Mourning in America

Lamenting our divided churches on the day before the presidential inauguration.

I woke up to a foreboding on the day before the presidential inauguration. It’s mostly not a sadness for the country I feel, though there’s much to mourn as we watch the decisions that will be made and the warped assumptions that will become normal. I care about these things but I’m not an expert. Also, history reminds us that the noisiest thing at the moment may not be the most important.

No, the weight of grief is tied to an unseen future in which the many Christians who support the new president continue to do so even as their fellow-citizens, many of them Christians, suffer under the president’s agenda. I cannot imagine a line that hasn’t already been crossed that will change their minds. Logically, then, we have to assume that their support will continue, that something about their experience of these days and their place within them will keep them from believing the pain of their neighbors.

The American churches have long been divided but we’ve often cooperated and this has given many of us us reason to hope. That hope, in me, is stretched thin today when one group of Christians prays for the success of the man who threatens the safety and flourishing of their family in Christ. I know this isn’t new. About a particularly horrific lynching in 1892 Ida B. Wells wrote, “American Christianity heard of this awful affair and read of its details and neither press nor pulpit gave the matter more than a passing comment.” The silence continues.

The divisions aren’t new but today their breadth seems endless. May God have mercy on our churches, on his church. May our compromised witness to the Gospel of Jesus be restored, even now, in our desperate weakness.

“Also, what do we mean by ‘white’?”

Also, what do we mean by “white”? Historically, the category of “whiteness” has been very flexible, gradually extending over various groups not originally included in that constituency. In the mid-19th century, the Irish were assuredly not white, but then they became so. And then the same fate eventually befell Poles and Italians, and then Jews. A great many U.S. Latinos today certainly think of themselves as white. Ask most Cubans, or Argentines, or Puerto Ricans, and a lot of Mexicans. Any discussion of “whiteness” at different points in U.S. history has to take account of those labels and definitions.

Nor are Latinos alone in this regard. In recent controversies over diversity in Silicon Valley, complaints about workplaces that are overwhelmingly “white” were actually focused on targets where a quarter or more are of Asian origin. Even firms with a great many workers from India, Taiwan, or Korea found themselves condemned for lacking true ethnic diversity. Does that not mean that Asians are in the process of achieving whiteness?

Meanwhile, intermarriage proceeds apace, with a great many matches involving non-Latino whites and either Latinos or people of Asian origin. (Such unions are much more common than black-white relationships.) Anyone who expects the offspring of such matches to mobilize and rise up against White Supremacy is going to be sorely disappointed.

– Philip Jenkins, “White Christian Apocalypse?” I’ve noticed a fair bit of commentary about how changing demographics (related to age, ethnicity, and immigration) mean that the recent presidential election will be the last of its kind, a kind of final gasp for the blatant racism and xenophobia that was on display these past many months. Jenkins adds a couple more compelling reasons to the list of why this idea is far too optimistic.

Time to Resist

I can come to no other conclusion, no other possibility in this disorienting moment.

The presidential candidate of the Republican Party deserves non-partisan resistance from this country’s Christians. I’ve asked questions of Christians who support, or are considering supporting, this candidate. I’ve listened to, read about, and imagined the circumstances that would lead people – Christian people – to giving the candidate their support. And still I can come to no other conclusion, no other possibility in this disorienting moment: It’s time to resist.

The list that compels our Christian resistance is long. The early church grew in large part because of the honor granted to women including, radically for that time, single women with no intention to marry. Yet the candidate has shown himself chronically incapable of interacting with the women in his family or employment with anything close to respect, much less honor. Women, in this man’s gaze, are objects to be rated and commodities to be exploited. Or consider that the idolatrous nationalism that American Christians have come to expect from both political parties has grown through this man’s vision into full-blown xenophobia. It’s no longer enough to pay lip service to the troops, publicly salute the flag, and ignore all evidence of the nation’s inglorious past; patriotism now requires that other nations bear the violent weight of our scorn. The candidate has identified new scapegoats – living cultures of people – who deserve our wrath for making our lives less than we think they deserve to be. This development has to trouble a people whose allegiance to Jesus always puts us out of step with our rulers. And when we remember that the eucharistic blood we share with Mexican, Palestinian, and Chinese Christians is thicker than whatever is meant to bind us to other Americans… well, we must speak loudly on their behalf. Our reputations – those publicly maligned Christians and us – are one and the same. What sort of family would we be if we simply let the candidate slander our sisters and brothers?

