Hello from my office,
I have been grading and chatting with students trying to help them manage a major paper, one much longer than many have ever written or even fathomed in high school. While I do not think it is a difficult assignment, I am well aware that this is not comparing apples to apples. I can write a reasonable draft of an undergraduate level paper, doing research on-the-fly, one of 7-10 pages in a day. That is not where my students are, even in my wildest dreams. That is not to say they are incapable, unintelligent, or clueless, but rather for most, their high school has done little in teaching them how to write. I am not dissing those hard-working middle school or high school English teachers. They have an impossible task in the current system. That will be the case until we move beyond a teaching-to-the-test mentality. It is what we have become in our public schools. I understand the need for change and for modifying how we teach in a changing world, but I am not sure what I do with the idea that standards that affect what is considered Standard Written English (and I focus on this because it is the area in which I teach) seem to be too often jettisoned to merely help students pass. Most high school English courses are not English courses, they are literature courses. Those are two different things. They have overlap, to be sure, but learning to write and communicate is foundational to the human experience. I will stop the rant on that here.
As I begin to write this, it is the day sandwiched between All Saint’s Day and our National Election Day. As such, it seemed appropriate to connect them as many from other side of the political scale are apt to do. This is that interesting connection between patriotism and religion, which is both part of our constitution, and specifically disconnected. Therefore, I want to do it in a slightly different way. I want to begin with the idea that we are all saints, by virtue of a salvific act we had nothing to do with. Certainly, on both sides of this chasmic political aisle, our behavior seems to be less than saintly. I do believe I have Republican friends who are thoughtful, act with integrity, passionate about their support for conservative ideals, and practice a number of the same principles to which I adhere. I should note that the fact I even have to say that illustrates the problem we have. As a socially liberal person, much as noted in my last blog post, I believe I can be pro-choice and anti abortion. I believe I can faithfully and thoughtfully admit as a white elderly male, the perfect Union dreamt of in the Constitution is anything but for too many people. We are a racist society, one who speaks about doing something better, but too often we fail in our meager attempts. I do not wake up each morning as a minority or a female, but it does not take much to see their struggles are different than mine. To treat another person as less, or to take away their decency, is an attempt to take away their “saintedness” or maybe their saintliness. That is not something we can or should do. If we consider the liturgical language of the All Saint’s celebration, most importantly the inclusivity of it might be instructive. Remembering “all servants and witnesses” and the list that follows is thoroughly gender inclusive. It is a gospel that says all who are burdened, who are heavy laden can find hope and trust in a creator who believes in the core goodness of the creature. And even when that core somehow comes up short, there is still hope. When I was a pastor, I was always careful to not make proclamations at funerals about what I believed about the deceased person and their place beyond. I am not God, nor do I want to be. And yet, there was often a need for people to be assured of some Good News. The news was that there is hope beyond the grave. As Luther so directly, and yet eloquently, argued in his dialectic manner, “we are simultaneously saint and sinner” (simul justus et peccator). Nothing has been more apparent this past year. 235,000 souls have left this world because of one reason, a virus. Additionally, we are over 120,000 new cases in a day. We are fragile in a multitude of ways, but this day in the church year reminds us that there is something better. If you will allow, and Lord knows we need it, it is time for the better angels that are there to shine forth. Better angels are not partisan, they are about our humanity, a humanity that is hurting. This is not just an American issue; it is a global issue, but as Americans, we have a responsibility to the world. That is Biblical too as the writer of Luke noted, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (NIV). Saintedness pushes us to move beyond selfishness, to work toward kindness and unity. This does not mean ignoring differences, but rather being unafraid to embrace them. Difference, in background or opinion, offers a chance for growth and movement toward the more perfect union our founders dreamt of. The struggle for a church in the time of Luther was an argument against the power of the papacy. And yet, Luther did not want to reject the mass or many other things, Luther, instead wanted to preach a word of both law and gospel. A gospel of hope and compassion, a gospel that provided forgiveness and a promise of God’s grace. All Saint’s Day for me is about living a life that reflects the lives of my own personal Saints, those who have passed before me. That is not lost on me as I move toward an Election Day, this need occurs in an incredibly fractured country.
