Parr Dialog/Lecture Series
On Friday, January 27, 2017, Wes Granberg Michaelson offered the following talk at the Parr Lecture Series at the Festival Center. Since it deals profoundly with our own spiritual struggles at this time in the history of our country, we thought it was so important we are with Wes's permission, reprinting it here.
Spiritual Survival Strategies in the Trump Era
A couple of weeks ago I went out to lunch with the pastor of our church in Santa Fe. She asked, “What do you think you will do to respond to the Trump Administration?” My immediate response was, “I’m going to find a spiritual director.” I was serious. I had, in fact, been meeting monthly with a spiritual director during the past year, but in October she moved away. The unexpected election of Donald Trump plummeted me into such a mood of disbelief, emotional reactivity, and political angst that I was losing my spiritual center. Responding on Facebook to the latest outrage, while perhaps politically therapeutic, wasn’t satisfying my soul. I needed to become grounded again with my deepest self and with God.
At a lunch with friends from church to process the aftermath of the election, my wife Karin said,
Donald Trump is going say or do something every day which will arouse us emotionally. And we can’t allow ourselves to be stuck in that place of continuous arousal, responding to him. We have to find safe spaces to support proactively the things we’re called to do.
In St Paul in December, attending a funeral, I was at Sunday brunch with a Lutheran theology professor, fly-fishing partner, and close friend. His daughter joined us. She’s highly intelligent, doing doctoral research at the University of Southern California, and politically engaged. She’s also maintained quietly the heritage and sincere practice of her Lutheran faith. We were discussing the election and the finding that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. She said, “When I listened to my colleagues at the university talk about the election and their view of religion, I decided that I had to ‘come out’ as a Christian.”
More than any in recent memory, this election has had a spiritual impact sent rippling through society and impacting people’s lives. This simply isn’t like a victory of Republicans over the Democrats, or vice-versa. Let’s be clear again about what happened. This country elected as its president a person who aroused evil fears of racial bigotry to gain political power, who blamed and demonized vulnerable immigrants, who displayed the most vulgar behaviors toward women, who expressed wholesale mistrust toward Muslims, who tried to criminalize his opponent, who attacked the functioning of the free press, who dismissed threats to the planet’s sustainability, who promised to wall America off from outsiders, and who pledged to protect the economic security of the nation’s most wealthy, even while shielding his own wealth from public accountability.
For many followers of Jesus (and especially those who are not white evangelicals), Donald Trump’s candidacy came to feel like more than a disagreeable political program; rather, it directly contradicted and threatened the integrity of their Christian faith and undermined its public witness. The values underlying the Trump campaign, co-mingled with a personality that is narcissistic, pugilistic, and vindictive, became an assault on what Christian ethics teaches and what we hope our lives stand for.
The inner lives of many have been thrown into spiritual disequilibrium. Even while we search for political responses and may find encouragement in the unprecedented mobilization of the millions marching on every continent, we need to discover the roots for resistance and creative public engagement that can be spiritually sustained for the long run.
I’ll put it this way: when they go low, we go deep.
In doing so, we will need to hold firmly onto five key dimensions central to how we are to live and practice our Christian calling, especially during the presidency of Donald Trump. These are: Memory, Truth, Community, Suffering, and Solidarity.
We forget that much of Christian faith is about memory. When the people Israel found themselves unexpectedly driven into exile in Babylon, they proclaimed:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion….
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you… (Psalm 137: 1,4-6)
Memory is tied to the identity of the people of God. Continually, the people of God are reminded of who they are by recounting the sweep of salvation history. And our memory becomes attached to this version of history because our lives find their value and purpose there. The core liturgical act for the Christian community is the Eucharist, or communion. This is a celebration of remembrance. As one writer has said, “memory is more than just a psychological exercise of data retrieval, but the ‘faculty that tells us who we are.’”
It’s through memory that our personal story becomes attached to God’s story. We claim our defining narrative.
The flow of news, information, and communication in our society combats the power and purpose of memory. We are riveted to the present, where news cycles saturated with fresh content create historical amnesia, daily. Headlines, whether in tweets, from blogs, or established news sites, attempt to define the current and most important story.
