A Brief List of Slavery-Deniers

Dear Joel,

Robert Curry’s view of American history is tragically narrow. For those who haven’t read the short piece that you cited last week, Curry wonders why Obama was so quick to recognize the importance of Islam in the US when it was Christianity that this nation was all about.

Of course, that argument, as you note, ignores the many Muslims who were forcibly brought to the colonies and later the United States as the victims of slavery. It’s like Curry seems to think that the nation was built by Episcopalians and Puritans, not by the actual work of enslaved Africans and their descendants.

Curry ignores that fact that slavery–which brought not only Islam but also food and music derived from Africa–was a key part of the founding of the nation, including in the most religious of places. Curry exalts George Whitfield as “the first truly American public figure, equally famous in every colony,” but Whitfield was also an advocate of the expansion of slavery and profited from that national sin. Would Whitfield have been preaching to crowds of 10,000 if he had challenged slavery rather than supported it? What would his ministry have looked like had he not been pulling in income from the theft of human beings from Africa?

Curry isn’t alone in erasing slaves (and their religions) from American history. Take the plantation tour of your choice; you’re probably going to learn about hoop skirts and architecture, but you may have to ask about slavery and the people whose labor allowed whites the profit to build those grand houses. If you ask, you may be rebuffed by an embarrassed tour guide. Embarrass them further by asking why they don’t know this part of the place’s history.

Image result for plantation wedding

Above, a white couple marries at Nottoway Plantation, which bills itself as “the largest antebellum mansion.” Guests can enjoy the property built and maintained by people who could legally be killed by white supremacists. How romantic! 

Or attend Kappa Alpha’s “Old South” themed frat party. Check them out while they parade in front of a black sorority.

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 12.26.27 AM

Above, members of a white Greek organization pose for photos of themselves dressed up like slave owners. Universities trying to defend them say that they don’t “these young folks were in any way trying to be racist” but simply didn’t understand “the broader implications of what they were doing.”

Or read MacGraw-Hill’s US history textbook to see white sins erased as the people they bought and sold are called “workers.”

Or listen to Ben Carson call those who were stolen from their homes, shipped in inhumane conditions across the sea, and sold for profit called “immigrants“–as if they were seeking a better life, not being treated as chattel.

So, while it’s obvious to anyone who has ever thought about it that slavery–and therefore Islam–is central to US history, we need to keep reminding folks of that.

Rebecca

HOW do you love Trump supporters?

Dear Joel,

It’s funny when our faith comes back to us in surprising ways, huh? The desire to be empathetic, compassionate, and responsible to others is what drew me to Mennonites in the first place, and my decision to place myself into accountable relationships with Mennonites helped me develop this kind of thinking as a discipline. After decades of this spiritual endeavor, that kind of thinking should be kicking in when I’m most frustrated with others–it’s times likes these that I’ve been training for. So I’m very encouraged (and I hope other readers are too) to see you coming down on the side of loving Trump supporters.

But how? That’s the harder part for me. I find it almost easier to love those who embrace Trump for his racism than for me to love those who embrace him despite his racism. The first–white nationalists, white supremacists, the alt-right–seem to me to be more honest and thus easier to speak to and about because you know what their issues are. Loving them means working with them to find pathways out of hate (from tattoo removal to legal help) and to keep pressure on them to leave, which can include a range of strategies to make life in a hate group uncomfortable for them.

But for those who ignore, downplay, or excuse Trump’s bigotry–toward women, toward immigrants, toward Muslims, toward people of color–and especially for those who call themselves Christians, love is more of a challenge.

It’s not my usual style here at 606 to get into scripture, but I want to share some thinking I’ve been doing on Jude that has helped me. It may help others, too–and I think the model espoused in Jude can be useful to non-Christians and non-believers, too.

But, first, three caveats:

First, I think that Christians are obligated to love everyone. I think this is true for all Christians, even those who don’t agree on anything else. I don’t think you have to believe that God loves everyone. (I tend to default this belief. I suppose that God loves even Donald Trump, though I have no idea why. And I see no evidence in Trump’s life that God loves him.) But if you’re a Christian, you’ve been told explicitly by Jesus your neighbors and your enemies.

