How Do We Go Forward, Part 2: The Hard News

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“‘We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.’ –James Baldwin. I’ll need to address this in the next post. Even if it’s not my oppression, disagreement over oppressing people cannot end with an Elmo shrug.”

That’s where I left us in Part 1 and then decided I needed to take Advent to recharge. Welcome to January.

Okay, let’s wade in.

Oversimplifying harms us. We are not simple beings. We almost never have simple or pure motives. We’re complex and conflicted and we constantly wage internal battles over what we should do, what we will do, and what is right to do.

People who don’t think they are conflicted and inconsistent worry me most, because it likely indicates they live in deep denial and self-deception. Or, equally concerning, they live with little or no self-awareness or self-reflection. They act and react, unconsidered, and rarely or never stop to ask “why?” or whether they should.

But truthfully, hard as it is for me to accept, I can’t do much for or about them. To be clear, I’m not writing them off. I can love them. I pray for them. But those who live with absolute certainty–or zero self-awareness–will likely never be persuaded by self-doubt-y, self-deprecating, loudly conflicted me.*

Meanwhile, I’m waging this battle against oversimplification. I write blog posts instead of FB posts and, when possible, books instead of blog posts. I try hard to resist posting memes because they merely reinforce our self-righteous anger and rightness, rather than substantiate our positions or explore our assumptions and inconsistencies.

“Mike, who wants to explore our inconsistencies when we can totally own the other side?”

Well, see, I do. I don’t even love that we have to be on sides, much less crave getting to “own” theirs. “Owning their side” tends to run a little counter to showing the love and grace of Jesus. I’m just as frustrated as everyone else, trust me. I’m not immune to the vitriol, I’m simply trying to walk with Jesus and choose to not let it own me.

The incessant, utter certainty of this national leader has driven me mad the past four years. That “confidence” may reassure some, but it drives me insane.

“Really?” I want to ask, “you never doubt yourself? You never question if you’re right? You always know with absolute certainty and you’re the best at everything?” This goes deeper than a distaste for boastfulness. Someone who can’t see when they’re wrong…do I need to explain why that’s dangerous?

I wrote a book of reflections. Reflection 11 is “Kindness is More” which tells us not to argue…then Reflection 12 is “The Argument for Arguing.” You know why? Because I was wrong. No, more accurately, I had not considered the question comprehensively enough and there was more to say “on the other hand.” Friends dialoguing with me helped me to figure that out by asking, “Well, what about…?” And they had good points! I’m grateful for being challenged and educated. It’s a better book because I was questioned–and could then question myself. Thank God.

You already know how I view the almost-former President. I make no apologies for that as I have, fairly exhaustively, provided my reasoning, rooted in my obedience to Jesus, my beliefs, and my values, and I keep praying for him. But now, now we’re at a new intersection, a next stage in how we relate to one another. Yes, I am intensely relieved that we have elected a new President and Vice-President. I’m cautiously hopeful. Here things get complex again. Biden was not my choice for President. He was between 12th and 17th for me. I am crying over the pictures of little girls of color who say, “Look, Mommy, our Vice-President looks like you!” or “Mommy, Kamala Harris looks like me!” But I neither claim nor imagine that these two are our ideal leaders. As Derek Webb sang, “We’ll never have a Savior on Capitol Hill.” They are flawed human beings–though neither a full-blown narcissist, thank God–who will make many decisions counter to what I believe and support. And yes, I will speak up. Count on it.

The real issue I’m addressing here, though, is how we go forward together. I’m serious when I say I hope and pray to be a peacemaker. But I’m talking about real peace, shalom, which describes reconciliation both between us and God and with one another; shalom seeks justice as the path to peace. Shalom is not a superficial pretense at getting along. It would be an empty and hollow peace, a false peace, to say, “Well, we disagreed but we’re going to pretend that never happened and just go forward from here.” At the same time, “I told you so!” and “See how you like it, you expletive!” won’t take us forward and certainly won’t move us toward reconciliation.

I don’t have answers here, but I have thoughts. As usual.

I don’t have any derangement syndrome. I’ve never cared that the superficial or personal specifics of the man don’t suit me. I care and have always cared that twenty-six different women have accused him of sexual assault. I cannot imagine any (legal) job in the world I could hold from which I would not be fired, were I accused of sexual assault by twenty-six different people. And rightfully so. Can you? I’ve never understood this “we’re all sinners” defense. Yes, we are all sinners, and I am not a serial sexual assaulter. Neither are you. No, it was not proven in court, because he used his money to bully his accusers and fend them off so not a single one has been able to take him to trial…so far. Statistically speaking, when you consider that 1)between one and three percent of sexual assault accusations are false and 2)the small percentage who do accuse versus how many are victims of assault, and 3)how few accusers see their assailants even go to trial, much less receive convictions, what is the likelihood that twenty-six women accused him falsely? Then add the evidence that he boasts of sexual assault, defends himself by saying a woman is not attractive enough for him to have assaulted (you get the implication here, right?), and lies. If you have chosen to believe him over all his accusers, then you have chosen. Period.

