During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump claimed at a rally in Iowa that the Bible was his “favorite book.” It was a preposterous claim, of course, but he was already generating support among evangelical Christians, so it made the news. The next day, reporter Mark Halperin landed an interview with the candidate and engaged in a few scenes of the performative theater that passes for journalism in American democracy.
Noting Trump’s comments from the day before, he asked specifically if Trump would like to share “one or two of your most favored Bible verses.”
Halperin — and, for that matter, anyone in the nation with a single cogent brainwave — knew that Trump had likely never even opened a bible in his life, and he figured he might be able to trip the candidate up. But Trump brushed the question aside with the conman’s perfectly practiced straight-face.
Trump said, “Well, I wouldn’t wanna get into it, because to me that’s very personal. You know, when I talk about the Bible, it’s very personal. So I don’t wanna get into it.”
It was as obvious as sunrise that he had no idea, at all, how to answer the question. None. Zero. Trump doesn’t have a favorite bible verse. Or a favorite poem. Or a favorite book. He only has a favorite person: Him. Still, the rules of American journalism are what they are. Here, we only play flag-football with our politicians, so after a few more gentle nudges — but without embarrassing Trump too badly — Halperin let him off the hook. The whole scene was pathetic, it made some ripples for a day or two, and then it was gone.
But it stuck with me. At the time, I had a few thoughts. The first was a realization that if the media were going to really let this grifter get off that easily, he might actually win this thing. The second was wondering how I might have answered the question if it were put to me. Because, I’ll be honest about this, sometimes I imagine myself running for office, so I try to practice in my head with different scenarios. It’s sort of a news-junkie’s version of singing in the shower. Don’t judge.
Now, I left the church years ago, but I still maintain a cultural, ethical connection to my Catholic faith. Moreover, in my own — but very real — way, I love Jesus. So I wondered what I would say, if suddenly put on the spot by a reporter. What are my favorite Bible verses?
The first one that came to mind was the camel and the eye of the needle. That’s a good one. I was pretty sure that was from the Book of Matthew. Or maybe the admonition against praying as a hypocrite on the street corner. That was Matthew, too. Definitely. Matthew 6: 5. I knew that one cold. Or perhaps I’d go more spiritual, with Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and its glorious ruminations on love.
There were more. Many more. There is so much beauty in that book, it’s an absolute pageant of possibilities. I felt that, truly, nearly anyone raised in our culture could give a perfectly fine answer, even if they couldn’t cite literal chapter and verse. The book is part of who we are.
But not Donald. He is a moral, philosophical, and spiritual void.
I thought about that question again last night, as I watched the President use the National Guard to bash and gas his way through a peaceful gathering of citizens. Many of whom were undoubtedly Christian. He did it, as you well know, so that he could get a trophy picture of himself holding “his favorite book” in front of a church that has been damaged in the night before during the protests. It was one of the most despicable acts of a despicable man, surrounded by a coterie of despicable toadies. Truly, it was just awful, particularly given the solemnity of the moment and the mood of the nation.
So I thought about the bible, that book in his hand, again last night. I thought about it in the context of George Floyd’s murder. I thought about it in terms of my own grief at losing those I love. I thought about it as I believe Jesus might have thought about it, and doing so, I finally knew my answer.
My favorite verse of the entire Bible is the shortest.
The story, if you don’t know it, is deeply moving. Lazarus of Bethany, a friend to Jesus, fell ill. The Bible doesn’t specify how they knew one another, other than a mention that “Lord, he whom Thou lovest is sick,” so I take the liberty of imagining that they were childhood friends.
The sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, feared that he was so ill, he would die. So, they sent word to their brother’s old friend, the great rabbi, so that He might come.
Jesus, a busy man, received the message. But He hesitated. It was dangerous for him to travel to Bethany, in the land of Judea. A short time before, He had been driven from the land by a crowd with stones. While the bible doesn’t say anything about why, we know that Jesus waits for two whole days, before finally setting out — against the counsel of his disciples — to be at his brother’s side.
Tragically, by the time He arrived, Lazarus already lay dead in his grave.
