Monday, March 28, 2016


There has been a lot of talk this election year about an “angry electorate”, or at least the angry part of the electorate that the news media loves to cover.  And there certainly has been enough angry rhetoric from the Republican presidential candidates.

But I don’t think that anger alone explains the appeal of Mr. Trump, and his appeal to “deport all illegal (sic) immigrants” or “bar Muslims from entering the U.S.”, not to mention the physical violence that has taken place at some rallies.

There are a lot of people angry in this country.  I’m angry about income inequality, pollution and climate change, profiling and racism, violence against women, etc. etc.  People are angry about a lot of stuff.  I imagine that in every election in our divided nation, close to half the people are angry about “the other side”.  But I don’t think that explains what is happening this year.

I think the problem greater than anger is that people feel powerless.  That their world is changing and that they can’t stop it.  Which causes fear and hopelessness, which are REALLY hard to feel, and so we tend to cover it up with anger.  And usually the kind of anger that looks for a scapegoat.

A lot has been made of the fact that it’s mostly white working class people who support Trump.  (I imagine there’s a lot of poor white people that do as well).  I can’t speak for such a large group, but I can see why they would be angry—about income inequality, the loss of high-paying jobs, and cultural shifts that—to them—have happened so rapidly.

And if they feel powerless to change things, where do they turn to?  If you are African-American, there are groups and strategies you can be a part of, from Black Lives Matter to NAACP.  There are many Latino and immigrant groups, women’s and LGBT organizations.  There are unions and environmental groups.

But if you are a white working class man, you may be asking “Who is MY champion?”  And if you feel shut out, disempowered, and that opportunities to flourish and feel secure are passing you by, then it’s not hard to see that you might be drawn to a man who not only promises to fix what’s ailing you, but also does it in a way that calls out the very groups you may see as destroying your way of life: immigrants, Muslims, the poor, minorities, “elites”, “uppity” women.

Needless to say—but it really does need to be said a lot—Trump’s strategies aren’t going to help working class people at all.  But when people in the US vote more often for whom they perceive and feel is “for them” rather than on specific policy strategies, you could see how someone is “standing up” and “knows how to get things done” would be appealing.

Now you could say “It’s their fault—“They should see through Trump’s lies”—“They’re acting out of their privilege as whites”—“There’s plenty of movements and organizations they could get involved with for real change”, etc. etc.

That may be true. (Although it is easy for the left to demonize and stereotype poorer and less educated among us, because, let’s face it, the intellectual and financial base of most of the left is middle class and upper class.)  But telling people who feel powerless that they are wrong to feel that way is like saying to someone who is angry “Why are you angry?”  or “You really have it better than lots of other people”. How often does that work out well?

I’ve seen this same dynamic in the church.  Most of the congregations I’ve served have been in inner cities, where great ethnic, cultural and economic changes have taken place in the neighborhood around the church.  I have led those churches into change, change that has been hard and slow and sometimes divisive. While many established leaders discover that a new way of being church with the community is both wise and just, not all do.  And when fundamental change takes place—especially if people don’t feel they have the power to stop it or change it—there can be a lot of resentment and blaming that gets built up.  The newcomers—whether they are from a different race or language or economic status—make an easy target for “why things are going wrong”.

As church leaders we quickly point out the racism—both obvious and subtle—in these disenchanted leaders.  And it is there.  But I’m beginning to see more clearly that we often overlook how the shift of power can be so unsettling to those who once had great power (or thought they did) and now see others “taking” that away from them.  If you feel powerless, you may even see a genuine, intentional sharing of power and vision and leadership as a threat.

I surely am not saying we should back off change because some of the old guard are suffering (and don’t call myself Shirley!).  Far from it!  But if we claim—as we do in the church—that God empowers all people, then part of our work has to include patiently and courageously listening to people who feel powerless, and helping lead them into a new understanding of power and mission that includes them, along with the new groups exercising power and leadership.

Not that I (and we) do that well all the time.  Nor do I think that everyone can and will get on board with change.  Some people have to leave.  Accepting that can be hard for those of us who want the change; it can be doubly hard for those who have decided to support the change, but still are struggling with it personally, and who may have long histories with those who have left.

That change that I’m talking about—on the church and on the national level—is indeed a justice issue, but I’m beginning to see that framing it as such can sometimes have the opposite effect that we want.  People who are living out of a sense of powerlessness may even see what we call justice as injustice, because they perceive they are being excluded. 

I do not think we should stop working for change in society that is needed—changes in addressing climate change, racism and policing, income inequality, war and so on—changes that may make that section of the populace who feel powerless feel even more so.  That’s going to happen.  My hope is that there is a way we can work for that change without stereotyping and demonizing the people we don’t like because they stereotype and demonize people we do like.

Part of that has to do with really listening to people who are different than us and not attacking.  I would like to suggest a couple of ways our language can either impede or help that listening:

1)         Only talking about white privilege with working class white folks when we talk about policing or other issues of racial justice is not very effective.  Most police officers come from that community (a real problem for community policing, to be sure), and so many working class white folks have family or friends who are cops.  People who feel—and to a lesser or greater extent have experienced—great losses by the changes that have occurred (especially economic) don’t feel very privileged.  They have more privilege for being white, yes. But they don’t feel that they are privileged in general.  Framing the discussion in terms of privilege doesn’t seem to engage dialogue very much.

2)         And to my friends on the left—where I locate myself—is it helpful to respond to opinions you disagree with by saying the people expressing them are “mansplaining” or “whitesplaining”? If your goal is to change people’s attitudes and actions, how exactly will cutting off dialogue help?  There must be ways to understand and then counter their opinions in ways that open rather than close the human connection. Also, how much power and privilege do we have because of our education and our ability to use words?  Do we use that privilege in systemic, subtle and unconscious ways?

Well, that’s a lot of words from me.  I am worried about the direction of our country and our church.  But I don’t feel powerless about it.  And I trust that this will keep me sane.

Be justice. Be beauty.  Be power.


No comments:

Post a Comment