February 19, 2017
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
With the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States we have moved into a dark and dangerous moment for the world. Trump’s victory was legitimate. I read his campaign and the first month of his actions as a threat to justice and peace within the United States and around the world. It is unclear to me how long this dark moment will last, and unclear how much damage is likely to be done.
It is time to pay attention to our fears. For example, I share Paul Krugman’s fear that Trump is hoping to provoke a terrorist attack by Muslims as an excuse for starting a big anti-Muslim crusade as a path to increasing his popularity. The example of George W. Bush lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and starting a war is a threatening example. The political result of Bush’s lies and actions was that his favorability ratings shot up to 90 percent after he began his presidency with a low favorability rating after losing the popular vote and gaining the presidency with a Supreme Court ruling over hanging chads in Florida. Trump’s defensiveness about his favorability ratings tells us how much he cares about them.
In recent years we have had the privilege of assuming a lot of security for ourselves even as we have noted how much danger and injury there has been for others. Now danger has increased around the world and danger has increased for some people we dearly love and treasure.
It is a time to pay attention to our fears but not a time to be anxious. Pitchers and catchers have reported for Spring Training and it looks like the Cleveland Indians have a good chance to get to and win the World Series in October.
Jesus offered better guidance for us than sports-oriented escapism. In far worse times than we face he pointed a positive path forward. Just do what is good to do. Like Plato, Jesus counseled turning the other cheek and going the second mile. Unlike Plato, Jesus counseled loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. And, Jesus noted, the sun shines and the rain rains on both the good and the not good. God’s good gifts are given to everyone.
Doing what is good to do has to be assessed in our time and place, in very different circumstances than Jesus knew. We have a non-violent path to change. We have citizen freedoms and citizens obligations in a democracy. Jesus was not a Roman citizen and challenged the temple priests who were corrupt and colluding with Rome. Paul was a Roman citizen and took full advantage of the court system of that time.
If we step up to some of the opportunities to change this moment, to take on the responsibilities of citizenship with greater clarity and energy, some of us may become more at risk in various ways.
A Presbyterian Church in the North of Austin, Texas is openly housing an immigrant without papers. There has been a long tradition of law enforcement officials not invading churches. This tradition was clarified in an executive order by Obama, that directs federal enforcement officers to stay away from sensitive places such as churches. It may be overturned by Trump. I am not, at this time, suggesting that we should follow the example of the brave church in Austin. Others in the congregation are thinking seriously about what sanctuary means in our circumstances and I anticipate constructive conversations on this subject.
For me, the larger spiritual point is that once we have emotionally accepted that our political circumstances have changed, once we have stepped forward to do our parts, however that becomes clearer to us individually and as Seekers Community, we can move from anxiety to courage.
Courage isn’t about fearlessness. The fear not message in the gospels does not mean repressing awareness of fears. The fear not message is about not being ruled by your fears, just taking them into account as you make your choices. Fear not is about overcoming anxiety. Welcoming fear as a friend who alerts us to danger is what fear not is all about.
Courage is about noticing and accepting risk and doing our part anyway. When we have accepted risk we will no longer be anxious and we will be better prepared to do our parts well. We will be ready to accept any injuries that come our way without regret.
We do not need to be foolhardy and plunge blindly ahead. We do need to do our parts before we are assured of success, before we can be sure what the costs will be.
I talked with the children about Jesus in January. I talked about Jesus giving us gifts of inspiration, witness, teaching, healing, and leading. Now I’m going to talk for a moment about Jesus as political leader.
Jesus didn’t live in a democracy. He attracted some Zealots to join him, but he did not act like a Zealot, and did not promote a violent uprising. What Jesus did do was to follow his mentor, John the Baptist, into delegitimizing the cultural leadership of the corrupt Temple Priests in Jerusalem, who gained their power by colluding with Rome.
The priests and Herod were sufficiently valuable to Rome that Rome spent a lot of tax money building a great temple in Jerusalem. The Portico of Solomon, just one part of the Temple, was the largest single building in the world at that time. It was HUUUUGE. What Rome wanted and got in return was a relatively docile and productive population that provided a lot of food to the Roman Empire, including salted fish caught in Lake Galilee.
