20 July 2017

Adopt a politician

Reichstag fire, 1933; source.
"Adopt a politician." This idea isn't original with me; the Friends Committee on National Legislation has urged us for years to build relationships with our legislators. But I have a slightly different meaning in mind.

The occasion for this exhortation is the extraordinary interview with U.S. president Donald Trump published yesterday by the New York Times. Aside from noticing the president's lapses into incoherence, almost every commentator I have read concerning this interview has pointed at his constant orientation of all topics around himself. As Benjamin Wittes says, listing all the Justice Department people who Trump claims have let him down, "They’re all, in different ways, not serving him. And serving him, he makes clear, is their real job."

Over the past year and a half, Donald Trump and his movement have been compared to fascists. Although there are some interesting behavioral links, there is no evidence that Trump adheres to fascism or any other systematic ideology. His fixation is with himself, his own sense of efficacy, and his desire to lead a country worthy of himself.

While the Trump phenomenon may not be classic fascism, it still has the seeds of authoritarianism. His vision seems to involve his own direct personal, heroic intervention on behalf of the millions of voters whose hero he claims to be, backed by his unprecedented understanding and unique public acceptance. (Not only did he win the popular vote if you don't count the cheats, he has even won over Poland and France.) In the service of this vision, he seems to want to build a top-down corporate state whose ministries and legislature ought to do his bidding, or he will know the reason why.

He wants credit for populist sensibilities -- finally exalting the people who resent the elites, who resent political correctness -- but he also believes millionaires are the best people to put in charge of making the national economy great, because they have a passion for wealth. "That's the kind of thinking we want." But the important point is, don't get in his way.

Timothy Snyder has warned us of the catalytic danger of a Reichstag fire in the slide toward authoritarianism. An equivalent event may indeed happen, thanks to North Korea or any number of other wild cards. I sincerely believe a different sort of fire has already started, a stealth fire that is stealing oxygen from the American democracy. The president does not plan to wait for an external crisis; he is already taking the steps needed to undermine the rule of law. The Times interview signals the distinct possibility of authoritarian moves to come -- for example, yet more firings at the Department of Justice to follow Preet Bharara, Sally Yates, and James Comey.

Yesterday, as we followed the progress of the health financing fraud unfolding before our very eyes, we also witnessed the president's lunchtime hints that "my friends, they might not be my friends much longer..." and specifically addressing Senator Heller ("He wants to remain a senator, doesn't he?"). We already know that well-financed pressure groups are ready to translate these hints into serious political attacks. The people there at that lunch laughed. Threats and public humiliation have become normal operating procedure. As Heller himself said, it was "just President Trump being President Trump." Exactly.

To be sure the elections of 2016 will not turn out to be a fluke, Trump has to make sure that his popular-vote "victory" is never again in doubt. Therefore (I am theorizing, true!), he has arranged for his favorite voting-fraud conspiracy expert, Kris Kobach, to convene a voting-fraud commission. Ironically, the commission's first meeting was not open to public attendance. With the U.S. Congress and a majority of state legislatures in Republican hands, the potential for mischief is obvious.

Wittes' article prescribes the antidote for this kind of creeping authoritarianism: "... the principle protection is having people with backbone who are willing to do their jobs and stand up for one another in the elevation of their oaths of office over political survival."

This is where we come in. I take the prayer factor seriously. I hope that every politician at that lunch, Heller and Trump included, has been or will be adopted by praying people -- people who will pray for their backbones, for their wisdom and protection, for their growing awareness of God's perspective. Let's not limit ourselves to our district's legislators; what about judges, governors, bureaucrats, journalists? Whom do we know in these lines of work? Are you and I praying for them? Their day-in, day-out competence and knowledge of God's grace and sovereignty can restore balance.

Prayer-based resistance doesn't mock. It doesn't rejoice when those we oppose are embarrassed, doesn't hope for our opponents to fall into scandals. We simply want to chase down persistently any evidence of corruption, self-dealing, betrayal, or incompetence, for the sake of the well-being of all of us, whatever our party. We hate elitism and triumphalism when it hurts those we love; we should hate it equally when it begins to infect us. We need to hold the politicians accountable for lapses in values and norms, but we need to hold ourselves and the so-called "resistance" accountable as well. Fear-mongering is no more acceptable among Trump's opponents than it is among his supporters. Prayer is our answer to fear as well as self-deception and false heroism, rooting ourselves in the Comforter who personifies Jesus's promise never to abandon or forsake us.

