Stars to Steer By

by Berry Friesen (November 15, 2016)

“May you live in interesting times” is the ironic blessing conveying an expectation of conflict and disorder.  It fits the period we have entered with the election of Donald Trump.

The billionaire candidate who captured the Republican Party’s nomination by the demagogic use of xenophobic, misogynist and racist rhetoric has won a decisive slice of the blue-collar middle class by taking seriously their declining economic prospects, their bewilderment over how the greatest military power in history keeps losing its elective wars and failing to achieve its explicit foreign policy goals, and their weariness of the hectoring social judgments of their more cultured and educated superiors.

He defeated a candidate far more experienced and better prepared to be President, a woman who combined a strong commitment to multi-culturalism, globalism and open borders with a track record of catering to Wall Street bankers, using military force to serve corporate interests and feather her own nest by selling access to government decision-makers.

Do you feel the dissonance of conflicting values, not only between the two candidates but within what each represents?

Meanwhile, as Trump strides onto the world stage, he encounters a United Kingdom negotiating its withdrawal from the European Union, a group of European nations under growing pressure from right-wing parties empowered by popular discontent over a the influx of Middle Eastern and North African refugees, Middle Eastern states notorious for their brutality in suppressing human rights and political dissent, and a Russia newly confident of its ability to chart its own course and thrive.

As you and I respond to all of this and more, what will guide us?

Psalm 146

At the election-day communion service I attended, Psalm 146 was our text.

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.  When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.

“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever, executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. 

“The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.  

“The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of wicked he brings to ruin.”

The christianities of our time deploy gods for various contrasting purposes.  We can tell which purposes are true to YHWH—the god Jesus of Nazareth worshipped—by remembering and honoring the biblical emphasis on justice for the oppressed and bread for the hungry.

Address Race with Care

Racism is a huge factor in American society, shaping all of us by its power and eliciting strong emotions on all sides. Yet race is not a biologic reality; it is a pernicious social construct created for purposes of exploitation and oppression.

To defeat racism—to dislodge it from our structures, to make it wither away—we must talk about the reality of racism.  Yet if we speak about racism too much, or if we speak of it inaccurately, we add to its vitality and power and do more harm than good.

To hold together through this era we are entering, we must strive for a Goldilocks balance of enough honest talk about race, but not too much.

One resource I find helpful in this regard is www.BlackAgendaReport.com; check it out.

Reject Rejection

This past Sunday the preacher in my congregation told stories from the book of Genesis and referenced a book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name:  Confronting Religious Violence.

Repeatedly, the stories of Genesis subvert the cultural power of first born siblings (Cain, Ishmael, Esau, Leah, the older sons of Jacob) by blessing the later-born (Abel, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Joseph).

And repeatedly, those stories then go on to subvert the assumption that by blessing the later-born, YHWH has rejected the first-born.  YHWH did not reject the first born; “YHWH rejects rejection,” said our preacher.

In this pivotal time, we are called to get involved and be partisans for our values. But if we wish to follow the way of YHWH, we dare not reject those we disfavor.  Can we find it in our hearts to want a blessing for them too?

Pay Attention to the Signs

Staying alert will help us retain our balance and our ability to respond in flexible and measured ways. Here are a few important signs that popped up this past week.

1. Within hours of the election, President Obama directed US forces to stop supporting al-Qaeda in Syria and instead target its leaders.  This policy reversal is fully attributable to the Trump victory.

As reported November 10 by the Washington Post, Obama “has ordered the Pentagon to find and kill the leaders of an al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria that the administration had largely ignored until now and that has been at the vanguard of the fight against the Syrian government.”

On the same day, the US Department of the Treasury reported its office of Foreign Assets Control has begun to disrupt the military, recruitment, and financing operations of al-Qaeda in Syria.

Together, these actions are expected to directly impact the ability of al-Qaeda to maintain its control of east Aleppo, thus clearing the way for the Syrian army to re-establish control without the intense aerial bombardment and street fighting that would have resulted in mass causalities.

2. Politico reports that lobbyists who work with Pentagon officials “are getting a flood of calls from longtime clients and new prospects eager to take advantage of a potential military buildup under President-elect Donald Trump.”

