NOTE: I am committing to not writing anything more about the election (after this post). But if you are trying to avoid reading things about Trump, this is not the blog post for you.
So this, it seems, is the world we live in. Last week, spurred by fears of immigrants overwhelming their borders, mostly working-class and white English voters voted to leave the European Union. Massive floods overwhelmed infrastructure in West Virginia, killing more than two dozen people. And less than two weeks after Orlando, as Republicans refused to vote on gun control legislation, Democrats began a sit-in inside the US House of Representatives. No doubt about it, we are living in a time of radical transformation.
Take Donald Trump. As he prepares to accept the Republican nomination, a large percentage of this country refuses to take him seriously. Though the tone of the laughter has changed, he remains a punchline for late-night pundits. Analysts, repeatedly embarassed by primary outcomes, have taken to mythic language to describe the power of the far-right rage that has propelled his victories. He is a mastermind of emotional manipulation, a demagogue with an “aura of crude strength and machismo,” an authoritarian who has tapped into deep unconscious rage (and a “wellspring of white nativism”) at the heart of our country. A large number of writers have called this “an extinction-level event” for our country.
I don’t know if Trump is the death of American democracy. I’m not entirely sure what part of American democracy these writers want to defend. Is it massive corporate influence? Gerrymandering? Voter ID laws? What I do know is that when analysts turn to such floral language to explain what’s going on, they’ve lost their sense of control.
The promise of Trump, the promise of a glorious American past rising again, stirs powerful feelings in a lot of folks. The world has changed a lot, and the changes have not been good. Good-paying jobs aren’t easy to find, and they haven’t been easy to find for a long time. Our schools and other institutions are crumbling or being actively dismantled by politicians in service to the God of Privatization. Our planet is warming and it seems basically impossible that we will act soon enough to prevent global catastrophe. As the ground shifts under us, fear can transform our real loss and pain into unrecognizable rage.
The political establishment has long manipulated these fears through Islamophobia, racism, and homophobia, and used fear to control elections. What our political class has failed to understand is this: The fears that they have stoked and supported through coded language have a life of their own, they have fed on fear and pain, and they have grown powerful. This time around, the dark forces shaping who and what we fear have taken the wheel.
Paul called these forces the “powers and principalities.” The author of the book of Revelation drew them as a Dragon and a Beast. The Biblical writers knew that the political forces bringing violence and death were not just collections of people, but institutions with real spiritual power.
Activist and theologian Walter Wink, in his book The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium, described the world this way: “Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequence of huge systems over which no individual has full control. Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its physical manifestations can the total structure be transformed.”
It is one thing to name the spiritual forces propelling our national politics, one thing to march in the streets against grand structural evils; it is another thing to engage with our relatives and friends who support politicians like Trump. What do we do when people we love are seemingly possessed by the forces of violence and fear? Can we love them?
In Mark 5, Jesus meets a man so consumed by the Empire’s violence that he wandered the cemetery naked, howling and beating himself. The spirit possessing this man takes its name from the Roman army, calling itself Legion. Jesus casts the spirits into a herd of two thousand pigs, who promptly drown themselves in the sea. The dark spirit of Roman violence destroys a small local economy, and the man runs off to the city to tell everyone what happened. (that’s obviously a paraphrase)
The thing that troubles me right now about this story is that Jesus separates spirits from people. Jesus does not refuse to speak to the man or curse him out, he drives out the demons and transforms him. It is easy to demonize people who seem consumed by fear and anger. It is much harder to love someone enough to believe that they can change.
A couple weeks ago I was talking with a friend whose brother was torn between voting for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (now, obviously, he sees himself as having only one choice). We talked for a bit about what motivated his brother to seek outsider candidates. My friend said, “For my brother, things are bad. And all the mainstream politicians are promising more of the same.”
In order to connect with his brother, my friend had to be honest that things aren’t good right now. For a lot of people, the economy remains bad and public services and state support systems are falling apart. War and gun violence are growing every where, climate destabilization is already rearranging our world. If we preach peace when there is no peace, we deny the world we live in. We have to admit that things aren’t good. Jesus was more than willing to do this, he recognized how religious and political authorities were hurting poor people, and he named those powers and principalities.
When we name the painful reality of our world – poverty, austerity, racism, homophobia, climate change – we open ourselves up to see our siblings as full human beings. We open ourselves up to recognize how we have unwillingly or unknowingly supported these dark forces. We begin to recognize our our fear and pain have led us to demonize people who support racist policies, just as their fear and pain have been twisted into demonization of immigrants, Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others. Naming the powers that seek to control us might even open us up to the possibility that Donald Trump could be redeemed.
I’ll say that again – even Donald Trump can be redeemed. No doubt the Donald will need a mighty exorcism to cast out the demons of racism, sexism, and egotism. But Jesus cast out the spirit of the Roman Empire to liberate the man howling among the tombs. He took on the demons named Legion and overcame them with transformative compassion. And that, amidst the pain and fear, is what we all need right now – transformative compassion. The kind that exorcises demons, that calls tax collectors out of trees to radically re-shape their lives, that flips over tables in the Temple not because things are beyond hope, but because we believe that change is possible.
– John Bergen
Though Germantown considers itself a single community, we are all individuals with our own backgrounds, and therefore any opinions expressed in this blog should be read as the opinions of the author, and not the official position of GMC. We encourage positive discourse, so all comments will be moderated before posting.