This past week an overwhelming majority of America’s Christians went to the polls to vote in a candidate whose campaign targeted women, Muslims, minorities and people with disabilities as scapegoats, and whose televised rallies brimmed with hate language and bullying antics that until now my children had thought were not allowed on the playground (but apparently are in the White House, with the blessing of most Christian voters).
The Christian-Trump Ticket
To what extent my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ went to the polls for Trump with at least some doubt or second-guessing remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that many Christians publicly invoked their Christian confession as the reason for their support of Trump, praying in Jesus’ name (and for others to overhear) that Donald Trump would become the next president, and preaching from the pulpit about God-ordained catastrophe if that didn’t happen.
From various corners, they predicted in apocalyptic tones that any outcome other than President Trump would mean our nation had stepped over the precipice as “Nation Beyond Repair.” In no uncertain tones, these Christians implicitly told me that genuine Christian witness equaled a vote for Trump. There was no “biblically faithful” alternative.
And this week the great majority of America’s Christians got what they hoped and prayed for in Jesus’ name. Catholics, Protestants, and Trump’s biggest and most loyal cheerleaders — white evangelicals, both men and women, who reportedly were instrumental in propelling Trump to victory — prayed into office the most openly racist and mysogynistic presidential candidate of our time, and then anointed that result with prayers of thanksgiving for “God’s grace,” in the form of victory exclamations like that of Vice President-Elect Mike Pence.
Some Exceptions to the Christian-Trump Ticket
In the lead-up to the election, a small handful of Christians sought to challenge and critique this disturbing marriage between evangelicals and Trump. Christianity Today editor Andy Crouch’s warning that “strategy [regarding issues like Supreme Court appointments] becomes its own form of idolatry” was one case in point. Popular Christian author Philip Yancey’s frank bafflement, in an article in The Huffington Post, was another.
The influential evangelical teacher, Beth Moore, courageously called out the obvious and latent mysogynism of evangelicals’ all-too-comfortable endorsement of a Trump presidency: “Try to absorb how acceptable the disesteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal,” she was quoted as saying by CNN.
From outside the Christian camp, the happy marriage of evangelicals and Donald Trump drew mockery that, however offensive, was also bitingly incisive. A case in point? Bill Maher thanking Trump for exposing evangelicals as “shameless hypocrites.”
What’s to Mourn – The Tragedy of Trump in Jesus’ Name
In the aftermath of this election, my husband, children and I, our neighbors, school, and community, as well as many in our local church family, have been in a state of shock and mourning over the message this election has sent, both to us and to the rest of the world. For some of us, it has been a gut-wrenching grief probably best encapsulated by the following observation in a recent article in The Atlantic: “White, conservative Christians may have thought they were just casting a vote for president, but some of their brothers and sisters in the church see their choice as a direct and personal assault.”
And from a place of painful dislocation, many of us now struggle to see a place for ourselves within an expression of Christianity we want only to run away from. It is an expression of Christianity that now (once again) has implicitly told me, a woman once ordained for Christian ministry, that I should know my place in subjection to men who can objectify, mistreat and rule over women both at home and in the workplace without accountability — and with respect to the last case, even in the rare but real and tragic circumstances where a pregnancy could endanger our health and life. It is an expression of Christianity that turns a blind eye to the bullying of an authoritarian strongman for the sake of political expediency, and as a convenient outlet for eight years of pent-up racist and reactionary anger towards a president pejoratively dubbed by some of the very same Christians as not American by birthright and a closet Muslim.
But the wounds of Christians who don’t just feel “left behind” by a Trump-Christian ticket, but are repulsed and feel assaulted by it, pale in comparison to what I suspect is the greater tragedy at play: as one mostly solid voting bloc in favor of Trump, Christians traded in God’s mission of radical hospitality to the world (which necessarily is not about us) for a fearful and elusive grab at power in the form of a political messiah. Jesus’ words to Peter when Peter fell into a similar trap — “Get behind me Satan,” Jesus commanded, in response to the suggestion He wear the mantle of a political messiah — here come to mind.
So I struggle brokenheartedly to identify even one way in which an overwhelming display of political allegiance to Trump serves as either a winning form of Christian evangelism or as a life-giving expression of God’s mission to the world. And, I suspect, this Faustian compromise (if there ever was one) has damaged the integrity of Christian public witness (or at least what was left of it) for years to come.
