This is the fourth post in our Symposium on Catholic Political Theology and the 2016 Elections. You can find the first post here, the second here., and the third here. The final post will appear next Friday.
Leading up to Election Day, the phrase “At least this will soon be over” filled social media, news stories, and daily conversation. It became the trope that was just as easy to talk about as the weather. Grocery clerks would casually mention to me, “On Wednesday, we will all finally be able to move on.”
Nothing feels further from the truth.
This notion of being able to put the election behind us conveys a sense of distance. It implies that elections do not matter, that the President of the United States will have no impact on the world. Some are able to impose such a distance, protected by safeguards and privileges that allow life to proceed along the same course. In the hours that followed the announcement of Trump’s Electoral College victory, others had that distance removed. A Muslim woman was attacked at San Diego State University on Wednesday, with the attackers claiming Trump as their motivation. News reports of swastikas in high school bathrooms, sports fields, and community buildings are becoming common. A collection of stories, ranging from children in elementary school chanting to build a wall to African Americans having their cars vandalized are filling twitter. These are not isolated incidents, and I deeply fear that they are indicative of a new normal.
There are many in this country, including those who voted for Trump, Clinton, Johnson, and Stein, who view themselves as neutral. They are not ardent Trump supporters, they view this election as being another entry in the history books, and are eager to proceed with their lives. Perhaps the 46.9% of eligible voters that did not vote fall into this category, citing the reason, “All options are bad, I’ll abstain.” Neutrality is enticing; it promises a clean conscience and involves little effort. It is also dangerous.
In the midst of these violent experiences are calls for unity. Facebook feeds are filled with calls to move on from this election in a spirit of unity. Trump, Clinton, and Obama have each called for the nation to move forward together.
The danger of calls to unity is that they are often based in a spirit of neutrality. What we claim as “neutrality” is not neutral, however. Speaking in his own context of poverty in Latin America, Gustavo Gutiérrez describes the danger of neutrality:
It is not possible to remain neutral in the face of poverty and the resulting just claims of the poor; a posture of neutrality would, moreover, mean siding with the injustice and oppression in our midst. (A Theology of Liberation, p. 159)
Gutiérrez troubles our notion of neutrality, outlining how inaction in the face of oppression perpetuates systems of oppression and individual acts of violence. The Reign of God is not neutral. It is unequivocally on the side of the poor and oppressed. Further, working for the Reign is not neutral. Jesus was clear: a life of discipleship is difficult. It requires action, like feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted and welcoming the migrant. It will result in persecution. Neutrality is not a Gospel virtue.
Right now, calls to unity predicated on neutrality are not in fact neutral. These calls are on the side of the oppressor, invalidating the experience of those who are oppressed. Unity cannot exist when people are attacked. Unity cannot exist when people are silenced. Unity cannot exist when people are persecuted. Unity cannot exist when people fear for their safety and others try to argue that their fear is not real. Looking to a concrete example, neutrality in the face of graffiti stating “Black lives don’t matter and neither does [sic] your votes” affirms that statement. In a context where injustice reigns supreme, a desire for neutrality furthers unjust systems.
Calls for unity only make sense in the midst of working for justice. One must work to create conditions where all, especially the most vulnerable, are able to be a part of the collective whole in a full, complete sense. In Gutierrez’s language, there is no space for neutrality in unity.
Intellectually, I know “moving forward” will eventually occur. Today, however, I grieve. I grieve for a nation where outright hatred is acceptable. I grieve for strangers I do not know who were told to go back “home” to Mexico, Asia, or Africa because of the color of their skin, despite the United States being their home. I grieve for all of those trying to make arrangements now to secure healthcare, immigration paperwork, and marriage licenses before January when this all goes up in the air. I grieve for those who do not have the privileges that allow them to make these arrangements. I grieve for those who were victims of violence in the days following election, and for those who are trembling with fear that they might be the next victims. I grieve for women who are victims of sexual assault, knowing that 59.7 million people voted for someone accused of sexual assault. I also try to take concrete steps towards solidarity. Solidarity is not an abstract concept, but must be lived out and actualized in actions.
When the point comes that we move forward, we cannot do so in a spirit of neutrality. When we move forward, we must do so unquestionably on the side of the marginalized, the oppressed, the poor.
Annie Selak is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Boston College, focusing on ecclesiology. She studies power and authority in the Roman Catholic Church, examining leadership structures and dialogue. Prior to studying at Boston College, Annie served as a Lay Ecclesial Minister in the Catholic Church, working with young women at Catholic high schools and universities.