The title here is meant to work on several different levels and perspectives, but primarily it is meant to echo Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phase “The Cost of Discipleship,” his book on Christian life amidst the rise of fascism. We had a song this morning in church based on his words. I don’t know the source, but sounds to me late in his life indeed:
“And when this cup you give is filled to brimming with bitter suffering, hard to understand, we take it thankfully and without trembling out of so good and beloved a hand.”
A fine sentiment for martyrdom, the bewildered hurt when, for all your good intentions, you are handed pain and sadness instead of joy. hmmph. (“more pricks than kicks” as Samuel Beckett so eloquently summarized from the Apostle Paul).
There is a certain amount of snarky joy that any victor feels in watching his competitor fight against the acceptance of defeat…and it is true that this fight is deep in our being, and is one we have exhibited since childhood. And in the ungoverned pscyhe of the 6-year old that fight is communicated to the world as mere tantrum. In this generous spirit (NOT), Trump supporters now gloat over the protests against his thin (and reasonably questionable, since Hillary did win the popular vote after all) victory. Again they exhibit the total self-bloated arrogance that has made them such an awful party for so long, more interested in petty political wins than governing. Thus they opposed everything Obama did, even when it fit their agenda (debt reduction anyone?). But let me allow them some empathy. I would be hard pressed to agree to a Trump-initiated debt reduction package, no matter how attractive the terms, for no other reason than to spite him the credit for such delicately diplomatic undertaking. And let us not kid ourselves as to the nature of the Yosemite Sam tantrum that the Trump supporters would have had if they had lost in the same manner (winning the popular vote and losing the electoral college).
What any reasonable Republican should understand right now, is that these protests of such felt urgency, the need to protest this particular result, would not have accompanied a victory by any of the other Republican candidates (even, I would argue, Ted Cruz). They protest this one because of the dirty, hurtful, and bigoted campaign that brought Trump the victory, playing to people’s worst fears and worst instincts. Most Americans, Democrats included, can accept democracy’s cruel results when a person or a policy that you despise wins an election. I’ll leave aside the millions of problems with media, money, voter suppression, and all the ugly problems that undermine democratic practice. But even with perfect democratic practice, we still would face results that we don’t like. Everyone knows this.
What the protesters protest hear is the hate that fueled this campaign. This is not to say that all who voted for Trump were filled with hate. But, all who did need to take a good look at themselves. You can ignore his bigotry and say we should take it with a grain of salt. But, as our eloquent current president has said, “words matter.” His words did not just insult people. They inspire violence, and we are seeing it, across the country. Thrown insults meant to hurt, meant to tell someone not only that they don’t belong, but that they should consider their lives and freedom at risk for merely being anything but “white” in that awful sense of the word.
People are drawing swastikas on things. You can give a long oration on the cultural symbolism of the Confederate flag, and how it is not all about slavery and racism etc., but who among us can say that the swastika bears any message but pure menacing hate? Okay, Hindus I suppose, whence Hitler stole the swastika, and twisted into his resentful and psychopathic fantasy. But I don’t think it is Hindu Americans drawing swastikas on things right now next to Trump’s name.
So we come back to Bonhoeffer, who was an extraordinarily dry theologian who became sort of sexy post facto because he felt that the Christian should find a way to resist Nazi bigotry. Let’s review that for a moment. We are all (with some frightening exceptions I know) horrified by the Nazi genocide, the impossibly inhuman murder of millions with industrial efficiency. But that came ten years after their rise, in the midst of the war. What Bonhoeffer reacted against was not an evidently murderous regime, but rather one that legitimized and preached bigotry, that placed the blame for all the changes brought by World War I and the Great Depression upon a segment of the German population. They told people that it was good to hate. They encouraged people to hate. They encouraged people to attack. They granted license for violence against a group of people who did not present a threat.
Bonhoeffer could have stayed in England when Hitler came to power, but saw what was happening. He saw the triumph of hateful words…the hateful actions were bound to follow. He then, fatefully, chose to return to Germany saying to a friend “If I do not go through this trial with my countrymen, I’ll have no standing to have any say in what comes after.” After being found guilty of contributing in a small way to a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, he was executed by the Nazi government in the midst of World War II.
The spiritual crisis that faced him upon his return to Germany was how should a Christian live amidst a society that had abandoned Christian ethics, and yet still thought of themselves as Christian. All the German churches, out fear and significant outright support for the Nazis, had bowed to Nazi interference in their affairs and supported them. Bonhoeffer created what he called the “Confessing Church,” an unofficial body of believers who had no choice but to “confess” their opposition to the government. He sought to give guidance and spiritual sustenance to this group. In a rare moment of practical theology (more on his abstract theology in a minute), he advocated a sort of check-list as to how to confront government in general, but in particular one filled with frightening hate.
First, he argued, people of good conscience (in this case the Church, but they are reasonable rules for non-Christians) should give comfort and shelter to those who are the victims of the social order (with the implication that any social order has its victims, people who for whatever reason are disadvantaged or outcast).
Second, people of good conscience should call the government to its responsibility to protect its people from threats to life and limb, whether foreign armies, local criminals, or hunger, poverty, and disease.
