On Being the Church of Jesus in the Age of Trump
By the Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski
We strive, following Jesus, to listen with openness, speak with conviction, resist evil, receive hostility and return love, break silences which harm, resist cooperation with structures that cause hardship and suffering, practice healing, mend creation’s wounds, offer hospitality to the refugee and the sojourner, insist on human rights, love friend and stranger, ally and enemy: to point with our words, attitudes and actions to the acceptable year of God. — Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (BPFNA) ~ Bautistas por la Paz theological statement
The day after the 2016 election, as we do most Wednesdays, my husband, daughter and I went to dinner at church. As we sat down next to a friend, someone asked him, “How are you?” He glumly replied, “Well, you know, livin’ in Trump’s America.”
And so we are. Whether we voted for him, voted for her, chose not to vote, had our voting rights stripped or denied, or live here without benefit of citizenship, we are all living in Trump’s America together. What might it mean to be a faithful follower of Jesus now? What might it mean to lead others seeking to be faithful?
For many, fears are high. Will millions of immigrant families be separated by mass deportations? Will we see the forced registration of certain religious groups? Can we anticipate the suppression of the press? What are the policy implications of the alt-right taking credit for this victory and claiming places at the table? Will “law and order” mean, as it so often has, the targeting and destruction of black and brown bodies? Will our already-fragile planet be pushed past its ability to recover?
For others, hopes are high. Will jobs reappear — the kind of jobs that allow workers to support their families and hold their heads high? Will the struggles of my community be taken seriously? Can I expect to make a little more and do a little better so that I can feel secure? Will I be safe, and, even more difficult, will I feel safe? Will I be able to imagine a future for my kids — maybe even dream again that they’ll do better than me?
In the midst of fear and hope, blame and hatred are high. In the first week post-election, 437 incidents of hate-based intimidation, harassment and physical assault were reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many were against immigrants, African Americans and members of the LGBTQ community. Muslims, Jews, women and other minorities have also been targeted. At least one Trump supporter was assaulted as well. Heartbreakingly, many instances are taking place in schools, with even our youngest children attacking and being attacked.
Even when they do not boil over into hateful acts of aggression, our divisions are deep. Truly we do not know one another and are unfamiliar with the pains and worries that motivate the “other.” The frequently asked, “How could you have voted for him?” is answered with the genuinely baffled response, “What are you afraid of?”
More than one learned observer has noted that the divisions in our country are as dangerous as they have been since the Civil War. Whether you are horrified, ecstatic or indifferent about the outcome of the presidential vote, if you are concerned about the long-term health of our nation, you must be worried about the results of the election.
How do we live and lead in times such as these? Many have written about what people of faith must do at this moment. Remain vigilant. Bear witness. Advocate for ourselves and our neighbors. Take action for decency, respect and equality. Maintain a commitment to the common good. Resist what offends conscience and our faith.
Our Christian faith was birthed in oppression. We follow Jesus, who lived under threat from the time King Herod learned of his birth to the moment religious and political authorities turned him over to be crucified. To ground ourselves in such a faith is to equip ourselves to live in a world such as ours. The challenges are immense. Our resources are immense as well; therefore, I offer practical suggestions for the days ahead.
We have the witness of many people and communities who have acted with conviction and courage in dark and dangerous days. I have found myself of late reading over and again an email from a pastor about a conversation with one of his oldest members. The member, a 92-year-old World War II veteran who served time in a German prison camp, has been making calls encouraging dismayed friends by reminding them, “Christians have done some pretty good work under situations like this, so don’t give up now.” To steep ourselves in that history is to equip ourselves for these days.
Two documentaries — “A Church Stands With Its People” and “Act of Faith: The Reverend Emery Andrews Story” — tell the story of Christians standing with interned persons of Japanese descent during World War II. These resources provide a good starting point for exploring our legacy of faithful resistance on behalf of those on the margins. Likewise, current communities have long practiced resilience and resistance in the face of societal and governmental oppression. If you are not already connected to a community that practices resilience and resistance in response to the issues that God has placed on your heart, perhaps now is the time to reach out — to offer your concrete support, of course, and also to learn.
We can articulate the hard realities we see without paralyzing our people. It will be equally important, as many struggle with a sense of disempowerment, to give them work to do. This isn’t busy work for the sake of distraction, there is much to be done. Individuals might consider signing up for the interfaith Groundswell rapid-response team of the Revolutionary Love Project, and join those committed to flooding Congress with phone calls when policies contradict faith.
Congregations can serve as centers for crossing lines of division. Those who want to create relationships and do mission across racial lines can look into the New Baptist Covenant. Those interested in making cause against poverty across color lines might consider the newly emerging Poor People’s Campaign. Establishing relationships with the “other” will reveal that our mutual pain can serve to connect rather than separate. Some congregations might consider taking bolder steps, such as joining the network of sanctuary congregations.
The options for action are numerous, and I have suggested only a few. If you would like to connect with other people and churches to share what you are doing and to obtain ideas and support, sign up through BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz’s “We Are Better Together.”
I am motivated by Daniel Berrigan’s observation: “One cannot level one’s moral lance at every evil in the universe. There are just too many of them. But you can do something, and the difference between doing something and doing nothing is everything.”
May our words, attitudes and actions — even and especially now — point to the acceptable year of God.
The Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski is executive director of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz.