I awoke this morning to find our President attempting to further his own system of distraction. He does this every time he doesn’t want us to be thinking of what a horrible job he’s done, or to divert us away from the inequality policy creep of his administration.
It’s a typical tactic of authoritarian leaders. It’s meant to keep us chasing after the latest tweet, attempting to protect what little systems of checks and balances we have, and a blatant attempt to make us live within his worldview. He wouldn’t keep doing it if wasn’t working for him, so we have to think carefully how we wish to respond rather than react to these messages.
So, taking a deep breath, let’s remember the truth about our moment – especially as it’s the church herself being described with the latest foray of gaslighting. Let’s also remember that Trump usually makes no distinction which part of the church he is talking about, even though this time he was a bit more inclusive by including synagogues and mosques in his new policy he’s willing to go to war with State Governors over.
Faith communities are essential to American life. But one of the great lessons faith communities have learned during the pandemic is that we are not our buildings, but we are the people who meet together, pray together, serve together and cry together.
Our faith communities are more diverse than the few our President referred to, meaning that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’ís, Pagans and others are also vital parts of the faith community, whose service and public contributions to society should be recognized as vital to a pluralistic society. Instead, as we’ve seen in the past, this administration seems to lump all faith groups together with White Evangelicalism, and what’s good for them must be good for the others (which sounds increasingly like they are just Conservative Christianity Lite). When he does this, he deepens a false sense of persecution that the Religious Right has convinced themselves of.
Progressive Christians, Reform and Conservative Judaism, Progressive Muslims and others who do not agree with the culture wars of the Religious Right are often included in this gross over generalization, as if our concerns are the same as theirs. He doesn’t really pay enough attention to us to know how we view the word differently. But we can tell he lumps us all together when he says things like “all Jews should love me for what I’ve done for Israel” or “all churches are essential.” He thinks such statements and policies will get the faith community to support all his policies, regardless of how divergent they are from our real and proclaimed values. He even thinks he is being magnanimous on our behalf when he preemptively picks a fight with State Governors, many of whom are not following the federal guidelines or their own state guidelines by re-opening before 14 days of steady decrease of the virus. Now he thinks he can pretend to be our champion against bad governors who wont do what he tells them to do.
This is a form of dividing and conquering that seeks to win us all over to his positions. It expands the culture wars of the past between Left and Right, towards a new world where we are with him or against him. No room for nuance. No room for recognizing that people of good conscience come to differing conclusions about the needs in society, or that we can be a country where e pluribus unim – out of many, one – can actually work once again.
So, we’ve all experienced how divisive the rhetoric, stances, lies and tweets our President delivers daily. But have we recognized that this isn’t just a mistaken tactic that he uses. Have we admitted that he does this on purpose, to bring about his policy agenda, and to keep the spotlight on himself. Have we admitted to ourselves that this is also a part of the Dictators Playbook?
Timothy Snyder, PhD, wrote a small book called “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” (2017, Tim Duggan Books). In this short, small 126 page booklet, he points out that the “founding fathers” wrote into our system of government checks and balances to thwart those that wished to bring tyranny to these shores. Looking back at the history of the 20th century, he looks for what actions would have been able to ward off the rise of Fascism and Totalitarian Communism. He points out “twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.” Here’s the list, without his explication and explanations on why these actions are necessary in times like these:
- Do not obey in advance
- Defend institutions
- Beware the one-party state
- Take responsibility for the face of the world
- Remember professional ethics
- Be wary of paramilitaries
- Be reflective in you must be armed
- Stand out
- Be kind to our language
- Believe in truth
- Make eye contact and small talk
- Practice corporeal politics
- Establish a private life
- Contribute to good causes
- Learn from peers in other countries
- Listen for dangerous words
- Be calm when the unthinkable arrives
- Be a patriot
- Be as courageous as you can
Without looking any of them up, what strikes you about this list? We can all agree that we need to believe in truth, but it gets confusing when so many competing messages are in play. Some on the list are no brainers. Most of us seek to treat others with kindness and humanely. We try to investigate what is fake news before posting on social media, and we attempt to remain ethical in all of the ways that matter.
We’ve seen White Nationalist paramilitaries coming out of the woodwork during this administration, and our President rarely faults their public presence even when violence is used. We have all watched as multiple institutions have failed us, not just in the last four years but over the last 20 years we have seen a steady decline in the health of our voting system, lack of congressional protections from Wall Street’s excesses, the ability of the peace movement to stop wars from beginning, failure of our government to protect us from natural disasters or pandemics, an inability to enforce an economic regulatory system that would have protected us from the abuses during the foreclosure crisis, a failure to protect us all from mass shootings because of a favored interpretation of our constitution, the starving of our social safety net, an inability to end the black people murdered by police officers everywhere across the country, the utter failure of our mainstream news outlets to do anything but share corporate messages, an inability to have a real conversation about comprehensive immigration reform to protect millions of families living here without documentation, and the utter failure of all of our systems to stave off a fossil fuel industry that has capture all the controls of our government, media and economic powers to keep polluting on a planet dangerously close to the climate tipping points of no return.
The problems are real. They are all around us. And it would be easy to retreat into our own cocoons of protection from it all. But, as Snyder reminds us, we need to stay vigilant, keep our sanity, stand up when necessary – but most of all – we need to stay persistent and consistent in our search for truth and goodness.