The Roman economic elite initially gained their wealth by using slaves awarded to them by Caesars in mines and for agriculture. This same elite was gaining the profits from oppression without slavery in Judah and Israel. The people were being impoverished by trade rules and taxation. Priestly collusion allowed Rome to sustain its rule with a fairly small standing army. Does any of this sound familiar?
Delegitimizing the Jerusalem priesthood reduced the authority of government exercised by the priests. John the Baptist became too powerful as a delegitimizing force and was beheaded. When Jesus became too powerful as a deligitimizing force, he was crucified. Their strategy was simple. They followed the guidance of the prophet Amos who proclaimed that God was not appeased by sacrifices, not moved by meaningless rituals.
John’s baptism was a reinterpretation of the mikveh bath of purification. Instead of treating the bath as preparation for entering the Temple, John said you are cleaned by the bath, are forgiven, and so you don’t have to offer food sacrifices to appease God. Jesus took John’s guidance a step further. He focused on forgiving one another and accepting forgiveness for yourself. And, it just happens, if you don’t offer food sacrifices in the Temple the temple priests lose their primary source of income.
The transformative theology of Amos, and others, became salvation ritual with John the Baptist, and salvation practice with Jesus. When we claim the forgiveness of God we get the reward of feeling at home with God. All it costs us is being willing to follow the guidance of God. When we forgive ourselves and each other in our loving community we experience the reward of being fully in a loving community where we take care of each other. That loving community in Rome had to hide out in the catacombs to avoid being fed to the lions in a circus as entertainment for the multitudes. Our circumstances are dark, but not anywhere close to being that dark.
Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem to symbolically and narratively confront the priests in the center of their power. It was brilliant staging, brilliant political demonstration. And the story goes that crowds rallied to Jesus. The priests recognized the threat and made Jesus a martyr, a memorable leader who clarified the corruption and collusion of the priests.
Challenging the temple priests did not have to lead to a violent uprising. Boycotting the temple and building up synagogue Judaism could have satisfied Rome, so long as the people continued to endure economic oppression. Killing Jesus killed that opportunity. The violent revolution two generations after the death of Jesus led to Rome destroying the priesthood, the temple, and Jerusalem.
In retrospect, Jesus won the political battle even though the unnecessary resulting pain and suffering was of epic proportions. Spiritual space was cleared for synagogue Judaism to become the Judaism we know in the United States today and the Christianity we know in the United States today. The larger spiritual point for us is that Jesus claimed his courage before he knew how things would turn out.
The spiritual question before us today is how can we best pursue justice and peace in our current political moment when much of what we value as part of the United States is under fundamental attack. Part of a good answer is that we can witness to our values in a way that delegitimizes Donald Trump. Deligitimizing Trump is one step toward claiming the possibility of creating a peaceful transition from the moment we are in that threatens us all. My sense of all includes Trump supporters, whether they know it or not.
Here is my witness in this moment.
Donald Trump is my president.
Donald Trump is not my leader.
Donald Trump is my president, not my king. Presidents are not absolute rulers and can be held accountable. We can support accountability in practice. Citizens voted him in and citizens can vote him out, and just maybe pressure him out before his term is done.
Trump is acting like a king who is accountable to know one. He rules through a few family members and a few trusted people that appear to like him. His inability to rule through regular government procedures is causing a lot of turmoil and trouble and maybe he is learning some lessons from the results of his clumsiness and short-sightedness. Legal cases are being built against Trump and a bill has already been submitted in the House to Impeach Trump.
In this first month of the Trump presidency, like a lot of people, I’ve been trying to figure out who Trump is and what he will do.
I think I have made a mistake in my initial assessment of who Trump is. I have been enamored to thinking of Trump as a sociopath. When I look at my version of the checklist for sociopathic behavior, such as impulsive lying, I can check all the boxes and justify calling him a sociopath. But a nagging thought finally claimed my attention and I looked up the story on Fred Trump, Donald’s father.
Fred Trump marched with the Klan On Memorial Day in 1927 in Queens to protest that Native-born Protestant Americans were being assaulted by the Roman Catholic police of New York City. He engaged in wartime profiteering. He refused to rent to Black tenants in his apartment buildings and lost a big suit brought by the Justice Department. The main point, however, is that he found ways to evade the intent of real estate laws and effectively defrauded both taxpayers and investors. He was a white collar criminal. And, as for most white collar criminals, losing court cases was just part of the cost of doing business.
