Sunday, March 13, 2016

Fight the Power

When I read the headline here, my first thought was Candide; specifically, the conclusion of Voltaire's wonderful novel, where Candide decides the only thing he can do is learn the lesson tending his own garden; and it is a lesson, says Candide, we all should learn.

Sadly, that wasn't quite the message Daniel Shultz (f/k/a "Pastor Dan") had in mind.  I still think it should have been.

He's right, American Protestants are too fractious a lot to group into one monolith split into two halves:  "Progressive/liberal" and "fundamentalist/evangelical."  The astute reader will note we aren't even touching on the Catholics and Orthodox varieties of American Christians.  They aren't monolithic, either, not even within their own denominations.  There's quite a distance between the U.S. Conference of Bishops and Catholic theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez and Jan Sobrino (prominent liberation theologians, the latter a Jesuit, IIRC).  But that's not the real problem with laying a smackdown on Donald Trump and his religious supporters because a) progressive/liberal Protestants (at least!) don't like Donald Trump and b)  it isn't Two Corinthians.

Stop me if you've heard this one....

It's a curious thing, but people in general resent the evangelical efforts of more conservative Christians; the ones whose theology teaches them that the Great Commission is a part of their soteriology; that their very salvation is dependent upon evangelizing others.  At the same time, when it suits their interests, non-evangelicals and non-Christians want progressive/liberal Christians to proselytize by countering the message of Donald Trump and his religious supporters.  Which pretty much reduces us to a useful club you want to wield when it suits you, and then put back in the golf bag when you're done with it.

Pardon me if I decline to serve as your best weapon.

But beyond that there's the whole problem of:  "What's in it for me?"  To decry Donald Trump because of his religious support is to weigh in on what kind of religious believer Donald Trump is.  And why on earth would I want to do that?  I grew up among well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) people determined to determine the quality of my religious faith.  Why would I want to engage in the same practice I despised in my youth?  I grew up realizing faith was a matter of actions, not words; but also, as I learned the language in seminary, to engage in judgment is to put yourself under judgment, too.  If I explain why Donald Trump is unworthy from a religious (more properly, theological) standpoint, don't I put my theology on trial and subject it to judgment?  So who am I to judge?  Do I hold an exalted position because I disagree with the supporters of Donald Trump? I don't support Donald Trump, period.  I am a Christian.  Do those two things require that I judge others for their support of Donald Trump?

Why?  Again, what's in it for me?  Is there a moral duty that I judge others?  As far as I can tell, that would run directly contrary to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  It may be I strongly disagree with the religious opinions of Donald Trump and his supporters; but I may disagree with yours, too.  If I start with them, why should I stop with you?  No, you don't want my opinion; you are seeking what you think will be my power; my power for you.

Again, I decline to be your best weapon.

My theology teaches me to preach the basiliea tou theou by living the basiliea tou theou, and to the extent I do that, I consider myself faithful.  What my theology doesn't teach me is to set myself up in opposition to anyone else, not even the world.  I have no interest in reshaping the world to my perception by force:  by "saving" anyone or by gaining enough political power I can impose my theology/morality on others, or by proving others wrong by shouting my religious beliefs louder than they shout theirs.

If you want to do that, go right ahead.  But don't try to tell my I'm not doing it right because I won't accommodate you.  My beliefs are not a matter of your convenience.  Too many have already leant their beliefs to the convenience of political power; why should I lend mine?

On the other hand, Jonathan Orbell has a point:

Some of us feel a moral impulse to condemn the ugly sentiments at work in the Trump camp. But we have to keep the broader structural realities in mind—deindustrialization, an unequal economy recovery, the dissolution of the middle class.

A look at Trump’s most recent wins at the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries as well as the Nevada caucus show that the reductive dismissiveness of progressive Christians is turning dangerous. A deeper, more graceful introspection to the root causes of Trump’s ascendance could go far in combating the very forces that have made him a viable presidential candidate.

Considering the stakes, we can’t afford not to do so.
I'm not so sure the utilitarian argument ("We can't afford not to do so") is the right one.  I prefer the theological argument:  countering the root causes of Trump's ascendance that Orbell describes is part of preaching and practicing the basiliea tou theou.   We don't do it (those who agree with me, I mean) because we have to; we do it because we are called to.  Maybe there's a compulsion there, still; but it's a compulsion with a different root.

The answer, after all, is not to fight power with power; the theological answer is to fight power with powerlessness.

1 comment:

  1. "The answer, after all, is not to fight power with power; the theological answer is to fight power with powerlessness."

    While I guess I've always had a sort of hazy idea about this concept, you were the one who truly articulated it for me in theological terms, and for that I am grateful, as Like a lot of us I'm sure, I work in close quarters with people who are profoundly ignorant about politics and policy and yet have very strong opinions. I don't discuss politics at work but they've come to realize through my lack of concurrence that I am not in agreement with them, causing them to see me as their ritual scapegoat. I'll be honest, I find it outrageous that anybody could be so morally and intellectually lazy, so utterly uninformed - and misinformed - about what should be primary school level conversance with the structure and working of government, of history, of other cultures, history, geography, religions - or even the most basic details of the top news stories of the day! Not to mention the fact that their politics are mostly detached from the religious principles they so loudly profess on the metaphorical street corner.

    So on a pretty regular basis I am challenged with responding to these attacks either with, as you say, power or powerlessness, and have to choose either to respond as is my wont - which is with verbal savagery meant to inflict maximum shame - or to take a more compassionate and ecumenical stance, if you will. So far the best I have been able to muster given my poor level of self-mastery is barely containing my white hot rage, trying not to Hulk out and clumsily effecting a measured demeanor while attempting to gently educate them a little more on issues on which they have a cartoonish understanding of at best.

    The point of all this is that I have observed during these little skirmishes that to the extent that I don't resist or attack I am able to make a better impression and reach them a little more than when I put them on the defensive...a testimony to the power of powerlessness in action. Of course it's not satisfactory to my bloodlust in the least, which is a downside....