Third, if a government proves to be itself a malicious threat to the people for whom it claims responsibility, then people of good conscience should “throw a spoke in the wheel.”
This phrase is a little anachronistic, but if anyone remembers that excellent old bike racing movie “Breaking Away”, there is a scene where the working class hero of the movie catches up to these mean Italian professional riders in a local charity race. Unhappy to see this pretender in their midst, they poke a spoke into his wheel. This causes his front wheel to suddenly stop, and throws him hurtling towards the ground where he lands, bloody and heart-broken at this malicious and uncalled for gesture, merely because he, an outsider, had dared to put himself among them. In one little scene, the movie pretty much summed up fascism.
In this case, Bonhoeffer is advocating some sort of terrorism, or sabotage at minimum as a response to a government that threatens its own people. This, in American right-wing patriot lingo is a Jeffersonian solution (the tree of liberty must be watered with blood from time to time….I’m pretty sure he was talking about armed rebellion not lynching here, but for many years American fascists practiced the latter rather than the former, and therein is the dividing line between righteous rebellion and fascism). Or as Trump put it “second amendment solutions.”
Bonhoeffer’s third option, we should note, only comes in the context of the more pacific and non-destructive mandates to protect and shelter the weak, and to peacefully protest government injustice. He did not like this last option, because it entailed destruction. But he had to consider it within the context of a theology he was developing in this particular historical context of “Responsible Action.” The Christian, he argued was called upon to risk one’s own spiritual purity in the face of communal injustice. To come before God after genocide and say, “but Lord I have not killed,” is to mock the commandment rather than obey it. (I’m paraphrasing all of this from memory, and I’m sure doing great injustice to Bonhoeffer’s theology). But to come before God at some point prior to genocide (at what point is really the big question), and to confess to sabotaging orderly government or killing supporters of such government, before offering one’s life for the first two on the list, is to confess to that great sin without just cause, making you a contributor to disorderly cycles of violence rather than a queller of them.
The one thing that unites nearly all of Trump’s supporters is the conviction that a vote for Trump was a vote of protest against a political system seen as injust, corrupt, and resistant to change. Only a fire-breather like Trump (ostensibly, and certainly falsely, independent because of his, less-than-appears, wealth) could take on this entrenched system (see earlier Facebook post on how a 25-year project to sully Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy succeeded). They were protesting. Perhaps there is much to protest. One big item of protest, for many Christians among these, is the legality of abortion. This is not the place to go into that debate, and I fully support the idea that we should leave this as a question of conscience rather than law. But I do understand that one of the few responsible reasons to vote for Trump for those who believe is the conviction that abortion is state-sanctioned murder and must be illegal. For them, Trump is the spoke in the wheel.
The implication of that phrase is that you intend to destroy the wheel and crash the vehicle, metaphorically here, the government. This is clearly the result of another generational ideological struggle: to take Ronald Reagan’s unfortunate little campaign slogan, and turn it into a nihilistic ideology “government is the problem.” Such is the price of protest. And that government better damn well be a hell of a problem, because the chances of recreating another one amidst all the hate and discord will be nearly impossible, especially without a hegemonic democracy prepared to offer protection and a Marshall Plan in order to create the fragile conditions needed to reestablish some sort of democracy.
For Bonhoeffer, the bigger context of “Responsible Action” was the now-abstrusely-abstract distinction between the “ultimate” and the “penultimate”. The ultimate being the kingdom of God, but the penultimate being the state that Jesus left us in, warning that the end is coming soon, but somehow it never comes. I think the idea that God’s years are equal to so many human years (just as human years equal to so many dog years) is silly. I think we are talking about kingdoms outside of time, we are talking about human conditions.
The Gospel reading today was from Luke 21. Jesus is telling people that the temple will soon fall, and that there will be wars and insurrections and all kinds of other disasters, but that “the end will not follow immediately.” Here is where he leaves us, amidst what Bonhoeffer called the “penultimate”. We await, as old Beckett awaited Godot, forever. That is the human condition. We can imagine the possibility that some peaceful kingdom exists, but we can’t quite imagine what it is, and we can never quite create it. There is something mathematical in Bonhoeffer’s imagining here, the ultimate is a limit that the equation can never reach.
So, Bonhoeffer argues, we must seek to act responsibly amidst this imperfect, and often fearful, penultimate condition. We must act despite our fear of sin. But we must act first and foremost, with mercy, with empathy, with respect for the delicacy of established order, but also fully conscious of its injustices.
When Jesus calls us, he said in a turn of phrase meant to be understood far less morbidly than it sounds, he bids us come and die. But he leaves us responsible for that the life that precedes that ultimate fate. So the protesters angry at Trump’s vulgar victory are not “crybabies”. They are Bonhoeffer’s people of good conscience, calling his government to its responsibility to the people under its dominion, and that includes all who voted…and all who didn’t.
“You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death,” Jesus continued alarmingly. “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Protest is pricier than most of us Americans, amidst our comforts, can manage. Grant them their respect. Peaceful protest is not half as fun as playing with guns, but far more responsible.