Forward in the New Reality

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to sneak out of town with my partner for a getaway weekend. Ready to relax and just read a magazine for a change, I sat down with the one copy of the New Yorker that I had managed to grab while rushing out the door. Then I opened the magazine. The Politics Issue. The whole magazine was about the election. I briefly considered a ritual burning. The presidential race was wearing me out even then, before any of us knew what we know now.

I did not set the magazine on fire, nor, to my surprise, did I set it aside. Instead, I found myself drawn into a photo essay. It was about first-time voters from around the country. Each voter, ranging in age from 18 to 72, was pictured next to a quote about the presidential candidate they had decided on. And I found myself most interested in the stories of three young voters, two 20-year-olds and an 18-year-old. They lived in Kentucky, Colorado, and Missouri, and they were all planning to vote for the candidate who, as it turned out, won the election.

I have a lot of hard-right relatives in my extended family. So while I didn’t know these Trump voters personally, they were not totally unfamiliar. I found the minister part of me wanting to reach out to them with care, and the former journalist part of me wanting to share some information with them. And so I started writing imaginary letters to the three of them.

The 20-year-old guy in Kentucky was a coal miner. He was voting for the pro-carbon candidate to try to save his job and his town. In my letter to him, I explained that my uncles had worked in iron mines and paper mills, and that whenever I go back to where my mom grew up, there’s always another empty storefront; it’s so different from the community I used to visit as a kid. But I also wrote that coal was never going to be great again, and praised his decision to take college courses, because the global market has collapsed. I mentioned that one of the other candidates actually had a plan to help Coal Country make a transition, and I asked him to give it some thought.

The 20-year-old in Colorado was a welder who was working on a bridge. He was voting for the pro-gun candidate because he and people he knew hunted elk and deer for food; they were able to get enough meat in their freezer to skip buying beef at the store for a year. In my letter, I told him about the many hunters in my family, how it was not unusual to find a deer hanging in my grandpa’s garage in November, and how none of the meat went to waste. And I told him that no one running for president had any interest in taking away guns for hunting wildlife; that those of us who are concerned about urban violence and mass shootings had other kinds of guns in mind, to keep people from hunting each other. I also pointed out that, if his future employment as a welder was a concern, some political parties tended to be more open to public-works spending than others, and I hoped he would give it some thought.

The 18-year-old in Missouri voted as she did because 1) she was opposed to abortion and 2) she felt lied to by Hillary Clinton, and, she said, “I hate being lied to.” In my letter, I  explained, with kindness, that, if reducing the number of abortions was important to her, health care and family planning access work very well toward that goal, and that she should research which candidate would do best in that area. And I directed her to a couple of websites that kept close track of the number of lies each candidate had told during the campaign. I hoped she would take a look and give it some thought.

I really did type out these letters on my laptop, to these young adults who probably got most of their information from political ads on TV, who didn’t have conversations with liberals in their daily lives, whose main reasons for voting the way they did had nothing to do with building a wall or excluding Muslims. These three should not in any way be given a pass for their disregard for the lives of so many other people. But their reasoning does help explain how we got to where are.

We cannot blame the outcome of this election solely on blue-collar white people who voted for Trump any more than we can blame it solely on the white-collar white people who voted for him, or on the millions of left-leaning people who stayed home. This national tragedy was complex and multifaceted, with voter suppression, voter apathy, and the complacency of the comfortable playing major roles.

I must count myself among the comfortable and complacent. These letters I wrote before the election, I was thinking that I might post them on my blog, just to see what would happen – maybe they’d go viral and change a mind or two. But they didn’t seem essential, so they stayed in my computer. Just like I stayed in my house instead of door-knocking. The polling was looking pretty good. How many people would really vote for someone like that?

Well, now we know. And I can hardly look back at the pictures from Tuesday afternoon, photos of smiling friends with their “I voted” stickers, photos of 100-year-old women in pantsuits casting their vote for the first woman president. Photos that are now somewhat heartbreaking. Photos that now feel so distant that they may as well be black and white.

