Trump's xenophobia as a summons for sermons

December 8th, 2016

While America’s election of Donald Trump as president is probably a bad thing for America, it’s a great boon for us preachers. There we were, mired in a homiletic swamp of psychotherapeutic drivel, ladling out sweet-sounding platitudes to somnambulant congregations, mouthing superficialities on subjects about which Scripture couldn't care less. Then, without actually intending to, America elected Trump. For the first time in years I’m on a sermonic binge, cranking out stirring sermons on adultery, truth-telling, divorce, lying and fear.

Did I mention adultery?

Now comes news that chose xenophobia as its word of the year! Lord thou hast delivered mine enemies into my hands! (1 Samuel 24:4) The folks at define xenophobia as "1. fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers; 2. fear or dislike of the customs, dress, etc., of people who are culturally different from oneself." We preachers more forthrightly define xenophobia as unchristian.

In a statement, noted that, "Some of the most prominent news stories this year have centered on fear of the 'other'." President Obama said that Trump's rhetoric should not be dignified as “populist;" Obama called it "nativism... xenophobia" pure and simple.

In a March CNN interview Trump said that his views on refugees, immigration, Muslims and race are not xenophobic; his statements are based, in his words, on "intelligence." Trump’s claim that he is thinking intelligently about others is a good opportunity for us preachers to be reminded that we think differently, not because we’re of the political right or left but because we think Christian.

Christianity’s default position, in debates about immigration or otherness is hospitality — hospitality that is based upon God’s hospitality of us in our otherness in the cross of Jesus Christ. It’s fine to debate under what conditions we will admit and integrate newcomers so that they are free to thrive in North American culture. However, let’s admit that as Christians we are “prejudiced” toward hospitality, openhandedness particularly toward those in need because that’s the way God in Christ has treated us and commanded us to treat others.

Who God is and what God has done in Christ is the theological basis for Paul’s, “Welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory” (Romans 15:7 CEB). We actually believe that in a world of boundaries, borders and otherness, Christ has mysteriously, wondrously united Jews and Gentiles showing no regard for ethnicity, gender, race or class (1 Corinthians 12:13). The God we met in Jesus is relentlessly connective, self-giving and communicative; so ought we be.

We Wesleyans are bold to believe that the radical hospitality we sinners have received in Jesus Christ is not some heroic stance reserved for a super saint like Paul; it’s a presently available life based upon what Jesus did for us and daily does in us in the power of the Holy Spirit. My church is constituted by God as a showcase of what God can do among ordinary folk who dare to live under the commands of Christ rather than what nine out of 10 Americans think is OK. True, we’ve got a way to go before we are truly obedient to the expansive embrace of Christ’s salvation, but at least the church knows that Jesus is determined to make us name each and every “other” as sister and brother in Christ.

Even my cold heart managed sympathy for The Donald during his speech at the RNC. If he truly believes what he said then (and veracity is always up for grabs with The Donald) he must be the most fearful man in America. I longed for the opportunity (which I’ll probably never get) to preach to Donald the good news that, “If God has loved us in this way, we also ought to love each other…. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear…. If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar…. Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.” (1 John 4:11,18,20,21)

On the first Sunday of Advent, the pulpit loomed before me and I lacked much enthusiasm for my task. Then told me that xenophobia was the word of the year. Isaiah 2:1-5 grabbed me by the collar and demanded a hearing. Romans 13:11-14 suddenly handed me the sort of message that you can’t hear on CNN and I was off and running toward a sermon.

I think I’m going to like the Trump administration after all.

Even though this sounds awfully Ivankaesque of me, if you would like my take on the sin of xenophobia and what Jesus can do about it, if you would like for your church to make a vibrant witness in this challenging time of xenophobic peril, please buy my book, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, published by Abingdon for $14.99.

It’s even better than The Art of the Deal.

William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at the Divinity School, Duke University. He is recently retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Willimon is the author of Fear of the Other from Abingdon Press, and Pulpit Resource, a homiletical weekly published in partnership with Abingdon Press and Ministry Matters.

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