But I don’t place the same burden for loving enemies on non-Christians, not because Christians hold the patent on loving enemies but simply because I’m not going to tell non-Christians to live by a Christian standard.

A second caveat: Especially among Mennonites, it’s easy to turn turning the other cheek and loving your enemies into competition and oppression. The mandate to forgive is used to keep women in abusive marriages, children into abusive relationships with parents, and perpetrators of sexual violence in the church out of jail. That’s not how forgiveness works.  We aren’t in a competition to see who can endure the worse abuse and then forgive for it. Let’s not cheapen forgiveness like that or make it pornographic by gawking at those who exercise it in the most trying of circumstances.

And a third caveat: Jude talks about sin and divides sinners into types, which might sound a little judgmental to some folks. I don’t think that is Jude’s purpose. I think Jude shows us that we can use different strategies to love people who are committed to their sins to a greater and lesser degree. And to be clear: I think supporting Donald Trump is an act of violence against our world’s most vulnerable people and is thus a sin, and because Trump has such power, it is a sin against most of the world’s population. In terms of reading Jude, we might read the words violence the vulnerable or racism/sexism/ nativism/ableism/Islamophobia  when we see the word “sin.”

So, on to the book of Jude:

It’s one of my least favorite books of the Christian New Testament. It’s short and direct, with lots of fire and brimstone, and it’s been used against LGBT Christians. You don’t hear many sermons out of it not only because there’s not much there (25 verses total) but because it’s kind of negative. But I find it also very helpful in laying out some ways of loving those who are hard to love. You can read the whole text in under 3 minutes here.

Jude is writing to Christians and telling them how to deal with those who call themselves Christians but who are not acting like it. The point, though, isn’t about what behaviors will get you in trouble but a warning against a kind of spirit or character: exploitative, duplicitous, deceitful. I don’t believe that the Bible predicts specific political leaders today, but, boy…

Image result for trump as satan

Is Trump Satan? Prolly not, though you can find YouTube videos arguing yes. Are Trump supporters complicit in the evil he is producing in the world? Yes. [Above, an image of Donald Trump with devil horns, a tail, and a pitchfork.]

Jude warns against those who claim to be Christians and yet

  • “pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness” (excuse away exploitative behavior on the grounds that “God forgives so I can do what I want”)
  • revile whatever they do not understand
  • “grumblers, malcontents, following their own passions, loud-mouthed boasters, flattering people to gain advantage” (See, any speech given by Donald Trump. If you’re not sure where to start, try this one, given to the Faith and Freedom Conference this past fall.)
  • set up divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit [love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control]” (See Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.)

Most of Jude is spent warning about these people. We need the warning because it’s not always obvious that a person has this kind of spirit. They may be charming, funny, or charismatic at first. And we shouldn’t confuse them for people who simply get on our nerves, challenge us, or push the boundaries of a group but do so out of love and respect. It’s too easy to accuse people we simply don’t like or who hold different (but carefully discerned) theological opinions of being “false prophets” or “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” The point of Jude (in the reading I give it here) isn’t to coerce theological conformity among believers but to care for the community by helping us recognize when someone is heading toward or fully engaged in sin (racism, sexism, violence toward the vulnerable, exploitation of the powerless, etc.) and giving us advice on how to bring them away from sin so that they can be part of a healthy community and can know God’s love better.

It’s not until verse 20 that Jude starts to answer the question of how we are to love them.

First, Jude tells Christians who are dealing with those who claim faith but aren’t acting in accordance with it to practice spiritual self-care: Be strong in our own faith, which means praying, centering ourselves in God’s love, and being patient. When your own faith is strong, lazy faith isn’t appealing. 

Then Jude gives us three strategies, one for each of three different kinds of people we may struggle to love: those who are flirting with sin, those who have just begun to succumb to it, and those who are stuck there. 

