"But do you PRAY for President Trump?” As a church leader who has been outspoken about the Trump phenomenon, that is the first question offended evangelicals ask me. Usually, it’s with a mixture of outrage and triumph, a sense that they have just played the trump card…”I just Jesus-juked a pastor!” Well, since you asked…yes, as a matter of fact, I really DO pray for President Trump. No, I do not find this to be mutually exclusive with strong opposition to ideas and rhetoric that threatens our most vulnerable. I pray for President Trump; I resist his ideology, and both praying for him and resisting his ways, is changing me. That is one of the things I like best about attempting to submit my life to the discipline of the Book of Common Prayer — it ensures that I pray for the President regularly, no matter who he/she is, whether I feel inclined to or not. The slow rhythm of those prayers, works on me…works in me.
I started praying for President Trump even before he won the Republican primary, because of the way I felt like the Lord dealt with me then. It was fairly early in the primary, & I had traveled to Ireland and Australia within a few months. Everywhere I went, Christians from other parts of the world were asking me the same question regarding the rising evangelical support of Trump: “What the hell are you guys thinking? Have you all lost your minds?” I was as troubled by all of it as anyone else. From the beginning, the entire Trump phenomenon oozed darkness me — crass, with no coherent ideology apart from a consistent demonization of anyone deemed as an other; playing off thinly veiled racial anxieties, and often not bothering with the veil. Trump’s very entrance into presidential politics, furthering the “birther” charge that could only be played against a black President with a name like Barack Hussein Obama, was explicitly racist.
I felt outraged. I felt angry. As I felt the storm around me going deeper into my own soul, my travels abroad gave me space to be reflective; and I took all of this to prayer. To whatever extent you believe people may or may not hear God in prayer, I can tell you what I “heard”…characteristic of the Holy Spirit, spoken with tenderness, yet cutting me open: “You can’t hate Donald Trump. You ARE Donald Trump!” Um — come again? Of course, I felt resistance to this word. But the longer I sat with it, the more sense it made to me. In the grand scheme of the world we live in, this white son of a preacher man has more in common with a white real estate mogul, than say…someone from Haiti. And further, I felt like the Lord was pressing this point: “if you think what this man is doing is divisive, what precisely are you doing that brings healing, that brings hope?” From that moment forward, I felt myself being called to a complicated task: to both prophetically resist the principalities and powers Trump embodied, and yet pray for the man…ultimately, to lead Christian communities that I serve through my own repentance.
Let’s fast forward through the less interesting parts from there: While still prayerful, I’ve spoken out plenty. There have been considerable consequences within some of my circles, losing finances and losing “friends,” etc…but no opposition I’ll ever get will compare to the threat Trumpism to people on the margins of our society — so there is nothing noble in that. I had a run-in with Jerry Falwell, Jr. last Fall that made the news. Blah-blah-blah. While it’s all been happening the way I felt like it had to, I keep on praying for President Trump. I keep on going deeper into what I felt like God gave me on that day.
The truth at the rock bottom is that — and this is not some sanctified, pioutized way of putting President Trump down: the more I pray for him, the more I see myself in him. The thin skin. The frail ego. The need to be approved, and approved of some more…no adoration ever enough, to fill the hole in me. The tendency to want to hit back harder when I feel struck by some enemy. The need to look strong and powerful, to mask insecurities and fears I carry as secret scars, all over my chest. President Trump, yes…but Donald. Without a trace of anything condescending — I need him to be salvageable, because I need to be salvageable. Donald J. Trump: if there is no hope of salvation for him, there is no hope of salvation for me.
As vehemently as I oppose some of the things he has stood for, I don’t think he is a uniquely evil man. I think he’s more garden variety evil, really. There are no deep mysteries beneath his rage, arrogance and paranoia…just fear, fear, and more layers of fear, like peeling back the skin of an onion — the further you go, you just get more of the same.
I remember standing slack-jawed in the Woody Guthrie museum in Tulsa, reading the lyrics to Guthrie’s scathing protest song against the overt racism of Trump’s famous father, “Old Man Trump” — a folk song that hit you in the mouth, like a Kendrick Lamar song does. Is “Old Man’s Trump’s” son a brazen racist? His speech and actions would say yes (even if he has three black friends, plus Ben Carson). He appointed an Attorney General in Jeff Sessions who has rolled back significant civil rights legislation, and both dog-whistled sometimes and broad daylight human whistled other times to white supremacists, mobilizing the darkest element of his base. But is he especially racist? Probably not. Like all of us to a point, Trump is doubtless a product of his environment. He probably has more of his father in him than he would want to admit…like most of us do.
The truth is, I’ve never felt like Trump was especially anything. He’s not an ideological purist about anything in particular, but a pragmatist and an opportunistic. The fact that he has no real ideology, of course, puts him at the mercy of people with extreme ideologies, and that is what DOES make him uniquely dangerous. Some from my native world of Charismatic Christianity have furthered the idea of Trump as a modern incarnation of the the Old Testament King Cyrus — an outsider to Israel’s ethnically and spiritually who nonetheless showed mercy to the people of God. This Bible deep cut is a bizarre parallel for more reasons than I can explain here. If you were to look for a parallel to Trump in the story of Scripture, I’d contend more for Pontius Pilate — a man who is remembered mostly for being a weather vane with no particular convictions of his own, who thus moved with the mob (though perhaps Pilate in the text seems more self-aware, more reflective?).
