Advent II: Looking for America

If I have left the impression that I think all evangelical Christians supported the election of Donald Trump, I should correct it. Here are two statements, one by a Baptist layman and another by the president and past president of Fuller Seminary expressing dismay over Trump’s election that is kin to my own. Nor do I want to convey the impression that I think the mix of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia that permeated the Trump rallies is necessarily characteristic of evangelical Christianity or of Catholicism. What follows is a meditation on what I take to be the spirit of these two statements. I have no idea how to translate it into anything else.

On the other hand, I am convinced that a vote for Trump was not an innocent act. We will discern that lack of innocence in the coming months as the Trump presidency unfolds. It will have two primary goals, I think: to enlarge the cult of Trump, and to act out what Katherine Kramer has termed The Politics of Resentment. We won’t see the wholesale return of “American jobs,” but we will see plenty of scapegoating of the politically and socially vulnerable, who will be blamed for the country’s alleged ills, and an attempt to dismantle the liberal establishment. Look at Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, and other states that have experienced large-scale destruction and/or stagnation of the public sector for models of what could happen nationwide. Trump’s scapegoating of Boeing is also deeply disturbing. Coupled with the corporate welfare Trump and Pence have promised United Technologies in relation to Trump’s inflated claim of “saving Jobs” at Carrier, it bespeaks the capriciousness of a would-be dictator.

One of my students a couple of years back remarked that we are living in a time of great change. I didn’t disagree because I never did that with students, but I thought then and am thinking today (as I noted in a previous Advent piece) that a time of great change may already be past, a trajectory such as that Richard Rorty describes in an essay entitled “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” one “defined by the Bill of Rights, the Reconstruction Amendments, the building of the land-grant colleges, female suffrage, the New Deal, Brown v. Board of Education, the building of the community colleges, Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation, the feminist movement, and the gay rights movement.” Following Dr. King. It may be that the arc of history bent towards justice for a stretch of time in the last century, but if so it has now snapped back with a vengeance in the rise of Donald Trump. Those of us who opposed him now have to figure out how win elections in a poisoned political environment.

And it may also be important in the short term for those of us who have been part of the liberal establishment and still celebrate its accomplishments to figure out how to prevent, or at least to slow, its destruction: to preserve public education, the national parks, the continent’s infrastructure, the professions, civil rights, the elements of democracy we have taken for granted since the great depression, the social safety net, the press, the middle class, to say nothing of civility and common decency in our national leadership. Trump and the Republican leadership promise us liberals not only destruction, but also authoritarianism, cruelty, crudity, and inauthenticity on a scale we have not seen in American public life for a long time, perhaps since the time of Lincoln. Last June as I wandered about the mall in our nation’s capital I couldn’t help thinking that I can’t imagine how or why anyone would seek public office with a goal of destroying the institutions that surrounded me. Yet here we are. An apparent majority of our nation’s governing faction currently rejoices in its intention to do just that.

We were in Washington over the Father’s Day weekend, and it was on Father’s day that we visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Here is how it looked, with garlands of flowers and personal memorials along every inch of the long memorial wall that is its centerpiece.

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It continues to draw huge crowds, and this Father’s Day I estimated thousands of friends and families of the dead of that war had left remembrances there. Some were little shrines that included effects of the persons remembered, family pictures, glasses, driver’s licenses, wallets, medals and insignia. It was heart wrenching to see them there in a way no photograph can convey.

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I opposed the war in Vietnam, made no secret of my opposition, participated in protests; but I also spent three years at the height of the conflict teaching school at Fort Bragg, North Carolina where I knew, befriended, and was befriended by many Vietnam veterans, some of whom were in between tours. One of my students (younger than I was—I was young then too) had done three tours in Viet Nam and wanted to go back. He had some things on his conscience from his first tour for which he had continued to try to atone. I have often wondered what became of him. Then there were the days I arrived on post to an atmosphere supercharged with dread and grief because there had been a parachute malfunction that caused a training death. And it wasn’t just that someone had died; the atmosphere was quite different during the days when the post was absorbing news of the MacDonald murders. Airborne soldiers folded and packed one another’s parachutes for each jump. I learned something about solidarity on those death days, something I think I saw again last Father’s Day.

