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Emotional Commitments

American Id

Mark Douglas
Professor of Christian Ethics
Columbia Theological Seminary

Pollsters and pundits tell us that Americans are more divided than at any point since the Civil War. I’m not sure that’s so. Maybe we’re divided politically, but we certainly don’t seem to be divided emotionally. We’re all angry. Those angry at Washington D.C. and dysfunctional political systems voted Donald Trump into the presidency. A day after the election, people flooded streets in cities around the country to protest the election of a candidate they abhor. President-elect Trump—and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton—campaigned in a way to enflame. Under the veil of criticizing “political correctness,” Trump stoked anger and gave tacit permission to his followers to use language and, on occasion, actions that gave ugly expression to their anger. Women, minorities, and various vulnerable populations within the U.S. are, in turn, angry at the Republican party for nominating and then falling behind a man whose moral failings and bullying ways should, they think, have disqualified him from the presidency. “Angry white male” voters directed their anger at a Democratic party that they believe has alienated them by choosing to fight cultural battles (gay marriage, racial inclusion, gender equality) in which they are portrayed as the bad guys rather than the economic ones in which they see themselves as victims. Racial/ethnic minority voters are angry at white voters (and, seemingly, vice-versa); rural voters are angry at urban ones (again, seemingly, vice-versa); voters with college degrees are angry at those without (same); female voters are angry at male voters (when they’re not angry at women who voted differently than they did); the working class seems to be angry at everyone. Politics may be local but outrage is universal.

Or, rather, anger is one of the two things that unites us. The other uniting feature is just how displaced our angers are. Angry at the fact that industrial jobs have been leaving the country and financiers have been the primary beneficiaries of record Wall Street windfalls, Trump supporters elected a real estate mogul who has bragged about his ability to leverage money and repeatedly reneged on contracts that he made with laborers. Angry at Trump, protesters have shut down major thoroughfares to protest—what? The fact that their candidate lost a free and fair election? The fact that the U.S. relies on the electoral college rather than the popular vote to determine the victor? Angry at the free floating economic anxiety they feel, many Trump voters say the most important issues the country needs to address are immigration (which has been down significantly over the past decade) crime (also down) and voter fraud (which is all-but-nonexistent). Angry at the abuses that persons of color are experiencing individually (at, e.g., the hands of the police) and collectively (at the systemic racism in matters related, especially, to the economy, government, and American penal culture), many Clinton voters accuse Trump voters of being driven by racist reactions to eight years of a black president in spite of the fact that many of those Trump voters also voted for President Obama during the previous two elections.

There are good reasons to be angry. Even though the economy is strong by many metrics (Dow Jones up, unemployment and the cost of a gallon of gas down, inflation stable), the creative destruction built into capitalism has been disproportionately borne by some people. Even though there are reasons to celebrate national health as measured by metrics having to do with scientific achievement, a more widely insured population, and increasing connectedness, “news” sources treat climate change, the Affordable Care Act, and social networking—all products of those metrics–as causes for debate or disgust. Baby-boomers continue to vote their own interests regardless of the impact their self-interest has on national well-being. Gender biases, racism and hate-speech are on the rise. Even though religious voices revealed a truer diversity of faithful theological perspectives about national issues during this election, the voting block of white evangelical voters further undermined Christian credibility by voting for a thrice-married, foul-mouthed, LGBTQ-affirming reality television bully (whose loose relationship to truth-claims drove a cottage industry in fact-checking) even though they’ve long claimed that candidates should be judged by their adherence to “traditional moral values.”

All elections are, to varying degrees, cathartic. This one, though, has been a national tantrum.

The problem with “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” as a political mantra is that if anger is all you’ve got, you will, apparently, take anything. When emotivism drives voting, when Colbertian “truthiness” displaces truth, when tribal rage displaces independent reflection, then we reject the collective wager that sustains democracies: that we’re all better off when we trust each other at least enough to listen for reason in the positions of those with whom we disagree.

From a Christian perspective, that also means we surrender the difficult but vital project of discerning what God is doing in the world and then responding faithfully in light of God’s actions. Such a project calls us to look beyond ourselves even as anger calls us to attend to our own pain. It calls us to be patient even as anger calls us to act now. It calls us to admit that we have neither the mind nor the love of God even as anger invites us to call down God’s wrath. It calls us to seek a greater unity even as anger calls us to reject others.

There is a place for anger in our political and spiritual lives. It can signal an injustice in need of address, motivate action in the face of apathy, and remind us of the significance of political issues—and it is at least a better response to widespread anxiety than quietism or despair. But anger, untethered from and untempered by the central virtues of faith, hope, and love only destroys. “Be angry but do not sin,” Ephesians 4:26 reminds us. That should have included the polling place on Nov. 8. And it has to include the public square after January 20 (inauguration day) if we hope to make Nov. 6, 2018 (and beyond) meaningful.

