In April 1963, a young preacher sat down in his jail cell to write a letter to his fellow clergyman. It wasn’t an unkind letter, but it also wasn’t meek. It was fiery. And it was real. He was responding to their criticism of his social activism. They criticized his method, saying it was “unwise and untimely.” It was divisive. He was a rabble-rouser, a provocateur.
What pushed Martin Luther King, Jr. to continue? What value and ideal was high enough to make him disruptive? Didn’t he understand that some of those people were surely good-hearted people who made difficult decisions or simply disagreed on the proper way to pursue justice?
Since the election of President Trump, these are the questions that have been asked of liberals who are adamant in scrutinizing their fellow citizens. Many Christians voted for Trump. Some of them, no doubt, are racists, sexists and bigots. I know quite a few—although calling them Christians sometimes gets caught in my throat. But I also know quite a few Christian Trump voters who are not racist, sexist or bigoted. They are good people. They are kind and thoughtful people. And, as Jon Stewart recently pointed out in an interview, they aren’t scared of Muslims or Mexicans. They are afraid of not being able to pay their insurance premiums. Or they are afraid of losing their jobs as factories close. So they made a difficult decision, and they chose one of the two candidates they believed would help them overcome those fears.
Since the election, I have worked very hard to understand that position. I have listened to many voices. I have had dinner-time conversations. I have read editorials. I believe in the value of empathy and compassion, and I have tried so hard to empathize with this position. After all, I have fears like those as well.
But what gets me is that the overtly racist, sexist and bigoted platforms that we saw coming from the Fool were not immediately disqualifications for the highest office in our government.
For the months (and even years at this point) that Trump and other radical conservatives were running on platforms of racism and bigotry, we called on good-hearted people to empathize with the minorities that were being attacked and maligned. We begged for people to hear their voices and listen to their fears. But when the time came to cast a ballot, the fears—whether of Mexicans and Muslims or bills and pink slips—were too strong to make my fellow citizens and Christians empathize with those who were being attacked.
And now he is president, and his words became actions. And those actions will do harm to the lives of my marginalized friends.
The administration will do harm in deportations. It will do harm in the denial of desperately needed aid and shelter. It will do harm in the encouragement of a culture of fear and enmity against a faith community as diverse as my own. It will do harm to a fraught geopolitical climate that needed a compassionate and steady hand.
The racists and the bigots disgust me. But I don’t expect that a rational or religious argument from me or other liberals will do much against their ideology. So, I look to the man I spoke of earlier for guidance. Should I respond as he responded?
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
The Fool’s executive action to ban refugees indefinitely from Syria is immoral and goes against decades of international treaties. His ban of other Muslims is equally egregious. These are our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers, sometimes fleeing despotic and authoritarian regimes in order to enjoy and celebrate the same freedoms you and I take for granted.
I reject the call to let empathy for those who voted for Trump be my guiding principle. I don’t have the emotional or intellectual energy to care about someone’s feelings when it was those exact feelings that failed to empathize with the oppressed in the first place.
My words are harsh. My method is unempathetic to those whose fears motivated their current silence in the face of unjust policies promoted by the Fool. And I’m doubling down.
Your fears were legitimate. But were they worth the cost of injustice to racial and religious minorities? He said you would be safe, to not worry. All you had to do was look the other way when he advocated racist platforms. You took that bribe.
How can we ask other Christians and good-hearted individuals to take seriously our claim that God values human life if you remain silent at this affront? Your silence imperils our witness to this truth in the eyes of all who watch.
Now, you have the audacity to complain because I use the words “racist and bigoted” to describe the vote you cast. I know (I hope) it didn’t come from hatred. But the result is the same: a racist and bigoted law. God desires justice, not paltry worship ceremonies or peace offerings. The actions we do, both collectively and individually, must be scrutinized. This is not the time for “politeness.”
No Fool can promise us shelter from those fears if the cost is to deprive justice to the oppressed. And if we fail to repent and stand against such injustices, may our peace offerings offend God. And our songs of worship make her recoil.
To me, right now, the great stumbling block to justice is not the bigoted Islamophobe, but the good-hearted, white Christian who is more devoted to the values of civility and mutual understanding than justice.
My Christian brothers and sisters who remain silent, you are turning your backs on the gospel we love and share together. And just as importantly, you turn your back on the least of these.