One of the puzzles of the Trump nightmare has been the fervent attachment of evangelical Christians to “their President.” He has been their man. Scandal after scandal, moral failure after moral failure has done nothing to shake their faith in him. What accounts for this? Historians and social scientists will long puzzle about this, but I suggest that we take a look at modern-day Christianity’s language about Jesus for initial clues to this puzzle.
Jesus the Lord is a fundamental, even dangerous problem.
In the earliest period after his death, the followers of Jesus employed a number of titles drawn from the traditions of Israel to try to understand and deal with what had happened. Anointed and son of God were among the first, both probably meaning the same thing: Messiah: Anointed, king of Israel. Both were messianic titles drawn from the King David tradition.
The title lord was also used at a very early date. Paul knows and uses the title. The sense of lord can go in three different directions.
It is another title of David and as applied to Jesus would indicate that he was the Anointed Messiah, king of Israel. Its earliest usage as applied to Jesus would be messianic.
In the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew holy writings, lord is used for the tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God, YHWH.
Lord is also a title of the Roman emperor.
The title lord has then many rich interpretative possibilities. Paul uses the title in the first sense and plays against the third. The greeting of Paul’s letter to the Romans contains a great example of this usage.
This news is about the “son of God”—who was physically descended from David, appointed and empowered as “son of God,” in accordance with the spirit of holiness, from the time of his resurrection from the dead—Jesus, the Anointed, our lord (Rom 1:3–4).
In this address Paul is explaining in shorthand code that the good news (euggelion) is about a son of God. The connection to King David is front and center. And finally, an accumulative series of titles are given: “the Anointed”, “our lord.” This links Jesus to David, Anointed, son of God and lord. For Paul, all three titles are synonymous.
In Paul and much of the early movement of communities of the Anointed, these titles had a counter-intuitive, oxymoronic character. Why? Because they were obviously not true. They were counter factual. Paul makes this very clear in 1 Cor 1:23:
we speak about God’s Anointed crucified! This is an offense to Jews, nonsense to the nations.
The Anointed should not be crucified, but he should do the crucifying. That is why it is offensive, a scandal, to Jews and utter nonsense to the nations. The same is true of a lord. At the same time, to maintain that the defeated Messiah of Israel, also itself a defeated nation, is the lord requires pistis, confidence in the God who put Jesus forth (Rom: 3:25). It demands confidence or trust that the God of Israel will be faithful to the promises made.
The claim that Jesus the Anointed is the lord is an inherent political claim that challenges the claims of the Roman emperors to be the lords of this world. This counter claim to the Roman emperor’s lordship is evident in the conclusion of the so-called Philippians hymn:
so that on hearing the name "Jesus,"
every knee should bend,
above the earth, on the earth, and under the earth,
and every tongue declare: “Jesus the Anointed is lord!” (Phil 2:10–11)
Imagine Jesus the crucified slave in a triumphal procession and the crowd shouts out “Jesus the Anointed is lord!” That is indeed nonsense and a counter claim as to how God will be faithful to the promises made. Substituted for the triumphal Augustus in his chariot is an image of the crucified lord Jesus. This contrast changes the way in which a world is imagined and what its possibilities might be.
The metaphorical system that supports the notion of lord is the master/slave metaphor. In Greek, kurios means master or lord. Lord is simply a fancy English word for master. A lord is not a lord without slaves. There are two sides to this metaphor. The master or lord and a slave or enslaved person. From the point of view of the master, a slave is a natural phenomenon. From the point of view of the slave, a point of view we seldom hear, they are enslaved. There is nothing natural about it at all.
A world in which there are masters demands there also be enslaved people over whom the master rules. The metaphor is inherently hierarchical. That implication cannot be avoided. A lord is not a lord without those enslaved to him. Paul actually plays upon this same point:
We are not publicizing ourselves but Jesus, God’s Anointed, as lord and ourselves as your slaves on Jesus’ behalf (2 Cor 4:5).
Paul also often refers to himself as enslaved: “Paul, slave of God’s Anointed, Jesus” (Rom 1:1, see also Gal 1:1).
