This is the third post in our Symposium on Catholic Political Theology and the 2016 Elections. You can find the first post here and the second here. Future posts will appear on Fridays in the following weeks.
Despair is in the air (the Cubbies’ World Series win not withstanding). This election season has been less like an inspiring exercise of democracy and more like watching a WWF wrestling match that we slowly and to our horror realize is not, in fact, a staged sports melodrama. It’s real. It’s very real. And there are real consequences for our country and the world.
Thick despair clings to this election season. There’s been the oft-repeated statement that both candidates are the most unpopular in the history of democracy. There’ve been the accusations that Hillary Clinton is teeming with lies and corruption, or that Donald Trump is an indecent, oafish, ignorant, misogynistic, racist. It is not all about the candidates’ rhetoric either. Some of our fellow citizens are practicing vigilante politics: A Republican campaign office was vandalized and attacked with a Molotov cocktail in mid-October, and just Wednesday arsonists set fire to a black church in Mississippi and scrawled the words “VOTE TRUMP” on the side of the building.
Again and again over the last few weeks, we’ve heard some form of the same sentiment from people across the political spectrum: “I just can’t wait until it’s over” (I may have even said this a few times myself). The despair is so stifling that sources as divergent as The American Conservative and The Atlantic have both posted online pieces on how the election seems to be causing – you guessed it – despair. All this despair marks a stark contrast from the rallying cries for hope in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, when millions of Americans shouted “Yes, We Can!” It has been a sad descent from that to chants of “Trump that Bitch.” Our country seems so severely at odds, and this campaign has been so inflammatory, that it does sometimes seem as though we have little cause for hope. Many of us, divided by politics and ideology, are nonetheless united in feeling weary, and dirty, and dry, and despairing.
From the perspective of Christian theology, despair is to be countered with hope. That may seem ethereal and platitudinous in the midst of this election cycle, but the good news is that for people of faith, hope is born in moments of despair. Among the most powerful Biblical imagery depicting how despair met with faith generates hope is Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. This imagery is also the scriptural source for the famous African-American spiritual, “Dem Bones.” Here’s that passage, abridged for length:
…[T]he Lord set me in the center of a broad valley. It was filled with bones…How dry they were! God asked me…”Can these bones come back to life?” “Lord GOD,” I answered, “you alone know that.” Then God said to me: “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!…Listen! I will make breath enter you so you may come to life. I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put breath into you so you may come to life”…I prophesied as I had been commanded. A sound started up…rattling like thunder. The bones came together, bone joining to bone…sinews appeared on them, flesh grew over them, skin covered them on top, but there was no breath in them. Then God said… “Prophesy to the breath…From the four winds come, O breath, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.” I prophesied as God commanded me, and the breath entered them; they came to life and stood on their feet…God said “these bones are the whole house of Israel! They are saying, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.” Therefore, prophesy and say to them “I am going to open your graves; I will make you come up out of your graves, my people…I will put my spirit in you that you may come to life” (Ezekiel: 1-14, abbv.).
In this vision, Ezekiel prophesies to the very bones of those people who’ve suffered the most complete form of despair: the death and destruction of the community. The context of Ezekiel’s prophecy is the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. Likewise, and at the risk of being overly dramatic, our despair in this election season also feels like it is rooted in part in fear of the destruction of our communities; civility and the willingness to give our opponents the benefit of the doubt, demonizing and questioning the very humanity of those who disagree with us, all seem to me to be evidence that our fears are warranted. Indeed, pundits are already talking about whether the nation can be unified, whether the dry bones can be rejoined, following the election. We’ve even seen discussions about whether or not we need a truth and reconciliation commission (normally institutions reserved for the aftermath of mass violations of human rights and other forms of political violence) in order to rehumanize ourselves and the broken and shattered bones of our social fabric.
Ezekiel’s task is to awaken the faith of Israel, so that they might hope to experience the restoration of their lives and their community. It is not difficult to see why this passage appealed to song-writer James Weldon Johnson, who was born during Reconstruction and who composed the spiritual. Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones! Hear the word of the Lord! Johnson no doubt found hope for himself, his community, and even his nation in Ezekiel’s vision. Dem dry bones joined together again, growing strong with muscle and flesh, finding themselves restored fully by the breath of God.
Christian hope emerges, not in moments of deep peace or joy, but in the midst of despair, death, and disunity. Hope begins, for Christians, in our faith in the crucified God; a faith, says Jürgen Moltmann, that “finds the cross the hope of the earth.” Likewise, hope is kindled, argues theological ethicist James Keenan, in the gap between what we yearn for and what we’ve lost. In the chasm between the ideals that we want for our nation and our communities, and the worst abuses of this election cycle, hope is born. Our yearning points to “why,” says Moltmann, “faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart …Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.” Hope implies resistance to the sources of our despair.
So I end this post with an invitation (to myself as much as to my readers): Resist. Resist the despair that clings to this election, the inflammatory rhetoric, the violence done, and the threats of violence to come. Resist cable news and talk radio that seek to enflame our hatred and exploit our broken bones; and social media rants that do little to join them back together. Resist the temptation to return incivility for incivility, hatred for hatred. Speak your truth gently and with respect for the humanity and perspective of those who disagree. The fruit of faith is hopeful acts of resistance and prophetic proclamations against the politics of division and despair. In this election season, hope is subversive, civility and peacemaking are risky. Our hope invites the Word of God to put the broken pieces of the nation back together, and the Spirit of God to breathe new life into the dry bones of our communities.
Anna Floerke Scheid is Associate Professor of Theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. She teaches and researches in the area of Christian social ethics with particular attention to issues of violent conflict and peacebuilding, as well as racial justice and African theologies of inculturation. She is the author of Just Revolution: A Christian Ethic of Political Resistance and Social Transformation, (Lexington Books, 2015), and her essays and articles appear in Horizons, the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, and Teaching Theology and Religion.