offering a counter-cultural solution, both with extensive geographic influence. Their messages impact on the world order and Trump's circle of advisors is reminiscent of the disciples.

They both qualify as natty dressers, Jesus with his seamless woven tunic fit for a high priest and The Donald in his tailored suits.

Not least, both were underestimated by the religious and political authorities of their times.

Okay, I’ll stop there and concede to diametrically opposite messages. Whereas Jesus championed the poor and the oppressed Trump has promised to strengthen an economic system that has the world's eight richest people having wealth equal to half of humanity combined. 

Jesus preached inclusiveness and love for all, Trump’s worldview includes winning at all costs, world conquest and entrenched privilege.

I also doubt that Jesus was obsessed with the size of his crowds.

The Trump inauguration

 (I must admit to trying to find a way to connect Trump’s proposed Mexican wall with Hadrian’s wall and then Jesus, but it was a stretch.)

The eternal optimist

As President Donald Trump and other populist politicians gain traction across the western world, I find myself pinning hope on a young woman called Yael. That’s the name Ivanka Trump adopted when she converted to Orthodox Judaism and married Jared Kushner.

Jared and Ivanka Kushner

Already pundits are predicting that she will be the most influential First Daughter in American history, a surrogate First Lady while her step-mother is in New York.

Although hers is officially an advisory role, she is known to blunt her father’s rough edges.

Moreover, her husband is The Donald’s senior White House advisor and often acts as a buffer between his father-in-law and the new people in his political life.

She is pivotal to two of the most powerful men in the world!

Having played a key role on the campaign trail, she attended her father's transition meetings which included the Japanese prime minister and technology leaders. And I find comfort in the theory that, if The Donald could do such a good job with his kids, he can’t be all bad.

For me it’s important that Ivanka and Jared are practicing Orthodox Jews. Observing the Sabbath, turning off cell phones and walking instead of driving between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. Having to get rabbinic permission to travel by car on her father’s inauguration day.

It’s also important that her husband is the grandson of holocaust survivors who spent three and a half years in an Italian 'displaced–persons' camp while waiting for a US visa. Her in-laws speak of having had “nowhere to go”.

Moreover, she has experienced religious exclusion. When Jared’s family objected to her not being Jewish their relationship broke up in 2008.

I particularly like that, despite her high-powered business schedule, she tries to be with her children for breakfast and to put them to bed. She is also interested in working on policy issues related to children. 

Some even argue that she has a bipartisan streak. They point to a close friendship with Chelsea Clinton. (Although I’m not sure how that stood up to the strain of the vitriolic presidential campaign.) Seems their husbands are also friends.

Do I hear mutterings of rose tinted glasses? 

Yes, we optimists tend to dig deep for our hope.  Just think back on how disparaging folk were about Joe Biden when Barack Obama picked him for a running mate and look how he turned out.

I am encouraged that Ivanka is intelligent, highly successful and loyal to America’s new president. It means he is likely to take her advice. I am mindful too that western democracy was borne on the wings of a Judeo/Christian moral humanitarianism.

And, as I watch ‘women’ marches in cities across the world I’m depending on Ivanka aka Jael to get daddy to understand an African maxim: 

“When you strike a woman you strike a rock.”

Not confusing religion with God

Despite the ungodly South African hour, I watched the inaugural balls that at times seemed more like religious revival services.  The prayers, gospel singers and black entertainers all spoke to good political marketing.  It’s called “wooing the religious right” and reminds one never to confuse religion or politics with God.

Trump, who recently dropped money into a communion plate he thought was for the collection, grew up in a church-going Presbyterian family. This past Christmas Eve he and Melania attended midnight Mass at the church they were married in – the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida.

You could tell they weren’t dyed-in-the-wool Anglicans because they opted for the third pew from the front instead of squeezing into a back row. (I believe they received hearty applause and a standing ovation from the congregation.)

For security reasons, the rector would have had prior notification of the Trump’s visit so I find his gentle sermon particularly interesting. The Rev. James Harlan encouraged the congregation to let the little things go, saying, “All of us have some hurts, some resentments, some fears, some ways that someone has hurt us or offended us in the past that we won’t let go of. We kind of like it. I have those.

“We won’t let go of those things and I can tell you over time those little hurts, those little slights, those little things, consume us and they will push out that space for God’s love all too easily.”

The Trumps accepted Communion and there was no irate tweet in the middle of the night.

Pulpit power

That social media respite was short-lived but the Christmas Eve homily was a gentle reminder of overdue pulpit power. Thankfully that sleeping giant is being shaken awake by recent world events.

In South Africa, President Jacob Zuma is likening himself to Jesus. (He says he has also been betrayed by people close to him and his mantra is that the ANC will rule until Jesus returns.) 

Trump appears to be obsessed with size (hands, crowds, NATO contributions and media column inches.) 

Europe is in a tizz over Brexit and right wing parties are fast gaining political support.

Good news
Thankfully, religious leaders are mobilising but the battle is having to be fought on two fronts – against the powers that need to be checked as well as folk who believe Church should stay out of the political arena.

So, when President Zuma’s warned Archbishop Thabo Makgoba to stay out of politics and pray instead, the churchman used the power of the pulpit in his midnight mass sermon at St George’s Cathedral:

"It feels as if we are back to the national pain of 1963, living under a state of emergency, imposed on us by careless and corrupt leaders who have forgotten us, stripped us of our dignity, "

"People of faith need to begin asking: at what stage do we, as churches, as mosques, as synagogues, withdraw our moral support for a democratically-elected government?"

Makgoba also asked: "When do we name the gluttony, the inability to control the pursuit of excess? When do we name the fraudsters, who are unable to control their insatiable appetite for obscene wealth, accumulated at the expense of the poorest of the poor?

"A president of a democratic South Africa telling the church to stay out of politics? You would be forgiven for thinking that you had climbed into a time machine and gone back 30 years into the past when apartheid presidents said the same thing… 

"Mr President, we will ignore your call, made from the palaces of power where you and your fellow leaders live in comfort. We will lament and ask God, 'Where are you, God, when your people are marginalised and excluded?"

The Archbishop of Canterbury has publicly supported Makgoba but the Church challenge is not confined to us Anglicans. Other denominations and faiths are rallying. 

For example, the evangelical Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a Christian social justice organisation, says in his latest blog: “Faith must stand up for itself, for its values, for its standards, and for its priorities.”

Wallis also says, “I believe at the heart of this election campaign was the deeply biblical, theological, and spiritual issue of how we treat ‘the other’.  He suggests that faith communities, especially congregations at the local level, could become safe and sacred spaces for deeper conversations about race in our history and in our communities, today.

A bumpy ride

Let’s face it, no politician welcomes Church criticism even our beloved President Nelson Mandela bristled when Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane called the government out for, among other things, failing to ensure that old-age pensioners in the Eastern Cape got their money. 
He’d warned, “Madiba magic won’t be solving our problems.”

A furious Madiba accused the archbishop of being ill-informed and of trying to undermine his government. The dispute raged as a presidential spokesperson suggested that the archbishop was seeking publicity and Ndungane declared that “no one will silence the Church.”

Asked what sort of relationship the Anglican Church ought to have with the government, Ndungane spoke of his ‘dual citizenship’ – South African and the Kingdom of Heaven.

“One seeks through the grace of God to be able to discern what to say. What we say will not always be popular. But we try under God to discern what is His mind and His will for a country at a particular time.”

In short, our benchmark is what fulfills justice by God’s standards. Speaking out is a gospel imperative.

Keep smiling

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