Today’s gospel reading, Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes might well provide us with an example of a religious text evolving for use in a particular context. Differing significantly from Luke’s version, Matthew may well have crafted the text from a shared source to address his audience and fit into his narrative.
Whatever the truth of the text’s pre-history, its interpretation – like that of any biblical text – is a matter of ongoing reception, conditioned by context. (The Catholic claim is, of course, that this process is guided by the Spirit and at moments manifest authoritatively in the teaching of the Church). A startling case was provided by the use of the text at Donald Trump’s inauguration last week.
It is fair to say that the early days of the Trump presidency have not seemed like the embodiment of the spirit of the Beatitudes. Turning away refugees, advocating torture, barring citizens of Muslim-majority countries from entering the US – if one wanted to point to actions that show how the merciful are blessed this is not where one would look. Yet the incongruity has passed largely without comment. Such is civic religion in the United States that, for all the effusive piety of much of that country’s politics, saccharine-tinged hypocrisy dealt with a leather-bound bible and a broad smile is accepted as the norm from political leaders.
This state of affairs, where God and his word have become rhetorical playthings, ever present in the discourse of public life but used to shore up the power of politicians is, amongst other things, the sign of a Christianity that is too familiar with God. If God is my buddy, if I can invoke him before a business meeting or a football game as though he were some holy performance supplement, if cartoons of Jesus in such situations appeal non-ironically, then I am in the grip of idolatry. I will be all too familiar with the divine, all too sure that I know what God wants (this tending to coincide with what I want). The awe and splendour of the burning bash and Sinai retreats, we are left with just another campaign tool.
America could do a lot worse than a spot of atheism in its civic life. The god of inaugurations is one of those gods from whom we have been set free by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who demands that we have no god by him. Indeed, Mennonite theologian Stanley Hauerwas has suggested that the real name of the god of Trumpism is ‘America’. There is a word of caution to be spoken here for those in Europe who mourn the absence of religious talk from most of our politics. Speaking of God is not the same thing as speaking faithfully of God. We are not to take the Lord’s Name in vain.