In the current version of the “stump sermon” that I deliver in congregations, I begin my delineating Kansas Interfaith Action's four mission areas (racism, poverty, violence, climate disruption) and conclude by proposing four corresponding values that can guide our work as we try to bring the voice of faith and conscience into public policy advocacy.
This last piece has gone through numerous iterations since I first gave the sermon on MLK Sunday of this year. (Shout out to Rainbow Mennonite Church in KCK.) For one of these values in particular I've had trouble finding the words that capture precisely the tone and meaning I'm trying to set.
Let me pause here to say that the recent election results have thrown everybody for the mother of all loops. Anger, fear, hatred, grim determination are some responses I've seen, and then there are other people besides me also. (Rimshot.) Progressives are cycling rapidly through the stages of grief, with a long doting pause on “anger.” The empowerment of the racist subculture on the right is particularly frightening and enraging (which are the same thing, or course).
The value I've been having trouble articulating is what MLK called “love.” There are plenty of quotes from King and his followers about loving the racist white cop as he was bringing the truncheon down on your head. But I don't think that resonates today, because a) it sounds 60s-archaic, like singing “Kumbaya,”* b) it sounds waaay too Christian for me personally and (therefore) for the interfaith setting, but most importantly, c) it sets a standard that is impossible for most of us mortals to meet. King is one thing, Gandhi is one thing, but we, my friends, are neither Gandhi nor King, and when people were coming up to me after the sermon and saying, “How in the world am I supposed to love Donald Trump?” I didn't really have a good answer for them. And that was before the election.
* In his interview with Krista Tippett the great movement activist and educator Vincent Harding gave a full-throated defense of the song “Kumbaya.” The story he tells is worth hearing, but it doesn't change my thoughts here.
So then I tried the term “compassion.” It's a good Buddhist term, politically neutral, and compassion practice is something that we can all do (it's called “metta” and I can recommend some good recorded meditations on it if you're interested). And actually, I kinda sorta find it possible to find some grain-of-rice-sized kernel of compassion for someone like Trump – I suspect his father was not a very nice man – but that it might only work on the cushion and isn't a strategy for meaningful action in the world.
So the way I've been framing this lately is as “non-hatred.” I think that's something we all can accomplish. Whatever you think of the persons or actions or Trump, or Sam Brownback, or Charles Koch – or the run-of-the-mill Trump voter – I will posit to you that hatred is a useless emotion. It doesn't feed anyone, or elect anyone, or stop a pipeline, or empower you or anyone else in any way. The activist, author and radio host Rivera Sun likens hatred to holding a bee in your hand – it only hurts you.
Framed it this way, as "non-hatred," makes it seem like something anyone could attain, or at least work toward as a realistic goal.
Whatever it is I'm talking about here, I do not mean to say that we have to give in to the moment, or throw up our hands, or “take a Trumper to lunch,” which is how I see the recent spate of “we must understand the white working class” punditry. MLK might not have hated the white trooper, or the racist governor, but he certainly opposed them. And so must we – oppose Trump, and Trumpism, with every fiber of our being and with every means at our disposal. (Exactly how we are to do this is a topic for another column.)
In some settings I've taken to talking about the mission of KIFA being "reclaiming the moral voice." What I mean is this: we've allowed the right wing to completely highjack moral language to society's (and the left's) loss, as they use their personal religiosity to implement cruel goals. We've seen this repeatedly in Kansas. This election has shown the bankruptcy of the right's moral vision, as they overwhelmingly voted for a man who basically personally represents the opposite of everything they always claimed to stand for. Their moral bankruptcy, never well hidden, has never been clearer than it is right now. So there's more clearly a place for the values that KIFA represents – the values of compassion, acceptance, solidarity, yes, even love – to make a comeback, if we can articulate them successfully, which is KIFA's and my role.
So you see, I'm not afraid of using “us/them” language. What I'm warning about is generating our action from a place of hatred, for three reasons:
First, it lowers us to their level. This can be seen when the line of psalm (109:9-9: “Let his days be few; Let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, And his wife a widow”) that we vociferously (and rightly) condemned when it was directed against Obama, is now used by liberals against Trump.
Second, anger and hatred simply are not effective bases for discerning and embarking on effective action. If you don't believe me think about the times you've reacted in your personal relationships based on anger, and let me know how well that worked out.
You know that here in Kansas we have this little group of fanatics called the Westboro Baptist Church. They are extremely provocative and hurtful but not physically threatening. I figured out long ago that the best thing to do is to ignore them, although sometimes I still give them the finger as I drive by.
The only worthwhile counterprotest to WBC I've ever seen was done by the students at Shawnee Mission East high school in 2009. They dressed in colorful clothes, carried signs saying things like, “God is love”, and the message – and the pictures - were just great. It was hopeful, it was loving, it was positive, it was colorful – everything the WBC is not.
And I believe that's the approach we need to take now. Rather than getting into our bunkers, imitating the other side's hatred, we need to “be the change we want to see in the world” - live out loud, every day, in every possible way, the positive, life-affirming values that we claim to care about.
It's better for us emotionally, it's better for us spiritually – and it's better for us politically. If you look at the issue of same-sex marriage over the past 15 years, we had implacable opposition, followed by a rapid change in public opinion. We have to keep open the possibility that some significant percentage of the people who voted for Trump can be made to understand our values if we take the time to articulate them, carefully, and (as much as possible) without hatred or anger.
And what's more likely to bring the country back in our direction – going to the mattresses with Trumpers on their hateful terms, or continuing our work of building a beloved community, one that is motivated by the values we hold most dear – acceptance, diversity, compassion, love? And how can we argue for these values when we are modeling their opposites?
The WBC wants people to react to their provocations, to sink to their levels. So do the alt-righters and other Trumpists, and so does Trump himself. But doing so is not effective resistance. It removes from us the one advantage we have, the one we must never give up – our humanity.
So oppose, yes – every day and in every way. But anger, hatred? No thanks.