by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – for which he has a contract with Wipf and Stock (Cascades).
The bright yellow “JESUS SAVES” and “JESUS 2020” flags waved high in the midst of the rabble invading the Capitol on January 6. What in the hell was Jesus doing with this mob? Even their flags were a cacophony of mixed images. Jesus was waving next to a flag with a snake and the battle flag of the Confederate States of America. How odd of Jesus to be among snakes and rebels.
We should not, however, be surprised. God’s people have a history with snakes.
Like his progenitor, the talking serpent of Genesis 3, Trump spewed suspicion and mistrust, and for so long that it finally erupted in an attack on the government. Having previously attacked the anchor institutions of democracy – press, education/science, and courts – nothing was left but to destroy democracy itself. Whatever labels apply to this insurrection in the future, the association of the name of Jesus with it begs for dissent. Jesus is never a captive to death, to poisonous snakes.
When God “raised up” Israel from Egyptian slavery, and the people ventured on the journey to the Promised Land, they were complaining about the cost of their new freedom: “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” The narrative relates that God, tired of the “murmuring” of the people, sent poisonous snakes to punish them. The people begged Moses to get rid of the snakes. Instead of removing the snakes, God told Moses to make a replica of a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole. Anyone bitten by a serpent could look on the snake on a stick and they would live.
But that is not the end of the story. The Israelites did not get rid of the bronzed snake on a stick. They kept the thing and it went with them to the Promised Land. Down the corridors of their history, there was always the bronzed serpent in the house that Solomon constructed. The house that was to be the house of prayer for all nations had a snake on a stick in it.
The bronzed snake remained as an idol in the house of God until Hezekiah became the king. In 2 Kings 18, we learn that Hezekiah enacted a number of executive orders:
He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.
If you hang around a snake long enough, you will make offerings to it, you will give loyalty to it, you will even give it a name.
This odd story is more than suggestive. In 2015, evangelical Christians, convinced that our nation was experiencing a plague of “poisonous serpents” – aka liberals and the like – asked God to send them a savior. And Donald Trump appeared, a savior riding down from the heavens on an escalator. Evangelicals gave all their support and loyalty to him. Caught up in Trump fever, they made an idol of him. Trump, the talking snake (echoes of Eden), armed with poisonous tweets, became a fetish for evangelicals. Like the ancient Israelites who kept the bronzed serpent and later ensconced it in their temple, the evangelicals placed Trump at the center of their loyalty.
The flag JESUS SAVES is a similar form of idolatry. This flag has nothing to do with Jesus, has nothing to do with the Jesus who entered the Temple and chased out the thieves and robbers. In the line of the righteous Hezekiah and the prophets, Jesus attacked the demonic alliance of religion and politics: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”
Oikos, the Greek word for house, means far more than a place where people live. The “people of prayer” are the people of God and this is not just another instantiation of the genus “polis.” It is a public, a politics, in its own right. It is the oikos or household of God. As St. Paul would put it, “So you are no longer strangers, aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” The Temple was no ordinary house. It was the house of God.
“A den of robbers,” in glaring contrast, is a low-life hangout, a place in the wilderness, a place of hiding. To make of the house of God a den of robbers is the ultimate act of desecration. Jesus attacked the religious nationalism propped up not by prayer but by greed. Today’s Christian nationalists are a den of thieves and robbers come to destroy the house of democracy.
So, on the morning of January 6, with General Giuliani bellowing the order of “trial by combat,” and the talking snake, President Trump, suggesting insurrection, it was “onward Christian soldiers marching to war.” When the “Jesus flag” people smashed through the doors and windows to enter the capitol, they entered the cathedral of their own idolatrous faith. They trampled on holy ground and destroyed sacred objects. This was not a Jesus crowd; it was an anti-Christ crowd. Befuddled and confused by their own metaphors, they now acted against their nationalist faith. The bite of the poisonous snake has that effect on people.
On the 2016 campaign trail Trump repeatedly read a poem about a venomous snake – which he associated with immigrants – that, after biting the kind woman who had given it shelter, declared: “You knew damned well I was a snake before you took me in.” What an unwitting prophesy about his presidency-to-come. The evangelicals, blinded by resentment and anger, didn’t recognize the snake they welcomed into their house, and he bit them and left them poisoned and bereft.
There are two images that will never leave my mind: President Trump holding a copy of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible in front of an Episcopal Church in response to peaceful protests, and those Jesus flags waving in the breeze alongside the snake flag and the Confederate flag as the invasion of the capitol started. “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war” who were allied with snakes and traitors.
Somewhere in the basement of my mind I am haunted by scenes of ragged, barefoot, Confederate soldiers – five years of violence, pain, near starvation, death – painted deep in their scarred, scared faces – marching one last time into the center of Yankee cannons at Gettysburg, marching to certain destruction. The mob at the Capitol appeared before my eyes as Confederate ghosts rising from the fog-shrouded bayous of Louisiana. But this was not the Battle of Bull Run. This was Petersburg, Atlanta, Richmond, Savannah, – all bitter defeats, and at the bitter end, Appomattox.
My lasting hope is that when the last Trump storm trooper puts down his weapons, there will still be democracy in this house. The voices of our Congressmen while under siege were voices of determination. As fragile, divided, and confused as democracy seems, the house of democracy did not fall before the attack of Donald Trump and his troopers. As Cornell West puts it so well, “Democracy matters.”
Whether the evangelicals will ever again be able to say, “There is still God in this house,” depends on whether or not they are willing to cast out the bronze serpent that has desecrated their sanctuaries for so long. The evangelicals desperately need a new Hezekiah. The historians of 2 Kings tell us:
He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. The Lord was with him; wherever he went, he prospered. Maybe evangelicals will finally cast out the idol.
Maybe Jesus, like a ragged figure sliding between the trees, will now appear to the evangelicals in place of those Confederate ghosts. Maybe a new day of faith will dawn for these haunted Christians.