Reconstructing American Political Community

Creative Commons imageAmong the three main points of my previous post, my first since Donald Trump was elected, I argued that there will be no flourishing political community in America if we do not humbly seek God, praying to become “vessels of civility, grace, and hope – to everyone.” That very general statement needs some particulars, and the little phrase “to everyone” is a key.

As Timothy Sherratt (Gordon College) has said, America is a diverse society, and in it we struggle to give that diversity political expression: Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Progressive, and Green – to name just several. The problem is, we’ve stupidly turned our diversity into a house divided. We Christians are part of that problem because we take our cues from the world, so a big question we face is: how do we as Christians flex our political muscles in a way that – at this current time of discord and division – is biblically just.

This is a question that Sherratt takes seriously in very helpful, recent article in Capital Commentary. Arguing for what he calls re-constructive politics, Sherratt calls us to diversity conversations whose virtues are rooted in the fruit of the Spirit, which, he argues, “are correlates of the character of true power” as understood at Calvary. “Their utility for remaking relationship, both political and personal,” he writes, “is what commends them in the present circumstances.”

With that as a backdrop, Sharratt offers a biblical vision of the nature and purpose of politics in our diversity. I urge you to read this important article. It may surprise you.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Image via Creative Commons permission.

A personal note from Charles: My sincere thanks to those of you who follow this blog, and to other readers, who helped my previous post become very widely shared, read, and discussed.

Now That Trump Has Been Elected: Three Difficult Tasks Facing American Christians

the better angels of our nature

Three Difficult Tasks Facing Christians

And just to be clear, I would have written the following even if Hillary had won.

(1) Drop the mocking spirit; instead, turn away anger.
Rising anger across in America – left and right, Democrat and Republican – has contributed to our country’s uncivil, graceless, and derisive political rhetoric. This has been normative during 2016 in the blogosphere and social media, on talk radio, in campaign ads, and even from our presidential candidates and many of their leading supporters.

Sadly, many Christians – to call out those in my own faith – have taken their rhetorical cues from these sources. I was on the receiving end of this earlier this year, when a Christian looked me in the face and said, “If you don’t vote for Trump, it’s a vote for the enemy,” after I told her I couldn’t vote for Trump. Well. I did not vote for Hillary Clinton either, but not because I saw her as my enemy (I abhor some of her political positions, as I do some of Trump’s). More recently, I heard the malicious ill will from a Christian woman who asked me in a Facebook comment if I had heard the latest news about “Killery.”

These are just private examples. Public examples abound in the above-mentioned sources, so well known that they need no mention here.

I don’t know why the Bible comes down so hard on mockers. Maybe it’s because mockers are said to have attitudes and actions that smack of pride and discord (Proverbs 21:24; 14:9). Maybe it’s because they get marque billing alongside fools, who hate knowledge, and even alongside the wicked  (Proverbs 1:22; Psalm 1:1). Maybe it’s because they have become so angry that they “stir up a city,” rather than being like the wise, who “turn away anger” (Proverbs 29:8). But that’s not all:

“Penalties are prepared for mockers, and beatings for the backs of fools” (Proverbs 19:29; see also Proverbs 9:11 and Isaiah 29:20).

The Lord “mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble” (Proverbs 3:34).

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers” (Psalm 1:1).

“How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery?” (Proverbs 1:22). Yes. How long? How long will the poison of a mocking spirit continue to corrupt the political community our country?

Right or left, Republican or Democrat, from sea to shining sea, Christians, of all citizens, should be leading the way to stop this decay of our national body. What way is that? The answer is also in the Bible.

“Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6)

“Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29).

In other words, let us no longer take our cues (or our cures) from the political rhetoric; instead, let us speak wisely: stop stirring up the city; instead be wise and start turning away the anger (Proverbs 29:8). There will be no flourishing political community in America if we do not repent of our mocking spirt and humbly seek God, praying to become vessels of civility, grace, and hope – to everyone.

(2) Recognize that America is not exceptional or indispensable.
The 2016 campaign season was also a time when the question of America’s greatness gave rise to all sorts of punditry surrounding the assertion that “America is an exceptional nation.” For some, this is a cruel joke; others tout it as a valued and trusted trope. The general impression I get is that you couldn’t even get elected dog catcher in this country if you didn’t believe it.

So it surprised me when Donald Trump said he dislikes the term. But if you read between the lines of what he said, he seems to be saying that if America were truly exceptional – if so many nations weren’t “eating our lunch” – he wouldn’t mind applauding the phrase. On the other hand, at the end of August, Hillary Clinton was in Cincinnati at the American Legion’s national convention giving a speech that lauded America exceptionalism and attacked Trump’s dislike of the term.

hourglassPersonally, I think America is a great nation that has in recent decades gone down some roads that aren’t great. But is America “exceptional?” In other words, is America “inherently different” than other nations and does it have a “unique” role to transform the world. This is the question we must answer truthfully. Words have to mean things. And the words “American exceptionalism” mean that America is inherently different than other nations, unique among nations.

