The Trump Presidency: Who Will We Become, Part 1

As the presidency of Donald Trump begins, many Christians who opposed him wonder how do we constructively work against policies shaped by the racist, xenophobic, and sexist views he expressed on the campaign trail? I want to step back and ask a more basic question:

Who will we become as we oppose President Trump’s policies that contradict what we believe are God’s political values?

In a short series of posts leading to Trump’s inauguration, I want to consider values and practices Christians will need as we work for justice and mercy. Will we detest our neighbors or love them? Will we become more cynical and jaded, or more hopeful? Will we react to Trump’s demagoguery with derision and self-righteousness, or will we commit to “speaking the truth in love”? (Eph 4.15) Will we allow our anger to become resentment at President Trump (and our neighbors who support him) or will we allow the Spirit to use our anger to compel us to stand with people on the margins?

I have returned to the commitment card produced by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, the Birmingham affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—the civil rights organization Martin Luther King, Jr. led. The practices members of that movement committed to would help ensure that they became more loving and hopeful in their work against oppressive systems. Here are the ten commitments each person made:

  1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
  2. Remember always that the non-violent movement seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory.
  3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
  4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
  5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
  6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  8. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
  9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

If we together follow practices like these every day we will be saturated in the love of God that frees men and women from the sin of selfishness. We will then love our neighbors who suffer under injustice so much that we will seek to make their freedom from oppression a reality. We will love those committing the oppression so much that we will seek to make their freedom from their sin a reality. We will know God, the love that loves us, so intimately that we will become conduits of the Holy Spirit’s love in the world.

We will encounter a number of temptations along the way. We will be lured to dehumanize Trump and our neighbors who voted for him. We will be tempted to find superficial comfort that we are not like our Christian brothers and sisters who supported Trump’s candidacy. But in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18.9-14) Jesus warns us against self-congratulatory spiritual pride. We may want to define ourselves by what we are not. Finding identity in being a Christian who didn’t vote for President Trump doesn’t tell us anything about our true convictions or hopes. Such a self-definition won’t sustain us for very long, nor will it protect us from the very real sins of wrath and pride.

For this work to be resilient, lasting, and truly reflective of the radical love of God, we need to commit to the affirmative. We have to define ourselves by our allegiance to our lord Jesus Christ and his purposes in this world. There will be seasons in which we will see only stagnation or failure. We need hope in a God who is love, who has conquered the world, and who is making all things new.

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Jesus Loves Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and We Should Too

Just three days into the first of the party conventions and it seems Americans have become only more divided. News stories, commentaries, and my social media feed are filled with voices belittling the other side. Liberal folks are aghast any reasonable person could support Donald Trump. My conservative neighbors are confounded any moral person could vote for Hillary Clinton.

Both candidates have their serious flaws, but I will not detail those in this post. Instead, I hope to encourage my fellow Christians to step back from the vitriol and instead engage in practices that foster a love for your neighbor—even if that neighbor is someone running for president with whom you disagree vehemently, or one of their supporters.

Strong opinions are not the problem. Debates about the size and scope of the government are necessary and even good in our republic. We should not give up our principles for the sake of a facade of unity. Let us have those political debates in good faith.

I am concerned about the dehumanizing language surrounding Trump and Clinton by their strongest detractors, who seem to find nothing good in them. Trump and Clinton are painted as terrible people who embody evil. Taking such a view is a problem for Christians. To be sure, the candidates may have terrible character traits and support monstrous policies. These should be named, rejected, and called to account. But as Christians, we have means to understand that sort of thing. Both Clinton and Trump are sinners. And we know the story that, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5.8)

For Christians it is important to maintain these two theological and political commitments during an election season:

  1. All people, even presidential candidates, are created in God’s image.
  2. Jesus Christ loves all people so much that he died to redeem them—including members of political parties we hate.

If Jesus sees Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton as worthy of God’s love then surely we should too. The fact is neither Clinton nor Trump is perfect, but neither are they utterly evil. We must reject the temptation to think they are and engage in practices that help us see them as God does.

During the conventions when we are drawn to cheer, throw our shoes at the television screen, or withdraw in disgust, let us make it a point to look for the good in other people, even if we might not find anything in their political views or careers that is praiseworthy. Can you engage in an act of service or mercy for someone across the political aisle? Even something as simple as sending them an encouraging note. If not, at least take time this week to think about the candidates and their supporters, especially the one with whom you most disagree, and pray for them as children created in God’s image and for whom Christ died.