Famously in Gal 3:28 Paul proclaims that the major hierarchical signs of empire disappear among those who belong to the body of the Anointed:
You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer “male and female.” Instead, you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus.
Clearly Paul’s view of what is accomplished by God, what is willed by God, as expressed in the body of the Anointed is fundamentally anti-hierarchical and I think the evidence indicates that Paul tries to live up to this conviction (see my The Real Paul, chapters 10–11). But in everyday reality these fundamental hierarchical realities remain. And that is a problem. It is hard to know just what to make of Paul’s claim other than as an ideal to be basically ignored, which has been its actual fate throughout the succeeding Christian centuries.
In Paul’s context in which his group was a minority group made up of the oppressed and those defeated by the Roman Empire, such a belief in Jesus as the lord has a strong value as an encouragement towards resistance. It is a push towards liberation and freedom in a world in which the Roman lord keeps his subjects enslaved. It promises a new lord who will liberate the enslaved and bring a new creation without hierarchy.
But history proved otherwise.
The Anointed king of Israel mutated into the Christ, which almost became Jesus’ last name and took on almost any meaning desired.
The Son of God metamorphosed from the equivalent of messiah to third person of the Trinity, quite a distant and momentous make over.
The Lord transformed from a mocking counterview of imperial claims into Jesus becoming a super emperor, lording it over everything.
Context, of course, is everything. The context shifted from Paul’s context, a defeated and conquered people, to a context of winners and conquerors—from being under the thumb of the empire to being in charge of the empire. Scandal and nonsense disappeared, as did resistance. Now Jesus was literally lord of all. The counter-factual aspect wasn’t even a memory. The religious view of Jesus as Lord reinforces hierarchy and the legitimacy of hierarchy as the primary way God wants the world to be organized.
How does any of this explain the attraction and loyalty of evangelicals to Donald Trump? The metaphorical system Jesus is the lord with its supporting metaphor of master and enslaved conditions those who are raised within that system to trust in hierarchical, imperial, authoritarian systems, even to see them as authorized by God. Metaphorical systems are not neutral but have implications. They affect what we perceive, what we experience, and how we behave.
Combine this system with a view of faith as believing something in the face of contrary evidence (see my blogs on this here and here) and we have a toxic setting. As the Queen of Hearts says in Alice in Wonderland:
Alice laughed: “There's no use trying," she said; “one can't believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven't had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
This distorted view of faith has come to dominate Christianity and with it comes a rejection of science and a view of science and religion as incompatible. It’s not far to fake news and an evidence-free worldview.
Those who are interested in following, reforming, or reclaiming the tradition of Jesus need to treat the confession of Jesus as Lord as the equivalent of the Confederate battle flag. It has to be taken down and done away with. It comes from a world where slavery was viewed as the natural, normal way. That system can no longer be sustained, even in metaphor. It unknowingly does damage.
We can no longer fall back on the old distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. There are several reasons for this, which probably demand a whole separate blog. But let me enumerate two.
The is no single Christ of faith. There are as many Christs of faith as there are Christians.
The Christ of faith has no grounding in evidence. That fact is supposed to be its power because it is grounded in faith. But instead it is its Achilles heel. Such a grounding loosens it from the everyday evidential world in which we live.
Jesus and faith as modes of resistance can be reclaimed, but Jesus as Lord, like the Confederate battle flag, must be abandoned. It is too dangerous. We know where it leads.
This image from Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (Constantinople) has an interesting history. This type of image is referred to as Pantocrator, Ruler over all. It is a stereotype image reproduced in Byzantine church after Byzantine church. Initially these icons were based on images of Roman emperors, lending the prestige of the emperor to Jesus. But as the power of the empire and its emperors diminished, the images of the emperors drew upon the icons of Jesus Pantocrator., conferring the prestige of the all-powerful Jesus upon the emperor. While history makes for strange reversals, the metaphorical system remains.
Bernard Brandon Scott is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, and he chaired Westar’s Christianity Seminar Phase I. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and historical-jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.