But that fact is that America is like other nations. If it were not, it would not be a nation. It would be some other kind of entity and unsuited to be numbered among 194 other nations of the world. What kind of entity that might be, I don’t know. But if America were unique, it would be a stand-alone something. And it’s not that. It certainly is not, for instance, a school, or a church, or a business. It is a nation among nations.

There has been only one unique nation in the history of the world, exceptional because its founding began with the revelation of God – beginning with the call of Abram:

“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing’” (Genesis 12:1-2),

and continuing with the mission of Moses:

“The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).

America had no revelatory founding.

In 1776 (not 1620), the nation certainly began unlike other nations extant in the eighteenth century in that it was not birthed as a monarchy or as an extension of some other kind of dynastic line of rulers. The nation galvanized around what we could call a synthesis of three very big ideas from salient elements of Puritan Calvinism, Enlightenment rationalism, and Virginia deism (to be brief about it). But this beginning was not a revelatory founding.

This ought to make us not only humble but also fearful and prayerful about the future of America as a nation. Every time I hear a politician claim that America is “indispensable,” I cringe. This descriptive for our nation began with President Bill Clinton, as far as I can determine, and it was afterward noised about by his secretary of state Madeleine Albright. Hillary Clinton affirmed it, at length, as an essential feature of America’s role in the world in her speech to the American Legion.

This political hubris (see Clinton’s speech) ought to frighten us. If ancient Israel was uniquely and exceptionally founded, let us remember that, except for its prophets, it also believed it was indispensable. But it wasn’t. Brothers and sisters, where do we get off believing that we are? Let us stop falling prey to this lie and start looking more biblically at our nation. As the theologian John Peck taught many of us: “If you start from an unbiblical position in your analysis of a problem, you’re not going to come up with a biblical way ahead.”

(3) Admit that America is under judgment.
As an American who is also a Christian, this has been the hardest one for me to swallow. It’s put me in a place of great dislocation. Well, no, that’s not quite right. It’s more accurate to say that it is the only explanation that has, at least for me, sufficiently explained the dislocation, and its attendant confusion and the famine of answers, that has become the American reality. We used to call it a collective worldview crisis. Call it what you will.

SunsetI had been thinking for some time that perhaps this may indeed the case with our country, although I quickly add that when this was on my mind I trotted out theological arguments to counter it. But after the number of presidential candidates dropped to two in 2016, I suddenly found myself without any theological defenses against the “judgment” narrative. As a professor once said, “If the facts don’t fit your theology, change your theology.” This is why I have plucked up my nerve to say I now believe that: (1) America has been under some kind of strange judgment for many years; (2) we ended up with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as our presidential candidates as part of that judgment (evidence: the unprecedented large number of people who concluded that both were horrible candidates); (3) it did not matter who got elected; the judgment continues. The off-the-great-road path that our country is traveling is going to get more perilous as we head to January 29, inauguration day, and into the new year.

I hope I am wrong, but it seems to me that this is the real crisis our nation faces. I have been in grief over this and haven’t a clue about how we get out from under it. Let us seek the Lord. And as much as possible let us strive to be vessels of civility, grace, and hope along the way. May God have mercy on us during this time of disorientation and incoming, yet unknown, reorientation. Who do we think we are, anyway? Who do we think God is?

“Who has understood the mind of the Lord, or instructed him as his counselor? Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path to understanding? Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust… Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing” (Isaiah 40:13-17).

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

All images, permission via creative commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.

Paul Simon: still right 50 years later

Simon & GrafunkelI’ve been wanting to write what may be my final post about the up-coming election, but I’ve felt a bit sluggish lately, not to mention being burned out from finishing a writing deadline. So for now I’m taking the lazy man’s, quick way out. I was recently humming these familiar lines by Paul Simon, from about 50 years ago.

Siting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon.
Going to the candidates to date.
Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose.
Every way you look at this you loose.

To amend Mark Twain: “History may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.” Take a break from the laughing and the shouting. Here’s the famous song. Enjoy: Mrs Robinson.

Image courtesy of Simon & Garfunkel website.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

 

Who Lost the First Presidential Debate?

Hilary Clinton & Donlad TrumpPolitical pundits today want to know “who won the debate?” It’s the wrong question. Who lost the debate? That is the question. And the answer is? The American people lost the debate.

