By Debie Thomas
I tried hard to avoid writing this essay. Too much ink has already been spilled on America’s upcoming presidential election, and really, what else is there to say? Every argument and counterargument has been made ad nauseum, and as far as I can tell, no one (myself included) has the heart to listen to our opponents with genuine curiosity or compassion anymore.
But that’s exactly the problem. I realized this week that I’ve crossed a dangerous line where this election and my spiritual health are concerned; I’m not just tired of the politics, or appalled by the crass rhetoric. I am furious to the point of hatred. I finally recognized this two days ago when someone on Facebook gently encouraged his Christians friends to pray daily for both presidential candidates and their supporters until Election Day. I responded in a way I’ve never responded to a prayer request before. I said, “No.” Literally, I stared at my computer screen, my fists clenched and a fierce fire burning up my insides, and I said the words out loud: “No, I will not pray for that man. And I will not pray for anyone who still has the gall to support him.”
I write these words as a woman who finds Donald Trump’s misogyny inexcusable; as a person of color who finds his racist rhetoric terrifying; as a survivor of childhood sexual assault who will never believe the lie that “locker room banter” has no consequences in the real world; as a parent who cannot stomach the indecency Trump has exposed my children to; and as a daughter of immigrants who won’t dare to take America’s beautiful but fragile democracy for granted.
But I also write in the full awareness that I have readers — some of them my own family members — who hold radically different political views than I do, and whose disgust for Hilary Clinton is as intense as mine is for Donald Trump. The fact that I find their disgust surprising is neither here nor there; the bottom line is, my own heart is closed tight, I’m struggling to find a way forward, and the offerings of my faith tradition feel inadequate for the harsh demands of this hour.
The problem is, I’m uninterested in any namby-pamby call for Christian unity that sidelines justice and protection for the most vulnerable. That is, for ethnic and religious minorities, for immigrants, for women, for victims of sexual assault, for the LGBTQ community, and for the poor. But I’m equally wary of the scorched-earth, ideology-driven, “the end will justify the means,” divisiveness that now reigns within American Christendom. When I read the Gospels, I don’t see a Jesus who ever cared more about the end than the means. If anything, he privileged the means; he understood that the way (he called himself “The Way”) we go about achieving our goals — the language we use or abuse, the stories we privilege or silence, the people we protect or oppress, the sins we confess or indulge, the truths we proclaim or deny — makes all the difference in the world. Let’s be clear: there will be no holy end for us if the means we choose involve arrogance, exclusion, self-deceit, and cynicism.
Last weekend, my church here in Palo Alto held its annual parish retreat, and our theme was “Listening with Love.” We were led by Tripp Hudgins, a wonderfully gifted Bay Area pastor, teacher, and musician, who talked about music as a metaphor for living in community and “doing church.” It’s very hard sometimes, he said, to listen to other people’s music. Our own songs are precious to us; they carry powerful associations and memories. Often, our songs are our most direct lines to God.
Other people’s music, on the other hand, can grate on our ears. It can offend our sensibilities, challenge our expectations, and pull us away from our own more naturally pleasing melodies. Listening to other people’s music is painful, irritating, and sometimes impossible. Or, it would be impossible — minus sacrificial love.
At one point in his teaching, Tripp had us break into four-part harmony, hold a chord, and then modulate the chord according to his instructions. “Altos, up a half step. Good, now tenors, down a third. Great! Sopranos, down a step. Basses, up a half.” Etc. As the chord became dissonant and strange, we had to strain to listen to each other — to blend not only in terms of pitch, but also tone, texture, and volume. For me, the experience was double-edged. On the one hand, I was intrigued by the dissonance; I wanted to know where it would take us next. On the other, I ached for resolution because the tension was so challenging. “Make it stop, make it stop!”
This, I think, is the Church at its best. It’s how we’re called to live as Christ-followers; to walk into the tension and hold it, to listen hard for the notes beneath the notes so that whatever unity we achieve is nuanced and true, and to accept dissonance as essential to the songs we create together.
Yes, I know. It is far easier to wax eloquent about dissonance-as-metaphor than it is to listen with love during this brutal election cycle. But then, why did we ever think it would be easy? Why did I ever assume that when Jesus said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” he was kidding? Or talking to everyone else but me?
The fact is, very little in either my social or my religious life facilitates this kind of radical listening. My friends tend to hold many of the same political opinions I hold. The news sources I turn to almost invariably reinforce my cherished perspectives. I worship with people who by and large describe themselves as liberal or progressive. And this problem isn’t unique to me; as a whole, American Christians live in safe seclusion from each other’s differences. The Rev. Martin Luther King’s famous claim remains true today: 11am on Sunday morning is still “the most segregated hour in this nation.”
Having already confessed to you the hatred I’m struggling with, here’s what loving dissonance might look like for me as a politically progressive Christian: beneath the cacophony of sexism, immigrant-bashing, and racism I hear at Trump rallies, can I discern other notes? Notes of economic desperation? Notes of fear? Notes of alienation? Can I, for example, listen with love to the bewildered song of the laid-off coal miner in West Virginia whose beloved town has all but shut down? The song of the pro-life activist whose passion for the unborn child is as genuinely compassion-driven as mine for the illegal immigrant or the Syrian refugee? The song of the evangelical pastor whose version of “family values” — though utterly different from mine — stems from an earnest engagement with Scripture that deserves my uncynical attention?
Maybe not. I don’t know. But shouldn’t we start somewhere? What have we gained from our mutual name-calling and stereotyping? Do I no longer believe that you are my sisters and brothers first — before you become my political rivals, my racial Others, my ideological opponents?
For good or for ill, November 8th will come and go, and our splintered, battle-weary nation will have to begin the arduous work of healing. How amazing it would be if the Church could lead the way — never excusing injustice, or making peace with oppression — but walking into the moment’s tension with courage, intentionality, and love, rather than fear, apathy, and hatred.
Let it begin with me. I pray for everyone with whom I agree and disagree during this election cycle. I pray for Hilary Clinton and for Donald Trump. I pray for every voter, and for the many complicated songs we each carry in their hearts. I pray for the millions outside of the U.S who are watching to see where America will go next. And I pray for mercy, justice, and salvation for us all. God of the impossible, give us the grace for this hour.
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