by Gayatri Devi
In August 1990 I was a newly arrived international student in the doctoral program in English at the University of North Dakota. I had arrived from India a couple of weeks prior to the start of the fall semester. The residence halls and dining halls were more or less empty; those on campus were mostly hall directors, student workers, and international students like me. I spent the days exploring the campus and the town. I ate my meals by myself in the dining hall. Those were placid and expectant days; something fragrant and beautiful bloomed in front of me like the huge lilac bushes lining the campus sidewalks.
I was sitting by myself eating my dinner at the dining hall one evening when a tall, blond, handsome young man walked over to my table. Like me, he was in his mid twenties; he was dressed in a sharp suit; his hair was slicked back. His teeth shone white as he smiled broadly at me.
“I was looking at you, and I told myself, “that girl is lonely,”” he told me.
I was startled. I was not lonely at all. I was watching the lavender sunset through the dining room’s big French windows and eating my soup.
“I am not lonely; I was eating my soup,” I said.
“May I sit down?” he asked with great cheerfulness.
“Sure,” I said.
He sat down and introduced himself to me. He was a student at the university in the aviation program. He had just returned from Africa where he had spent three months as a missionary for his church. It had been an incredible experience, he said. People who have nothing, and yet, they are so happy. I smiled politely.
Had I been to Africa?, he asked me. No, I had not, I replied.
“But you are from India,” he said. “That must be such a great experience!”
“It is home,” I said. I didn’t understand what he wanted.
Without any warning, he then asked me, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ into your life?”
The missionary looked at me expecting an answer. His earlier cheerfulness and social chitchat had become intently single-pointed.
“No, I have not accepted Jesus into my life.” I said.
“Do you know that Jesus died for your sins”? He asked me. He was very serious.
I was astonished. Apart from the occasional lie I told my parents–mostly to my father and his seemingly unreasonable rules — I had not committed any sin at that point in my life. I did not drink; I did not smoke; I did not do drugs; I was not promiscuous; I did not cheat anyone for anything. I had no hatred towards anyone or anything.
Christians I knew in Kerala, India, did not talk like this. Our Christian friends and neighbors brought us brandied fruitcake for Christmas. We ate wonderful mutton biryani with them. They ate with us on our feast days and festivals. I loved to watch the beautiful Catholic girls come back from church with lemon green palm fronds in their hands on Palm Sunday. When our Christian and Muslim neighbors had feast days, they brought their leftover food to our house where my mother stored their food in our refrigerator.
“What sins”? I asked him.
“We are all born sinners,” he continued. Jesus took on your sins and died on the cross for you, he told me. The only way in which you can be saved is by accepting Jesus into your life as your lord and savior. If not, you will go to hell.
I didn’t have to think for long.
“I am sorry,” I told him. “I am not a sinner. I have committed no sins. No child is born with any sin. I am sorry. I am not going to hell. I am going to heaven.”
He stared at me. I stared back. Then he gave me a flyer for his Bible group. They were meeting in one of the residence halls that Friday. You should come, he said. I will try if I am free, I told him.
I never went to the meeting.
Though this event happened nearly thirty years ago, I have been thinking about it a lot recently. The one public figure who has benefited greatly from the “we are all sinners,” hot check is Donald Trump. Thoughthat “I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness,” his far right Christian evangelical base has given him for every vulgar, racist, misogynist, inhuman, mocking, loathsome comment that Trump has spoken through the campaign and to these harrowing days of his presidency. Regardless of Trump saying that he does not ask for forgiveness, the Christian far right has done a public relations revision of Trump into a “ repentant sinner.”
You can hear this reconfiguring of Trump’s persona in a CNN interview with a group of affluent Christian women in Dallas, Texas who says God has changed Trump. Praying for Trump in the wake of allegations of hush money to the porn actress Stormy Daniels, they defend Trump and denigrate Daniels by labeling her as “someone who is not that credible, a stripper porn star.”
Is all human misconduct a subset of the “original sin” with Jesus as the arbiter? For a small example: Trump will“grab pussy,” even if the pussy does not want to be grabbed. More than a dozen women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct. Defending Putin, Trump told Bill O’Reilly on Fox News “There are a lot of killers. Do you think our country is so innocent”? Trump’s attorney is being investigated for several crimes, including collusion with Russia to effect the 2016 election, implicating Trump himself. Trump has publicly stated that if needed, he has the authority to pardon himself for any crimes found against him. In the Christian far right movement’s soteriology, is Trump his own god of salvation? What is the role of Jesus when Trump pardons himself?
The pernicious values underwriting the “repentant sinner” morality play that the Christian far right writes daily to convince themselves that their candidate is a respectable man are rather transparent. Trump’s moral values appear to be corruption, greed, divisiveness, misogyny and racism.
I don’t believe in a god of salvation. But I do believe that the several ongoing legal and judicial investigations into the affairs of Trump and his cronies might be what god feels like on a good day in America.
Gayatri Devi is Associate Professor of English at Lock Haven University.
Image credit: Sheila Liming