A New Normal

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During the presidential campaign, there was much talk about attempts by some to "normalize" the jarringly disrespectful, offensive, and threatening words being spoken by one of the nominees for president.  As the campaign progressed, very few escaped the ire and fire of the candidate’s rhetoric. Women, Muslims, Mexican immigrants, Mexican-Americans, Refugees, African-Americans, LGBTQ persons, the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, political dissenters, those uprising and crying out and publicly demonstrating for justice: each had their turn(s) in the scope of his bombastic attacks.  While the institutional guardians of our society struggled to keep up with the requisite fact-checking, questioning, and calling to account, allies of the candidate launched defenses at every turn, seeking to normalize his speech and actions as in the past, or just campaign rhetoric, or as being representative of what some secret supermajority of Americans actually thought and/or believed.  It was near impossible to keep up.

And then, on November 8, 2016, the candidate was elected president.  He was legally elected president by accumulating victories in enough states for a decisive win in the Electoral College. Overnight, the task of resistance to his dark and dividing vision for America increased exponentially.  In our country, a candidate's electoral victory has historically afforded an inherent and significant credit toward normalizing the rhetoric, values, and platform of his (sic.) campaign.  Now, Mr. Trump is President Trump. 

In some quarters of our society, it appears at least for now that much of the denigrating and bullying language of the candidate is becoming somewhat normalized in the national consciousness.  A path has been cleared to build on his rhetoric toward executive and legislative actions that endanger our vulnerable neighbors, threaten our fundamental rights, and stir up unprecedented domestic and international strife. 

In the immediate post-election, I was struck by the statistic that approximately 80% of Evangelical Christians voted for the new president.  For now, that statistic seems to be holding, with most of those continuing to support the president as he releases executive actions against nearly every group threatened during the campaign.  This unwavering support among a segment of people claiming the mantle of Christian is perhaps as concerning to me, a person who seeks to live as a Christian in this world, as almost anything else. I have been pondering the relationship a Christian should have with the political powers of society. 

All of this—the election, the new multifaceted direction of national policy under our newly inaugurated president, and my bewilderment at the level and tenacity of support for these changes by those claiming Christianity—has led me to take stock and engage in my own repentance.  For me, this work is fundamental to moving forward as a faithful Christian and a loyal American.

In the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist and then Jesus both proclaim: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Those words traveled to the ears of a people living subject to an empire that was both hostile and accommodating to their increasingly deferential religion.  Empire is almost always willing to accommodate religion that is agreeable to negotiating and compromising itself into compliance with the norms of the government.  But the compromise inevitably leads to a dilution of the religion’s own core identity, values, and purpose.  

In light of the current political circumstances, I’ve been meditating on these words: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near, and their implications for living as a Christian in America.

What is this kingdom (metaphor of patriarchy and power excepted) of which John and Jesus speak, and how am I to embrace it while continuing to live as a US citizen with rights and responsibilities pertaining?  I look to Jesus and note that his way is radically opposed to the ways of the political system that surrounds me.  This Sunday, we’ll hear from the passage in Matthew’s Gospel often referred to as the beatitudes.  In this short text alone, we encounter a dizzying list of values that appear to directly contradict the rhetoric and actions of our new government: blessed are the poor, are those who mourn, are the meek, are the hungry and thirsty, are the merciful, are the pure in heart, are the peacemakers, are the persecuted for standing for what is right.  A good, peaceable kingdom is at hand, available in this world and shaping the way we live in it.  This very proclamation is an inherent indictment against other ways of living, devoid of faith, hope, and love.

I must repent.

Repentance means turning.  It is a turning from, and a turning toward.  It is more than a letting go of things in the past.  Repentance is a conscious choice, movement away from a life based on what has proven to be an inferior set of values, toward a new way that holds better promise. When Jesus calls those within his hearing to repent, he is promising a better way than the negotiated compromises between empire and subjects. Hope for true justice, righteousness, and peace motivates my turning.  At first the new orientation feels a bit strange, absent the fear, shame, and hiding characteristic of other kingdoms.  But, over time, with intentionality and faithfulness, faith, hope, and love become the new normal in our experience and alignment.  I am being converted.

For me, the new normal is an old normal.  It is the normal behavior of one who is striving to follow Jesus in this world, and not drawing one’s values from the latest political wave or demagogue’s tirade.  The calling to be Christian means that I live a set of values that resist any normalization of a kingdom based on fear, hate, or selfishness.

I am learning to be a Christian in America.

Beginning Sunday, February 12 at 5 p.m., St. Stephen's will be offering a three-week Epiphany series of prayer, Eucharist, and discussion, called “Christians in America: Are We in Exile?” Each week we will be sharing readings and questions to prime our discussion. The clergy will take turns blogging here on these themes.  We hope you will join us to worship and explore these important subjects in our time.