By Wajahat Ali
Dec. 22, 2018
At Bellarmine, an all-boys Catholic school in San Jose, Calif., I was often the token Muslim and probably the only person who began freshman year thinking the Eucharist sounded like the name of a comic book villain. I eventually learned it’s a ritual commemorating the Last Supper. At the monthly Masses that were part of the curriculum, that meant grape juice and stale wafers were offered to pimpled, dorky teenagers as the blood and body of Christ.
During my time there, I also read the King James Bible and stories about Jesus, learned about Christian morality, debated the Trinity with Jesuit priests and received an A every semester in religious studies class. Twenty years later, I can still recite the “Our Father” prayer from memory.
Growing up, I’d been taught that Jesus was a major prophet in Islam, known as “Isa” and also referred to as “Ruh ul Allah,” the spirit of God born to the Virgin Mary and sent as a mercy to all people. Like Christians, we Muslims believe he will return to fight Dajjal, or the Antichrist, and establish peace and justice on earth. But it was everything I learned in high school that came together to make me love Jesus in a way that made me a better Muslim.
Even though I don’t personally celebrate Christmas, the season always makes me think of his legacy of radical love. This year, it’s especially hard to understand how Trump-supporting Christians have turned their back on that unconditional love and exchanged it for nativism, fear and fealty to a reality TV show host turned president.
According to a Washington Post/ABC poll conducted in January, 75 percent of white evangelicals in the United States — compared with 46 percent of American adults over all — said “the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants” was a positive thing. Sixty-eight percent of them believe America has no responsibility to house refugees, according to a Pew Research poll conducted in April and May.
The numbers aren’t quite as jarring when we look at different slices of religious America. According to a PRRI poll conducted in late August and early September, 59 percent of Catholics and 75 percent of black Protestants view Trump negatively. Still, I can’t fathom how anyone who knows the Jesus I encountered at Bellarmine could be comfortable with this administration.
Jesus was a humble carpenter from Nazareth who miraculously fed 5,000 people but never humiliated them with condescending lectures about God favouring those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Mr. Trump has expressed enthusiasm for gutting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation’s most important anti-hunger program, by adding unnecessary and cruel work requirements for food stamp recipients.
Mr. Trump also chose Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who admitted he isn’t qualified to run a federal agency, to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Dr. Carson, who says his Christian faith helps him “serve the nation even better,” tweeted he’s “moving more people toward self-sufficiency” by advocating huge cuts to housing aid, increased rent and more stringent work requirements. In high school, I must have missed the sermon where Jesus told the poor, hungry and homeless to stop asking God for handouts.
President Trump and Republicans have also waged a nonstop war on Obamacare for nine years, allowing 14 states to opt out of Medicaid expansion, leaving four million eligible Americans unable to enrol. The Jesus I met in high school healed a blind man. Guess what he didn’t do? Rail against the socialist evils of taking care of people’s health.
The Jesus I know commanded, “You shall love your neighbours as yourself.” He didn’t add “unless they are undocumented immigrants or Muslim or gay.” He would welcome refugees from Central America, feed them, and wash their feet. He would have been horrified at the conditions that led 7-year-old Jakelin Caal to die of dehydration and shock in Border Control custody after seeking refuge in this country with her father.
Christianity isn’t unique: Every religion is abused as such by some of its followers and manipulated to advance political agendas. But the hypocrisy of white Evangelical Christians’ support for Trump in light of his undeniable cruelty and apathy — toward refugees, Puerto Rican citizens recovering from a devastating hurricane, victims of California fires and a newspaper columnist killed by Saudi Arabia — is too much to bear. Despite this barrage of hate, Evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham still support Mr. Trump because they believe he “defends the faith.” How?
Our school’s motto was “Men for others,” a reminder that the Christian faith should be lived through active selfless service. Judging from the type of Christianity that is practiced and preached by some Trump supporters, they must know a Jesus whose message is “Every man for himself.”
At Bellarmine, we had to perform 100 hours of community service before graduating. I volunteered at the senior centre and the local homeless shelter, where my friends and I cleaned the kitchen and packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for struggling men and women, most of them eager for employment.
This Christmas, I hope Trump-supporting Christians try to find compassion for people who are similarly suffering. I hope they open their Bible and reflect on James 2:14: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?”
Thankfully, I know many Christians who resemble Jesus, investing their life to uplifting vulnerable people. Mr. Trump’s supporters should meet Sister Simone Campbell, who in 2012 organized Nuns on the Bus to oppose the Paul Ryan-backed budget plan’s assault on social programs for the poor. They should join the Rev. William Barber II of North Carolina, who has revived the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign to fight racism and income inequality. They should donate to Sister Norma Pimental of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs a “respite centre” in McAllen, Tex., offering food, clothes and shoes to people seeking asylum.
These are the kinds of Christians who I believe are following the lessons and footsteps of Jesus, the prophet I met and loved as a Muslim at a Catholic high school. This Christmas, I hope some of the Christians who support President Trump can meet him too.
Wajahat Ali is a playwright, lawyer and contributing opinion writer.