Jesus, Pergamum, and Trumpism

Continuing in the book of Revelation, here’s a pretty literal translation of 2:12-17:

(12) And to the angel of the church in Pergamum, write: these things says the one who has the sharp two-edged sword: (13) I know where you dwell, where the throne of Satan (is), and you are grasping my name and did not deny my faith, even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed in y’all’s presence, where Satan dwells. (14) But I have against you a few things: that you have, there, ones who are grasping the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to throw a cause of stumbling before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to prostitute themselves. (15) In this manner you also likewise have ones who are grasping the teaching of the Nicolaitans. (16) Repent, therefore; but if not, I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war with them in the sword of my mouth. (17) The one who has ears, let him/her hear what the spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give to him/her the Manna that has been hidden, and I will give to him/her a white pebble, and on the pebble a new name has been written, which no one knows except the one who takes (it).

It feels relevant―as, just a few hours ago, a mob of Trump supporters, many of whom are quick to voice their Christian religious affiliation, violently stormed the U.S. Capitol Building―that this passage is all about a church where people grasp tightly to the name of Jesus (v. 13), while some of them also grasp just as tightly to the false and harmful teachings of Balaam (v. 14) and the Nicolaitans (v. 15).

Since the language of “grasping” Jesus’ name, or “grasping” different kinds of religious teachings, isn’t necessarily the most natural-sounding thing in English, I don’t blame various translations for using different words here. The NIV, for example, speaks of “remaining true” to Jesus’ name, and of “holding” to the various false teachings. The (more literal) NRSV and ESV speak of “holding fast” to Jesus’ name, and, like the NIV, of “holding” to the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. 

There are lots of ways one could reasonably translate this Greek word for “I grasp,” which is κρατέω. “Hold” or “hold fast” are definitely among them, and “remain true” also seems like a reasonable interpretation. Other options include “seize,” “retain,” “keep,” or “take hold of.”

It feels important to me, though, that it’s the same Greek word that is used each time. Jesus commends his hearers in Pergamum for “grasping” his name…and then expresses frustration toward some of them for―just as easily, in the same sort of way―“grasping” onto teachings Jesus wants nothing to do with. They’re holding fast to Jesus’ name, which is awesome…but they’re also holding just as fast to some messed up stuff, which is not awesome.

I get the sense that these churchgoers in ancient Pergamum were as highly dedicated to their faith as could be―and, at the same time, one hundred percent wrong about what the actual content of that faith entails. They refused to deny Jesus’ name, even when one of them was killed for it (v. 13)―and yet when it came down to what Jesus was actually about and what he wants for his followers, they were all over the place. They were doing and promoting all sorts of things Jesus never wanted them to do or promote.

Some of them, perhaps, were not all that different from the people who carried “Jesus 2020” signs as they stormed the Capitol Building today. (For context, the “Jesus 2020” sign seems to be the sort of thing that was originally conceived as non-political, but, of course, has become pretty Trump-y in the meanwhile.)

It doesn’t take a highly trained biblical scholar to recognize that the things Trump says and does tend to be the polar opposite of everything Jesus said and did. And yet, there are those who grasp the name of Jesus tightly, and also grasp Trumpism just as tightly. 

As I read about Jesus speaking to the church in Pergamum, I wonder if he might speak to these Christian Trump-followers in a similar way. 

He might begin with some compliments―and sincere ones (as unnatural as this might sound to a lot of us who oppose Trump and Trumpism). He might say, as he says in v. 13: I see your willingness to stand up for what you believe in, even in the face of a lot of opposition and pressure to do otherwise. I see your loyalty―how you want to hold tightly onto my name in the midst of a rapidly changing world. 

I think Jesus would resist the urge to dehumanize these people―even if they have done plenty of dehumanizing of their own. I think he would speak to them with respect and dignity. 

And then Jesus would get down to it. He might say, I have a few things against you (v. 14). He might spell out the ways in which Trumpism is directly opposed to Jesus’ own teaching. He would call them to repent (v. 16). He would invite them to change their minds, to turn around and walk a different path. 

He might even add: it’s not too late. Repentance doesn’t need to be shameful. It’s okay to admit you were wrong. Repentance can be freeing and awesome. There is grace. You don’t have to keep grasping to the things you’ve been taught, or your family believes, or your pastor keeps saying. You can choose a different way.

And then he would let them know he’s serious. He might tell them: Trumpism is freaking dangerous, destructive, and deadly. If you don’t repent, there will be consequences. I will come to you in judgment (v. 16). You can’t keep grasping my name and also grasping these hideous things that are no part of me at all. That’s not how this works. I want better for you than that, and I want better for all the people who are harmed by these teachings you’ve followed.

Just as he would resist the urge to treat these people disrespectfully, I think Jesus would also resist the urge to excuse the path they’ve taken and pretend like it’s okay. I don’t think he would pretend that Trumpism is just another valid political view―something we can set aside when we come to church, so we can all sing How Great is Our God together like one big happy family. I think Jesus would speak to these people clearly, seriously, and urgently. Repent, or I am coming to you with a sharp two-edged sword.

As v. 17 says, whoever has ears, let them hear.

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