This is an ongoing challenge in any modern political environment. But it is made far more dangerous by Donald Trump’s communication style. He masters news cycles by morning tweets which drive media attention, whether positive or negative, and then diverts that attention by a following tweet or spontaneous public statement, which effectively eclipses memory of the previous 24 hours, much less 24 days or 24 weeks. Moreover, that also allows him to change his story. A stance consistently taken for weeks is suddenly reversed, but then forgotten as attention quickly moves on to the next thing.
Thus, memory will be crucial for us in the Trump era for two reasons. First, it is essential for accountability, perspective, and judgment regarding Donald Trump and his presidency. We must literally “bear in mind” who he is, what he has said, and what he has done if we are to fairly and critically evaluate his policies and actions as president. If we lose our memory, diverted by the latest tweet or scandal or intrigue, we will deprive ourselves of a genuinely prophetic posture. Nor will we even know how to best pray for our president.
But second, and more important, memory—specifically our religious memory—is what keeps us grounded in our story in the face of other competing narratives. Every administration in this town tries to drive a narrative explaining both social reality and the salvific nature of the president’s leadership. With the Trump Administration, this has begun in particularly stark ways, telling a story of national carnage that can be salvaged only by asserting defiantly our superiority and self-righteousness and defending ourselves at home and abroad against any who present a different vision.
But our story is different, told by those claimed by a gracious God, whose love always expands the boundaries constructed in our hearts and in our society, and whose pathways of redemption were shown decisively in the humility and suffering of a servant. In this time, as in every time, this is what we most need to remember and allow to shape us.
So, as we enter the era with Donald Trump as our president, one of the most crucial and grounding things for us to do, politically and spiritually, is to gather at the Table and hear those words, “Do this in memory of me.”
It is ironic that the famous statement of Pilate to Jesus, “What is truth?” now reverberates through today’s media. James Ernest, a friend who is Editor in Chief at Eerdmans Publishing Company, recently posted this on Facebook:
1. Truth is truth.
2. Lies are lies.
3. The difference matters.
4. In most current this-worldly matters, it is possible to know the difference.
5. The one who is untruthful in little will also be untruthful in much.
6. When someone contradicts any of the above, wake up and take note: you have glimpsed the face of the author of lies and in this moment you will declare your allegiance. We all do it every day and our cumulative choices define us.
For Christians, questions of truth and falsehood are a spiritual matter. The ninth of Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures states, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” In one definition, this forbids:
1. speaking falsely in any matter, lying, equivocating, and any way devising and designing to deceive our neighbor.
2. speaking unjustly against our neighbor, to the prejudice of his reputation.
The focus on care for one’s neighbor recognizes that truthfulness is essential for sustaining community.
Moreover, lying, falsehood, and deceit are understood biblically as essential tools of evil. Jesus calls the devil “the father of lies.” (John 8:44) Truth is not merely a preferred practice but, in Christian thinking, it’s foundational to a just social order.
Therefore, for objective truth to be in dispute and falsehoods named “alternative facts” is not just a political danger; it strikes at the core of a trustworthy society. On his first day as president, while visiting the CIA, Donald Trump called journalists “the most dishonest human beings on earth.” One normally would imagine that extreme and audacious statement only being uttered by a dictator in a third world country rather than a sitting president of the world’s leading democracy.
A free press is linked to the discovery and accounting of truthful events in society and the world. Its flaws are many, but its role is indispensable. Remember this: Every authoritarian ruler in the world tries to undermine the public’s confidence in an independent media so that he or she can define the truth. In the case of Donald Trump, his relentless attacks on the media have the intent of undermining the credibility of the press among as much of the public as possible. In that way, his narrative, his version of events, his exaggerations, and his outright falsehoods will not be held to account. This is how evil works its way into our social fabric.
Our responsibility as biblical people committed to the common good is to stand for truth. But we must also admit a tension. Pilate’s question, “What is truth,” is asked by many today, particularly in a post-modern society where any permanent claims to objective veracity are brought into question. Here, we can acknowledge that an understanding of truth is influenced by the perspective and perception of the one who seeks it.
