Sunday, November 13, 2016

About Last Tuesday. Trump, the Dispossessed, and Us.

(A sermon preached on November 13 at Lawrence Park Community Church after Donald Trump's election victory.)

         I don’t want to be too melodramatic. But last Tuesday night, when Trump was elected, I was gob smacked. Irene and I had some back-and-forth, agonizing calls with our kids in the States. I went to bed stunned and woke up depressed. I was unable to read commentary about the election for days after. I am afraid of what is next.

         Now, personally, I don't like Trump’s trade, or tax, or foreign policies. I worry about his impending supreme court picks. Still, I also understand that among people of good repute there can be disagreement about such policy matters.

         On the other hand, too many of Trump’s policies and statements are not debatable, but immoral. In spite of the science and the apocalyptic risk he denies global climate change. His hatred of “the other,” or “the stranger,” is xenophobic. It means he wants to ban Muslim immigration and deport millions of non-documented immigrants and has no sympathy for the issues that have ignited the “Black Lives Matter” movement. His statements preferring Jews to blacks as employees or denying that Obama was born in America or is a Christian, his mockery of people with disabilities, and his pathetic and demeaning treatment of women, his goading of supporters to violence against protestors at his rallies—these actions are not just impolitic, they are immoral.

         Still, as the week wore on and I tried to understand, it dawned on me that I’m not the only one who is afraid. A sizeable portion—not all, but a key part of Trump’s support base—belong to a large white American underclass that doesn’t have much by way of prospects. And they are afraid too. I do not approve of this group’s decision to support Trump, but I think we need to understand them and their grievances.

         Who is in this underclass, exactly?

         These are mostly white people who are afraid that the American dream is a fantasy as far as they and their families go. They can’t keep up with the change from a General Motors and US Steel economy to a Microsoft and MacDonald’s economy. They lost their homes, or at least their equity, in the financial crisis. They can’t afford college for their kids. They are stuck in generations-long spiral of poverty. And, believing they have nothing to lose, they chose Trump as their last, best hope for somehow changing the game they keep on losing. I am afraid of Donald Trump for intellectual and moral reasons; but many of the people who voted for Trump are afraid for themselves.

        This week the New York Times ran an article entitled "6 Books to Help Understand Trump's win. Most of these books are about the white underclass and their gripes. I had already read one of them, The Unwinding, by George Packer. It is a book about how white factory workers, tobacco farmers, backwoods people and even politicians have been left behind by big changes in the American economy and social landscape. One chapter is about Newt Gingrich, and how he discovered that as far as these people are concerned, facts don’t matter anymore. So instead, Gingrich suggested that if politicians offer up political venom, true or not, anytime and they will get away with it, a lesson not lost on Trump. Gingrich "gave them mustard gas," writes Packer, "and they used it on every conceivable enemy."

          Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Hochschild explains why many poor white Americans believe that "others [that is, mostly immigrants, blacks, and women] are 'cutting in line' and that the federal government is supporting people on the dole -- 'taking money from the workers and giving it to the idle.'" This is a book about the fear and loathing poor white people have when they imagine even poorer, more marginalized people are taking the jobs and benefits that they don’t have.

         White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg tells how from America’s earliest days, a white underclass has slowly grown in America’s suburbs and backwaters. Their ancestors came over on the Mayflower as indentured servants, later as slaves, prisoners, or as hated Irish or Hispanic Catholic immigrants. This underclass died for America in its wars, was always available as cheap labor in mines and on farms, and was largely ignored when it came to sharing most of the benefits of America’s economic growth.

         A significant portion of the people who voted Trump experienced a generation or two of good-paying factory jobs but now have to settle for twelve dollars an hour at Walmart. They have been cut off from welfare by Bill Clinton’s reforms. They think the system—free trade, banking, health care, immigration, the one-percenters—it is all stacked against them. They point to the brokers and bankers and CEOs who made out like bandits during the financial meltdown while they lost their homes. They resent the fact that Bush and son ran America, that Trudeau and son run Canada, and that Clinton and his wife nearly ran the United States; it suggests to them that the system is rigged to keep the powerful in power; rigged to keep people like them down.

         This underclass is not a majority. They are a small but not insignificant demographic, enough to turn the tide, and they are full of dread. And they don’t give a damn what Trump says about women or blacks or Hispanics—people they desperately need to make common cause with, but won’t. They don’t care whether he has gone bankrupt or cheated his contractors. They don’t care whether Trump deals with Putin or gropes women or says he’ll nuke the North Koreans. They just want somebody who will finally, finally feel their pain and do something about it—never mind any other historically marginalized group or ethnicity in America.

         So now what? Well, I have an old acquaintance, who wrote, on Facebook: “Don’t worry, God is in control.” To which I responded, “Why blame God or God’s plan? We made this bed, we have to sleep in it. No need to bring God into it.”

         She responded by defriending me.

         Essentially, this approach to God and to Trump as God’s crooked stick washes our hands of responsibility to do something about his poisoned politics in the USA, or similar poisoned politics when it rises—as it has and threatens to again—in Canada. In this case, faith in God adds up to an excuse to carry on as before, to baptize the status quo, especially if we are doing okay. This adds up to a weak, emasculated Christianity devoid of inspiration, direction, and wisdom.

         So I want to suggest a different approach. One that is less interested in putting God on a throne where God runs things than it is interested in inspiring Christians to be like Christ, here and now. We should not fear as they fear, says Peter, in 1 Peter 3:14. We should, rather, be Christian.

         You see, I think the solution to Trumpism—at least in the long-term—is not so much to fear Trump as it is to pay careful, empathetic, and loving attention to the concerns of all of America’s—and Canada’s—marginalized classes of people, just as Jesus sought out lepers and women of ill repute and tax-collectors for his inner circle. And in fact, the whole point of living in a democracy is that here we—whether rich or poor, influential or not—we all get to make decisions together for the common good, for our neighbor’s good. We should not fear as they fear. We should do justice and love mercy, instead. It is the Christian—and Muslim, and Hindu, and Jewish, and secular humanist—thing to do.

         The way for us to deal with our fear of the consequences of a Trump presidency, or a Mayor Ford victory, or a turn to extremism in any form has to lie in our decision—to use Peter’s words—to refuse to let our tongues speak evil or our lips deceit—no matter what the demagogues like Gingrich are screaming. We should not fear as they fear. Instead, especially for those who have been left outside the circle of our ease and success, we must redouble our efforts to seek peace—shalom—for the whole body politic.

         I can’t tell you what policies, exactly, will achieve this aspirational goal for Canada. If I were to tell you that would make me a Liberal or Conservative or NDP policy wonk instead of a preacher. But the values that drive our policy choices and voting should have roots in Biblical passages such as the one we read today, or the Sermon on the Mount, or the love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13, or Jesus’ claim that what we do for the prisoner or the hungry or those poorly clothed we do to him. We don’t have to put our fear in the driver’s seat, but we could put our compassion—for the poor who live at Jane and Finch, the First Nations in our prisons and on their reserves, for the homeless at the subway entrances, the immigrants who can’t find work that fits their training and abilities—we could put our compassion in our political driver’s seat and let that compassion drive our search for policy. This is, in fact, what you are already doing: by sponsoring a Syrian refugee family, by supporting Kenny’s work with First Nations youth at risk, and by the many other social outreach programs we do. This is good stuff.

         This is a remarkable congregation. But besides charity, we also have real influence to do lasting social good for the whole nation. This is because we are mostly well-educated. We have careers that influence who buys, what they buy, and what values our corporations are run by. We vote—and are at the table when parties pick candidates and we influence their policy. We know our political representatives personally. We hire people. We take on pro bono clients. We run non-profits. Many of us have personal resources to invest in social good and charity and culture. We are, for the most part if not entirely, utterly unlike the dispossessed who voted for Trump—or the dispossessed on the fringes of Canadian society.  We do not need to fear as they fear. Rather than cross our fingers and leave matters to God’s inscrutable plan, we actually can do great things that make a difference for all. We can, with those on the margins, help build a more lasting, more compassionate, more forward looking dominion.

         I still fear what Trump will do, but I am focused on doing what I can. Remember how Leonard Cohen put it? “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” True. We’re not perfect. We are not all powerful. There is a crack in everything we do. But we can do our part, which is not inconsiderable, to let the light shine in for all Canadians.

         We should not fear as they fear. We should, instead, be like Christ.


  1. John, I appreciate your attempt to formulate a response to the election and the difficulty of that attempt. However, I was uncomfortable with what you wrote. To me, when well-situated, well-meaning people who supposedly have their lives together reach out to the poor, the dispossessed, lepers and prostitutes, that is not compassion; it is condescension. Genuine compassion is borne of our own vulnerability and brokenness, the realization that we are all in the same situation and must therefore help each other.
    What troubles me far more than former steel and auto workers who supported Trump is the fact that Evangelicals did – 80% of them, according to exit polls. Their vote for Trump was not a cry of pain because of their marginalization; rather, it was a vote against the ‘liberal’ views of the people who sit in your pews and against everything I believe in and hold dear.
    Seeing the growing hate-filled, authoritarian tendencies in US public life fills me with horror and dread – particularly because many people I know from my early days, family and friends, voted for Trump.
    ‘Do not fear as they fear.’ Do the Evangelicals fear? Do they need to be listened to with empathy and understanding? No doubt. But they also need to be held to account, to be openly and firmly opposed. And their religious beliefs need to critically examined. Franklin Graham tells us that God intervened in this election to give the victory to Trump despite what the polls predicted.
    It is not just a matter of enlightened people redoubling their efforts to listen to and help the poor and disenfranchised. We need each other – we, the people on the margins, all sorts of margins – to build a different world. But we need to understand that our attempt to build that world will necessarily bring us into conflict with the powers that be, including members of the tribe we grew up in.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I hear you on the Evangelicals, and agree. It's just not the group I was interested in (though most of the group I did write about are Evangelicals too, I'm guessing). As I noted, the group I wrote about was a small but significant part of Trump's overall support. What I didn't say in the sermon was that they should be natural constituents of the Democrats. But the democrats have gone elite.
    On compassion--I agree too. That's why I downplayed the importance of charity and played up the importance of my congregants' connection to the big structures where they can make a difference, being the sort of people who have roles to play in that "establishment" structure. Charity is good, but not a solution. Real compassion gets people to work the system to make it more just, rather than work their pocket books to make a donation. So maybe we're not that far apart.

  3. Thanks John for sharing this. Your concluding admonition "be like Christ" of course begs the question "which Christ"?

    Is this the Christ who pretty clearly allowed himself to be arrested, tried and crucified? A risen Christ that says "all authority..."?

    The Trump victory was such a blow to progressives who've been drinking their own koolaid. Those who like Aaron Sorkin who tells his daughter that in the next election THEN evil will be banished.

    At some point you have to ask "can you promise victory?" and "on what grounds"?

  4. We cannot every promise victory. We can only try, to the best of our ability, to mirror in our lives the morality of The Sermon on the Mount. Our humanity limits us to this effort. There are no promises of success. But we keep on trying with whatever resources, influence, being we have. Whatever post-resurrection authority Jesus may or may not have does not detract from the goodness of aligning oneself with the path he walked while he was with humanity.

    1. Thanks John for the answer and thanks for blogging! :)


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