A Lenten Letter To President George W. Bush
Lent 6B: Liturgy of the Passion

For Sunday April 9, 2006
Palm Sunday

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           Isaiah 50:4–9a
           Psalm 31:9–16
           Philippians 2:5–11
           Mark 14:1–15:47 or Mark 15:1–39, (40–47)

           Dear President Bush:

           As a fellow Christian I hope you will take a few minutes to contemplate one of the Scriptures from the lectionary for this Palm Sunday. In Philippians 2:5–11 the apostle Paul asks us to imitate the attitude that was exemplified in the life and death of Christ our Lord. He then quotes what many scholars believe is one of the earliest hymns that Christians sang to worship Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
   did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
   taking the very nature of a servant,
   being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
   and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

As you consider this ancient hymn, I hope you will join Christians around the world who since the fourth century have observed the forty days of Lent as a period of repentance, self-examination, acts of mercy, and self-denial.

           Mr. President, as a citizen I find myself deeply discouraged about the course of our country under your administration. I cannot claim any expertise in politics, statecraft, or international diplomacy, but I read,1 I talk with my neighbors, I watch the news, and I've traveled in forty countries. I've come to resonate with a friend who lamented that he has never felt more embarrassed about his country. I feel increasingly alienated from and by our political process, frustrated by our rancorous polarizations, and helpless to know how to make a positive contribution. As a Christian, I am appalled.

           Your job as a President who has identified himself as a Christian is doubly difficult. Since we enjoy a constitution that separates church and state, you represent all of our citizens, whether Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or the 78% of the white evangelicals who voted for you in 2004. Second, and even more challenging for you as a believer, Robert Kaplan suggests in his book Warrior Politics that presidential leadership demands a "pagan ethos." Kaplan insists that leaders must separate personal virtue and public policy. Like Machiavelli, he says, the warrior politician must know how to do bad in order to accomplish good, promote the necessary and not the nice, sanction deceit to avoid or conduct war, refuse intervention when no national interest is at stake, or kill many people in order to avoid killing even more people. The problem here, though, is that the more you gain as such a politician, the more you lose your soul as a Christian; and "what does it profit a person if he gains the whole world and yet loses his soul?" So, your responsibilities as a president who identifies himself as a Christian are complex, to say the least.

           Practically-speaking, it is impossible to separate your Christian identity from your presidential responsibilities. The Gospel makes claims on us that have inherently political implications, and public policies often have moral consequences both good and bad. In his book God's Politics; Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, for example, Jim Wallis asks, "How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and pro-American?" Or why, he asks, do conservative Christians lament 4,000 abortions a day but devote comparatively less attention to 30,000 infant deaths a day due to preventable disease? Why have we intervened in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia but not in Rwanda or Darfur? Even if you wanted to partition your Christian identity from your presidential policies, your decisions have moral consequences.

           Even though you must represent the interests of all American citizens, you can not, and should not, compartmentalize your personal faith and public service. I think your identity as a Christian who follows the "Prince of Peace" can and should redound to the good of all peoples and every nation, and not merely to American self-interest or to Christians. Having said that, to me there is a stark contrast between Paul's hymn that asks us to imitate Christ's humility, and the policies, tenor, and actions of your administration.

           In particular, I believe that your administration has:

* Isolated and alienated us from our international friends by our unilateralism
* Enraged our global enemies, misunderstood their mind set, and strengthened their resolve
* Militarized international diplomacy, suggesting that brutal violence can defeat an enemy or democratize a country
* Undermined the credibility of our commitment to human rights, rule of law, and democracy (Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, renditions, domestic wire taps)
* Destabilized the greater Middle East region and created a recruiting bonanza for terrorists
* Confirmed the jihadist view of history that America wants to occupy, control or destroy their countries
* Initiated war in Iraq under successive dubious rationales
* Demonstrated staggering failures and gross negligence in mismanaging the Iraq war
* Provoked other nations to follow our example of threatening pre-emptive war
* Believed dangerous illusions about American exceptionalism
* Ignored, harassed, caricatured or dismissed critics as unpatriotic
* Degraded public discourse by chronic dissimulation
* Spent 0 billion on war, with no end in sight, that could have been spent on education, health care, or poverty
* Killed over 30,000 people in Iraq, mainly innocent civilians

           Of course, intelligent policy analysts, political advisers, patriotic citizens, and conscientious Christians—all people of good will—debate these matters. But please consider two things. First, that my litany characterizes the appearance of your presidency, even if you believe that it misrepresents the realities. Whatever the reasons and however justified or not, your lowest-ever job approval ratings indicate that a large majority of Americans are deeply disappointed with your presidency. Second, an increasing number of your own conservative advocates have publicly expressed grave doubts about your administration policies and performance, including Andrew Bacevich, Bruce Bartlett, William F. Buckley Jr., Francis Fukuyama, Peggy Noonan, Andrew Sullivan, and George F. Will. I hope you will listen to your conservative friends, if not to your liberal critics.

           This Palm Sunday Christians worship a king who entered Jerusalem "gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Matthew 21:5). As a Texan I wonder if this image of Jesus might capture your imagination. I interpret this "triumphal entry" of Jesus on a lowly donkey instead of on a powerful steed as political parody or irony, a "parabolic action" about how his kingdom subverts conventional understandings about political power and personal humility. As you lay your head on your pillow tonight, alone with yourself and alone before God, I invite you as our president and as a Christian to join us in Lenten self-reflection that in Paul's letter to the Philippians calls us to imitate Jesus in his subversive humility. Thank you.

Daniel B. Clendenin


[1] The books that have informed my thought include those by Wes Avram, Andrew Bacevich, Amy Chua, Larry Diamond, Daniel Ellsberg, Thomas Friedman, Francis Fukuyama, Chris Hedges, Robert Kaplan, Charles Kimball, Robert O'Harrow, George Packer, Samantha Power, Jeffrey Sachs, David Shipler, Anthony Swofford, Jim Wallis, and Fareed Zakaria, almost all of which are reviewed at http://www.journeywithjesus.net/BookNotes/BookNotesIndex.shtml.