Last week, when asked again about his favorite Bible verse, Donald Trump somewhat confusedly referred to the Old Testament standard of retribution “an eye for an eye.” Unlike before, this time the verse he refers to is actually in the Bible. Still, his response raises anew the possibility that his profession of Christian faith is like the house built upon sand Christ disparages (Matthew 7:26). It also raises doubt that he has ever seriously pondered what may be the greatest challenge Christ’s teaching poses to a Christian sincerely seeking to follow in the footsteps of the Lord, especially while serving in government.
It is the challenge of Christ’s new dispensation, reflected in the words in which Christ, speaking with authority, explicitly takes note of and reforms the words of the Old Testament to which Mr. Trump refers:
You have heard that it hath been said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you not to resist evil: but if one strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him also the other: and if a man will contend with you in judgment, and take away your coat, let go your cloak also unto him. And whosoever will force you one mile, go with him two. (Matthew 5:38-41)
I have experienced the travail of conscience this passage entails for a government official. I remember it in particular in relation to the National Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Pastoral Letter in 1983, which seriously questioned the morality of the U.S. strategy for deterring a nuclear missile attack on the United States. My experience convinces me that any Christian in government who deals with national security issues, and who has not prayerfully reflected upon what is required to take Christ’s words seriously is: a) not acting conscientiously as a Christian; and b) not fit to represent the decent conscience of the American people as President of the United States.
But if one has done so conscientiously, I find it hard to believe that the “eye for an eye” dictum would be his favorite passage. Trump hasn’t lived like a man who enjoys torture, however willing he is to command that it be inflicted on others. But for anyone of decent conscience, decisions that involve the destruction of human life are torturous. I think that’s because God did not intend us to kill or be killed. When first brought into existence by His will, God made humanity to eat of the tree of life and live forever, not to kill one another or even to kill animals for food. God grieves the loss of life, even when justice, including the defense of innocent life, requires it.
If Mr. Trump is sincere in his admiration for the “eye for an eye” passage, that’s worrisome. If he’s merely pandering, as usual, that’s even more troubling; especially in a time like this, when it will certainly be necessary for the Commander-in-Chief to order that Americans risk their own lives or take the lives of others. If elected president, he will have to take responsibility for doing so on a daily basis.
But Trump’s admiration for the “eye for an eye” passage suggests that he may not make the decision to do so conscientiously. He may take the Biblical verse he cites as a license to kill. He may not give it the kind of prayerful thought that prepares someone to articulate the just reason for deadly combat in a way that relieves, as far as possible, the burden killing places on decent human conscience, even when it is justified and necessary.
But unless the people we send into combat have confidence that there is just reason for what they do, the moral burden of what they have done can and has turned them against themselves. They may fall prey to the false notion that in the fight against evil they necessarily become evil, and lost to all redemption. For both their sake and that of the country, therefore, the President of the United States must be disposed to understand that the first natural law inscribed by God upon humanity’s heart rejects vengefulness. It sees even the just taking of human life for what it is — a spiritual sacrifice, sometime more grievous and threatening to the perpetrator’s true well-being than physical death.
What keeps this from being an impossible “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma? Only the forgiveness of God; only the disposition to seek that forgiveness every step of the way, realizing that the we have no defense against the burden of our fallen condition except what comes of our trust (faith) in His benevolent will. But Donald Trump has declared himself to be a person never prone to ask forgiveness, never prone, therefore, to walk in that faith. This is why people like Jerry Falwell, Jr. speak without pastoral prudence when they say glibly that we are electing a President, not a pastor. Pastoral care is care of the soul. In the strictest sense, such care is definitely needed from the Commander-in-Chief. That’s one of the reasons we are rightly called upon to pray that God’s wisdom and mercy will attend the person who occupies that office, and that that person will be attentive to the wisdom and heartbroken to the mercy for which we pray.
But what if our election of him makes a mockery of our prayers? What if it proves that we resemble Pharaoh and the Pharisees more than we resemble the Publican — so that the evil we suffer is but the shadow of the evil we do, in consequence of which God has hardened our hearts and allowed our thinking to be perverted, as part of His judgment against us.
In light of the evils we face, you have heard it said that we must accept to elect people who are capable of evil. But if that election hardens our hearts against God’s mercy, it will simply confirm the judgment we already merit, thanks to the murderous physical and spiritual sacrifice of our posterity. For Christian participants in America’s body politic, it is better that we should be politically crucified, as Jesus suffered to be in His flesh, than for us to reject God’s merciful Spirit by voting for such an election. For even if we serve America’s material goods by that vote, the body politic we thereby save will only be what the Apostle called “the body of this death,” from which Christ alone is able to deliver us. Indeed, He has already done so, but only as we prove willing to forget what we have heard from others, remembering only what we hear from Him.