The following is the second of a series of articles under a general symposium title of “Being Church in the Age of Trump,” which will appear in hard copy in January as part of the fall/winter edition of the journal @ this point: theological investigations in church and culture. The journal, published by Columbia Theological Seminary and oriented toward laity, offers CTS faculty and others a chance to engage our wider constituencies around a particular issue/idea. The title for this edition of @ this point will be “Reflections After the Election.”
This semester I am teaching a course on “A Migrant’s Journey”. The course invites students to explore the Bible as a migrant’s story and examines theological and ethical responses to the circumstances of refugees, asylum-seekers, economics migrants, undocumented laborers, and people who are trafficked.
During this post-election period we are reading and watching together news about the rise of hate crimes since 2015, proposals made by the Trump transition team to build a wall, and seriously consider a more rigorous Muslim registry than the policies already in place, and the swell of resistance emerging among people of faith. One of the students raised a question about hope this week as we near the end of our semester-long discussion. She observed, “it is hard to have hope when our society is so polarized and we all contribute to that polarization. I keep wondering if we are placing our hope in the right things.”
Like most academics, this election sent me into an intellectual tailspin. I am finding it difficult to speak about hope when I feel betrayed by other voters who, at best, are willing to give racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia a pass, and, at worst, believe that exclusionary policies will somehow lead to greatness and community. I feel forsaken by an electoral college that will most likely not reflect the majority vote. I can’t help but feel denied by elected officials whom I strongly doubt will be able to find a way to represent values and beliefs I hold dear or the scholarly research done to support public policies that will decrease wealth inequalities, effectively address climate change, benefit underpaid workers, increase and preserve access to affordable healthcare, and strengthen the nation’s educational system.
When I shared some of these feelings with a friend and mentor who witnessed members of her community forced out of their homes and transported to work and death camps all across Europe during World War II, she reminded me that “there is always hope.” Powerful words from a powerful witness that awakened me to the reality and meaning of hope in our present time like cold water being splashed in my face.
I realized that at least for the past two weeks I had been looking at things through the lens of those expecting to be winners—a very U.S. American white privileged thing to do. However, as a Christian and a theological ethicist, I think that is the wrong way to view the situation. I recall an interview with theologian James Cone conducted by Bill Moyers about his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone reminds white Christians to look at history from the perspective of the losers in order to find the deep well of compelling resources people of faith need for hope.
The Christian story is really about the losers of history — those hungry for bread and authentic community; workers whose labor is not compensated fairly by the owners of the vineyards; people in need of healing from illnesses seen and unseen; women threatened by stoning for stepping out of their place; people are unjustly condemned and crucified for their beliefs and political actions. Our faith finds its strength in a love that in actual existence cannot be defeated by what H. Richard Niebuhr in Faith on Earth called “loveless, thoughtless power” (100). That love is the deep, deep well of hope of the Christian faith. Seeing, loving, and living beyond betrayal, forsakenness, destruction, denial and distrust is Jesus’ story and we can make that story our own today.
Many people say that we need to take a step back now after the election for the sake of “keeping the peace” and “balance”; “wait and see” what will unfold during Trump’s presidency. However, this election makes it clear that we are not living in ordinary times. And, if we are really honest with ourselves, we have not been living in ordinary times for quite some time.
In our society, we have experienced some integration, but we do not really know truly shared power. Recent examples abound in places like Ferguson and Standing Rock. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary actions. We have to challenge ourselves to do some things differently than the way we have always done them as individuals, as churches, as communities, as academics.
The Sunday after the election my family decided to visit St. Stephen’s Baptist Church in Louisville’s West End. I needed and wanted to hear the sermon of a pastor leading people living in a majority black area of Louisville to address the chasm between the haves and have-nots in my hometown. I knew that the sermon he preached would be very different than what I would hear in the church in the predominately white area in which I live. The Rev. Dr. Kevin Cosby preached on Isaiah 40:4:
Every valley will be raised up,
and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
Uneven ground will become level,
and rough terrain a valley plain.
Central to Cosby’s sermon was addressing the question of how to “turn a wound into wisdom” and “transform tragedy into a teacher.” He said that we are living in a society where too many people are in the valley and too few are on the mountain. The Trump phenomenon was created by people living in the valley, those living through tough economic times. Tough economic times make people “vulnerable to demagogues, givers of false promises and false hopes.” Cosby cautioned us not just to look at the effects, but to deal with the causes of the problem – nihilism, despair, and hopelessness.
Hope is central to Christian faith. Hope, however, is just as much an action, a way of living, as it is an idea; this is both a confessional statement and a missional one. People of faith, particularly members and leaders of progressive and liberal churches, cannot simply go on with business as usual.
We are going to have to jettison the old liberal idea that building a better educational program is going to fix the problems we have in our society. We have to go out into the valleys and look for each other when we are there. If we look at the situation through the lens of the losers of history, the only thing that can begin to bring healing and address the problems we are facing is a non-violent revolution of love.
The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty is chair of the department of theology at Bellarmine University and professor of theology. The church’s role in addressing issues of social and economic justice has long been Hinson-Hasty’s concern. She is frequently called upon to preach and speak on faith and public life in a variety of settings. In addition to numerous articles and other publications, she is author of Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians (2014) and Beyond the Social Maze: Exploring the Theological Ethics of Vida Dutton Scudder (2006) and co-editor of Prayers for the New Social Awakening (2008) with Christian Iosso and To Do Justice: A Guide for Progressive Christians (2008) with Rebecca Todd Peters.