The leader of the free world

On Saturday I wrote about my deep concerns with the president’s choice to not name the particular evils of white nationalism, neo-Nazism, and the alt-right movement. Two days later, he did that. I’ve spent 24 hours reflecting on all of this, sincerely eager to root out my own biases and see the good in Trump’s decision and his words. And the words are good; refusing to acknowledge that would be, for me, obstinate cynicism. Despite my strong reservations about Trump’s character and leadership, I am daily praying for him, hoping for wisdom, goodness, and mercy. So I’m sincerely thankful for something other than a continuation of the void that stretched from Saturday to Monday morning.

And yet: the void. His refusal to be specific for those two days, certainly set against a backdrop of some history I mentioned on Saturday night (and a lot I didn’t), will remain troubling for me and for many others. I won’t belabor the reasons why that mattered so much, but it did. It does. And if you still don’t think it does, I plead with you to spend some time sincerely listening to people of color explaining why it matters. There are many who are as theologically and socially conservative as you who are happy to do so. Don’t just watch CNN or FOX and let the divisions grow deeper. Have a conversation with a real person.

And, of course, since Monday morning we’ve had multiple head-shaking presidential twitter moments that torpedoed most of the patience and trust Trump surely aimed to buoy with his more specific statement. [Literally as I wrote this, Trump walked back to his Saturday language.]

Wait, don’t leave. I promise I’m not going to do a twitter play-by-play. Who has the energy for that at this point?

I mention those tweets because of what they reveal about the striking contrast between Trump’s spirit over the last 24 hours and the spirit of Heather Heyer’s father, Mark. If you haven’t already seen this short video, please pause for three minutes and watch it:

That, folks, is your leader this week.

As I said when I tweeted this video Monday evening: This is other-worldly forgiveness. I’m a father to two daughters. This isn’t natural. It’s supernatural, the power of the cross among us.

Mark Heyer is reminding me that it’s safe to love and forgive, that it’s safe not to hate.

Despite my many years of relative political ambivalence, I think it’s a shame that the President of the United States is not only not modeling that same spirit, but he’s undermining his own words about hate and unity. The difference between what the two men have lost since Saturday is unquantifiable, yet one is angrily focused on his own mistreatment while the other is courageously modeling redeemed humanity.

As Mark Heyer points to the self-sacrificing Jesus of the cross and forgives the white supremacist who murdered his daughter, the president tweets about how he is being picked on by his “truly bad” enemies and then shares with the country a picture of a train emblazoned TRUMP running over a reporter two days after Heather was run over by a car. I mean, good grief, man.

So here’s my confession: it makes me kind of want to hate Trump. Just a little, but it’s there.

See, that’s our cycle. That’s my cycle. Even when it’s love or tolerance or grace we say we value, all it takes is a little hate to make us want to hate. Maybe all it takes is a little them…a little of the other who isn’t like me, who I don’t like, who I don’t understand.

But here is Mark Heyer, undone by the murder of his child yet unmoved by the hate that killed her. Here he is, an old man in a food pantry t-shirt on his front lawn, acting like the leader of the free world.

People need to stop hatin’, and they need to forgive each other. And I include myself in that in forgiving the guy that did this. He don’t know no better. I just think of what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Lord, forgive ’em. They don’t know what they’re doin’.

Thank you, Mr. Heyer, for reminding me that as I labor to oppose evil in the world and call the the Church to purity in her allegiance to Jesus, my first audience is me.

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Silence is political

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Today in Virginia, which is to say in America, various white supremacist groups paraded around advocating for Nazi nonsense. One of them drove into a crowd of people and killed someone. There’s no need for me to report the news. You know.

A few weeks ago I started an essay explaining why, as a pastor who for a decade mostly avoided politics, I decided to start talking and writing publicly about politics in some very particular ways. I’m writing that essay because I think my shift in thinking and behavior merits some explanation for those who haven’t already tuned me out because I’ve gotten “too political”.

