Liturgical Christians across the world are marking the penitential season of Lent. This is a preparatory period before the great celebration of Easter, which will be on Sunday, March 27, for Western Christians.
It’s good to think about repentance during this time. Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University, has given us an opportunity to discuss that very thing. In an interview with the student paper at his evangelical university in Lynchburg, Virginia, he discussed the pushback he’s received from alumni and other Liberty community members over his endorsement of Donald Trump for the Republican nomination for president (found via Yahoo’s Jon Ward):
“It is sad to see Christians attacking other Christians because they don’t support the same candidate or the candidate who they believe is the most righteous,” Falwell said.
“God called King David a man after God’s own heart even though he was an adulterer and a murderer,” Falwell said. “You have to choose the leader that would make the best king or president and not necessarily someone who would be a good pastor. We’re not voting for pastor-in-chief. It means sometimes we have to choose a person who has the qualities to lead and who can protect our country and bring us back to economic vitality, and it might not be the person we call when we need somebody to give us spiritual counsel.”
There is a mixture of good and bad here. It’s good that Falwell is articulating, in the second part of the second paragraph, a distinction between pastor and president. Confusion of the two has led to any number of bad political decisions on the part of Christians of all stripes.
It’s never good to attack anyone, as he says is happening, but Christians can of course disagree vehemently with their brethren about who is the best candidate for a community.
The main problem is with what Falwell says about King David. It is true that God says in 1 Samuel 13, “The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” And it is true that King David was an adulterer and a murderer. You can read all about it in 2 Samuel 11.
David sends his men out to battle. He remains in Jerusalem. One evening, he is walking along the roof of his house and sees a beautiful woman bathing. He asks about her and finds out that she is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. He has her brought to him and he sleeps with her. Their sexual congress results in her pregnancy. She tells him what’s up. Uh oh!
So David sends for Uriah and tells him to go home and rest for a bit — to disguise who impregnated her. But the loyal Uriah insists he can’t enjoy rest, good food, and sex with his wife so long as all his men are enduring hardship on the battlefields. David gets him drunk to trick him to go home with his lady. Still he stands strong.
David instructs Joab, his nephew and commander of the army, to put Uriah at the front of the hottest battle and retreat from him so that he is killed. Uriah is killed. Bathsheba mourns her husband then becomes David’s wife. DRAMA.
And lest there be any confusion, we’re told, “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” To put it mildly.
This is the part of the story that Falwell elides when making his Trump-King David comparison. The very next verse we learn that God sends the prophet Nathan to David. He tells him a story about an unjust rich man who takes everything from a poor man. The story makes David very angry and he says that the rich man must die. Nathan responds, “You are the man!”
Convicted, David says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” God announces sobering punishment on David and his kingdom.
In response to Nathan’s admonition and to receiving absolution, he writes Psalm 51, one of the most beautiful penitential psalms. Seriously, take a minute to read it. If you’ve attended a liturgical service, you will recognize many parts of this psalm.
Which brings us back to the Republican front-runner. Trump has many admirable attributes. He’s also, like the rest of us, a poor, miserable sinner. He’s a self-confessed adulterer who has written at length about bedding “top women of the world,” including sleeping with married women. He is open about both his pride and anger. He speaks disparagingly of other people and groups of people with alarming frequency. Just yesterday he claimed he was “a better person” than other candidates. I doubt there is need to go on.
Trump is also someone who has said he has never asked for forgiveness. Being Trump, he’s made comments a bit all over the map, but during a CNN forum a few months back, in response to Anderson Cooper’s question about the role of repentance in his life, he said, “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes? I work hard, I’m an honorable person.” The CNN headline “Trump believes in God, but hasn’t sought forgiveness,” explains previous remarks he’s made.
David is known as a model ruler, a powerful king with impressive civil and military successes. He was a valiant warrior, poet, and musician. It is from his family line that Jesus is born. And David, who lived a millennium prior to Jesus, is talked about in the Acts of the Apostles — and to this day. The legacy cannot be understood apart from David’s contrite heart in the face of his grievous sin.
Now, if things continue as they’re going, the next president will not be morally virtuous. And if he were elected president, Trump would not be the first unrepentant adulterer to hold that office.
But far worse than bad presidents is bad theology that ignores the importance of repentance for the Christian, and that means both sorrow over our sin and faith in the promise of forgiveness. Repentance simply means to turn away from sin. For the Christian, it means to turn away from sin to see Jesus crucified for us.
Perhaps an end-of-Lenten fast from the outrage of our hyper-divisiveness will help us do that.