Note: I wrote this poem in response to the claim by the President that “there will be no God” if Biden is elected. Some may see the poem as sacrilegious but I see it as Holy Sacrilege, standing up to someone who uses God as a prop, as a toy to advance his own interests.
My husband Jonathan has a friend who had some buttons printed up in response to the MAGA (Make America Great Again) campaign. His version of our national need is Make America Kind Again. He gave Jonathan several and I wear one on my coat every day.
However, from the first I have wished it read, Make America Kinder Again–because, frankly, I am hard-pressed to say that I think America has ever been truly kind. Our history is rife with the bodies of Native Americans, African slaves, and African-American men and women, as well as Japanese-American citizens imprisoned and LatinX people victimized by law and society–as well as gay and lesbian people denied civil rights (and not the only ones by far, at least we could vote!) and transgender people under assault every day. Then, there is the lack of universal health care for millions and a tax and economic system that clearly favors those who already have vastly more than enough to meet their needs. The rich are getting richer and the rest of us are forced to make it possible.
At the same time, of course, our national history is also a story of righting wrongs, of freeing people once considered less than human. That story is far from done–Native American claims to dignity have yet to be addressed in ways that would be concretely just and healing, and the same is true for African Americans. And now, the President feeds prejudice against peoples from other less-than-fully-white lands. But still we have tried, and in some ways succeeded, in ameliorating some of the worst behavior that marks our national story.
So we may not be kind as a nation, but we do seek to be kinder. At least, that is how it seemed to me until recently.
Our focus has shifted from living the American Dream–liberty and justice for all (and not just in the United States)–to grabbing what we can, while we can, everywhere we can, so no one can get more than we have.
In the process, we are becoming not only less kind to the rest of the world, but also to each other.
An article from the Atlantic Monthly, “Trump and Russia Both Seek to Exacerbate the Same Political Divisions,”makes the interesting, if not worrisome, point that creating and ratcheting up divisions with the American electorate serves the political aims of both the President and the Russians. Much of the article is grounded in some studies of social media sites and their reverberation through the body politic–including sites and drivers clearly linked to Russia intelligence agents.
The author, Conor Friedersdorf, takes pains to note that he thinks the motives of each are different–the President is not seeking to destroy our political system, e.g.–but that the electoral fortunes of the President and the GOP and the success of the Russian intent to disrupt our republic are both tied directly to heightened levels of social division. The more we distrust one another, the better each of these forces will do.
Friederrsdorf argues that it is vital for internet users–on all the social media platforms–to “show more charity to competing political tribes and exhibit less pessimism about U.S. politics.” He admits there certainly is “homegrown ugliness” (how could this not be so in a nation so drenched in the blood of white supremacy, among other things?), but he says all need to be aware that some of the off-putting behavior and attitudes is “fakery” dreamed up by agents of a foreign and unfriendly power.
In short, we can be kinder, even if we find the opinions of others outrageous–or if not kinder, then at least less vituperative and angry than we may initially feel is justified.
I admit that this is not an easy prescription for me at times. I can become very angry, outraged, at some of what I can only see as ugly and stupid opinions and claims of fact. I want to strike back with a righteous fury.
But I recognize that such reactions give only momentary satisfaction–“so there!” I am saying, in a juvenile vent–and ultimately work against the very causes in which I am so invested.
“Anger is a useful, perhaps indispensable tool in motivating resistance to injustice. But I think it is a weapon — a tool useful only in combat and self-defense. . . . Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger. It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice. . . . Valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal. It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness.”
As a queer theologian, seeking not to be automatically and constantly bound by any of the ordinary strictures and straitjackets of religion and society, I certainly understand the necessity for anger. As Le Guin writes, anger drives resistance to injustice. As Fenton Johnson wrote in this month’s Harper’s (THE FUTURE OF QUEER: how gay marriage damaged gay culture), the work of LGBT liberation movement especially in its earlier manifestations, and most assuredly the massive queer community response to HIV/AIDS, were each driven by anger.
Johnson is, in my view, too harsh in his criticism of the movement for marriage equality. I think he has a rather one-dimensional view of gay, or queer, culture. At the same time, he is right to insist that being queer requires significant vulnerability, that indeed, love requires the same thing. And he is right to say, that “what defines queer, finally, is not what one does in bed but one’s stance toward the ancien régime, the status quo, the way things have always been done, the dominant mode, capitalism.”
With such a perspective, I seek here to suggest that resistance to injustice, to social straitjackets and oppression, requires not only righteous indignation but also love of the very deepest kind. Fenton quotes my hero, James Baldwin,
“Love has never been a popular movement. . . . The world is held together—really it is held together—by the love and passion of a few people.”
I agree with Fenton that the number of people who evidence love and passion is greater than Baldwin implies. But I know that we always need more of those people. And I know, I do know, that their number will only grow to the extent we are actually willing and able to be vulnerable enough to love even those who hate, or seem to hate, us. That love may well be driven by anger–as my teacher, Beverly Wildung Harrison, wrote long ago, the power of anger drives love–but it is the love that creates change that lasts.
Kindness is the method, the action, of such love, not so much romantic or erotic love (although eros is never absent in our lives) as love for the survival and thriving of every creature, human and not, on earth, indeed love for the survival, renewal, and thriving of the planet.
In many venues, I identify as a Queer Theologian (and poet), but I have made a deliberate choice here to leaven that with the idea of nakedness–because I believe (I want to say I know if it does not sound too dogmatic), that when we are most vulnerable we are most true to our inheritance as offspring of God.
In her graceful and very wise book, Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know about Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity, Elizabeth M. Edman shares a definition of priesthood that was given to her by a friend:
A priest is someone who stands in a place of remarkable vulnerability, and by doing so, invites other people to enter the sacred.