Why do I bring this up now, of all times? I’m not trying to convince you and I’m certainly not trying to win an argument about it now.** I tried that before he won in 2016. I’m saying these issues are too serious to be dismissed lightly, and that is one of how many? I trust you understand how this relates to Baldwin’s quote. When we talk about going forward, we must first acknowledge this: if you have survived sexual assault and someone tells you “Oh, I don’t really believe his accusers and that isn’t a big issue to me,” how are you going to “agree to disagree?” I want to see peace and reconciliation; I don’t think it will come easily or quickly.

“With malice toward none and charity toward all,” Abraham Lincoln said in one of our country’s most famous orations.

Do you see how complicated it is? I hope so. I don’t want to carry malice toward those with whom I disagree; I want to show charity toward all with whom I disagree. I was called a “snowflake,” I’m not sure how many times. I don’t desire to come up with a comparable name-grenade to lob at those who continue to insist–still, at this moment, after a violent insurrection!–that the election was not legitimate. I’m not saying, “I refuse to be kind because they were unkind to me.” I’m resisting the real temptation of living by the anti-Golden Rule: “Do unto others as they’ve done unto you.”

AndAnd.

We disagree on some fundamental, foundational things. These aren’t misunderstandings or mere differences of opinion. They aren’t minor policy debates. Downplaying them for the sake of unity is not unity. We’re not disagreeing on our favorite color of car. It’s a classic abuser move to attack and attack and then, when he (typically) decides he’s had enough, demand that you be nice and not hold a grudge or else you are unforgiving. Ask any victim of abuse who has survived and escaped. They all know that pattern, too well.

Forgiveness takes time and healing and reconciliation requires those plus rebuilding of trust. But we’re not even close to that yet, because as far as I can hear–and believe me, I’m listening very carefully–virtually no one is apologizing to anyone. We’re not reconciling; we’re at an impasse with tensions still rising. Except we’re not at an impasse, as a country; we are going forward because Joe Biden and Kamala Harris legally won the election and that is how democracy works in our country. People screaming and yelling that they (and thus we) cheated—without any substantial evidence to prove these accusations, with court after court dismissing or ruling against these claims—may choose that route. I can’t stop them. But you can see that this will not lead us toward reconciliation.

If you believe in your heart that our entire electoral system is shot through with corruption, that conservative and liberal judges and thousands of election officials nationwide are in on the scam, that all these claims of cheating are accurate, and this is the evidence of our democracy crumbling, I can’t blame you for trying to stand up against this perceived injustice. But, to be blunt, I do blame you for ignoring the plain, overwhelming evidence before you and choosing instead to believe rumors, conspiracy theories, and lies.***

I believe this is democracy functioning. I believe the about-to-be-former President did nearly everything he could to break down our checks and balances and circumvent the designed restraints on his power. He believed–if we take him at his word–that the constitution had a clause that said he could do “whatever he wants.”****

I desire to reconcile. I’m not citing these things for any petty, I-told-you-so purposes. I’m saying our problems are bigger than a good whisk broom and a stout rug can handle. My point is, if you read these and feel your hands balling into fists, for whichever “side,” you know we have a long way to go.

“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Baldwin’s quote pushes hard against the latent, implicit racism that we’ve crashed into these past four years. Or twelve. Or all the years of our lives. Or all the years our country has existed. We’re looking at systemic racism, especially that which is built into our culture and our legal establishment, and which is so much easier to ignore than confront. Well, easier for some of us. 

I have to make two things clear now: First, my personal right to exist is not denied. Somehow, through the creeping of the years, all the diaper changes and sleepless nights, the major decisions and thrown-together meals, I’ve arrived at middle-aged white guy. Hadn’t really planned that, but then again, didn’t really have a good alternative. I’m currently reading Ta-Nahesi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. In addition to the typical “I’m totally inspired to write/I’m not good enough to write” response that a great book always sets off, I’m thunderously smacked that he and I share one country but experience it as two different worlds. No, this isn’t my first moment of becoming aware that a Black man experiences the United States. differently than I do…which impresses me about his book. I knew this and I still didn’t get what he’s telling me. Now I get it a little more. A great book should do that, too.

Thus, first point: I’m trying to understand how other people’s humanity and right to exist are being denied, how others, who live in different skin than I do, are experiencing oppression right now. Therefore, I don’t get to decide unilaterally whether “we can disagree and still love each other.” Do you see? In fact, making those unilateral decisions might be the besetting sin for the liberal white male “ally.” This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. railed against, those who claimed to “be on his side” but opposed his efforts to pursue change. I have my own pride issues, but I hope to learn from others’ arrogant mistakes. 

Second point, and closely related to the first: If you’re not the one directly experiencing these things, you also don’t get to decide that it isn’t happening. 

If I supported the same President that the KKK endorsed, sure, I could say that what I like about him is different than what they like. I can argue that these circles do not overlap. But it’s a bridge much farther to argue that their circle either is irrelevant—“I don’t care if overt racists support this man because what he stands for is more important to me than anything they might like about him”–or inaccurate, “I know who he really is and they don’t know as much about racism as I do, so I know they are mistaken in their support of him.” I tend to think of self-acknowledged racists as experts on practicing racism. 

This has been shortened to “voting for him does not automatically make you racist but it does mean you saw the racism and decided that was not a deal-breaker for you.” Back to oversimplification, there are different reasons why it might not be a deal breaker, e.g. “the racists don’t know what they’re talking about” or “his appointing judges outweighs whatever racism might be there.” But for someone on the receiving end of this racism, those distinctions don’t count for much. For people who report a severe increase in racist incidents over the past four years, supporting this administration does equal denial of their humanity. 

I know many will say I’m just ripping scabs off when the wound is healing. But deciding the injury is healthy and represents a cleansed wound and not a festering sore is precisely the evaluation people who aren’t oppressed love to make—but shouldn’t. 

In “How Do We Go Forward,” I suggested extending grace and seeking reconciliation, rather than waiting for apologies and repentance that likely aren’t coming. I affirmed that God loves our enemies as much as God loves us. I still believe those things are right for Jesus followers, for all peacemakers. Absolutely. 

And. And.

We need common ground to go forward. I can forgive you even if you never repent. I can’t reconcile with you unless we can come to some fundamental agreements. If you punch me in the mouth, then ask forgiveness, I will do my best to forgive you. I might want to understand better why you made that choice. I might want some reassurance, in action and not mere words, that you won’t be making that choice again in the future. I don’t need you to be able to justify it in order to forgive you nor to reconcile with you–I can accept you made a poor choice, because I make them all the time–but I do need to know you recognize it as a wrongdoing to my mouth. 

If, however, I punch you in the mouth and then insist that you deserved it, we will have a harder time reconciling. You might conclude that you did have it coming. Possible. Otherwise, if I am adamant that I didn’t make a mistake, a judgment error, or an overreaction, then we may be stuck. 

But I think we’re facing a different situation: I feel punched in the mouth and you express you have no idea what I’m talking about. Not only did you not punch me in the mouth, you didn’t do anything wrong at all. You were trying to make things better. I’m the one who caused problems. You just did what everyone does, business as usual, and my overreaction is my problem. Nothing I do can make you see the blood drooling down my chin. When I hold up the bloody tissue, you point out that lots of people bleed for lots of reasons. 

That’s the level of our disagreement. No, I don’t think it was just another election, nor politics as usual, and not “we’re all entitled to our opinion.” Not when your opinion—and thus our disagreement–is rooted in other people’s oppression.

“As far as trump-inclined people go, I take their allegiance to trump as an attack on people that I care about and on vulnerable people in general, a failure to meet a standard of basic decency, and a betrayal of basic civic/social responsibilities. I’ve seen people struggle with the idea that someone they know is really ‘a nice person’ and worthy of a personal investment if that person treats them in a friendly way, even if that person has ugly political/social positions otherwise. I can’t say I’ve never been in a place to work through that question, but I don’t struggle with it anymore. If someone is coming after your kid, I’m not going to be standing there saying, ‘Well, I know, but he’s always been nice to me.’ Huh-uh.” This is a quote from a friend during a discussion of how we do or don’t continue in relationships when we have such fundamental differences.

I know. I know conservatives can frame this in the diametric opposite. If followers of both political parties believe that the other party is the enemy, the greatest danger to our country, we’re sunk. We can’t reconcile. But we don’t have an equal, you-can-see-this-either-way situation and I’m not going to pretend we do for the sake of (false) peace. I don’t think that’s where peace through reconciliation lies for us. We must address that some of these opinions are rooted in other people’s oppression and the denial of their humanity.

I don’t know where we can find peace together in our current state. As a peacemaker, that is an extremely painful admission to make. Of course I believe that we find shalom in Jesus. But that epitomizes our conflict: from the first moment I tried to speak up against this administration, this movement, I did so based on Jesus’ words. Yet both sides claim absolute loyalty to Jesus in their position and claim they can defend their position to oppose or support President Trump based on Jesus’ teaching and life.*****

I want to believe in reconciliation as well as forgiveness. I want to see healing and coming back together. I want to experience shalom with my enemies. I don’t know how this happens from where we are now. 