Biblical faith understands this. That’s why its consistent portrayal of the “truth” about any social order is seen through the eyes of the poor and the marginalized. The Bible has that bias and it was embraced by Jesus. He interpreted the truth about his society by focusing on the Samaritan, the widow, the oppressed servant, the outcast person with leprosy, the paralytic—all those whom the respectable self-righteous leaders of society pushed to the margins and excluded.
This way of seeing the truth of society from the perspective of the powerless and oppressed stands in contradiction to the version of “truth” seen from the perspective of rulers captured by their grandiosity, enamored by their power, and resistant to any critique. In the Trump era, we must take our stand against falsehood as an act of spiritual obedience and follow Jesus in perceiving the truth about our society.
When young Dietrich Bonhoeffer witnessed the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, he was dismayed by the accommodation and support it received from the state Lutheran church and the strong majority of its members. With others, he formed the Confessing Church, which proclaimed that the Third Reich threatened the integrity of Christian faith. They tried to establish an alternative church structure, including “underground” seminaries to train clergy.
Bonhoeffer headed the underground seminary at Finkenwald. His conviction was that the form of Christianity dominant in Germany lacked the capacity and depth to discern the threat posed by Hitler and resist it as a matter of faith. So, at Finkenwald, Bonhoeffer focused on Christian formation. He wanted to shape a community that learned how to confess sins, to meditate daily on texts of Scripture, and to develop solidarity with the weakest members of society. Bonhoeffer understood that the task was to build a fellowship nurtured by a spirituality deep enough to stand the test of that time. This became the basis for his book, Life Together.
Gordon Cosby, founder, with his wife with Mary, of Church of the Saviour, was also impacted by the events of World War II. As a chaplain in Europe, Gordon came to realize that so many of the men he accompanied lacked a religious faith that was deep and formative enough to prepare them either for how to live or how to die. His vision for Church of the Saviour was for a community grounded in practices of spiritual formation in order to equip its members for the missional call on their lives. It was not unlike Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s attempts at Finkenwald. And the lives of many of us here this evening have been profoundly shaped by that vision.
All this should be borne in mind when we mediate on the polls of religious voters in the past election. Not only did 81% of those identifying as white evangelicals support Trump, but those in mainline Protestant congregations included large numbers of Trump supporters as well as 67% of white Catholic voters. Shortly after the election, I shared this on a Sojourners’ blog site:
“…this election marked the defeat of the public witness of Christians in the parishes and pews of America's churches — and especially those that are predominantly white….That means that those, like myself, who have carried responsibilities to nurture faithful discipleship through Christian institutions, denominational structures, and organizations have failed in the test of this time.
We find ourselves faced with a challenge like that discerned by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Gordon Cosby. The public witness of so many who follow Christ lacked the spiritual depth and clarity to proclaim the true meaning of Christian faith for the life of society in this time. Discipleship faltered, without the strength to follow Jesus into the world. Courage was dissipated, bereft of spiritual power and biblical discernment.
Once again, we are in deep need of basic, enduring spiritual formation to acquire both the clarity and strength that equips us to follow Jesus and answer the question posed by Bonhoeffer: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” As my Lutheran friend said, we must learn how to “come out” as Christians. And this can only happen in community. The habits of thinking, practices of living, disciplines of praying, celebrations of worship, and clarity of calling can only happen with one another.
The lesson for this time is that Christian communities committed to prophetic witness in society endure when they learn to nurture the spiritual depth of practices that equip them for the long run. Resistance alone does not sustain a community. It requires a shared life that is rooted in a depth of spirituality that forms and shapes who we discover ourselves to be and what we are called to do before God. In the Trump era, as in other times, we need to nurture such communities as integral to our life and witness.
I’m frequently nurtured by reading Father Richard Rohr’s daily mediations. Last September, he wrote about the difference between pain and suffering. While we all experience pain, suffering comes from our inability to control certain devastating events in our life. But it’s precisely this encounter with suffering, as an utter lack of control—resulting in complete helplessness, vulnerability, and loss—which can open the way for God’s Spirit to break through with the power and promise of new, resurrected life. That’s the story of Jesus. And that’s the invitation to all who would follow him.
