Lies we tell ourselves, when recognized as lies, tend to leave us feeling shocked or emotionally raw. I thought it was not possible for Donald Trump to be elected president, and in the shock that steadily mounted from 5 p.m. Tuesday to 2:30 Wednesday morning, I was forced to recognize that belief as not only a lie but a kind of moral superiority. I, like half of my fellow Americans, believed that the portion of the population which saw Donald Trump as a savior, even a flawed savior, had to be a minority because the America I knew could not so easily support the violence and careless cruelty of his personality and policies. The “America” I thought I knew was a lie; it was the lie that Americans truly are better than the rest of the world. Sure, the Philippines could elect Rodrigo Duterte, but America could never trust a strongman like him with the presidency. Turkish citizens could support that widespread crackdown on thousands of fellow citizens by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but Americans could never be capable of lashing out in violence on the basis of fear and suspicion. All lies, and the truths to replace them proved to be a bitter medicine.
Yet the longer I sat with the outcome of the election, the more the bitterness of that medicine turned stale. The most banal fact of American politics is that we are divided and politicized and incapable of compromise. Everyone knows that. And everyone believed in a savior, whether it was the Supreme Court or Congress or the president, who could ultimately vanquish any opponents who posed a threat to the very identity of the great American Experiment. Numerous Democrats believed in President Obama’s executive orders on immigration, in the Obergefell ruling, in the Affordable Care Act; all of these and more were a hope against the forces of bigotry, prejudice, and ignorance. As we have seen to the shock of all those who repudiated Trump’s rhetoric and worldview, many Republicans saw Donald Trump and his future appointees to the Supreme Court and a Republican-controlled Congress as the salvation of freedom, economic independence, and the American ideals of success. Almost every American saw this election and their politicians at its forefront as the only hope for the rebirth of the American Dream, and they saw the opposition as the death-knell of all that is good in this world. Dramatic, yes—but new? No, this is normal, and has been normal since I can remember starting to pay attention to politics in the 7th grade.
While there are important nuances and there were diverse movements that explain the support for each candidate, the results of the election have only pushed us towards being more united in our division. The lines between Americans have not only begun to harden, but to grow into walls which will grow into fortresses which will result, if not in physical war, then at least in a crusade against all that “the other side” represents. There will be an “us” and a “them” and that dichotomy will be accepted as a fundamental truth because without it we will seem to be betraying those most dear to us.
I am not optimistic about this polarization which is driving us apart and urging us to arm ourselves. It is very real, and the conversations we are having in the wake of the election are only solidifying and sharpening this polarization, in the #NotMyPresident movement and the clichéd habit of referring to the election as a “mandate.” The campaign itself drove us so far into fear and suspicion and self-righteous certainty that a national unification under Donald Trump and the policies he holds is truly impossible. Yet we all must recall that this division reflects a despair in our brothers and sisters so that we never hear their pain; we must recall above all that the call to conquer our opponents through the grasping of power is truly a form of violence, and truly a lie. The truth we have as Catholics, however, is that, in the words of Zechariah at the birth of his son John the Baptist: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, and guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Our feet have already been set on this peaceful path forward by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church’s Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. How beautiful it is to recall that the truth behind the lies of polarization and power-struggle is that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy. Polarization can be bridged by compassion, by the willingness to listen patiently and attentively to our brothers’ and sisters’ pain; let us then practice the Spiritual Works of Mercy in sincere and patient dialogue, works like counseling the doubtful. Political reality can be shaped into a more just vision by working together to take care and heal the places where we are broken; let us then practice the Corporal Works of Mercy with energy and dedication, works like feeding the hungry and comforting the sick and visiting the imprisoned.
These are neither abstract concepts nor naïve idealism. Our immigrant brothers and sisters need the mercy of food on their table and a roof over their heads. That is a mercy which we as their neighbors must give, or else they will not receive it. Our neighbors, the brothers and sisters who live next door who may have voted for Donald Trump in the hope of change brought about by removing unauthorized immigrants need to have their doubts mercifully counseled, not condemned. They need to know that their pain will not be healed by solutions which inflict pain on others, but that it will be healed by welcoming those others as Christ enfleshed again. Our brothers and sisters who are brokers of power and money in quantities I am not able to imagine and seek to preserve this inequality must be mercifully admonished. That mercy will be a severe one, yet it must never stop being a mercy because otherwise it will be an act of violence resulting only in more pain. I am intimidated by these works of mercy. Those which I do not know how to do require me to leave the place where I am to move into very uncomfortable places, places of pain. Yet I must remember that this work has been and is being done already. Our brothers and sisters among the saintly dead have given us their model for us to enflesh in our hands and our feet. It is the work of mercy which very simply pays attention to who we are with, how we are broken and in pain, and how we can accompany each other in that pain towards the peace and healing of mercy.
Change brought about through power alone is, at best, a short-term and incomplete solution, and at worst it is a form of violence even before weapons get involved. The only real change that ever happens is within our hearts, and we as Catholics must stop interpreting those words as tritely pious or ideologically self-righteous. We must believe that hearts can change through the mercy we show and the mercy we ourselves ask to receive. From those simple practices will unfold the creativity and energy and inspiration from the Holy Spirit which will lead us to merciful lives.
Kyle McCaffery recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame, where he majored in liberal studies, and currently lives and works in Memphis, TN.