Trump is deepening our trenches
The pastors were talking about Obama’s speech on “call-out” culture that he offered during his Obama Foundation summit the other day, and it got me thinking about how Christians might approach “call-out” culture as people who are both moving to be loving and truth-telling, but prophetic and gracious.
I admire Barack Obama for a number of reasons, not least of which is his eloquence. I appreciated his leadership even in the speech above, because he’s trying to bring people together for a common cause. He knows judgment and “cancelling” one another won’t bring the unity that he campaigned on and tried to achieve. Obama’s major legislative achievement was the Affordable Care Act, which proved his ability to move an idea into a law in a very difficult and recalcitrant Congress.
Obama’s rhetoric reminded me of this piece that I read recently. Daniel Ziblatt, author of How Democracies Die, argues that the rot at the core of American democracy is that we no longer see our political opponents as rivals, but rather as enemies:
“Mutual toleration, for example, is a precondition for viable competition because if you don’t accept rivals as legitimate, then you will go to any length possible to prevent them from getting into power or ejecting them from power. And so, in a sense, even treating your rivals as rivals and not enemies is necessary in order for there to be disagreement and for the political game to continue.”
I agree with Ziblatt. His argument works when both parties, or all parties involved, are committed to liberalism and democracy, both in terms of means and ends. And so it doesn’t work with neocons like Cheney and neofascists like Bannon/Miller (nevermind Trump who is just an imbecile). Which is why the author argues these people can’t be elected and need to lose. Ziblatt says the polarization we feel isn’t an issue of “both sides,” but squarely on right-wing populists:
“So what we’ve learned in the last few years is that many things we considered impossible are, in fact, possible. And the norm violations are just getting worse seemingly every day.”
He’ll go on to say that there are a few ways that we can solve this problem: a big Democratic win in 2020, or a reorientation of the Republican Party. I’m about done talking about the political economy in the United States, but I want to emphasize that the congeniality and respect that Obama is calling for is harder and harder to have because we’ve been polarized by radical people who are violating the norms of American democracy and liberalism.
Unfortunately, the trenches that are deepened as a result of this out-of-the-ordinary position the U.S. is in might not be filled even if the political landscape changes. And I think that’s at the heart of Obama’s call out of call-out culture. He is saying that keyboard activism, which is satisfied when we condemn our opponents, isn’t enough.
Obama is leading the country to not lose itself
Obama’s “religion” or at least his leading philosophy is liberal democracy. He sees both Trump and the polarization Trump’s created to be threatening the basic tenets of his leading ethos. Obama’s favorite theologian is Rienhold Niebuhr, who had no issues with Christians organizing to maintain liberal democracy.
But for me, liberalism has never been my prime philosophy, and so while I do appreciate what Obama said and what Ziblatt say above, I am committed to another God and another philosophy, another faith altogether. I know that my hope isn’t found in a well-functioning democracy.
The danger to Obama’s message, his call out of call-out culture, his cancellation of cancel culture, is that it will mute Christian prophecy, in a time where it is desperately needed. He collected a lot of criticism for what he said, which people argued as generational conflict. See here, and here; and then note how Nick Kristof of the New York Times differentiates how he (a boomer) and his daughter (a millennial) approach these matters:
“Progressives of my era often revere the adage misattributed to Voltaire: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ For young progressives, the priority is more about standing up to perceived racism, misogyny, Islamophobia and bigotry.
The rise of President Trump has amplified this generational clash and raised the fundamental question of how to live liberal values in an illiberal age.”
It’s important to note that we might not be speaking each other’s language, and we could miss each other because we are yelling instead of listening.
Reserve the right to prophecy
But we can’t compromise the truth for the sake of peace. I’ve written about this before (When it comes to white supremacy, there is only one side for Christians: Jesus’, Christians need to speak the truth, even when truth appears partisan), so I won’t belabor the point here. But prophetic rebuke is definitely a part of our faith, especially when it’s within the family.
Jesus reserved his harshest words for his hypocritical comrades, the Pharisees (similarly, I reserve mine for Evangelicals). Matthew 23 is a clear example: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town… Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
I don’t think Obama is killing or flogging prophets in his speech, but you could extrapolate his statement to affect everyone that wants to challenge the order. The evil King of Israel Ahab called Elijah a “troubler of Israel” when he prophetically spoke against him: “When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.”
If we disrupt “America” we might be cancelled by our political leaders, too. But I think too often we think we’re being Elijah, when we’re just being jerks. And yes, Jesus did flip some tables and he called the Pharisees broods of vipers. I think the angry Christians around me cite those two instances much more than Jesus’ other ones. Jesus wasn’t vengeful and violent; he actually took on violence for the sake of the world.
“Then neither do I cancel you.”
Jesus rarely called people out, and was mainly interested in bringing people together. That’s why he could unite Matthew the Tax Collector, who was hated by his fellow Jews, with Simon the Zealot, who might have been likely to stab Matthew or a Roman centurion with the dagger he no doubt kept on his person. It’s why he stops those Pharisees from cancelling the woman “caught in adultery” in John 8.
Obama uses the same illustration to describe cancelling people online: casting stones is easy.
Jesus says to allow the one without sin to cast the first stone. Of course, Jesus is the one without sin, and he doesn’t cast the stone, but he clearly tells her to “leave her life of sin.” That sort of “call-in” is probably what we need. It isn’t through judgment and condemnation that we find redemption and restoration, but through truth in love.
I love how Washington Post columnist and Christian Elizabeth Bruenig put it using this exact passage:
A main reason to be generous and gracious with each other, especially as Christians, is that we’re interested in building a movement, like Jesus was, so we need to bring people together—like Matthew and Simon—who would otherwise be opposed to each other and even consider each other enemies.
Love your enemies, don’t cancel them
That’s the issue with call-out culture. We can cut off people that might otherwise be transformed. And our own commitment to ideological purity might limit our own transformation too.
This sort of new fundamentalism that’s been reborn since Trump is a temptation to Christians, and everyone who wants to sort through a complicated world through principles and rules. The redemption of Christ is about transformation through grave and forgiveness, it’s not about gatekeeping. If we considered that our purity will be violated by “unclean” people—we haven’t learned from the fundamentalists that we swore we’d never be. Cancelling someone for their problematic views is just another form of gatekeeping. Can we have open doors instead of gated communities? Can we not build up walls, but rather extend our table?
There are reasons today to be prophetic and truthful. There are plain evils around us, and we can’t mince words when we address it. We can’t create a false peace. But we need to be careful because that same evil that needs to be condemned deepens our own resentment of our brothers and sisters, and can deepen our divides too. It can move us to believe ideological purity is what will save us and not Jesus. We need to be conscious of the fact that we can falsely make potential friends into enemies (meanwhile, we forget that enemy-love is a major tenet of Christianity). For my part, I’m not threatened by the people that call out others’ problematic behavior, because I think they might have something to teach me, and I also think they are on the right track. I want to move us toward a generous and gracious understanding of each other. It’s not enough to be right, and chances are you aren’t totally right anyway. Let’s build a community where we can learn from each other and move each other toward our best selves. Let’s speak the truth in love.