An Anchor in the Storm | Sojourners

An Anchor in the Storm

Resistance alone does not sustain a community. It requires a shared life that is rooted in deep spirituality.

THE UNEXPECTED ELECTION of Donald Trump plummeted me into such a mood of disbelief, emotional reactivity, and political angst that I was losing my spiritual center. Responding on Facebook to the latest outrage, while perhaps politically therapeutic, wasn’t satisfying my soul. I needed to become grounded again with my deepest self and with God.

At a lunch with friends from church to process the aftermath of the election, my wife, Karin, said, “Donald Trump is going to say or do something every day that will arouse us emotionally. And we can’t allow ourselves to be stuck in that place of continuous arousal, responding to him. We have to find safe spaces to support proactively the things we’re called to do.”

More than any in recent memory, this election has sent a spiritual disturbance rippling through society and people’s lives. For many followers of Jesus, and especially those who are not white evangelicals, Donald Trump’s presidency has come to feel like more than a disagreeable political program; rather, it directly contradicts and threatens the integrity of their Christian faith and undermines its public witness. The values underlying the Trump administration, co-mingled with a personality that is narcissistic, pugilistic, and vindictive, has become an assault on what Christian ethics teaches and what we hope our lives stand for.

The inner lives of many have been thrown into spiritual disequilibrium. Even while we search for political responses and may find encouragement in the unprecedented mobilization of the millions marching on every continent, we need to discover the roots for resistance and creative public engagement that can be spiritually sustained for the long run.

I’ll put it this way: When they go low, we go deep.

In doing so, we will need to hold firmly onto five key dimensions central to how we are to live and practice our Christian calling, especially during the presidency of Donald Trump.

Memory. Much of Christian faith is about memory. Continually, the people of God are reminded of who they are by recounting the sweep of salvation history. And our memory becomes attached to this version of history because our lives find their value and purpose there. The core liturgical act for the Christian community is communion. This is a celebration of remembrance. As theologian Scott Hahn noted, “Memory is more than just a psychological exercise of data retrieval,” but the “faculty that tells us who we are.”

It’s through memory that our personal story becomes attached to God’s story. We claim our defining narrative.

The flow of news, information, and communication in our society combats the power and purpose of memory. We are riveted to the present, where oversaturated news cycles create daily historical amnesia. This ongoing challenge is made far more dangerous by Trump’s communication style. His tweets drive media attention, and then he diverts that attention by another tweet that effectively eclipses memory of previous days or even hours. Moreover, that allows him to change his story. A previous stance is suddenly reversed and then forgotten as attention quickly moves on to the next thing.

Thus, memory will be crucial for us in the Trump era for two reasons: 1) It is essential for accountability, perspective, and judgment regarding Trump and his presidency. We must literally “bear in mind” who he is, what he has said, and what he has done if we are to fairly and critically evaluate his policies and actions as president.

2) More important, memory—specifically our religious memory—is what keeps us grounded in our story in the face of other competing narratives. Every administration tries to drive a narrative explaining both social reality and the salvific nature of the president’s leadership. But our story is different, told by those claimed by a gracious God, whose love always expands the boundaries constructed in our hearts and in our society, and whose pathways of redemption were shown decisively in the humility and suffering of a servant. In this time, as in every time, this is what we most need to remember and allow to shape us.

So in the Trump era, one of the most crucial and grounding things for us to do, politically and spiritually, is to gather at the table and hear those words, “Do this in memory of me.”

Truth. For Christians, questions of truth and falsehood are spiritual matters. The ninth commandment states, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” This forbids speaking falsely, lying, equivocating, or designing to deceive our neighbor. It also prohibits speaking unjustly against our neighbor. The focus on care for one’s neighbor recognizes that truthfulness is essential for sustaining community.

Moreover, lying, falsehood, and deceit are understood biblically as essential tools of evil. Jesus calls the devil “the father of lies” (John 8:44). Truth is not merely a preferred practice; in Christian thinking it’s foundational to a just social order. Therefore, for objective truth to be in dispute—and falsehoods named “alternative facts”—is not just a political danger, it strikes at the core of a trustworthy society.

Trump has called journalists “the most dishonest human beings on earth.” The role of a free press is indispensable. Remember this: Every authoritarian ruler in the world tries to undermine the public’s confidence in an independent media so that he or she can define the truth. In the case of Trump, his relentless attacks on the media have the intent of undermining the credibility of the press. In that way, his version of events, his exaggerations, and his outright falsehoods will not be held to account. This is how evil works its way into our social fabric.

Biblical faith recognizes that an understanding of truth is influenced by the perspective of the one who seeks it. That’s why scripture’s consistent portrayal of the “truth” about any social order is seen through the eyes of the poor and the marginalized. The Bible has that bias, and it was embraced by Jesus. He interpreted the truth about his society by focusing on the Samaritan, the widow, the oppressed servant, the outcast person with leprosy, the paralytic—all those whom the respectable, self-righteous leaders of society pushed to the margins and excluded.

This way of seeing the truth of society from the perspective of the powerless and oppressed stands in contradiction to the version of “truth” seen from the perspective of rulers. In the Trump era, we must take our stand against falsehood as an act of spiritual obedience, and follow Jesus in perceiving the truth about our society.