That’s one of the things that  grief does to our minds. Grief warps time, and it fuels our regrets; it makes us furious and steals our sleep. The grieving people I minister to usually have experienced the death of a loved one, but the symptoms of grief are similar regardless of the source of the sense of loss. The strong feeling of there being a “before” and an “after” is the same. I have been recognizing my own deep grief this week, and I see it in many of the people I know here in my deep blue city and in the deep blue congregation I serve.

The things being grieved are real. They go beyond feelings of safety or a sense of having lost the country we thought we knew, and losing the world we hoped to see. I like to be reassuring and positive whenever I can – hope is part of my job. But I cannot stand up here today and assure you that everything is going to be OK, that everyone will be fine, that love always wins. We are evidence-based around here, and the evidence is not looking good right now.

There’s been a spike in hate crimes and hate speech in just these past five days. People of color and immigrants and our LGBTQ neighbors are living with new levels of fear, fear of citizens and government alike. Women and girls, never truly safe to begin with, are on heightened alert, with an unrepentant sexual predator on his way to the highest office in the land. The very functioning of our democracy and the functioning of our press are at risk. And I can barely talk about what’s going to happen to the earth. Most of the coastal counties from Corpus Christi all the way around Florida to the Virginia state line voted to put a climate denier in the White House. They voted to let their own communities drown.

We as a country, as a whole, have never been here before, nothing even close in modern times. But other nations, many other nations, have been where we are right now. And there are groups within our own country that are less shocked than others. Groups that have had justifiably low expectations from white-dominated America for a very long time.

I want to share with you a series of posts by an African-American writer who goes by 5’7 Black Male on Twitter. Here’s what he has to say:

This feeling you have right now. Amazement that the country could be so short-sighted, that it could embrace hate so tightly?  Welcome. This despair and dread you feel. The indignation,  the bewilderment, the hurt, powerlessness, the fear for family and livelihood?  Welcome. That knot in your stomach, that feeling of heartache? That uncertainty about your safety? The deep sense of fundamental injustice?  Welcome. I do not say this to diminish what you feel today.  What you feel is real and valid.  I’m giving you an opportunity to truly empathize. For it is the lack of that empathy that allowed America to shrug as the marginalized shouted warnings.

I’ve read similar thoughts from Native Americans. And Alice Walker, the African-American novelist and humanist, wrote this the other day: “How to survive dictatorship: That is what much of the rest of the world has had to learn. Our country has imposed this condition on so many places and peoples around the globe it is naive to imagine we would avoid it. Besides, do Native Americans and African American descendants of enslaved people not realize they have never lived in anything but a dictatorship?”

So there are plenty of people in America who have felt powerlessness, who have had to learn resilience and survival, who have planted a beautiful garden in the backyard when it wasn’t safe to sit on the front porch. What has just happened in America has never happened here before, except since the beginning, it has always been happening to some of our people. American authoritarianism was not invented on Nov. 8; it was revealed anew.

So there are people to learn from and things to learn, be they strategies for bringing about change, or tactics for preserving one’s dignity and human spirit. A blog post with the title “I Know What to Do” was written in response to the election by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones, a United Church of Christ minister. “I know what to do…” he writes. “I know, because I’ve done it before. I lived as a very public gay man in the state of Oklahoma during a time when a state legislator said we were worse than terrorists, and the Aryan Brotherhood murdered a gay man in a horrific hate crime.” Rev. Jones says he and his partner received death threats and were denounced by name in the state Republican Platform, yet they still chose to get married in a public park with 200 guests for all to see. “Every day I lived with hope, courage, and integrity, refusing to let others define me or rob me of my power and my voice,” he writes. “I insisted upon my right to be equal and free and worked tirelessly on behalf of my community, in the face of overwhelming opposition and a climate of terror and violence.”

So, there are some strong people out there. And there are strong people in here. Some know it; some don’t realize that they have always been strong; some have not had much chance to prove it. We are now going to have plenty of chances, opportunities we didn’t want but opportunities that are arriving. Opportunities to show up and support people we know and people we don’t; to stand up for ourselves; to speak up for institutions that have never been perfect or fair for everyone, but that are so much better than some of the options we are facing.

