Thursday, December 29, 2016

How I Intend to Approach the Trump Presidency

In a week or two, I hope to resume my blog series on pacifism. But before I can do so, I feel compelled to address a major event that has happened since the last time I posted: the election of Donald Trump. Never in my life have I seen an American political candidate as disturbing and dangerous as Trump. His disregard for basic democratic conventions, his lack of decency and restraint, and shameless self-promotion should be enough for anyone – Republican or Democrat – to be alarmed by him. With these concerns (and others) in mind, I bit the bullet and voted against him in the presidential election. [E1] But, as you know, the election went in his favor anyway. Now I find myself among the millions of Americans who are struggling to accept the fact that Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States.

So now what? How should I approach the Trump presidency? For weeks, I have felt quite conflicted about this, because two different types of strategies for responding to a Trump presidency seem to be emerging, but they seem to run at cross purposes with each other. Let me describe each of them briefly.

First, there is unilateral opposition. Some people are calling for total opposition to Trump in everything he does. [E2] They argue that if Trump gains any victories (for example, if his administration creates an alternative health care system to ACA), then this would lend legitimacy to his presidency, which would in turn give him more power to do harm. One of the advantages of this approach is that it (theoretically) unifies all Trump opponents under one umbrella and galvanizes the opposition. On the other hand, there is little reason to believe that this will be effective in stopping Trump from achieving his agenda, at least at first. In addition to the presidency, Trump has the control over a Republican House and Senate, which gives him all the political power he needs to accomplish his agenda, despite a fierce opposition. Furthermore, all efforts at stopping Trump via blatant condemnation thus far – whether by his primary opponents, Hillary Clinton, or the nearly unified media critique of him – have failed. This is not to say that there is no benefit to opposing Trump even without congressional backing. I am just noting that this does not seem to be as effective as the second option. Additionally, unilateral opposition is the same approach that many Republicans used against President Obama, which opens those who use it up to criticisms of hypocrisy and obstructionism.

The second option is strategic conciliation. Seeing futility in opposing Trump head on, some people are calling for those who opposed Trump in the election to suck it up, accept the legitimacy of his presidency, and to work with the President-Elect, not against him. [E3] This may sound like a defeatist approach, but for some, it is just a shift in strategy. There is a convincing argument that the best way to deal with Trump is to manipulate him through praise rather than opposition. [E4] How’s that? More than anything else, Donald Trump craves affirmation and approval. Consequently, those who would like to manipulate Trump can dangle praise in front of him like a carrot in front of a horse, and there’s a good chance that he’ll do whatever we want to achieve that praise.

Of course, there are downsides to this too. For one, any praise of Trump – especially coming from his former opponents – further legitimizes and normalizes everything that he has said and done up to this point. For example, for President Obama to tell Americans to accept Trump as the next president sends a message to women that sexual abuse is not a serious enough offense that it should not prevent male abusers from gaining positions of authority. After all, even President Obama accepted Trump’s authority after Trump publicly bragged about touching women in appropriately. This is the price of strategic conciliation. It is a kind of betrayal to those whom Trump has stepped on in order to gain power. Furthermore, conciliation may achieve short-term goals, but it weakens the resolve of the opposition in the long run. In order to successfully cater to Trump’s ego, advocates of this approach will have to pick their battles carefully, bite their tongues in the face of “minor” injustices, and decide which issues are the most important when Trump attacks on several fronts.

As you can see, there are major problems with both of these approaches. For Christians, this tension is exacerbated by the fact that there are religious reasons that may cause us to avoid each of these approaches as well. Strategic conciliation has been a strategy for thousands of years, and the Bible typically describes it as a lack of faith in God. The Israelites were instructed not to turn to powerful nations like Egypt for help in times of crisis because these empires engaged in evil and turning to them revealed a lack of faith in God. [E5] Similarly, if Christians decide to “work with” Donald Trump because we are afraid of what could happen if we oppose him, we too reveal our lack of faith in God to save. Moreover, partnering with the Trump administration can be fairly described as “yoking ourselves with unbelievers,” which can seriously damage our witness to Christ, not to mention our personal integrity. [E6] So that would suggest that strategic conciliation is not a Christian option.

On the other hand, the Bible also seems to condemn unilateral opposition. After all, the gospel is a message of reconciliation: we are to seek peace with everyone, even our enemies. [E7] Or consider this: if we make a decision that we can never forgive Trump no matter what he says or does henceforth, how can we expect God to forgive us? [E8]

These are complicated issues, and I do not want to pretend to have all of the answers. However, I would like to explain how I am drawing from Scripture to navigate through this, and I have one concept in particular that I would offer anyone – but especially Christians – who are looking for guidance. Mennonites refer to it as binding and loosing. [E9]

Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible does not tell Christians that we should offer forgiveness and reconciliation to everyone unconditionally. Jesus did teach his followers that we have to be willing to forgive limitlessly – no matter how many times a person sin’s against you, you have to be prepared to forgive them. But limitlessly is not the same as unconditionally. There is still a condition that people must meet before we offer them forgiveness: they must sincerely and genuinely repent of what they have done wrong. [E10] If someone does not repent, then it would not be appropriate to forgive them, for they will continue to inflict harm In fact, there are specific Biblical instructions about how to handle unrepentant people [E11].

