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Not chosen by God or the devil

20 January 2017

IN THE ancient world, power transitions were often marked by rites of divination. The gods made their will known through natural phenomena, celestial signs such as comets or storms, and trained experts made deductions based on the flight of birds or the internal organs of those sacrificed. Bad omens indicated disaster ahead.

Public representations of Roman emperors show them with their genius: a cherubic figure who represents divine inspiration. The emperor Augustus, at the time of the birth of Jesus, casually described himself as “divine Augustus” and expected to be acknowledged as the favoured of the gods.

The early Christians shunned divination and pagan practice in general, though forms of it lingered in the Church for centuries (and still do in some parts of the world). The advent of a Christian empire gradually loosened the link between natural phenomena and worldly events. While Constantine allowed himself to be portrayed as a quasi-Messianic figure, the eventual fall of the Roman Empire put an end to any hopes that the advent of Christian rulers signified the dawn of God’s kingdom on earth.

The end of the Western Empire made it possible to think of human politics as a genuinely secular activity. Rulers were not demigods; their success or failure was not written in the stars or backed by divine guarantee.

Augustine wrote of two cities unfolding invisibly through time: the doomed city of this world and the city of God. At any one moment, good and evil are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate them until the final judgement. Every moment is a moment of choice between good and evil. Our rulers do not govern because destiny has raised them; they are, like us, fallible creatures in need of a moral compass.

We should bear this mind at the beginning of the Trump presidency. Too much is being assumed by the constant media attempt to read his character and deduce from his hair, his sex-life, and his Twitter habits what outcomes can be expected from his time in office. It is all a bit too reminiscent of ancient priests’ inspecting the liver of sacrificial victims.

Trump has not been chosen by God, but nor is his elevation a sign that the devil is in charge. He is merely a secular ruler with the same capacity of any politician to choose good or evil. The advent of the Trump presidency has divided America and the world, but we should be beware of giving too much credibility to those who suggest they can read the runes.

He may indeed be a disaster, but this is not because we have been warned.


The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

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