If what the late Archbishop William Temple once said is true — “that the church is the only organization that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside it,” then Christians have made a tragic deal in return for a Trump residency in the White House. We have traded in our raison d’etre as “church,” “the only organization that exists for those who live outside it,” for one idolatrous and elusive grab at power. We have circled the wagons and tacitly proclaimed that we, the church, only really exist for ourselves and our own political agenda — and to hell with those “who live outside” us, who thanks to this election are an only growing circle of hapless outsiders.
Looking for Jesus – the One Who Binds Wounds
Where was Jesus during the past 18 months? Was Jesus in the prayers of church leaders who laid hands on Trump praying against the forces of evil that would keep him from becoming president? Was Jesus in the dark and fear-laden emails I received telling me my faith meant a Trump vote? And where is this Jesus now? Is He in the confident cheers of a God-ordained “mandate” for our country? Is He in the public thanksgiving for “God’s grace” in the form of a Trump victory?
Such questions have caused me to wonder where I belong … and if I have to choose, it would be with the rest of you asking the same questions.
We’re a messy and imperfect bunch.
We’re saints and sinners, Christians and non-Christians, men and women, people of all races, religions and doubts.
We’re “spiritual but not religious.”
We’re also atheists and agnostics, Jews and Muslims, gay and straight.
We’ve got wounds and disabilities of the kind Trump has no patience for.
We’ve got issues and “preexisting conditions” (in the words of Bill Maher above) that need more than a political savior to heal.
And many of us long to relate to a God who is altogether different from a heavenly bully and authoritarian strongman dispensing punishments to those who fall short of a list of very narrow criteria for “righteousness” and inclusion. The God of our understanding and the God we catch holy glimpses of — this God of beauty and truth, freedom and light, gentleness and compassion, whom we seek to know better precisely because this God is the only God we can relate to — is One who also freely invites us into a joy-filled relationship that is predicated first on the assurance of our unconditional and equal mutual belonging as those made in God’s image. “We shall love God because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Appeals to Scripture aside … who among us can fall in love with or love a God who wants our belief and moral obedience before our most basic human belonging? Yet the God behind a Donald Trump presidency would seem to assert this very thing — and it sounds like a loud, clanging cymbal.
This Sunday my family and I will be skipping church to take a healing hike in the woods. And in the weeks to come, I’ll be seeking solace in the following Good News: that the only One in human history who could ever be justified in commanding a bully pulpit rejected that platform, choosing instead to draw near to us in the form of a baby in a manger and then a cross. This God is the only One who ultimately can “bind” these “wounds of division” that a Trump-Christian ticket has opened up, and humorously, with little trace of self-irony, now says it aims to lance.
This same God tells those who mourn they are “blessed.”
Where is Jesus now? Jesus is with all those who mourn, whatever their vote, in the aftermath of a campaign victory that ultimately sent the message to “those who live outside [the church]” (as well as to some of us in it) that God’s economy is one of scarcity and exclusion, in which lies, anger, hatred and ruthless domination are the only way to win, and a Trump political victory — the sign of favor and grace upon God’s people.
In the meantime, empires and political strongmen will come and go. They will fall on their own tin swords.
But Jesus comes to those in need of a Redeemer, and that mission, like the gentle dawning of a new day in all its blooming splendor, will not be thwarted — even by God’s people.
This evening a whole gaggle of Canadian geese were crossing the last 200 yards of narrow road leading to the monastery retreat house.
As usual I’d been in a hurry and was running late to catch dinner and a room key…
The geese stopped me.
Like mini orange flippers shuffling off to the local pool for a late afternoon dip, their feet didn’t pick up the pace when my monstrous grey animal made of rubber and steel interrupted their peaceful stroll. If anything, the feet slowed, then halted, all of those velvety black heads turning in almost perfectly choreographed unison, some a full 180 degrees, to get a good long stare at the interloper. It was a momentary showdown, they waiting for some perplexing secret code or recognizable honk by which to let me pass.
And as I gently moved my foot from the brake to the accelerator, hesitantly pressing ever so slightly, the vision of goose road kill – no doubt a first in the history of the monastery – flashed morbidly before my eyes like another display of Nature’s cruelty narrated by David Attenborough. The tires. The alien screech. The awful aftermath. What would the gentle monk in charge of the retreat house say when I explained the fresh goose carcass in the middle of his extended driveway?
