Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Five Takeaways From The First Presidential Debate

Calm before the storm. September 26, 2016.
1) Hillary Clinton made an unprecedented accusation.

Last night, one presidential candidate stood on the debate stage and said of her opponent, "he has a long record of engaging in racist behavior."

This has never happened before. Had this claim been made in any other presidential debate in American history, it would have been completely shocking. It would have dominated the headlines, and pundits of every persuasion would be scratching their heads about such an offensive breach of civility.

But last night, America shrugged. Even Trump's supporters didn't seem too bothered about it. The reason: it's so undeniably true.

2) "Racial divide" is considered objective; "Racial injustice" is considered opinionated

Introducing the portion of the debate on race, moderator Lester Holt said, "Race has been a big issue in this campaign and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap. So how do you heal the divide?"

This is, of course, a less relevant question than how you would fix the causes of the divide. Holt could have simply asked, "What would your administration do to reduce racial discrimination?" but this question would have been a violation of racial norms. As long as we talk about the divide, we can each have our own fanciful notions of who and what is responsible for it.

If you think about other issues, it may be more obvious why this rhetoric of division and healing is strange.

"Americans bitterly disagree about climate change. How are you going to heal the divide?"

"Immigration has been a big issue in this campaign and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap. So how do you heal the divide?"

Notice how these aren't actually questions about climate change or immigration. They're questions about the nation's civic fabric and our ability to get along with one another. And there's a place for those questions! But ordinarily, we ask questions about the issues themselves. Only when it comes to race do we consistently displace the actual issue and turn it into a civic fabric discussion. This is colorblind racial rhetoric in action.

3) We've never seen a liar like this. 

I get it; politicians lie. But we've never seen such brazen contempt for truth from a presidential candidate. Donald Trump is in a class by himself. We owe it to ourselves and our kids to retain the capacity to be shocked by it. We don't yet know the full consequences of this unprecedented behavior. But it is corrosive. I hope Trump supporters will give more thought to what it might mean for our political system to discard any sense of obligation to truth.

4) I'm not sure Trump "lost."

Of course Trump lost the debate by the usual measures of performance. But did he really "lose" in the minds of the people who matter? I don't know. Trump was obviously unfit from day one. What can a candidate who had already disqualified himself do that would cause him to "lose" at this late date?

5) No one will be able to say they didn't know. 

Donald Trump is an ignorant bully. This is a matter of public record. There have been lots of questions about how the race between a flawed but normal nominee and a con man could be this close. Has the media failed to educate the public? Is Hillary Clinton just a horrible candidate? Did the Republican establishment badly miscalculate? As interesting as these questions may be, we spend a lot of time talking about them because we don't want to face what we know deep down: millions of Americans know who Trump is, and they like him for it.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

You Probably Wouldn't Have Supported the Civil Rights Movement

White Americans desperately want to be innocent of any racial wrongdoing. You notice this pretty quickly when you begin to talk about race. Once you look for it, you'll see how often White people are approaching the whole conversation with one goal: establishing their innocence. "My family didn't own slaves. My grandparents immigrated here in the twentieth century. I worked hard for everything I have. Black people have had the same opportunities." Etc.

These kinds of statements tend to be beside the point, and often plainly false. But truth in a literal sense is not the goal of this kind of rhetoric. We use it to claim that we are good, and that we bear no responsibility for racial injustice. We use it to avoid negative feelings. We want to claim innocence not by doing something, but by creating our own reality with our words.

Let's focus on one common trope in the construction of White innocence. It comes in a variety of forms, but the gist of it is this:

I don't support Black Lives Matter, but I would have supported the civil rights movement. 

People believe this with sincerity. But they're almost certainly wrong. Maybe you're one of these people. You praise the civil rights movement but find yourself opposed to the current movement. Let's treat your claim not as something that needs to be true for your emotional well-being, but as something that can be investigated historically. It might be uncomfortable at first. But the truth can set you free.

First, if you're around 70 years of age or above, there isn't anything theoretical about this. You were an adult at the height of the civil rights movement. What did you do?

