Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Finding Hope in Babylon: The King Cyrus Narrative and Evangelical Identity

Narratives play a powerful role in shaping how communities understand themselves and their place in the world. This post explores how the story of King Cyrus from the Hebrew Bible functions as a shared narrative for some modern American Evangelicals. They see themselves as facing similar challenges to the Israelites in exile and draw hope from Cyrus, a seemingly unlikely figure chosen by God to liberate his people. By analyzing how Evangelicals interpret and use this narrative, I gain insight into how narratives can reinforce group identity and purpose.

My rhizo narratology asserts that humans and human groups use narratives to make sense of their place in the world and the events unfolding around them. Narratives can take on particular salience as a means of finding deeper meaning and optimism in difficult circumstances when a group feels embattled or oppressed. Modern Evangelicals believe themselves to be embattled and oppressed by an increasingly secular America, and they use the story of Cyrus to help them cope with this existential threat. From a narratological perspective, the enduring power of the Cyrus narrative lies in its ability to confer meaning and optimism on a community facing existential threats. No matter how dire the circumstances or how unlikely the source of deliverance, the narrative suggests that invisible, divine forces are still at work, vindicating the moral righteousness of the believers.

In the story of Cyrus from the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites had been conquered and exiled to Babylon. They felt forsaken by God and oppressed by their captors, yet the prophet Isaiah foretells that their deliverance will come through the most unlikely of sources - Cyrus, the Persian king who was not a believer in the Israelites' God. Isaiah 45 declares: "This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him." Isaiah portrays Cyrus as an instrument of God, despite himself being ungodly and ignorant of the true God. Through this narrative, the downtrodden Israelites found hope that God still had a plan for them, to be delivered even by those who did not worship Him.

We can see echoes of this narrative today in how some modern Evangelical Christian communities have interpreted the presidency of Donald Trump. The Cyrus parallels allow them to overlook perceived moral failings in their leader and instead focus on the ways Trump supposedly undermined secularism and enacted conservative policies they see as aligned with Christian values. Despite conceding that Trump is an ungodly, immoral person in his personal life and behavior, many Evangelicals nonetheless view Trump as ordained by God to protect their interests and to be an instrument for godly policy initiatives, just as the ungodly but ordained Cyrus did for the captive Israelites.

The story of King Cyrus, then, provides a narrative structure that Evangelicals can use to make sense of the miraculous victory by a political newcomer over the politically seasoned and hated Hillary Clinton, or the miraculous undoing of Roe v Wade to stop the wholesale murder of babies, or the heroic struggle at the border to stop the pollution of illegal aliens. The story also makes sense of the rabid response of demonic Democrats to undermine the Champion of God, Donald Trump. Clearly, the Forces of Hell will do anything to stop God's Man of the Hour, just as they tried to stop King Cyrus, but God will prevail.

It's a great story that helps Evangelicals define themselves and their relationships with the world.

Shared History

First, Trump as Cyrus reinforces what Evangelicals see as a shared history and legacy. Contemporary American Evangelicals see themselves as Children of God, in a line that extends back through the ancient Israelites to Abraham. By retelling and reinterpreting a story such as King Cyrus restoring the Israelites, Evangelicals reinforce a sense of shared history and legacy both among themselves – they will be restored – and between themselves and the ancient Israelites – they will be restored as the ancient Israelites were restored. This shared story creates a feeling of belonging and strengthens the bonds among Evangelicals and it strengthens their identification with the ancient Israelites who, they assume, worshipped the same God that they do. It clarifies for them who they believe themselves to be: the Children of God, descended spiritually if not physically from Abraham.

This identification with ancient Israelites might be difficult to accept by non-Evangelicals. After all, even a casual review of the historical contexts of ancient Israel and Judah and modern American Evangelicals highlights for me the differences between the two groups rather than the similarities. However, Evangelicals can find common ground. Both groups faced hardship and discrimination. Ancient Jews did in fact endure exile and captivity. While Evangelicals have not been physically exiled from America, they tend to see themselves as an oppressed minority facing secularization and opposing social values. The secularization of American culture is an indisputable fact, as recent research from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) documents. Unaffiliated is the fastest growing category of religious identification in America. As Derek Thompson notes in his Atlantic article "The True Cost of the Churchgoing Bust", "More Americans today have 'converted' out of religion than have converted to all forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam combined. No faith’s evangelism has been as successful in this century as religious skepticism." It's important to note that White Evangelicals have lost fewer adherents than the other American faiths; however, Evangelicals are still losing adherents. America is becoming more secular, and this is, in fact, an existential threat to Evangelicals. Of course, most Evangelicals are White, and the demographic shift in America from a majority White America to a majority Brown/Black America is just as clear. Finally, the representation of Evangelicals in the mainstream media is insulting and threatening to most Evangelicals, as Taussig and Nadler explore in their online article. Evangelicals see general praise and commendation for Colin Kaepernick taking a knee on the football field to protest the national anthem but only condemnation and ridicule for Tim Tebow taking a knee on the field to praise God. White Evangelicals see themselves as a threatened, persecuted minority, and they are frightened by it. The Cyrus story helps them to understand their plight.

