How to Go On: Do We Have the Stomach for What's RequiredLuke Bretherton I Spirituality & Religion I Commentary I November 23rd, 2016
Watching the election results come in, and as the dawning realization of what was happening began to become apparent, the following quotation from Henry James came to me:
Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly ever apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no narrow illusion … we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.
I learned this quotation from reading Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, a book penned in 1971 when the 60s were going sour. Richard Nixon was in office, the Weather Underground had issued their "Declaration of a State of War" against the United States and were in the midst of a bombing campaign, and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers had revealed a long history of the U.S. government deceiving the American public about the war in Vietnam. The scandal of Watergate was yet to come. This quote seems as fitting now as it did to Alinsky in 1971.
But, theologically, the quote is always fitting. This is the world as it is: a world that a robust doctrine of sin should teach us to expect but which idolatry seduces us into forgetting. The chasing after idols is always foolish, but some have the luxury to indulge such foolishness at no physical cost to themselves. The election of Trump is a wake-up call to remember what those who are black, brown, queer, disabled, or a religious minority can only forget at their peril: that oppression is likely to get worse, but the struggle goes on; that the absurd becomes normalized, but must nevertheless be ridiculed even to the point where ridicule feels absurd; that love is more real than hate, but real love means hating what is evil; that the space between the world as it is and the world as it should be must be grieved in order to find the hope to go on; that a truly good, happy and meaningful life cannot involve leisure built off the domination of others. No form of life can be good if it does not have in its institutional forms and ends justice and generosity for all, and pursues this in such a way as to foster the agency of everyone, especially the vulnerable and dependent.
The temptation is not to abide with the truth of what Henry James is saying so that we might more fully confront the reality of the world as it is. The temptation is to blame others before we accept our responsibility for this situation and the judgment of God on us. Falling prey to this temptation to blame others by white Christian men and women, and the racial and religious scapegoating it generated, is partly what propelled Trump to victory. But his victory is also partly the responsibility of the left and the failure to confront its own failures.
A mood of nativist discontent and racial scapegoating married to actual economic displacement among a broad cross section of American society has up to this point lacked a determinate and focused ideological articulation. It is a mood that is easily captured by a demagogue like Trump. The only way to counter this kind of capture are forms of organizing that intervene to disrupt the sense that only Trump is speaking into and giving voice to this mood. Such organizing helps dis-identify potential supporters from either a right-wing populist like Trump, or explicitly fascist groups, through creating alternative political scripts that disarticulate the reasons for discontent from the interpretative frameworks the likes of Trump provides. But the kind of engaged, relational organizing that does not begin by denouncing people as a "basket of deplorables" requires leftists to stomach building relationships with people they don't like and find scandalous.
Yet this is exactly what successful anti-fascist organizers did in the 1930s in the U.S. and Britain, unlike on the continent of Europe. For example, Alinsky, who explicitly saw his work as anti-fascist, was a secular Jew organizing anti-Semitic Catholics, yet who was also able to recognize these same people as not wholly reducible to that and as potential renewers of democratic life. It was difficult and threatening work but the likes of Alinsky had the stomach for it, as did many others in the British and U.S. labor movements. And it worked. The question is, do those on the left have the stomach for it today?
In the wake of Trump's victory, fascist groups will be on the ascendency. They have the potential to move beyond Trump's vague populist message to ideologically capture the mood and turn it to directly fascist ends. This is seems to be happening in Europe. There is a crucial distinction to be made between potential supporters of and actual fascist groups. The latter needs vehement, agitational, uncompromising opposition. And it is incumbent upon whites to do this work, and especially white Christian men like me, as a form of atonement and repentance for the ways other white Christian men helped create this problem. We need to "come get our people."
Part of this organizing work is to help potential supporters of fascists reckon with a hard truth of building any form of just and generous common life: that is, everyone must change and in the process we must all lose something to someone at some point. This is part of what it means to live as frail, finite, and fallen creatures. Sacrifice and loss, and therefore compromise and negotiation are inevitable. The temptation and sin of the privileged and powerful is to fix the system so that they lose nothing and other always lose, no matter how hard they work. The fight is always to ensure that the loss is not born disproportionately by the poor and marginalized. And that is a Christian fight. It is part of what it means to love our neighbor.
Folded into loving our neighbor is the call to love our enemies. But Christian enemy love tends to fall into one of three traps. Either we make everyone an enemy (the sectarian temptation to denounce anyone who is not like "us"); or we make no one an enemy, denying any substantive conflicts and pretending that if we just read our Bibles and pray, things like racism and economic inequality will get better by means of some invisible hand (the temptation of sentimentalism that denies we are the hands and feet of the body of Christ); or we fail to see how enemies claim to be our friend (the temptation of naiveté that ignores questions of power). In relation to the latter trap, we must recognize that the powerful mostly refuse to recognize they are enemies to the oppressed and claim they are friends to everyone. A loving act in relation to those in power who refuse to acknowledge their oppressive action is to force those who claim to be friends to everyone (and are thereby friends to no one) to recognize the enmity between us so that issues of injustice and domination can be made visible and addressed. This involves struggle and agitation - something Christians are often reluctant to do because of a desire to appear respectable.
In place of these three traps we must learn what it means to see enemies as neighbors capable of conversion. This is simultaneously a missiological and political orientation. Agitational democratic politics is a means of "neighboring" that goes alongside actively building relationship with people we don't like or find scandalous in order to "seek the welfare of the city" (Jer 29.7) so that it displays something of what a just and generous common life might look like.
This article originally appeared at Sojourners.
Luke Bretherton is Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. Before that he taught at King's College London. His books include: Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship & the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), winner of the 2013 Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing. He has extensive involvement in community organizing and has worked internationally with numerous churches, mission agencies and faith-based organizations.