  1. For those who have doubt that their faith prohibits violence against the vulnerable, convince them (v. 22). Different translations of the passage tell us to “have mercy” or “have compassion” on these people. The implication is that we should be compassionate with those who have found their faith swayed by false teachers–including those who marry religion and political power. These people may want to be faithful, but a lazy faith is appealing, and so we should meet them where they are. Listen to their doubts, talk with them, and provide whatever it is that they need to reject sin and embrace the work of love. In practical terms, this means taking the concerns of Trump supporters seriously even if they are not valid as a means of meeting them where they are.
  2. “Save some, by snatching them out of the fire” (v. 23). The image here is of something that’s just been thrown into the fire but that can still be saved, if you are quick and willing to stick your hand in to retrieve it. The Trump campaign didn’t merely reveal racism, sexism, nativism, and a gross love of power in American Christianity; it also created those sins in some people, convincing believers who may have been wary about caesaraopapism–the combining of church and state–that Trump could be used by God to give them political power. And though they have been primed over the last 30 years to believe that a messiah was coming in the form of a Republican president, some of them can be moved. Engaging with them can be risky because they don’t have doubts: they are convinced. So you have to be standing on firm spiritual ground to do this work so that they don’t pull you into the fire with them. The language here (“snatching”) suggests urgency and direct action, not the sometimes circuitous, patient method of “convincing.”
  3. And, finally, “on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” This verse employs the metaphor of contagion: just like you shouldn’t touch the clothing of an ill person in order to keep yourself healthy, you shouldn’t get too spiritually close to those committed to sin, those who are die-hard believers that the sins of bigotry aren’t sins at all but strengths. We can love these people too, but we have to hate their ideas. We can’t tolerate their sin while we convince them to leave it; we have to be as firm in our opposition to their bigotry as we are in our love for the individual.

This model may not work in every case, and it could be that not all Christians can engage it in all cases, and certainly other models are also available. You might be able to love people who are stuck in some kinds of sins but not in others because of some circumstance in your own life; maybe you can work with men who have been violent to women and I can’t or I can work with ableist haters and you can’t. You may be able to convince people who I couldn’t talk to–or who wouldn’t listen to me if I spoke. I may be able to “snatch” some “out of the fire” who you are not equipped to work with, and maybe you can confront some people who I couldn’t even approach. But the overall message is clear: Christians, collectively, must address the sins of those who also call themselves Christians, out of love for each other and out of hatred for oppression for the vulnerable. Jude suggests we may do so in conversation or confrontation, depending on the situation.

And you and I (and I suspect, many of our readers) are in an especially strong position to do so because we are white people who can speak to white people in ways that they can hear.

A final thought:

Jude can be harsh, but his advice isn’t to shun people or break off relationships. At the start of the passage, he warns that for those who are committed to sin, their “condemnation was written about long ago”–that is, that it has always been the case that our sins have consequences. (Here I don’t mean damnation to hell. I mean that 150 years after the end of great sin of slavery, we live with the the terrible consequences of that sin.) But he doesn’t discard these people. Instead, he tells us to maintain a relationship with them in order to bring them out of sin–this is showing “mercy” and “compassion.” We should remember that unless we center ourselves in God’s love, we, too, could go wandering off that direction. White people especially have to be committed to not take the easy path of white supremacy, which assures us that our undeserved power is, in fact, what we are entitled to.

 

Image result for waterless clouds

Above, an image of cracked ground, with waterless clouds above. Jude calls those who call themselves Christians and yet who exploit others “clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead.”

How Minorities Get Written Out of American History

Dear Rebecca:
Robert Curry, writing at The Claremont Review (a sort of righty version of the New York Review of Books) takes aim at those sad tropes of political correctness:

In his 2009 speech in Cairo, Barack Obama famously declared that “Islam has always been a part of America’s story.” Yet no Founder was a Muslim, and it is generally agreed that the first mosque in America was a tiny one in rural North Dakota, started in 1929. How then are we to understand Obama’s claim?

How indeed? Well, Curry says, Thomas Jefferson waged war against piracy, and many pirates were Muslim, thus: “In this sense, then, Islam can be said to have been a part of America’s story from the beginning: it defined an enemy of the new nation, forcing America to summon the capacity to govern and defend itself.”

(Mansplain voice.) Well, actually...

Muslims arrived here before the founding of the United States — not just a few, but thousands.

They have been largely overlooked because they were not free to practice their faith. They were not free themselves and so they were for the most part unable to leave records of their beliefs. They left just enough to confirm that Islam in America is not an immigrant religion lately making itself known, but a tradition with deep roots here, despite being among the most suppressed in the nation’s history.

