Trump, Apocalypticism, and Our Calling

October 21, 2020 § 2 Comments

The Trump movement is a quasi-religious apocalyptic-style cult. 

The biblical apocalyptic movements and moments—and their historical successors—have arisen when a marginalized religious community sees the condition of the world as corrupt in all areas of collective life and believe that this corruption is beyond their ability to correct through normal human action. Only God can fix the problem and the evil is so pervasive and comprehensive that only divine violence in the destruction of the whole world and its subsequent remaking can bring righteousness and peace. This only God can effect, usually through the agency of some messiah anointed by the spirit for the role. And the righteous remnant has an enemy, which the messiah will vanquish. And the story is so cosmic and consequential that its drama seduces people who dream of playing a vital role on its stage when otherwise they would know themselves as insignificant players.

This is the situation of the apocalypses in the Bible. The story of Noah was written during the Babylonian captivity and describes how a remnant of the faithful would be saved by an ark—the vessel that holds the Law—when Yahweh cleanses the world. The second half of the book of Daniel was written during the struggle against the violent suppression of traditional Hebrew faith during the Seleucid occupation of Judea in the 2nd century BCE. The Book of Revelation was perhaps started during the First Jewish War and then finished during the persecutions of Diocletian. 

Trump’s followers, which includes a large contingent of evangelical Christians who already have apocalypticism in their religious DNA, see our government as a swamp and our society as having left them behind. They view themselves as a faithful remnant who will triumph in the end. Their worldview is quasi-religious in its temperament and ideology, in its stubborn denial of reality, of common sense, and of the legitimacy of their evil opponents. They have their messiah, who actually declares himself as the Chosen One. And they have their enemies—the coastal elites, immigrants, and, as ever, the Jews and the blacks. 

They believe that the corruption in American society, and especially its government, is so complete that only destroying that world, the mechanisms and institutions of the state, can put things right. It is so evil that even heinous and violent crimes, liking separating children from their parents and putting them in cages, are necessary means to an end. Human efforts toward reform, like voting and other democratic processes and institutions, are not up to the job, are even part of the problem, so they too can be destroyed or perverted in service to their vision of ultimate vindication. Most dangerously, many believe that the final judgment and remaking of the world must of necessity be violent in its processes; therefore violence as a tool is acceptable, even laudable.

Apocalyptic movements, both biblical and subsequent, are always right in their analysis of the problem and always wrong about the timing. God’s judgment never arrives on time. In fact, it never really arrives at all. Historically, this has never bothered its adherents much. Usually, they move the time back to some later date. Often, they redefine the nature of the judgment and renewal, so that they can say it actually has occurred, just not in the way they expected. Sometimes, in their denial and their despair and desperation, they go down in self-destructive flames when their failure is certain. A handful wake up in time and escape the cult; the rest never give up, though their movement may dwindle to insignificance.

If Trump loses the election, the cult will not give up. Some will believe in their violence as a necessary and effective last chance. Thus I believe that the weeks after the election will be hard; but their initial violence will burn itself out, as it always has done in the past. But the remnant will remain and they will rewrite the prophecy. They will move back the clock. They will deny the reality of their loss while decrying the suffering they claim to endure. They will continue to blame their enemies. They will redefine the endgame. They will bide their time. They will find a new messiah, dismissing Trump as obviously flawed as God’s agent, even though they had overlooked his flaws when they believed in him in the first place.

You cannot “defeat” these people or their movement. Counter-violence will only confirm their worldview. Legislation and other state action will only confirm their worldview, though it will be necessary, anyway. Only love can transform their fear, and sense of hopelessness. And that means changing their circumstances and addressing the corruption they rightly condemn. It means making changes in all areas of social life—political, economic, social—that will draw them into the fold and undo their marginalized remnant status.

As a sidebar here, it’s worth noting that civil unrest and the anger and despair of some in the African American community shares some of these elements, only they have no messiah and so they have less hope. And they’ve been marginalized forever, so the anger and despair run deep. Making the comprehensive social changes needed to address structural racism will further enrage the racist core of the Trump cult. Therefore, it will be very important to address the white alienation of the Trump base at the same time, to avoid some of the violence they will consider. At the heart, though, both efforts are about justice and renewal, so that offers some hope.

However, the cultural transformations these efforts require are very hard to achieve. Redesigning the global economy, the dynamics of democracy, the caste system and structural racism of our society, our education system, healthcare system, policing system, and our social services, all at once, in the face of, first, a global pandemic, and in the medium-to-long term, in the face of diminishing resources, global warming, mass migration, and the proliferation of weapons both terrible and conventional—we are in for a dark period, I fear. This apocalyptic moment is likely to become an apocalyptic age. Apocalyptic movements will be more and more common as demonic storms and wildfires ravage our communities; messiahs will proliferate.