Jesus spoke with Martha on the road to Bethany. Martha sent for Mary, who was at home, grieving with her family. They all arranged to meet at the tomb, along with many members of the community, for Lazarus must have been very well loved.
When they were gathered there, they stood as a village and mourned. When Jesus saw Mary, she was crying. He went to her, and in the words of the King James Version, feeling her pain as his own Jesus, “groaned in His spirit.”
My lord, I know that feeling. And so do you. We’ve all been feeling it this week, over and over again. We are, as a nation, “groaning in our spirit.”
And then Jesus asked, in what might be my second favorite verse of the Bible for its simple humanity, “Where have you laid him?”
Oh, how many of us have walked through a cemetery, searching for the tomb of a loved one? Where is he? You know they are not there anymore, but still there is a deep, visceral, aching need to be near them even if only in the raw elements, dissolving elements of what they once were.
“Where have you laid him?”
I see that scene so clearly in my mind’s eye. Friends wailing. A sister’s voice, piercing the sky with anguish. The family and friends with heads down low, perhaps singing a song of sadness and hope. All is tears. And you are there in the middle of it, feeling guilt, and shame, and pain, and an aching, eternal hole in your heart where your brother is supposed to be.
“Where have you laid him?”
Jesus needs to see. He needs to be shown the proof of this finality, this ending, this death. So the sisters take him by the arm. “Come and see,” they say, and they walk together to the stone which covers his grave.
And in the 35th verse “Jesus wept.”
I think about that moment in His life, and I know those tears. I’ve cried them so many times. They are the tears that beseech heaven for another chance, another moment with the one who is no more. They are tears that plead to God, “No, this can’t be so! Please, Father, let him live. Let me see him just one more time. Let me say to him what I did not say. Let me promise him that I will never, ever again delay my arrival when I hear you are in need.”
They are tears that say all of the truths we’ve not been brave enough to say. They are tears that out all our failing and rend our hearts. They are the tears of the graveside, and they have always been the same for everyone who loves.
We all know them, and we know the intensity of the grief they contain. They are the tears we saw this week from Terrence Floyd, when he spoke of the infinite grief at having been robbed of the life of his brother. We all witness those tears and that grief in the face of a man who watched his own flesh and blood be murdered by officers of the state. Coolly, mercilessly, brutally, mechanically.
You could hear all of that pain in his voice, and in a way, we all shared in that grief with him, too. Terrence wept. Jesus wept. Same tears of grief and loss.
Again, I’m not a Christian, and to me the Bible is a book of wisdom among many. Still, the Holy Book of the Christians doesn’t tell believers that they have to be Jesus. It tells them, it tells all of us, that we should strive to be like Jesus. We should, like Jesus, grieve so deeply that we feel we might raise the dead with the power of our love. We should love our enemies as ourselves. We should turn the other cheek. We should judge not, lest we be judged. We should welcome the last so that they may be made first. We should be the peacemakers, the meek, the merciful. We should hunger and thirst for righteousness. We should mourn, and when we do, we should weep.
There is no shame in failing to be Divine. There is no shame in being unable to raise George Floyd or any of our brothers or sisters from the grave with the power of our love. The shame is found in not even trying. By trying, by mourning and grieving, we become human. By trying, by mourning and grieving, we become holy.
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Donald Trump can play act at strength for another 153 days. He can continue along with his nation of False Christian followers. He can continue to poison everything he touches. He can con and grift and lie and bully and berate and defile the nation for another five months and one day. But his time at the center of our story is coming to an end. As are the story-lines of the bit players he has collected around his feet. History will soon leave him where he belongs: In a silent grave, unvisited, untended, alone.
Even sadder, while he lives, he will never know the power of the profound unity that connects human beings who share an ocean of grief. He will never know the beauty or the empathy that inspires. Donald Trump only weeps for himself. What a pitiable, pathetic, lost, useless, worm-souled man.
I wish I could pray for him. Maybe someday I will. But not now. Now is for those who love others.
So, goodnight and love to you all.
I know you feel my grief. I feel yours, too. Thank you for that.
It reminds me we’re not alone.
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