That’s the word we need to hear today. Probably all of us here thought Donald Trump could be defeated. And for some who were politically or publicly engaged, we believed our efforts could help, even in a small way, to make that happen. And we failed. We couldn’t control this. And we now find ourselves living in a political landscape that we never imagined.
It’s important for us to live spiritually with this unexpected loss of control. Rohr puts it this way:
If suffering is ‘whenever we are not in control’ then you can see why some form of suffering is absolutely necessary to teach us how to live beyond the illusion of control and give that control back to God. Then we become usable instruments because we can share our power with God’s power.
These situations of desolation offer us the opportunity for connecting more deeply to the reality of God’s love. We can learn to trust only trust in this love because it seems we can’t depend on anything else. Such experiences of loss, feeling like death, can open ourselves to a taste of the resurrection. All growth, all transformation happens in this way. It comes through suffering—the loss of control—which then can make us “usable instruments” for God’s power.
The church that will be faithful in the Trump era will often feel powerless and unable to control events. In that sense, it will suffer, not from direct persecution as much as from its apparent irrelevance, being dismissed to the margins by the powers-that-be. We should note, however, that this was the normal experience of the church for the first 300 years of its life. In that time, however, its witness became the vehicle for the social transformation of the known world. Today, most of world Christianity lives where it lacks control and power directly in the political life of its societies. At times, it is deliberately and mercilessly oppressed. Yet, faith thrives, often with an unexpected impact that eventually has a transforming effect within society.
Of course, some Christians in the Trump era will draw close to those reigning with political power. It may be because their theology is so superficial and individualized that they have no conception of the sin of national idolatry. Others are drawn to the glitzy corridors and towers of power, setting personal misgivings aside, in the hope of exercising some influence on the decisions of the Administration. With nearly every regime or government, even in biblical times, such examples can be found. In the best cases, they accommodate themselves to the wishes and whims of the powerful with the hope that their voice might be heard. In the worst cases, they become collaborators with evil.
In the face of an administration so fervently and unapologetically committed to a nativist, exclusionary social vision interwoven with a self-righteous, nationalistic sense of superior global entitlement, the place of the faithful church will be on the margins of conventional political power, accepting the limitations of our control and the form of suffering which that entails. Yet, this can provide a portal for the deeper relinquishment of our lives to God’s love.
Others are suffering from a lack of control but, unlike most of us, they are more vulnerable, lacking protections of wealth, class, or race and therefore less able to protect themselves. They suffer not a mere lack of political control but from direct threats to their dignity, their health, their livelihood, their homes, their loved ones, and even their lives. This calls us to the final dimension of our faith demanding our commitment.
Pope John Paul II said that solidarity
is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”
He knew what solidarity could mean, not just spiritually but politically since this was the name of the independent trade union movement led by Lech Walesa resulting in the downfall of Poland’s communist regime.
At its heart, solidarity is the means by which we live out the truth of Ephesians 4:25, declaring that we are all “members one of another.” It is this mutual belonging to a common humanity which lies at the foundation of Christian social ethics, affirming each one’s dignity and building common political and social structures which uphold and protect this commitment.
While always a Christian value, it becomes paramount in political climates dominated by division, fueling animosity between differing racial, ethnic, religious, economic, and social groups. This is now the climate of American politics, shaped by the election of Donald Trump. Language of our common humanity, of our mutual obligations toward one another, and of the need to protect and nurture a political environment protecting the dignity of all—which Republican and well as Democratic presidents have declared from the steps of the US Capitol after taking the oath of office—is not just absent. Suddenly, it sounds like a foreign tongue.
And it is not just words. In just one week, executive orders, dramatically signed in the Oval Office, create fresh existential threats for immigrants, refugees, residents and visitors from Muslim-majority countries, Native Americans in South Dakota and beyond, and those whose health depends upon care guaranteed by the federal government. That’s all transpired since last Friday. Solidarity is being shredded.
Rebuilding those bonds of solidarity, wherever and however possible, has now become a primary calling of Christian discipleship. The vulnerability of three groups requires immediate attention.