But most of us are younger. So let's use our imaginations informed by what we know about the historical context of the time.
A normal headlines from the 1960s. Would you have joined the "law and order" chorus?
Most White Americans opposed the civil rights movement. Why do you think you would have been willing to go against the grain and possibly lose relationships with friends or family members?

Even more than they do today, White and Black Americans lived in separate worlds. What about your White small town, rural area, or segregated urban neighborhood would have given you a connection to African Americans or sympathy for their goals? Why do you think you would have been concerned about this issue at all?

Dr. King was a radical traveling protestor. Violence ensued nearly everywhere he launched a campaign. Why would you have believed his statements instead of the statements of the police and other authorities?
Cleveland Sellers, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael
Most White Americans thought African Americans had all the opportunities they needed. Why would you have thought any differently? Why would you have thought protests were necessary?

The riots of the 1960s were on a vast and deadly scale far beyond anything we've seen in this century. Why wouldn't you have blamed the riots on the movement? 

Dr. King laid the ultimate blame for the rioting at the feet of White America. Would you have agreed with him?
Looting in Philadelphia, 1964.
Wouldn't you have been concerned about the anti-White and anti-police rhetoric of the Nation of Islam?

What about the Black Power movement would have appealed to you?

Wouldn't you have been concerned about Dr. King's communist associations?

The FBI said Dr. King was a dangerous agitator. Wouldn't you have considered the FBI a reliable source of information?

Would you have been bothered by Dr. King's radical critique of capitalism?

The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act dramatically expanded federal power and reduced the rights of the states. Would you have supported the expansion of federal government power the civil rights movement demanded?

You might think that you would have been stirred to action by the videos of protestors being attacked with dogs and firehoses, or by the death of the four little girls in the church bombing. Perhaps. But I suppose it's fair to ask, how did Tamir's murder move you? You saw that on video too. How did the Charleston church shooting move you?

We could go on for a long time. I think you get the point. There have always been reasons to stand on the side of White supremacy. What most White Americans saw and understood of the civil rights movement was disorder, violence, and unreasonable demands. It was not as simple or clear as you imagine it. The measure of our goodwill is not what we might have done in a movement that is safely in the past. The question is what we will do now in a society that is segregated and unequal.

If you don't agree with the proposition that racial oppression in 2016 is real, you can continue on with your innocence-making project. But you won't be free. You'll be forced to believe lies. For your own protection you'll make up fantasies about your own country. You won't understand the world you live in. That's a miserable way to live.

The truth shall set you free.

See, Christians don't go looking for racial innocence. We believe that there is "none righteous, not one." So our connection to evil doesn't surprise us. We're not surprised that we've passively benefited from unjust systems, or that we have racist ideas. We don't need to approach racial controversies solving for our innocence; Jesus has taken care of that. We are freed to look for truth and stand with the oppressed. We are free to support Black Lives Matter, as everyone should.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Why I'm Still An Evangelical In The Age Of Trump

Part of me thinks if you're a real evangelical you don't need to write about why you still are one. But my path has been winding. For the past decade, whether or not I was an evangelical might depend on the day you asked me, or what I had for dessert the night before. As I've grown older and begun to raise my children, I've grown into my identity. When your children begin to ask you questions, you find you have to answer them one way or another. It turns out that I am still an evangelical. 

It is through evangelicalism that I encountered Jesus and cast what little faith I have into the proposition that he will rescue me from myself. For me, "sinner saved by grace" is not an old-fashioned Sunday school tale. It is the basic claim that shapes every day of my life. Without it, I would live somewhere else, do different work, and have a different kind of family. Without it, I wouldn't know what to do.

There is something wonderful and hard to explain about the rootedness of believing in supernatural religion. I am a person of my time, of course, but I'm also of another time. I can read words written hundreds or thousands of years ago and feel an instant connection. They trusted in Jesus, too, I say to myself, and their experience seems so similar to mine because, after all, Jesus is alive. This foolishness rescues me from the soul-crushing materialism of this confused era. Evangelicalism is not the only place I might have discovered these things, it's just where I did discover them. And so I owe something to it.

But when as a young adult I found out that my faith tradition was broken, I wanted to push it away, reject it. Easier said than done.

Many of us have complicated but ultimately unbreakable bonds with the things that form us. Families, countries, religions, a landscape or a city. There are certain things that are a part of you and you love them with all the frustration and familiarity with which you love yourself. So when I tried to disown evangelicalism, it didn't take. I find that my very best and very worst qualities are tangled together in this evangelical inheritance.

I've found in evangelicalism the harshest judgments and most unexpected acts of grace. I've seen the worst kinds of complacency and the most life-giving zeal. I've found guilt and shame, and soul-restoring peace. I've found infuriating anti-intellectualism and humble scholarship of the first order. I've even found racism and anti-racism.

To many readers this may all sound vaguely strange, possibly even interesting, but disconnected from what they know of evangelicalism. The elephant in the room with us is the "Christian" Right. Many Americans know evangelicalism primarily as a political movement. So it may surprise some people to learn that evangelicals are spending far more time and money working on things like poverty, racism, health care, and education than they are in trying to elect Republicans. World Vision, for example, is an evangelical aid organization with a budget that by itself dwarfs all the activities of the "Christian" Right in the United States. And don't forget the thousands of organizations that are doing exceptional work in every city across the country. They're helping kids, rebuilding communities, fighting poverty, providing health care, and offering college scholarships to students of color.
John Perkins, founder of the CCDA. A hero within evangelicalism, virtually unknown without
From the outside, evangelicalism has looked like a political juggernaut. From the inside, it has looked like a religious movement that treats partisan politics as a sideshow. I don't know quite how to reconcile these competing visions. But communities are always more complicated than they appear from the outside.

An old friend and mentor of mine, himself an evangelical, recently told me that he believes many of the "evangelicals" showing up in polls supporting Donald Trump are cultural evangelicals in the South who are not actually committed Christians. There seemed to be an element of truth in this, especially in the primaries when the data showed regular church attendees were less likely to support Trump. And anecdotally, this seems right even now. It's hard to find Christians in my circles who support Trump. But I don't think that's the story the data is telling now. Though some of us are associated with evangelical communities in which voting for Trump is unthinkable, we have to face the fact that the large majority of church-going White evangelicals are going to vote for him.

This is the culminating act of political self-destruction in a 40 year campaign of harmful politics. When I think of the "Christian" Right, I'm inclined to repurpose a line from Frederick Douglass' first autobiography: "between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference..." Indeed. Despite all the good done by evangelicals in local communities, the dominant political expression of American evangelicalism is hateful and selfish, and unworthy to be called Christian.

This politics is very public. It's what people see, and it's what they associate with evangelicalism. So to all the readers who don't have any particular connection to evangelicalism but know it through its politics: you're right to be offended. I hope, in some small way, it might matter to you to know that millions of evangelicals are offended too.

And we're not just offended. We're bewildered. Evangelical support for Trump is a fascinating and confusing phenomenon because he is a living negation of the values we claim to hold. He embodies with eerie precision the opposite of the qualities we're taught to revere in our savior. Christ's servant's spirit, his humility, his boundary-crossing love, his wrath for oppressors--it's not just that Trump fails to live up to these qualities, as we all do. It's that he's unusually hostile to them.

Evangelicals should not be under the illusion that they will have any credibility to speak to my generation after vocally supporting Trump. I can understand an evangelical quietly and sorrowfully pulling the lever for Donald Trump. I really can. But open advocacy is something else. To this day, I still haven't seen an honest evangelical case for Trump. I'd like to see the case made.

I do not want to offend Trump supporters. But I do want them to be aware that their politics hurts real people, including my neighbors. These folks have names. They're flesh and blood. Supporting Trump hurts them, and I still can't see how it helps anybody else. It's all downside.