Then, Evangelicals believe that they are the devout remnant holding onto their faith during times of hardship, just as a remnant of Israelites did. Some Jews in captivity clung to their traditions and scriptures, while Evangelicals see themselves as continuing that tradition of unwavering faith. The more attacked they feel from the secular world, the more tightly the true believers cling to their faith. In notes for his religion class at Furman University, Alfons Teipens notes: "Within ten or fifteen years (if not sooner) the vast majority of the Israelites had assimilated into the Babylonian culture and intended to continue there as part of the over-all population. It is not clear what Israelite rituals they retained. There was, however, a core group of Judeans who remembered their land and Temple and cult with great longing." While it is possible or even likely that many currently religious people, including many Evangelicals, will assimilate into the secular American society, a remnant will cling to their faith, identifying all the more strongly with each other and with those ancient Israelites who also kept the faith. The Cyrus story helps them clarify that identity.

It is obvious to me that the King Cyrus story strengthens the Evangelical view of themselves as a chosen people with a special mission, similar to how some ancient Jews viewed themselves. In her Unbound article "Ezra, Nationalism, and the Toxic Theology of 'God's Chosen People'", Brenna Zeimet explains her own upbringing in the nationalism of White Evangelicalism and its identity as God's chosen people:

I spent much of my life in the Assemblies of God Church, a pentecostal wing of the White Evangelical movement. I was steeped in a theology born of nationalism. Nationalism is in the roots of who they believe God is and who they believe Israel was and now who they believe themselves, and in many cases, America, to be in the biblical narrative of God relating to Their people. I was taught constantly that I was part of “God’s Chosen People”, that of all the nations on Earth, God chose us to be “His Royal Priesthood”, that “He would give the nations in our stead”, that the promises of the Bible for Israel were the promises of the Bible for me. “Though 10,000 fall at your side”, God will protect only you and let the others be demolished. All these “truths” were supposed to make up how I saw myself and how I related to the world around me. I was supposed to root my identity in the knowledge that God picks me over everyone else.

This identity as a chosen people is perhaps best expressed by a current Evangelical minister. In the YouTube sermon entitled "Who Are God's Chosen People?", Pastor Allen Jackson of the World Outreach Church in Murfreesboro, TN, says at minute 36:00: "Just as certainly as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the chosen people of God who were delivered from the slave pits of Egypt, everybody who by faith receives Jesus as Lord is included in the People of God and is an heir to the covenant that was made with Abraham." The hour-long sermon includes many observations from Pastor Jackson that express the implications of being the Chosen People of God, but the assertion underlying Pastor Jackson's sermon is that Evangelicals are, in fact, the spiritual descendants of Abraham, God's Chosen People.

Finally, modern White Evangelicals identify with the ancient Israelites who held onto hope for a better future,  for deliverance. As the Jews yearned for return to their homeland, many Evangelicals see themselves working towards God's kingdom on Earth, the rapture. Pastor Jackson's sermon linked to above expresses many admonitions about stepping up as a witness to the Kingdom of God, which is imminent in the Rapture of the End Times, an eschatological teaching about the return of Jesus to set up God's Kingdom on Earth. The Rapture is a widely shared belief among White Evangelicals that this corrupt world is about to end and be replaced by the Kingdom of God, in which faithful Evangelicals will figure prominently and which will exclude the unrighteous, who unfortunately are most of the world's population, because "strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:14), "for many are called, but few are chosen" (Matthew 22:14).

This Evangelical identity is based in large part on the Evangelical tendency to interpret the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) literally. They tend to see passages about the Israelites' captivity as factual, historical examples of their own struggles. They see the Babylonian Captivity as a punishment for the Israelites' disobedience; likewise, they see today's societal problems as a similar warning and punishment from God demanding repentance from His Chosen People. The Bible contains prophecies of the Jews' return to Israel, and Evangelicals see in these prophecies a foreshadowing of a future triumph of their own faith.

Of course, I must remember that not all Evangelicals view history and the Biblical stories as I have presented here. I have painted somewhat extreme views to highlight my point. However, Evangelicalism includes millions of people (the Pew Research Center says about one-quarter of all Americans identify as Evangelical) with different theological views, and some may not emphasize the connections I explore above. Still, even if they do not agree with this particular interpretation of the Cyrus story and are not followers of Trump (according to Pew, about 15-20% of Evangelicals no longer support Trump), almost all Evangelicals will be conversant with this version of the Cyrus story. It is prevalent amongst Evangelicals, even amongst those who don't believe it.

