The president is a pastor, in a sense
“We were elected a President, not a pastor.” I have read that phrase time and again, and as of late, usually from the Evangelical right, trying to defend some morally reprehensible behavior or action Trump has gotten himself into. Often times, it’s just being a mean bully. I have been a loud critic of the American civil religion (my take on Barack Obama’s last sermon, and one on how to convert an American to Christianity), but I do believe any leader is responsible for pastoring in his or her own right (that’s why you hate your boss when he or she doesn’t lead that way).
Presidents are no exception; they should be pastoral. After tragedies, the nation needs pastoral care; when the President is leading the nation through changes, we need to be shepherded; when we are hating and hurting others, we need to be discipled. Unfortunately, Donald Trump has been through his fair share of tragedies, and the country lacked moral and comforting leadership during those times. This was especially egregious after Parkland. The hostility of Trump’s disciples was further proof of his lack of leadership. They blamed the victims, they shamed them, and they mocked them. Meanwhile, the country had no idea what to do with the horror. And I am not talking about solutions to the problems—although I am of the mind that many of the problems are actually pastoral in nature—I am talking about what to do with our pain and our suffering. Trump’s response is angry and hate-filled. It is full of anxiety. It is like a plague on the country. And it’s a plague that is deeper than ideology. Trump’s incompetent leadership results in chaos, not just hateful, bigoted ideology. Say what you will about a leader like Reagan, but he at least led the country, albeit to evil ends (in my opinion), but Trump is chaotically evil, which leads to dangerous ideology, but also violent and chaotic reactions. Someone on Sunday morning during our Sunrise celebration was praying the resurrection to express itself in civil discourse. But what we have is fear-based reactions and anxiety-fueled conflict.
A void of leadership creates anxiety; it’s a plague
People are afraid that the Pax Obama is over, that the comfort they felt during a previous administration is gone. And I don’t blame them. I never truly felt comforted under the previous administration, but it was certainly a lot better than what we have here. And, trust me, I’m not just making a theological point about building the alternative here. I actually mean the U.S. is deteriorating in significant ways. And no I don’t think this is just a matter of politics, nor just as bad as it always was. Trump is an aspiring authoritarian leader who used populist and nationalist messages to get into power and to stay into power. But he’s not committed to using power to influence; he just wants to collect power because it makes him feel good. That tiny vision will be the end of the U.S. as a world leader. I think the ship started to sink after 9/11, and I think 44 did it his best to fix the leaks, but the U.S. is just too sexist and racist to handle that kind of reform.
The consequences are all over the place, too. Both at national levels and local and personal ones. For example, there is a trade war brewing, and American economic security is being challenged—China is responding to Trump’s (completely bizarre) steel tariffs. See Paul Krugman’s commentary on the wave of teacher strike’s in Trumpland. The EPA is cutting a federal rule, the only one, regarding fuel mileage in cars. Meanwhile, Trumpist news conglomerates are literally writing a script for hundreds of local news stations, controlling information and media narratives in a decidedly Orwellian fashion.
Meanwhile, the sexist and racist rhetoric spewed by the administration and its followers is fueling local and personal anxiety. People are lashing out against each other and not just on social media, in person too. People don’t feel safe, so they’re taking matters into their own hands. Black people are buying more guns, for example. People are making threats, using ultimatums, employing coercive tactics. They don’t feel safe, they don’t feel led, and they feel alone. They are catching the Trumpist plague. This is the cost of colossally bad leadership. This is the cost of selfish leaders, looking only over their tiny locus of control and not imagining how to lead something bigger than what they can manage alone. Tiny leaders are afraid to distribute power and influence. They only interested in its own protection and affirmation. And this is a warning for all leaders, but it is manifestly and reprehensibly displayed in how Trump is leading the country. Don’t catch the plague.
Hope beyond the plague; healing in the alternative
I woke up on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday in shock and despair at the horror of what happened at Parkland. Not again. It was a theme during my whole Lenten journey. As you can tell, I follow the news closely—I’m a news junkie, really. I follow national and local politics too. But on that morning I realized, no, my hope is not in this system. I don’t want to get into a political fight. It’s just too unreasonable. At this point, people are defending their high-powered rifles more than they are teenagers. And Fox News told them to do that. I’m not engaging. It’s too enraging. I’d rather do something else. I am going all-in with Circle of Hope and the alternative we’re creating. I’m tired of being cynical, and I want hope, and I think I have found it in this body. This body we are forming together. I want to keep saying yes to what Jesus is doing and I don’t want to catch the plague. And my hope isn’t in Kristen Gillibrand or Kamala Harris, either. And it’s not in an empty platitude that is reduced to “belief in Jesus.” It is the enacted Gospel expressed in community. I’m not falling on Evangelical platitudes or notions of Christian emptiness that just augment the world but offers no change. No, I need to be healed of the plague, I don’t just want to cover up its symptoms by singing nice worship songs.
I want to be a part of a community that helps create a real encounter with God and helps people find hope. And I want to tell the whole world about it. It’s what worked for me, and it might for you. I am sick of the academic deconstruction (around the Bible and the whole world itself), I want to reconstruct and reorder. I want to have an existential encounter with the Bible that leads me toward action.
One woman shared how her fast led her to disrupt her defaults. Her comforting habits actually became less comforting. Areas she thought she might find freedom, turned out to be more constraining. She met God in new ways because she let go of old defaults and let God disrupt her. She ultimately found rest in unusual places and her faith deepened as a result. She avoided the plague.
Another brother let go of some of the things that distracted him. He did find new ways to distract himself, but engaged deeper in the work of community and the work of the church. He joked with me, saying, he got into more fights with me. Which really means, we had some nice conversations. Engaging in good work and tough subjects. I felt alive hearing that. I felt like we were really doing something instead of just reacting to Trump.
We avoided the plague. Don’t catch it yourself. Turn to something better. The U.S. may very well become like the post-war U.K. It may no longer be the economic powerhouse and world leader it once was. What that means for our faith is that our alternative is more important than ever. I’m grateful that the Lenten experience into Resurrection opened up new possibilities for my friends. I hope it does for you too.