So how does a candidate running on an anti-Christian platform win over Christian voters? By appealing to their idols. In the end, Trump's allure cannot be understood apart from White evangelicals' investments in race and patriotism. What I wrote at the beginning of the summer still holds true:
Many White evangelicals are prepared to vote for Trump because they're heirs to a cultural and theological tradition that binds race and nation to faith. Trump may not offer a clean-cut portrait of Christian character, but he is surprisingly forthright in his White nationalism. It is a mistake to assume that Trump's irreligious persona doesn't carry a religious message. To make America great again, to restore America's racial hierarchy--these are religious goals of an idolatrous people.
This, too, is part of my inheritance. Part of what it means for me to be a follower of Jesus is not to run away from my community of faith. It would have been easier in a way to leave evangelicalism and cast stones from the outside. It is harder to stay, confront my own racism, and seek reformation of my community from the inside. But I think that's what I'm supposed to do.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The classic civil rights narrative pits violent white segregationists against dignified black protestors. It implicitly asks, are you with Bull Connor, or are you with the good people? This self-serving question teaches us to forget about the moderate majority that defeated the civil rights movement. It tells us to forget the bipartisan nationwide consensus that demanded the preservation of segregated neighborhoods and schools. It's a story that establishes our innocence.
Selma, 1965. Quick! Can you guess who the good characters are?
It’s like the boy who asked his grandpa, “Which were you in, the Klan or the FBI?” His grandfather replied, “I was just in Georgia.” This little anecdote reminds us that the story of the civil rights movement’s defeat is not one of Klan terrorism or rogue policeman. It is a story of ordinary people invested in ordinary things. Good homes and schools for their children, a future for their grandkids. Maybe they didn’t think too much about the civil rights movement. Maybe they were just in Georgia. 

Over time, it became easier to tell the story with sharp contrasts and careful embellishments. Of course you weren’t with Bull Connor. And that meant you were one of the good folks.

Now Hillary Clinton and many liberals would have us draw again from this well. Her controversial comments revealed over the weekend invite us to take sides, in effect asking, “Are you with Donald Trump and his deplorables, or are you with the good people?” 

This question might win an election. But it won’t produce justice and freedom for the people who need it most. 

The problem with Clinton’s remarks is not so much that they unfairly accused Trump’s supporters, but that they unfairly absolved the rest of us. In Clinton’s world, half of Trump’s supporters are irredeemable, the other half have succumbed to their economic frustrations, and those of us who have not felt the allure of Trumpism are, presumably, free from the prejudices and backwardness of a fading and reactionary White America. 

In this unwarranted claim of innocence we can begin to see why Donald Trump’s racism is so insidious. Trump doesn’t just embolden racists and create a hostile climate for people of color. His racism dramatically lowers the bar, confuses the issue, and misdirects attention on questions of racial justice. It invites people who are invested in exclusionary lifestyles to imagine that their opposition to a racist puts them on the side of justice. 

“I may oppose the low-income housing development in my neighborhood, but Donald Trump offends me.” 

I may not want poor school districts to get more state funding than wealthy ones, but I’m not voting for Trump.”

“I may not support Black Lives Matter but I’m voting for Clinton.”

“See how innocent I am?”

Clinton’s comments meet the bar of technical truth: the polling does show higher levels of prejudice among Trump supporters. But her dismissive contempt displayed none of the Christian conviction that being deplorable is one of the few things we all have in common. More practically, her words denied the messy realities of translation from personal lives to political expressions. How many of the donors in the room to hear Clinton’s remarks live in gated communities and send their children to private schools, carefully insulating themselves from the poor? Voting for Clinton will not redeem their selfish choices. Meanwhile, how many of Trump’s “deplorables” support his racist campaign even as they stand ready to give the shirt off their back to their poor neighbors? Life is complicated. 

The way some liberal writers have rushed to defend Clinton, you’d think she made some grand statement about social justice. No, she didn’t. She’s just trying to win an election. And it’s important that she does so! But on the other side of November 8th we’ll still face the deeper problem: ordinary people invested in ordinary things, manning the ramparts of a segregated and unequal society so that their children might have a better life. 

It sounds to me like Hillary Clinton’s comments conjured a much more comforting story. You don’t have to think about the hard stuff of power—school district lines, zoning laws, tax rates, the criminal justice system. You don’t have to think about how the laws and systems that need to change implicate all of us and have bipartisan support. You don’t have to think about how ordinary people like you might try to divest from the status quo. Indeed, like her, you might want to grab all you can get while you have the chance. Temperance is such an old-fashioned virtue. But make sure you display your general aura of cosmopolitan tolerance now and then. Happily, you can perform it on the cheap this year: just vote against Trump. 