The story of Islam in early America is not merely one of isolated individuals. An estimated 20 percent of enslaved Africans were Muslims, and many sought to recreate the communities they had known.

So. Do slaves count as part of the American story? I’l go ahead and say yes.

Jesus Wants Me to Love Donald Trump (Or: What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?)

Dear Rebecca:

Wait. Wait a minute. Gotta finish listening to this Elvis Costello track.

OK. Where were we?

Oh, yeah. It turns out that there’s going to be plenty of room on my “I hate Trumpism, but I’m going to love Trumpistas” bandwagon. As in: I’m possibly the only one on it.

That’s ok. I didn’t expect anybody to embrace it, really, and some of the objections are really, really good. What the last few days have made me realize is this: The advent of Donald Trump has made me embrace the Mennonite aspects of my personality much more than I’d realized. I like to think of myself as an agnostic, but the wisdom I’m seeking — and appeal to — has its roots in pacifist-Christian traditions that find their fullest expression among Mennonites, Quakers and other so-called “peace churches.” There’s a contradiction there for me, no doubt. It’s not going to be resolved today.

It also means that the stuff I’m writing here might be of limited use to a general audience. So.

Still, I want to talk about a couple of issues that were raised in response to my piece this week, if only to be more clear.

How can you talk about being friends with people who are clearly bad? There are a few variations on this theme, and I don’t mean to oversimplify it here, only to cover the broadest ground.

So let’s talk about Martin Luther King Jr.

I acknowledged in the last piece that King, in the 21st century, is kind of problematic. Lots of people whose commitment to racial equality seems, er, less than stout, appeal to his example regularly, sometimes to mean things he probably didn’t mean. Some of those people prefer to see black folks embrace nonviolence because that means they’re not going to face the armed rebellion they so surely deserve.

Still, I’m kind of surprised that some folks these days seem to dismiss his example so easily. When I talked about King’s example with an online friend this week, her response was: “He got shot.”

Well. Yeah. So did Gandhi, from whom King borrowed a lot of his approach. Their deaths were tragic, and I don’t mean to treat them lightly here.

But it’s also clear to me that Gandhi and King led movements that created unprecedented breakthroughs in their respective societies. Gandhi used nonviolence to help the Indian people achieve self-determination; it’s thanks to the movement King led that the laws evolved to guarantee the right of black people to go to vote, go shopping, and get an education like their white peers.

What they did worked. Did it produce 100 percent victories? No. Such victories are rare. But their societies were transformed. That’s a big deal. Not to put too fine a point on it: What have you accomplished for justice lately? (I’m speaking of a general “you,” Rebecca, not you you.)

What both men sought was justice and reconciliation.

King:

Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method which you suggest is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution to the race problem.

Gandhi:

My joy was boundless. I had learnt the true practice of law. I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men’s hearts. I realized the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby – not even money, certainly not my soul.

The intertwining of justice and reconciliation was important to both men. I’m not sure why we find it so easy to ignore, or even dismiss, their examples.

Which reminds me of a point I really, really want to emphasize:

When I say “justice and reconciliation are intertwined,” it is not to diminish the role of justice. If I suggest that justice requires reconciliation, then the opposite is also true: Reconciliation requires justice. That means true friendship won’t be achieved until justice is. Seeking reconciliation isn’t about being namby-pamby in the pursuit of justice, but rather recognizing that reconciliation — while a good unto itself — is probably necessary to cement the gains that justice makes. The best example of this? South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. 

I’ve got some more thoughts about what that means, but maybe that’s for another post.

Wait. One other thought:

Does this mean I have to love Trump, too?

Short answer, yes. Kind of. Ugh. Longer answer: It’s complicated.

This conclusion makes me itch, frankly. But if I’m seeking wisdom from the Mennonite tradition, then I Timothy 2 probably bears some contemplating:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior…”

So does Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, loveyour enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven

(Aside: This is why I’m skeptical of Christianity as tribalism. Because this is the opposite of tribalism, and what’s more, this shit is really, really, really fucking hard to do.)

