Faithful Discipleship: Beyond Resistance to President Trump

A few weeks ago, a CNN poll showed that 85% of Americans reported the country is more divided now than in recent years.  More than half said they are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working in our country.  January 20, 2017 will be a microcosm of our divided nation: millions of Americans will be celebrating today’s Inauguration of Donald Trump, cheering on his promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, DC (which has been undermined by his Cabinet appointments) and vow to “make American great again” (whatever that means, given the fact that war, economic uncertainty, and rising social inequalities marked most of the 20th century).  Alternatively—and especially given his record low approval rating to start his presidency—millions more Americans will be lamenting today’s transfer of power.  After all, this is a man who has a habit of making outrageous, offensive, inflammatory, and patently false statements.  (His Politifact scorecard rates his claims as true only 4% of the time.)  He has insulted patriots and heroes including, most recently, Congressman John Lewis, a key leader in the Civil Rights movement. He has bragged about sexually assaulting women and being unfaithful to his marital vows.  He has disparaged countless individuals and groups, and in particular, people of color, immigrants, and Muslims, among others.  His tweets and offhand remarks have destabilized companies’ stock, raised questions about his willingness to deploy nuclear weapons, and threatened foreign relations and global security.  He has endorsed violence against protestors at his political rallies, earned the support of the KKK, and in the wake of his election, there have been more than 1,000 acts of hate or intimidation targeting minority groups.  His cabinet picks are not only controversial and extraordinarily wealthy, they are among the most inexperienced nominees in recent history.  His ties to Russia and the possibility of Russian interference in the election raise serious concerns.  He is not the successful businessman he claims to be and his philanthropy falls well short of what he boasts.  Although he professes to be a devout Christian and says the Bible is his favorite book, he had difficulty naming his favorite verse.  Even more troublingly (at least from a Christian standpoint), he’s never asked God for forgiveness—not even before he receives “my little wine” and “my little cracker” at communion.  There are pressing ethical questions about how he will divide his business interests from his political responsibilities, and Americans will be footing the sizable bill to protect his interests and security, including his properties around the globe. He has shown himself to be unpredictable if not unstable, possessing very thin skin and a penchant for bullying.  There is a litany of reasons why parents should be uncomfortable thinking of President Trump as a role model for their children and to feel dread about how to talk about his antics with their kids. It’s one thing to address the “divided states of America” in terms of political polarization; it’s another to confront the staggering anger, terror, and widespread despair so many Americans feel at the prospect of a Trump presidency.

We cannot accept any of the above to become the new “normal” for our country.

Some have suggested Trump won’t last long.  Others—including President Obama—insist that we should give Trump a chance.  A few have sagely noted that it is counterproductive if not dangerous to denounce Trump and scapegoat his supporters.  It is worth reflecting further on how Trump won the Catholic vote (despite his racist, misogynist, nativist, and Islamophobic record) and why Catholics should not expect Trump to deliver on his pro-life promises.  More to the point, it is imperative to identify what “faithful discipleship” should look like during a Trump presidency.

Faithful citizenship,” as the US Catholic Bishops write, is about informing consciences to defend the dignity of life and take responsibility for the common good as civically-engaged people of faith.  I use the phrase “faithful discipleship” as a reminder that Christians are called to be faithful to the Gospel (and to the person of Jesus Christ) before any other allegiance, including nationality or party affiliation.

In this regard, it may be helpful to remember that Jesus wrestled with an unjust social order and condemned abuses of power.  As John Pavlovitz writes, Jesus was a peacemaker with an activist heart.  He was a shepherd for the marginalized and oppressed, the nonpersons of his day.  But to the “wolves” who preyed on the socially insignificant of his day, Jesus “was the holy fury of an outraged God who refused to tolerate the mistreatment of those made in God’s image.”

This is the same outrage we hear in the prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah who warned:

“Woe to those who turn justice into wormwood and cast righteousness to the ground, they hate those who reprove at the gate and abhor those who speak with integrity; therefore, because you tax the destitute and exact from them levies of grain, though you have built houses of hewn stone, you shall not live in them; though you have planted choice vineyards, you shall not drink their wine.  Yes, I know how many are your crimes, how grievous your sins: oppressing the just, accepting bribes, turning away the needy at the gate …” (Amos 5:7-12).