But these reasons, among others that could be listed, are not enough. Every day it seems we hear of new Christian leaders – mostly of the so-called conservative or Evangelical variety – supporting the candidate. For some it’s a question of the lesser evil – a strange way to speak for those who actually believe in evil and its malevolent powers. For others the support is more enthusiastic; there are true believers among the Believers.

How is their support – however tepid or enthused – possible? I’ve been listening and trying to understand, as sympathetically as can be expected from one who thinks the candidate deserves only resistance from this country’s Christians. There are others, but I’ve heard three consistent reasons for Christian support of the candidate. The first has to do with a variety of social conservatism which believes, despite all evidence to the contrary from his life and career, that the candidate he will make policy decisions and judicial appointments aligned with the so-called religious right. Another reason for supporting the candidate has more to do with opposing, no matter what, the Democratic Party and, especially, its nominee. There is something deep and dark that is invoked by this woman’s presence among some of the candidate’s supporters, something that evolves into ugly sexism in the worst cases and in many is expressed by a profound distrust. Finally, and most interesting to me, are the supporters who see in the candidate some reason to hope that their economic depression will finally be addressed. J. D. Vance has told this story beautifully in his new memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, and there’s a lot here worth examining closely. For example, the generational poverty that is common to many white Appalachian and rust belt families has important points of contact with the experience of some Black Americans yet, as this political contest proves on a seemingly daily basis, race works to separate those who might otherwise find common cause with each other.

I recently sat across a table from a friend, a Latino pastor. We wrapped up our conversation about his church and ministry in Chicago and I asked, in my good-enough Spanish, what he thought about the candidate and all of the surrounding chatter. He smiled and laughed, told some stories about the jokes his family and church make about this moment. And then- I’m surprised, he said. Surprised that so many people will follow this man. Can’t they hear what he’s saying?

The rationale some Christians give for following the candidate are interesting to consider even as I find none of them weighty enough justify their support. Again, I’m writing as a Christian, so even if there were more substance to these reasons I would still be compelled to resistance. The reason has everything to do with that Latino pastor, a man who is my friend and brother – as we Christian people say and claim – in Christ.

The candidate’s racism is well known and extensively documented. (And now, as much as I’d prefer to maintain the blessed absence of this man’s name, I must finally write it in association with, what I believe to be, the primary cause of our Christian resistance.) Donald Trump is a racist. This is not, actually, an especially bold thing to say. Others have said it more persuasively than I will. And, obviously, I’m also a racist. The difference is not one of scale but simple acknowledgement: though the candidate and I breathe the same racist American air, I am repentant and he is not. I limp while he struts.

The candidate’s racism (race prejudice coupled with power) leaves a long, ugly trail: he refused to rent to Black people, he’s said that “laziness is a trait in blacks,”  he’s retweeted self-identified white supremacists, he publicly demanded the execution of five wrongfully convicted Black men, and it goes on. As a white Christian hearing this man’s racist attacks, I must imagine that these are attacks on my family members. A white American obviously doesn’t have to be a Christian to find the candidate’s racism repugnant, but I’m writing consciously as a Christian who believes my lot to be bound with other Christians whose races, ethnicities, and cultures differs from mine.

The only way white Christians can get around the candidate’s racism is by claiming that he doesn’t actually mean it, that he’s simply being ironic in the way all of our political candidates must be in order to secure the necessary votes. David Foster Wallace wrote about this in 1993: “All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’ So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.'” But while such irony may be the accepted assumption behind our culture’s political discourse, it can’t be justified away by people who are bound to tell the truth about all things, to the best of our ability. As such, a Christian would have to be willfully, vehemently blind to the candidate’s history to believe such nonsense about his inevitable transformation into someone less dehumanizing.

But this isn’t the worst of this ironic rationalization. What makes this a completely un-Christian argument – one that I’ve heard repeatedly – is the assumption that the person on the receiving end of the racism spouted by the candidate and some of his more vocal supporters is an untrustworthy narrator of their own experience. More baldly: The white Christian claims to know what’s better for the Black or Brown Christian than she or he knows for themselves.

That white Christians in this country can with a clear conscious support the candidate or, with mild distaste, privately disapprove of him seems to me another reminder of how divided our churches are. The plain fact is that very few white Christians are in a position to hear firsthand how one of their Black or Brown family members is experiencing this election. We will be more influenced by the media ideologues of our choice than by the sisters and brothers of our Faith.