Donald Trump, like his father, has been repeatedly sued and lost. In addition, unlike his father, Donald has gone technically bankrupt to escape investors and has successfully figured out how to refuse payments to contractors who did work for him. Like his father, he took advantage of public financing to enrich himself and was found guilty of refusing to rent to black tenants, one of those nasty regulations that impedes the wealthy from exploiting the poor.
During the campaign Trump was strongly attacked for defrauding students at Trump University. He aggressively denied wrongdoing and promised he would win the court case. Shortly after the election he quietly settled the case and agreed to pay $25 million to cover court costs and reimburse students. That deal was far from full reimbursement for students and left Trump a net financial winner on his Trump University venture.
I think Donald Trump is best understood as a white collar criminal who has managed to gain some wealth despite repeated business failures, bankruptcies, and court judgments. I use the term white collar criminal as it is commonly used, not as a legal opinion. In common language, a white collar criminal is an unscrupulous business person who evades the intent of law and damages others by skirting the law, evades legal enforcement of laws and regulations, offers campaign contributions or other gifts to effectively block legal actions, uses real estate laws to effectively launder money from foreign sources, all issues commonly discussed as ethical violations that, at minimum, violate the spirit of the law.
White collar criminals do far more economic damage to the people of the United States than all other kinds of crime combined. White collar criminals push the American economy toward crony capitalism, insider deals, tax evasion, and political corruption. We can think of Donald Trump as God’s judgment on the United States for tolerating the injustices of white collar crime and crony capitalism. One of the tragedies of failed accountability is that when white collar crimes are legally challenged at all, as in the last recession, violators are seldom prosecuted as criminals. Civil suits are commonly settled out of court with provisions of secrecy and denial of culpability. Regulatory penalties are often responded to as merely a cost of doing business.
The significant punishment of Donald Trump has been loss of credibility with U.S. banks and investors. He survived his most recent bankruptcy by turning to foreign investors, including, by his own comments, Russian oligarchs who got rich via crony capitalism. He sold them expensive real estate as a safe haven for their money in the face of a struggling Russian economy.
Donald Trump has been more unaccountable than most business persons because he has formed a network of private companies with no stock holders and no independent Board of Directors. He has turned over most of the management of his businesses to his children. That’s about as close to being an unaccountable king as the United States allows.
I am somewhat relieved by changing my assessment of Donald Trump as a white collar criminal instead of a sociopath. He doesn’t like taking advice, but that is different than being unable to take advice. He has a long record of losing, taking his lumps, and moving on. What matters is that at least he knows he makes mistakes even as he combatively denies making mistakes. We can give Trump the benefit of the doubt by assuming that his denial of making mistakes is a perverted understanding of the power of positive thinking that he learned from attending the church of Norman Vincent Peale as a youth. He listens to lawyers and makes adjustments, as witnessed by his fall back plan to rewrite his executive order aimed at creating an enemy picture of Muslims. In a similar fashion, he is bumbling around on the Affordable Care Act because he recognizes at least some of the political and legal problems.
Alternatively said, wanting to be popular with his base, wanting to enrich himself and wealthy buddies, being racist, sexist, and venal, does not make him sociopathic or otherwise mentally ill. And remember, most people who are labeled as mentally ill are not ugly bullies. Wanting to boss people around and to be unaccountable makes him despicable, not crazy. This recognition makes me less afraid that he will reactively stumble into starting a nuclear war in which everyone loses. I’m only afraid of the damage he has promised to do.
Another word for crisis is opportunity. I suggest that there are three major kinds of political opportunity that may allow us to do much more than merely delegitimate Trump.
First of all, Trump is all in with Goldman Sachs and other representatives of the narrow interests of the top one percent owners of money wealth. These are the people who do the majority of investing, and particularly the kind of wheeler-dealer investing that has the potential to devastate the general economy again as in our most recent recession.