We must defeat Trump. He has revealed himself as a cruel and ignorant man who dreams of oppression. But when this dirty task is done and Trump has lost, those who seek justice should not assume that we have an ally in the White House, or that we need to look any further than ourselves to find something deplorable.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Christians and Politics: The Abstention Option

Amid the arguments swirling around us in the year of Trump, what if Christians simply abstained from politics? What if we stopped arguing, stopped criticizing, stopped sharing social media memes? What if we simply didn't vote? What if we abstained from politics?
Sound appealing?

I'd like to suggest that perhaps there is a right way and a wrong way to go about this.

First, a right way.

I grew up with a deep familiarity and appreciation for a Christian tradition that shunned the American political process entirely. On my mother’s side we come from Amish roots. My great-great-grandfather left the Amish church and started the conservative Mennonite church in which my mom grew up. I have fond memories of the Bible school I attended there each summer as a kid. Cape dresses, head coverings, and a capella singing were the order of the day. We boys could wear jeans to Bible school, but never shorts. And during the breaks in the lessons, we’d all go out to the back of the church and play freeze tag in the dimming light of evening. It was delightful.

When at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, someone might come to the door and suddenly Grandma would be speaking in a language I didn’t understand (it was Pennsylvania Dutch). It is impossible for me to convey the dignity and reserve with which my grandparents carried themselves, especially because they also seemed to be so joyful. Grandpa liked to laugh. Their house was a place of peace. If we were there on a Sunday, we might ask to turn on the computer, but we couldn’t expect that request to be granted. We could expect, instead, good conversation, good food, and the inevitable nap on the couch.

I now think the peace that Grandma and Grandpa radiated was a direct consequence of their theological convictions. For Grandma and Grandpa, running for political office, serving in the military or police force, voting, or employing violence of any kind was just out of the question. They followed someone who said “my kingdom is not of this world,” and “he who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” Amid the rough-and-tumble of politics and power grabs, Grandma and Grandpa were quiet witnesses to a different path: a way of being in the world that did not reach for power, and did not fear those who possessed it, for they too would fade like the grass, while the word of the Lord would endure forever.

I can’t say Grandma and Grandpa were wrong.

Suffice it to say, were they alive today they would not be on Facebook talking about how bad Donald Trump is. But their silence might obscure how radically subversive their posture actually was. In their rejection of state power they resisted the heretical conflation of God and country that has dogged the church since Constantine. Lest you think this is a minor point, try to imagine how the Nazi state would have made war if its churches had been incubators of Christian conscientious objectors instead of German patriots. And so, under different circumstances, Grandma and Grandpa’s abstention from the institutions of the state would have been deeply political.

Maybe we need more of that kind of subversiveness. As millions of Americans thrill to the cry of Make America Great Again, I fear that our churches have created nearly as many patriots as Christians.

One might assume that Grandma and Grandpa were irresponsible for refraining from the political process. Think of all the good Christians could do by exercising their right to vote. Isn't it wrong to discard that influence? Yet look at where we are. Three-quarters of White evangelicals are getting ready to vote for Trump. This is a self-inflicted mockery of Christian faith more thorough than any skeptic or critic ever imagined. The theory was that Christians would influence politics. The reality looks more like being captured by it. Grandma and Grandpa's abstention looks appealing in comparison.

A theologically-rooted rejection of politics involves the humble recognition that power corrupts the church and prevents it from embodying Jesus Christ to the world. A power-seeking church cannot possibly represent the God-man whose earthly life was marked by poverty, sorrow, and homelessness. Instead of standing in solidarity with the poor and needy, such a church becomes obsessed with maintaining its prerogatives. It becomes a client of the state.

