The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Bible is literature for the resistance

A group of interfaith religious leaders protest Trump outside a hotel where he was to meet with evangelical leaders in New York in 2016. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
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Imagine this.

The world’s greatest superpower is under the control of a fragile and insecure narcissist known for objectifying women, bragging about his wealth and turning every personal slight into a full-blown national crisis. His ineptitude would be comical were it not for the xenophobic advisers who hold court in his administration, threatening the lives of religious and ethnic minorities with unjust laws.

Sound familiar?

I am talking about King Xerxes of Persia.

In the Bible, this king eventually gets outsmarted by a Jewish orphan named Esther, her cousin Mordecai and a group of shrewd resisters.

There are many such resistance stories in the Bible. While Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would have us believe Scripture teaches dutiful acquiescence to the state, the Bible in actuality brims with protest songs and prison letters, subversive poetry and politically charged visions, satirical roasts of the powerful and storied celebrations of dissidents.

Jeff Sessions cites Romans 13, a Bible passage used to defend slavery, to support family separation

Even Romans 13, which Sessions clumsily cited to support the Trump administration’s cruel border policies, was written by the apostle Paul, a man eventually executed by the state for following a known subversive named Jesus.

It is easy for modern-day readers to forget Scripture as we know it emerged from communities of religious minorities living under the heels of powerful nation-states. For the authors of Hebrew Scripture, it was the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek and Persian empires. For the authors of the New Testament, it was, of course, the massive Roman Empire. The writers of the Bible likened these empires to great mutant beasts, with sharp fangs, powerful claws and multiple heads. Much of biblical literature is consumed with resisting them, both as exterior forces that opposed the ways of God and interior pulls that tempt good people with assimilation.

And so the Bible honors women like Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who defied the Pharaoh’s orders by safely delivering the sons of Hebrew slaves, and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who essentially “took a knee” by refusing to show the required patriotism at one of King Nebuchadnezzar’s state parades. The Bible includes songs of anger directed at powerful leaders who “pour out arrogant words” and “slay the widow and the foreigner” and poems that protest “those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless and deprive the foreigners among you of justice.”

Jeff Sessions cited the Bible. John Oliver responded with Dr. Seuss.

Religious leaders who align with the oppressive policies of the empire are subjected to especially harsh critiques in Scripture. God declares through the prophet Amos:

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me . . .
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

Pronouncements like these are often made through prophets. Jeremiah, for example, wore an ox yoke around his neck to symbolize Israel’s impending oppression under the Babylonian Empire. Ezekiel memorialized the fall of Jerusalem by building a model of the city and lying down next to it for over a year.

America’s own prophets have a long tradition of employing the Bible’s resistance literature to advocate for justice. Black abolitionists invoked the words of Moses to Pharaoh — “Let my people go!”—to demand their liberation. Martin Luther King Jr. was especially adept at citing the biblical prophets in his rhetoric, his “I Have a Dream” speech drawing from Isaiah (“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain”), Psalms (“Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning”) and Amos.

More recently, when Bree Newsome scaled the flagpole at the South Carolina capitol building to remove the Confederate flag, she recited Psalm 27 as she was handcuffed by police: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” Last week, many of the protest signs at the marches against Trump’s family separation policy featured quotes from the Bible demanding care for immigrants and refugees.

Even those Christians who support the administration, or who say they want to stay out of politics, tend to inadvertently use the language of resistance as part of their religious parlance. In its biblical context, doing or saying something “in the name of Jesus” speaks in defiant contrast to edicts carried out “in the name of Caesar” or “in the name of the king” or “by the authority of the president.” Declaring “Jesus is Lord” implies by default that the present rulers are not as sovereign as they seem. Even calling Jesus the Son of God originally stood in specific contrast to the leaders of Rome, who demanded they be known by that very title. Jesus was not executed on a Roman cross for nothing, after all.

To put one’s hope in Jesus, then, is to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary Jesus’ way of peace, justice, mercy and compassion will ultimately prevail over the empire’s ways of violence, exploitation, oppression and fear. Christians believe the resurrection of Jesus from the dead gives shape to these wild hopes. Even death at the hand of Rome could not keep him down.

America is no ancient Babylon or Rome, I know that. But it is not a place where justice rolls like a river from sea to shining sea. There is just no denying the very things condemned by the biblical prophets — gross income inequality, mistreatment of immigrants and refugees, the oppression of the poor and vulnerable, and the worship of money and violence — remain potent, prevalent sins in our culture. These sins are embedded in nearly every system of our society, from education to law enforcement to entertainment to religion. We are all culpable, all responsible for working for change.

The word apocalypse means “unveiling” or “disclosing.” An apocalyptic event or vision, therefore, reveals things as they really are. My friend Jonathan Martin, a third-generation Pentecostal preacher, described the election of Donald Trump as an apocalyptic event — not in the sense that it brought on the end of the world, but in the sense that it uncovered, or revealed, divides and contours in the American social landscape many of us did not want to face.

Now, as Americans of faith struggle to find the language with which to protest, the models of resistance to imitate and the comfort for pressing on when times get tough, I suggest turning to the Bible. Just this morning, I prayed for the children separated from their parents at the border, as I read these words of Psalms: “You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror.”

What I love about the Bible is that the story is not over. There are still prophets in our midst. There are still dragons and beasts. It might not look like it, but the resistance is winning. The light is breaking through.

Rachel Held Evans is the best-selling author of four books, most recently “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.”