To Resist or Rise Above?
I find myself in a disorienting dilemma.
Everything about Donald Trump repels me – to the point that, quite frankly, I can’t even bring myself to legitimize his presidency by referring to him by the title, a feeling reinforced every time a bratty, self-absorbed tweet is reported as news. During his improbable campaign, I vacillated between a certain level of understanding of the gamble some were willing to take on him and utter incredulity at how so many could be so easily played. Given his manifest narcissism that has only become more blatantly manifest since taking office, the incredulity is winning. I am increasingly baffled that anyone can believe this man genuinely cares about anyone beyond himself.
And yet. For all that moral and visceral repugnancy, I cannot join wholesale with the “opposition” coming from the left, which has been jumbling grievances together with a haphazardness that almost seems to mimic Trump’s own chaotic style.
The day after the inauguration, I happened onto a protest that encapsulated the absurdity of the reactionary polemic this “resistance” is being pushed into: a crude mélange of generalized (but limited) declarations of goodwill, a mixed bag of endorsements from human rights to Planned Parenthood, more than a little outright vulgarity, and at least one direct promotion of violence (in the form of a reference to “killing fascists”).
To further reinforce the impression, seeing news footage of protestors blocking Betsy DeVos from a school recently, I noticed that some of them – for reasons I couldn’t quite work out – were carrying “Black Lives Matter” signs. Has someone accused DeVos of racism? Are the holders of those signs assuming her position on vouchers and charter schools would be disproportionately harmful to black students? That’s the only possible connection I can think of, unless they really were just conflating issues willy-nilly.
Some have suggested that it’s a strategic component on the part of advisors such as the famously incendiary Steve Bannon to provoke reactions that push the left further into its own extremes. From the ongoing race to the bottom that continues to pass for civil discourse, that strategy appears to be working, or at least taking a toll. Theologian C.C. Pecknold recently wrote,
If every Trump policy maneuver — and he does seem to think of every policy change as a maneuver, as a temporary stance in a long set of negotiations, already evident in the way the White House walked back the restrictions on green card holders — is treated as though it is some kind of coup within a banana republic, not only will the Left be exhausted and lose all credibility by Ash Wednesday, we’ll also find the ice we are skating on getting much thinner indeed. We have to think about the shape of our common life. Do we have one?
The always level-headed David Brooks has been similarly talking about the rising tide of incivility in a national tone that feeds off of Trump’s combative psychology. He has also offered a few possible models for how Trump should be resisted – namely Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St. Benedict, and Gerald Ford – depending on the nature of the threat he represents. Of the three scenarios he lays out, Brooks puts his money on the third: that “we’re approaching a Ford moment.” While I’m inclined to see some degree of truth in all three, I’m also inclined to hope he’s right about the possibility that “Trumpism contains the seeds of its own destruction.” I’ve pretty much been waiting for his chaotic administration to somehow self-destruct since the inauguration, because like Brooks, I have trouble seeing how it can sustain itself for a full term.
That being said, I believe there is an additional and better model for the kind of resistance that can have some actual substance: Martin Luther King.
A true modern-day prophet, King was certainly not hesitant to call out wrongs where he saw them. And yet in all his prophetic denunciations, he consistently refused to demonize anyone. Having no patience for injustice, he still knew that every human being without exception – and yes, that means even Donald Trump – is beloved of God. I confess that Trump’s arrogance makes that statement a little hard for me to stomach, but that’s ultimately my problem, and it doesn’t make it any less true.
As strongly as his words resonate, King is still able to make me squirm, and that may be a good thing. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King makes this stinging critique of “the white moderate”:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Even though I don’t like to think of myself as a moderate and am a firm believer in the nonviolent direct action that King practiced, reading these words still makes me feel as though he’s talking to me. And I squirm. His rebuke makes me wonder: am I being too moderate by keeping my distance from the outrage?
King himself wrestles in the letter with being labeled an extremist, having sought, if not a middle ground, then certainly a third way between passivity and violence, “neither the ‘do-nothingism’ of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.” Yet he ends up embracing the label:
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
His point is disconcertingly valid: if our Lord himself, and prophets before him, and many apostles and martyrs after him were killed as extremists for love and justice, those of us who wish to follow him must become extremists of the same kind.
But that’s the thing: when I look at what is coming from the left these days, I don’t see much “extremism for love.” Spouting platitudes about tolerance in a hateful manner, while carving out significant exceptions to the kinds of people one is willing to tolerate (let alone love), doesn’t cut it. Even as I wonder whether I’m simply passing the blame to assuage my own conscience, when I read King’s frustration with “shallow understanding from people of good will” I can’t help but also wonder if he would have the same frustration with the “white liberal” of today.
So the question now is, what does it actually mean to be extremists for love in this time? What can a true alternative be to complicity in or outright support for all kinds of injustice, and a sometimes well-intentioned but shallow understanding that is at best merely reactionary?
I think it will have to mean some form of radical hospitality toward those we truly see as “the other” – and not just the kind of “other” that makes us feel comfortable or righteous. If on the one hand your fear of an obvious other makes border walls and travel bans and hyper-militarization seem comforting, you are being ruled by fear rather than love and are clinging to an idol. But also, if your words and actions show love toward middle-eastern refugees and hate toward rust-belt Republicans, you have not loved your enemy.
For myself personally, being an extremist for love has to mean humanizing people at both of those poles. I must learn to see – and to love – the image of God even in those with the loudest voices, whether those voices are shouting ugly nationalistic slogans or ugly vulgar pro-choice ones. I can’t honestly say I’m there yet – which makes it all the more necessary to admit who my “other” is, and that I too am not immune from the refusal to love, nor exempt from the need for conversion.
If this all sounds foolish, well, it’s supposed to. Part of the lesson of the gospel – and the example of those who have visibly lived it – is that no hatred, no malice, no evil can ever be effectively resisted by stooping to its level. To rise above the enmity that has a death grip on society, including what threat to peace and justice and social healing Trump himself poses, will be the only way to truly resist it.