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The Danger of Allowing the ‘Boughs to turn Brown’

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This essay will be published the day after Christians around the world celebrated Easter and its associated Holy Week, their most sacred period of the calendar year. Whether or not one is a believer in Christianity, the story of Jesus Christ’s journey from welcomed Messiah, leader and folk hero entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to pariah and crucified victim in a matter of days as the populace that feted him turned on him in the face of fear and calculated hatred, is archetypal. While Christians believe this narrative was ordained by God, it can reasonably be interpreted by non-believers as an especially brutal and evocative example of the inherent volatility and cruelty of human behavior. Indeed, and suggestively, historians and other scholars have long struggled to understand, let alone to explain, why specific populations have embraced obviously false beliefs, particularly genocidal ones, that resulted in the deaths of countless innocents, when no such likelihood appeared likely just prior. In this sense, Christ stands as a symbol for the millions throughout human history who have been excoriated mercilessly and, just as often, murdered without reason or justification.

A portion of the Gospel of Luke, read by Christian church congregations on Palm Sunday, recounts that Christ remarked on this explosive and irrational unpredictability and failure to repent for those behaviors and what those characteristics suggest concerning humans’ capacity for empathy and goodness as well as for cruelty and hatred. As he was being led to his crucifixion after being turned over to that fate by the Roman prelate Pontius Pilate, Luke reports that Christ said the following:

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children for indeed, days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.’ At that time people will say to the mountains, ‘Fall upon us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ for if these things are done when the wood is green what will happen when the wood is dry?[1]

It is Christ’s last phrase that interests me here for it illustrates what might be dubbed the

excesses and wild potential swings of the opposite poles of the human heart. In this accounting, the same populace that hailed Christ as its King and Redeemer called for his crucifixion a few days later in favor of a known thief and murderer, Barabbas. That is, that population called for the death of an innocent person who it had just before marked as its leader in the most profound of ways. Christ referred to this paradox and existentially human psychic tug-of-war in his analogy to the green versus dried or brown bough. If, he suggested, humans can evidence such swings of behavior when the palm fronds covering the streets of Jerusalem spread in homage and honor to him remain fresh, imagine what they might embrace as those branches, and the capacity for choice and the consciences they represent by analogy, wither and die. In this sense, Christ’s is a story of humanity’s innate capacity for moral equivocation and betrayal and of the waning and accompanying potential for the death of individual and collective ethical imagination and consciousness in the face of fear and demagogic claims. Christ warned that this omnipresent possibility of journey to darkness, once embraced, has no definable end point. His own death and its preamble of mockery and brutishness offered a tragic example of what he argued would always be a possible human prospect of depravity.  Nonetheless, his ministry also emphasized that such need not occur per se and that humans should aspire instead to the best of which they are capable, and he preached redemption and salvation. That is, these potentials together constitute the spectrum of individual and social possibility and humankind may always choose among them.   

By analogy, this narrative warns devotees of self-governance of the fragile reed on which their enterprise is situated. Put differently, this archetypal journey reminds those who would secure democratically maintained freedom that they must remain vigilant about ensuring the moral deliberative possibility of the populace on which they have chosen to rely and of trends, beliefs and rationalizations that might usurp that capacity. With this in mind, it is worthwhile to point to three current examples of these potentials that should signal alarm among friends of self-governance, irrespective of their partisanship.

First, consider the view advanced by a share of self-proclaimed Christian zealots that God ordained President Donald Trump’s narrow Electoral College victory in 2016. Voiced most fantastically by the President’s spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in late January, it amounts to an apostasy of Christian theology of the highest order, “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times and I think that He wanted Donald Trump to become president."[2]  Many Republicans agree with her, with almost half of such self-professed partisans taking that stance.[3] It is important in light of this remarkable assertion to remind oneself that Jesus Christ, whom these individuals purport to embrace, was an advocate of the poor and vulnerable, while Trump has sought systematically to attack those populations. Christ was also a principled proponent of acceptance of difference while Trump has sought to mobilize voters by persecuting and polarizing on the basis of difference, including especially, immigrants, African Americans and, to a lesser extent and ironically, Jews. Finally, it is worth pointing up how many individuals associated with this administration are now in jail, under indictment or under investigation on a variety of corruption charges. As The New York Times columnist Timothy Egan has recently observed,  

No one can know what’s in Trump’s heart. But his policies are inhumane in the extreme. Cursed are the meek, for under Trump’s command, children have been put in cages, and the poor in red states are denied the health care that should be available to them under Obamacare. … Trump is all about self. His bigotry, his boasting, his lies, his pride, his scams of the vulnerable, his worship of materialism, his insults of the dead, his turning a blind eye to refugees, his bragging of adulterous behavior, his treatment of ‘the least’ among us — all of this is antithetical to Christian philosophy.[4]