In a way, the abstention option is about self-preservation. But this is not the self-preservation of defensive and power-seeking Christians desperately searching for a president to take their side. This is self-preservation with a specific purpose in mind: when the state seeks to mobilize its citizens toward oppression, a mass Christian collective will stand uncowed by the state's power and unmoved by its claims. The church creates spaces where the normal methods of power become inoperative. The weak are protected, the poor are empowered, and the rich humble themselves--or else. In these spaces, repentance and humility count for infinitely more than money, power, education, or class. In these spaces, the state is frustrated in its aims.

Now, let's talk about a wrong way to go about it.

A lot of people don't like politics. They find it confusing or irrelevant. Or the process seems dirty and corrupt. Others believe what's happening at the political level simply isn't very consequential. These attitudes make abstention easy, but not necessarily Christian. Principled, theologically-grounded abstention reckons with the reality that politicians are making life and death decisions that affect our lives. It does not pretend that politics is unimportant. It recognizes that withdrawing from politics does not bestow innocence or absolve responsibility. In the face of these realities, it still chooses to abstain.

But too often, Christians withdraw from politics not because of a well-considered theological ethic, but because of a narrow understanding of Christian responsibilities. Certain strains of white evangelicalism have a long tradition of being reluctant to think about systemic sin and systemic solutions. They hold up individual conversion as a cure-all. They express concern for the individual but too often discount the social forces shaping the individual. Faith becomes personal rather than communal, and piety becomes the measure of obedience. The biblical demands of social justice recede to the background and matters of basic Christian duty are coded as merely political.

As Dr. King said of white Christians during the civil rights movement:
In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
We must be careful not to fall into this trap. As we grapple with the disgraceful and dangerous candidacy of a racist strongman, assuming a posture of irenic detachment is not necessarily a Christian response. Is our position embedded in a broader ethic of concern for others? Or is it a convenient screen for complacency? Is it counterfeit abstention? If we are going to be silent in this dangerous moment, it cannot be because of our own desire to maintain an illusory sense of purity. It cannot be because we think the gospel doesn’t have anything to say about oppression.

We can talk about God’s sovereignty. We can declare that the prospect of a Trump presidency leaves us unimpressed and unafraid. We can reaffirm Christian cliches about how Jesus will still be doing his work regardless of who wins a presidential election. That's all fine. But we cannot be indifferent to the rise of a man who promises to oppress our brothers and sisters made in God’s image.

When those of us who are unlikely to be targets of the demagogue adopt postures of calm neutrality, it doesn't necessarily look like trusting God. It may look more like a lack of love for our neighbors.

As this year began, I was prepared to sit back and observe this election in a spirit of nonpartisan equanimity. See here, for example. But we haven't seen such a radically destructive and anti-christian candidacy before. Donald Trump is unprecedented. He is a threat to our neighbors. He is a threat to the world.

So I choose to engage.

I can't escape the idea that the same Bible that taught Grandma and Grandpa to abstain from politics teaches me to jump in: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” This kind of righteous action has always been political. It always will be. When the Hebrew prophets brought the word of God to the people, they spoke of politics: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”

Oppression is perpetrated through politics. Justice--at least the imperfect version of it we can reach for in this disordered world--is enacted in part through politics. And this, too, is clear: Donald Trump seeks power so that he may oppress.

In the face of this unusually evil candidacy, I want to either have the kind of radicalism my grandparents had, or stand up and forthrightly join the political process to defeat Trump, but I want to avoid the complacency and ambivalence of the moderate middle.

Those of us who speak out cannot do so simply because we like politics and enjoy jumping into the partisan fray. It cannot be because we have been captured by the partisan process and are under the illusion that Hillary Clinton represents Christian ethics. It cannot be because we're in the habit of criticizing Republican candidates. Many of us have cried wolf too many times in past elections, and now that we really do face a historically dangerous candidacy, our words ring hollow because of past hyperbole. Mitt Romney, I'm sorry for every bad thing I ever said about you!

Whatever we do, it must not be for our own interests. Beneath the apparent differences of engaging or disengaging from the political process lies the deeper question of whether our posture is self-focused or other-focused. Perhaps the most pernicious way to be captured by the political process is to vote for our own interests. Of course, this is what is expected of us in a democracy. People voting for their interests is precisely how this system is supposed to work. But why should Christians play by these rules? Why would we want to?