Following the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston I wrote here in RD about embracing a theology of anger. This was a reflective response to the ways in which there was a sustained call by the family of victims of Dylan Roof’s rampage, and other clergy, to forgive Roof for his heinous acts.
I understood a theology of anger to be a counter to the insistence of swift forgiveness. In other words, why was Dylan Roof worthy of the forgiveness of black Americans?
Now with a billionaire reality TV star as president, I find myself at yet another theological crossroads that has personal faith implications. In early January I found myself sitting in a church with predominantly black members and I heard the pastor enthusiastically encouraging the congregation to pray for Donald Trump.
It was jarring to say the least—this was not an entreaty that I felt called to answer. In fact I had a near-visceral physical reaction to the statement.
The internal conversation I had with myself concluded with the resolution that if I was doing any praying around the matter, I would be praying for those who were actively resisting this dangerous new administration.
When I shared my thoughts in the echo chamber that social media can be, I found that I was not alone in my sentiments. But this was not without some pushback—and the divide was largely generational. Older black Christians fell back to the tried and true Christian orthodox belief to “pray for your enemies.” While that might have worked for the bully in elementary school, or the not-so-nice boss at work, it feels different when it is the president of the country. To unflinchingly pray for Trump employs a theology of yesteryear, not one equipped for an era marked by Black Lives Matter protests on one hand and Make America Great Again on the other.
I grew up attending churches that routinely prayed for the government, and even for specific elected officials. I heard clergy and lay persons pray for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush equally. Occasionally state and local officials even made it into the prayers. Whether it was my own maturation or increasing awareness, those public prayers for elected officials, namely the president, seemed to increase when the name Barack Obama was invoked. There were times in black church settings where the mere mention of the name Barack Obama would at minimum elicit an applause.
The direct connection to the opposition he faced politically seemed to almost require black ecclesiastical culture to pray for him. To pray for his re-election. To pray for his strength. For his endurance. And even at one point, to celebrate his killing of Osama bin Laden.
The genealogy of this type of practical theology would dictate that it is appropriate to pray for Trump. But this time feels different, as though he did not earn the right to be president the way the others did—through means of social respectability, through “presidential” behavior and speech. This is why it felt jarring when gospel music superstars joined the chorus of those voices calling for black Christians to pray for this president.
Gospel music artist Tina Campbell of the group Mary Mary issued a statement via Facebook that went farther than simply calling for prayer, but read like an endorsement of his presidency.
President Donald Trump is the elected leader of this nation so, as a citizen, I choose to be for him. This is not a statement of agreement with all that has been, nor all that will be. It is a statement of a mature, responsible citizen who knows that a perspective, a strategy, or even a fight based in understanding, love, and a willingness to work together as we move forward, accomplishes more and goes much farther than a strategy based in anger, rage, fear, complaints, utter contempt, constant disagreeableness, and noncooperation.
I’m so grateful that I have an inherent right to choose my perspective and, because of that, I choose to forgive all things that I have read, seen, and/or heard from or about Mr. Donald Trump that I deem as hurtful or offensive. I believe that transformation and progress are inevitable when love and forgiveness are at the helm of the journey. Unforgiveness [sic] separates us, but forgiveness unites us. Hate kills us, individually and collectively, but love builds and beautifies all who exercise it.
These paragraphs were just part of an in-depth statement published days after the inauguration that went beyond just calling for prayer, but incorporated American civil religion with American orthodox Christianity.
A few weeks later, famed gospel music artist Donnie McClurkin was a guest on a nationally syndicated radio show Get Up! Mornings with Erica Campbell (the sister of Tina Campbell) and joined the fray as well.
Now is our time to pray for him. This is the job of the church. Let the world protest but the job of the church now is to go into prayer and pray that, number one, he succeeds because if he fails we have to deal with the consequences as a nation.
While McClurkin acknowledged that he did not vote for Trump, he and Erica Campbell disagreed over the role of protesting the president. While Erica supported the protests and McClurkin did not, the underlying sentiment was still the same: black Christians ought to be praying for Trump. This encouragement, as Tina Campbell wrote, “to forgive all things,” is nothing less than an uncritical adoption of a theology of forgiveness. And for black Christians, simply put, that is problematic.
It becomes problematic because it becomes a singular narrative that dominates all others. Forgiveness as a motif functions as a pious trump card, as it were, thrown down on the table to quell all other spiritual and practical nuances. While these entreaties for prayer seem to take the moral high ground, I’d argue that these calls are tragically passive in a political climate that compels direct action.
Many Americans are experiencing pure unadulterated anger toward the election of someone who spoke crudely about women’s private parts, spoke of Hispanic immigrants as “rapists” and openly ginned up violence at campaign rallies. The level of distaste, distrust, and outright anger toward Trump is palpable in ways that this country has not seen in recent memory—also evidenced by his loss of the popular vote. A theology of anger provides a counter-narrative to the “pray first, forgive next, move on” approach that many seem to have adopted publicly. This gives regular churchgoers the opportunity to voice dissatisfaction and embrace the emotional turmoil that accompanies dissatisfaction without fear of moral judgement from others.
In this case, it lets black Christians acknowledge that it is perfectly fine to assess a Trump presidency as a political situation that has gone terribly awry. I would argue that for many, the reluctance to embrace a theology of anger is because logic dictates that the only next step is to create and engage in a theology of resistance.
One of the implications of resistance, in any form, be it political or in this case theological and political, is accountability. To resist any force is to hold it accountable to a set of norms and standards. A theology of resistance in the Trump era means to hold standards of whiteness, American civil religion and American Christianity accountable. The three act as insidious agents affecting cultural zeitgeist so much that black clergy and black gospel singers can unblinkingly offer prayer for a president who receives support from the alt-right, but were vocal critics of Obama surrounding same-sex marriage.
To forgive representative powers and principalities of their spiritual wickedness is to be morally complicit in the potentially active oppression of one’s self—and certainly in the oppression of one’s neighbor.
Swift forgiveness leaves the balance of power unchecked, and more importantly, does not lay out a framework for restoration and reparation of those most severely affected. Historically and institutionally, the Black Church has been a place where parishioners from different socio-economic backgrounds could find parity—and find solace from a society that questioned their citizenship and humanity. This suggests that the beginnings of black religious culture were formed based on a theology of resistance, one that consistently questioned the status quo.
Instead, with larger corporate interests backing national television and radio programming, resistive theology is now relegated to the realms of heresy.
But if heresy is the only option for offering a theological resistance to an administration like this, so be it.
And this heretic is not going to pray for the president.