Nero Redivivus: Reality of the Absurd

“If Jesus Christ gets down off the cross and told me Trump is with Russia,” said Mark Lee, an American Christian who voted for Donald Trump to be president of the United States, “I would tell him, ‘Hold on a second. I need to check with the President if it’s true.’” This statement is only more remarkable in the context of the Trump presidency, and the inability of the president and his administration to comprehend the difference between facts and magical thinking. The veracity of this statement need no more evidence than Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway’s insistence that choosing between the administration’s version of truth and that of the media, or anyone that questions that version, was not comprehending the truth of what Conway described simply as “alternative facts.”

In the First Century, another question was posed by the Roman prefect of Judea during the trial of Jesus, and it continues to be pertinent if we are to understand how Americans who consider themselves faithful Christians ought to interpret information and media coverage regarding politics – and the truth of the gospel. The ruler had asked the Nazarene a much different question one moment before. “You are a king?”

“For this I have been born,” Jesus affirmed, “to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.”

“What,” Pilate asked, “is truth?”

Similar inquiries concerning truth were supposed to be resolved through human reasoning once the Enlightenment liberated us from the baggage of quaint first-century religious stories. It was at this time that the truthfulness of miracle stories and other claims made in the biblical texts was questioned. Even though American Christians continue to stress that Jesus is indeed the only representative of God’s truth, Pilate knew that such claims were prima facie absurd. “What is truth?” is a question that is left alone by the author of the Fourth Gospel. Jesus makes a claim, and Pilate cannot not even muster the energy to verbally dismiss the obvious challenge to the power of Rome.

Judean religious authorities, however, took up the challenge when they insisted that Pilate execute Jesus as an insurrectionist. “He made himself out to be the Son of God,” they shouted. Pilate sparred with the Judeans, but they reminded him of an important fact. “Anyone who makes himself out to be a King opposes Caesar.”

Mocking Jesus as he sent him to the cross, Pilate taunted the man and his accusers, saying “Behold, your King!” The Jewish authorities and priests responded with an emphasis that cannot be lost when we consider the above statement of Mr. Lee. Pilate asks: “Shall I crucify your king?”

“We have no king but Caesar!” cried the chief priests.

Jesus was delivered to his executioners, who then fastened his body to a tree that had been fashioned into an instrument of capital punishment by the driving spikes through his hands and feet. The priests asked Pilate to remove the sign on the tree that witnessed to the charges against Jesus “the Nazarene. The King of the Jews.” Pilate let it stand. The reminder of the sign on the cross delivered a universal message – that the charges against Jesus were not concerned with truth. They indicated what others who challenge Caesar’s authority could anticipate. Whether or not you have the support of the ruling class and wealthy elites, challenges to Caesar’s sole authority over all the world results in execution as a common criminal. If Caesar is king, no one else dare make the claim. As the Scriptures clearly stated, and the Apostle so clearly remembered, “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”

Cursed as he may have been, three centuries later a Roman emperor came around to declaring that Jesus was in fact the “Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Between the years 312 and 2016, whether driving or being driven over by the grinding wheels of history, justice, or intellectual progress, one thing has appeared to be more universally acknowledged in much of the West than the truth of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ. If evidence is interpreted according to the bare rules of reason, Jesus has never been the King of the Jews or of anything else. Rather, from Constantine to Henry VIII; from popes to presidents – Donald Trump best reflects the hubris of Empire, and summarizes the claims made by the Powers and Principalities, about who is the benefactor of the people. “Believe me, if I run and I win,” claimed Trump, “I will be the greatest representative of the Christians they've had in a long time.”

Indeed, the concern for a god who acts in history is a moot point when it is obvious that real power is found in the seats of national capitals rather than before the thrones of Heaven, or more succinctly on the cross. In light of Empire, whether tyrannical or democratic, the church becomes either a benefactor or a persecuted sect. Only according to one outcome, however, does the creator God become a beneficiary or a domesticated representative of the apparent omnipotence of Empire. That outcome prefers stability and access to resources rather than the suffering, faithfulness, and humility for the cross. This project will address not only why the American Church stands apostate and defeated in view of its decision to elect Donald Trump, but offers a biblical response. Is Trump a representative of John the Elder’s antichrist? Certainly he has misled much of American Christendom toward a politics of power and control that by no means reflect the moral vision or ethics of the Creator God and the Christ.