“Take responsibility for the face of the world. The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.” (page 32)
So let us look at todays announcement through this new lens. Let us recognize that by calling communities of faith essential in order to attempt to get more people of faith to support him politically in a time of declining popularity, he is showing us that he is willing to endanger the many elderly and the people with health risks that may return to public places. He is blatantly abusing his oath of office to serve every American. Furthermore, encouraging a split between blue and red State Governors further attempts this divide and conquer mentality, regardless of the religious and political diversity in each and every state. In a country whose economic system has made it increasingly hard to stay in the middle class, setting economic policies that keep people overworking in their jobs for access to health care has been exposed during this pandemic. The poor have always been pitted against each other for the scraps of our trickle down economic idolatry. Those with some control over their economic lives will make it through this season much more easily that those who are pressured to keep working in genuinely “essential” workplaces to keep our health and public services going for all. Even well paid members of the health care industry have attempted to get the PPE (personal protective equipment) necessary to do their jobs while this administration competes with states to procure and distribute the PPE to those Governors and municipalities that provide enough deference to the ego of the President. Trump knows what he is doing in demanding such loyalty like a mob boss. This is how he has chosen to lead, with threats and systems that further the inequality. Sadly, he has confused strong leadership with “power-over” politics, which his political movement applauds as “owning the libtards.” Trump is using the faith community as the wedge issue in his cover up for the lost 6 weeks of lack of response to the pandemic. He wants us to forget about it, but we do so at all of our peril.
So while we follow Snyder’s invitation to investigate, we must also make sure we are ready to make a real difference for our families and communities should the systems and powers that be turn on the people. We need to recreate the commons in our own backyards through gardening, local systems of sharing and caring for one another that we had thought we had built into our systems of government. We can encourage our local leaders to retake the mantle of leadership as the funders of last resort for our failing social safety net, rather than relying on federal block grants. This means we will have to support our local leaders willing to retake this leadership, and protect them from those who have established an idolatry around taxes as oppression, and call them out. Why is it that those who are the most averse to taxes and regulations tend to be the affluent? How can we encourage them to take a new worldview that helps them see that their businesses will have more customers in a world where everyone can earn enough to survive? How can we help them see that it is in their best interest to help fund a county health system that protects us all from various life threatening diseases in order to help their family decrease their exposure to infections? We need to find a new way to frame and help gently expose those systems that have so clouded the thinking of many of our neighbors.
So, today I will keep defending institutions like our public health system for all, including Planned Parenthood, because anything less would be obeying in advance the desires of the corporate oligarchy that has been trying to undo the New Deal since it was instituted during another Great Depression. (Isn’t it ironic that they waited until another greater depression to enact many of their policies that they’ve had waiting in the wings until a time of disaster to implement?)
I will continue to call out the idolatry of the 2nd amendment, and argue against the latest, novel interpretation being used to allow people who are attempting to reclaim their societal privilege by carrying them around in public places. I’ll speak out about the intersectionalities of race, poverty and power expressed in such rallies, asking why it is that my own government won’t arrest white men carrying guns at state houses, but black men still get run down and shot to death by vigilantes that have worked for law enforcement. I’ll continue to use the power of my presence, placing my body in places of ideological contest to be a peaceful, non-violent presence while retaining my soft and caring manhood.
I will also continue to stand with the religious minorities of this country who continue to be hazed, proselytized, and discriminated against if they don’t agree with the Christian Supremacy of the Religious Right. I’ll join with those of other cultures around the world in exposing the military and economic abuses of my own country, such as calling for an end to the sanctions and impoverishment of Venezuela and Iran and calling for the cessation of military preparations against these countries. I’ll keep telling the stories that don’t make our corporate news systems, such as the years of drought and US foreign policy interventions in Central America that have forced whole villages to flee to our borders to survive. If Trump believes that American faith traditions support this, he is sadly mistaken. He has confused the Colonial Christianity of the Religious Right with the movements of faith that led persecuted religious minorities to come here in search of genuine freedom – to live and thrive with the freedom of conscience, speech and the press he so clearly despises.
And, I will continue to point out all of the intersections of these forms of colonialism perpetrated by my own country, which likes to think of itself as a bastion of freedom and Democracy, while tearing it down around the world when it doesn’t suit the interests of our multi-national corporate masters. Viewing today’s order to call all houses of faith essential in light of all of these issues, we must beware of any group that seeks to marry the interests of one faith tradition with political power. We won’t go back to the religious wars of a Europe with state religions, and will continue to point out how his preferred policies of Religious Right have become dangerously close to an establishment of religion in the public sphere. Especially during a pandemic that clearly hasn’t been prepared for enough, I will join the leaders of my congregation by protecting the people of my congregation from such nonsense. We will continue to stand up as different form of Post-colonial Christianity that seeks the best for all of our neighbors, not just some. We will continue protect the LGBTQ community from the “religious freedom” policies being enacted and recognize them publicly as a form of political discrimination on behalf of the Religious Right. We will stand with our faith partners of every stripe, resisting the policies and bombast that demean their full humanity and freedom to practice their own culture and religion without harassment or demands to act or sound more like white “Christians.” And, we will do so because of our faith.
Will you join me?
Rev. Will McGarvey