Whatever the future, the rise of the stock market is not good news for older white working class men who have been hurt by Democrat and Republican policies that are destroying factory jobs, and white collar data handling jobs. Automation and outsourcing lower paying jobs to China, India, and other nations, has been a reality for decades. The economic benefits of such moves have enriched the upper one percent. Trump’s American nationalism rhetoric has focused only on outsourcing jobs while promising to do a lot of things that will hurt the people who have already lost better paying factory jobs. The political opportunity is that Trump has raised unrealistic hopes in the campaign and a lot of regret and reevaluation in heading his way. That will take awhile, but it is what I see on the horizon.
The emergence of progressive politics has gained traction by focusing on the root causes of economic injuries to working people. What hasn’t been clear in human and civil rights movements is caring about older white men who have lost jobs and feel ignored by focusing only on young people, women, racial and ethnic minorities. We do not have to pit one group against another as Trump has done. We do not have to create enemy pictures of Trump supporters.
Progressive policies that focus on fair elections and decrease the influence of billionaires can help. The current political question, with the election laws that are in place, is whether progressive Democrats, aligned with various positive advocacy groups, can cross cultural barriers that have been dismissive of white men as privileged and undeserving, and engage in constructive political conversations about common economic values and political objectives. The data about wealth and income inequality tells us most of what we need to know to have such constructive conversations with many Trump supporters.
Secondly, Trump’s commitment to cutting regulations mostly boils down to reducing protections for consumers, workers, low-income borrowers, middle-income people investing for modest retirements, people who need affordable health care, and all of us who have to breathe air and drink water.
The most currently prominent news stories relative to this second source of political opportunities have been about about attacking health care access for people served my Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. I find it shocking that many people have not realized that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same thing. They are just now beginning to realize that repealing Obamacare will destroy a lot of access to the health care they receive through Medicaid and state insurance marketplaces. I also remember that polls have consistently shown that people appreciate Medicare and Medicaid without understanding that they are federally funded programs. The reality that people want access to government funded health care is beginning to raise its pretty head and Trump and Republicans are confused about how to respond.
The third source of political opportunities are all the issues we care about: health care, education, the environment, racism, sexism, and LGBT rights. There is a lot more at stake than Trump’s intent to cut regulations. Opportunities are nice but we have collectively failed to do the education, organizing, and mobilization to feed such concerns into a coherent progressive political movement.
Part of the problem is competition for attention and contributions between groups focused on different issues. When we compete in an Olympics of disasters or victimization we build barriers of non-cooperation. All the groups we support need to hear from us that we want them to politically cooperate to regain circumstances in which we have chances of winning. Too often, we have settled for political advocacy for our favored issues, while ignoring political organizing.
Every week, our Prayer of Commitment directs us to be concerned about Justice and Peace. Our front window proclaims that we are a justice and peace church. The political opportunities I have just described are also spiritual opportunities to follow our prayers into action. Even doing small things align our spirituality with the guidance of Jesus to love one another, to love our neighbors, to welcome the stranger, to visit those in prison, feed the hungry, and bind up the wounds that remind us all of our vulnerabilities.
Fear not. We can claim our courage to pursue transformative change in non-violent ways. We can join the struggle to head off the darkest future of descending into authoritarian oppression in the name of American nationalism. We can contribute to electing politicians who will support political processes that allow us to build on our Christian values, however they are shared and named in secular terms, however they are shared and named by interfaith partners.
The meeting at our home a couple of weeks ago leads me to believe that a lot of Seekers have the heart to do better in taking up the politics that comes with being citizens who care about each other and care about the United States. The first fruit of that conversation is the launching of the Progressive Christian Citizenship Support Group so that we can support each other in our individual citizenship activities with prayer, caring for one another, sharing information, sharing our stories, and spinning off groups to go to meetings and demonstrations and plan mischief for us all to enjoy. I sent out an email describing the PCCSG. Trish followed with an email that allows you to join the closed Google Group by responding to the invitation in her email. Trish’s email came with the heading PCCSG. If you can’t find it, email Trish for a second chance.
Dear God, help us to welcome our fears and respond with caring and courage as individuals and as a community. Dear Jesus, we would like to be a community you would be proud of as we struggle to live up to your inspiration and follow your guidance. Dear Spirit, help us build the heart to heart bonds so that we can trust our way into being in this together.