At a recent meeting of church leaders, I joined a group at one of those ubiquitous round church basement tables to discuss our reactions to the speaker’s presentation. The group was well educated, ecumenical, and all held high ranking positions of leadership in their church or denomination. Somebody said, responding to the speaker’s question concerning the church’s future, “Well, it’s difficult to know how to respond since, before this year, I figured I’d be living in a functioning democracy for the rest of my life. But, I’m no longer certain that’s a fair assumption.” And then, the strangest thing happened, we all nodded in agreement.
What does it mean to be a citizen in a country in which the president routinely calls into question the freedom and legitimacy of the press? What is one to do when the country’s most respected law enforcement agency is demonized by the country’s leader who just happens to be under investigation by the former head of that very agency? How does one live well when his President, and members of his administration, regularly lie to the public? How does one respond when a singular, charismatic, morally bankrupt leader so changes the norms of decent behavior that the very definition of leadership shifts incomprehensibly?
I suppose, it’s an option not to take up such questions. Or, to note their existence, shake my head, and move back to the safety of the sorts of questions I’m better trained to consider. After all, like my colleague at that church conference table, my education up until now assumed (perhaps wrongly) a sort of positive movement of history. Nazis, I was taught, were a thing of the past. Congress, I was instructed, was a “check and balance” against authoritarian leaders. An educated public, I learned, would vote for its best interest and the common good. But now, in the closing days of 2017, I wonder if I just might have been taught the wrong lessons.
At the heart of the United States is a story. It’s a story that, if you work hard, learn in our schools, and look out for your neighbor, you’ll do well in life. And if you do your part, the story goes, your children will live in a country that’s more prosperous, safer, and better than before. That story has always had its complicated realities many would prefer to skip over (slavery, the Trail of Tears, internment of Japanese Americans, and plenty more). Yet, somehow, it’s the optimistic story of the American Dream that we’ve told ourselves. Come to these shores, pledge allegiance, and, together, we’ll make something great.
I’m working my way through Ta-Nehisi Coates latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power. On his recent book tour, it was noticeable how (mostly white) interviewers attempted to turn Coates into an optimist. Sure, things are looking pretty bad, they’d say, but make us feel good. Tell us that story we like to hear. What about the dream? As Coates put it to Stephen Colbert, “I would have to make shit up to actually answer that question in a satisfying way.” You might find hope, Coates explained, from your friends or your pastor. But, as an author and diagnostician of the reality of American life, hope is not in Coates’ job description.
Elsewhere, Coates writes,
Democracy is a struggle, not a trophy and not a bragging right. This is not a matter of being polite and sensitive. It is understanding that we live on the edge of the volcano, that the volcano is in us.
This year, 2017, I’ve needed Advent more than ever, for Advent too is about a struggle. In Advent, Christians celebrate another story, the time when a young girl sang of a God who scattered the braggarts, brought down the powerful, and lifted up the lowly.
The struggle of Joseph, a man with relatively more power who said to the young woman, “I believe you.”
The struggle of birth in the dingy rejects of a place, of a child born to feed the world and placed in a manger.
The struggle of that poor, powerless family becoming refugees, fleeing to Egypt for their lives when the government sought to kill them and their neighbors.
The struggle of the child who grew up to proclaim good news to the poor and release to those imprisoned.
The struggle of a world to welcome that child and his revolutionary ideals.
I don’t know that I have the wisdom, education, or experience to discern how to live in these times. But I do know this: the Christian story doesn’t need a functioning democracy to give it power, and it does take into account that, as Coates puts it, “the volcano is in us.”
It’s too easy, too sentimental simply to say this Christmas 2017, “I choose hope,” and move on. The season, instead, is about a movement, an all-encompassing journey that turns the world upside down, toppling leaders, shifting power, elevating the least of these.
And so, I do, I must, recommit in these dark days of 2017, to sustaining the ideals of common life together—honesty, loving kindness, accountability to others, neighborly common good, justice. In the United States, such values have become incongruent with presidential leadership, but they are the still the values on which I stand.
CC image Abstract Christmas Tree 3 by Stanley Zimny