As do I, many Evangelicals likely recognize that the historical context between ancient Babylon and modern America is different and that the situations of the ancient Jews and modern Evangelicals are not directly comparable. They likely understand that the connection between ancient Jews in captivity and modern Evangelicals lies in perceived shared themes of persecution, faith, hope, and deliverance. Still, they use the story to mark their identities as Evangelicals, whether they are emphasizing differences or similarities.

Values and Beliefs

In addition to expressing a shared history and legacy, stories can embody a community's core values and beliefs. Echoing the Cyrus story in the character of Donald Trump allows Evangelicals to claim these values for themselves and future generations. The story of King Cyrus in the Bible offers a potent metaphor that resonates with many modern Evangelicals and informs their values and beliefs.

First, King Cyrus is a divine instrument of God. The book of Isaiah portrays Cyrus, a non-Jewish king, as chosen by God to liberate the Israelites from Babylonian captivity and allow them to rebuild Jerusalem (Isaiah 44:28). This idea resonates with Evangelicals who believe God works through seemingly unlikely figures such as King Cyrus, King David, and Donald Trump to achieve his purposes. Also, they might see themselves individually as instruments of God's will in a secularized world.

Then, the King Cyrus story has a peculiarly Evangelical take on religious freedom: Cyrus's decree allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and practice their faith freely (Ezra 1:1-4). Evangelicals prize that religious liberty in terms of religious expression in public life. Many Evangelicals feel that their free expression of their Christian faith is too often curtailed and ridiculed in the increasingly secular public sphere. For instance, they greatly resent the perceived ban on prayer in public schools. They want to be able to lead students in Christian prayer. Of course, they do not want to extend this same religious freedom to Jews, Muslims, or Hindus. Both Evangelicals and political liberals would be outraged by a muezzin's call to prayer in the local high school, though not for the same reasons.

With its rebuilding of Jerusalem, the Cyrus story can be viewed as an act of social justice that restored the Israelites' homeland and way of life. Similarly, some Evangelicals might see themselves as agents of social justice, working to create a more righteous and Christian society according to their faith. Of course, this is social justice with a Christian twist: Christian law, not Sharia law.

This concept of social justice segues into the strong Evangelical commitment to reaching the lost.  Evangelicals often have a missionary zeal to proselytize, to spread their faith. For many Evangelicals, the most compassionate and just way to engage non-Evangelicals is to convert them to Evangelical Christianity. For Evangelicals, the primary reason for engagement with non-Evangelicals is conversion: every lunch served to the poor includes a testimony and a call to repentance. Non-evangelicals can easily mistake this for rank aggrandizement, but that is often incorrect. Reaching the lost is not simply about numbers for Evangelicals. It's a core expression of their faith, and it is mostly motivated by love, obedience, and a desire to share what they believe is the ultimate truth, despite the televangelists who use conversion as a means to build their financial empires. King Cyrus's role as a facilitator for the Israelites' return can be seen as a metaphor for witnessing to those outside the faith. Trump, then, is removing the barriers to Evangelical witness in the public sphere. He's making it okay again to raise Bibles in public to a very Christian God.

Finally, the Cyrus story gives Evangelicals hope for restoration after a period of suffering. Evangelicals facing political, social, and economic challenges can find shared solace in the idea that God can bring about positive change through unexpected means. He did it with Cyrus, and He can do it with Trump. He IS doing it with Trump. This shared hope is so powerful that Evangelicals will overlook any fault or defect in Trump in order to cling to this hope. When the rumor spreads through Evangelicals that Pres. Biden is replacing Easter with a celebration for the LGBTQ+ community, then they can only cling more tightly to their hope that Trump will reverse this abomination.

In conclusion, the story of King Cyrus offers a powerful allegory for some modern Evangelicals. They see Trump as a divinely chosen figure who champions religious freedom and facilitates an Evangelical form of social justice. These themes inform their values and motivate their actions in the world. However, I must keep the historical context of King Cyrus in mind. Cyrus's motivations for aiding the Jews were likely complex and political rather than religious. Moreover, I must remember that not all Evangelicals emphasize the above interpretations. Some may focus more on the evangelistic message, while others might highlight social justice aspects.

While I find the Evangelical use of the Cyrus story highly problematic, I can see the benefits that such a shared narrative can afford, and I can see that any shared narrative can bring similar affordances to any social group. When Evangelicals highlight how Cyrus, a pagan king, was unknowingly chosen by God to liberate his people, they demonstrate how Donald Trump and they themselves are instruments of God's work in the modern world, promoting morality, fighting for social justice causes they believe in, and helping those in need of God's deliverance. It is convincing evidence that God is still on His throne and in deft command of history. This is a strong counter to the frequently derogatory narrative and identity that they see in mainstream media.

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