Now: My own inclination is to make some distinctions. When I say I’m going to love Donald Trump supporters, dammit, it’s partly because they’re not Donald Trump. Best I can tell — and I don’t know his heart — he does awful things without remorse and for entirely base motives. The people who voted for him? Somewhat more complicated than that. I’m more complicated than that. Recognizing my own humanity forces me to recognize theirs, which forces me in turn to offer a bit of grace.

(True story: I cut off contact with a high school friend who, I felt, made racist jokes about Obama. When my mom died, though, he organized a dinner of guys from my graduating class upon my return to my hometown. It was an act of grace from an unexpected source. And I hate the racism I still perceive in this guy. But I also see where he’s trying to be better than what he is. So what’s my duty here?)

(This stuff is hard.)

Longer story short: Donald is responsible for his own actions more than his supporters are, though they bear some responsibility. If I get around to reconciling with him — and hoo boy, justice will have to be involved there — it’ll be after justice and reconciliation have happened, for me, at a broader, societal level.

Am I rambling? I’m rambling. Sorry. I’m thinking out loud. I’m almost finished with this post, swear.

Are we really in a civil war? I have a tremendously smart friend who objects to one of the core ideas of the last post: That we’re in, or headed for, a sort of civil war.

“Yeah, there’s a foul mood out there, and there are some paranoid people. And maybe it will get so bad that we’ll all freak out on each other. But I doubt it,” he writes. “I think we’re in an unpleasant period in our democracy. Not the first one.”

I hope he’s right. My own sense of things isn’t quite as hopeful as that, admittedly, and the people who I’m in contact are probably mostly in the top 15 percentile of Americans in terms of how much they care about politics. But politics isn’t everything, and maybe if I stepped back, I’d see more clearly that we’re a long way from that civil war.

Like I said, I hope he’s right.

All of this ruminating, which you’ve been so kind to read — or at least scan — probably isn’t a good guide to political organizing. It’s my own attempt to figure out how to live justly and humanely in an unjust and inhumane world. Your mileage may vary.

As I told one interlocutor:

I hate to get mystical about all this, but: On one level, I suspect that we’re each of us called to different roles in this. I think it’s clear the approach I want to take — one of resistance, and yet also fiercely resisting the ways polarization make us miserable — is one that few other people agree with, or can see a through-line to obtain the kind of justice they seek.

“You do you” is a bit of a cliche, but it’s also a mission statement. I’m taking the approach I take because I think we’re in a dehumanizing era – Trumpism is, I think, dehumanizing – and I want to resist that to the point that I don’t even give myself permission to dehumanize the Trumpistas. I’m not necessarily good at that, but I also think it’s a lot to ask of folks like you. This is my mission, not yours. That’s OK.

Maybe that’s enough for one day. Thanks for listening to me think.

Sincerely,
Joel

Dennis Prager’s Civil War (Or: Why I’m Going to Keep on Loving Donald Trump Supporters, Dammit)

Rebecca:

I’ve mentioned a few conservatives who intrigue me because of their willingness to think in unorthodox ways. Dennis Prager, on the other hand, is a conservative who intrigues me because he is so relentlessly orthodox, so consumed by his contempt for liberals, that I know I’ll never find common ground with him. On anything, possibly. But smart conservatives I know seem to dig him, so I pay (sporadic) attention, knowing he possibly is the manifestation of the Conservative Id.

Here’s a passage from his latest, explaining why he thinks some conservatives still aren’t on the side of President Trump:

The first and, by far, the greatest reason is this: They do not believe that America is engaged in a civil war, with the survival of America as we know it at stake.

While they strongly differ with the left, they do not regard the left-right battle as an existential battle for preserving our nation. On the other hand, I, and other conservative Trump supporters, do.

Oh dear.

Now. There was some conservative pushback against this piece — but not much against the “Civil War” contention. To be honest, I think a lot of folks on the left would agree that we’re in a kill-or-be-killed — maybe metaphorical, maybe not — battle over what makes being “American.”

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about reconciliation, because I think we Americans are going to need a healthy dose of it sometime soon if we’re going to continue down the path of being a single nation. (I don’t think that outcome is guaranteed, frankly: Just because we’re currently and have been one nation for a long time doesn’t mean that state of affairs is guaranteed for the future. And who knows? Maybe a division would be for the best. But I digress….)

Specifically, I’ve been wondering how to advocate for the things I think are good, oppose the things I think are bad, yet still lay the groundwork for peaceful coexistence with neighbors who think differently than I do.