In 1987 I reviewed My Father, My Son for The Dallas Morning News, a book by Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. and his son, Elmo Zumwalt, III. It tells of the their terrible struggle and grief as Elmo, III slowly died of lymphoma caused by exposure to Agent Orange, whose use as a defoliant his father had ordered in Vietnam. (Elmo III’s son Elmo IV, was born with a severe nervous disorder linked as well to his father’s exposure to dioxin.) At book’s end in 1986, Elmo III was recovering from a successful bone marrow transplant that extended his life another two years. At the end of my review I quoted a short statement from a letter he wrote his father at that time that I thought illustrated how Vietnam had given them a particular bond.

Both in Vietnam and with my cancers, we fought battles and lost. Yet, we always knew even when the battle was clearly desperate, that our love could not be compromised.

Young Zumwalt never blamed his father for his illness, always thought his father was right to order the use of Agent Orange. But by the time of his death in 1988 the Supreme Court had removed the last obstacle to implementing a multi-million-dollar settlement between veterans and the Agent Orange manufacturers. My Father, My Son is still worth reading. The Zumwalt story is almost an epitome of the entire war and its complex chain of consequences that continue to play themselves out in our country’s moral history. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial reminded me not only of that complexity but also of the way Vietnam veterans were treated upon their return home, one of the most shameful episodes in that moral history.

Our country’s present rightist elite have ruthlessly and, I think, cynically exploited a moral divide between Americans in relation to which there is good will on both sides. What many of us on the left know is that we don’t deserve the resentment that right wing elites have channeled towards us. But we also need to realize that some of our attitudes towards conservatives are stereotypical and that the divide between “us and them” will not be understood or ameliorated by wonkery because it’s more than political. Indeed it goes to the heart of who we are as Americans. As I walked along the veterans memorial wall I thought of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.”

“Kathy, I’m lost”, I said,
Though I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and
I don’t know why.”

Counting the cars
On the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come
To look for America. . . .

I love this song for its catalogue of ordinary ironies and its evocation of a time when I thought I had America right. I’m thinking now of a friend who I think voted for Trump but still offered to hug my neck as we realized we had things we could talk about in the aftermath of the election. We Americans are, we were then, who we are—all of us, as Mrs. Antrobus says of women in Wilder’s The Skin Of Our Teeth. We’re not what politicians or poll takers say we are, and we’re especially not the ideological idiots pundits and social media say we are. We’re ourselves. Perhaps we could find America again together if we met spiritually somewhere near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and began to talk about how we got there.

Advent I: Who is an American?

Some years back I attended a funeral in one of my city’s conservative Catholic churches. On this particular day, the celebrant in inviting the faithful to communion went out of his way to explain to us non-Catholics that we were not welcome at the Lord’s table. We were told to remain in our pews and pray for the unity of God’s Church. I was a bit taken aback at the blatancy aand harshness of this priest’s inhospitality, but the rubric was not unfamiliar. I grew up in a town dominated by two Protestant sects that each believed only its members were destined for heaven.

I’ve never understood such exclusivity. If we are to believe John Dominic Crossan, the unique things about Jesus were that he healed freely without enquiring whether his patients were deserving and that he ate with anybody. The remarkable thing about Jesus’ feeding the five thousand may not be the miraculous multiplication of the five loaves and two fishes but rather Jesus’ specific prohibition of gatekeeping on the part of his disciples. No one seems to have been excluded from Jesus’ healing ministry on that day, or from the meal that followed. On the other hand scripture is replete with examples of Jesus’ eating with ‘publicans and sinners;’ and If we are to believe the gospel accounts, Jesus shared his last meal in the flesh with the disciple he knew would betray him to the Romans and also with a disciple he correctly predicted would deny knowing him before morning.

I have found myself returning to Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography again and again over the years since I first read it, and I find myself returning to it again this year as a discipline for the four weeks of Advent. I have never believed that the question ‘Who is a Christian’ is answered by The Baltimore Catechism or the thickets of proof texts some evangelical Christians use as weapons to protect the territory of faith from incursion by the ritually unclean or by persons whose beliefs particular sects judge to be incorrect. I think with Crossan that scripture does not provide a unitary picture of Jesus; there is no view of him that one can adopt with scriptural certainty, no view that is supported by the entire body, even, of canonical scripture without leaving a scriptural remainder that might support another conflicting view. Indeed, the Bibles as Christians and Jews have fashioned them over the centuries do not support a unitary conception of God, and on that one fact hang all our diverging communities of doxa and praxis. If one adds the Quranic tradition to the mix as we do, for instance, when we speak of the Abrahamic religions, further complications arise.