And here we must say two things that should be obvious but are apparently not. First, of course there are some Black and Brown people who support the candidate. Their presence – especially as spokespeople – is held up by some white Christians as evidence that the candidate is in fact not a racist, merely misunderstood for all of his politically incorrect truth telling. But this is silly, an obvious exception proving the rule. Would that those white Christians be in a position to listen to communities of those who share their faith but not their race, that their ears could be filled with the stories and perspectives of flesh and blood unmitigated by pundits and screens.

Second, in listening to some white Christian supporters of the racist candidate it becomes unsettlingly evident that race, not faith, is the strongest lens through which the world and its dangers are viewed. “Why do so many white Evangelicals support him?” The question surprised me, coming from a Black friend as we left church. I stumbled and stuttered. This was around the time that two unarmed Black men were killed by police within the same week. I know the answers I’ve heard from his Christian supporters, but to the question behind my friend’s question – How can so many white Christians support a racist? – I’m left to admit that race exhibits an influence greater than faith. I want to be wrong about this. It’s an ugly thing to say. I’d like to be convinced of an alternative explanation, but one has yet to be presented with any persuasiveness.

And so, Christian resistance is what the moment requires. It’s necessary to say that this is a non-partisan resistance because our imaginations have been so diluted that we think only of our vote as a signal of support or opposition. But there are other ways. We might submit our vote to a person who has been the target of the candidate’s hate. We might devote our attention to local candidates whose decisions will impact classrooms and housing. We might, as some of are, begin to think about what resistance will look like after this election. There will be reasons to resist if the candidate is elected- he’s made no mystery of how his policies will ostracize and divide. And if he’s not, there will be a reinvigorated contingency of citizens who have been deputized in their bigotry. This too will require our Christian resistance.

 

The Terror of the Lord

A Prayer on the Eve of Donald Trump’s Chicago Visit

Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. Lord, you are our God; do not let mere mortals prevail against you.”

King Asa’s prayer in 2 Chronicles 14:11 as he prepared to defend the attack of Zerah the Cushite. Asa defeated Zerah and his armies, “for the terror of the Lord had fallen on them,” which would also be a happy answer to this prayer tomorrow.

In Defense of Christian Un-Love

Why loving Donald Trump’s supporters might be too much to ask of this particular Christian.

The following is a guest post by Edith Cardenas-Michmerhuizen, a founding member of our church and one of the more thoughtful people I know. Here she reflects on her experience of Donald Trump’s ascendancy and destructive rhetoric.

I have watched the Republican primaries with concern. The man who I was convinced would go away by September, the man whose campaign I was certain would implode, is winning. Worse yet, he is winning by big margins. For the record, I am an immigrant and I am Mexican. Please forgive me if I take Trump’s words a little too personally but his presidential bid announcement speech set a displeasing tone for me:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

While I am used to disagreeing with most conservative Christians in regards to politics, I sincerely thought that we could agree on this one. We could at least band together against Trump’s awful rhetoric. Perhaps because beyond my ethnicity, immigration status, and political persuasion, I am a Christian; I lived under the impression that the concept of being “brothers and sisters in Christ” meant something. I have been naïve. I know, “not all conservative Christians…” yet the truth remains that Donald Trump has carried states considered bastions of Christian conservatism. I have to wonder, when it comes to those Christians, am I really their sister? Have I been disowned? Am I so different from them that they have stopped recognizing me as their own?

We are to love one another. My head gets it, but my heart doesn’t. When a close family member tells me that Trump, “just speaks truth as he sees it and isn’t worried about being politically correct,” I am hurt. I want to say, “do you see me?” When my six-year-old child comes crying in the middle of the night because of a nightmare, a nightmare in which all Latinos in Chicago are rounded up and bombed, I hurt. Do you see me? Am I so frightening? When a mostly Latino basketball team is taunted by their opponents with chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” and a homeless Latino man is brutally assaulted by avowed Trump supporters, I can’t find any love in my heart. This is not a simple political disagreement. This is not simple hateful rhetoric. Trump’s hate found its way into words and his words have found way into harmful actions.

We are to love one another. My head gets it, but my heart doesn’t. The Mexicans. The Muslims. The refugees. We have faces. We are people. We have stories. We are not an abstraction.

I cannot find any love in my heart for Trump’s supporters. This is too personal and it hurts. I won’t say that I should not love them. I will just say that right now, I can’t.