The geese were ever so slowly dispersing, but not fast enough to spare me the next fateful, pregnant moment: it was the sound of my own breath, the exhalation of surrender, the grace of letting go. My mostly blind, frenzied rush through the motions of life had received a “cease and desist” order from those oblivious geese. And for a moment I had seen and heard.
After dinner I walked down to the water, which is where I always end up when I’m here. A gentle breeze was rustling the green underbrush along the little path to the lake, sending whole thickets of leaves into a rippling cascade of vibrations. Like an invisible harpsichord player with countless fingers strumming out some faint, husky, low-rushing melody … that was the wind this evening.
The Spirit, Jesus said, is like the wind. Can there be any better metaphor?
This evening no fiery tongues of fire fell on my head. But the sight and sound of those leafy keys trilling like a harp, dancing to some mysterious, haunted melody, were enough to remind me the Spirit was here. So were the geese that told me to rest without saying a word. Why, I wonder, must we ask for greater signs and wonders?
On the heels of last week’s heartbreaking events nationwide — in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas —I’ve been reading philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Plato Won’t Go Away.
The question that preoccupied the ancient Greeks, Goldstein observes, is one that preoccupies us today, too — and maybe most especially today: What makes a human life matter? That is the question.
“Mattering is a state devoutly to be wished for,” Goldstein writes. “We no sooner know that we are, than we want that which we are to matter … The will to matter is at least as important as the will to believe, if we’re to understand the continuing force of the normative systems that emerged during [that time].”
And I suspect the will to matter is actually more important than the will to believe, and actually precedes questions of belief as an existential condition for believing in the love of God. We need to know our life matters in order to believe in the love of God. In other words, in the absence of the assurance that we matter, it is hard to believe in or sustain a belief in the love of God.
So while “mattering” is a belonging concern, more fundamentally, it’s a justice concern that gives voice to our deepest existential wondering about what makes a human life (and, closer to home, our own life) matter. As such, it should precede political or religious beliefs and allegiances also.
The aptly named “Recovery-Minded Church” series is next on the horizon here at this intersection between God and life — and you and your church can be part of this irregular but ongoing series. More specifically, I’m on the look-out for churches around the country who in their own unique ways are seeking (whether explicitly or more subtly, via commendable spiritual practices) to love and minister to people with addiction.
Often “those people with addiction” are in the pews or leading worship — and they have been for years. They may look nothing like our stereotypes of an addict. They might be your senior pastor, for all you know. And if today’s opiate epidemic addiction can teach us anything, it’s that anyone, regardless of faith or creed, can get hooked on a doctor-prescribed painkiller and fall into a cycle of compulsive drug use. So addiction in the church, however hidden, is a reality — one that, like other realities of the human condition, can benefit from an educated and effective spiritual response on the part of “recovery-friendly” communities of faith.
There are at least three hurdles to “recovery-friendly church.” This article, which went live last week, shares what these hurdles are and how to scale them — and I’m grateful to my employer, Beach House Center for Recovery, for the opportunity to write the piece. (Beach House is a detox and substance abuse treatment center that is leading the nation in evidence-based interventions for addiction.)
Every once in a while I come across a passage in the Bible that makes me want to cringe. That was the case yesterday reading 1 John 2: “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world — the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does — comes not from the Father but from the world.”
Then someone reminded me of something I hadn’t managed to retain in seminary — that in this context the “world” (kosmos) in Greek has more to do with an entrenched, systemic order of things in which “lusts” are in the driver seat. That term itself (“lusts”) can get misinterpreted by contemporary ears: we tend to think of it in exclusively sexualized terms; yet for the writer of John worldly lusts, cravings and “boasting” acquisition and achievement are so much more than merely entertaining naughty thoughts about one’s neighbor.
“Worldly Lusts” – What Are They Really?
Worldly lusts are more like the automatic inner drives or reflexes that condition us to act like we are only cogs in an existing system of how things are (and are fated to be). In America, that “worldly order” is likely a combination of the so-called American dream and its often endlessly workaholic pursuit and a hyper-consumerist culture that bombards our senses with an unrelenting, inescapable blitz of all we must have in order to be happy or to have arrived.
A life given over to these lusts is the modus operandi of acquiring whatever strikes one’s fancy in any given moment:
- The compulsive need to respond to the subliminal chatter of a Facebook feed that taunts you with your “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out), and which marketing consultants are said to be constructing an endless stream of new apps around
- The flash sales that seduce you with the promise of more stuff that’s going, going gone
- The endless appeals to everything we are yet to be, have yet to achieve and that will never ultimately make us happy
Maybe we laugh at those Dos Equis commercials about the most interesting man in the world for the very reason that they also strike a subliminal chord of recognition. Maybe we, too, want to be at the center of things, as masters of having acquired all that we lack.