I know hearts and minds must change. I pray for this. I’m sure there are ways in which I’m wrong and hard-hearted and I need God to change me. I pray for this. Feel free to pray for me, too. 

But I’m not going to tell you that we’re fine and we just need to forgive and forget. Of course we need to forgive. But telling the oppressed that they must forgive when we ourselves are not oppressed is ugly pastoring and, when joined with denying or minimizing their oppression, is both ugly and sinful. 

If you’ve made it this far in what I suspect is my longest blog post, I’m grateful. I do have hope that God can work in our situation. I’m not trying to pour gasoline on our fire. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned about “cheap grace”:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

Demanding “we have to stop disagreeing and get along now because of grace” is not the grace of Jesus Christ. Grace is that God loves me and will forgive me for anything when I ask for forgiveness. Grace is not “I didn’t do anything wrong but forgive me now and stop saying I did.” Grace is free–I don’t have to earn or deserve it–and unlimited. Grace is greater. But grace is not, and never will be, “I’m not a sinner but just shut up and give me grace, anyway.” I am a sinner, and what I’ve done requires not just confession but repentance. Actual change. God has saved me from my self-destruction. That’s what I preach. By that amazing grace, God has saved a wretch not just like me, but me.

So this is the hard news of Part 2: we need to go forward, but I believe the road will be difficult and require much more of us than “let’s just set aside our differences.” I hope in Part 3 to share stories and suggestions on how we take these steps toward reconciliation. If you have personal experience or wisdom from this road, by all means, share it!

*Small example: Having people explain to me why my book is wrong–the whole book, apparently–because they disagree with the title. Or the cover art. I spent months on a book, they glance at the title and then commence. It’s the strangest thing, but I’d almost swear there’s a saying related to this…

**Not because it doesn’t matter enough to try to persuade, but because those who believe his accusers and those who disbelieve them are fully committed in these positions. Here we are.

***Yes, I know, there are youtube videos that “prove” widespread voter fraud. Grasp this: the people in power who want to prove voter fraud have ample resources, including access to these shocking videos and the testimony of those who made them. They have attempted to prove these in court, including before judges appointed by this administration. They have utterly failed.

****Yes, he said exactly that. “Then I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” If you begin with the assumption that he believes he was supposed to be able to do whatever he wanted, no wonder he got frustrated whenever he experienced opposition…or anything other than absolute compliance.

*****Incidentally (but not coincidentally), that’s when I start feeling like I’m taking crazy pills. 

12 thoughts on “How Do We Go Forward, Part 2: The Hard News

  1. Sherry Dearborn

    Enjoyed your comments! When I try to suss out how to go forward. I get totally mixed up and feel I am on a tilt-a-whirl. I want this nation to move forward toward forgiveness and love. And I have no idea how to get there. Perhaps I will pray more often, not easy to do since I didn’t grow up with prayer! Gotta find some way to be more positive.

    • I know, Sherry. Me, too, and it’s not the fun feeling of being at the county fair, either. We both want those thing and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how we do that. Praying more is advice we both should take, so let’s do that. I’m confident it won’t hurt!
      I’ll do my best to bring more positives next time. I’ve learned that we have to go through the hard stuff, not around it, for the positives to make a real difference. Much love to you, Sherry! Thanks for being such a faithful reader and responder!

  2. Terre Musselman

    Well, now I can’t wait for Part 3, because as I read, I kept repeating over and over in my head, “Then how do we go forward?” I wish I had suggestions, but all I have is a thirst for them. Looking forward to your next email.

    • You and me both, Terre! If you do come up with suggestions, I’m all ears!
      But yes, I agree, and I’m also convinced we can only get to Part 3 by going through Part 2, not around it. Thanks for your encouragement. We’re definitely in this together.

  3. Steve

    Digesting all of this…As we know, so long as we bear arms in defense of our positions, in defense of those positions we shall remain. We can have no reconciliation in those circumstances without peacemakers and moderators, so your words and efforts at shalom are necessary. We do need to recognize our respective differences and do so respectfully, regardless of the extent by which we may be offended by those differences. But I think we will need to point out to one another the common beliefs and values to get one another to drop our defenses, listen and share those common values and goals, and perhaps loosen our defense positions to move forward even baby steps. It will also be helpful as we do this to step out of ourselves and into the sensory and emotional perspective of others. “Walk a mile in their shoes.” Understanding perspectives will be necessary. But to get the entire ball rolling, we must have Peacemaking Moderators of Shalom – think I’ve just given you a new title but don’t use the acronym . Keep up the good work and help us all to identify our common ground.

  4. Bethany

    Mike, I read to the end of your “longest blog post ever” as you quoted yourself saying and I am grateful you kept on writing! I say Amen and amen. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here.

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