IMG_0631Edith Cardenas-Michmerhuizen is a paralegal specialized in immigration law, a follower of Jesus, and and a mother of two living in Chicago. She loves sharing her passion for Mexican culture, Spanish language and social justice with her two young sons.

#pray4reform

Immigration reform has been a regular topic on this blog over the years so it’s encouraging to see some genuine momentum in DC toward this legislation.  (If this is a new issue to you then you might  be interested in my two-part interview with Jenny Hwang, co-author of the very important book Welcoming the Stranger: part 1; part 2.)  Over the past few months I’ve sat in a room with one of my Democratic senators and listened in on a conference call with a Republican senator (from a different state); both of these men are in the thick of the effort to pass the legislation currently being debated.

pray4reform

It’s also been encouraging to see Evangelical folks get behind these efforts.  Some friends have put together a campaign to encourage Christians to pray for the passage of reform legislation that will be just and hospitable to immigrants and refugees.  Check out the #pray4reform website for a bit more information and to commit to pray in the coming days.

Presidential Politics: Good VS Evil

The following is a guest post from Lory Mishra who has been a friend to our family for a few years.  She’s a recent college graduate with a witty sense of humor, legit cooking skills and, as you’ll read, a mind for insightful analysis. When Lory is not getting upset at the news, she’s usually obsessing over a new comedy show or experimenting in her kitchen. Check out her recipe blog for a taste!  

I’ve not had the energy to dive into politics this election cycle so I’m especially glad for this post.
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Elections always bring out a little bit of self-righteousness in me and this year even more so. I find myself becoming more and more cynical, disengaged, and frustrated than in any other election cycle (granted, I’ve only lived in the States since 2000 so that’s not very many election cycles) for multiple reasons, the most important one being a lack of pragmatism when discussing the candidates, their proposed policies, and the supposed importance of the Presidential election.

Photo credit: Hiperpato

Maybe it’s nostalgia clouding my memory but Barack Obama’s election into office in 2008 was perhaps one of the more inspiring times in American politics. A record number of eligible voters came out to vote for Obama, who seemed to have the the ability to work across the aisle and bring together people from all sorts of backgrounds to rally behind his message. Alas, this political high was short-lived and the man who was to be the biggest uniter ended up facing one of the most divided electorates of the past few decades. There are some obvious reasons that led to this division. The housing market crash immediately after the 2008 elections and Obamacare were probably the biggest culprits but I’d argue that the reactions in the years following, and especially during this election cycle, have been much more aggressive and and emotional than I anticipated. Just log onto any social network following a major news story about the election – debates, economic news, campaign gaffes – and you will see what I mean. I realize some of the most vocal participants on these platforms tend to be people who have already pledged their allegiance to one party or another but the lack of true political discourse is still disheartening.

“One of the most amazing narratives to have evolved out of this election cycle is that of good versus evil.”

Conviction can be a good thing. Knowing what you believe and why is something we encourage as a society but if that conviction starts to get in the way of examining reality honestly and truthfully, then it can be the biggest hinderance. Of course, I did click on a Washington Post article titled “The benefits of free contraception” today because it supported something that I already believe in, but I still think making a conscious effort to expose ourselves to uncomfortable pieces of information is a worthwhile pursuit. As we move closer to election day however, it seems our ability to do so as an electorate is waning and we are setting a pretty bad precedent for future elections as well.

One of the most amazing narratives to have evolved out of this election cycle is that of good versus evil. Voters seem so polarized that we’re talking about the two candidates as good or bad people. Mitt Romney, thanks to his vast personal wealth and private sector background, is more often the target of these accusations. He is often painted as someone who does not care about poverty, wants to stomp all over women’s rights, and wants to let the free market run wild, at the expense of human rights. All he cares about is the bottom line. On the other hand, Obama is the candidate who is apparently such an idealist that he is willing to give government handouts to anyone and everyone; he is the Robin Hood of this election, stealing from the rich to help the poor. Maybe this is cynical of me, but oftentimes presidential candidates will build a certain narrative to rally their base and oftentimes, these promises will fall by the wayside thanks to the checks and balances in the form of the legislature and the judicial system. Both sides seem too busy attacking the bleak future the other promises to truly examine what each of these candidates is proposing and to what extent these propositions are even achievable.

The other curious thing about this election is the uniqueness of candidate Obama. I’m inclined to believe that our expectations were set so high after the 2008 elections that his fall from grace was inevitable. Among the many conservatives and independents he had initially won over, Obama seems to be have lost all credibility and those voters are unwilling to give him a second chance. Many are so decidedly against a second Obama presidency that they cannot even bring themselves to accept legitimate successes of his administration.

