Perhaps it’s appropriate that Donald Trump made his latest (and, to date, most) inflammatory remarks on December 7, “a date which will live in infamy,” as President Roosevelt famously called it. Seventy-four years to the day after Japanese forces’ surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which led to widespread fear and a regrettable response by American leaders, including Roosevelt himself, Trump issued a “policy” statement saying the US should halt all Muslim immigration into our country.
He has stopped short (so far, anyway) of calling for internment camps for Muslims who are already here, the way our government did in the 1940s for Japanese Americans, but still.
The ridiculous campaign many of us have enjoyed mocking for months now has taken a decidedly dark, perhaps dangerous turn.
Even more troubling than the statement itself is the roar of approval Trump got after reading it to an audience at one of his rallies. It’s easy to dismiss Trump as an over-inflated cartoon character—a sort of political Thanksgiving Parade balloon—but a bit harder to ignore that nearly a third of likely Republican voters like what he has to say.
The polarization in our country has been growing for at least a couple of decades. After I graduated from seminary but before I got my position as campus minister in West Virginia, I spent about four months working as a valet parking attendant at Jewish Hospital in downtown Louisville. Some visitors to the hospital would leave their radios on, and during my afternoon shifts I got my first exposure to Rush Limbaugh.
The commentary that Limbaugh spouted was divisive, inflammatory, and sometimes completely erroneous, but he developed a considerable audience in the process. All over the country, “Dittoheads” came out of the woodwork, hailing Limbaugh as the spokesman for what they had felt all along but didn’t have the words to express. I remember my brother saying around that time that he feared someone inspired by Limbaugh would try to assassinate Bill Clinton. I scoffed at the idea, but he said, “It’s not necessarily the ones who say the crazy stuff that you have to look out for, but the nutjobs who believe it.”
Twenty years later, I recognize my brother’s prescience. The San Bernardino shooters were inspired by ISIS. The guy who shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs did so after several months of high-profile controversy about the organization’s practices, and made comments to police regarding “baby parts.” Who knows what loonies lurking out there may still act on Trump’s fascist rhetoric? We are rediscovering daily the devastating power of rhetorical extremism to spawn other forms of extremism, including violence.
What can reasonable people do in times like these? Are all our appeals to civility and rational discourse destined to fall on deaf ears? How can ordinary folks like us without the giant megaphone of a presidential campaign and billions of dollars to keep its battery charged compete with the Trumps of the world? Is it a hopeless cause?
I don’t believe it is. As long as Jesus Christ is alive and active in our world through the Holy Spirit, no cause is hopeless. Our job is to remain faithful, doing and saying what we can to counter hate with love, bigotry with inclusion, and stupidity with patient reason. It may seem small and ineffectual, but we need to remember, as I point out in my book, Our Father Who Aren’t in Heaven, “God specializes in small things. God has gone about God’s business in a curious way throughout salvation history, frequently choosing those the world considers small and insignificant to accomplish remarkable things” (p. 68).
So let us keep the faith. Let us keep plugging away, even when it seems like a waste of time. The season of Advent is about waiting, but one of the things we learn in Advent is that one day the waiting will end in fulfillment. It happened when Jesus came the first time as an infant in a manger, and it will happen again.
Marana tha! Come quickly, Lord Jesus!