First, are the perpetual police actions against young black men and women driven, consciously or unconsciously, more by the victims' race than by their actions? In proclaiming himself as the “law and order” candidate, Donald Trump echoed an old and deliberate message which minorities have historical reasons to fear. Gains made in the hard work of dialogue over policing in minority communities now may be rolled back. And the Justice Department, if led by Jeff Sessions, will have no inclination to hold police departments accountable to civil rights laws. Christians must be among those who will stand in the gap.
Second, from the start of Donald Trump’s journey down the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his campaign, immigrants have been a target. On Wednesday, we saw the first steps toward implementing his promises. Christians now must take our steps to implement the biblical promises toward the stranger, the foreigner, and the sojourners. Solidarity will call us to practical and costly actions.
Third, Muslims have been harshly stigmatized throughout the campaign. The President’s consistent rhetoric, and now his initial actions against those from Muslim majority countries, doubles down on hostile divisions based on religious difference. Those most vulnerable are the 3.3 million Muslims already living in the United States and now subject to judgment, distain and even violence from fellow Americans, including extreme elements who now feel sanctioned by the attitudes of our president. Christians need to build bonds of practical solidarity and hospitality with every Muslim neighbor close to them.
One other dimension of solidarity needs to be highlighted, namely, our solidarity with the God’s creation. Being in solidarity with all people, committed to their dignity, recognizes today that the livelihood of the most vulnerable and of us all, is intricately linked to the sustainability of creation. Climate justice is now the predicate of any commitment to the common good, protecting the rights and value of all people. Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home has said this forcefully and persuasively. The early moves of the Trump Administration have demonstrated a wanton disrespect for those government agencies and treaties committed to protecting the integrity of creation as a gift for all people. Therefore, acts of Christian solidarity in the Trump era must also extend to the earth.
Unfortunately, this list is not exhaustive. Our task as Christians is to internalize spiritually the meaning of solidarity as part of what it means to follow Jesus and then discover the specific places where this becomes politically incarnate for us. The opportunities, regrettably, will be numerous.
When my friend Basil Buchanan, who shared my pilgrimage in Church of the Saviour four decades ago and continues it today, called to ask if I could give this lecture, we discussed the difficulties and challenges of this time. He recalled an old hymn from his childhood, “In Times Like These.” I knew it well from the evangelical church where I was raised:
In times like these, you need a Savior,
In times like these, you need an anchor:
Be very sure, be very sure,
Your anchor hold, and grips the Solid Rock!
This image of an anchor holding solid seemed to have fresh relevance for this time.
But this metaphor has a deeper history, even more relevant for us today. In the Middle Ages, a movement grew for some Christians to leave normal society and enter a radical form of solitary life, seeking the experience of God through prayer, interceding for the world, and partaking in the Eucharist. They were called “Anchorites.” They promised to retreat into a small cell and live the rest of their lives in that place. This usually was a cubicle built onto the side of a church, with three windows—one into the church in receive the Eucharist, another to receive food, and a third to the outside to admit light but with a cloth drapery.
This practice attracted more women than men—as high as four to one in the thirteenth century. One of the most famous, whose writings are with us today, was Julian of Norwich. Even though “Anchorites”—men and women—adopted this radical form of physical withdrawal, their consecrated lives of prayer made them sought after by those in the community. People would come to the window to ask advice, seek wisdom, and request guidance—at times important persons of political influence would do so. Thus, the contemplative life of secluded prayer from Anchorites had an inspiring, shaping influence on their community.
These cells, or cubicles, were called “anchor-holds.” It was the place housing the experience with God which held one’s anchor deep. And the wisdom and spiritual power developed in those anchor-holds became a gift of guidance, perspective and truth for others.
In her wonderful account, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard is drawn to the same image to explain her experience:
I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia's Blue Ridge. An anchorite's hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down.
In this unexpected era of Donald Trump’s presidency, threatening to catapult us from one discordant act to another in a swirl of anxious reactivity, we need to find places and persons who will become our anchor-hold. We must examine where we will go, what we will do, and whose company we will seek to provide a steadfast, trustworthy experience that connects our lives indissolubly to God’s love. Let us create and name our anchor-hold. From there, we can embrace the qualities of memory, truth, community, suffering, and solidarity that will be so needed in the days ahead.