From afar Americans had witnessed the Prague Spring and the Arab Spring, and now we here at home are looking at something that’s going in the opposite direction, something of an American Winter. A freezing or reversing of freedoms, a chilling of free speech, a time when new things do not grow, a time when our reserves of energy and hope may become depleted. A hard frost that few saw coming has suddenly plunged us into a different season.

But here’s the thing about winter. We here in Minnesota know how to survive a winter. We know that winter is not a season of growth, but we know how to keep living things safe until the warmth returns. We know to keep an eye on our neighbors, to make sure they have what they need, to offer them a jump-start or a push when they get stuck, and to accept their help when we ourselves are digging out. We know the importance of not letting the harsh reality outside dim our inner light. And we know that beauty and joy can always be found and celebrated, even on the coldest days.

So we know winter, and we know what to do. But there are some things we can’t afford to do as this American winter settles in. We simply can’t hunker down and stay home and wait this out. Yes, we need to grieve and heal and take care of ourselves, but those of us with the option to retreat cannot do so for the next two or four years. The stakes are too high.

If we choose passivity, we will contribute to the normalizing of this situation, to the idea that this is just another president, another transition. The Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole, writing in this weekend’s New York Times, pointed out that People magazine is already running photo spreads of the Trumps in the White House, with headlines describing the pictures as “way too cute.” We are already being asked to cuddle up to the family of a demagogue. Cole writes:

Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else. This is not a process that began a week or month or year ago. It did not begin with drone assassinations, or with the war on Iraq. Evil has always been here. But now it has taken on a totalitarian tone.

America does have a long history of normalizing evil. It’s normal to restrict black people to one part of town and to fill our prisons with them. It’s normal for misery to prevail on native reservations, normal for Americans to fill their closets with clothes made by modern-day slaves on other shores, normal to pump untold tons of carbon into the air. We must resist this latest attempt to normalize evil.

And while I know we need to grieve and take care of ourselves, we can only resist and bring about change by getting out of the house. The safety pin telling others that you are a safe person for immigrants to interact with won’t work in your living room. The Kentucky coal miner and the Colorado bridge welder, as well as the Wisconsin factory worker and the Minnesota farmer, felt seen and heard by Donald Trump because so many other Americans stopped coming by or looked away. The kinds of one-on-one conversations across political divides that helped stop Minnesota’s marriage amendment four years ago did not happen on any kind of scale this time. They were replaced, with great futility, by angry Facebook exchanges and family members blocking each other’s pages. We have to find new ways, or go back to old ways, of acknowledging and understanding one another’s realities, rather than reinforcing the limited realities we each live in. Relationships need to happen. And we somehow have to get across the idea that it’s a small group of people at the top who are responsible for the false scarcity and destructive infighting among all the rest of us.

So we need to show up. Not just virtually by pushing the “like” button, but really show up in our physical bodies – at a fund-raiser for Syrian refugees, at a rally to preserve reproductive freedom, at a gathering to celebrate trans lives, at a protest to stop private prisons. Showing up has been the work of the few. In an America where the ways of governing have been upended, showing up needs to be the work of the many. As we continue to grieve, it would be best if we grieved in motion.

Before I close, I want to talk a bit about hope. It’s a hard feeling to come by right now, for reasons that are very  real. But I was reminded in recent days of the work of Joanna Macy, who wrote a book that some of you have read, called Active Hope. She defines hope not as something you feel, but as something you do.

“Active Hope is a practice,” she writes. “Like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have. It is a process we can apply to any situation, and it involves three key steps.

“First, we take a clear view of reality; second, we identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we’d like things to move in or the values we’d like to see expressed; and third, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction.

“Since Active Hope doesn’t require our optimism, we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on our intention and let it be our guide.”

As we head forward into this uncharted new reality, may our intentions be our guide. May love be our guide. May we stay at each other’s sides, and be with those in greatest need. May we grieve in motion and in solidarity. Together, courageously, is the only way.