Community. When young Dietrich Bonhoeffer witnessed the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, he was dismayed by the accommodation and support it received from the state Lutheran church and the strong majority of its members. Bonhoeffer’s conviction was that the form of Christianity dominant in Germany lacked the capacity and depth to discern the threat posed by Hitler and resist it as a matter of faith. So he wanted to shape a community that learned how to confess sins, to meditate daily on texts of scripture, and develop solidarity with the weakest members of society. Bonhoeffer understood that the task was to build a fellowship nurtured by a spirituality deep enough to stand the test of that time.

All this should be borne in mind when we meditate on the polls of religious voters in the past election. Not only did 81 percent of those identifying as white evangelicals support Trump, but so did 60 percent of white Catholic voters and large numbers of mainline Protestants. We find ourselves faced with a challenge like that discerned by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The public witness of so many who follow Christ lacked the spiritual depth and clarity to proclaim the true meaning of Christian faith for the life of society in this time.

Once again, we are in deep need of basic, enduring spiritual formation to acquire both the clarity and strength that equips us to follow Jesus and answer the question posed by Bonhoeffer: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” We must learn how to “come out” as Christians. And this can only happen in community. The habits of thinking, practices of living, disciplines of praying, celebrations of worship, and clarity of calling can only happen with one another.

The lesson for this time is that Christian communities committed to prophetic witness in society endure when they learn to nurture the spiritual depth of practices that equip them for the long run. Resistance alone does not sustain a community. It requires a shared life that is rooted in a depth of spirituality that forms and shapes who we discover ourselves to be, and what we are called to do, before God. In the Trump era, as in other times, we need to nurture such communities as integral to our life and witness.

Suffering. Richard Rohr recently wrote about the difference between pain and suffering. While we all experience pain, suffering comes from our inability to control certain devastating events in our lives. But it’s precisely this encounter with suffering, as an utter lack of control, that can open the way for God’s Spirit to break through with the power and promise of new, resurrected life. That’s the story of Jesus. And that’s the invitation to all who would follow him.

The church that will be faithful in the Trump era will often feel powerless and unable to control events. In that sense, it will suffer—not from direct persecution as much as from its apparent irrelevance, being dismissed to the margins by the powers that be. Today, most of world Christianity lives where it lacks control and power directly in the political life of its societies. At times, it is deliberately and mercilessly oppressed. Yet faith thrives, often with an unexpected impact that eventually has a transforming effect within society.

Of course, some Christians in the Trump era will draw close to those with political power, setting personal misgivings aside, in the hope of exercising some influence on the decisions of the administration. With nearly every regime or government, even in biblical times, such examples can be found. In the best cases, they accommodate themselves to the wishes and whims of the powerful with the hope that their voice might be heard. In the worst cases, they become collaborators with evil.

In the face of an administration so fervently and unapologetically committed to a nativist, exclusionary social vision interwoven with a self-righteous, nationalistic sense of superior global entitlement, the place of the faithful church will be on the margins of conventional political power.

Others are suffering from a lack of control, but they are more vulnerable, lacking protections of wealth, class, or race and therefore less able to protect themselves. They suffer not only a lack of political control but also from direct threats to their dignity, their health, their livelihood, their homes, their loved ones, and even their lives. This calls us to the final dimension of our faith demanding our commitment.

Solidarity. Pope John Paul II said that solidarity “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”

At its heart, solidarity is the means by which we live out the truth of Ephesians 4:25, declaring that we are all “members one of another.” It is this mutual belonging to a common humanity that lies at the foundation of Christian social ethics. While always a Christian value, it becomes paramount in political climates dominated by division, fueling animosity between differing racial, ethnic, religious, economic, and social groups.

Rebuilding those bonds of solidarity, wherever and however possible, has now become a primary calling of Christian discipleship. The vulnerability of three groups requires immediate attention. 1) Young black men and women, perpetually subject to police actions driven, consciously or unconsciously, more by their race than by their actions. 2) From the start of Trump’s campaign, immigrants have been a target. Christians now must take steps to implement the biblical promises toward the stranger, the foreigner, and the sojourner. 3) The president’s rhetoric about Muslims, and now his actions against those from Muslim-majority countries, doubles down on hostile divisions based on religious difference. Christians need to build bonds of practical solidarity and hospitality with every Muslim neighbor.

Being in solidarity with all people is intricately linked to the sustainability of God’s creation. Climate justice is now the predicate of any commitment to the common good. The early moves of the Trump administration have demonstrated a wanton disrespect for the integrity of creation as a gift for all people. Therefore, acts of Christian solidarity in the Trump era must also extend to the earth.

IN THE MIDDLE AGES, Christians who entered a radical form of solitary life, seeking the experience of God through prayer and interceding for the world, were called “anchorites.” In her wonderful book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard explained her own experience with that image: “An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock,” Dillard wrote. “I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does.”

In this unexpected era of Donald Trump’s presidency, threatening to catapult us from one discordant act to another in a swirl of anxious reactivity, we need to find places and persons who will become our anchor-hold. We must examine where we will go, what we will do, and whose company we will seek to provide a steadfast, trustworthy experience that connects our lives indissolubly to God’s love. Let us create and name our anchor-hold. From there, we can embrace the qualities of memory, truth, community, suffering, and solidarity that will be so needed in the days ahead.

This article is adapted from a talk given in January 2017 as part of the Parr Lecture Series, sponsored by the Festival Church in Washington, D.C.

This appears in the April 2017 issue of Sojourners
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