By any descriptor that has been applied to the Trump presidency thus far – unorthodox, theatrical, controversial – his photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in June was particularly shocking given its physical environment of civil unrest. That Trump intended the photo-op to be a justification of his use of brute force against his own citizens, using Christian props and setting to portray himself as a “Christian” leader, seems evident. But does such a justification hold any merit? After overcoming my initial shock, I was reminded of a mosaic of Christ from the Chapel of St. Andrew in Ravenna, Italy, wherein Christ is depicted as a Byzantine warrior holding a book that reads ego sum via veritas et vita – “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Like Trump’s photo, this mosaic is keenly concerned with the nature of real power; however, in stark contrast to Trump’s performance, the mosaic asserts an accurate understanding of authentically Christian power.
The most striking feature of the mosaic is that this Christ wields the cross. Slung confidently over his shoulder, the cross is both Christ’s sword and his scepter, reiterating that it was through his crucifixion that he liberated creation from the bondage of sin. Now this instrument of his torture endows him with the ultimate authority to rule his kingdom of heaven and earth. In all of human history, the Cross represents the supreme act of self-willed vulnerability – to humiliation, to the wrath of God against human sin, to excruciating suffering, to death – which achieved God’s great purpose of cosmic redemption. Christ is Lord because of the cross, not in spite of it. The mosaic in Italy reminds the viewer that the crucifixion was not merely an obstacle which Christ had to overcome on his way to inevitable glory, but rather that his crucifixion, dereliction and death paradoxically was his ultimate moment of glory. The cross holds no mastery over Christ, but without the cross, Christ would have neither glory nor the right to rule.
Contrast this emphasis of Christ’s cruciform vulnerability with Trump’s photo and the circumstances which occurred to make it possible. Having violently evicted Black Lives Matter protestors from his walking path to the church only moments before the photo was taken, Trump’s portrait demonstrates an utter lack of Christian vulnerability. Moreover, his petulant, defiant, even aggressive trademark scowl here encapsulates for me what Augustine calls the libido dominandi – the lust for domination, the desire to be lord over others – not to suffer humiliation or be vulnerable for the sake of others. In many ways, Trump is the libido dominandi incarnate; it is his modus operandi, from attempting to dominate his critics on Twitter by slandering them to demanding governors to “dominate” the protestors in their states no less than three times in a span of five very short sentences.
Here then we have two understandings of power: the first testifies to the reality that the Lord’s mighty power lies in his ability to accomplish his purposes. His main purposes are to restore our wholeness and holiness and to reconcile the world to himself, and he has accomplished them both through Christ’s vulnerability and incomparable sufferings on the Cross. In short, Christ’s power is his vulnerability. According to this logic of the Cross, Trump’s “power” is not power at all, but is merely an ability to coerce or manipulate, to put someone under your thumb and force them to do your bidding. His portrait co-opts a Christian symbol in an attempt to justify and perversely glorify domination all in the name of “law and order.” But this “Christian” law and order is, for many peoples, simply another form of coercion and manipulation, and thus essentially anti-Christian. These two understandings of power cannot co-exist in the same space, since their goals of consumption and redemption are completely at odds.
Of course, vestiges of the libido dominandi will continue to lurk in all of our hearts as Christians until our deaths. But we should be encouraged by the reality that, as Christ’s Bride, the Church shares his redemptive power when she emulates his vulnerability, rather than attempting to coerce, and proclaims the gospel that he wills that we be fully healed in our creatureliness and that our sinful condition be fully redeemed. In a world of coercion, we can take heart that his loving vulnerability (and ours as his disciples) will continue to reveal the glory, justice and joy of his Kingdom until he returns.