Days of Reckoning
What is to be done? Other than voting, donating, and working for my candidates – we all do that, after all – what should I do? Is there something more that I should expect of myself as a Christian layman in a national political culture that has turned unusually contentious and mean-spirited?
I am a lawyer in a law firm sometimes called “the Marine Corps of litigators.” We pride ourselves on toughness and tenacity on behalf of our clients. Our founding partner preached a creed of “contest living,” which marked down every enterprise in life, every effort, as a win or loss. We think of ourselves as trial lawyers, not litigators, and we plan and hope for trial, not settlement. So it’s natural for me to think about election seasons and their aftermath solely as a matter of winning and losing.
On the summer Sunday that I am writing, the lectionary gives us the words of the prophet Amos, who told the prosperous people of Israel that the time was coming when the Lord God would send a famine on the land – not a craving for bread or thirst for water, but a hunger for “hearing the word of the Lord.” The people would range from one end of the country to the other in search of the word of the Lord – from “north to east,” said Amos, or as we might say, “from California to the New York islands” – but “they will not find it,” he prophesied, because they “grind the poor and suppress the humble.”
Where amid today’s nationalist rhetoric is there a hint of awareness that it is the poor in spirit and the meek who are blessed and that Christ’s strength is made perfect in weakness? Where is there concern for the outcast, the marginalized, and the discriminated against? Where is basic decency?
But such questions, such screeds, about the Republican candidate (and Republicans broadcast their own screeds about the Democratic candidate) have become, whatever their accuracy, the coin of the political realm. And they are the currency of “contest living” – words as weapons. They bludgeon more than they persuade.
Columnist David Brooks called the Republican convention in July “a convention of loss,” because it showcased parents who have lost children, policemen who have lost colleagues, and retirees who have lost a place of certainty and superiority in a diversifying America. It is easy to disparage this sense of loss as nostalgia for a mythic America that dominated a world still on its knees after World War II. The nostalgic indulgence is real, but so is the loss.
I work in Washington, DC, which was probably less affected by the Great Recession of 2007-09 than any city in America. My law firm continued to grow, and housing prices in my neighborhood continued to rise. Snug among other members of the one percent, what I know about the effects of the Recession comes from reading the newspaper, not experience. But I know that the weight of the Recession fell most heavily on men, and it can be no surprise that the core of Donald Trump’s support came from older white male voters.
Older white men suffered three-quarters of the eight million job losses caused by the financial crisis. Male-dominated industries (construction and manufacturing) were the hardest hit; almost 20 percent of men in their prime working years were not working by 2011. Fewer such men are employed now than at any time since the US Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking that category in 1948. And when men stop doing paid work, or even when they work less than their wives, marital conflict follows. Unemployed men are far more likely to commit domestic abuse. As hard times cause marriage and relationships to unravel, they also inhibit longterm commitment; it’s not considered respectable to marry if you don’t have a job, and so a higher and higher percentage of children are born outside stable homes.
These harsh economic realities – financial strain, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children – have affected minority communities for decades. The Great Recession, however, confronted working-class white communities with these same difficult conditions.1 Donald Trump was speaking to these hurting folk – white working-class men, in particular – when he said in his GOP convention acceptance speech, “Every day I wake up determined to deliver a better life for the people all across this nation that have been ignored, neglected, and abandoned.”
Talking vs. Doing
With all the opportunities Jesus had to tell us what to believe and what to say, he told us instead what to do.2 What might Christian doing rather than Christian talking look like in this political climate? Christian doing often requires being with, or standing alongside, those who are hurting. But to stand in the civic arena with the “ignored, neglected, and abandoned” and love them, although they are political enemies, seems saccharine and ineffectual. To appreciate them seems wishful when so many are angry or venomous.
What, then, to do? First, be honest with myself. Neither my preferred candidate nor preferred party has a fully consistent, wholly adequate set of solutions to the nation’s problems. And the arguments I make on their behalf are, like arguments in the courtroom, far from airtight, although I can make them with complete conviction. It is therefore important for me to make the effort to appreciate what is good or true in the position of those who oppose, even hate, my candidate. It is important to acknowledge what in my own positions gives me trouble – to recognize, if I am honest with myself, what about those positions is little better than convenient rationalization.
Second, recognize and name “evil,” but remember always that the supporters of the political opposition, even when they express repugnant attitudes, are not themselves evil. We confess, in the words of The Book of Common Prayer, “the evil done on our behalf” – those many familiar and popular appeals to hate, racism, and xenophobia. Our recent political drama has shown me how many of those who are drawn to what is evil in the body politic are the very persons who are closest to God’s heart – the poor and humbled who have been ground down for a half century. They are not fools. They are not stupidly voting against their own interests. Their angry shouting has a prophetic dimension, for they have been left behind and they know it. The elite, like me, live in a world apart, and they know that, too.
This has been a discouraging and troubling political cycle. The post-election period will be no less so. The vote will not purge the fear and hatred; it will focus it anew. The challenge, I believe, is to remain vigilant in naming and condemning the evil, to confess our complicity, and to hear the word of the Lord, which calls us to change those policies and systems that grind the poor.
Lane Heard ’73 B.A., ’78 J.D. is an attorney in Washington, DC, a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council at Yale Divinity School, and senior warden of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in DC. He serves as a literary executor of the Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., papers at the Library of Congress.
1 Dan Peck, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It (Crown, 2011), pp. 122-23, 128-29, 134.
2 See Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (HarperOne, 2009), p. 118.