Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Rethinking 'Resistance': Avoiding Fixating on D***** T****...

It has been extremely difficult to be on social media this week. I’ve been exposed to an endless torrent of hate, bigotry, ignorance, and hysteria…

And that’s just from my friends.

What I mean is this: way too many of my friends are posting links- sometimes up to a dozen per day- that, cumulatively, become one long shriek of 'Look at this! And look at THIS!! AND look at THIS!!! He's been President Elect for a WEEK and he's STILL vile!!!!'

I do truly understand the motivations behind most of this. People are worried. I’ve met people who are literally terrified, like Native Americans, human rights advocates, Jews, and Muslims…

But from others, it seems like some rather naïve venting, as if the existence of the structural racism that helped to undergird this nation from its inception was just becoming visible to them, or at least visible to them in an extremely concrete way that they hadn’t thought remotely possible.

I don’t want to denigrate those emotions in any way. We’re all on a learning curve, and this upcoming one might be extremely, arduously uphill. But trust me on this: Native Americans, rural blacks, undocumented fruit pickers, and the newly-arrived Jordanian family down the block have not been nearly as shocked by this week as some of my friends obviously have been…

It’s been just over a week since the election, and I want to say to many of these friends, trust me on this- you will burn yourself out if you try to maintain this level of outrage for any extended period of time.

I'll be glad when the novelty wears off. I'll be glad when the outrage by no means ends but begins to resemble, not so much gasoline thrown in a fire, but good coals that we can cook over...

And to that end, I want to say that some of my social media torrent has been very positive, suggestive of ways to get involved, be proactive, who to call, where to send letters, ideas big and small to help us all stay strong, communicate with each other, and what can be done locally.

To these positive missives, I’d like to add a brief theological note that I’ve been thinking about.

The language of ‘resistance’ has been heavy within a good deal of the more positive stuff I’ve been getting, and it’s been very often phrased around how we can resist Trump- resisting this man specifically.

Again, I do understand why it’s phrased this way, and the President-Elect is certainly a perfectly serviceable focal point for people’s desire to stand up to egregious acts of bigotry, misogyny, and hate that have become much more pronounced in the wake of his candidacy and election victory.

But I’m concerned that the more we talk about Trump, even when we talk about resisting, the more we’re simply, well, talking about Trump.

Trump received billions of dollars’ worth of airtime absolutely free by saying outrageous things, and the media reported all of it because, hey, how do you not report something outrageous? This didn’t weaken Trump at all; indeed, he was strengthened. His core supporters loved his outrageous-ness and delighted in the feckless tut-tutting of the media in their reporting of it.

If one of the things people are angry about is a corporate media elite, what better sight is there than a corporate media elite in a near-constant state of consternation and being made to look like fools?

Who bought all those NWA, Ice Cube, Ice T, and other ‘gangster rap’ albums in the early-90s? Not urban African-Americans, at least not enough to account for the level of sales they all did. It was well-off, white, middle class suburban teens and college students, very often drawn to the dangerous imagery, the transgressive lyrics, and the huffy outrage of politicians and religious gatekeepers…

The more the 'elites' ranted about how sick and disgusting it all was, the more the kids ate it up.

So… The image of resistance is good; it’s powerful and empowering.

But when we say ‘resist Trump’, we’re talking about Trump, and I suspect he’s perfectly fine with that…

Honestly, I’m tired of getting twenty posts a day with his enormous picture on them.

If we look at the example of Jesus in the biblical text, particularly at the beginning of his ministry, he doesn’t use the language of resistance, certainly not of any human political actor like the Emperor in Rome or Herod in Jerusalem. He begins by quoting the Hebrew prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and the regaining of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lords favor.’

The prophet doesn’t mention who specifically is doing the oppressing, locking up the captives, or blinding the people… and neither does the Gospel text record Jesus doing so.

There is a positive emphasis as opposed to a negative one; ‘do what is right and good’ as opposed to ‘resist those who does what is wrong and evil’. The inter-relationship is there, of course, but there's a subtle but important difference in emphasis. 

The biblical text records nothing about Jesus’s feelings or opinions about the Emperor in Rome, nor anything about Herod’s regime, other than the one time in the Gospel of Luke 13, where he refers to Herod as a ‘fox’- a scavenging, destructive animal- and declares that Herod’s threats against him won’t deter him from his ministry.