This expansive understanding of priesthood fits well, as Edman says, within the Protestant concept of the priesthood of all believers. In that way, it undercuts the clerical hierarchy that is so often an impediment to spiritual growth and health among “lay” people. Indeed, it may help end what is often seen as a binary of lay/clerical difference–a chasm which leads too many non-clerics to think they have nothing useful to contribute to spiritual life and too many clerics to think, or at least act as if, they have everything that is needed.
There is institutional authority vested in the office of priest or pastor, or rabbi or imam–depending on the tradition and the community, it can be a lot. However, it is the authority of personal and interpersonal vulnerability that is far more powerful in ways that transcend the usual humanly created boundaries. And that authority is available to all the faithful. We are called to be, as Edman says, a priestly people.
I am a nudist at heart, but I did not change this blog name simply to take my clothes off (or feature others who do so) online–although that may happen from time to time. At the same time, I recognize being physically naked as part of a continuum of spiritual and emotional nakedness and vulnerability.
I still wear a clerical collar when I go to church, but I am not sure entirely why. I have no formal or pastoral role in worship, and even if I did it is not my clothes that make it possible. It may be a sign of comfort for some, but increasingly I chafe and wish to dress as more myself.
I started this most recent journey in my life by taking off all my clothes and discovering much joy in nakedness by myself and with others. Now I see that I may want to consider each item of my costume–not as a form of striptease but as a way of really exposing, at some deep levels, all of me.
Taking off the collar may be a greater signification of my priesthood–a priest forever, as my friend and mentor, Carter Heyward, has written–than wearing it. Then I am more likely to stand in that place of remarkable vulnerability and thus invite people to enter the sacred.
That is my desire, and I believe it is God’s desire for me, and you, and all creation.
I have been carrying a troubling in my soul for some time. It’s about the presidential election.
Specifically, my trouble has been that I am not excited by any of the candidates. Well, that is not entirely accurate. I am excited, in a negative way, about some (you can probably guess their names, but if not their last names begin with T, C, and K, this last one at least seems sane).
No, the trouble is a lack of enthusiasm for either of the other two, Clinton and Sanders.
As I read, and ponder the choices, and the pluses and minuses of each, I just kept wobbling.
Recently, I stopped wobbling and came to a conclusion: I want President Obama again.
I know, I know, third terms are prohibited (I used to tell Republican friends that if they had not been so eager to stop another FDR, they could have most likely had a third Eisenhower term and no Kennedy/Johnson administrations which really changed things in ways they didn’t like).
Here are some of the reasons I want Obama again.
He’s thoughtful and careful about invading all over the place (a big worry about Hillary Clinton), and he likes building alliances and even getting former enemies to work with us.
He’s committed to getting things done, even if means significant compromises with the other side (I just can’t see Sanders doing this), and I think he has the best shot of building on his own domestic legacy (Sanders, I fear, will end up undermining it). In that light, I admire his choice of Judge Merrick B. Garland for the Supreme Court; it shows that he wants to work within the situation as it exists, namely a hostile Senate, so that the Court can continue to function (interesting that some observers say Garland could just as easily have been nominated by George W. Bush in similar circumstances–which means he is hardly the rabid liberal some are claiming).
I admire his dignity when Prime Minister Netanyahu acts like a bully (all too often).
He and Michelle bring a lot of style to the White House–despite being treated shamefully by many.
Oh yes, there’s one more reason: I want us to have more Black Presidents. (and between you and me, I want to stick it to all those Republicans who have disrespected him so much, and all the racists who have been stockpiling guns because they are afraid of every Black man, even one wearing a suit and sitting at a desk in the White House).
I certainly don’t agree with everything President Obama has done, or even will do. He is not perfect. But it has been a long time since I could say I was really proud of a President. I am saying that today, and expect to keep on saying it, because in seven-plus years he has not caused me to feel let down or disrespected by him, not once (even when I have disagreed with him); the man has class and intellect and character.
Character counts. And I think Barack Obama has a lot of character, great integrity, going deep. When I think about how much of the country has treated him, and how he has maintained his dignity through it all, I am in awe. And this shows, I think, in the latest public opinion polls that show his approval rating at more than 50% (for an interesting article about Obama and Trump, and a diagnosis of our national mood, see “The Great Trump Distortion” by E. J. Dionne, Jr. in the Washington Post–may have a different name online).
Yes, I wish he were more personable, more easy-going, and more willing to be social with people who seem to despise him (Sen. McConnell, e.g., and Speaker Boehner/Ryan — have you noticed much difference, except that Ryan doesn’t cry and he is better looking than Boehner?). And I wish he used the bully pulpit of the presidency more, and that he talked more about white privilege (not talking about did not stop people from saying he did–because of course for many his very presence in the headlines reminded them of how angry they are that he, a Black man, was elected, twice).
And I will be up front. I really do want a woman president (see “Genitalia, Breast Size, Facial Hair Don’t Count ). For that reason, I may vote for Hillary Clinton in the Maryland primary on April 26. And I know she is up to the job. But the emails bother me (seems like entitled behavior). Or I may vote for Bernie Sanders who is progressive, and more nuanced on Israel/Palestine and other foreign matters, too. The trouble for me with him is that I keep hearing about his temper and I think he is very unrealistic about what can be done.
So I am back to President Obama–at least until the law won’t let me vote for him (can you use a write-in in a presidential primary?).
History records that in 1940, when FDR was seeking an unprecedented third term against the Republican Wendell Willkie (a renegade like Trump in many ways, but actually sane and responsible, unlike Trump), the Democrats had a slogan: Better a Third Termer than a Third Rater.