Binding and loosing is something that I wish Mike Pence and Franklin Graham had understood a little better when they encouraged their supporters to forgive Donald Trump for his recorded comment about assaulting women. [E12] Yes, Donald Trump said the words, “I’m sorry,” and yes, Christians should be prepared to forgive even sexual abusers for their sins, but there is little reason to believe that Trump’s apology was sincere. [E13] In this case, white evangelicals “loosed” when they should have “bound.” Yes, we should be prepared to offer forgiveness, but we should also be prepared to insist on repentance, and that is where the challenge lies.

Both the approach of unilateral opposition and that of strategic conciliation are extreme positions that recommend a singular response to Trump’s presidency. However, the concept of binding and loosing suggests that we must be prepared to judge everything Trump does on a case-by-case basis, neither refusing to hear him out nor catering to his ego. These are the guidelines I have created for myself to help me decide when to “bind” and when to “loose” in dealing with a Trump administration.

5 Personal Guidelines for "Binding and Loosing" the Trump Administration

1. Criticize actions, but not motives. When we accuse Trump or his supporters of being a racist, or acting out of greed, or being “evil,” these accusations put them on the defense. Although I think it’s quite possible that these motives are at play, we must remember the teaching of Scripture: [Humans judge by] outward appearances, but the Lord judges by the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7). We don’t know the inner thoughts of Donald Trump, and frankly, it’s not our job to point them out. However, we can explain how his actions have harmed people or could potentially harm people, and we should certainly not back away from making action-oriented judgments and criticisms. [E14]

2. Allow Trump to save face, but don’t resort to false praise or withholding criticism. In order to be effective with a narcissist like Trump, savvy politicians have to create win-win petitions, proposals, and even protests. A petition that says, “Tell President Trump to STOP ---“ is not likely to get very far, but one that says, “Let President Trump know that --- is hurting ---.”could be more effective.

Although this kind of delicacy becomes especially important when dealing with someone who has a fragile ego, it is really a better way for humans to interact in any setting. Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making demands, especially insofar as “demands” can be empowering for marginalized people because they don’t frame the conversation in a dependent framework. However, I think it’s generally preferable to seek language that doesn’t identify any individual as a bad guy, but gives even oppressors an opportunity to partner with the good. After all, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities…” (Ephesians 6:12)

On the other hand, we must be very careful not to swing to the other extreme, by offering false praise or withholding needed criticism, because to do this would be a betrayal of those whom Trump has harmed in order to gain power.

3. Be willing to compromise, but be clear about what the lines that I can’t cross. At this stage, I do not think it is inappropriate to compromise with the Trump administration. [E15] After all, democracy works via compromise, and those who are opposed to Trump should be prepared to accept certain policy arrangements and decisions that are less than ideal if it helps move things forward and/or benefits people in the long run.

However, it is very risky to take on this posture of compromise unless you know what lines you are unwilling to cross. For example, I am open to a number of different ways in which immigration can be managed (even though I am an advocate of Open Immigration), but I would never approve of religious tests or any other kind of tests that prohibit people from immigrating here on the basis of their involvement in a minority group.

4. Be prepared to lose all “conciliatory” leverage if a moral line is crossed. If you are going to play the emotional game with Donald Trump and is supporters, it will be tempting to remain silent or even support the Trump Administration inappropriately in order to hang onto that leverage. Consequently, you must regularly recommit yourself to sacrificing all of your leverage and all of your “respectability” if it becomes necessary to do so in order to defend a non-negotiable.

5. Act respectful, but don’t tell marginalized people that they have an obligation to do the same. I intend to speak of Donald Trump in respectful terms, referring to him as “President Trump” and refraining from participating in memes, insults, and caricatures that degrade him. I do this, not because he has earned my respect or even because the office of the presidency merits it, but because he is a child of God. However – and this is important – while I will choose to respect Trump in the way that I talk about it, I refuse to “police” other people by demanding that they show the same respect for him, especially not people in the minority groups who are the most harmed by his words and actions. I refuse to tell minorities to “take the higher road” in face of a Pseudo-Christian President who himself refuses to take the higher road, unless they are people who specifically ask for my advice or for whom I have responsibility to look after due to their voluntary commitment to my specific Christian community. On the contrary, I will seek to lift up these voices – even if they frame their critiques in crude or distasteful language – because these are the people whom God specifically asks us to defend throughout the Bible.  [E16]


[E1] I say that I “bit the bullet,” because I have conscientiously abstained from voting in the presidential race for all of my life up to this point. The reasons for this are complex, and my thinking about voting in general has gone through many twists and turns over the years, but suffice it to say that a pacifist rarely finds anyone whom he or she can vote for in good conscience in the political race. I ended up voting for Hillary Clinton, not because I am particularly fond of her, but because she seems to represent the status quo, which is significantly better than the step in the wrong direction that Trump represents. I do not believe I would have voted in the presidential race if any other Republican candidate had succeeded against Trump.