But I am presently thinking of something I’m describing to myself as the sociology of religious certainty, from which I stand aside as a dissenter and sometime critic. Advent is good for me because it forces me to examine again for the near eightieth time (since I will be eighty soon), my reasons for standing aside and the images of Jesus and of God to which my experience and affection have inclined me. I like the Christian Science appellation for God, father/mother. It could just as well be turned around, mother/father. The metaphor calls attention to itself and moves my mind to the thought of a god without gender, whose attributes I like to think are creativity, empathy, nurturing, and a disinclination to self-glorification. One difficulty I have with some contemporary feminist images of God is that they retain the triumphalism of traditional imaging, having removed gender references only. I’m still back there with Micah, who set it down that God requires justice, mercy, and humility of us humans.

I am a cultural Christian, a Christian humanist, and I have reasonably specific reasons for claiming these things. Christianity provides me with much of my fundamental vocabulary, with the linguistic tools I need to cope with the world as it seems to me to be. I could be a complete pragmatist, like Richard Rorty whom I admire, but for a profound awareness of sin, in myself and in the world I inhabit. I am a humanist in the sense of understanding that the world I experience is a text, composed of many subtexts, some of which I know and some of which remain opaque to me. In this I am not alone. Not even Kant or Einstein could read the world entire. It should be obvious by now that I am describing a position that posits uncertainty as a fundamental. I might have certainty if I had reached the end of the unknown, but to know everything is not a human possibility. I can hear a voice telling me to have faith, but that instruction merely requires me to accept someone else’s partial and interested description of the world and its history. I prefer uncertainty. I particularly prefer uncertainty to the dogmatism and exclusivity of much contemporary Christianity.

And now I am confronted with a new messiah, Donald Trump, who has drawn upon the savior language of past centuries in advancing his rise to prominence, who is recommended to me by an apparent majority of evangelical Christians in my country. “I alone can protect you,” he has told his ardent supporters as he encouraged them to brutalize dissenters at his rallies. Trump’s position as president elect is in part the product of mass dramas recalling medieval Good Friday sermons that whipped up the faithful to brutalize Jews and their communities in pogroms that were a standard feature of European history well down into the twentieth century; that resembled the whipping up of lynch mobs in this country, most of which targeted African Americans but not all. In the East St. Louis riots of 1917 some ten whites were killed along with upwards of one hundred blacks, though the true death tolls will never be known precisely.

My point is that Trump populism was and is of a piece with these past excesses. We saw them at the Trump rallies. If you voted for Trump, this is what you voted for, regardless of how you may try to sugar-coat it. You voted to enable violence against those aliens, those illegals, and you voted to “Lock her up” (or perhaps to kill her) on the basis of a pack of lies invented by unscrupulous people with no purpose beyond their own aggrandizement. The Trump rallies were spectacles designed to force an answer to another question: ‘Who is an American?’ And the answer is rhetorical: ‘Not those others, not those brown people, not those aliens with strange names who don’t worship Jesus.’ The Islamic conception of Jesus is very like that of Judaism, but most Americans are utterly ignorant of Islam, or worse, are informed by anti-Islamic bigotry masquerading as history or news.

Advent invites me to ponder the last things: heaven, hell, death, and judgment. In my eightieth rethinking I am struck by the realization that the last things are not last. The holy is last. But the problem with the holy is that we have located it in the person of a cosmic despot who demands worship and abject obedience. As Christians we have assimilated Jesus to this despot, and before Jesus there was Moses. In the tale of Moses’ conversion the holy had already been imaged as a despotic ruler; as in the tale of St. Paul’s conversion the assimilation of Jesus to cosmic despotism had already taken place. There is a deep truth in the stories of Moses and the burning bush, and of of St. Paul’s blinding. The holy sometimes breaks into common experience when least expected, like a thief in the night, as St. Paul said of the coming of the day of the Lord. But the small among us might have done without the murders, torturings, enslavements, deportations, and other excesses that have come in the wake of our hanging holy robes on bishops, kings, and dictators through the Christian centuries.

Donald Trump has behaved from the beginning of his candidacy for the Presidency, and is behaving now, like the leader of a cult, and his following has many of the trappings of cultic discipleship. Either sense of cult will do here. Trump demands worship and abject obedience. He punishes subordinates who fall short. He has in a few short months gathered a cult following, still a minority of Americans but a very effective one. Will he be able to turn at least the Republican party into the Church of Donald Trump? I don’t know. I decline to join. But the faux holy has been a force to reckon with throughout the history we know. It has broken out into the common life of nations many more times than once in Germany since the Great War. And I fear it is upon us again.