This text was originally delivered at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis on November 13, 2016. Audio and PDF versions available here.


America: Mixed feelings and the challenge to be great

Federal tax rules keep ministers from saying very much about political candidates, but I am allowed to talk about hats. And there’s a certain cap I’d like to discuss.

Perhaps you’ve seen this one up close at a recent family reunion. It says “Make America Great Again,” and it’s inspired a number of variations, such as “Make Baseball Fun Again” (cry for help?) and “Make America Great Britain Again” (history majors = clever).

But not all the variations are light-hearted. A young New York resident named Krystal Lake custom-ordered a hat saying “America Was Never Great.” She wore it to work, and a photo of her went viral, with predictable results. Because her hat spoke a truth: There are large groups of Americans for whom America has not really ever been great. African-Americans, women, GLBTQ folks like myself, and many others do not pine for days of yore. Nostalgia is often a privilege of the privileged.

My (American) calendar tells me it’s Memorial Day, a holiday created not for mattress sales or cabin trips, but rather so we might honor or at least think about our war dead. It’s an appropriate weekend to do some serious reflection on our large, messy, gorgeous experiment of a country, a country that seems to be in the midst of a harrowing and sometimes sinister identity crisis. It can be hard to know how to feel about a nation that gets so much right and has gotten so much wrong.

The truth is I’m actually 75 percent in agreement with the original hat. The first three words, “Make America Great,” are something I can get behind. We should all work to make the whole world great, and greatness itself is not a bad thing.

The problem is that conversations about America’s greatness can deteriorate very quickly, such as when we label ourselves as “the greatest nation on earth.” Any country’s assertion of superiority or supremacy is dangerous, misguided, zero-sum tribalism. And by many measures of human well-being, America’s “greatest” status is demonstrably untrue.

Greatness has been a justification for so many of America’s wrong turns. We’re invading because it’s our job as the greatest to try to fix things. We must know best. “The greatest” also can serve as a slippery military recruitment tool. You want to sign up to serve the country that’s the greatest, especially if you end up sacrificing a limb, your mental health, or your life. In the struggle to make meaning out of war, violence, and death, there can be a strong desire to believe that the suffering and loss happened in the service of something great. It can be shattering for veterans and survivors to realize that the greatness wasn’t true, and for them to have to live with the ways that America fails to care for those who have served it.

For Americans with no direct military ties, seeing our country as the greatest can play a different role. If we’re the greatest, there’s no reason to strive for change, ask hard questions, or even vote. Americans who struggle must be flawed, not the systems of our great nation. The complacent consumers and compliant citizens among us can be content to think that they’re part of the best, viewing their own comfortable lives as proof.

The biggest question to ask about the famous hat is, “Great again for whom?” I get an understanding of the answer whenever I drive through my mom’s hometown – past the site of the motel that has been chopped up and carted away, the bars that used to open every afternoon, the gas stations now abandoned, the industrial sites now shuttered. Even the newer motel, the one I stayed in a year ago for my uncle’s funeral, has gone out of business. The town’s working-class people never got rich, but they have seen better times – earlier, more prosperous decades when America seemed greater to them than it does now.

Feelings about one’s country are rarely separate from what one has seen with one’s own eyes. And if I paid attention to only my own life story, I really should think America is the greatest. I grew up in the middle of the middle class; I went to good public schools and a good public university; I’ve never been laid off. Although being gay did reduce some options for me, particularly in terms where I felt I could live openly, my privileges helped me find safe places to be. And in one way, being gay was for me a privilege: it exempted me from any risk of getting caught up in America’s military adventurism.

Eventually, I came around to the idea that, even though I personally was fine with the Pentagon’s exclusions, they were unfair and harmful to many GLBTQ people. And militarism was nevertheless taking a huge toll, overseas and at home, particularly in less prosperous communities where they don’t need a holiday to be reminded about casualties.

