Bigotry is Normal

Innocence and Forgetfulness in Trump’s America

On my way to meet a coworker for coffee I passed a flier taped to a light pole. The bright purple letters grabbed my eye: “BIGOTRY is NOT NORMAL.” I was running late but something about this apparently self-evident statement made me stop. The flier invited students from the nearby university to protest an event featuring the former campaign manager for the President of the United States. There are a few interesting things about this flier but my curiosity lies with its premise and, I assume, the rationale behind protesting the event in question.

I assume that only those who have not themselves experienced bigotry, at least not regularly, would think of such predictable human prejudice as abnormal. A person who has been on the receiving end of a bigot’s hate is likely to come from a family or social group with a long memory of  what bigotry feels like, of the havoc in causes, and, importantly, of how invisible it seems to be among those who aren’t themselves experiencing this hate. I can’t imagine that this person – the one who knows bigotry firsthand – could claim with any conviction that bigotry is not normal.

I assume the people who conceived this pithy call to action have been exempt by virtue of race, gender, and class from the prejudices that are common in this country. Maybe I’m wrong in this assumption, but if not then it lines up with a trend I’ve noticed since the election. Among those who were strongly – morally, even – opposed to the president’s election there have been two general and divergent reactions. The first is shock, a kind of wrecked disbelief that this person could be elected to the nation’s highest office. The second reaction can be summarized by a friend who, despite her convictions about this man’s moral and political bankruptcy, told me that once the election results were clear she turned off the TV and slept like a baby. The first reaction is elicited from those who believed their nation to be something other than it revealed itself to be on election day. Those who were disappointed but unsurprised by the results have always seen this nation for what it was and is. They rolled their eyes and went to bed on election night. The first group had mostly avoided this nation’s bigotry; the second have long known it firsthand.

The assumptions behind the flier and the shocked response to the election share in common a tame estimation of evil. This optimistic view of the world assumes an unstoppable move toward the good and just, an arc that bends, however slowly, inevitably toward justice. Bigotry, for the optimists, simply cannot be normal and neither can this president. These must be anomalies along what is otherwise an upward trajectory to a more perfect union.

(I’m being overly general in my descriptions and hopefully not unfair, but I’ve had enough of these sorts of conversations since the election that I have some confidence in these observations.)

In Donald Trump’s America the optimism proclaimed by that campus flier seems utterly naive, until one considers the alternative. There is, I think, a new and personal fear that many of those shocked by the election are currently experiencing. Ironically, this fear shares an important similarity with that of many of the people who voted for the president out of fear for the country’s future: each believes in an America which is inherently good. For those who support the president the call was to make America great again. Those who oppose him often share this conviction; for them the country is already great because, as the Clinton campaign proclaimed, it is already good, and getting better all the time. Bigotry is not normal. For all of their differences, the opposing camps share in common optimistic convictions about the nation, convictions that must be strongly held regardless of alternative evidence. They are, both groups, Americans first. What, then, would it mean if America was not good? If, for the more conservative, it was not founded in a goodness worth reclaiming? And what, for liberals, would it mean if the nation did not bend unstoppably toward goodness? It would imply, I think, something painful about ourselves, something pressing about evil that we’d rather leave unexamined.

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I write this during the Christian season of Lent. The beginning of these forty days of fasting and abstaining is marked by a somber service during which ashes are smeared on the foreheads of the congregants; we leave the service with dusty reminders of our mortality. “Remember,” the pastor says while applying the ashes, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.” More than once, glimpsing my reflection in a mirror, I’ve been shocked to stillness at the sight of that smudged cross on my forehead, an ancient countdown clock ticking relentlessly toward the hour of my death.

Remember and repent. I’m expected to look back over my sin, my complicity with evil while also looking ahead to my death. I’m dust and to dust I shall return.

In theory, this stark practice of remembrance and repentance should collide spectacularly with a culture that, at best, sanitizes the past, excuses our sins, and assumes the best about our intentions. Imagine, for example, a flier on that light pole which confessed: “Bigotry is normal and, what’s more, I’m a bigot.”

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In his most recent book, Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson writes that, “one of the great perks of being white in America is the capacity to forget at will.” His words, penned after the election, are directed toward the chronic amnesia intrinsic to whiteness when it comes to facts and history which threaten one’s view of this country- this good, possibly great, country.

That most white Americans cannot understand ourselves apart from this country’s definition means that we apply our forgetfulness not only to the nation, but to ourselves as well. We become, in James Baldwin’s words in The Fire Next Time, “the innocents.” He writes to his young nephew:

Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well-meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not very far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago. (I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No! This is not true! How bitter you are!” – but I am writing this letter to you, to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist.)

The innocence, in Baldwin’s precise description, scatters its malevolence: the damage is heaped upon the women and men who exist outside the bounds of whiteness, and yet those wounded bodies will not be seen or believed because, well, whiteness is innocence. Still, the facts remain and the wounds and bruises betray our protests, our appeals to our goodness. “It is not,” writes Baldwin, “permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

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There is one lens through which I can view the campus flier as resonant with the facts as Dyson and Baldwin express them, though I doubt it’s what the organizers had in mind. Christian people will say that bigotry shouldn’t be normal and, one day, won’t be. Hate was not present at creation nor will it cloud the new creation.

I expect, though, that both the make-America-great-again and the bigotry-is-not-normal crowds would ignore my lens for its painfully confessional nature. Because to say that bigotry was not God’s plan and will not be God’s future is also to say that it is our present experience, to which some of us contribute mightily, from the essence of our identities, despite whatever white noise of innocence has stopped up our ears. Through this lens America’s past greatness fades into something more ugly and complicated, the presidential administration’s bigotry is not dissimilar to my own prejudices, and the facade of innocence crumbles to reveal my complicity.

It’s one thing to have those cruciform ashes pressed onto my forehead once each year; it’s something else completely to look each day into a mirror and onto a country and know that our innocence was lost long ago.

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I’ve unspooled too much from that one flier and, honestly, I’m heartened to realize that bigotry, even when supported by the presidential office, will be identified and opposed by some. We can gladly say that, at the very least, the organizers of that protest were motivated to action by their optimistic view of the world. And what of my critique? Does this darker interpretation of our nation and its motives not lead to passivity, toward pious quietism or selfish isolation?

In a letter to his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates urges him to,

resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never redeem this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no natural promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

Struggle over hope. Elsewhere I’ve heard Coates say that struggle is hope. And while he roots this stark definition of hope in a world devoid of God, I believe he has articulated a Christian vision of hope, one that has been liberated from the countless unkept promises of American optimism. Accounting soberly for evil and hate need not freeze us in fear or keep us from just action. Opening my eyes wide to the creeping shadow in our land and in my soul is cause for righteous struggle, one that for Christians is oriented to God’s righteous future. Despite the reputation we have among many, Christians have at our disposal a wealth of spiritual resources that compel us to tell unsavory truths – about everything, ourselves included! – and remain happy warriors in the struggle for our neighbors’ good.

Bigotry is normal and it cannot only be those whose personhood makes them targets of it who say so. Perhaps this moment will be dramatic enough to cause us to shed our innocent optimism, consider the evil we’d previously discounted, and finally enter the hopeful struggle.

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.