Donald Trump, the Temple and the End Time

It’s rather gloomy here in Cambridge, to say the least. I am quite sure there are Trump supporters in the city, and at Harvard too, but at the Divinity School, the great majority was hoping for change; many had really wanted Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and settled for Hillary Clinton; but after that, most of these too were very much hoping for her to win and dismayed that by so narrow a margin, Donald Trump instead was the victor.

That there is distress in some (but not all parts) of Harvard will surprise few. The Divinity School has a 200 year history of low church “undenominational” Christian identity and today is increasingly diverse. Faculty, students and staff come from different traditions and none. We all know an “illegal” or two. Among us are the gay and the queer, the transgendered. There are Muslims among our faculty, staff and students, and they are our friends and colleagues. The women among us are strong and articulate, ready to lead. And so there is anger but also fear: Suppose Trump does all the things he promised to do, closing the borders, expelling immigrants, barring Muslims, reducing health care opportunities and on and on?

Most (though not all) of the Catholics I know on this end of Harvard’s campus favored Hillary Clinton, even if many had previously favored Mr. Sanders. Some, to be sure, are pro-choice, while many, even if opposed to abortion, doubt the efficacy of a total ban and in any case felt on almost every other issue that the Democratic positions were closer to those of the church and Pope Francis than positions pushed by Mr. Trump and the Republican establishment. Mr. Trump had, after all, pushed just about every button he could to outrage liberals—but also Christians and like-minded members of other traditions who care for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed in our society. It would obviously be very hard to believe Mr. Trump, were he now to promise suddenly to start caring for the marginalized, the excluded, those subjected to racial and sexual discrimination.

So we are in a rather depressed state, and it is real and heartfelt. It would be no more fair to caricature Cambridge liberals than to caricature people in any part of the country, red or blue. Here too people care deeply about our country, worry about the future and recognize the burden of responsibility upon those wishing to live their faith in practice. At the Divinity School, we have already had several open meetings to discuss the election, its aftermath, what is likely to happen now and how we should respond. I hosted one on Thursday, where many spoke passionately of their personal deep disappointment, anger and fear; and many raised acute questions about the media, about how we educate and about the need for the school to reach across the divides in our nation. We have promised to meet again in the near future as Mr. Trump’s plans become concretized.

It is not a bad idea in this situation for those of us who are Christian to turn to the words of Jesus. Matthew Potts, a colleague of mine on the Harvard faculty, has already written a thoughtful and moving meditation on Luke 21, the Gospel passage for November 13, the 33rd Sunday of the year. This is where Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple and the civil and natural and cosmic catastrophes that accompany it.

Matt’s text begins,

Jesus has just entered Jerusalem and his disciples are marveling at the majesty of the temple, at the size of the stones and the opulence of the adornments. But Jesus isn’t having it. He warns them that all the stones will be thrown down, that division and conflict will come. It’s not a very happy passage; in fact, it’s sometimes called the little apocalypse. Without overstating the case, I think we are experiencing our own apocalyptic moment today, a moment when the shakiness of our foundations has been troublingly revealed. For years we have boasted about our cherished institutions: our free press, our stable democracy, our public education. There have been cracks in the stones holding up these institutions for some time, of course, anyone could see. But we didn’t expect them to crumble.

Near the end, he adds, “But if there is anything the Christian churches should be well poised to offer in the wake of this election, it should be our willingness to look directly at loss, to speak frankly about death and despair.” I encourage you to read the entirety of his thoughtful words.

In this situation and having preached on this Gospel Sunday morning, I wish to mark two other themes that complement Matt’s insights. First, it is helpful and healthy to put aside once again the myth of sure and sunny progress. Our nation is a very good one, even if it’s never been the “greatest nation on earth.” But there is no reason to believe in irreversible progress, as if we are on a sure and straight path to an ideal society. The 20th century, as we all know, witnessed an astonishing mix of the worst and best of human nature; the 21st shows no signs of sure and straightforward improvement. The great monuments of human pride, and even churches and temples and mosques, will crack and come crashing down, societies will experience upheaval, people will continue to suffer—even as in other ways, at the same time, the world is becoming a more peaceful, humane home to our billions.

There is no sure movement forward, as Jesus is right in reminding us: Admire the magnificence of what you have built, but do not be surprised when it crashes to the ground. Ministry is not about success. This means that the work we do—as religious leaders, teachers, scholars, ministers to those in need—needs to be grounded in a faith that is not naïve, in a hope that is not merely optimism, in a love that is long and sometimes lonely.

Sometimes we can go with the flow, but sometimes we are on our own, traveling in the other direction. If Mr. Trump were serious about the things he promised during his campaign, then we political progressives—including, I would say, many Christians and many of our brothers and sisters in other spiritual traditions too—will in the next decades have to be peaceful but stubborn resisters to a government that will now be owned almost entirely by Mr. Trump and his Republican friends. (Resistance: Each of us resists in her or his own way. Mine will surely be to continue to educate: Ignorance is at the root of many great evils, in church or school or society.)

But there is reason to hope, if our feet are on the ground. My second complement to Matt’s reading of Luke 21 is to notice that Jesus pairs his apocalyptic vision of all the terrible things about to happen to Jerusalem, the nation and his listeners too, with very clear and pointed instructions about trusting in God:

When you are hauled before hostile powers: “this will give you an opportunity to witness. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you a mouth and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. (13-15)

When you are mocked, hated, and suffer violence because of your value: remember that “not a hair of your head will perish. In your endurance you will gain your souls.” (18-19)

When everything comes apart, and the world itself seems at the edge of self-destruction, “stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (28)

Stand up, fear not, speak the gift that is in you. Brave and bold advice in every time of crisis, however personal or national or global it may be.

And back here on campus, Harvard Divinity School witnesses each day a variety of spiritual practices, meditation groups, shared liturgies and worship. It is, at its best, educating not just the mind, but also integrating mind and heart, ideas and practices, to help our students—these young and generous idealists—to settle in for the long haul, speaking by a wisdom gifted to us, suffering but never perishing, lifting our heads, refusing to cower. Even now, even in this, the Lord comes near.

Dorothy Day was fonding of citing William James in this regard, and I leave to them the last word:

I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those invisible, molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride.