Stranger in a Strange Land
Since the election, I've found myself back at the drawing board, trying to decide how to engage in the nation's culture wars.
In times of stress, I tend to revert to my inner nerd, so my first instinct has been to emerse myself in research. Luther said that humanity tends to correct itself like a drunk man falling off a horse. First he falls to the right then to the left, and suppose I imagined that finding just the right evidence would sober the mad course of modern evangelicalism.
But even as I tried, I knew better. So many times over the past twenty years, I have seen how facts don't have the power to move mountains.
The beliefs of the average American are neither formed nor altered by reason. For the most part, our religion and our politics begin with affective impulses more than formal, cognitive research. What we believe about God and country is usually born in the gut, in the center of desire, nightmare, and imagination.
Many of us find our political and theological instincts early in life, then those instincts tend to interweave with a smattering of real life relationships. Over 15-years-worth of Thanksgivings, we hear that FDR destroyed America (or that he saved it). We hear praise or criticism of unions. We hear what happened to our aunts and uncles in California, or in rural Tennessee, or in Chicago as a result of legislation passed in D.C. All of these stories converge to form and then confirm a metanarrative that becomes a framework for how we interpret the entire world.
Few of us bother to fact check those metanarratives. They become too personal to vivisect. All of these beliefs have faces, because they are connected to people and situations we know.
Americans who don't have this sort of experience may decide that they want to be "a conservative" or "a liberal" by the cultural shadows those words cast. As broad strokes emerge--as we begin to associate conservatism with either selfless maturity or corporate greed--as we begin to associate liberality with social compassion or indulgent immaturity--we find ourselves drawn to or repulsed by the character traits of a party.
In such cases, almost unconsciously, without ever walking through a defined season of choosing, we look around one day and realize that we are settled in political and theological camps. We donate $10 to this or that and end up on 25 mailing lists for our tribe. We are told which news source people on our team actually trust. We receive power blurbs and media updates from websites that fortify our instincts, and we allow this information to harden our first impulses.
Increasingly, we feel a sense of belonging. We realize that we are Hufflepuff, Calvinist, Republican, or Democrat, and loyalty to our people warms in our hearts. We see the elephant or the donkey, and we cheer with the whole-hearted devotion of a college football fan. Our political label is no longer just a word that represents an idea. It is now who we are.
I think that this is why the *labels* our politicians and theologians adopt to name themselves carry more weight than their actual adherence to the platforms they are supposed to represent. In 2016, an immoral, left-wing politician can simply declare himself a conservative, then go on to win the support of the Bible-belt wing of the GOP.
He doesn't need to model the ethics or the lifestyle of the moral majority. He must only wear their t-shirt, sport their logo, and find a megaphone in which to call out the five or six points of national disaster that will inevitably occur if "The Bad Guys" win. Even if he is one of the bad guys.
A few threats (real or imagined) and a label will do the whole job, because all of the real decisions have already been made. Voter biases are stone solid, dug into the grooves of a party identity. When such have been established, only a stiff, personal consequence has a chance at changing someone's mind.
Zealots for the Affordable Care Act ignored all evidence-based warnings that this plan would actually cause health care costs to rise. These righteous souls roared and puffed about the humanity of socialized medicine until their own premiums hit the roof last month. Suddenly, Obamacare was a bad idea after all.
This sort of burn, this severity and nothing less, is necessary before an individual will admit that what is happening in their own party is flawed. Even then, excuses will often be made. "It was a good idea with bad follow through," or that sort of thing.
I have experienced this tendency in myself in the past year as well. I have read the Republican party platform and nodded my head, let my heart be filled with nostalgia for Ronald Reagan, entrusted my deep conservatism to an institution that slowly veered from the labels it has given itself.
I did not notice that we were no longer who I wanted us to be. I refused to notice.
It took the election of Donald Trump; it took his seething hatred, his haughty lies, his misogyny; it took watching leaders in the Republican party overlook his abhorrent character and methods, washing their hands of the matter and saying, "Let the people have Babies rabbas" for me to finally wake up to reality.
It took the mass evangelical embrace of Donald Trump, the bizarre behavior of Metaxas, Huckabee, and Carson, to help me finally realize that I no longer fit inside of political party willing to embrace a dastardly, vile, populist leader who actively defies nearly every teaching central to my faith.
It is difficult for me to explain how excruciating, how frightened I am by the realization I no longer belong in the GOP. After all, I am not a liberal. I am a true conservative who has been excommunicated.
I am a survivor of a rabid virus that has infected the mind of my party, and like a vagrant wandering away from the epidemic, I am not sure quite where to go yet.
I have awakened inside that scene from the Matrix, asked to swallow one of two pills, one that will allow me to see ugly truth and the other which will allow me to slip into comfortable oblivion, the world as I knew it before. But now I know that what is familiar is not what I had hoped it was.
Not only must I decide this for myself; my conclusions will impact how I spend my time and energy. They will influence how I try to influence others, many of whom have already fallen fast asleep because they have taken the pill of least resistance.
As I've been weighing all this, I have been reading the book of Joshua. This is a beautiful, difficult book to read if you have any heart at all. It is no small irony that the chorus is, "Be strong and courageous," for Joshua isn't the only one who must be brave. The reader of this book must exhibit fortitude as well, for in the first few chapters, God commands the slaughter of women and children to make room for the people of God. He causes the sun to stand still. (Physics, anyone?) Without apology, God defies what we would expect of both morality and nature.
And by the way, to think that primitive people were oblivious to the strain of either is to underestimate them grossly. This book has always been difficult, but it has also always been mighty. For in it we also find burning, glorious truths amid the dark Ungit-like fog of holy (sometimes off-putting) mystery.
I have been particularly moved by the dance of the ark of the covenant before the people of God. For the most part, the ark goes first on this journey. In fact, there is to be a 2,000 cubit distance between the people and the ark, so that they would be able to see to follow it.
"For you have not passed this way before," the text says. Because when moving into uncharted territory, the presence of God must make a path clear for all who follow. This dependence is so beautiful, a moment by moment, step by step, reliance upon the nuances of the Lord.
Then while marching around Jericho, we find a command for the people of God to keep utterly silent until the moment God tells them to make noise. My heart pounds thinking about a company so large, moving in a hush for seven full days, not even whispering until the trumpets blast and they are told to shout--not in threats against their enemies--but out of celebration that the city has already been given to them.
I've been rolling all this over and over in my sore heart. I'm rolling over the fact that the manna stopped the minute it was no longer necessary. Rolling over God's ability to exalt His chosen leaders so that they would be heard. And as this story pumps through my veins, I conclude that I am small, and dependent, and terrifically happy to be both.
Even if the world has gone mad, the presence of God may yet go before us. Even if my leaders have failed, and even if the prophets have worshipped Baal, God can open the necessary paths for those willing to follow Him.
God may allow a haughty political party to hide behind its walls of fear and fury while sending a small band of children to walk in silent rounds of obedience. He may ask for nothing to be said at all, not until the moment of revelation appears.
Or He may ask for us to share what we know once to test the waters, and then say, "if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town."
In a season of disorientation, all of this is a tremendous comfort. I see how it is not up to me to change anybody's mind. It is not up to me to go where God has not sent me. The ark goes before, and when He wants me to shout because He has given His glory a victory, my voice needs to be ready to celebrate.