“Let me clue you in to a little secret,” wrote David Brody, a conservative writer for Christian news services. “Trump's ability to cut through the clutter and paint the world in ‘absolutes’ attracts quite a few evangelical voters.” Brody continues: “Remember, evangelicals hold true to their ‘biblical absolutes’ so to see a person like Trump let it rip and tell it like it is becomes a somewhat endearing quality to some evangelicals. Trump takes hits for his boldness and evangelicals take hits from society for their biblical boldness too.” Trump is not the first by any stretch to win over parts of a populace with tell-it-like-it-is bombast. In fact, the origins of the church that so recently appears to have overwhelmingly supported Trump’s ascendency to political primacy stood in firm opposition to men who shared characteristics of the American president.

There are code-words used by Brody that intentionally support a political candidate in a manner that concerns itself with the beliefs of a demographic of American citizens that consistently maintain their sense of integrity based upon what is stated to be a reasoned and inviolable commitment to the truth of the Bible; and then again a perceived or even fabricated contention that this group of citizens is routinely and roundly persecuted, or, in certain danger of

imminent persecution. A remarkable fact of American politics, if the evidence is interpreted according to a Christian’s access to resources and outcomes rather than failure to control political or cultural mandates, is that Christian access to television and other forms of media allow it to rest on cultural acquiescence to the veracity of a civic-religious story that is so deeply buried under layers of social, political, economic, and cultural shit; that the purveyors of the gospel of the American church might be more satisfied with a mushroom cloud of representative power than the humble fungi that spread themselves over massive areas of the earth more often undetected than not. Some of those early heroes of our American democracy, the Romans, provide us with a humorous if not dark prediction of where our own American political experiment is headed. The difference being, the church is beginning this post-Clinton/Trump event on the wrong side of the divine battle for truth and salvation. The church in America has become the crusading defender of the “Make America Great Again” movement. The evidence of the militancy of this crusading church is its joyful disemboweling of the Galatians baptismal hymn, a hymn written and embodied by the church that remained steadfast in its resistance to the claims made by Empire and Emperor. A faith community that challenged political, social, and religious hegemony.

Well into the centuries in which the Roman state-church was firmly established as the authority of the Empire, the Emperor and Pope ruling in tandem and tension, there was a longing or fear, dependent upon perspective, for the return of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus. Even Augustine wrote about Nero in The City of God as a force in the growth of God’s Kingdom, and figures ranging from Charlemagne to the legendary Arthur have been portrayed as drusus nero redit. Interestingly, these comparisons paint Nero as representative of a returning hero empowered “to slaughter his enemies, free his oppressed people, and reign again.”

If this is not the Nero Caesar that you remember from history, it is not the emperor that the church remembers either. In the shadow of the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States, however, the case must be made that the church has indeed forgotten Nero altogether, and it has forgotten the truth of its historical, spiritual, and political roots, and its sacrificial witness to the primacy of Jesus as the Christ of the Creator God of Abraham and Sarah. The Evangelical vote for Trump is evidence that the story of Christian origins has largely been redacted and presented as the story of American democracy, militarism, and market economics. The cross of the gospel has been overwhelmed by the suburban lumber stores of American civic religion. We build idols to commemorate how a domesticated god has blessed us with stuff. The fact that a large percentage (overwhelming, in fact) of these Christian Trump voters were white is an important matter that will be discussed later. We must return to Nero if we are to understand the church’s choice of Donald Trump as the face of American Christian politics in historically and biblically accurate terms.

“We all know about Nero,” writes Champlin. “He slept with his mother, he murdered his mother, he fiddled while Rome burned.” Of course, there is more – if we are to appropriately paint Nero as a monster. “Nero married and executed one stepsister, executed his other stepsister, raped and murdered his stepbrother…” It only gets worse. Nero’s murderous streak consumed him so that, in a rage, “he kicked his pregnant wife to death, castrated and married a freedman, [and] he married another freedman playing the bride.”

No one in first-century Rome seemed to know the truth of how or if Nero had died, but his impending return was a matter of popular discussion. One of Nero’s critics, Dio of Prusa, wrote that “everyone wants him to come back, and most people believe that Nero is still alive.” Champlin recognizes that this truth is one that existed outside of the Senate, ruling elites, and Christian congregations. “Nero was vastly popular, both before and after his death. He was a popular monster.” In view of Nero and in regard to Trump of contemporary American politics, it appears as though many of our neighbors, certainly a significant number of them, felt it was time to applaud the very behaviors that made Trump and Nero the target of so many commentators, establishment interests, and media outlets. Boorishness is also mistaken as an indicator of power when it succeeds despite the public hand-wringing critiques of social and political elites.

Trump’s successful public rejection of common unifying themes such as diversity, equality, and humility or sacrifice were also received by poor and middle-class whites as indicative of power, winning, and the impending restoration of American privilege; especially for white Americans. His attractiveness as a candidate was never in doubt for Evangelicals like Brody (mentioned above) for just such a reason. Brody is, or simply understands, that American Christians are, in many cases, white supremacists who feel they have been left behind to the benefit of non-whites, non-Christians, and women. One might assume that the final straw for many Christians was the federal recognition of same-sex marriage as a humiliation to Christendom’s presupposition of favored status rather than an important benefit of full citizenship to a portion of the citizenry that could not access resources provided to married couples.

As for Nero, an emperor who need not worry about elections, “whatever else he may have been, Nero was a clever man, one who was much more attuned to the psychology of his people than some disgruntled elitists or sects.” While his court made a grand statement of providence by declaring to all that his rule came without the ordinarily necessary violence, but through a peaceful transition of power related to his birthright, we will see that he was brutal, if not psychotic. However, Nero could not just rule through brutality, but also through careful management of an always potentially explosive population.

“He postured himself as a champion of the people against the overweening power of the Senate,” writes Neil Elliot. “For example, he answered calls for tax relief by offering to cancel indirect taxes, even though he knew well the Senate would countercommand the action as irresponsible.” When the time came for brutality, Nero found targets that were already popular scapegoats. He used force to suppress tax riots, and when the Great Fire burned a large Roman slum that just happened to be where Nero planned to construct his “long-planned sacred complex” that came to be known as the Golden House, it was Christians that were blamed for starting the fire, launching persecutions that are well documented and will be discussed later.

Before tackling the early Christian response to Nero, it is important to establish some important aspects of Nero’s rule, and then revisit the context of the religious world of the Roman Empire within which Judaism existed and Christianity emerged. It is also important to establish how similarly the contexts of contemporary American politics and Roman politics can be understood, and how religion is appropriated to manipulate and garner favor from the masses in order to maintain power or, grasp it away from others. While the early church was resistant in most every way to the claims made by Roman emperors, the fact of divinity and political power in the first century is important to understand if we are to understand the early church, its canonical texts, and the radical changes that occurred after Emperor Constantine decriminalized the Christian faith.

This project is not an indictment of Donald Trump, nor is it an indictment of American politics, though it certainly encourages critical thinking about the election of Trump as a reality of American democracy. Rather, this project is intended to suggest that the statistically significant Evangelical Christian support, specifically for such a candidate, is evidence of apostasy. The church is in need of judgment, and must accept the mandate of Christ to repent of sins and bear its cross. It is Nero, Trump, and the use of religious narratives and mythology by political power elites that has continuously corrupted the church, and rendered it unfaithful in a variety of ways which exhibit the same tendencies toward brutality as Nero under the guise of the Prince of Peace.

Masters of their Media Domains

Nero took every advantage of Greek and Hellenistic mythology to manipulate reality and persuade a loosely-maintained boundary of truth while building a cult of personality that took advantage of rather recent appropriation of divine status by living emperors. Considering the remarkable deeds of human negligence that are attributed to Nero, like the much different accusations against Donald Trump regarding his lack of capacity to lead - if not to call into question his capacity to be fully human by his own detractors - Nero was uncanny at framing public debate in terms of theatrical presentation.