The article quotes an unnamed K Street insider:  ““It is safe to say that defense lobbyists, as well as the defense industry, are pretty optimistic about a Trump presidency, at least coming out of the gates.  That is both from an overall spending perspective but then also clearly he has a reputation and a record of deal making, which I think industry thinks is a good thing.”

Sounds like business as usual to me.

3. As we consider our neighbors and colleagues and wonder how they voted, reported data helps keep it all in perspective.

For example, around 54.6 percent of the electorate voted for either Trump or Clinton. This means that if we consider a typically diverse group of people (e.g., adults enjoying a city park on a Sunday afternoon), just over 27 percent voted for Trump and just over 27 percent voted for Clinton.

Or take another example, white evangelical Christians, who voted four-to-one for Trump. Because of low turn-out, Trump reportedly received fewer votes from white evangelicals than any presidential candidate since the data began to be collected in the 2004 election.

4.  President-elect Trump has named Breitbart News CEO Steve Bannon as chief strategist of the White House.

During his three-year tenure as Executive Chairman at Breitbart, Bannon is reported to have made it the premier media outlet for the racist, xenophobic and misogynist perspectives of the Alt-right movement.  Though one is hard-pressed to find Bannon himself voicing bigotry, his deliberate actions to amplify bigoted viewpoints gives rise to the reasonable inference that he supports what bigots proclaim in the pages of Breitbart.

Media Matters describes the mission of the Alt-right as “rebranding of classic white nationalism for the 21st century.”  It believes racial identity is a fundamental aspect of human nature and that America’s future success depends on emphasizing its European roots and defending its “white heritage” against influences from other parts of the world.

That Bannon—a promoter of such an ideology—will sit at the right hand of President Trump is cause for alarm.

5.  The day after the election, organized protests occurred in numerous US cities. Generally, young adults distressed by the election of Trump populated these protests. This is to be expected and might be praise-worthy, depending on who is behind these protests and how they play out in coming days.

How did these citizen actions emerge so quickly in so many places and with such unified messaging? Sophisticated logistics are involved.  Nikolay Nikolaev reports the vital role of one organization, including the money to offer protesters $190 a day:

MoveOn.org is a progressive American non-governmental organization, established in 1998 in response to the impeachment against President Bill Clinton in the House of Representatives. Attracting significant funding, the NGO expanded its activities and maintains a number of smaller organizations in the network structure: the initiative, ‘Call for Change’, and the portal, ‘MoveOn’, petitions, in partnership with the similar Change.org, Avaaz and PetitionOnline. The main sponsors of the organization are the billionaire, George Soros, who officially donated $1.46 million, and the CEO of Progressive Corp., Peter Lewis, with half a million dollars” (emphasis in original).

George Soros is notorious in certain anti-imperial circles as “a Globalist investor in murder and mayhem” who lays the groundwork for regime change through so-called “color revolutions” in the streets.  Ukraine is the leading example of this approach.  Citizens-protesters form the core of a morally-infused presence in the streets challenging the legitimacy of those in power.  While these highly sympathetic protesters grab the headlines, hidden elements planted by intelligence agencies inject violence and threats into the mix, thus eliciting a forceful counter-reaction from the government.  This process plays out in an escalating pattern over weeks and months until it results in widening chaos and government paralysis.

Has this tactic now been deployed against the incoming Trump Administration?  It’s not yet clear; we’ll need to pay close attention.

6.  Whatever political identity we may claim, blogger Jim Kavanagh’s quote will keep us humble:

 “Conservative Kansans fall for a plutocratic, imperialist agenda cloaked in patriotism, religion, and nostalgia for the good old Ed Sullivan days; liberal New Yorkers fall for the same plutocratic, imperialist agenda dressed up in multiculturalism, identity politics, and celebration of the good new Caitlin Jenner days. Who’s the bigger fool? How’s that working out for everybody? For the millions of victims of that top-down, plutocratic class war —in the ghettos of the cities and the hollows of Appalachia? For the Syrians, Iraqis, and Libyans, whose countries have been destroyed?”

George Lakey, a co-founder of Quaker Earth Action Group, makes the same point:

“We can build the scale of our movements by frankly admitting that alienated white working-class people are right: Both major parties are together destroying the country on behalf of the 1 percent. It may be hard for college educated activists to admit that the cynical working-class view is more accurate than the belief of graduates of political science courses. However, the sooner the humility arrives, the better. With humility comes the chance to scale up our campaigning and take the next step in the living revolution.”