God reveals God’s character and purpose throughout Scripture as taking the side of the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed.  As Bible scholar Fr. John Donahue, S.J., writes, “This concern for the defenseless in society is not a command designed simply to promote social harmony, but is rooted in the nature of Yahweh himself who is defender of the oppressed.”  (See, for example, Deuteronomy 10:18 and Psalm 103:6.)  This means “the knowing of Yahweh is taking the cause of the poor and the needy.  Here there is no division,” Donahue explains, “between faith and the doing of justice.  Justice is concrete.  It combines non-exploitation of the poor and taking their cause.  The doing of justice is not the application of religious faith, but its substance; without it, God remains unknown.”

In other words, Christians cannot be spectators in the political arena.  Neither can they leave those in Washington to do the work of politics.  It is the responsibility of every disciple—as individuals and as members of faith communities called by the Gospel and empowered by the Holy Spirit—to live a faith that does justice.  Otherwise we risk being complicit in an unjust social order that betrays who God is and what God wants.

The biblical vision of justice is one that overcomes self-interest to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable members of society (this is the principle of the “preferential option for the poor” in Catholic social teaching).  The poor and needy are the very people Trump calls “losers” (among other insults, now numbered at least 289 times on Twitter).  Faithful discipleship requires resisting the kinds of political rhetoric and exercise of power that demonize, denigrate, and divide.  It demands that Christians cultivate the prayer life, prophetic imagination, courageous advocacy, inclusive dialogue and relationship-building, as well as community-organizing and collective action that delivers justice for the neediest members of our society.

I agree with Stephen Pope, who argues that this is “not the time for reconciliation.”  Pope writes:

“Jesus was clear that those who follow him should expect strife. When they stand in tension, fidelity is prior to reconciliation—and even its necessary condition. Forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing are central to the Gospel, but they are corrupted when not coordinated with fidelity, justice, and truth. All of us must be willing to support reasonable compromises that advance useful public policies, but only within the bounds of what is consistent with universal human dignity. We must try to understand everyone, but not turn a blind eye to bigotry. We must will the good to offenders, but not reconcile with unrepentant racists. Instead, we must struggle against injustice and those who promote or countenance it. As John Paul II insisted, wrongdoing “must be acknowledged and as far as possible corrected … [because an] essential requirement for forgiveness and reconciliation is justice.” We are light years away from justice.”

What does a commitment to justice look like with Trump as president?  I have alluded above to a five-point-plan that goes beyond resistance.  While I agree with Rev. Jim Wallis (founder of Sojourners) that resistance is patriotic and Christian, it may also exacerbate social divisions and political gridlock.  Prophetic leadership is most effective when it combines denunciation (of what should not be) with annunciation (of what should be).  Toward this end, our objective should be more than resisting Trump, the demagogue; we should be working to build the just social order that celebrates human dignity and fosters the common good.  (Mother Teresa might remind us, “God does not require that we be successful, only faithful.”)

I propose the following five steps for practicing fidelity to Jesus who is, as Donahue asserts, “the sacrament of God’s justice in the world.”

1. Cultivating prayer for shalom. Shalom, a word usually translated as “peace” is better understood as the wholeness and fullness of life in right, loving, and just relationship between God, humanity, and all creation.  This is God’s hope and it should be the end to which we order our deepest desires and heartfelt prayers.  The problem is, too often prayer is conceived as time spent bringing our problems to God in order to ask for God’s help to fix them.  Sometimes, we just want God to fix our problems for us.  (Notice how the prayer of the faithful are written at your parish; when we pray for the hungry, sick, poor, and those subject to violence, war, and ecological degradation, are we suggesting that these are God’s problems to solve or ours?)  The point of prayer is to commune with God and to be transformed in God’s love.  We pray not for God to change the world, but so we can be changed, as Fr. Richard Rohr describes.  The first step in faithful discipleship is to commit to a life of prayer, to grow in becoming “contemplatives in action” as St. Ignatius of Loyola saw it.  According to Jesuit priest Walter Burghardt, this process begins by taking “a long loving look at the real.”  By trying to see the world (including ourselves and others) as God does, we can see the good in us and around us as well as the divisions and wounds that need to be healed.  We pray so that we might act in fidelity to God’s hope for creation, to realize the “reign of God” at the core of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry (which is shalom).