But today brings into sharp focus one of my reasons: I simply cannot ignore the experience of people I love who are not white who have been damaged and deeply discouraged by the politics of the last year.

Let me be clear: This is not because I feel guilty.

This is because, in my particular case, I am hearing wise, sane Christians who aren’t white – many of them as theologically conservative as Trump’s white evangelical base, some demonstrably more so – articulate the impact of this political phenomenon on them and their communities. And as a follower of Jesus, I must listen. And as I listen, I’ve been compelled to care about their experience as much as my own.

Today put on display what many outside the white evangelical mainstream have known far longer than I have known it: silence by well-meaning members of the Church who would never march in a Klan rally or use the n-word emboldens those who do and generally communicates indifference or approval.

In this particular case, when 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, the overwhelming majority of black and other non-white evangelicals said, “What the hell?”

My goal here is not to shame anyone for their vote, but if we’re sincerely interested in how to love those brothers and sisters well now, it’s fair to know how so many felt about the election and how they view the Church’s response today.

If you think they were overreacting, today proved otherwise.

If you aren’t sure how, take two minutes to go watch David Duke as he proudly wades through a crowd dotted by Nazi and Confederate flags and t-shirts bearing Hitler quotes and happily declares that the crowd is there to “take our country back” and “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump”. Go look at how easily white nationalist Richard Spencer used Trump’s particularly non-particular response to today’s events to further lay claim to legitimate power.

These people have been emboldened by the election of Trump because they believe he is promising to give them their (white supremacist) country back, and they are here to take it.

But they’re just the fringe lunatics, right? Trump shouldn’t be unfairly saddled with an association with them, should he?

Well, let’s ask him.

In response to violence incited by assault-rifle carrying white supremacists,

In response to defiant, open advocacy for the kind of evil that a generation of Americans fought a six-year global war to put down,

In response to a man driving his car into a crowd of people and murdering a woman,

In response to those people openly associating their actions with a fulfillment of the promises of the elected President of the United States, Donald Trump tweeted this:

This and the equally generic statements he made later are not just woefully insufficient, they are strategically unspecific. The moment was ripe for Trump to speak simply and clearly: “The racism the so called ‘alt-right’ espouses is evil. I reject it top to bottom. And I reject the support of anyone and everyone who clings to this particular hate.”

His choice to speak more generally cannot be attributed to Trump’s style or a penchant for diplomatic language in response to evil or people he desires to condemn.

It seems unnecessary to document this, but Trump regularly and specifically targets those he clearly rejects with language that is anything but diplomatic. He is historically and notoriously not content to just say, “everyone who does wrong is wrong” when he has some particular wrong or enemy in his crosshairs. Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is “very weak” and “disloyal”. Republican Senator Ted Cruz is “bad” and his campaign did “very sleazy and dishonest” things. The “failing New York Times” has a “sick agenda”. The media as a whole is “the enemy of the American people”.

But in response to today’s events, we get a willful refusal to name white supremacists, the alt-right, or any of its leaders or to distance himself from them even as they specifically hail him as a trailblazer for their movement. And this is not new. Trump has long avoided clearly repudiating openly racist groups who support him, a decision that can’t be anything but intentional after so much time. And lest we forget, this movement built its momentum and message on a platform provided by a man Trump chose and has kept as one of his top two advisors.

There really are only two possible explanations for this: either he does not reject the ideology of these groups as evil or he is unwilling to use words to separate himself from them and their support.

Either option is a very big deal.

We have a sitting president unwilling to clearly disavow the ideology, actions, or support of brazen, violent enemies of my brothers and sisters of color. It does not matter why.

I never wanted to get political, but I literally have no choice anymore. If I remain silent about Trump’s complicity in the evil that has plagued us as a people and tormented black Americans for centuries, I am simply choosing another kind of politics – the politics of silence in the face of evil.

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe. –Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor