Empty but for Pain: How Faith Is Perverted

Trump and Pastor Robert Jeffress

Spiritual Sunday

We saw the worst and the best of Christianity on Inauguration Day. On the one hand, there was the bigoted pastor Robert Jeffress assuring the new president in a pre-inauguration service that it was scriptural to build his wall. After all, King Nehemiah built a wall around the Jerusalem.

Then there was the evangelical Latino pastor Samuel Rodriguez who read, without commentary, the Sermon on the Mount. For those of you who need reminding, here it is:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land.
Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

As Ed Kilgore of New York Magazine observed, “I’m sure I wasn’t the only listener who thought the entire recitation was a rebuke of Donald Trump.”

By contrast, the Southern Baptist Jeffress has called Catholics Satanic, compared Obama to the antichrist, described gays as “filthy,” and dismissed Mormonism as a cult. In his sermon, he claimed that God had ordained Trump president and that those who stand against him are versions of the ungodly heathens Sanballat and Tobiah:

Nehemiah, Jeffress said, had two antagonists named Sanballat and Tobiah. “They were the mainstream media of their day,” he said. “They continued to hound and heckle Nehemiah and spread false rumors while he and the Israelites were building the wall.”

He noted that Nehemiah answered his critics by saying: “I’m doing a great work. . . . Why should I stop the work and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3). Trump’s work, he said, “is a work far too important to stop and answer your critics.”

Nehemiah faced setbacks, Jeffress noted, including an economic recession, terrorist attacks from enemies and discouragement among the citizens. “The true measure of a leader is what it takes to stop him,” he said. “And knowing you, I believe it’s going to take a lot to stop you.”

In other words, one pastor sought to erect walls and the other to tear them down. Which one will Donald Trump will listen to?

Like all religions, Christianity can be twisted to correspond with our own inner wishes. As I see it, Christianity shows its best side if we approach it with love and humility rather than with fear and hate. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since teaching Louise Erdrich’s Tracks last semester, with the figure of Pauline providing a good object lesson. Because she is a tormented soul, she develops a frightening version of Christianity.

In this novel about Chippewa Indians in the early 20th century, Pauline chooses to become a Christian because she wants to be on the winning side. The nature spirits of the Chippewas, after all, can’t save them from being wiped out by small pox, nor do they save her cousin Fleur from being raped. Pauline envies Fleur’s sexual power and also feels guilty because she failed to come to her aid during the rape. Fleur is closely associated with the spirit of the lake, and Pauline turns to an angry Christianity to carve out her own separate identity.

Christianity seems powerful to Pauline because it is the religion of the victorious whites. As she sees it, Jesus

had obviously made the whites more shrewd, as they grew in number, all around, some even owning automobiles, while the Indians receded and coughed to death and drank. It was clear that Indians were not protected by the thing in the lake or by the other Manitous who lived in trees, the bush, or spirits of animals that were hunted so scarce they became discouraged and did not mate.

But while Pauline would like to join the whites, racism stands in her way. At one point, the local convent receives word that no Indian girls should be admitted. The martyred saints, however, provide Pauline a model for proving herself to the nuns. She can engage in acts of extreme self-mortification that prove to them that there has never been “a novice so serious and devoted, or so humble.” Among her actions are the following:

At the convent, I arise before the rest of them each morning. In that cold dark hour, the air stiff as iron, I made the fire, broke the crusts of ice off the buckets of water, then set them boiling for laundry, for the breakfast soup, for washing, for all else that would take place once we’d finished morning prayer.

…All winter, my blood never thawed. My stomach never filled. My hands were chafed raw. And yet I grew strong. My shoulders hardened and I gained in height. I could kneel hour upon hour. It was no punishment to me.

“Accept this,” I asked Him when night after night the cold ripped me in tight claws and I shook so hard I could not sleep. “And this,” every time I sat to eat and halved my bread. When my stomach pinched, “This also, my Lord.” When the blood rushed back into my frozen hands after taking the sheets off the line, “This too. This. And this.”

And He did. I grew in knowledge. Skins were stripped from my eyes. Every day I saw more clearly and I marveled at what He showed me.”

Out of her self-punishment comes a vision of Christ that confirms that she has chosen the right side:

One night of deepest cold He at in the moonlight, on the stove, and looked down at me and smiled in the spill of His radiance and explained. He said that I was not whom I had supposed. I was an orphan and my parents had died in grace, and also, despite my deceptive features, I was not one speck of Indian but wholly white. He Himself had dark hair although His eyes were blue as bottleglass, so I believed. I wept. When He came off the stove, his breath was warm against my cheeks. He pressed the tears away and told me I was chosen to serve.

In a classic case of the return of the repressed, however, the more Pauline tries to deny the power of the nature spirits, the more powerful they seem. In one horrific scene, she tries to impress fellow Chippewas with the power of her Christian faith by plunging her hands into boiling water. Instead of emerging unharmed, she experiences excruciating pain, leading to doubts about which god is stronger:

Christ was weak, I saw now, a tame newcomer in this country that has its own devils in the waters of boiling-over kettles…That night in the convent bed, I knew God had no foothold or sway in this land, or no mercy for the just, or that perhaps, for all my suffering and faith, I was still insignificant. Which seemed impossible.

I knew there never was a martyr like me.

I was hollow unless pain filled me, empty but for pain, and yet the unceasing trail of my boiled hands was terrible.

Pastor Jeffress is not as unhinged as Pauline but I do sense a hollowness within him. “Empty but for pain.” Perhaps the fear of confronting this hollowness prompts him to lash out at others. The result, unfortunately, is a perverted version of Christianity that only other angry souls can embrace.

Further thought: Just as Pauline finds Jesus to be weak, so Jeffress finds the traditional view of Jesus to be insufficient. According to Wikipedia, Jeffress once  talked on Fox about the perception of Jesus as

this little, wimpy guy who walked around plucking daisies and eating birdseed and saying nice things, but never doing anything controversial. The fact is, Jesus did confront his culture with truth – and he ended up being crucified because of it…. Wimpy pastors produce wimpy Christians – and that is why we are losing this culture war. I believe it’s time for pastors to say, You know, I don’t care about controversy, I don’t care whether I’m going to lose church members, I don’t care about building a big church. I’m going to stand for truth regardless of what happens.

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