Saturday, November 19, 2016

Crusty on Trump: The Cost of Discipleship?

Several people have asked Crusty when he was going to weigh in on the events in our nation in the past couple of weeks, and my thoughts on the election of Trump as president.  COD has always tended to take a bit of a wait-and-see, trying to balance addressing issues of pressing concern while also waiting to see how things begin to settle; since Crusty was trained as a historian, he's inclined to try to take a longer view at things -- often our vision and perception can be clouded in the immediacy of events -- while also showing a proclivity for sentences that tend to drag on; this can involve extensive
Put the Carpenter in!
use of dashes, semicolons, and can similarly evidence a fondness for the passive voice being used.  Crusty would like to offer his thoughts as someone who is a openly and proudly both a person of faith and a committed progressive.  For full disclosure, on the one hand Crusty was a Sanders person and on the other hand has learned never to trust blindly in any candidate of political system; if anything, the Judeo-Christian tradition tells us our trust and hope should be in God alone.  Or, as Woody Guthrie once put, "God above our king!" 

COD has found his thoughts grouping in a couple of different areas.

1)  One has been thinking about the nativism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBT and general ugliness in American society this election has brought to the surface.  Crusty is disgusted and appalled by this, and calls on the President-elect to call out, denounce, and renounce any efforts to divide people by these categories.  Unfortunately, the news is not encouraging, given some of the names that are involved in the transition at this stage.

However, there are two other aspects of what is happening with regards to these issues that cannot be lost right now.

One is that issues of nativism, racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant sentiment have NEVER not been a part of our cultural and political fabric.

Crusty just finished teaching his class in church history this semester.  COD zeroed in on the 1918-1923 period in American history: a time of profound anti-immigrant sentiment, with a backlash against German Americans as part of World War I turning into the Red Scare of the post-World War II era.  Prohibition only passed (it is hard to amend the U.S. Constitution, so a broad coalition was needed) through a coalition of religious groups aligning with racists who argued that alcohol would lead to black men raping white women to anti-immigrant nativists concerned that shiftless drunken immigrants would be a drain on society.  The U.S. government, lead by unrepentant racist Woodrow Wilson, segregated the civil service while advocating for freedom and self-determination for white Europeans, and restricted essential civil liberties, including free speech and freedom to assemble, even imprisoning presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs.  Lynching and organized violence against African Americans spiked, with organized mobs of whites massacring African Americans and destroying communities in Rosewood, Florida, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.  These were not "race riots," as is often the euphemism in some American histories, these were organized pogroms of white supremacy that killed hundreds of African Americans and destroyed African American communities.

We could identify other times in American history where these issues of racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant sentiment bubbled to the surface.  The Civil War, the greatest trauma in this nation, was about whether or not we would permit an apartheid state that considered other human beings to be property, and many in our country have spent 150 years trying to deny or explain this interpretation away.

Crusty in no way means to condone, excuse, normalize, or mainstream these repulsive aspects of our society, but here is the second aspect of the emergence of these issues: to be surprised by them is to show one's privilege. To give another example, the United States was no more religiously diverse and the world was no more globalized on September 12, 2001, than it was on September 10, 2001.  It was the United States that changed, not the world.  It was those with privilege and power who were shaken and made aware of the issues of globalization and diversity, and of the violence that stalks so many people in so many parts of the world:  for it takes the insulation of privilege to not see the diversity, globalization, and violence; just as it would take the insulation of privilege not to see that the United States has, at a number of times in its history, asserted white nationalist supremacy in an effort to create an apartheid state. 

We must condemn the racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, anti-LGBT, and anti-immigrant sentiments that have come to the fore.  But we cannot be surprised by them.

2)  There has also been discussion around whether there can be "reconciliation" with Trump and his supporters.  The answer, in its broadest sense, if of course "yes...IF."  First off, Crusty thinks a good number of Trump supporters are decent people who feel left out, scared, are frustrated and voted vociferously for change.  IF we're talking about these folks, then yes, reconciliation and accommodation is possible; hell, Bernie Sanders was speaking to many of the same concerns of people feeling left behind and vulnerable.

There's also "yes...BUT."  BUT if we are talking about Trumpism as an agent of reactionary white nationalism, then there's a big BUT.  BUT if the cause of all these problems will be scapegoated on the backs of the marginalized, then a different conversation needs to happen.  Reconciliation must involve acknowledgment of wrongs, an effort to seek common ground, and pledges to move forward with wholeness and justice.  You don't tell an abused spouse to "reconcile" with an unrepentant, abusive partner.  Crusty spent time on a research grant in the Czech Republic and Ukraine earlier this year, and discussed exactly this topic:  he interviewed church leaders on how they accounted for actions taken by their churches during the Communist period, how the churches reconciled the different actions taken by people under Communism.  Some of these stories were incredible, powerful, and uplifting, show that it is possible through honesty about the past and a pledge to right wrongs to move forward.  Yet some other stories were terrifying.  One church leader told Crusty flatly and simply, "Many churches did nothing to account for its sins of collaboration during the Communist period."  I asked him, "Can you give me an example?"  He looked at me and said simply, "I was at a meeting of the Council of Churches last week.  A leader from another Christian communion was sitting across the table from me.  In 1986 when they arrested me and were beating me, they paused the beating to bring him in.  They asked him, 'Is this the man you saw celebrating communion and baptizing in an unlicensed house church?'  He looked me straight in the eye and said 'Yes.'  They took him away and continued to beat me.  Now he sits across the table from me 30 years later and somehow can look me in the eye.  We have done nothing, had no conversations, no accounting.'"

Of course there could be reconciliation.  But it can not be an empty gesture, it must involve acknowledgment of wrongs and commitment to seeking redress and justice; otherwise it only reinforces unjust power structures and privileges the abuser.

3)  These past months have shown the utter theological vacuousness of a significant swath of conservative Christianity: and this, by the way, has been something many conservative Christians have noted as well.  Crusty noted here that many prominent evangelical Protestants have been critical of Trump. What is largely termed as "evangelical" Christianity must now be called for what it is, culturally conservative individuals simply ascribing their own preferences and prejudices to God and draping them in theological language.

4)  We must see what opportunity there is here.  We must see what moment of accountability God is calling people of faith towards.  We must see the opportunity for the church truly to be the church.  Because the reality is this talk of whether reconciliation is "possible", think-pieces about the state of evangelical Christianity -- frankly we do not have time for this. 

Trump has methodically spent the last 18 months moving the goal posts in terms of what is acceptable in order to normalize the next atrocity.  There's a straight line from getting away with talking about Megyn Kelly's menstruation cycle to appointing Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions.  By continually testing what is acceptable, and getting away with it, you
Augustus was only "Making the Republic great again."
normalize the atmosphere for the next, more extreme, action.  The people don't make a decision to create a Communist state: you start by overthrowing the incompetent Czar and promising to replace the ineffectual provisional government.  The early Roman Empire still offered the outward trappings of the Republic, still elected consuls and kept the entire government machinery of the Republic in place, while it slowly established a centralized military dictatorship.  The only title Augustus ever took was "first citizen."  Getting away with Kristallnacht had to precede the Final Solution.

I am not saying there will be a fascist state or  another Holocaust.  Rather, looking to history as our guide, I think instead we are looking at another spasm of efforts to impose a white nationalist apartheid state, which the United States has done, or attempted to do, time and again throughout its history.  It will be African Americans, others persons of color, immigrants, poor whites, women, gay and lesbian persons, and Muslims who will be the ones who are the victims of state-sponsored or state-condoned organized violence and oppression.

In the past week, we have seen the president-elect of the United States elevate a racist, white nationalist as Senior Advisor and Chief Strategist and has appointed a man as attorney general who was considered too racist by a Republican-controlled Senate to be appointed as a federal judge in 1986.  Believe nothing Trump says:  his words are meaningless, and he has shown he will say whatever he thinks he needs to say at a given time.  It is his actions that matter, and his actions in the past week have revealed what the next four years hold.  We are entering a time like 1918-1923, like the rollbacks on Reconstruction and establishment through violence of Jim Crow in the 1870s and 1880s, like the 1780s when we chose to found a nation based on slavery, like the Civil Rights era in the 1950s and 1960s:  we are entering another phase of efforts to create a white nationalist apartheid state, and we will be tested as a nation to see if we will permit it.