Likewise, when we read the Sermon on the Mount, neither the Emperor nor Herod ever comes up. Jesus lays out his vision of the Kingdom of God and the righteousness, justice, peace, and deep spirituality that it embodies completely from the standpoint of the people to whom he is talking, as opposed to framing it as a personal repudiation of this or that earthly ruler.

Now, as the life and subsequent death of Jesus affirms, it is impossible to seek the Kingdom of God in any way that Jesus described it and demonstrated it with a neutral posture toward a socio-political or religious status quo. Jesus deeply unsettled the religious establishment, the local government, and the imperial forces which eventually executed him.
But he did so in a welcoming, inclusive, earthy, and spiritual dynamic, through relationship, communion, healing, encouraging, teaching, eating, and drinking;

He did so through a fundamental ethic of peace, righteousness, and justice, which he insisted were possible to obtain in the power of God and God’s community of people;

‘Resist Tiberius’ never came up;

‘Resist Herod’ was never overtly spoken of;

Jesus demonstrated a new way of being and living rather than a new way of campaigning or organizing.

As I mentioned in my last post, we can live out this Gospel of Jesus- food for the poor, sight to the blind, release to the prisoners, freedom for the captives, life for the lifeless, a voice for the voiceless- regardless of who is in power. The shape of our activity, as well as those who need life, sight, food, or a voice, will change depending on the circumstances, but our remit to make it happen will not.

This is what the people of God will do- or at least should do- now, without fear, without fanfare, with dedication and determination.

I personally won’t be framing it around the person of Donald Trump. I’ll be hiding posts to my social media that do so, and un-following those that excessively post them. 

Live a life of goodness and solidarity, without being all fixated on, well, that guy…

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Some (Hopefully Helpful) Thoughts On Your Safety Pin...

One of the most powerful examples of symbolic protest was during the Second World War when, in April of 1940, Germany invaded neutral Denmark. 

In a powerful act of solidarity with his Jewish subjects, King Christian X donned the yellow Jewish star that the Nazis were forcing Jews to wear. The Danish population followed suit and, since everyone was wearing a Jewish star, the deportation of Jews to concentration camps became completely unworkable and was thoroughly stymied.

It’s an incredible story. And it’s not true.

The truth is that Danish citizens never wore the yellow star, nor did King Christian ever threaten to wear it himself. In fact, Danish Jews never wore the yellow star either, except for the few who were finally deported to concentration camps, nor did German officials ever issue an order requiring Danish Jews to wear it. 

What the Danish people did do was truly extraordinary.

On 23 August 1943, the German occupation of Denmark, which up to that point had been somewhat benign, took a much darker turn. Copenhagen was invaded, the Danish Army was disarmed, the Danish government dissolved, King Christian was jailed, and martial law was declared. In response, sabotage operations by the Danish underground resistance against German targets increased considerably.

On 28 September, Danish officials were informed that Danish Jews would be deported two days later on 1 October. 

In an extraordinary operation that involved almost the entire Danish population, as well as the agreement of the Swedish government, nearly all Danish Jews were hidden and then ferried across to Sweden, where they remained until the war ended.

Out of Denmark’s Jewish population of 8,000, the Germans only managed to round up 400. But even they weren’t forgotten, and the Danish authorities ceaselessly requested to inspect the camp, which the  Danish Red Cross were finally allowed to do in June 1944.

As a result of this undaunted interest in Denmark’s Jews, none were sent to their intended destination of Auschwitz.

At the end of the war, fifty-five had died.

I tell this story because I want to think about what I started talking about at the beginning: symbolic protest, and one symbolic protest in particular- the safety pin.

I’ve had posts from three separate Facebook friends asking me to wear a safety pin.  At a coordinating meeting I attended yesterday afternoon, four people had bags of them and were passing them out.

The safety pin emerged as a symbolic protest in post-‘Brexit’ vote Britain, as harassment and attacks on migrants and minority communities began to skyrocket.

In the wake of the Trump Presidential victory, it has migrated across the pond with the same sentiment attached: let people- particularly those who bore the brunt of Trump's invective- that the person wearing the pin is in solidarity with them, that they are 'safe', that they will listen to them and act on their behalf.