Is that even possible?

We’ve talked a bit about Nazi punching lately, and one concern I haven’t really expressed about the whole thing is this: How do we decide who the Nazis are?

Don’t get me wrong: Richard Spencer is an avowed white supremacist. If you’re going to divide people into Nazi-Not a Nazi categories, he’s pretty easy to categorize.

But damn, it sure seems the labels for what defines a Nazi are pretty expansive these days, and on both sides. Google “trump hitler” and you get 33 million results. The first page of image results gets you this:

trump hitler

Conservatives do the same: I remember well when National Review’s John Derbyshire responded to a Senator Obama proposal — that college students do community service — with a blog post headlined “Arbeit Macht Frei.” You know: The message that welcomed Jews to the concentration camps. (Derbyshire was eventually forced to leave NRO because of his own racist posting: Despite his rhetoric against Obama, most people would probably toward placing Derb in the “Nazi” category.) Google “obama hitler” and you get a mere 18 million results. You can guess what the image results page looks like.

obama hitler

We can’t all be Nazis can we? Yet, we (and here I’m speaking of Americans, left and right) persist in seeing the other side as such — with the result that we naturally contemplate extreme behaviors in response. Like (say) punching strangers.

(One problem: The Nazis encompassed such a vast array of behaviors that it’s pretty easy to start to make comparisons: Ohmigod! They were democratically elected! They didn’t start off shepherding Jews into concentration camps — but by expelling and hassling and incarcerating disfavored ethnic groups. It’s easy enough to start to draw comparisons, but then: Most people, even on the left, agree that the United States is like other countries in that it has the right to secure its borders and regulate immigration to a degree. But once you accept that logic to any degree and act accordingly, the Nazi comparisons become pretty easy.)

(This is why a certain brand of libertarianism can be seductive in its clarity — the kind that seems to see nearly any government action as tyranny, which means any tradeoff is bad — but that’s for another time.)

If we all see each other as Nazis and we’re all willing to act accordingly, we cannot continue to live together. Because, eventually, we will kill each other.

If one of us is right about the other side being Nazis, that’s possibly even justified. If that’s the case, then yes, we’re in a Civil War, and there’s nothing to do but have it out.

But.

What if we’re all wrong? What if most of us aren’t Nazis? Or what if we’re not Nazis yet and can still be precluded from becoming so?

Perhaps we need to resist seeing each other in villainous terms. That’s not to say that there aren’t villains — it’s easy to go too far the other way, because there definitely are people who make evil choices for evil reasons, and there are the occasional sociopaths — but, maybe, there aren’t nearly as many as we tend to think there are. Maybe, for the sake of survival, we have to get comfortable with just a touch of ambiguity along those lines.

So. Maybe we on the left need to recognize that (say) many conservatives who are trying to repeal Obamacare aren’t motivated by hatred of the poor, but a genuine belief that a genuine free market might serve everybody better?

Or that not everybody who calls themself “pro-life” is trying to control women’s lives, but genuinely believe they’re preventing murder?

Or that people who favor immigration restrictions aren’t necessarily racist, but do genuinely worry about terrorism?

I don’t think the above stances are, ultimately, correct. And certainly, there are conservatives who have contempt for the poor, conservatives who want to keep women in their place, and conservatives who are acting out of racist motivations. (And, certainly, conservatives might do well to recognize that most liberals don’t want big government for its own sake, believe that real and important issues of female autonomy really are in play on the abortion issue, and genuinely believe immigration really did help build the country and continues to have benefits.)

But combining empathy — does my own life contain contradictions? — with logic suggests that the number of easily caricatured single-dimension villains in our life is smaller than we typically suspect. The other side isn’t necessarily evil, just … wrong. Mistaken. But mistaken because their ideas of a just society are a bit different than ours, not because they reject the idea of a just society.

And if that’s the case, maybe we should avoid the Civil War? It’s not mindless middle-of-the-roadism, is it, to say: “I think I’m right, but personal humility — I might be wrong sometimes! — and respect for my neighbor dictate that I listen to her, and even if we disagree, I don’t have to think she’s a horrible person?”