God made you in God’s very image. Jesus Christ died for you so that you might be reconciled to God. The same is true of your political opponents.

National Parks as Incubators of Democratic Values, or: How Giant Sequoias Make Us a Better People (Repost)

St. Mary Lake from Sun Point(The following is a post I wrote in August 2012. I wanted to share it again as we are in the midst of another heated presidential election. The national parks provide us more than recreation or a chance to reconnect with nature. If we take time to reflect on their meaning, we can see they also shape us into better democratic citizens. If you have the chance, I encourage you to visit one soon.)

Back in June, my family visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. As we hiked along the Congress Trail, I carried my infant son and he began to cry just before we came upon a group of three people. They silently and excitedly motioned us to come over and together we watched a black bear cub playing on a fallen tree on the other side of a clearing. My kid continued to cry in spurts despite my best efforts to soothe him. Thankfully he did not disturb the cub’s focus. After a few minutes we began to leave and I apologized for my son’s noisiness, to which one of the women in the group smiled and responded in a wonderful Southern drawl, “That’s OK, this park belongs to him too.”

After that trip I have returned to Ken Burns’ excellent documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The early episodes detail the creation of these parks, which was unprecedented in the world’s history. Never before had a nation set aside public land in order to preserve the natural wonders for its citizens to experience. When Congress established Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, it stated that the land would be set aside, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Reflecting on my experiences in national parks as well as learning more about their history brings to mind a concept that has surprisingly received little attention in this election year: democracy. Those who originally sought to create national parks did so for two reasons. First, they wanted to protect the land, vegetation, and wildlife, what we today might call environmental conservation. Second, they protected the lands with an eye toward their neighbors and children — they believed it would be good for others, including future generations, to experience the lands in as pristine states as possible. They agreed to limit personal and private claims for development or exploitation of their resources. They believed to preserve the lands was democratic. Burns’ documentary quotes George Caitlin, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and others at length. Their words extolling the inherently democratic values of national parks evoke inspiration consistent with the natural beauty they sought to protect.

Because the creators of the national parks chose to curb their own possible gain, everyone who has the ability to travel there can experience the wonder of Yosemite Valley without paying exorbitant entry fees. One does not have to cough up cash to a photographer with sole proprietary rights to all pictures from Glacier Point. The granite of Half Dome will never be quarried for kitchen countertops. Burns’ films show there were people who wanted to lay private claims on what became the national parks for purposes of tourism or commercial use of the resources. But the American citizens, through their representatives, decided that these lands should belong to everyone. No one should have more of a claim to the lands than anyone else. I stand amazed at the selflessness required to secure natural beauty for all people present and future. These are values one still finds in the parks. When I was a child my parents would never let me take home even a rock from a stream bed and they argued, “If everyone took a rock home, one day there would be no rocks left.” The national parks are incubators of sharing and restraint, two key values of democratic virtue.

The woman we met on the Congress Trail clearly understood the virtue shaping the national parks’ existence, but I find little about democratic values in today’s public discourse. Most of the discussion has focused on economics, namely whether we are moving toward absolute free markets or socialism. Reducing life to mere economics, however, will not account for something as magnificent as preserving the Grand Canyon. While one can detail the relationships between economics and democracy, or argue whether free markets or socialism is more democratic, the fact is that economics is different from democracy. From the points of view of both the free market and socialism, Grand Canyon National Park is extremely inefficient. A mere $25.00 gets a carload of people into the park for seven days.  People would gladly pay higher fees and far more money could be made either for private investors or the state. From the perspective of economics, the raw resources in the parks are going to waste. Economics, however, cannot understand the democratic values that make these sanctuaries of beauty and wilderness available to all. The parks exist not for the return to shareholders or for the promotion of the state, but, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” National parks remind us that benefit and enjoyment sometimes come in forms other than money and consumable products. Benefit and enjoyment are not granted by the state, but rather, when people choose to restrain their own private claims and freely share with one another.