“In the late Republic, the games at Rome – plays, gladiatorial combats, chariot races – began to take on an increasingly political aspect, as the people who gathered at them took advantage of the large numbers and individual anonymity to urge their views about current issues and figures, loudly and directly, to their leaders. Consider traditional American campaign rallies as similar to Roman games and circuses, and in the last 25 years, late-night comedy television appearances as a conduit to the hearts and minds of the masses. Theatrics came to the forefront of American politics with the 2016 Trump campaign, inspiring many to dismiss criticisms of his made-for-television bombast as the same dismissive used to combat the campaign of 1980’s Evangelical favorite Ronald Reagan, the former actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Reagan’s acting expertise was no match for Nero’s, which provides significant insights into how Trump navigated his presidential campaign, perhaps not so much through exhibiting presidential character but remaining in character throughout the campaign cycle. Nero considered himself to be an expert at a variety of pastimes, including painting, poetry, and singing, but it was theater that best served his purpose politically. Greco-Roman religious tropes were key to his intentions. Theater served as a kind of Roman apocalyptic in a manner that literature might have for marginalized Judeans and Christians. There was a consistent utilization of double entendre to comment on contemporary public life in Roman theater, and one can imagine what might have occurred when an empower decided to perform, and the roles were remarkably consistent with the behaviors attributed to his own legendary feats of murder and intrigue.

“Sometimes the audience saw [social or political] allusions where none were intended; and very often theatre spilled over into real life, when dramatic gestures and apt quotations from plays and poetry by public figures were meant to be caught and interpreted and reacted to by their audience” the result was sort of a double edged dramatic dialogue, whether in the theater or the forum, between ruler and ruled.” Champlin provides insight to the extraordinary measure that Nero employed to take control of the political discourse regarding his private and public life, “erasing the boundary between stage and life.” After the death of his mother, who Nero had murdered, he began an acting career, first, according to Champlin, before private audiences, and then before the public.

Nero would wear masks designed to portray characters, not to hide his identity as emperor, but rather to re-enact controversial events in his private and political life with masks designed so that he could play the role of his mother, his murdered wife, or even himself - Nero masked as Nero! Though the women in his life were dead by his own hand, he kept them near to the public heart as stage spectacle, and in fact acted out roles intended to display his own side of the story against the criticisms and accusations of his political rivals and social elites. Nero used theatre to frame political discourse regarding his own behaviors and political maneuverings.

Through the use of theatre, Nero would take on the roles of Greek mythological figures like Oedipus, Thyestes, Heracles, Alcmaeon, and Orestes – and himself. He framed the parameters of public debate by performing the debate in public. In formatting his own political and family intrigue into the accounts related to the appropriate civic-religious narrative, he detailed the events in question accordingly. By using the accounts of Orestes, he was able to establish the fairly accurate characterization of his mother as an overbearing and conniving matron who did indeed attempt to send a freedman to murder her own son for not being willing to continue a power-sharing agreement between them. Nero beat his political opponents to the proverbial punch by mythologizing his mother’s death in theatrical terms that tended towards legitimizing his decisions to do away with her. Agrippina became an archetypical enemy of the state, and Nero in turn, “by dramatizing the torments of conscience in his life offstage, by performing matricide onstage in a mask that might bear his own features,” controlled the public interpretations of his guilt.

Concerning the charges of incest, theatre and civic religion provided a vehicle for Nero to accept for himself a mythological status that was not foreign to ancient ruling factions. Not only was matricide an issue that did not ultimately prove even embarrassing for Nero, but rumors of incest with his mother were never quelled, even by Nero himself, who in fact regularly employed the myth of Oedipus on the public stage. The most common story is that Agrippina became so concerned with the potential to lose what political power she had gained during her son’s reign that she was prepared to seduce, or simply throw herself at her son to, be counted among his sexual conquests. Agrippa was deterred by her political enemies of all people, according to Champlin, from succeeding. Rumors persisted, however, and Nero is reported to have done “nothing to repel her advances or to suppress rumors.