(Even as I write this, I become aware of my that I’m privileged — I’m a white guy with a degree and — from time to time — an audience for my ramblings, so the likelihood of me experiencing oppression is small, the number of villains in my universe is small. Maybe the problem isn’t that we all see each other as Nazis, but that we don’t — correctly! — see ourselves as Nazis when so many of us are closer to it than we admit. The banality, the routine of evil is what makes it so insidious after all, right? Cut to: Lots of black folks nodding furiously.)

Since the election, I’ve been thinking a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. In some ways, he makes an easy example: Those of us benefit from the status quo would prefer it if everybody setting out to oppose the status quo agreed to use peaceful methods and not threaten an actual armed uprising, even as we continue to glorify armed uprisings in the name of underdog causes we care about. We’re hypocrites, most of us.

Get away from that, though, and it’s good to remember that King sought both justice and reconciliation — saw them, in fact, as inextricable from each other:

Nonviolence seeks friendship and understanding with the opponent. Nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent. Nonviolence is directed against evil systems, forces, oppressive policies, unjust acts, but not against persons. Through reasoned compromise, both sides resolve the injustice with a plan of action.

Sounds easy. Isn’t.

Something that shapes me in all this: In 2011, I underwent a series of surgeries that saved my life from a severe attack of diverticulitis. During that period, people I thought I hated — people I had every right to hate — offered me support and comfort and grace. It was a revelatory experience, one that I’ve tried to keep in mind since.  I’m less inclined than ever to find an excuse not to love my neighbor — though I’m obviously imperfect on this front — and more inclined to *try* to offer grace where I least want to give it. I think that’s the way of MLK. I think that’s the way of Jesus. Religious inclinations aside, I suspect it has the virtue of being … virtuous.

I hope you’ll forgive the rambling, Rebecca. I want to to do the right things, oppose the bad ones, and work for reconciliation. Maybe that’s impossible. Maybe if we each and every one of us hold to what we think is true, the civil war is inevitable.

But I don’t think it is. I don’t want it to be. I think we can avert it. It will, however, take hard work, choice, and a generosity of spirit that probably doesn’t come naturally to us.

God help us,

Joel

Defending Babies, Toddlers, and Children against Trump

Joel:

It’s been a big week around here. My oldest, who will be a teenager in a few weeks, has a girlfriend. After a year-long crush, he asked her on a date on the last day of school, and she’s moving this summer, so, from a parental perspective, she’s the ideal “starter girlfriend”–she likes him, and she’s going to disappear from his life soon. My middle child entered double digits (wisely announcing that “I’m a tween now, Mom, so things are going to be different between us.”), and my youngest turned five and is preparing for kindergarten. Barring very unforseen circumstances, we are out of the baby, toddler, and preschool years–all of which I’ve loved–and navigating some important developmental milestones, which I think we’re going to enjoy, too. My mind has been on Piaget, Erick Erickson (not that one but this one), and other developmental psychologists who have, over a century now, tried to help us understand how we grow up.

All of which prompts me to ask: Can we stop talking about Donald Trump as a baby, a child, or a teenager? (I’m looking at David Brooks’ “When the World is Led by a Child,” but the examples abound.)

Sure, Donald Trump whines and cries and is generally helpless to solve a problem. He’s also incredibly needy. But he’s not a baby. Babies have a future ahead of them. Babies deserve our affection, support, and attention. Babies also–not at first, but eventually–reward your efforts with affection and love. Most importantly, they are learning to trust others, to know that they can rely on people. Donald Trump’s relationships are transactional, which means he is always suspicious of other people besting him. A person who never trusts can never be trusted.

Image result for angela merkel pushing trump is stroller

Above, world leaders meet in Sicily at the 43rd annual G-7 Summit. While Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, and others walked together in the street, Donald Trump, who repeatedly invoked ableist tropes to question Hillary Clinton’s stamina, followed behind in a golf cart, like a fool. The result was that he was absent in many photos showing the world’s leaders together. In the image above, Trump was reinserted into the photo–but in a toddler stroller, shaped like a car, being pushed by the German Chancellor. 