Dorothy Day is an exemplar of this commitment to being a “contemplative in action.”  Lauded by Pope Francis in his address to Congress in September 2015, Dorothy Day’s discipleship was dedicated to prayer and piety as much as a commitment to justice for the poor and nonviolence in our world.  Her life is a testament to the power of prayer and the personal responsibilities of a faith that does justice.  I imagine Dorothy with a rosary in one hand and a protest sign in the other.  In December 1948 she reflected, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”  Dorothy Day prayed continuously to grow in love—love for God and love for those in need, and those hardest for her to love—knowing that love would give her the energy to humbly yet tirelessly commit to the work of justice in the world.  (She also relied on the sacramental life of her Catholic faith; she wrote “Without the sacraments of the church, I certainly do not think that I could go on.)  With Peter Maurin, she co-founded The Catholic Worker newspaper and dedicated her life to practicing the social mission of the church.  She was a staunch advocate for the poor, hungry, and homeless; the houses of hospitality she started in the 1930s now number over one hundred across the globe.  She opposed war and promoted nonviolence and called for a revolution of the heart to a greater love open to all—even enemies.  “If I have achieved anything in my life,” she once said, “it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” Dorothy reminds us what it means to be a “contemplative in action,” especially one shaped so deeply by love and justice.

2. Practicing prophetic imagination. It is easy to look at the state of the world, our political system, our cities and schools, and lose hope.  But hope—trust that God makes good on God’s promises—is what leads us into the future.  Hope fights the twin temptations of presumption (that God will take care of everything for us) and despair (that all is lost).  Hope is closely linked to the imagination: it expands what we imagine to be possible and refuses to domesticate or “fence in” the work of the Holy Spirit.  Hope generates creativity and advances freedom.  It helps us to better recognize and partner with God who is present and at work in the world.  Hope reminds us that we do not have to accept the world as it is; we can and should practice a prophetic imagination that explores what it would take to bring about the shalom God desires for all creation.

Walter Brueggemann is a theologian who specializes in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.  He understands the prophetic tradition in terms of a “prophetic imagination,” which he envisions as closely related to poetry, the artful use of language meant to convey wisdom and impart courage.  The prophetic imagination creates conflict: from a critical distance, it critiques an unjust status quo and confronts those responsible for it.  But as mentioned above, this extends beyond denunciation to annunciation: the goal is not to carve out a contrary position as much as it is to effect change in social perspectives and policies.  Practicing a prophetic imagination constructs a visionary awareness of what is real and what more is possible.  It critiques the exercise of power that subdues, marginalizes, and causes suffering—that is, the structural evil the Catholic tradition calls “social sin.”  It provokes and interrogates, seeking to root out fear, complacency, and blind obedience.  As Brueggemann describes, the prophetic imagination is profoundly countercultural because it “dismantles the politics of oppression and exploitation by countering it with a politics of justice and compassion.”  It does more than resist or denounce the darkness in the world; it releases the energy of God who stands with those at the underside of empire in order to liberate those who are deprived freedom and equality.  The prophetic imagination calls forth wonder, awe, and appreciation in people to, as Brueggemann sees it, “engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God.”  In short, the prophetic imagination combats complacency and despair by reminding us to look for ways to practice hope, courage, and boundless creativity to nourish and sustain work to make new life and new forms of community possible.

3. Growing in advocacy. The sociologist Alan Wolfe has found that most Americans prefer what he calls “modest virtues.”  Basically that boils down to tolerance and non-judgmentalism.  (In fact, Wolfe opines that if Americans were to vote on adding an 11th Commandment, it would be “Thou Shalt Not Judge.”)  But the problem with tolerance is that merely tolerating the existence of others falls short of what is required to solve complex social problems (like sexism, racism, or poverty, for example).  A prophetic imagination generates hope, courage, and creativity and it needs to urge people beyond tolerance to take shape through social responsibility.  The way to do this is by growing in advocacy: developing the courage to show up and speak out against the structural evil and personal suffering caused by injustice.  It keeps us from saying, “Who am I to say or do anything about this?”  Our silence will not save others and it will not save ourselves (as Martin Niemöller famously alluded).

Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the best examples we have of a Christian disciple who took his citizenship seriously enough to become an advocate for the dignity and rights of his fellow citizens.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine another non-president who has effected the same measure of change to our American democracy.  Even though King had his fair share of moral shortcomings, his example reminds us that moral heroes need not be flawless individuals (which, of course, would be impossible, given the reality of sin).  It is also easy to romanticize King and forget the struggles he faced.  In 1966, 72% of Americans had an unfavorable view of King (which changed dramatically by 1987, when 76% reported a favorable view).  Even though opposition to King was related to his stance against the Vietnam War, King wasn’t always the popular figure we imagine today.  In fact, some claim that only 13% of black churches supported King during his work for the Poor People’s Campaign.  This is worth mentioning not to discredit King, but to pay tribute to his courage and resilience in the face of such little support.

To grow in advocacy like King requires that people who are comfortable risk becoming uncomfortable for the sake of love and justice.  In his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” he laments the laxity of the church.  He explains, “Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ.  But, oh!  How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists” and continues, “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.  So often it is an archdefender of the status quo.  Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.”

As true as this might have been in 1963, this critique is eerily prescient for today. 40% of Americans say churches contribute “not much” or “nothing” to solving important social problems.  The US Catholic Church has been mostly quiet about Trump’s shameful behavior; Archbishop Kurtz congratulated Trump for his victory and said the USCCB looks forward to working with him as president.  In the face of increasing inequality in our country, growing racial tension, police shootings of unarmed black men and women, and other troubling trends, US bishops have been largely silent. (The USCCB’s last statement on racism was in 1979.)

King urged Christians to shirk the label of “moderate” to be “extremists for love” just as Jesus was (Luke 6:35).  He called on disciples to be “creatively maladjusted” to a country marked by sinful social structures that exclude and oppress.  To be an advocate is to use one’s voice to disrupt an unjust status quo, combat complacency and despair, and encourage folks to continue to be resilient in the pursuit of shalom.  He insisted that we are measured by where we stand not in moments of comfort or convenience, but challenge and controversy.  He reminded us “silence is betrayal” (and also: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”).  We all have a voice; the question is whether and how we use it to promote love and justice for all.

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4. Initiating inclusive dialogue and relationships. Much has been made of fake news and the ideological echo chambers created by social media.  We may have a preference to associate and interact with people who look like us, think like us, and act like us, but this fails to reflect the complexity and diversity of reality.  No one possesses the fullness of truth; no one is free from blind spots or biases (which need to be filled in and corrected).  It is impossible to cultivate empathy, understanding, or a shared commitment to the common good if we don’t first grow into the “culture of encounter” Pope Francis has been championing throughout his papacy.  A “culture of encounter” requires that we step outside of our comfort zone, welcome the “other” and listen to what that other has to teach us.

A prime exemplar of this practice is Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk also highlighted in Pope Francis’ address to Congress in September 2015.  Merton was deeply committed to peace and interfaith understanding and echoed many of the concerns raised by Martin Luther King, Jr.  Merton wrote “Letters to a White Liberal” in response to King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in 1963, in which he called for white atonement to acknowledge the unmerited privilege white people enjoy in American society as well as commitment to reform the systems and structures that create such unjust inequalities across the color line.  In addition to his commitment to racial reconciliation, Merton also prioritized interreligious dialogue.  In particular, he fostered a close relationship with the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (even though they met only once, in 1966), whom he called “my brother.”  It is remarkable that Pope Francis lifted up Merton as an example during his visit to the US, given that Merton was often dismissed by his contemporaries as “too radical.”

Perhaps the pope lifted up Merton’s example of inclusive welcome, free and open inquiry, and engagement with pluralism and diversity because it remains a much-needed standard for Christian discipleship today.  In a socio-cultural context marked by ideological differences and divides based on class, race, and creed, Merton’s reverence for the natural world, the uniqueness of each individual, and an incarnational spirituality that fosters global solidarity challenges us to be ever more inclusive with our conversation partners and collaborators.  There is so much to learn and appreciate; faithful discipleship implies a willingness to go to the frontiers (as Pope Francis described his own aspirations) and to go beyond what is already familiar, comfortable, and similar.  This means expanding our social circles, making friendships across boundaries that divide, and listening to voices that speak from perspectives different from our own.  Put simply, it means being better about listening to others (especially those we might consider to be “other”), casting a wider net in whom we follow (and what we share) online, and forging partnerships and coalitions that defend human dignity and promote the common good.