For this first of three debates, moderator Lester Holt framed the debate in three broad categories: “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity,” and “Securing America.” It sounded promising to me. In more normal times, the event would have entailed a rousing debate between two presidential candidates in which they contrasted their policy plans for those three areas so that the American people could have some clearer ideas by which to help them decide who to vote for on November 8.

But not between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton. Oh no. In more normal times, a little sniping at each other between candidates is to be expected, and often couched in a little humor. But not this time. Oh no. Instead, Clinton and Trump spent most of the 90 minutes getting under each other’s skin, poking at raw, sensitive areas in each other’s lives, and then replying with cutting retorts to try to save the moment.

Both candidates have said so many horrible things about each other in the past and are implicated in so many very questionable activities, that this first debate became all about that stuff – i.e., about their personal lives – instead of about the America people – the very people they say they say want to represent and help when they set up shop in the Oval Office.

That’s all I want to say, really. We the people lost. That is the story of the first debate. It is the outcome of having the two most unpopular presidential candidates in modern history. It is sad, very sad. And sadder still is that it is a reflection of us, the American people. May God have mercy on us.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Image courtesy of scienceblogs.com

For other posts on this blog about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, see these, beginning with this one: To Boldly Go: anti-Trump Republicans Speak Out [June 11]; Donald Trump Is Wrong about the Founding of ISIS [Aug 12]; A Christian View of Not Voting for Donald Trump of Hillary Clinton [Aug 25]; Is Donald Trump Merely Lending His Name to “America”? [Sept 16]; Predicting Presidential Debates [Sept 23].

Predicting the U.S. Presidential Debates

It has been said that only novelists know the future. Even so, I don’t think it’s much of a risk for us to to predict what the debates between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton devolve into. The first of the three scheduled debates begins in a few days, on Monday evening, September 26. For one thing, they will be anything but presidential. Instead, they will be…, well, why wait for Monday? Here’s a sneak peek from the never predictable John Cleese and Michael Palin. This short video from a 1972 Month Python skit tells us what the debates will be like.

A segment from Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic.” Standard YouTube license.

For other posts about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, see these, beginning with this one: To Boldly Go: anti-Trump Republicans Speak Up [Jun 11]; Donald Trump Is Wrong about the Founding of ISIS [Aug 12]; A Christian View of Not Voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton [Aug 25]; Is Donald Trump Merely Lending His Name to “America”? [Sept. 16]; Who Lost the First Presidential Debate? [Sept 26].

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.

Is Donald Trump Merely Lending His Name to “America”?

Donald Trump & White HouseHaving recently returned from three weeks in England, I can tell you it was a relief not to be Trump-blitzed everyday by the media. But I’ll also tell you this. When conversation in my home-away-from-home turned to American politics, as it frequently did, not one person I spoke to – and I was with many different kinds of people in varied contexts and cities – was a fan of the Trumpster.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that most had concluded that Hillary Clinton was no great catch either. And among some that I met, I heard a wryly spoken running joke: “Until June, we used to take pride in not being as divided as America. But now we have Brexit.” Welcome to the club, I’d reply. You guys import too much stuff from America! Misery loves company.

Anyway, I’m back home and again running for cover. But I did happen to catch a most enlightening piece of television journalism the other day about Donald Trump’s so-called business acumen that made me take notice. It speaks for itself, so I’m not going to comment on it. I’m just going to quote the speakers. All I want to say, first, is that it left me with the title of this article: “Is Trump Merely Lending His Name to ‘America’”?

During the September 8, 2016 PBS-TV NewsHour program, correspondent William Brangham talked with Mark Fisher and Tim O’Brien. Fisher is senior editor of The Washington Post and co-author of Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power. O’Brien is executive director of the international news agency “Bloomberg View” and author of Trump Nation: The Art of Being the Donald. Both have extensive knowledge of Donald Trump and his business dealings over many decades, and O’Brien is one of the few journalists who has actually seen some of Trump’s tax returns.

O’Brien doesn’t think Trump will release his tax returns “because I think they will go towards offering substantiation around a bunch of things that Trump has made central to his political campaign: his track record as a business person, how charitable he is as a philanthropist, his operations overseas, and the kinds of business and financial conflicts that could potentially come to bear on him should he end up in the oval office.”

Specifically, however, Brangham pressed the two journalists for some understanding about what we should conclude from Trump’s decades’-long roller coaster ride with his many and varied businesses, for Trump talks about his successes but he’s also had terrible failures, including many bankruptcies. It was Fisher’s and O’Brien’s replies that made me take notice; after all, what did I know, really, about Trump’s business history?