To be honest, my first reaction to it was utter exasperation because, honestly, I’m so tired of 'liketivism'- online petitions, changing your profile picture to support a cause, asking people to get your ‘Stop (insert horrible thing here)' social media site to 1,000,000 'likes'…

If I was tired of it all before the election, I’m really tired of it now, and the safety pin just hit all my buttons.

First of all, I was willing to bet all the money in my pockets that this was not instigated by actually endangered minority communities. This, I bargained, was a white thing. ‘Liketivism’ usually is. It tends to involve a white, Western Middle Class person discovering that something horrible is going on; they then decide that something needs to be done (alongside the vague assumption that nothing actually *is* being done, or at least nothing worthwhile…). Then, they then pick a small, distinct, outward gesture for people to do or (more likely) wear- a red shirt, a pink ribbon, a safety pin- to ‘raise awareness’, show the affected people that ‘we care’, that they are ‘not alone’…

‘It’s a small, simple gesture’, we are told, ‘but it makes a huge difference to the suffering people.’

Does it? I’m not so sure. 

Why am I not sure? Because I haven’t actively asked marginalized, endangered communities what they think of it… and rarely do the organizers of ‘liketivist’ campaigns.

My friend and fellow theologian Jayme Reeves, in a brilliant essay on her blogsite, writes:

What I do know is that chances are it was started by someone NOT at risk.  Most likely it was started by a white, middle class, hetero person wanting to protest a political outcome and show solidarity.  Chances are that an immigrant, Muslim, person of color, or a disabled or LGBT+ person didn't go, "I know! Why don't you all start wearing safety pins so I know who's safe to go to?!
However, we need to be honest about what purpose the safety pins serve in most cases.  Hear me: SOLIDARITY IS A GOOD THING.  SAFE SPACES ARE NEEDED.  But a safety pin does not a safe space make.  More than anything, wearing a safety pin is a marker so that we (people who don't want to be known as racist or homophobic) know each other.  There's strength and comfort in numbers and that is where the solidarity of wearing safety pins lies.  For some, wearing a safety pin makes the wearer feel better, to say "this wasn't my fault."  At the end of the day, it's a political statement.  

Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with symbolic protests. There is nothing wrong with political statements. There’s nothing wrong with symbols of unity and solidarity. 

The Danish people had theirs as well; one action involved wearing four coins tied together with red and white ribbons in their buttonholes (Red and white are the Danish national colours, and four coins adding up to 9 øre represented the date of the occupation, 9 April).

But the coins on their lapels saved no Jews; gasoline, boats, planning, expertise, and grave personal risk did.

That brings me to my main concern about symbolic protest: that it might potentially be all people do, or worse, all that they think themselves capable of doing.

‘I can’t do much. This is something I can do.’

I understand. Truly I do. I'm not heartless about this; a couple of close friends have helped me modulate my tone about this.

I do get it; sometimes the issues facing us are so horrific, so overwhelming, that we shut down; we feel paralyzed; we think that we’re unable to do anything heroic. 

But I do want to say this:

You have the same power, the same abilities, and- if you choose to cultivate it- the same courage as any one of the thousands of Danes who saved their Jewish neighbors. They were shopkeepers, mill workers, agricultural workers, housewives, students, white-collar professionals…

… and, when the moment of crisis came, thousands of bank clerks and waitresses looked down at their lapels, saw their coins and ribbons and said, ‘I can do more’…


As I was writing that last line, I received a message from my friend and colleague Will Randall, who works for the Montana Human Rights Network. His truck was vandalized last night, the only one on his street. Needless to say, there’s no indication of who did it or their motives. But Will’s outspokenness for the freedom and dignity of everyone here in the Flathead Valley in the face of- since the election- an emboldened far right leave me and him with our suspicions. 

He’ll be in Depot Park in Kalispell this afternoon, where people will be gathering in support of another local activist, Jennifer Allen, who was protesting alone yesterday, when she was jumped by three teenage males who grabbed her signs and tore them up.

They yelled ‘Fuck Hillary’ as they ran away.

I understand your safety pin. But I do most urgently hope you look down at it and say,

‘I can do more’…

Thursday, 10 November 2016

'Exile': Doing Theology in Donald Trump's America

I will not lie to you; I'm very, very worried. 

The election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency is bad, potentially disastrous.

A man who so openly courted neo-Nazis to his campaign- the real, honest-to-God ones, not the vaguely centre-right establishment Republicans that so many of the left have ludicrously called ‘fascists’ for the past two decades;

Who so openly enflamed racial divides;

Who so openly incited violence at his rallies;

Who so openly embraced every piece of junk science;

Who praised foreign dictators;

Who made going to war a campaign promise;

Who promised to tear up every international agreement, trade deal, or treaty that he thought was ‘a disaster’;

Who demeaned women, Muslims, people of colour and… well, anyone not like him, really;

Who showed such unveiled contempt for a free press;

Who showed such open disdain for the Constitution, 
Separation of Powers, and an independent judiciary;

Who boasted that his celebrity allowed him to grab women by the pussy- not ‘p**sy’, by the way; that’s not what he said... He said ‘pussy’…

… That guy won.

It’s not good. It’s very, very bad.

I’m not shocked, though. That might come as a surprise, but I’m not. I currently live in Montana, the red state against which all other red states are measured, and I spent almost two decades working with an Evangelical Christian organization. From that long experience, I’m positive that most of the media, American progressive liberals, and establishment pundits had no idea how unpopular Hillary Clinton is and how many people would vote for anyone- and we now know literally anyone- but her. That made her dangerously weak, weaker than any of her supporters who repeated ad nauseum how spectacularly qualified she was, who shouted down anyone cautious about her nomination given what was at stake, seemed to realize.

It was her turn to run. She got her turn. And she lost. Big.

I doubt many African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, LGBT people, or Muslims were shocked either. For them, this was simply a confirmation of what they’ve known for centuries- that racism, intolerance, misogyny, and xenophobia are American developmental disabilities, embedded deep in our national DNA.

So what do we do?

In trying to construct some kind of theological reflection on this, my mind immediately was drawn to one word:


It might feel like everything instantly became foreign, all the old understandings were swept away, nothing feel's like 'home' anymore...

The Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, writing to the Jewish community living in exile in Babylon, had this advise for them in chapter 29:

The Lord God of Israel who rules over all says to all those he sent into exile to Babylon from Jerusalem, ‘Build houses and settle down’. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and allow your daughters to get married so that they too can have sons and daughters. Grow in number; do not dwindle away. 

One of the major cautions repeated over and over throughout the Hebrew Bible is against false prophets, those who purport to be wise and speaking for God but are actually just talking out their hats. Hey, who doesn’t want to stay positive and search for good news in the aftermath of catastrophe? Who doesn’t want a ‘word of encouragement’? Obviously, there were those who were telling the Jews of Israel that their captivity in Babylon would be a very short-lived affair, but the prophet Jeremiah here puts paid to that notion. 

Exile would last years, even generations.

My social media is filled with notes saying, ‘don’t worry, it’s only four years!’ Well, it might very well be eight… or more. 

Trump was a terrible candidate who ran a chaotic campaign, struggled to stay on message for hours at a time, and was in open rebellion against his own party’s establishment. I shudder to think how we’ll do against a candidate who espouses all of Trump’s ideas but who is focused, sharp, and an expert campaigner.  

America might have turned a political corner for the foreseeable future; Trump will fade, maybe even flair out spectacularly, we just don’t know… But ‘Trumpism’ might, in some shape or form, be here to stay. 

Those of us who have a very different vision of what American democracy, society, and culture might be had better at least start thinking in the long term, perhaps the very long term…

Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the Lord for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.’

‘Support Trump’s America? Are you insane?!’

Yes. Well, if anything he said in the campaign is to be believed, not necessarily the policies, 

but the people.

Whether we agree with the statement or not, Trump ran as a ‘change’ candidate. Many voted for change because the situation they find themselves is unbearable- poor economy, poor job choices, cultural decline, insecurity, and yes, fear. Any Hillary supporter who had listened to American talk radio for a single afternoon would have had reason to be nervous about her chances. Right-wing demagogues and a good amount of Christian clergy have been screaming for years that these people have a right to be angry and have good cause to fear. 

