On many fronts, I am troubled today by the appointment of Paula White as head of the White House’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative, a successor to previous administrations’ faith-based office that coordinates outreach to religious communities. The news reports point out that she is neither seminary trained nor qualified to hold this position, and yet the president identifies her as his “pastor.” I cannot help but wonder: When did it become acceptable to evangelicals to tolerate a woman as their president’s pastor?
It appears that Donald Trump has employed a Pentecostal televangelist from Florida, an outsider whose populist brand of Christianity mirrors his own conquest of the Republican Party. She is in many ways a quintessentially Trump figure: a television preacher, married three times, lives in a mansion.
And like her president, Ms. White has survived accusations of financial misconduct and ethical improprieties. Among Christians, she is a divisive figure because of her association with the belief that God wants followers to have wealth — commonly called the prosperity gospel. This theological perspective is highly unorthodox, and is also considered heretical by many Christians.
The Rev. William J. Barber II, who organized the Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina and who spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2016, calls White’s appointment “a very ominous sign” and signals that “Christian narcissism” has come into the White House. He said this:
The so-called prosperity gospel is a false gospel that can be compared to the theology that justified slavery because of economic prosperity. It is an attempt to interpret the gospel to be primarily about personal wealth and personal power, which is contrary to the theology of Jesus where the good news was always focused on caring for the poor, the least of these, the stranger, the sick.
I just spent five paragraphs trying to show Paula White’s face to the world when what is infinitely more needful is showing Christ’s face to the world. With that in mind, I feel compelled to switch focus to the theology of Jesus that insists upon caring for the oppressed.
Some of you may know that I am an iconographer and one who is very interested in the theology of icons and their call to holy introspection. An iconographer colleague of mine gave me this wise counsel:
Look at the eyes first and see the light that shines through them. Stand reverently and quietly before the icon until the image speaks to you.
Icons hold a spiritual effect, a history and a message. So in thinking about caring for the oppressed, I turn to two icons depicting the Mother of God and her Son.
The first, an icon by Kelly Latimore, is Mother of God, Protectress of the Oppressed. Russian Christians for centuries have called Mary the Protectress of the Oppressed. While some icons embrace traditional forms, this one has been re-imagined. It reflects current political morés related to the treatment of refugees and migrants at our southern border. Christ has assured us that He will always be found among the poor and oppressed. In that light, this depiction of Mary is a refugee mother and child behind the fence our government has erected to separate them from “God-fearing Americans.”
The second icon, written by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM, is Mother of the Streets. Each year, larger numbers of homeless people live in the streets of our cities — jobless workers, battered women, the untreated mentally ill, or simply those too poor to get by. They tend to be “invisible” to us. This icon depicts the Mother of God as the mother of those on the streets. Her garments, and those of her Son, are covered with jewels and gold decoration, making manifest the hidden worth and dignity of street people, who are living icons of God. In 1984 the Catholic bishops of the U.S. declared, “To turn aside from those on the margins of society, the needy and the powerless, is to turn aside from Jesus. Such people show His face to the world.”
It matters whose face we show to the world. It matters whose face we see. We can choose to “see” the Donald Trumps and Paula Whites of the world, or we can turn our eyes on Jesus. It matters whose face we “see!” And it really matters whether or not we will be found in the city streets, on the border and at the fences, at the margins of society where so much oppression holds sway. It really matters whether or not our every day, holy acts of compassion show Christ’s face to the world.
May God create in us compassionate hearts. Amen.
On another note, please pray for me as I look toward my kidney transplant currently scheduled for November 12th at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. I am so grateful that you are walking with me on this journey that often felt so frightening. Your thoughts and prayers mean so much. If you would like to read the story of my illness, please visit the Georgia Transplant Foundation’s website at this link:
A “Go Fund Me” page is set up for contributions to help with the enormous costs related to the transplant, including medications, housing costs for the month we have to stay near the transplant center, and other unforeseeable costs for my care following the transplant. If you can, please be a part of my transplant journey by making a contribution at this link