[E2] Michael Moore is an especially vocal example of this approach (See, but I have heard it expressed at a number of different levels.

[E3] President Obama and Hillary Clinton are among the leading voices who have encouraged Trump opponents to “work together with Trump” and “give him a chance to lead.”

[E5] cf. Isaiah 31:1-3

[E6] cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18

[E7] cf. Romans 12:14-20

[E8] cf. Matthew 6:14-15

[E9] The phrase “binding and loosing” originates from Jesus’ famous response to Peter’s proclamation identifying Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus said, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:19). Catholics famously claim this verse as the proof-text for the legitimacy of the papacy, but Mennonites believe that this tremendous authority to “bind and loose” was given to Peter, but was given through Peter to the entire church community. This is confirmed by the fact that Jesus uses it again to his entire group of disciples in Matt 18:18.

What does it mean? The phrase is most closely identified with granting or withholding forgiveness. However, the forgiveness it has in mind is not a “get-out-of-jail-free card” that keeps people from going to hell. No, forgiveness in this context refers to the complete restoration of an individual into the community of the people of God. Jesus’ followers have the awesome authority to expunge sins and crimes from peoples’ records and treat them as if they had never done such things in the first place. That is not something that should be given out lightly.

But I would argue that this is only an aspect of the total authority of “binding and loosing.” In a broader sense, binding and loosing means that we must draw the lines between justice and mercy. We collectively have the power to say to a person, “We recognize that you made a mistake, and while should lead to certain standards, we are going to ‘loose’ the standards in this case because God is a God of mercy and forgiveness.” We also have the power to say, “I’m sorry, I realize that you want to ignore what happened, but we cannot allow that until we see certain changes. We are going to ‘bind together’ in our resolve in order to protect the innocent.”

[E10] Cf. Luke 17:3-4. Note: Not even God offers forgiveness if there is not first repentance – cf. Acts 2:37-38.

[E11] Cf. Matthew 18:15-18. Notice the repetition of binding and loosing.

[E13] Given the circumstances, Trump had every incentive to offer an apology, whether or not it was sincere. In some cases, we ought to give people the benefit of the doubt, but people in power “should be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1). Besides this, the fact that Trump sought to minimize/defend his action be describing it as “locker room talk” indicates that he does not accept the gravity of his sin, which is a key aspect of genuine repentance. In this case, I would also - as a church leader – expect Trump to make some degree of restitution, and we don’t see evidence of that either.

[E14] This is hard for some of us to accept because Americans tend to assume that an action is moral or immoral based on whether it was done with good or evil intentions. But this is an assumption that is not Biblical and which I believe we need to drop. People can do evil things without intending to, and while our intentions matter, they are not the only thing that matters.

[E15] I do realize that there comes a certain point at which any cooperation with a dictatorship is inappropriate, but to suggest that the Trump administration has crossed that line before it has even gotten started seems misguided to me.

[E16] Cf. Proverbs 31:8-9, Jeremiah 22:1-3, Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27.


Amanda Lawrence said...

I found this take rather interesting even though I am pretty much an agnostic atheist. I personally have no trouble with someone having faith, it's when it's pushed upon me with the intentions of changing my views and my personal beliefs that I have a problem with it. I do not agree with a lot of things the Christian community encourages, and it offends me sometimes. However, even their closely held beliefs didn't seem to matter as much for those who supported Trump, because of the type of person he has shown himself to be (very un-Christian in my personal opinion). Therefore it worries me some of the people that Trump has appointed to the different roles in our government so far. I don't trust any of his campaign promises either. I am for the restructuring of the ACA but I am not confident that he will come up with a better alternative.

I am more a liberal than conservative, but I like to think of myself as mostly moderate in my political stance. I voted a write in for Bernie Sanders because I can't stand Hilary or Trump very much, and needed to feel at peace with my decision. I am for your approach to a Trump presidency though, and I hadn't thought about some of the things you touch on in this blog post but I agree with them. Definitely worth the read, thanks for writing it. Wishing this country good luck for the next four years!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a genuinely reflective article. In my opinion, the article would be strengthened even further if some words had been included covering such an approach to all presidents, even our soon to be former President Obama. Brian, our sauce sounds good for both "goose and gander." Why single out one particular person just because you disagree with him, while giving another an apparent pass? Just sayin'. Thanks again.