“God grant it was not an apparition of the devil,” Hans Luther reportedly responded to his son Martin’s claim that a voice from heaven had called Martin to be a monk. Luther’s father proposed an alternative scenario: Satan, not God, was responsible for Martin’s (poor) decision.
That story sprang to mind when I read that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene had argued in a recent interview, and then clumsily tried to explain away in an official statement, that “Satan’s controlling the church.” The evidence she gave for such satanic control? Christian groups who provide aid to undocumented immigrants.
Greene argued that these humanitarian efforts mean the church “is not doing its job, and it’s not adhering to the teachings of Christ and it’s not adhering to what the Word of God says we’re supposed to do.” She went on to argue, “What they’re doing by saying ‘Oh, we have to love these people and take care of these migrants and love one another. . .’ Yes, we’re supposed to love one another, but their definition of what love one another means, it means destroying our laws.”
Greene accuses the very people who strive to follow the teachings of Jesus as being directed by forces of evil. Perhaps it is too much to expect anything better from someone who, because of her recent court testimony, some have started calling “Perjury Taylor Greene,” but I would argue, as they say in horror movies, that the call is coming from inside the house. Evil — or “Satan,” if you prefer — is present in such words of hatred, fear and deception.
Unlike Greene, I claim no knowledge of Satan’s activities — or existence — but as a scholar of the teachings of Jesus, I am certain that his teachings are diametrically opposed to what Greene claims they are, and that groups who provide humanitarian relief to marginalized communities, including refugees and undocumented immigrants, are following Jesus’ commands to the letter.
The real hounds of hell: Fear, deception, hypocrisy and hate
Greene’s example would not be significant if it were an outlier. But her words and actions are paradigmatic of how “Christian” nationalists, primarily driven by white evangelicals, use their power and influence to dominate media narratives and political processes. It also illustrates how messages of fear, deception, hypocrisy and hate — what Howard Thurman, best known for being a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., appropriately called the “hounds of hell” — can often triumph over Jesus’ message of love, his teachings about reconciliation, restoration of community, and resulting humanitarian actions toward all people. Adam Serwer’s article for the Atlantic, “The Cruelty is the Point,” has repeatedly been proven true. Greene, along with Donald Trump and his other supporters, thrive on viciousness against people they deem “outsiders” and use as scapegoats. This cruelty binds Trump and his supporters — especially conservative white evangelical Christians — into a “community” of “real Americans” fueled by the fear, deception and hatred that celebrates punitive actions against marginalized people.
Christian nationalism’s betrayal of Jesus
Thurman’s 1949 classic book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” still provides one of the best analyses of how the religion of Jesus opposes and indeed condemns the perversion of Christianity that Greene represents. Thurman argues that Jesus’ religion and ethical vision are embedded in his historical context: Jesus, a poor 1st-century Jew, spoke to others who, like him, were poor, disinherited and dispossessed — those with their “backs constantly against the wall” as members of a minority group suffering oppression from a dominant, controlling group, the Romans.
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Ironically, in contrast to the religion of Jesus, Christianity became “a religion of the powerful and dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression.” Christian nationalists strive to be — or remain — a similar dominant, controlling group, and pervert the teachings of Jesus into a cudgel against the very types of people to whom Jesus primarily proclaimed his message, those with their backs against the wall. Such victimization of marginalized groups, Thurman argues, is a “betrayal of [Jesus’] faith,” and, in fact, by constructing barriers between human beings, “American Christianity has betrayed the religion of Jesus almost beyond redemption.”
The real Jesus
Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed, for those with “ears to hear,” good news to the poor and liberation of the oppressed, blessings on the poor, woes on the rich and parables such as the rich fool and the rich man and Lazarus that also condemn wealth, power and neglect of the poor.
Jesus’ teachings about how one should treat immigrants (often translated as “strangers” or “aliens”) are even more devastating to Greene’s fatuous statements. Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan dramatically affirms two key aspects of Jewish law: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and “you shall love the alien as yourself” by demolishing any distinction between neighbor and the “other.” In his parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus even teaches that one’s eternal salvation ultimately depends on such humanitarian actions as feeding the hungry, taking care of the sick, visiting incarcerated persons and welcoming the immigrant: Greene might be distressed to hear that the ones who do not welcome the stranger are condemned at the Last Judgment to spend eternity with Satan.
Must the wicked prosper?
I cannot say for sure how Greene and similar Christian nationalists will fare even in this world, much less in any potential next world, but Thurman argues that although hatred and other “hounds of hell” can give people a false sense of significance, purpose and community, they ultimately destroy the hater from within. Likewise, as Heather McGhee brilliantly demonstrates in her book “The Sum of Us,” the very systems exploiting those with their backs against the wall often expand to exploit other groups as well. Those supporting such oppression because it only hurts the “other” thus ultimately find themselves similarly oppressed by the powerful. Just as McGhee argues that a functioning society depends on a “web of mutuality,” of social solidarity, Jesus says that true community is built by working actively for the well-being of all other human beings — loving all our “neighbors” — which ultimately includes our own well-being.
Our current landscape appears bleak, and the hounds of hell seemingly are winning. But Thurman remained optimistic that these “contradictions in life” are not final, a message of hope reminiscent of theologian Theodore Parker’s admonition: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Thurman believed that love, reconciliation and community can ultimately overcome fear, deception, hypocrisy and hate, and perhaps that hope can provide us renewed strength to live our lives working to help bend that arc towards justice. As Thurman urged, we can “try it and see.”
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