To pray against fear is not to choose the opposite extreme, passivity. It is to anchor ourselves in a reality far deeper than any desire to please one side or another. It's a spiritual preparation for a new kind of vigilance: one that is prepared for any kind of Reichstag fire, determined to reverse the harms already done, but not invested in being proven right if (thank God!) the threat of democracy's collapse turns out to be a false alarm.

On Sunday, our Northwest Yearly Meeting annual sessions begin at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, under the theme "When Grace Happens."

If the chronology of separation plays out as planned, these sessions are our last ones as a united yearly meeting. Part of me expects that our true theme will be "When Grief Happens." I have to make myself address a more fertile question, "What does grace look like in this situation?"

If I'm truly grace-oriented, I have to confront my anger. The churches who forced the separation seem to me (but I might be wrong!) to have placed a lower value on unity than the churches who are being required to leave. However, the path of grace doesn't require these kinds of calculations. Instead, I want to envision a separation that is so kind and conciliatory that (in the nineteenth-century footsteps of Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends and Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends), some day a reunion might be possible.

In any case, I hope the resulting bodies are not poisoned by resentment but instead enjoy an ongoing relationship of mutual blessing. Both groups possess the spiritual DNA of one of the most generous and well-rounded communities of Friends I've ever experienced. Division could in fact lead to new fertility, new modes of evangelism and prophetic action, new doors of access for people who've never heard of us but who'd thrive among us.

However, conflict also has its place. Our separation is rooted, I'm convinced, in harmful forms of biblical interpretation which have already led to deep personal wounds. But when we are separate bodies, how will we confront this harm; how will we hold each other accountable? To oversimplify for the sake of discussion, will the liberals be held hostage by wounded people? Will the conservatives be held hostage by people who feel betrayed and defensive? Without the loving challenge of the "other," could both groups become spiritually and intellectually lazy?

Maybe the best we can do, for now, is encourage the individuals of each group who are not content to let the estrangement solidify and become permanent. I hope that there will be some individuals and families who simply refuse to divide. Otherwise, the tendency to bear false witness against each other's faith and discipleship -- behaviors which have already undermined us for the last few yearly meetings -- will, among other grave costs, continue to disillusion our young people.

Baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson's faith is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Speaking of increasing access to our community: addressing our frequent use of Quaker terminology without context.

A fresh look at evangelicals and the evolution dispute.

The difficulties of rehabilitation for Russia's ex-prisoners.

Memphis in Moscow....


David H. Finke said...

These observations and analyses -- sociopolitical and theological -- are *SO* deep, true, and necessary. I want to reread this piece several times and recommend it to others.

Our political malaise is palpable, and the threats are real. Yet, within and above this all, Johan is pointing us in the Right Direction, to the Source of whatever wisdom and power we may have. His is the "Edward Burrough" message for our time... which I'll gladly copy here for those perhaps unfamiliar with what that 17th century Young Friend had to say in times of political turmoil probably much worse than our own.

Love to all, —DHF

Johan Maurer said...

Love to you, David! Thank you for writing.

David H. Finke said...

Since I referred to Burrough's testimony, let me insert the powerful excerpt here, which I am convinced may Speak to our Present Condition:

"And we are not for Names, nor Men, nor Titles of Government, nor are we for this Party, nor against the other, because of its Name and Pretence; but we are for Justice and Mercy, and Truth and Peace, and true Freedom, that these may be exalted in our Nation; and that Goodness, Righteousness, Meekness, Temperance, Peace and Unity with God, and one with another, that these things may abound, and be brought forth abundantly: such a Government are we seeking and waiting for, wherein Truth and Righteousness, Mercy and Justice, Unity and Love, and all the Fruits of Holiness may abound."

He addressed it to his "Present Distracted and Broken Nation" of England, in 1659, when the Revolution was collapsing.

Johan Maurer said...

"Present Distracted and Broken Nation..." I guess in the year 2017 we're not precisely "Broken" but we are dangerously Distracted.

Anonymous said...

My researches for my books have been leading me increasingly to the conclusion that a major cause of disunity has been a fear-based spirituality and/or theology -- a prime example of which is the forensic (substitutionary/satisfaction) views of the atonement, which are grounded in the fear of eternal punishment. Those who strongly adhere to such spirituality/theology are at least strongly tempted to disvalue unity with those who they believe are eternally doomed to hell because they do not share their views.