“Learned Helplessness”: Is It a Spiritual Condition, Too?
Psychologists have used the term “learned helplessness” to describe how seemingly uncontrollable, inescapable events can trigger a state of passivity or paralysis that overrides a person’s natural “fight or flight” escape and survival mechanisms. Positive Psychology founder Dr. Martin Seligman initially coined the term after noticing how dogs that received repeated shocks over time became conditioned to do nothing to escape or protect themselves, even when the opportunity might present itself.
But is it possible that learned helplessness is also a a spiritual condition? When “worldly lusts” become the governing stimuli by which a human life operates and becomes accustomed to, does a similar phenomenon apply?
How Imagination Can Heal “Learned Helplessness”
Human beings who have experienced the psychological phenomenon of learned helplessness can often find healing via the exercise of their imagination. Replaying a past trauma from the safety of the present moment, and then introducing the perspective of what one would have done to exercise self-agency in that place of perceived helplessness, can help individuals heal from traumatic wounds and feel more alive in the present.
I wonder if practicing the use of the imagination can offer similar hope in answer to the spiritual equivalent of learned helplessness. Does Paul in Romans mean something similar when he challenges his readers to not be “conformed to the pattern of this world” but “transformed by the renewing of your minds”? Is it possible that for the American church at least, our main problem is one of a lack of imagination? If “inspiration” in its most basic sense is to breathe, isn’t imagination, as the direct byproduct of inspiration, central to life itself?
Could it be that learned helplessness — as a conditioned response to “worldly lusts” — is what feeds the victim narratives that afflict many quarters of the American church today? Is the main root of this problem that we’ve lost our imagination? Perhaps healing begins by asking God to stir our imaginations so that we can “be the change” that we “wish to see in the world,” as Gandhi once put it. Maybe that’s where more abundant life starts — because we don’t have to be helpless cogs in a system that tells us we’re the sum of our lusts.
At least once a week he runs several times around the full perimeter of our local neighborhood park. And he’s always carrying that damn Confederate flag. That and then the white beard, white T-shirt and slow, deliberate running gait are always easily recognizable.
Today I saw him there again as I was driving the kids to school — and then again on my way home.
On the way home, the man in the Lexus SUV in front of me was another school parent who happened to be black. Before getting in our cars, he and I and another parent had just finished talking about the sorts of things over-educated, solidly middle-class parents of elementary school-aged children talk about on a Friday morning after morning assembly, when the temptation to linger and chat is rewarded. His license plate read “University of North Carolina,” and there was a judicial court sticker to the right of the rear windshield.
What is he thinking and feeling when he sees that flag?, as we drive by. It has to sting: a visceral pang. I’ll ask him next time I see him.
One day I had rolled down my window and feigning some polite cluelessness asked the man about the flag and why he was carrying it.
“States’ rights,” he said without blinking as he kept on running. “The war isn’t over.”
The line sounded like one he had probably rehearsed many times before. I guess maybe he wanted me to roll down my window and ask…
And yet the American Civil War was over. Most people accepted that fact — even if some still argued about the war’s cause. They, too, were outliers.
Once when our car was parked at a light and the man with the flag was running by, my husband had been less polite: he had angrily yelled something along the same lines — about how the war was long over and it was time to get over it.
This time the man with the flag kept right on going. He seemed not to hear.
Some things you literally have to take in stride, I guess.
And there are so many things that one can live for in this life. Some of these things are worth living for. Others are lost causes. Some things you just take in stride.
For so many reasons, I’d like to think I’m not like that man with the flag. (And yes, I’m not a self-professing white supremacist convinced that a war which ended in 1865 should be fought again in 2016 and its outcome any different.)
But when it comes to life, isn’t so much of what it means to be human about navigating loss — and about choosing what’s worth recovering and what isn’t? What’s loss counted as gain — and what’s not? What’s worth every fiber of inner resistance and what’s counted as “rubbish”? What’s a lost cause, and what really isn’t and never should be?
I suspect these questions are rarely as easy to answer as we sometimes assume they are…
“Pick your battles” goes the popular adage. It’s also a slice of popular wisdom that those in recovery from addiction and mental illness are familiar with. But picking one’s battles first requires being able to weed out lost causes. These aren’t always as viscerally clear as a Confederate flag bobbing around the park.
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. – “Step 12” of Alcoholics Anonymous
The trials of single parenting and a full-time job have kept me away from this intersection. But in between bedtime wake-up calls, soccer and swim practices, and work deadlines, I’ve been thinking about the “T” in our 12-Step-inspired series, “REST for Restless Souls.”
First, a quick review of where we’ve been in this five-part series. We asked what “rest” for restless souls looks like as a lived daily reality, and suggested it’s “recovery” — recovery of the joy, peace and freedom God wants for us. That’s when we explored how insights from the recovery-based “12 Steps” of Alcoholics Anonymous might help in getting us there.
The acronym “REST” has laid out that path:
- “R” is for “Recognize.” We recognize our spiritual restlessness for what it is, much in the same way that those in recovery for addiction must first admit to their powerlessness over drugs or alcohol.
- “E” is for “Evaluate.” We evaluate why we are spiritually restless. This exercise requires probing and unearthing the origins of our restlessness with the same spirit behind AA’s call for a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
- “S” is for “Surrender.” We surrender our life, including our restlessness, to the care of God as we understand God. This form of surrender is freeing: it frees us from living our lives disingenuously, according to someone else’s prescriptions for what to believe or how to live. If, for example, we can’t understand God as others may have portrayed Him for us — as a stern drill sergeant who could care less whether we’re miserable all the time — then we really don’t have to surrender to that God.
And, last, “T” is for “Try.”
Step 12 reads: “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
Finding rest — recovering joy, peace, freedom and wholeness — also means trying to serve others. It means trying to share the rest God gives us with those who need the same. This also depends on trying to practice the daily, 12-Step recovery principles of self-honesty, humility and forgiveness, so that what we are sharing with our neighbor is a real and genuine faucet of who we are, not just pretense.
The insertion of “try” here is key to entering into rest. “Try” implies that we won’t always succeed. In fact, there will be times when even our very best looks like fall-on-our-face failure, both to us and to those around us.
We will fail at loving and serving others.
We will also fail to live by the very principles we affirm to be true and that bring God-given rest to our souls.
The reality is our best may not be good enough for others. It may even fall short of what we expect from ourselves. But so long as we’re trying — so long as we’re doing the best we can at any given moment — that is enough for God.
“T” is for “Try.”
NPR ran a story the other day that brought me to tears. About a former mortgage banker Ray Jackman, who now works full-time with kids with severe disabilities. About those kids — kids like Robbie McAllister, a teenager with cerebral palsy — who live and learn at the Massachusetts Hospital School, a pediatric care facility and school for those with severe, long-term conditions. And, about the exhilaration of trust.
Every week Jackman takes a few of these kids out to ski. The skiing lesson is no ordinary operation. In McAllister’s case, Jackman has to hoist the 19-year-old out of his wheelchair and into a funny-looking, neon chair contraption. There are some seriously intimidating seat belt buckles to work with, too. Then Jackman and a volunteer together manage to lift McAllister and his seat onto the ski lift.
At the top of the slopes, Jackman launches into his lesson. “Let’s fly down that mountain at 100mph. I want to beat that able-bodied person,” he says.
Learning to Trust
For a kid like McAllister, who has little to no control over his muscles, the ensuing exercise is a lesson in total trust: in order to ride at breakneck speed down a mountain, he must first leave the safe confines of his electric wheel chair — his “comfort zone.” And he has to put his trust fully in the care of Jackman, who on the ride down is six feet behind him, using two tether lines to direct their downward descent and brake when needed.
All the way down you can hear the loud, garbled sounds of one teenager’s terror and excitement at the exhilarating rush of sudden mobility. At the bottom of the slope, he’s beaming after the ride of a lifetime. That smile is the only reinforcement Jackman needs to know that his Herculean efforts were worth it.
In the constant, often frantic push and shove of life’s many responsibilities, I can find myself forgetting to breathe. To clutch tightly and anxiously on the reins and to hold my breath — to assume my rightful control in these situations — is a default practice. Maybe it’s an automatic reflex for many of us. (Is it distrust or mistrust or a combination, I wonder?)
But the image of a kid who, locked in a wheelchair, can beam widely back at the world in a condition of helpless, courageous trust on a risky and breathtaking joy ride … that’s what exhilarating trust looks like in answer to the sometimes heart-stoppingly scary enterprise of being human. Existentially, we’re all that kid in the wheelchair. We’re all bound in some form of paralysis. None of us can cheat death or ultimately control our destiny. God knows this.
