It has been a very difficult week, and I don’t think I have any new words for how people are feeling. For myself I’m feeling grief, anger, and sadness. I’m feeling guilty and ashamed. And I’m feeling betrayed. Betrayed by my own ignorance, and by the Church, at least its expression here in the United States.
What was clear to me when the final announcement was made that Donald Trump would be the next President of the United States, was what a small world I was living in. I went into the evening confident that there was no way in hell the country would elect someone as dangerous and divisive as the current President elect. Even as he gained more and more states I felt confident that the map would begin tilting in Hillary Clinton’s favor. Any minute now. My wife and I watched well into the night and were eventually left stunned and dumbfounded. It felt like a nightmare. It still feels like a nightmare. But, it is now clear to me that I have almost no idea what the rest of the world looks like outside of my own safe little echo chamber. I don’t understand the hurt and the pain of huge swaths of our country. I don’t understand an expression of Christianity that sided with a person like Trump who extols the virtues of power, aggression, and self-obsession. I do not understand.
This week, article after article has encouraged those of us who reject sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and hatred in all its expressions, to get organized and let the incoming administration and the world know that we will not sit silently while hatred and fear become the law of the land. Yesterday, that call was made more urgent by the news of Steve Bannon’s appointment as Chief Strategist in the Trump cabinet. Bannon, the former head of Breitbart, is a white nationalist who peddles in xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and hate. If there was any hope that President Trump might tone down his alt-right agenda, it must certainly have flown the coop by now. I am echoing the call of many, and asking that we make our voices heard. That we not be conquered by despair and apathy. I am asking that those of us who try to follow Jesus make it known that policies of hatred and bigotry are not consistent with our vision of the Kingdom. I am asking that we stand in solidarity with those who are targeted by these policies, even when (especially when) that requires us to place ourselves, mind and body, between victims of oppression and the oppressor.
But, I am asking us to do something else as well. Something that struck me as I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. One of my professors mentioned that Bonhoeffer has been a comfort to her in the last week, and it inspired me to return to his writing. In a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge, dated 14 August 1944, Bonhoeffer writes:
“In the long run, human relationships are the most important thing in life; the modern ‘efficient’ man can do nothing to change this, nor can the demigods and lunatics who know nothing about human relationships. God uses us in his dealings with others. Everything else is very close to hubris. Of course, one can cultivate human relationships all too consciously in an attempt to mean something to other people…it may lead to an unrealistic cult of the human. I mean, in contrast to that, that people are more important than anything else in life. That certainly doesn’t mean undervaluing the world of things and practical efficiency. But what is the finest book, or picture, or house, or estate, to me, compared to my wife, my parents, or my friend? One can, of course, speak like that only if one has found others in one’s life. For many today man is just a part of the world of things, because the experience of the human simply eludes them. We must be very glad that this experience has been amply bestowed on us in our lives…” *
Here is wisdom for us today, written over 70 years ago by a man imprisoned by a totalitarian government hell bent on the destruction of the other. We must be about the business of people, before we can be about the business of politics and religion. It seems that often, even our own families can be torn apart by the destructiveness of partisanship, politics, and doctrine. It sounds so trite, but the most important work we can do in the service of equality and justice, is at home and in our neighborhoods. It is the work of affirming the dignity and belovedness of all people, starting with our families, our friends, our neighbors, and the members of our worshipping communities. One of the things that struck me as my wife and I watched the election results, and as it became clear what message was being sent to women in this country by a Trump Presidency, was the realization that I still had so much work to do dismantling my own unconscious sexism. This realization was spurred by the love I have for my wife, for my mother and my sisters, and for all the incredible women in my life. These fundamental relationships require so much care and focus, and are often our starting points for healthy relationships with others. If our relationships at home are a mess, that often shows up in other ways and can interfere with the ways we encounter the world. The fostering of relationships is the beginning of justice, and is central to the call of Christ as we encounter him in the Gospels. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” **.
This means that for those of us seeking to stand in solidarity with the victims of hateful ideologies we must also begin the more fundamental work of building relationships with those we want to stand with. If we speak a powerful truth but are unable to realize that truth in the expression of our own lives, I think we may be nothing but clanging symbols. Can I still believe that racism is bad if I don’t know any people of color? Of course I can, but my call to destroy the systemic walls that separate us ring a little hollow if I haven’t even begun to destroy the walls in my own life. We must be about the business of human relationships, and stop seeing groups of people as one of many items in the “world of things”.
I would place politics and religion firmly within Bonhoeffer’s “world of things”, at least as it applies to the way we encounter people. This entire election we have talked about voting blocs as if they were not made up of individuals with their own stories and contexts. I have conveniently focused my own outrage on the right, or Evangelicals without actually engaging the people around me who might claim those identities. As we organize efforts to combat the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia it will be important for us to find the balance between denouncing dangerous ideas and holding those who encourage them accountable, and engaging productively and proactively with those in our own lives who think differently than we do. This will require a healthy dose of humility and patience, and if I’m honest, I don’t know if I have that capacity yet. I certainly wouldn’t expect it from anyone else either. I’m only suggesting that we will need to find ways to be about the business of human relationships if we want to see the kind of lasting and powerful change that looks like the work of Jesus.
Again, this is why I love the invitation of Benedictine Spirituality. At its heart the Rule of St Benedict is about how people live and work together. What has struck me this week as I encounter the Rule is how many chances a disobedient monk is given in the monastery. When a monk is disobedient he may be instructed to eat alone, or work separately from the rest of the community. And yet, the monk remains under the care of the Abbot. In chapter 21 Benedict says:
“The abbot must exercise the utmost care and concern for the wayward brothers, because it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Matt 9:12). Therefore, he ought to use every skill of a wise physician and send in senpectae, that is, mature and wise brothers who, under the cloak of secrecy, may support the wavering brother, urge him to be humble as a way of making satisfaction, and console him lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2 Cor 2:7).”
I am less concerned with who we may assign the role of excommunicated brother in our own contexts, than I am with the Rule’s demand that we engage with those who we might otherwise dismiss. I’m not suggesting that it is the job of the oppressed to reason with the oppressor, but I am suggesting that those of us who can must be about the business of human relationships across the dividing lines in our contexts. It is the only way that a better world will be made possible.
I’m with Bonhoeffer here. I believe that human relationships are by far the most important thing in life. I think that so many of our divisions are curated without either side knowing one another. We fear the other because we don’t know the other. That doesn’t mean that all people are gentle and lovely once you get to know them. It doesn’t mean that hatred and fear are not governing principles for some people. It just means that much of these dark and frightening ideologies are grounded in the fear of the unknown. It means that to truly love someone, they must be known to us in a way that honors their authentic self-expression rather than our characterization of them. This election revealed to me how sheltered I am from the experiences of people unlike myself in this country. It has challenged me to work intentionally on the relationships I already have; seeking to always provide a safe space for expression and conversation, dignity and respect. It has also challenged me to engage with people outside of my existing circle. Not to observe them like some kind of anthropologist, but to build relationships that can traverse ideology, class, and experience. So that I can curate a practice of empathy and compassion. That is the foundation out of which justice flows; love rather than fear. If we continue the practice of dismissing people and dehumanizing them, despair wins and we keep fighting the same battles over and over again. I refuse to let despair win. Not anymore. If we’re going to fix this, we are going to need to do it together.
*Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, and Eberhard Bethge. Letters and Papers From Prison. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
**Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.