Yesterday, I noted that I am not supportive of violence from anyone when it comes to allowing our democratic process to unfold. I am passionate, et veritas. That is one of the things I wish I had been better at earlier in my life. Faithfulness calls out injustice; faithfulness believes in the sanctity of all people; yes, even the faithless. As I sit in my office on this day, I am being inundated with calls, messages, and other communique that continue to demonstrate the hate-filled, fear-mongering, tragic-predicting path our country seems dead-set on following (please note, I specifically mentioned neither party in this action). . . hello on Thursday morning, we still do not have a Presidential outcome. What is evident, regardless who is elected President, we are a polarized nation. I looked at statistics in Pennsylvania, which is a state everyone is looking at in this moment, the stark contrast between Red and Blue, male and female, urban and rural could not be more apparent, but I think there is more going on. Why are there such differences from one state to the next, one ethnic group to the next, even within an ethnic group (e.g. Hispanics in Florida versus Hispanics in Arizona, for instance)? Sometimes it is easy to discern the difference, other times not so much. I do not think it is any longer a Red or Blue thing, a Republican or Democrat thing. I believe what we are seeing is a wave of populism, a movement the President understands in ways many either do not, or they are not willing to see (I should note that is “the many” are those who disagree with the President’s stance – what I am arguing is this: do not think the President is unaware). Our world has become more populist. Look around, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, Russia, Belarus, and yes, even North Korea, the Philippines, China, Egypt, or Turkey are places where nationalism is a significant aspect of their political landscape. I would note that Brexit is also a form of nationalism.
What is it about nationalism or populism that seems so enticing to us as humans? I think it is a combination of what many refer to as toxic masculinity, this hegemonic argument that sees feminism, gender equality, gun control, or even gender fluidity as an attack on the male. This is a prevalent part of the President’s base, and it is a much wider demographic than most liberals or even centrist Democrats understand (Kelly). In addition, I believe this position has a rather oxymoronic connection to our national belief in individual freedom. The rather bipolar connection is simple: we want someone to be in charge of us all and we simultaneously want to be left alone. This is not that different, as noted by one of my Dana and seminary colleagues. Israel desperately wanted a king, but when they got it, it was not quite what they expected. If you think Donald Trump is a true states’ rights person, you have not been paying attention. He is such only when he does not want the responsibility for something (e.g. the pandemic and the subsequent response). Otherwise, he is as hands-on as anyone. I believe his twitter feed is a prime example. In President Trump’s addresses, he often speaks of the failure of much of the country, but then portrays himself as the only one who can fix it. He both pronounces and is simultaneously held up as a sort of 21st century savior of the country, as the only one who can realign the world. The consequence of this is much more profound than many realize. The sad way he characterizes the world is also more eschatological. Follow me and you will not be left behind. There is a certain unconventional style to his address, but that is what makes him the preferred voice of many. What is interesting is how both his spoken and written rhetorical processes match up. His use of paralipsis and occultatio has a long cultural history, but its rationale is quite simple. Both in his spoken or written mode, the President’s style is most often typified in domestic argument. For instance, “I am not going to say bad things about you, but _____ ” and then one says the very thing they asserted they would not say. The same occurs in many of the President’s tweets. An example is a Presidential tweet from the last 24 hours:
We are winning Pennsylvania big, but the
PA Secretary of State just announced there
are “Millions of ballots left to be counted.”
The significance of the President’s tweet is not so much what it says as what it does not say. No place does he accuse the Commonwealth or the Secretary of State of any malfeasance, but it is implied. That is a rhetorical strategy of absence and presence (Olbrechts-Tyteca). When you have not actually done something, but only implied, one cannot technically accuse you of anything wrong. And yet, your listeners, your readers, understand the inference. The consequence, particularly in this tweet as well as the President’s style in general, is to create mistrust and pain. I honestly believe he feels only he can fix it. In the book, Apocalypse Man, communication scholar, Casey Ryan Kelly argues this sort of relationship, the between the President and his supporters is a masochistic relationship, one where the idea of “Mak[ing] America Great Again” allows his followers the opportunity to move from a place of pain to something better (135). It is a move from a world of broken dreams or a world which has used us. This becomes apparent because only the President “tells it like it is.” Undoubtedly, the President has been incredibly effective using this strategy. Bizarrely, however, the scenario created is much like an abused person believing they are somehow in a relationship where the abuser actually cares. More than likely it is a cruel facade and the narcissistic abuser cares about no one but themself. Additionally, true to form, it is not by accident the President is regularly accused of gaslighting the American public.
Lest you think I am trying to merely diss the President’s rhetorical style, that is not my intent. Rather it is to explain the characteristic rhetorical form the President uses and why it has been so effective with his followers. I think the President is the consequence of our national division. Therefore, I do not believe the division began with the President. That is an important point to elevate. President Trump was elected as an outsider, someone to shake up the status quo of the beltway. To say he has been, or is successful, is subjective, but he certainly has. He has shaken up much more than the beltway. Even his evening he has affected our democracy, our national identity, and, for me most importantly, our understanding of decorum and civility more profoundly than one could have ever imagined. Again, therefore, the important thing is both the consequence and the cumulative event itself. Why was so much of the American electorate discontented? Why is the American electorate still so divided? This is where it gets a bit ugly. I believe we have, as Americans, fallen victim to our own mirage of democracy. We have, too often, believed the national image which appears in the mirror to be much more attractive than it is. We are mistrustful of the other (and that is not just the immigrant), but even our neighbor, one who thinks differently than we do; certainly, those rural Americans feel disenfranchised or disrepected by the urban/suburban Americans, particularly when the vote among the two groups is diametrically opposed; the progress made in terms of equity be it about race, gender/gender fluidity, or economic class is important, but I will assert it has not been enough. The reasons to argue this failure are complex and long- practiced (often without realizing it). This is where I return to my title. Much of the Old Testament, and even into the Book of Romans, there is a long history of what is called the Biblical generational curse. First, I am not convinced this is some theological retribution, but for generations, we have claimed fairness; we have claimed justice, but even as I write this the President is claiming the American electorate is cheating him. This is unprecedented. It is an attack on the most foundational element of our democracy (and even Rick Santorum, the former Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, has joined in that opinion). Let me offer three thoughts: first, you cannot ask to stop the vote in the states you currently lead and conversely ask them to keep counting where you are behind. Second, if there was some blue-color conspiracy to steal the election, you would think their fraudulent and nefarious activity would have done a much better job in the Congressional and State elections. Finally, and this is a matter of both logistics and statistics, President Trump told his Republican base to not vote by mail, but rather to show up on election day. The opposite was the case among the Democrats. So the red mirage that turns to blue is a logical progression, and finding there are disproportionate numbers in terms of mail-in ballots should be expected. Furthermore, the fact we have the highest turn out in a century only accentuates that issue. One of the things that most affected me in the last two elections are the three states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. The infamous three, which elected President Trump in 2016, They are the last three states where I resided. In this election, the first two are already called, but watching today, it appears likely my current state might be the state that actually makes Vice President Biden the President-elect. Yet, as I struggle to write what seems reasonable in this unreasonable time, I know that democracy is working. In Pennsylvania, if a mail-in ballot was not in the inner-envelope and signed, it is not counted. Is that unfortunate? For the person voting: yes. For the system, which has rules and a numbered list of directions: no. It is about integrity.
Let me return to my point about the generational curse. I believe we have generationally, or more accurately for generations duped ourselves into wanting to believe we are fair, just, and righteous. We aren’t; we are flawed. Too often we falsely believe we hold some moral high ground based on our own personal preferences or life experience. If we are to return to the idea of our saintedness, perhaps it is time we think seriously about this sacred time in the church year. Perhaps it is time to reach out believing that those better angels might do something if we allow. Our incredible blind spots are both the cause and the consequence of our division. However division has a larger import; it weakens us as a people, both individually and collectively. We lose our ability to provide care, justice, or even hope for those who start from a disadvantaged position. Without hope, there is little confidence in fairness or even decency for that matter. When I consider some of my saints, those persons who both influenced and informed my world understanding, there is one particular piece of advice I remember. As my grandmother, my hero as I have called her, and I stood in her bakery office, she looked up at me from her desk and said, “Michael, always be a gentleman.” That comment caught me off guard, but I merely looked back, and said, “Yes, grandma.” I was probably eight years old, and I thought she meant something like “Make sure you say please and thank you.” Almost six decades later, I realize how much more complex her admonishment, her request was. While this question was simple for my eight year old brain, what was more significant for me was how she lived her life. As a widow and female business owner, she understood more about the world than I could have ever imagined. She was elegant, intelligent, and gracious. She could stand at her bakery table while listening to her transistor radio up on the shelf while decorating her cakes. She did not really looking like a business owner. Yet that same evening, she dressed up in her gown as she joined her lady friends at their Eastern Star Azure Chapter. There was always something positive, something philanthropic about her. She worked tirelessly and regularly practicing a sort of caring positivity that made her a walking saint for her grandchildren. I see that so much more clearly now. Another thing that does not go unnoticed to me is I have now lived longer than she did. That realization shocks me, but simultaneously pushes me to carry on her legacy of caring and kindness. I feel this more profoundly because I have been granted as much time as she had and more. Perhaps I can swing that generational Biblical idea from curse to blessing. I was once told to be the blessing I wish to receive. It is what I believe I have been called to do. It is the legacy she left, and the life I hope to live.
Thank you for reading.