Wednesday, April 4, 2018

On Trump and Cyrus

Over the last couple of bizarre years, the evangelical movement in the United States has faced something of a conundrum.

On the one hand, they've just gotten everything they've ever wanted in the political realm.  They've gotten a president who aggressively declares his support for the core political aims of evangelicals.  Finally, after enduring eight years of Obama forcing Christians into reeducation camps, where we all had to wear hijabs while watching drag queens dressed like Streisand sing the Internationale, a president who respects Christian values.

He's pro-life, pro-America, pro-guns, and promises to protect white American Christianity behind that big beautiful wall that's going up any day now.

On the other hand, the president is flagrantly, transparently, and obviously not a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.  He built much of his business empire on gambling, and his brand on being a Hefner-style playboy who trades in his wives for younger models...while still fooling around with whatever he can get on the side.  He celebrates conspicuous consumption and the power of Mammon.  He's brash, profane, and a deeply skilled bully.  He lies without shame.  The spirit of repentance and selfless humility that defines the Way of Jesus is not to be found in the golden-calf shine of his brand.

He is not a Christian.  I mean, c'mon.  If the ethic that governs your life is the opposite of what Jesus asked us to believe, and you don't do anything Jesus taught us to do, you are not a Christian.  That's not being judgmental, any more than saying "Anton LaVey was not a Christian" is being judgmental.  It's simply a statement of fact.

And that gobsmackingly obvious empirical reality creates a dissonance in the evangelical movement.  The president is not part of the Jesus thing, in language, appearance, form, belief, or deed.  He is Other, and for a movement that often relies on Other-fear more than it should, that's challenging.  

When confronted with a dissonance that threatens to destabilize our self-understanding, human beings have various coping mechanisms.  We can resolve the dissonance through honest self-appraisal, after which we change our path and redefine ourselves honestly.

Or we can find a way to rationalize, which is a hell of a lot easier on our pride.

In choosing door number two, evangelicals have gone digging through their bibles in search of an obvious infidel/unbeliever who served God's purposes.  For that, they've taken a cue from the far-right and ultra-orthodox in Israel, and point to an unusual figure in scripture: Cyrus of Persia. 

Cyrus, though he was the farthest thing from a Jew, liberated the Jews from their Babylonian captivity and helped re-establish them in the land of Israel.  The book of the prophet Isaiah praises Cyrus as an instrument of YHWH, going so far as to describe him as a mashiach, an "anointed one" of God.

Over the last year and a half, I've been researching Cyrus and the fall of Babylon for a recently drafted work of historical fiction, and having immersed myself in both contemporary histories and ancient texts about Cyrus the Great, I can say without reservation: The idea that our current POTUS is Cyrus?  

It's total bollocks.

Why?  Because Cyrus of Persia, as a leader, bore almost no resemblance to the current president of the United States.  Sure, they were both male bipedal hominids, but that's pretty much where the similarities ended.

Cyrus was raised as a warrior-scholar, and was front and center as a general.   He was a remarkably dangerous opponent on the battlefield, and a long-game strategist in all of his conquests.  But he wasn't a chickenhawk.  When Persia fought, Cyrus fought on the front lines.  That was, in point of historical fact, how he died...fighting alongside his "Immortals" against an insurgent barbarian queen.  He did not stay back in the royal city of Pasargadae, carefully nursing his bone spurs on the tennis court.

Cyrus of Persia was a man of deep personal honor.   He kept his word, which meant he could be trusted by both friend and foe to honor an agreement.  He was a legendarily good and faithful husband to his beloved wife Cassandane, whose death was recorded as a shattering tragedy in his life.

Cyrus of Persia united his people.  He didn't play to one group or another, because that kind of "disruptive leadership" does not unite a nation around a single purpose.  Just as a moral person directs themselves towards a unifying purpose, so too does a moral nation find its identity in great aims.  In that, Cyrus assiduously cultivated an image of honor and nobility among his people.  He knew, as humanity has known from ancient times, that chaos, moral ambiguity, and devouring entropy are not the tools of greatness.

Cyrus of Persia was a classical liberal, whose primary strength as a leader was a deep and respectful understanding of other cultures and their strengths.  He was perfectly willing to learn from other societies, and to integrate them into the greater Persia he spent his life building.  For pointed example, after defeating Croesus of Lydia...the man who pretty much invented currency...most historical accounts tell us that he brought Croesus back to Persia.  There, he replicated Lydia's success in creating a trusted monetary system for Persia.  Cyrus also knew other cultures and peoples were all potential allies, and knew that Persia was strengthened by honoring her neighbors rather than bullying them.  Ahem.

Cyrus, by reputation, was a man of unusual graciousness.  He treated defeated enemies with respect, often co-opting them into his empire.  He did this with Croesus, with his uncle Astyages after the defeat of the Medes, and with Nabonidus, emperor of Babylon, whom he spared.  His prodigious abilities on the battlefield were ultimately less significant than his ability to win over the hearts and minds of his enemies.

Cyrus was respected, deeply, by those who were enemies of Persia.  Even the Greeks--no friends of Persia--looked on him as a model of what it meant to be a perfect leader.  Xenophon's Cyropaedia, written from an Athenian perspective, may be more hagiography than reliable history...but it's a mark of how powerfully Cyrus was held in regard in the ancient world. not the case with the POTUS now.

To be utterly honest, there is one interesting similarity between the two, a similarity that's at the narrative heart of my now-drafted novel manuscript.  

How did Babylon fall?  Not battles.  Not force of arms.  From the admittedly variable historical record, it's apparent that Cyrus of Persia significantly used disinformation and weaponized information to conquer Babylon.  The "fake scrolls" produced by Cyrus and his scribes brought Babylon to her knees.

Building on the festering resentments of Babylonian conservatives, Cyrus used weaponized information and propaganda to drive a deep wedge between the worshippers of the traditional Babylonian god Marduk and the royal house of Nabonidus and Belshazzar.  It meant that when Cyrus invaded, Babylon was so divided against itself that it folded like wet tissue paper before his advancing Persian armies, and that the gates of the city of Babylon itself opened to him as a triumphant hero.

Though Babylon the Great had stood as the greatest power in the ancient near east for generations, Cyrus so completely divided Babylon that it was forever shattered as a nation.

So I suppose, to be fair, that this may yet prove to be a similarity between the two.

Which is something I'm sure American evangelicals can feel good about.