Yet, times like this provide unusual opportunity. The ancient Israelites were in fact returned to their homeland, though the redemption was incomplete and came with a cost. The Maccabees won their revolt and threw the Seleucids out, though the system they set up was itself corrupt and they were conquered again a century later by the Romans. The Christians survived Diocletian only to betray Jesus’ gospel by establishing an imperial church. The apocalyptic dream is never fully defeated and never fully realized. We lurch forward, fall back, lurch forward again.

While we must not lose sight of the goal, we must also remain faithful to the process, to the calling. We are called to love, and to nonviolent social change; we are called to Spirit-led ministry. Our Quaker faith encourages us to practice a listening spirituality, to attend to the small signals, the still small voices, that will call us to action. As individuals, and even as communities, we can’t change everything, we can’t address every wrong. And we cannot be sure of success. We can only be faithful to our callings and leave the rest to God. 

The Senators’ Oath of Impartial Justice

January 17, 2020 § 1 Comment

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Do you solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, president of the United States, now pending, you will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help you god (sic)?

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

 

Our president took an oath several years ago. Ninety-nine of our U.S. senators took an oath yesterday. (One was absent due to illness and will take the oath soon.)

Oaths. Taking an oath casts a magico-religious spell. In this, it is like a sacrament: perform an outward ritual, effect an invisible but real spiritual outcome; take holy communion, receive God’s grace. An oath binds our words and actions and fates to a covenant of truth, a three-way agreement between the oath-taker, the witnesses, and a Power as the guarantor of the pledge.

Full-blown oaths have three components and three magico-religious aspects. The three components are verbal, somatic, and material. The aspects are: invoke a Power, declare the promise, submit to the Power’s punishment upon breaking the promise.

The simple oath we used to take as kids was stripped down to some essentials: Cross my heart and hope to die. This just has the verbal component, the speaking of the oath, and the somatic component of making the sign of a cross over the heart. The promise: I’m telling the truth. The punishment, death, heart failure, presumably.

The vow of marriage involves the verbal, somatic, and material components of vows, standing before the officiator, and rings, plus a kiss for sealing the promise. The promise: fidelity. The punishment: violation of the vow is breach of one of the ten commandments (two, actually) and cause for dissolution of the covenant—divorce.

The senators’ oath to “do impartial justice” in the impeachment of Donald Trump

Components.

Verbal. The verbal component of the senators’ oath is the oath itself, of course. It’s worth noting that “solemnly” here does not denote a mood but rather the religious character of the oath; for “solemn” my Webster’s 7th Collegiate Dictionary reads: “1 : marked by the invocation of a religious sanction 2 : marked by the observance of established form or ceremony; specif : celebrated with full liturgical ceremony 3 a: awe-inspiring : sublime b : highly serious c : somber, gloomy.” Note that the religious meaning is the first one.

Somatic. The somatic components were: standing before the seat of judgment, raising the right hand, placing the left hand upon a Bible, and signing a book or record.

Material. The material component is the signature in the book of record.

Aspects

Invocation. The Power invoked as the guarantor of the oath in the senators’ oath is the God of the Bible—“so help you God”, they solemnly swear.

Promise. The promise they made, the general terms of the covenant, are obvious in the phrasing: “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws”. Adjudication of the specifics of a breach—whether the oath has been broken or not—rests with the Power invoked and with the Power’s human agents at the judgment bench. His (sic) representative at the swearing was Chief Justice Roberts. His representatives at a trial of the senators for breach of oath would be the rest of the senators.

Punishment. The punishment for violating these oaths is not explicitly specified, but the punishment under human agency, for the president, is impeachment; for the senators, it is expulsion from the Senate and presumably, rescinding of the title. This leaves the huge question of what punishment the president and the senators will suffer at the right hand of the Power invoked if they break their oaths. That Power is God (the Christian, or at least, the biblical God). What will God do to a senator who fails to “do impartial justice”?

He (sic) has explicitly promised not to hold him or her guiltless, so they are not getting off. In the biblical context, oathbreakers are cast out of the divine covenant. Deuteronomy (the version of the commandment I’ve quoted is in Deuteronomy 5) lays out an extensive list of blessings for faithfulness to the covenant and curses for unfaithfulness. But that covenant binds Israel as a people to their god and presumably, Christian senators don’t fear those particular curses, which are specific to a people and a time and place and cultural context they do not share.

But there’s no doubt that, in theory, breaking their oath is a sin for which God will hold them accountable. This reveals the weakness of the sin-salvation paradigm of traditional Christianity: what is there to fear? Some vague threat of suffering in the afterlife? Is God really going to send them to hell if they break their oath? For those handful of senators who truly are devout Christians, this might have some weight—but all you need is a confession to get clear. If you’re Catholic or high-church Protestant, confession and the eucharist. The threat of divine spiritual punishment is a threat without teeth.

And why the Bible, anyway? Well, we know why—America in its mythical rhetoric thinks of itself as a Christian nation, never mind all the citizens who are not Christians and the guarantee of the First Amendment that the nation does not actually have an official state religion. And, anyway, how many of these senators are religious in the first place? Are any of them avowed atheists? Are any Jewish or Muslim or something besides Christian in their religious profession?

All of these arguments are part of why Quakers don’t take oaths—or didn’t. (I wonder how many of us do these days, how many of us take this particular testimony very seriously.) But we should remember that the primary reason Friends don’t—or didn’t—take oaths is that Jesus expressly told us not to in Matthew 5:33–37. “Swear not at all. . . . Simply let your yea be yea and your nay be nay; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Wow—straight from Satan. Did you hear that, Mitch McConnell?

Meanwhile, all these factors help to explain why some senators have already declared their intention to break their oath. I hope they suffer some kind of spiritual curse if they do break their oath. Nothing so bad as hell; but something. And I hope they repent before they do, not after.

Be Careful What You Ask For

July 20, 2018 § 5 Comments

Donald Trump’s movement is, in many regards, an apocalyptic movement. Theologian Adela Yarbro Collins describes apocalyptic faith this way:

“apocalyptic faith often correlates with marginality, cognitive dissonance, and relative deprivation. ‘Marginality’ is a sociological term referring to the social status of an individual or group as anomalous, peripheral, or alien. ‘Cognitive dissonance’ refers to a state of mind that arises when there is significant disparity between expectations and reality. . . . ‘Relative deprivation’ identifies the self-understanding of those whose expectations or perceived needs are not being satisfied.”

The folks who voted for Trump, the marginalized white working class and white evangelicals of all classes, have been left behind by an economy that once offered ladders to a better economic future. They have been abandoned by political institutions and structures that once represented their interests, most importantly, the Democratic party. And/or they are held in contempt (they’re deplorables) by Americans who have rejected many of their value-defining institutions, like church, and their culture-defining, or tribe-defining, social practices and signifiers—they are “latte-sipping, Birkenstock-wearing” people whose kids play soccer instead of football and baseball.

Apocalyptic faith believes things are so bad that only a supernal* intervention can bring deliverance. Usually, this means God. In practice, though—that is, in the face of these oppressive forces and institutions in the real world—the extra-worldly intervention needs human agents. It needs prophets and messiahs. For the Trump movement, the prophets are the right-wing media; the messiah is, of course, Trump himself.

This helps explain why many evangelicals voted for Trump in spite of his obvious faithlessness and corrupt character—he’s not the one who is acting, really; it’s God. And God can use a broken tool, even a pagan one, just like he used the Persian emperor Cyrus to release the Israelites from captivity in Babylon. And anyway, we’re all sinners. And even Jesus was broken—though he took on human brokenness deliberately in order to save us.

The thing about apocalyptics is that they don’t give up their worldview, even when—as inevitably happens—it has demonstrably failed to deliver them. This means that when the corrupt world is not overturned as expected, apocalyptics often go ballistic. This is because you become apocalyptic in the first place when you already think things are as bad as they can get and are completely out of your control. You already feel desperate and helpless—though you still have your anger. The messiah is your last hope. When he (always a “he”) fails, that anger, coupled with utter despair, flares out in violence.

David Koresh (“Koresh” is the Hebrew transliteration of “Cyrus”) and his Branch Davidians are a prime, relatively modern example. But post-Pauline apocalyptic Christianity is itself the paradigmatic example—marginalized Christians have been expecting the apocalypse any minute now off and on for 2,000 years.

Thus, when Trump fails and is dethroned—when he has been crucified—his “base” may explode. The prophets will rage against their scapegoats. The messiah may try to take down as much of the temple as he can, Samson and Delilah style. The racists may lash out (even more) against black and brown people. The xenophobes may unleash mob violence against immigrants and especially, against Muslims. The Christians may hunt down their usual target, the Jews. The gun nuts may start shooting. The global warming deniers may start setting forest fires. The militia types may target federal buildings.

I’m just sayin’. I’m a little worried that we may regret it if we get what we’re asking for here—Trump’s spectacular and rightly-deserved come-uppins.

 

* Supernal: being or coming from on high.

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