What will people of faith do?  Roman Catholic bishops have shown they care more about abortion than immigrants, and really only care about self-preservation. Roman Catholic bishops of Pennsylvania have been silent on the racist, anti-immigrant message of Trump, but several had no problem sending letters to each and every congregation advocating against lifting the statute of limitations on sexual abuse, which would expose them to financial liability for decades of covering up sexual abuse, including calling out some state legislators by name in their letters.  The Archdiocese of Massachusetts was the single largest contributor financially to the ballot measure opposing the legalization of recreational marijuana, calling defeating this ballot question "one of its highest priorities," but have been silent on the forces of nativism being stirred up.  Apparently toking up is worse than creating a national registry for Muslims.

People of faith are going to be asked to choose sides.  Will we be silent, like the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in 1856?  With Kansas at war over whether to be slave or free, the House of Bishops refused to comment, stating that "the Church had “nothing to do with party politics, with sectional disputes, with earthly distinctions, with the wealth, the splendor, and the ambition of the world."  The same church forced Bishop John Paul Jones to resign for daring to oppose the U.S. entry into World War I. Will those that have comfort and privilege shield themselves, talking about "process" and "wait and see"?  I'm a white, 47-year-old, middle class white guy with a Ph.D.  They're not coming for me.  Will I stand by when they come for others?

Let these events be the final nail in the coffin of the complacent, smug, establishment, therapeutic moralist Deism that so much of Christianity in North America has taught.  Put down your Meyers Briggs inventories,  stop talking about the color of the f****g carpet in the parish hall.  Pick up your Bonhoeffer.  Read the beatitudes in Luke.  Listen to the man who said that to follow him could be summed up as: "'You
Lord, when did we see you grabbed by the pussy?
shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."  Who told us in a parable, "
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

Jesus never says, "Follow me, it will be easy."  He actually said the exact opposite.  It is time for the many (but certainly not all churches!) North American churches to stop feasting at our carcasses of cheap grace that have sustained our complacency.  Trust in God, trust in the greatest symbol that God has given us:  the Cross.

"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe."

--Elie Wiesel, "Night"

Crusty's playlist for this blog:

And standing there as big as life
And smiling with his eyes
Joe says, What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize
Went on to organize

Joe Hill ain't dead, he says to me
Joe Hill ain't never died
Where working men are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side
Joe Hill is at their side

Now Tom said, "Mom, wherever there's a cop beating a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me, Mom, I'll be there
Wherever somebody's fighting for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helping hand
Wherever somebody's struggling to be free
Look in their eyes, Ma, and you'll see me."

They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair.

Black day, stormy night
No love, no hope in sight
Don't cry, he is coming
Don't die without knowing the Cross
Ghettos to the left of us
Flowers to the right
There'll be bread for all of us
If we can just bear the cross
Sweet song of salvation
A pregnant mother sings
She lives in starvation
Her children need all that she brings
We all have our problems
Some big, some are small
Soon all of our problems
Will be taken by the Cross


  1. This recontextualizing of the current crisis in terms of its antecedents in American history is very helpful, especially when we look back to the responses--and non-responses--of our co-religionist predecessors. As a member of a dwindling mainline congregation (PC USA) in a bigass "legacy" downtown building, I think your use of "carcasses" is anything but a metaphor. I pray that I, and my brothers and sisters, are willing to go where our Lord would send us.

  2. I fought for women's rights in the '60s, still fighting in my 60s. Lord, I'm tired. But this piece sends me back to the barricades. Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. Oh, Crusty -- how I've missed you. Thank you for this. Really really needed it this morning. Sharing widely.

  4. Please don't forget all the terrific work that Catholic nuns do. Don't paint all Catholics with the same brush. More are fighting for social justice than you seem to know. People of faith need to work together, not call each other out for failures. Will you discredit all the good work that Muslims are doing because you disagree with some of their nutty leaders? Come on.

  5. I do not normally respond to anonymous comments. However I would like to point out that I only specifically name bishops and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. I nowhere say "the Catholic Church" or "Catholics" for precisely the reasons you note.

  6. Hello, Sir, thank you for taking the time to reply. I would beg you to be careful, then, not to follow a question like "What will people of faith do?" with an example of a narrow sliver of a huge, widely diverse group of people. Catholic people of faith are generally not worried about "self-preservation", because they are too busy feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the immigrants, educating children, tending to the sick, and speaking for the voiceless despite their distracted and highly fallible leadership.

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