But we can trust. We can exhale. We can beam back at the world in surrender.
“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” – Step 3
Back at this intersection between God and life after a leisurely week in Tulum, Mexico, I’ve been thinking about why it’s hard to surrender my life to God — or at least to do so consistently, daily, and moment by moment. According to Step 3 of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, recovery entails a “decision to turn one’s will and life over to the care of God as we understand Him.” This decision, I suspect, must happen more than once for most of us. It must happen over and over again. The word I give it is “surrender,” and can sound like a bad word in a culture that trades in the more familiar language of self-entitlement, self-expression and self-promotion. But why is this surrendering to God so hard, so much so that our very nature rebels against the very notion of surrender? And what does this surrender entail?
Why Surrender Is So Hard
Part of the answer to that question comes to me from an unlikely place: the pages of a book by my favorite mystery novelist, PD James. In her novel A Taste for Death, a sweet, church-going, God-fearing woman by the name of Miss Wharton is the first to happen upon a grisly murder scene in her home parish. In the wake of that trauma, she tries to find comfort in a favorite passage from Scripture — it’s the one from Luke, about the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep — but “this time,” James writes, “[Miss Wharton] had read it with a sharpened, perversely questioning mind. What, after all, was a shepherd’s job? Only to care for the sheep, to make sure they didn’t escape so that they could be branded, sheared and then slaughtered. Without the need for their wool, their flesh, there would be no job for the shepherd.”
I’d never thought about that before in relation to this passage, but the fictional Miss Wharton has a point. A good shepherd doesn’t take exceptional care of their sheep out of pure altruism. A good shepherd watches over their sheep because those sheep are a source of food on the table, either literally or in the form of income. And from now on, I’ll never be able to read this sweet parable again without that lingering recognition.
But maybe, then again, that’s precisely the point of this passage. Jesus doesn’t protect us from losing our lives. Jesus wants us to let go of our lives with the understanding that our lives were never ultimately ours to hold on to in the first place. And yes, the sheep do usually end up branded, sheared and then slaughtered, and their wool and flesh do usually service the needs of others. That’s pretty grim-sounding alright. Still maybe that’s better than being the dumb sheep who runs off, gets lost and has a terrible time of it, all because they thought that they really didn’t need a shepherd and could fool pain and death without one.
In other words, it’s hard to surrender to God, because it’s hard to trust that a God who will let us go through pain and death ultimately really loves us and ultimately will do what’s best for us.
Seeing Is Believing — and Surrender to God
That’s why the insertion of a God “as we understand Him” is a kind of merciful relief. And here I take heart that the only God we can hope to understand is the One we’ve caught partial glimpses of somewhere in our lives, maybe a bit like Moses on Mount Sinai: Moses can’t see God’s face, only God’s posterior. I love the humor there. It’s also a picture, I suspect, that many of us can identify with. We, too, many of us, have caught glimpses of at least the equivalent of God’s “backside” at discrete points in our lives. That has been enough to spur our search for More, even if that search at times has manifested itself as a heightened sense of God’s absence and our own emptiness.
Ultimately the only God we can surrender to is a God who has revealed Himself to us. A God who has submitted Himself to the risky enterprise of human understanding. A God, in other words, whom we have in some way “seen.” Upon that seeing, surrender (however seemingly transient this side of eternity) is, I suspect, irresistible.
In the second chapter of her first book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes that there are two kinds of seeing. The first, to quote author William Deresiewicz on Dillard’s work in this month’s Atlantic, “is the sort of seeing that produces perceptions, and phrases, like twiggy haze.” But in Dillard’s words, “there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” Deresiewicz elaborates: “You do not seek, you wait. It isn’t prayer; it is grace. The visions come to you, and they come from out of the blue.” This kind of seeing is more like perceiving that one has just been seen by God.
Surrender that’s as simple and grace-filled as this second kind of seeing implies makes me want to lower my reflex-like defenses to the very notion of letting go and letting God. Surrender that invites me only “to see,” with the assurance that the rest of the work — the release and the transfiguration — is God’s, gives my soul rest. It’s surrender to God as I understand God: the beginning of recovery for at least one “restless soul.”