But like all right-wing demagogues the world over, they’ve pointed the finger of blame at ‘others’- black ‘thugs’, ‘predatory’ gay men, Muslims, Jews (they call them ‘the international banking conspiracy’, but don’t be fooled) …

America has big problems that many- left and right- have ignored for years. There are millions of people- left and right- who have been ignored for years.

Someone once asked Jesus, ‘who is my neighbor?’ Your neighbors are Trump supporters, Hillary supporters, Evangelicals, gays, single parents, ‘zero contract hour’ workers, ‘Black Lives Matter’ supporters, Standing Rock supporters… 

This country is all of us. We need each other... Now more than ever. If you don't know your neighbors, or don't recognize the image of God in the neighbors you despise, You need to start now.

Remember those houses the prophet told us to build? Build a house for someone who has no house.

Remember those gardens we need to plant? Share the produce with a local food pantry.

Remember the weddings we need to plan? Make sure everyone’s marriages are supported, valued, and protected.

Remember ‘Grow in number’? Invite people in.

This is our country. Make it work… for everyone.

…‘Do not let the prophets or those among you who claim to be able to predict the future by divination deceive you. And do not pay any attention to the dreams that you are encouraging them to dream. They are prophesying lies to you and claiming my authority to do so. But I did not send them. I, the Lord, affirm it!’

And Oh my God, did every one of our 'prophets' boot this one...

Every poll was wrong. Every pundit was wrong (Well, Michael Moore called it…). Many of us sat for hours on end listening to tables full of experts explain ‘the numbers’. They all told us to ‘stay tuned’ for more. 

And who won? Chrysler, Cadillac, Viagra, Annheiser-Busch, Travelocity, Target, and every other company who bought airtime on MSNBC, FOX, CNN… All the same companies on every network. What does that tell you?

Now, the same pollsters, pundits, and commentators are on again for hours on end explaining how exactly they got it wrong. And Chrysler, Cadillac, Viagra, Annheiser-Busch, Travelocity, and and every other company are still there…

Turn it off. Turn it all off. You don’t need it.

All of the fun ‘click bait’ stories about how such-and-such celebrity just ‘*DESTROYED* Donald Trump with a single tweet’? Well, funnily enough, the tweet didn’t destroy anyone…

Don’t click. Ever. It’s all worthless.

And while I’m at it, let me just say that I’m done with the late-night ‘comedy news’ people. John Oliver, Seth Meyers, SNL, Sam Bee, Stephen Colbert… Almost a year of all of them saying, ‘Oh, look at him! What a buffoon! And his ancestral name is Drumpf! Can you imagine? Isn’t it just too ridiculous?! Isn’t it all hilarious?!'

Now, after the election, with thousands of lives potentially ruined if Trump does a mere tenth of what he promised to do, the same comedians sheepishly offer us inspirational words of comfort, ‘Oh, well, we’ll all get through it’…

Well, many might not, funny man…

Worse, now my social media is filled with messages saying, ‘oh well, at least Alec Baldwin has four years of work ahead of him!’

I can’t do it anymore.  

‘Don’t worry! It’s funny!’

Well, for a lot of people, it’s serious as hell.

…‘Only when the seventy years of Babylonian rule are over will I again take up consideration for you. Then I will fulfill my gracious promise to you and restore you to your homeland. For I know what I have planned for you,’ says the Lord. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope. When you call out to me and come to me in prayer, I will hear your prayers.  Then you seek me in prayer and worship, you will find me available to you. If you seek me with all your heart and soul, I will make myself available to you,’ says the Lord. ‘Then I will reverse your plight and will regather you from all the nations and all the places where I have exiled you,’ says the Lord. ‘I will bring you back to the place from which I exiled you.’

God remains God, the God revealed by Jesus- a God of justice, righteousness, compassion, and love.

The Gospel of Jesus- food for the poor, sight to the blind, release to the prisoners, freedom for the captives, life for the lifeless, a voice for the voiceless- has been our Christian duty whether we live under Augustus, Nero, Charlemagne the Borgias, the Vikings, Queen Victoria, George Washington, Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama,

and yes, Donald Trump.

This is what the people of God will do- or at least should do- now, without fear, without fanfare, with dedication and determination…

Even in exile…