The connection between incest and power is central. Incest between mother and son, though rare in life and legend, had clear symbolic significance for the ancient world.” Nero’s own ancestors had a story of incestuous dreams acting as omens for successful political outcomes in the family. “The night before Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon (during the Civil War), he was said to have dreamt to have slept with his mother. To conquer one’s mother was to conquer the earth, mother of all.”

In acting out the myth of Oedipus, playing Oedipus, or, wearing a mask of himself, Nero framed the political conversation regarding the truth or rumor of incest in his life by making the theatrical claim that he slept with his mother in ignorance, while nevertheless reaping the benefits of the connotations of power and control over all the earth that were connected to incestuous relationships between mother and son, Agrippina and Nero. It could not have surprised many (thought it must have shocked some people regardless) when Nero used the stage and his first-century bully pulpit to publicly mourn, divinize, and dare one say, do public penance for kicking his pregnant wife Poppaea Sabina to death in a rage over her privately questioning some of his public behaviors.

Sabina became Sabina Venus. Embalmed with the best spices and lodged in the Mausoleum of Augustus on orders of Nero, he immediately conscripted a woman who looked very much like Sabina as a concubine. A year later, when finding an almost exact lookalike to his murdered wife-turned-goddess in the person of a freedman, Nero had the former slave castrated, dressed as Poppaea Sabrina, and then in fact married the freedman “and treated him in always as the empress.”

If it is difficult to think of a monarch, business leader, politician, or even a hero or god being able to plead his or her case in public by actually being accountable to incest, rape, and murder; remember that populism of many sorts has proven to be best adapted as a means of garnering support for individuals who may lack such a publicly known criminal history, but engage in tacit support of such personalities nevertheless. It was Trump who said at a campaign stop in Iowa that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Think of Trump’s comments regarding his own daughter while interviewed on Howard Stern’s popular radio show in 2004, long before his election run; comments that would generally disqualify any politician from taking public office, or, a pulpit for that matter ,without conceding some sort of basic fault in their former patterns of thinking.

"My daughter is beautiful, Ivanka," says Trump.

"By the way, your daughter," says Stern.

"She's beautiful," responds Trump.

"Can I say this? A piece of ass," Stern responds.

"Yeah," says Trump.

Or about women who accused him publicly of sexually harassing them: “Take a look. Look at her. Look at her words. And you tell me what you think. I don’t think so.”21 And then, Trump denied ever having sexually assaulted any women despite public charges of harassment brought against him by more than 20 women over a period of several decades, and, despite a reckless public confession of such behavior on a taped conversation between himself and a television entertainment personality, where Trump says on camera: “I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know I'm automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

The remarkable truth about the Trump campaign and presidency, his apparent moral baggage and lack of nuance (if not outright dearth of empathy for others), is that he has little difficulty in using the public stage to defend the absurdity of his behaviors. Trump has framed his political life much in the manner that Nero took to the public stage to frame the political and moral questions related to his own behaviors and actions to the populace in an entertaining if not deceiving manner. Trump as charlatan has generally appeared to escape the role of deceiver by relying on spectacle as a means of confusing and alienating people who would otherwise resist such politics, or by simply being dismissed as a buffoon that cannot do real damage to people. Only such a domineering and self-centered individual as Trump can tell obvious lies about attendance at his inauguration parade, force his spokesperson to defend his claims, and be so utterly successful as spectacle that shrill shrieks demanding he step down from power actually become part of the spectacle.

If all this seems like just one more piece of the history of human politics -- it is. If we remain biblical in our perspective, however, and look closely at the participation of Christians -Evangelical and otherwise in this spectacle - we must conclude that the New Testament texts not only reject and cast judgment on such political participation; but also demand confession, repentance, and the destruction of the temple-like institutions of Christendom that have built upon a political cornerstone using marginalized peoples as so much scaffolding. The presidency of Donald Trump and the direction of liberal democracy has become little more than an indictment of the church; revealing its role as the apostate pimp of the Body of Christ.

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