For Sunday November 13, 2016
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
Isaiah 65:17–25 or Malachi 4:1–2a
Isaiah 12 or Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6–13
This Tuesday Americans will elect a new president. To say that it's been a chaotic campaign would be an understatement. And some people believe that the chaos suggests that our American political system is broken in some fundamental ways that won't be fixed by a new name in the White House.*
Back in 2004, the economist Paul Romer quipped that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. That is, some of our worst experiences provide fertile ground for our best opportunities. Toward that end, I've been contemplating two takeaways from this presidential election.
First, I'm grateful for how forcefully disenfranchised voters have made their aspirations known, and demanded to be heard, for they are a demographic in our country that has been forgotten and ignored. You can read about these people in a remarkable new book by J.D. Vance called Hillbilly Elegy; A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016).
Vance (born 1984) grew up in Middletown, a small town in the southwest corner of Ohio that epitomizes the chronic woes of America's Rust Belt. It's a people and a place that's been losing jobs and hope for as long as he can remember.
In this "hub of misery" you find stray dogs wandering around looking for food, you put your old furniture in the front yard, and for lunch you eat a fried bologna sandwich with crumbled potato chips on top.
The public schools have been taken over by the state. The misery index as measured by divorce, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and unemployment is off the charts. Vance's mother was married five times, and that doesn't include the "revolving door of father figures" that drifted in and out of his life (or her descent into heroin and homelessness).
Vance wrote his memoir to explain "what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it." His story illustrates how and why his people — the "hillbillies, rednecks, and white trash" of Greater Appalachia — are characterized by cultural isolation, disconnection from our most important institutions, anger, resentment, blame, and, most important of all, feelings of futility and a lack of agency — that their choices don't matter. Studies have shown that they are the single most pessimistic group in America.
It would be nice if all these people needed was more money, a good job, a better economy, or more robust public policies. But the problems run broader and deeper, for "it's about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it." Thus, "our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but also about psychology and community and culture and faith." In a vicious circle, poverty causes social decay, and the social decay worsens the poverty.
Vance is one of the lucky few who made it out alive, all the way to Yale Law School. Today he lives in San Francisco and works as an investment banker. He never pities, excuses, or condescends to his own people — he's proud of his heritage. Nor does he romanticize their plight — he's brutally honest, and many of his stories are painful to read and even hard to believe.
He calls himself a "modern conservative" without explaining just what that means. He appeals to personal responsibility more than to any government policy, which at best can only be a thumb on the scale. At the end of the day, he administers what one reviewer calls a heavy dose of very "tough love" to his own people.
Oddly enough, the conservative Vance reminded me of the liberal Daniel Berrigan (1921–2016). The Jesuit priest and peace activist spent time in prison for his civil disobedience against government policies on racism (he marched in Selma), nuclear arms, and most famously Vietnam (he was also pro-life). His Credo is a refreshing reminder for election day:
I can only tell you what I believe; I believe:
I cannot be saved by foreign policies.
I cannot be saved by the sexual revolution.
I cannot be saved by the gross national product.
I cannot be saved by nuclear deterrents.
I cannot be saved by aldermen, priests, artists,
plumbers, city planners, social engineers,
nor by the Vatican,
nor by the World Buddhist Association,
nor by Hitler, nor by Joan of Arc,
nor by angels and archangels,
nor by powers and dominions,
I can be saved only by Jesus Christ.
I like to update Berrigan's repudiation of false hopes and misplaced trust. I cannot be saved by Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. I cannot be saved by the ACLU, a new Supreme Court, or the Koch brothers. My salvation rests in God alone.
But this doesn't mean that we repudiate politics as unimportant Far from it. True, believers have an unconditional allegiance to "render to God what is God's," but we still have an obligation to "render to Caesar what is Caesar's."
So, this election has also made me want to honor the complexity and necessity of politics itself, and all the politicians, activists, and donors who work to make our country "a more perfect union." Conversely, I want to repudiate what Jonathan Rauch (below) calls "the general public’s reflexive, unreasoning hostility to politicians and the process of politics. Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last universally acceptable form of bigotry."
In another little ironic twist, the article in The Atlantic by the atheist Rauch reminded me of a poem by the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933). It's called "The Noise of Politics," and it expresses this ambiguity and necessity of politics, and the mix of my hopes, fears, and faith:
We watch as the jets fly in
with the power people and
the money people,
the suits, the budgets, the billions.
We wonder about monetary policy
because we are among the haves,
and about generosity
because we care about the have-nots.
By slower modes we notice
Lazarus and the poor arriving from Africa,
and the beggars from Central Europe, and
the throng of environmentalists
with their vision of butterflies and oil
of flowers and tanks
of growing things and killing fields.
We wonder about peace and war,
about ecology and development,
about hope and entitlement.
We listen beyond jeering protesters and
soaring jets and
faintly we hear the mumbling of the crucified one,
feeding the hungry
and giving drink to the thirsty,
about clothing the naked,
and noticing the prisoners,
more about the least and about holiness among them.
We are moved by the mumbles of the gospel,
even while we are tenured in our privilege.
We are half ready to join the choir of hope,
half afraid things might change,
and in a third half of our faith turning to you,
and your outpouring love
that works justice and
that binds us each and all to one another.
So we pray amidst jeering protesters
and soaring jets.
Come by here and make new,
even at some risk to our entitlements.
Yes, there is "noise" in our political system, but this Tuesday I will be praying with Brueggemann for God to "come by here and make new, and bind us each and all to one another."
* See Jonathan Rauch, "How American Politics Went Insane," The Atlantic (July August, 2016).
* See also the empathetic account of the white working class by the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016), which has been nominated for a National Book Award.