Donald Trump may have little control over his emotions, try to manipulate people, make messes bigger than he can clean up, refuse to try new foods, and think that the world revolves around him, but he’s not a toddler. Toddlers are intensely curious, with increasing concern about fairness (even if they aren’t so good at making things fair). They want to learn. They desire to please others. They are trying to act in ways that will make them proud. They are taking initiative and acting autonomously. They are often compassionate and sweet. They want to know “what’s that?” and “but why?” They are sponges for language and new facts. None of this describes Donald Trump.

Donald Trump may not be able to think very far ahead and may not have a real, stable, developed identity (A brand is not an identity.); he cannot navigate complex moral situations, take responsibility for his mistakes, tolerate distress, or stay in ambiguity. He can’t control his mouth or spell difficult words. These are the tasks of adolescence, but Trump is no teenager. Teenagers are asking big questions about themselves and about the world. They are imagining a better future and trying to figure out how they will contribute to it. They are looking reflectively at history and seeing patterns–including patterns of injustice. (Injustice and hypocrisy are the natural enemies of teenagers.) They are yearning to get out of their social situations–to see the world, to make friends with people their parents don’t approve of, to test boundaries and limits, to be daring and bold and different. None of this describes Donald Trump, who has proudly said, “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same. The temperament is not that different.” This is a person whose worldview–growing up extremely wealthy in 1950s racist New York–was one he never thought to expand. He’s not a teenager, and I don’t see signs that he ever was one.

It’s tempting to throw up our hands and say, “Grow up!” to Donald Trump. Seeing him as childish is tempting because he lacks self-control, self-awareness, or empathy; he is unwise, incurious, intemperate, solipsistic, needy, and destructive.

But these aren’t the traits of babies, children, or teens. They are the traits of someone whose incredible privilege–rooted mostly in wealth but reinforced because of his gender and race (and, anyway, that wealth is due to gender and race)–has allowed him to surround himself with grubbers who only affirm him. He is the good guy in every story he tells. He is always right. When people tells him he is wrong, he discards or divorces them. When someone reflects poorly on him, they are gone. Men surrounded by yes-men lead us into war and death, because they will sacrifice everyone to insure their own righteousness. Lincoln, our greatest leader, assembled a “team of rivals”; Trump has assembled a team of investors, scavengers, and loyalists.

For those panicking that we’ve given a toddler with a temper problem the nuclear codes, the news is even worse: We’ve decided–and a decent number of voters still stand by that decision–to give it to an adult without any of the best qualities of children.

 

 

 

Jesus and Memorial Day

cross-flag1

Rebecca:

I’m not one of those pacifist Christians who pooh-poohs the idea of Memorial Day. Though my own inclinations are dovish, I have friends who have served honorably in the military — I care very much for and about those friends — and I know that people who served in our military have almost always done so with the best of intentions. Live and let live, I say.

On the other hand, I have to admit being skeptical of this:

Every year there are the usual Christian bloggers denouncing the supposedly idolatrous nationalism of patriotic holidays like Memorial Day and July 4. Any display of the flag in proximity to the church or congregational reverence for fallen soldiers is ostensibly a grievous rebuke to the Gospel.

This globalist mindset for Western secular elites is increasingly true for many American church elites, including some Evangelicals, whose elitism recoils at populist patriotic spirituality in Christian and especially evangelical subculture. It’s part of a larger spiritual universalism that rejects or minimizes particular loyalties. Although it nobly aspires to love for all humanity, it fails to appreciate that love meaningfully can only begin with relations in proximity, with family, friends, neighborhood and country. Loving everybody everywhere abstractly is unlikely without first loving nearby persons.

And that’s why Jesus was the Messiah *just for the Jews.*

Forgive the snark.

Loving the people around you is easy, but Jesus rarely preached the virtue of easy attachments. He spoke of loving your enemies, of visiting the prisoner. He offered parables about good Samaritans — Samaritans being outside of Jesus’s circle of “nearby persons.” John 3:16 speaks of a God who loves *the world.*

I am very much against Christianity as nationalistic tribalism. It’s one reason I’ve not found a place in the church. Living the way that Jesus speaks, with a kind of universal love, is damn hard. It doesn’t preclude your nearby attachments. It does suggest that killing for those attachments … might be unwise.

Which might be read as a criticism of Memorial Day, after all. Nah. I suspect some of us are called differently. Life is complicated.

—J