Among liberals, Obama either inspires exasperated sighs of what could have been or defensive arguments about what a tough plate he was handed and how he’s still better than someone like Romney. From personal conversations, some Obama supporters will sheepishly admit his controversial use of drones in counter-terrorism efforts or his lack of focus on the housing market as it first began to collapse were missteps but they would still rather vote for him. Others will simply jump to making excuses on his behalf, as if they are personally responsible for making sure he wins a second term. In either case, what I can’t grasp is the unwillingness to assess him (and any other candidate) as honestly and fairly as possible. If an elected official is not meeting your expectations, why wouldn’t you just cast your ballot for another? Why do so many voters feel this loyalty to politicians they themselves will admit are imperfect in important ways?

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Romney brings out a similar cognitive dissonance among his supporters as well. The general take on Romney as the Republican nominee seems to be that he was the best available option at the time and that there are very few conservatives who are legitimately excited to vote for him in November. However, they would rather cast a vote for a Republican, as opposed to consider the Democrat or a third-party candidate. Yet again, I’m not sure I understand voters who are willing to settle for someone who maybe does not capture their values or offer solutions to problems they care about. This is best seen when you look at the current tone of the discourse: both sides are unenthusiastic enough about their own candidate that they use most of their bandwidth simply attacking the other side and trying to convince themselves that a future with this uninspiring option is better than one with the other.

The failures of either candidate do not have to be a reflection of the their supporters. Whether one chooses to vote for Obama or Romney in November, casting that ballot and also truthfully acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate do not have to be mutually exclusive. It isn’t very pragmatic to sit here and think about one candidate as the epitome of all that is good and the other as the epitome of all that is bad; this approach is much too simple to fully capture the complexity involved in solving any public policy issue. The other harmful side effect of this type of thinking is the unfair conclusions we draw and the assumptions we make about the people who support the other candidate. Making a huge generalization about someone because of the how they voted a) hinders us from having a honest conversation about our differences and learning from each other and b) is usually a mischaracterization.  I would argue that the public policy issues we have solved most effectively have been a result of a partnership between the two opposing sides. If we suddenly become unable to listen to each other all we are doing is hurting our ability to prosper as a society.

“The failures of either candidate do not have to be a reflection of the their supporters.”

My other beef with the current state of affairs is the lack of room for any other candidate to join the conversation. It’s a real tragedy that casting a vote for a candidate other than the Republican or Democrat is seen as a “wasted vote”. Americans’ political views cannot be captured by two extremes; it falls on a spectrum from left to right and it only makes sense that we would consider that candidates who perhaps capture those nuances better than the two options presented. I’m not advocating for Obama, Romney, or any third candidate; I am advocating for there to be more candidates who are serious contenders. For a country that so fiercely believes in the choices that the free market offers, we are surprisingly limited when it comes to elected officials.

Recently, NPR’s Planet Money team (which puts together some of my favorite podcasts) broadcasted a story about six policy solutions economists from all over the political spectrum agree on and why pursuing any of them would be political suicide. This supposedly no-brainer platform could solve a lot of our issues around debt, rising healthcare costs, various types of government waste, etc. but none of these are very marketable ideas when it comes to an election. I realize it’s naive to expect anyone to run on a lot of these issues and win the election but I do think it’s reasonable to expect us to talk about these solutions, among the others. Limiting ourselves to only considering two options inevitably limits the number of solutions we are considering. In fact, we are rarely even considering real solutions because of how thoroughly we have dumbed down the conversation to trite talking points.

To a great degree, local and state elections have much more of a direct impact on our daily lives than do the national elections. Now that I have finished my short novel about the state of the national election, it is only fair to consider exactly how much the President really matters. To further expose my podcast addiction, Freakonomics radio re-ran a really interesting piece about the very topic. Many political commentators and economists argue that the President has a very limited effect on the state of the country and that oftentimes, their biggest role is serving as the public persona for one side or the other.  Of course, the ability to wage war, sign treaties, or veto bills are hardly insignificant but we may be ascribing too much importance to this position nonetheless. It is really easy to get caught up in the details of a national election because of the widespread coverage they tend to receive but one cannot lose sight of the importance of the less sexy elections in our own cities, towns and states.

Political candidates are elected to serve the public and if they are not meeting our expectations, we should not have to settle. So whoever you decide to vote for next month, I hope you will consider their platform reasonably and fairly.