Even by political standards, Donald Trump’s discussions of his religious faith are curious. He was baptized as a Christian and identifies as Presbyterian. He was confirmed at First Presbyterian in Jamaica, New York. He attended a Presbyterian worship service in Iowa a few days before the caucuses there. He says, “I’m Protestant, I’m Presbyterian, and I go to church and I love God and I love my church.” Specifics about where he attends aren’t known, but he says he always at least goes to church on Christmas and Easter.
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 on the same topic. He’s also said of communion, “When we go in church and when I drink my little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and when I have my little cracker, I guess that’s a form of asking for forgiveness.”
He talks about the Bible a bit. “Nothing beats the Bible. Nothing beats the Bible. Not even ‘The Art Of The Deal,'” he said of the Holy Scriptures and his book. He’s been asked about his favorite Bible verse before and struggled to answer. Last September he claimed it was located in Proverbs: “Proverbs, the chapter ‘never bend to envy,'” he said. “I’ve had that thing all of my life where people are bending to envy.”
It was difficult to ascertain which chapter or verse of Proverbs he was referring to, if any.
And now he’s come up with a new answer. In an interview yesterday with a local New York radio host Trump said his favorite Bible verse is the Old Testament passage, which says one can take “an eye for an eye.”
“You know when we get into the Bible I think many, so many. And ‘an eye for an eye,’ you can almost say that. It’s not a particularly nice thing, but you know when you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, you see what’s going on with our country how people are taking advantage of us and how they scoff at us and laugh at us and laugh in our face and they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re taking our — you know, they’re taking the health of our country. And we have to be very firm and we have to be very strong and we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”
The verse — which is very well known, of course — appears several times in the Bible. Here it is in Exodus 21:23-25:
“[I]f there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
The context is Moses sharing a variety of precedent-setting legislation to guide Israel’s courts. This is part of one of those sections and introduces the important concept of proportionality. These guides were revolutionary at the time they were issued because they showed the value of all people. The excerpt actually deals with harm done to children who are prematurely born as a result of violence against their mothers, for example.
The phrase also appears in Leviticus 24:19-22, which emphasizes that these rules from God apply to all people, “the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” And it appears in Deuteronomy 19:21, where it deals with the role witnesses who bring accusations against others play, emphasizing, as my study Bible puts it, “God calls us to deal with one another with integrity, being faithful witnesses, for the protection of ourselves or others and never hurting others by bearing false witness against them.”
Trump said the concept was “not a particularly nice thing,” but properly understood, it has many nice aspects, including its importance in helping the courts of Israel keep people from enacting revenge that went beyond the crime itself.
People also know the verse because of the revolutionary things Jesus Christ said in Matthew 5:38. Here’s that portion:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
And then he dropped the mic and walked off the mount. But seriously, this entire Sermon on the Mount is worth reading again and again. This section is one of many that has provoked much discussion and debate over the centuries about precisely what is meant by it.
It is not, as some have said in the aftermath of Trump’s remarks, that Jesus “repudiated” the lex talionis principle from the Old Testament. Repudiate means to deny the truth or validity of a thing. That’s not what happened in the Sermon on the Mount. The Old Testament provisions are about limiting vengefulness and providing guidance for secular courts to mete out proper punishment. Jesus is clear in various parts of his teaching that there is a distinction between Caesar’s kingdom and God’s. He’s not saying that the principle of limiting vengeance is wrong. He’s saying, as he does time and time again with other aspects of the Law, that the challenge is to extend it even more. Compare this with a passage 10 verses prior when Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He’s not repudiating the commandment against adultery. He’s extending it.
So here he’s not saying the principle of limiting vengefulness is wrong but that it doesn’t go far enough. Limit your vengeance to the point that you suffer insults and persecution from your enemy and be generous to all those who place demands on you, whether it’s the Roman soldiers who forced civilians to carry their baggage or the person who seeks a loan. “Jesus wants us to be willing to make sacrifices, to think twice before we refuse a request for help,” as my study Bible puts it.
Jesus practiced this different attitude in his life, up to the point of his death. When Jesus was beaten, blasphemed, and crucified by civic and religious authorities, he didn’t demand justice or scream or insult them. Instead, he prayed, “Father forgive them.”
So all this to say, Trump’s selection of a verse isn’t a bad one, in that all Scripture is for our edification. His exegesis of the verse was wrong, because the principle is about limiting vengeance in secular contexts. Having said that, the principle of limiting our vengeance is one we would all do well to learn. And in our personal lives, inspired by Jesus, we should limit our vengeance all the more.
Jesus provokes us to examine our own heart. Have we always been generous with our wealth? Have we shared with those in need? Do we help everyone, or just those who we deem “worthy” of help? Or do we even help them? Do we forgive insults or stew on them? When people make demands of us, do we patiently endure, or do we become indignant and defensive?
We mocked Trump for his favorite verse, but are we sure his misinterpretation doesn’t match ours? Are we sure we’re not as vengeful and spiteful? The fact is that Trump doesn’t do what Jesus says to do. Neither do you. Neither do I. We do not follow the Law as Jesus tells us to follow it. Not even close.
Jesus was totally generous in giving His life for us. In him, we receive forgiveness and strength. Trump needs that good news. And so do we.