Second, Trump’s Department of Homeland Security leaders, among many other choices

they have made further to the president’s stance that “America is full” and will accept few immigrants and refugees, decided on March 8, 2019 not to renew Temporary Protected Status for those fleeing war-and corruption-afflicted South Sudan. That decision, rightly called “morally reprehensible,” by Anna Gallagher, the executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, cruelly and without justification leaves those seeking to escape the horrors now afoot in that nation much more vulnerable to the violent chaos and dangers occurring there.[5] That choice is a symptom of the abstract hatred that Trump has curried in the name of fear throughout his tenure in the presidency. As he has done so, and simultaneously attacked the rule of law and of freedom of speech and religion, he has asked his followers to accept a callous disregard for the principles of their regime. So far, at least, they have continued to support whatever cruelties he wishes to inflict on targeted populations, irrespective of their implications for civil or human rights or for, indeed, their own individual liberties. It is unclear what amoral or immoral stance he could adopt that would provoke them to behave more deliberatively. Nevertheless, and paradoxically, our nation’s self-governance project ultimately depends on just such prudential reflection.

A final example of the undermining of considered possibility in our body politic involved Trump’s recent decision to represent that Congressperson Ilhan Omar (D-MN.) condoned the violence and deaths arising from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. He did so by retweeting a doctored video that suggested she had embraced that stance.[6] She has never adopted that position and does not now do so, but because she is Muslim and a frequent critic of his policies, Trump chose to attack her as a symbol of Islam, which he has told his followers they should fear per se and which he has broadly condemned on similar grounds in his immigration policies. Trump’s act was at once an example of hate-filled fearmongering, an implicit assault on the Congressperson’s right to free speech and an outright lie. It has nonetheless been adopted by many GOP partisans wishing to use Trump’s animosity-fueled mobilization strategy to address concerns that their immigration and refugee policies are violating Constitutional premises and rights as well as long standing United States human rights treaty obligations. Trump’s action was heinous and reckless, and to the extent it elicits the support of partisans of his party, it may not only endanger the congresswoman personally, but also will result in an erosion of the civil liberties of all Americans.

There is no cure for the democratic disease and ugly narrative that Trump has unleashed in the U.S., short of continued efforts to call out his lies and othering for what they are. It is important in this respect to recall that millions of Americans are seeking daily personally to help the poor and vulnerable and to ensure that their governments do so, and are seeking, too, to ensure that the civil and human rights of minorities, refugees and immigrants are respected and that their claims are considered probatively by our policy and legal actors. While, by analogy to the Christological archetypal narrative, Trump is surely leading the cry, “Give us Barabbas,” millions of Americans have not joined that cruelly rationalizing and scapegoating throng. Our nation’s capacity to escape still deeper ignominy and loss of governance capacity depends on that population, and on the hope that those now supporting actions that ultimately will result only in the diminution of their own freedom will soon awake from their thrall.

Notes

[1] Hartman, Louis, et al., Eds., The New American Bible, South Bend, Indiana: Greenlawn Press, 1991, Luke 23:28-31, p.1132.

[2] Brody, David. “White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders: ‘God wanted Donald Trump to become President,’” Christian Broadcast Network News.com, January 30, 2019, https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/politics/2019/january/exclusive-white-house-press-secretary-sarah-sanders-god-wanted-donald-trump-to-become-president  Accessed April 14, 2019.

[3] Kamisar, Ben. “One Quarter of Registered Voters, Almost Half of Republicans, believe God wanted Trump to Win 2016 Election,” NBC News, February 14, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/card/one-quarter-registered-voters-almost-half-republicans-believe-god-wanted-n971706  Accessed April 14, 2019. 

[4] Egan, Timothy. “How to Break the Republican Lock on God,” The New York Times, April 12, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/12/opinion/stacy-abrams-pete-buttigieg.html Accessed April 14, 2019.

[5] Pattison, Mark. “New Head of Catholic Immigration Agency is Experienced Litigator,” Crux, April 2, 2019, https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-usa/2019/04/02/new-head-of-catholic-immigration-agency-is-experienced-litigator/ Accessed April 14, 2019.

[6] Associated Press, “Dems Defend Omar after Trump retweets video Against Her,” April 13, 2019, https://finance.yahoo.com/news/trump-tweets-video-edited-suggest-omar-dismissive-9-230329532--politics.html . Accessed April 13, 2019. 

Publication Date

April 22, 2019

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