Torture is acceptable and even commendable. That seems to be one of the takeaways from last night’s Republican caucus in New Hampshire. And Donald Trump’s decisive win on the heels of Ted Cruz’ victory last week in Iowa has me seeking to understand what just happened and why. Not only did New Hampshire Republicans get solidly behind a candidate who has made (some would say) racist, xenophobic, chauvinistic, impulsive and ill-informed statements throughout his campaign; they also voted in a candidate who has no compunction about using torture as an interrogation method — this after the debacle of the Bush-Cheney years is still fresh on many minds. And New Hampshire Republicans were not alone. Iowans tacked a similar course in electing first Ted Cruz, then Trump. (Cruz, like Trump, defends the use of torture in a campaign that’s heavily directed to the prayers of evangelical Christians.)
In other words, New Hampshire and Iowa Republicans seem to be in agreement about at least one thing: that the U.S. can and should use torture in its repertoire of intelligence antics, and, more significantly, that the U.S. shouldn’t feel in the least bit bashful about that. On “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, Trump was quoted as saying he’d “absolutely use something beyond waterboarding,” with the explanation that our enemies were cutting off the heads of “Christians and plenty of others.” The implication? That a “Christian” nation like ours is justified in using torture — the very means by which the One we Christians worship suffered — in order to protect itself.
Meanwhile Cruz has insisted that waterboarding does not meet the legal definition of torture. The semantic acrobatics are eerily familiar, yet something very new has happened here. Republican voters, many evangelical Christians, have now issued not once but twice a mandate for a president who will explicitly thwart long-established international human rights laws against torture, a president who will be doing so with little thought, zero self-consciousness and near bravado for the whole world to see. In the case of the Bush administration’s torture protocol, the American public knew very little — George W. Bush was not running on a campaign platform that included an open endorsement of torture as an interrogation method.
As of today, it’s possible that our next president will authorize waterboarding and potentially other forms of torture as part of his campaign platform. In turn, he will be redefining what it means to be America; and the bulk of his followers, a large percentage of them evangelical Christians, will be announcing to the world what it means to be a “Christian nation.”
Why is this happening? (And here is where I can disarm my mother’s great alarm that I’m actually “a liberal” in an independent’s clothing.) Contrary to what those on the left might say, the Trump Phenomenon is not happening because Republicans have a monopoly on extremism and are alone the folly of our nation. No, the civic responsibility for the disturbing rise of Donald Trump extends beyond any one political party. There’s plenty of angry outrage and extremism on the left as well. A case in point? The current tenor of student protests against racial inequality now sweeping college campuses nationwide. Consider, for example, the following incident from my own alma mater that went viral after being caught on tape: a female protester unleashed an angry tirade on a college administrator who, in attempting to hear her demands, suggested other people have rights, too. At that, the woman went apoplectic, cussing him out and saying a host of angry, hate-filled things.
That student is probably one of a number of protesters who if asked would be quick to say they stand well within a tradition of civil disobedience inherited directly from the great civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King. Yet King’s dream was of a day when his “four little children … would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That dream found enduring livelihood among both whites and blacks precisely because it called forth the very best of our shared, God-breathed humanity. And that dream discovered the beginnings of its realization only because of the great courage it called forth in blacks and even whites who, through peaceful and prayerful civic protest joined their voices in unison to protest racial injustice. Sadly, that picture is not the one I largely see in America today in opposition to the ills and injustices that beset us. In its place are the often angry, hostile tones of a country now besieged by a rising tide of angry identity politics on both the left and the right that plays to the lowest common denominator.
No, if Trump wins this election and torture becomes a feather in our cap, one we’re not in the least bit embarrassed to show off to the world, it will be the fault of all of us — and maybe most especially those of us who call ourselves Christians. We all bear responsibility, a responsibility that begins with the recognition that the One we worship and who was tortured on our behalf was God’s Incarnate Word. God’s Word came to us at no small cost. In Jesus, God says we, all of us, right or left, black or white, are free beyond our wildest imagination to use our words for good. Our own words and our freedom to use them as we choose are something to be cherished, both because of their power and because they also came at a cost. They, too, can enlist the very best in one another and in our shared humanity — or they can tear others down, to the extent that torture itself can become as banal and everyday as a trip to the drug store.
How I’ve often failed to cherish my words and their power to build up rather than tear down. With yesterday’s news from New Hampshire fresh on my mind, I’m going to try again. It’s Lent after all, and I could use a new Lenten discipline. Besides, November’s presidential election isn’t that far off.