5. Participating in community organizing and collective action. In the face of so many people who feel helpless and powerless, faithful discipleship requires that we exercise agency in meaningful and effective ways.  In Catholic social teaching, the principle of subsidiarity instructs that we take action at the lowest effective level.  This means exercising our rights and responsibilities and not waiting for our elected officials to effect the change we hope to see (even though one-third of Congress is Catholic and this would seem a peak opportunity to bring Catholic social teaching to bear on our national policies).  Faithful discipleship is, at bottom, about right, loving, and just relationships; this relational anthropology reminds us that not only do we belong to each other, but we are accountable to each other.  Community organizing and collective action can provide “structures of grace” that confront, resist, and transform the structural evils waged by personal and social sin.  Faithful discipleship implies having some “skin in the game” and not just being a bystander who observes, judges, or resists what many believe to be a broken political system.  If the system is indeed not just flawed but broken, it will be necessary for more Christians (and others of good will with similar aims to advance human dignity and the common good) to go from spectators to participants in the political system, just as President Obama urged in his farewell speech in Chicago.  President Obama insisted:

“For all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen … that’s what our democracy demands.  It needs you.  Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime … If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.  If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.  Show up.  Dive in.  Stay at it.”

An exemplar for this practice of faithful discipleship is Cesar Chavez.  Chavez is perhaps best known for his organizing work with Mexican Americans, Filipino Americans, and later the United Farm Workers, the first successful farm worker union in US history.  Chavez was inspired—both in faith and organizing—by Fr. Donald McDonnell, who encouraged his work to defend human rights and the dignity of labor.  Also motivated by the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Chavez embraced nonviolence, leveraged the power of strikes and boycotts, and delivered protections for farm workers who previously had no real power in the produce industry.  Chavez brings to life a form of liberating theology that has its roots in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, which reads, “Everyone’s first duty is to protect the workers from the greed of speculators who use human beings as instruments to provide themselves with money.”  In explaining the strikes and boycotts he organized, Chavez observed, “The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.”

Chavez was committed to grassroots organizing as a form of cultivating a sense of belonging, of fellowship, and solidarity.  He also recognized it as necessary to effect social change.  Social change is a process that follows collective movement by creating momentum; Chavez contends, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.  You cannot uneducate a person who has learned to read.  You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride.  You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.  We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”

Community organizing is the rent we pay for this future.  Collective action is the down payment we owe to have some “skin in the game.”  We are stronger together, which means that whatever the cause that is close to our hearts—whether combating racism, mass incarceration, immigration, human trafficking, child abuse and neglect, mental illness, sexual assault, domestic violence, hunger, homelessness, violence and war, capital punishment, environmental degradation, the dignity of life in all forms, or poverty in all its intersecting issues, in the US and globally among so many other issues—there are countless responsible and effective organizations that will help you get involved.   There’s even a “shy person’s guide to advocacy” to equip and empower the most timid among us.  As Chavez would often chant: “Si se puede!” Together, we can.

St. Augustine wrote, “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage.  Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”  Anger is often directed at a perceived injustice.  There are faith leaders marshaling that anger and leading resistance (see, for example, the “100 Days of Justice” organized by Faith in Public Life).  But as anger might fade or give way to weariness, I would argue that what we need now more than ever is courage.  The virtue of courage eschews the twin extremes of cowardice and brazen foolishness; with prudence it seeks to do what is good, right, true, and just even when it is risky.  Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would remind us that there is no “cheap grace” in faithful discipleship, only the costly grace that delivers us through suffering to joy when we share life in Christ.  Faithful discipleship always implies some risk and this is certainly no time to run from it.

These five practices—cultivating prayer for shalom, practicing prophetic imagination, growing in advocacy, initiating inclusive dialogue and relationships, and participating in community organizing and collective action—are concrete avenues to be faithful to the demands of discipleship.  As we enter the era of President Trump, the world needs our witness to these shared beliefs, values, habits, relationships, practices, responsibility and accountability.  God is calling and empowering us to share in and spread the shalom that reflects who God is and what God wants for all creation.  It is up to us to be faithful to this call by doing what we can wherever we are—as disciples, as churches, as citizens, as a country.  If the country is divided, if our leaders are bigoted, dishonest, or corrupt, if apathy and anger have taken control, then we must roll up our sleeves and get to work.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.