We know a lot about Hillary Clinton’s long, diverse political history – the good, bad, and ugly – so we can therefore make an informed conclusion about what that might mean for America if she were elected President. But about Trump’s long, diverse business history, what do most of us really know? On this question, I found Fisher and O’Brien offering a major piece of of the picture. And what might that mean if he were elected President?

Fisher and O’Brien both pointed out that in recent decades Trump has changed his business model. Instead of organizing and running businesses, which were many and varied and included taking on a lot of debt, and which had both successes and terrible failures, including many bankruptcies, Trump, said Fisher, has been “taking on less debt and less risk. [Now] he essentially rents out his name and uses others to take the risk – investors and others – so he merely rents out his name and gets a guaranteed income stream from that.”

O’Brien confirmed that. “The Donald Trump of the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he said, “was essentially a creature of debt. The last time he really operated a large business that involved complex financial and management decisions was when he was running his Atlantic City casinos, which he essentially ended up running into the ground. He put those through four separate corporate bankruptcies. And he almost went personally bankrupt in the early 1990s. And the Trump who emerged from that is essentially a Trump who is now a human shingle, as Mark said. He oversees a licensing operation where he puts his name on everything from mattresses to men’s underwear to vodka and buildings. And he’s got his golf course development operation, and then essentially a self-promotion publicity machine that made itself most visible during the ‘Apprentice’ years.”

To me, this was enlightening. It’s certainly not an unlawful business practice – what he’s doing lending his name to products. And it’s making the billionaire tycoon more money. Fair enough. But it said to me: “Donald J. Trump businessman” is certainly nothing like the image of a Henry Ford or a Steve Jobs or a Nelson Rockefeller (41st U.S. Vice-President). Instead, I was left wondering: is Trump going after the U.S. presidency to lend his name to “America,” like he has done to other products he wants to hawk for personal profit? Is he letting “America” take all the risk? Why not? That is his business. I want to see him asked these questions during one of the presidential debates, which start September 26.

For more that 100 years, U.S. presidents – Democrats and Republicans – have been increasingly running the United States like a business enterprise rather than a political community. Like them, Trump as president of “America” would amplify this fundamental problem of our nation, big time. During an ABC-TV 20/20 interview (Friday night, Nov 20, 2015), before he won the Republican nomination, Trump was asked what he would do should he lose in November. He admitted it was possible, noting that he was up against many “not stupid people.” He then quickly added, “What’s next? I go back to what I was doing.” It’s an answer that speaks volumes.

Image via VAZVorpal Creative Commons

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

For other posts about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, see these, beginning with this one: To Boldly Go: anti-Trump Republicans Speak Up [Jun 11]; Donald Trump Is Wrong about the Founding of ISIS [Aug 12]; A Christian View of Not Voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton [Aug 25]; Predicting Presidential Debates [Sept 23]; Who Lost the First Presidential Debate? [Sept 26].

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.

The Kindness of Strangers in a World of Pain

Twin Towers laser memorialIt began this way, 35,000 feet above the Atlantic, flying from London to Atlanta:

“The Boeing 777 droned on. Five hours to go before touchdown in Atlanta. Suddenly everyone’s attention locked on to the Texas drawl coming from the intercom. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. May I have your attention. Your serious attention.’ The dreaded words. Worst nightmares sprung from the fuselage, the overhead compartment, the unconscious –  wherever you had stowed them before boarding. A kind of holy moment spread through cabin. No one spoke. No one dared. It seemed much longer than the millisecond it took before Captain William’s steady but troubled Texas drawl continued: ‘There’s been a major incident in the United States and all air space throughout the nation has been closed….’”

With all the reporting of criminal behavior, hate, violence, and terrorist acts that get dished out to us by the media everyday, I thought it would be good to take a break today, on September 11, and reflect on what is possible when we rely on the better angels of our nature to rule our actions. I was blessed to experience this in a hugely moving and inspiring way fifteen years ago over a five-day period that began the morning of another September 11. An essay I wrote about it was later published in magazines in the US and the UK for the one year anniversary of 9/11.

The above quote is from the beginning of that essay, which soon moves from the shocking and frightful to what is redemptively possible from the milk of human kindness in the face of great evil. For five days, I and hundreds of other “strandeds” were cared for by strangers where “selfish interest and alienation were transformed into opportunities for self-denial, cooperation among the different, unity in our diversity. A depth of compassion and caring had been awakened in us that I don’t think we knew we carried within, amid our wood, hay, and stubble. Heaven broke in and walls broke down between races, professions, classes, nationalities. Human suffering tasted something sweet of the saving grace of God as strangers became neighbors.”

If pain and murder is just a click away, why not grace and healing? Just click here to read the full essay.

Image courtesy Creative Commons.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer