Upon the results of the election, Donald Trump dramatically pivoted from a campaign based on “us vs. them” rhetoric to that of unity:
“Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division, have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.
It is time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be President for all of Americans, and this is so important to me. For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”
Many people reacted to this with understandable disbelief. Be unified? When people currently fear for their lives, while hate crimes experience a frightening uptick? And still some embraced the call for unity, exhausted by the polarization that this election bred. In my more charitable moments, I remember that these people are probably also scared, scared of the potential violence that deep division breeds.
But here’s the problem with a call for unity right now, a call for any pretense to reconciliation across the deep divide that marks the American experience for most of the members of its community: it’s nothing more and nothing less than cheap grace.
For the past few weeks I have been teaching about structural sin and its impact on doing Christian ethics. We covered all of the many, overlapping “-isms” that form systemic sin in the US(in the world, really): classism, racism, sexism, and more. We’ve spent two weeks deconstructing positions of power and privilege and how those vantage points formed moral concepts. In a class on James Cone, we read his words condemning the demands for nonviolence from white theologians:
Theologically and philosophically, [white theologians] want to know whether revolutionary violence can be justified as an appropriate means for the attainment of black liberation. If Black Theology is Christian theology, how does it reconcile violence with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek and to go the second mile (Matt. 5:39)? Is it not true that violence is a negation of the gospel of Jesus Christ? These are favorite white questions, and it is significant that they are almost always addressed to the oppressed and almost never to the oppressors (James Cone, God of the Oppressed, 195).
I thought of those words a lot as calls for unity began to unfold. The calls come from the victors, from those who feel validated by the election, not from those who feel betrayed. Doing this reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the process of reconciliation. We cannot, theologically or ethically, demand forgiveness and reconciliation of someone who has been wronged. At least in a Catholic, sacramental understanding of reconciliation, there can be no forgiveness or absolution without confession, penance, and restitution.
And while it is true that many of the “winners” in this election (meaning the people who support Trump) have long felt betrayed by our political system, their betrayal does not correct the error. If anything, it magnifies the need for confession — and beyond confession, it demands lament.
Wounds are not healed by slapping a bandage on them: they need to be cleansed, infections removed, and sometimes even endure the pain of stitches. Simply binding a wound that has not been cleaned will only make the body more ill.
That is no way to heal the Body of Christ.
Next week, my class and I will move onto the development of the sacrament of reconciliation. In some ways, applying the sacrament as it exists in the Catholic Church to systemic social problems is a struggle. Intent plays a central role in the structure of our moral thinking, in determining moral culpability. As the form, matter, and technicalities of the sacrament currently stand, culpability for sin cannot exist without intent, at least.
Given the mass denial by voters of being motivated by any “-ism,” conversion from sin and confession of complicity in racism, classism, sexism, and more may be a long time in coming from the people who support Trump. They will be a long time coming even from the people who reject Trump — as an upper-class white woman who cried in fear for family, friends, and colleagues in the wee hours of the morning on November 9th, I know that I, too, need to continually undergo my own confession, pay my own penance for these structural sins. This is demanded of me now, even more than in the wake of an election that has left women and people of color filled with justified anxiety and fear.
But even if conversion is a long way off, lament is immediate. Our laments name sin, name fear, call out to God for justice and restitution. Lamenting the wrongs of this world make it possible to imagine a new one.
And there is no timeline for lamenting, no prescribed length at which it stops and we “get back to work,” the work of justice. There is no reason that our lamenting cannot continue once we have recaptured the energy to organize. We can see this in action, in the ongoing lament that forms the heart of the annual SOA Watch Vigil and protest; as I have mentioned before, I have seen the power of lament performed at an neighboring institution in the name of victims of sexual abuse.
Our hopes for tomorrow come from the brokenness of today. So do not resist the lamentations of those who are experiencing fear and betrayal. Do not quote Philippians 4:6-7 or Luke 12:22 as if that rectifies the hurt. Do not tell us of Christian hope in the next world without mourning for this one.
Do not demand unity without confessing your part in the division, without offering restitution for the real hurt, fear, and pain that has resulted from the injustice. Real unity may be found by joining the lament.
But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations;
Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—
unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.
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