amplifications to clarify my critique...

Recently I wrote a Facebook posting re: my reaction to the smug and self-righteous ways I
experience many progressive opponents of Donald Trump.  It reads:

One of the things that saddens and sickens me is the cruel elitism that drives much of our nation's progressive critique of Mr. Trump and his followers. There is no excuse for this camp's cruel, ugly and punitive agenda. They must be challenged and opposed at every turn. At the same time, snarky name calling and belittling caricatures of real people's pain and fear does not advance the cause of justice or compassion. Dr. King once pulled the plug on his team's bitter and snide remarks about Robert Kennedy and challenged them to find a way to make RFK an ally. In time, that happened. I am not under any illusion that all my opponents can be won over - that would be naive and even foolish - but let's knock off the BS, name calling and character assassination, ok? Let the facts speak for themselves and our witness be about love not hatred.

In the spirit of solidarity, please allow these amplifications to clarify my critique:

+ First, mine is not a simplistic, Rodney King-esque plea that posits "why can't we all just get along?!"  Rather, like Niebuhr wrestling with the complexities of individual and social behavior, I see that, "Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply." Evil is real. It is born of pride - what Niebuhr calls "original sin" - that matures within and among us through lies. Whenever we are dishonest about the ways we advance our own self-centered goals without repentance, whenever we choose denial over responsibility and scape-goating another over open-hearted personal confession, truth is diminished. In time, we may no longer know the origin of the lie because it has become embedded in our destiny and rooted in our identities. This is where Girardian insights are essential: they expose "our tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan values (which creates) the source of all religious (and political) fanaticism." (Niebuhr)

During the recent World Series between Chicago and Cleveland, I was struck over and over again by the ugly and mean-spirited image of my team's racist mascot:  Chief Wahoo. Watching the news of the Standing Rock Sioux's challenge to corporate greed - and praying support for my First Nation sisters and brothers in their nonviolent protest - awakened me to the depth of my own once passive acceptance of this offense.  I served an inner-city church in Cleveland for over 12 years. I loved that town - and still do. We regularly went to baseball games in the old stadium and became serious Indians' fans during the 80s and 90s. Some of my best memories with my young daughters involved baseball. And for the most part, loving this team as part of the community almost never included challenging the racism of this mascot or the team's name. Acceptance of the franchise ran deep - and unawares, too. Those from outside of Cleveland clearly saw the injustice -- and called us out - but not many who lived and worked in the city took notice - myself included. As Niebuhr observed, we are all blinded by selfishness and often cannot see our own injustice. And if this is true individually, it is compounded in the complexities of groups. "Rationality belongs to the cool observer, but because of the stupidity of the average man (sic), he follows not reason, but faith, and naive faith requires necessary illusion and emotionally potent oversimplifications which are provided by the myth-maker to keep ordinary person on course.” (Moral Man and Immoral Society)  Too often liberal zeal for right relations in society mask our own unconfessed sins.

+ Second, naming the danger and the problem in Trump is not the same as character 
assassination and/or name calling. Many of his economic/political sound bytes ARE fascist
and racist. His oppressive and lewd groping of women - and his cruel denigration of those who resist him - are not only sexist they are often criminal. His affinity for bullies and dictators is terrifying for those who celebrate democracy. So, I'm not advocating "playing nice" with a potential tyrant. That would be ethically bankrupt and politically irresponsible. Evil must be confronted and truth must be brought out to challenge power. Rather I am urging that our pursuit of justice and compassion be grounded in humility lest we become what we hate. 

Another of Niebuhr's insights is that human action for the good always involves a paradox: our best efforts are incomplete and often compromised in ways we fail to comprehend. That is why we need competing perspectives in civil society. Democratic politics advances justice - but always in part, never completely. "Goodness armed with power," he wrote, "is always corrupted while pure love without power is destroyed."  Such is the reality of history. Our task in calling out the evil in Trump - or others - requires rigorous inner humility alongside careful analysis of our own shadow.  Without a commitment to this paradox, we deepen the lies that wound us all. So as people of faith engaged in the realm of politics, we must remind one another that, "Religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values."  Walt Kelly, author of the comic "Pogo" got it right when he confessed during the Vietnam War, "We have met the enemy and it is we."

+ And that is my third concern:  discovering ways to name and own our shadow and complicity in evil without demonizing others.  As a straight, white, male Protestant clergy person of the bourgeoisie I have inherited a host of sins, foibles and fears that I don't even know are part of my DNA.  Other's experience this same truth from within their own histories and contexts, too. My concern is not the inevitability of human sin: that is a given for me. No, as Dorothee Soelle once said in a class at Union Theological Seminary:  What the person of faith must choose as a matter of justice is class, race and gender suicide. That is how solidarity is manifest in a broken world.  Niebuhr put it more kindly - but the point is the same. "It is my strong conviction that a realist conception of human nature should be made a servant of an ethic of progressive justice and should not be made into a bastion of conservatism, particularly a conservatism which defends unjust privileges.”

Humility in analysis and discourse often requires humiliation. It is how many of us learn to get out of our own way, open ourselves to the wisdom of others, and give up a part of the privileges
we have inherited through the accident of birth. A few years back, I was writing in this blog about the liberating inclusivity of Jesus.  Like many clerics of my class, I readily accepted both my tradition's denigration of Jewish Pharisees as they opposed Jesus in the gospel's as well liberation theology's incomplete picture of First Century Judaism. Both tended towards binary analysis with Jesus portrayed as the good guy welcoming in the outcasts while the Pharisees acted the part of the villains of religious intolerance. After I posted something that maintained this untruth, a rabbi colleague wrote to me in the most tender way possible asking:  "Do you really believe such a wooden and incomplete picture about Judaism - then and now - because if you do, that is dangerous." Her words were careful and kind. They were meant to take the plank out of my eyes so that I might fully see - and it was humiliating (albeit in the most loving way!). It needed to be. The same thing happened a number of times in Seminary where my privilege and bias was called out by women, LGBTQ allies and people of color.  Humility is a gift hard won by us all: it requires more silence from me, more proximity to those with different experiences and histories, and more trust that God is always at work making me whole. 

Amy Jill Levine's work (as well as James Carroll's) helped unpack my colleague's question for me. Both scholars helped me realize that like many of my peers, I too have labored under an unrecognized anti-Semitism when it comes to using the stories of Jesus for justice.  Simply stated, the cardboard villains of Pharisees portrayed in the Gospels are untrue. They are the product of First Century religious polemics. Properly understood, this portrait exposes the internecine arguments between the early Church and the Synagogue that have also perpetuated more than 2,000 years of vicious anti-Semitism. Again, I believe, that Niebuhr got it right when he wrote:  "There is no deeper pathos in the spiritual life of man than the cruelty of righteous people. If any one idea dominates the teachings of Jesus, it is his opposition to the self-righteousness of the righteous."  As even a casual observer of contemporary Presidential politics must confess, no one group has a monopoly upon self-righteousness.

Perhaps it is best that I close with one last shot from Brother Reinnie:

An element of comedy is never completely eliminated from irony. But irony is something more than comedy. A comic situation is proved to be an ironic one if a hidden relation is discovered in the incongruity. If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits – in all such cases the situation is ironic. The ironic situation is distinguished from a pathetic one by the fact that the person involved in it bears some responsibility from it. It is differentiated from tragedy by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than a conscious resolution. While a pathetic or a tragic situation is not dissolved when a person becomes conscious of his involvement in it, an ironic situation must dissolve, if men or nations are made aware of their complicity in it…. or it leads to a desperate accentuation of the vanities to the point where irony turns into pure evil.


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