His capacity to cause destruction is horrifying, but so is my own. His ego seems boundless at times…but so does my own. The man needs Jesus…and so do I. Look, I don’t care if the man has prayed some private “sinner’s prayer” or not; I don’t even know what that would mean. Whatever he says about his faith, he walks around like the damned — so much internal torment, so much pride, so much offense and resentment. Living in that kind of prison is a whole lot more like hell than the version of Dante’s inferno that many of us were given. He needs freedom. That’s one of the reasons I most grieve over the so-called “court evangelicals” who slither in his ear, feeding his ego, telling him what he wants to hear — they not only betray the churches they represent, they betray the President they claim to serve! If they loved him, if they cared for his soul — they would speak words of liberating truth to him, not participate in his ego games.
So…I do pray for him. I pray for the man as he is now, and for the child he once was, and could become again. I pray for the man I am also called to resist, and hope to God that somehow my prayers for him will weaken my own defenses against the One who saved and called me. I pray for Donald J. Trump, because I have it on higher authority — that me and him are an awful lot a like.
In light of all of this, and as a product of my hoping, praying, and my imagination, I offer this kind of vision from a few nights ago: I sit in the dark outside William Faulkner’s old house, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi, I calmly acknowledged the ghosts as they pass. Even though the breeze is still, if you listen close enough you can still hear the trees, conferring. This part of Mississippi is an enchanted and a haunted place, two sides of the same reality: the natural beauty, and the desecrated body of Emmit Till; the blues as the defiant, enduring hymnody of the bruised that floats through the Delta, still. History here is not hidden, so neither are Mississippi’s ghosts.
We visit some ghosts to get away from others, and I haven’t mind the break from my familiar haunts. Yet though I haven’t turn on a television since I arrive, I’ve seen the face of a specter that mostly lives inside the television — the face of President Trump. I see his face and hear his voice inside my head, and am surprised by my own cocktail of tenderness and heartbreak. I feel no pity, for pity is condescending, and I do not feel myself above him, or at least not this night.
I see him walking past me, into the wood — at the age he most likes to remember himself. He looks as he did the first time I saw him on tv, at Wrestlemania, when I was nine. His jaw is strong, his eyes folded into a small glint, a face impossibly confident. He looks trim in his black topcoat; his orange hair is full. Instinctively and surprisingly, I reach out for him — but my hand passes through him. He has no matter, no mass. When the light moves, the image of him flickers.
He is post-person, the residue of a soul — a disembodied ego. He does not have “thoughts,” only instincts, of self-preservation and ambition and scores to settle. Slights enrage him, and keep him alive. He is everywhere, but never present where he is. The grass is too hard for him, but he does not break stride…he walks on, back arched and head high. For a second, his vacant eyes register uncertainty as to where he is or why he is here, but then he steels himself again, and settles into his old reliable defenses — posturing. He does not have to know where he is, to know he’s king over all he surveys. He doesn’t have to know what his reasons are; he is no creature of reason to begin with. Are any of us?
He strides through the woods like he owns them, walking tall — until a figure appears in front of him. I saw him, but to see him was to forget him…a man so ordinary, you couldn’t describe his face moments after you met. He is nondescript, open, gentle; I vaguely remember that he was small. And yet as quickly as I forgot his features, even now I can feel the heavy weight of his presence — the gravity and softness of him.
I cannot see his face for the silhouette of Trump in his black coat. I see Trump put out his hand, and hear him ask gregariously, “Nice to meet you sir. You look familiar. Am I supposed to know…” Something stops him cold. The stranger does not speak, he just stares at him. It was then, and only then, that I caught a glimpse of his eyes. And while I cannot tell you the color of them, I can tell you the tenderness in them nearly knocked me to the ground. His gaze though, was not on me…only on Donald Trump. I could not see all that he knew of him in his eyes, but I could tell that he knew all of him there was to know.
He just stood there, beholding him, drinking him up, like a son. Delight danced across those unbearably tender eyes, his whole face a song. Transfixed, I almost forgot about the man in the black topcoat. I looked back, to see his own face struck with awe and terror, his body tense — and then — the shift. As the stranger looked into the President, waves of knowing came washing over him. Knowing, knowing, knowing. Every nook and cranny of him, seen. The man for whom there could never be a crowd large enough nor ratings high enough to soothe his seasick soul, seemed to collapse into an unwelcome contentment. His shoulders fell, his chin seemed softer — his eyes were bright with tears. I could have swore I saw his lips quiver, as the stranger bathed him in light, illuminating him.
For a moment, I felt something triumphant rise up in me. The man who famously said he saw no need for forgiveness, was about to finally ask for it, and somehow I was selected to overhear him mutter the words, “I’m sorry.” While I feel no hate for him here, I simply stepped into something like an old habit, waiting for vindication. He opens his mouth to speak his words of repentance, and I am high with anticipation.
But the stranger puts his finger to his lips, and will not let him speak. He places his hands on each side of his head, mussing his hair, slightly. The sheer delight the stranger took in him shattered me. When the stranger opened his mouth, he spoke to him in a tongue I did not understand, in a dialect I had not heard. I had no idea what the words signified, but Donald, whose face somehow seemed lighter and younger, clearly somehow understood every word. I leaned in hungry to see something more of his reaction, but the stranger’s hands protected his face from my greedy eyes.
Trump’s body had substance now, and his skin had color. He was as vivid and alive as the haunted woods that surround us, and synchronized with their voices of praise. The dance I saw in the eyes of the stranger, was now somehow inside of him, too. The quiet reverence of created things was broken by loud, bellowing laughter — absurd, convulsing, belly laughter, tumbling out of both men. The ground was hallowed by both their laughter and their tears, and this time, I could not even hold my gaze for the holiness nor the loveliness of it. I lowered my eyes, unable to bear the purity of their joy.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the stranger’s hands were no longer on Trump’s head. He was embracing him now, his strong hand cradling the back of his head. The words he spoke this time, I heard all too clearly,
“DONALD…you are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”