Hope is an Action, Not Just an Idea

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty
Professor and Chair of Theology
Bellarmine University

This semester I am teaching a course on “A Migrant’s Journey” which invites students to explore the bible as a migrant’s story and examines theological and ethical responses to the circumstances of refugees, asylees, economics migrants, undocumented laborers, and people who are trafficked. Post-election, we are reading and watching together news about the rise of hate crimes since 2015, proposals made by the Trump transition team to build a wall and seriously consider a more rigorous Muslim registry than the policies already in place, and the swell of resistance emerging among people of faith. One of the students raised a question about hope this week as we near the end of our semester-long discussion. She observed, “It is hard to have hope when our society is so polarized and we all contribute to that polarization. I keep wondering if we are placing our hope in the right things.”

Like most academics, this election sent me into an intellectual tailspin. I am finding it difficult to speak about hope when I feel betrayed by other voters who, at best, are willing to give racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia a pass, and, at worst, believe that exclusionary policies will somehow lead to greatness and community. I feel forsaken by an electoral college that will most likely not reflect the majority vote. I can’t help but feel denied by elected officials whom I strongly doubt will be able to find a way to represent values and beliefs I hold dear or the scholarly research done to support public policies that will decrease wealth inequalities, effectively address climate change, benefit underpaid workers, increase and preserve access to affordable healthcare, and strengthen the nation’s educational system. When I shared some of these feelings with a friend and mentor who witnessed members of her community forced out of their homes and transported to work and death camps all across Europe during WWII, she reminded me that “there is always hope.” Powerful words from a powerful witness that awakened me to the reality and meaning of hope in our present time like cold water being splashed in my face.

I realized that at least for the past two weeks I had been looking at things through the lens of those expecting to be winners—a very U.S. American white privileged thing to do. However, as a Christian and a theological ethicist, I think that is the wrong way to view the situation. I recall an interview done by Bill Moyers of theologian James Cone about The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone reminds white Christians to look at history from the perspective of the losers to find the deep well of compelling resources people of faith need for hope.

The Christian story is really about the losers of history—those hungry for bread and authentic community; workers whose labor is not fairly by the owners of the vineyards; people in need of healing from illnesses seen and unseen; women threatened by stoning for stepping out of their place; people are unjustly condemned and crucified for their beliefs and political actions. Our faith finds its strength in a love that in actual existence cannot be defeated by what H. Richard Niebuhr called “loveless, thoughtless power” (H. Richard Niebuhr, Faith on Earth, (1989), 100). That love is the deep, deep well of hope of the Christian faith. Seeing, loving, and living beyond betrayal, forsakenness, destruction, denial and distrust is Jesus’ story and we can make that story our own today.

Many people say that we need to take a step back now after the election for the sake of “keeping the peace” and “balance”; “wait and see” what will unfold during Trump’s presidency. However, this election makes it clear that we are not living in ordinary times. And, if we are really honest with ourselves, we haven’t been living in ordinary times for quite some time.

In our society, we have experienced some integration, but we do not really know truly shared power. Recent examples abound in places like Ferguson and Standing Rock. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary actions. We have to challenge ourselves to do some things differently than the way we have always done them—as individuals, as churches, as communities, as academics.

The Sunday after the election my family decided to visit St. Stephen’s Baptist Church in Louisville’s West End. I needed and wanted to hear the sermon of a pastor leading people living in a majority black area of Louisville to address the chasm between the haves and have-nots in my hometown. I knew that the sermon he preached would be very different than what I would hear in the church in the predominately white area in which I live. The Rev. Dr. Kevin Cosby preached on Isaiah 40:4:

Every valley will be raised up,
and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
Uneven ground will become level,
and rough terrain a valley plain.

Central to Cosby’s sermon was addressing the question of how to “turn a wound into wisdom” and “transform tragedy into a teacher.” He said that we are living in a society where too many people are in the valley and too few are on the mountain. The Trump phenomenon was created by people living in the valley; those living through tough economic times. Tough economic times make people “vulnerable to demagogues, givers of false promises and false hopes.” Cosby cautioned us not just to look at the effects, but to deal with the causes of the problem—nihilism, despair, and hopelessness.

Hope is central to Christian faith. Hope, however, is just as much an action, a way of living, as it is an idea; this is both a confessional statement and a missional one. People of faith, particularly members and leaders of progressive and liberal churches, cannot simply go on with business as usual. We are going to have to jettison the old liberal idea that building a better educational program is going to fix the problems we have in our society. We have to go out into the valleys and look for each other when we are there. If we look at the situation through the lens of the losers of history, the only thing that can begin to bring healing and address the problems we are facing is a non-violent revolution of love.

[1] Which philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously defined as “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral evaluative in character.” See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: U. of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 11-12.