Violent Virtue by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonI just got home from the first yoga class I’ve attended since the recent (11/8/16) U.S. presidential election.  I cried for the entire 75 minutes—through forward folds, downward facing dogs, exalted warriors, and especially shavasana (corpse pose).  The young man (probably in his thirties) doing his yoga practice next to me asked after the closing Namaste, “Are you all right?”  “No, not really. I’m very upset.”  He nodded his head as if to say he understood.

Ever since the nation’s president-elect declared victory, I’ve felt a huge sense of angst.  Why?  A huge percentage (81%) of white evangelical voters propelled him to that victory. I grew up in a branch of the evangelical church.  The church, to a large degree, is all about translating a particular understanding of God’s will as “revealed” in Scripture into public policy and law, keen on imposing that interpretation on our pluralistic society.

Since most evangelicals believe homosexuality is sinful—a perversion, if you will—they work tirelessly within the legal system to restrict gays and lesbians from living fully and authentically in the public sphere, thus violating (doing violence to) their humanity.  Same thing goes for abortion.  Most evangelicals believe God is against abortion.  Why?  Because they say so.  My evangelical friends respond, “No, we don’t say so. God says so.”  They may add the popular slogan, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” remaining firmly planted in their official, rigid reading of their Scripture.  They do not explore beyond the boundaries of their cocooned community, asking the hard questions that come about from observing the difficulties people in dire circumstances endure.  If they did, they might see differently.  After all, there are multiple interpretations of the sacred text they claim to uphold.   They believe in only one interpretation—theirs.

It’s abundantly clear to me that the president-elect is a mirror image of the evangelical community I once called home.  Evangelicals create God in their own image and then say that God “hath spoken.”  The president-elect does the same, creating “truth” by proclaiming whatever he says to be so.  In addition, both the evangelical God and the president-elect are fickle.  God commands the slaughter of the “enemy” du jour, drowns a whole population in a flood, yet picks a favorite man and his family to “save.” Sometimes God “repents” for His impetuous acts, but one is never sure when the thin-skinned deity and president-elect will have a change of heart and get back to the job of destruction.  No wonder evangelicals are drawn to him.  He’s a lot like their God—an authoritarian bully.

What has happened to the virtues of love, justice, truth, mercy, and compassion in all of this?  What do these virtues even mean?  All words take on meaning(s) based on geographical, historical, and circumstantial context because people in various places and circumstances have inculcated particular meaning(s) into them.  Words are symbols and symbols reflect meaning(s) embedded in them.

For example, in the U.S., our idea of justice has changed over time.  It’s why we’ve needed constitutional amendments.  What had at one time been thought of as “just” changed as culture moved forward.  Slavery.  Women’s suffrage.   Disenfranchisement of gays and lesbians and everybody else who is not an elite, white male.  The meaning of justice has evolved over time as other voices representing their own experience(s) have been incorporated into the definition.

In my evangelical community, the virtues of love, justice, truth, mercy, and compassion were defined and played out in specific ways.  For years I accepted what the community taught.  So, loving someone might mean ostracizing them—for their soul’s sake, of course.  Being just often meant you killed sentient beings since war is not only “just,” but necessary, because “they” (the enemy) hate all we stand for. Same goes for the death penalty.  It’s necessary to insure a stable society.  Criminals deserve death (defined as mercy and compassion in this case) “after all they’ve done.” Really?! Isn’t a huge part of evangelical mythology rooted in the story of substitutional atonement—Jesus died on the cross and bore my sins so I could be forgiven and live eternally?  The mythology often doesn’t translate into a definition of compassion that promotes peace. One might think that if one is forgiven much, one would forgive much.  Evangelicals declare that some sins are so heinous, the only mercy for the offender is death.  And it’s true because they say so.

The president-elect reflects this same pattern of thinking.

Recalling my complicity with the system during the time I identified as an evangelical Christian is what triggered my sobbing in yoga class this morning.  My community believed that parents (and teachers) ought to take seriously Proverbs 13:24.  “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (King James Bible).  Of course, the interpretation was a literal one.  Spanking your children was proof you loved God. Behaving violently towards your children meant loving them.

I so regret disciplining my children in this fashion.  At the time, all that violence inflicted on them felt virtuous.  I believe many evangelicals feel that whatever violence comes about as a result of this election (deportation, harassment of marginalized groups, and damage to the planet, for example) is something they must do (and perhaps endure) in order to live virtuous lives.  The president-elect and the evangelical God define justice in ways that suit them in order to promote their interests. No need to give a voice to those affected by the definition.  Such a warped sensibility!

Violence is never virtuous.  I am grieved and sorry to have violated the sacredness of my children’s bodies, inflicting pain, suffering, and humiliation on them.  They deserved better.  So does our country.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

13 thoughts on “Violent Virtue by Esther Nelson”

  1. Thank you so much for this, Esther. It astutely explores one of the things I’ve been grappling with post-election: why evangelicals endorsed Trump, the most ungodly man out of all the candidates in any party throughout the entire election cycle.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Marie. There are always complexities; that is, no single reason why so many evangelicals supported (and continue to support) DT. That support is puzzling especially since he seems so brazenly antithetical to much of what evangelicals claim they value.


  2. Thanks for this. Theology does matter!!!
    “What if the main thing Trump and his supporters share is a very bad theology in which an omnipotent God created the world by fiat, created powerful white males in his image, told them that their word is law and that like God, they can do what they like without listening to or sharing power with anyone else.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wise and insightful post. Thanks for writing and posting it.

    I acknowledge the existence of that fickle standard-brand god, but I have no interest in him. I acknowledge the existence of Mr. Not My President, but I’m very worried about what he’s going to do to our nation and to my neighbors from sea to sea. He’s gonna do worse things than the god did (or does).


  4. The president-elect does the same, creating “truth” by proclaiming whatever he says to be so… Yes indeed, and you also said that he is an authoritarian bully … yes again.

    My parents did not practice any religion and yet they ruled through Silence, and Violence… The point I am making is that we cannot blame ourselves for the choices we might have made as parents when we come out of this kind of distorted system. What we need to do in my mind is to become accountable, grieve the choices we made (I never disciplined my children adequately because I had been so crushed as a child) and then let go… I am in my early seventies and I have gone through this painful process and have come out on the other side…You can too!


  5. A wonderfully insightful and brave post, Esther. Theology does matter. It influences people’s choices, sometimes quite directly.

    If, like me, you’re extremely anxious about this election, please write to the electors in the electoral college to vote for the qualified candidate. Here’s the URL of 42 electors to go: It has addresses, sample letters, and dates, i.e. all the information you need to write these letters, like I’m doing.


  6. Insightful and brave post, Esther. Thank you. Theology sometimes directly influences our actions!

    If you’re extremely anxious about the outcome of this election, please write the electors of the electoral college to vote for the qualified candidate. You can find all the information you need — addresses, sample letters, dates — on “42 electors to go.” Please join me in this effort.


  7. Hi Esther, as we can see, we as your readers agree with your articulate post re: “Violent Virtue” (sic). The way you set this up, what else can we conclude, except I suspect we miss something when we engage in reductionistic thinking ourselves. Most of the world, I would guess, (I write as a Canadian for the record) finds it very odd that Trump has been the outcome of your election, but I have been looking at the general mistrust of the political class and the media – who tend to flatten out all complexities to a simple (simplistic) sound bite. I elaborate here:
    For the record, I agree with you that “violence is never virtuous”; I write to this regularly and continue to go against the current of our culture for “blessed are the peacemakers…”


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