I came around on these issues because I had eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart to feel what other people were going through. Ambiguous, grown-up, complicated feelings about one’s country come from understanding the miseries caused by American policies and actions, both within our borders and well beyond them, and understanding how all that co-exists with all the goodness that Americans have done and can do.

Global perspectives also help with seeing all sides. I remember trying to explain to my partner’s Swedish cousins the concept of college tuition. Why would you have that? they asked. The government funds the university, there’s nothing more to pay. In another conversation, we learned that school lunch is free across Sweden. We explained that, in America, some students get free or discounted lunches, depending on family income, while other kids pay full price. You shame the poor by requiring them to prove their poverty? In a word, yes. We shared the chagrin and explained that American culture puts a high value on wealthy people being able to keep the money they’ve amassed, and that Americans tend to have an underlying suspicion that the poor deserve their fate. There’s nothing great about all that.

I had no idea at the time, but our conversations could have been straight out of Michael Moore’s 2015 movie “Where to Invade Next,” in which residents of places like Norway and Italy give Moore baffled looks when he asks about the dearth of guns or hands them photos of American school lunches. (“Frankly, that’s not food,” says a school chef in France.)

The movie has many hilarious moments. But it’s also utterly heartbreaking for anyone who understands America’s unrealized potential. We have the wealth but not the will. We have made an idol out of a disconnected, consumption-based concept of freedom. And radical individualism and a valorization of greed and violence have damaged so much of our shared life.

Critical thinkers in the United States have long been told to “love it or leave it” – a simplistic false choice that omits the option of making America into something better. If we didn’t love it at all, if we didn’t feel at least some way at home here, if we didn’t have any hope whatsoever for the USA, maybe more of us with means and privileges would try to leave. Google searches for “moving to Canada” have spiked, but becoming expats is not something that most of us are going to do.

One thing we can do is continue to be keepers of the truth, and to support media and educational institutions that deal in facts and support critical thought. The truth is in grave danger; facts are losing ground to emotion and identity in shaping Americans’ views of public figures and major issues. Earlier this month, Marty Baron, the editor of the Washington Post, implored Americans to ask ourselves: “How can we have a functioning democracy when we cannot agree on the most basic facts?” It’s a fair, and scary, question.

We can start by making sure we’re being truthful with ourselves. As Moore says in his film: “The first step to recovery, the first step to being a better person, or a better country, is to be able to just stand up and honestly say who and what you are. I am an American. I live in a great country that was born in genocide and built on the backs of slaves.” Acknowledging such truths can inform our decisions as citizens and allow us to live with the ambiguity and live with integrity.

The second thing we can do is to remember that positive change is possible. I’ve already mentioned the sweeping legal advances for GLBT people. Awareness of the problems with racialized policing is at an all-time high. We are on the cusp of seeing our first female major-party presidential nominee. Such stories of human progress are good to keep in mind in times like these.

And we should remember that the problems are usually interconnected. Economic inequality makes it easier to recruit lower-income Americans into the military. Public military spending boosts corporate profits. Private profits fund the campaigns of politicians who see nothing wrong with inequality or war. Around and around these things go, systemic cycles of greed and exploitation, grinding up communities and individual lives. It usually takes some concerned citizens or civic-minded public officials to throw a wrench into the works, in the form of a lawsuit, or legislation, or protest.

The gears may not come to a halt immediately – in fact, it can take generations. But the work of change is worth doing. And there’s no one but us to try to make America truly great, for all, for the very first time.

Getting back into it

Writing really only happens for me if there’s an element of relationship, if there’s at least a chance of knocking over a domino or flicking on a light bulb in someone else’s brain. Secret diaries are not my thing.

So I’m back at blogging, after a six-year break. This time around, I’m not writing on someone else’s dime, so I have the freedom to tackle anything that feels interesting or important — current events, ethics, politics, theology, the human experience.

There will also be mediocre photos and no small amount of silliness.

An editor once said to me, upon reading one of my beginnings, “I didn’t know where you were going, but I wanted to go with you.” Maybe you’ll feel that way, too. Time to give it a spin.

Me, on a Colorado playground, 2014.