Good things happen to us when we encounter natural majesty for which we have a shared responsibility to maintain. When my son meets a woman from another state and they have a mutual interest in preserving the habitat of a black bear cub, community is created, a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself is fostered, and they are made, if only for a moment, more generous toward each other and nature.

As I read about the issues shaping this year’s election debate, I wonder how the lessons we learn in the national parks and the democratic values that gave rise to them them should play a larger part of the discussion. Currently we restrain ourselves by allowing ourselves just one vote. No one can (legally) sell their vote or purchase more opportunities to vote. This value of ensuring one vote per person and restraining ourselves from commoditizing that vote makes little economic sense, but it makes terrific democratic sense.  Where else might restraining and sharing for the purpose of ensuring all have a say or receive benefit help us move forward together?

If economics cannot make sense of the democratic values that formed the national parks, it seems unlikely to me that economics will be able to foster those values. I do not intend to demean economics. Rather, I hope we begin to see that there are matters that are beyond an economic scope. Economics should not be the primary or final arbiter of determining value. We need economics because we must produce, distribute, and consume goods to survive and progress. At the same time, let us remember Theodore Roosevelt’s beautiful charge he gave while visiting the Grand Canyon, “Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” Free markets, socialism, and other economies will always tempt us to look at the Grand Canyon and think that we could somehow make it better, more efficient, or more profitable. The truth is we cannot improve on it and we need values that encourage restraint and sharing, that help us to appreciate that the biggest hole in the ground, or the largest living things on Earth, are all our responsibility and are means of benefit and enjoyment for everyone. We need these values not only to protect natural beauty, but also our nation.

Say More About That

I want to make it my habit to use one phrase as my response to other people: say more about that. This statement is a countercultural act. Social media encourages quick responses to events. The statements that garner the most attention are usually the most opinionated—all the more if they come in the form of a sarcastic meme or gif—no matter if those opinions accurately reflect reality. I want to stop, listen, and learn, rather than simply offer my opinion. I want to hear the other person in a conversation instead of merely waiting for my turn to talk.

By temperament and training I make quick evaluations of arguments. As I read or listen to a person’s point of view I am constantly keeping a running tab of where I think they are right, and, more usually, where I think they are wrong. I have written before how my systematic theology professor in seminary, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, challenged me by his example to seek areas of agreement with others’ views before pointing out disagreements or offering corrections. I see I need to take a step further, or a step back, if you will. Before I look for areas of agreement, I need to make sure I understand the other person. To do that, I need to truly hear them.

When I read a statement from someone, I am quick to assign beliefs and values to them that have nothing to do with the argument they set forth. I think I understand their worldview entirely. If I disagree with an author on a political point, I will assume they espouse all sorts of unseemly social values. I hurriedly dismiss instead of seeking understanding. This is particularly dangerous in our pithy and distracted discourse. The truth is no one can be reduced to 140 characters. Slowing down and seeking deeper understanding of the other by asking them to, “Say more about that,” will hopefully help me see the nuance in the other’s argument. It will help me know more accurately whether I do agree or disagree with the person’s claim. And I will be better able to craft a thoughtful assessment of their position. Hopefully, such a discipline will help me see more dimensions in the person as well.

Last year Alissa Wilkinson wrote a thoughtful essay, “In Praise of Slow Opinions,” in which she laid out the reasons for not giving in to the pressure to form an immediate response and instead, to ruminate on a thought before giving your view. Wilkinson writes, “The good thing about forming opinions slowly, and then bouncing them off people who routinely disagree with you and aren’t afraid to say so—which describes most of my closest friends—is that when you are finally ready to write or say something, you can be more certain of it, because you’ve got a leg to stand on.”

I see a danger in this program. I might give in to the temptation to hide behind wanting more analysis when speaking against or for a controversial topic is needed. Asking someone to “Say more about that” should not be a means of avoiding taking a stand for justice. Rather, listening better should make me better able to clearly state why an unjust act or position is wrong. Sometimes situations demand swift action before a slow, reasoned discourse can happen. Just as knee-jerk responses are encouraged by our current instant discourse, my suggested discourse might have the opposite problematic effect of delaying when immediate response is needed. Discipline is needed to know when to speak and when to listen.

Using, “Say more about that,” may not drive up my shares or likes, but hopefully it will help me to understand people better and to appreciate their humanity more, even if I disagree with them.