The Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar has done us a great service. They asked various Zen Buddhist teachers to write some kind of response/advice for people who have experienced post-election trauma in terms of fear, shock, anxiety, and especially feelings of hatred and anger. Here is the link to all that:
Most of the stuff is good basic stuff and helpful to a greater or lesser degree. Some of it borders on the platitudinous or is too vague to be helpful. And some is seriously inadequate: “Be kind to yourself” is not a “bullseye,” nor does it even hit the target. After having said all this, I look around at various Catholic publications, especially the National Catholic Reporter, and I see nothing like this at all. You would think they would round up a bunch of Catholic progressives, lay and religious, and ask them to voice some advice on where we go from here. So far I have not seen anything. I guess it’s just business as usual with us Catholics.
Returning to the Lion’s Roar collection, what bothers me most of all about it is one missing word in the collection, a very important word: RESISTANCE. Wisdom about hope and healing is good and important, but ultimately that is an inadequate response. In fact I don’t believe you can have authentic hope or real healing until you are engaged in resistance. Indeed, the best way to deal with that post-election trauma is to commit oneself to resistance. Our mentors in such times as these should be, of course, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, among others. Next, the questions arise: resistance to what? Resistance how?
Resistance to what? That’s not hard to see. Our environment is under serious threat; many of our fellow human beings are under threat in various ways; the very social fabric of a decent life is under dire threat. We have to meet each of these threats with the proper medicine. The country is divided in an alarming way, and there is a large segment that seems blind to the dangers we are facing. In their blindness they can cause even more damage and hurt. In so many ways this did not begin on election day but has been an ongoing story for very long. It’s just that election day has brought a new urgency to the situation. And by the way, even if Clinton had won the election the call for resistance would still have been necessary but not so clearly obvious at first. There would have been relief at first, celebration, and then the real appointments and policies would have unfolded and if you were a keen observer of the scene you would have noticed some disturbing signs. These “centrist Democrats” have a way of hiding their damage. Consider this example from the Obama Administration. A very little known, very little covered in the media move by this Administration was the signing into law Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act. This overturns the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act which prohibited the military from acting as a domestic police force. So now this permits the military to carry out what are called “extraordinary renditions” of U.S. citizens, strip them of due process and hold them indefinitely in military detention centers. Centrist Democrats say they are against rounding up of immigrants and putting Moslems in internment camps (like the Japanese, American citizens, who were interned during World War II), but this Obama move simply prepares the ground for such actions.
Resistance how? Ah, this is the truly tough one! Our fellow neighbors, our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings are the agents of these threats. What we cannot and must not do in our resistance is to demonize these people. This is what the Lion’s Roar contributors seriously missed–the key question in all this is how to engage in resistance without demonizing the other? To advise “love” is just too vague and doesn’t deal with the real situation of the real evil that people can and will do. As Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima admonished (and this was one of Dorothy Day’s favorite quotes), real love is a harsh and hard reality that will take its toll on you….not just a nice feeling you have for others…which will evaporate like a mist once you are “slapped down.” The temptation and lure of scorn, derision, rejection and even hatred for that “other,” then, is very real–and found quite a lot in political progressive discourse these days– and can hide under the banner of “resisting evil,” but that is not the way of real spiritual maturity. But let’s be clear about this: in this regard we are all “beginners,” “learners,” “mere toddlers learning how to walk.” This is very deep stuff and let no one think he/she has a handle on it–but we can support and encourage each other on this path. “Stronger Together,” as someone recently said!! Let’s look at this a bit more in detail.
The obligation to resistance is truly there, but the concrete shape it takes in a given life will of course vary quite a bit. A contemplative monk will not normally engage in the same day-to-day activities as one whose real calling is to be a social activist. There may be times and circumstances where the difference between the two will be indistinguishable, but here we are simply talking about a whole life path. For a contemplative monk there are two dangers that must be avoided, two pitfalls that must be navigated around. One is the idea that the monk must drop his contemplative way of life and proceed to the barricades of protest. It makes no sense for the monk to lose the very essence of what he/she is about, abandoning that silence and solitude that marks their life and which in fact is the deepest ground of all resistance to real evil; there is no sense in the monk tossing aside his/hers very real and very precious contribution to the Church and to all of humanity in that very solitude and silence. No need to go into that here; we can discuss this at another time. I must say that in my own experience of monastic life I don’t think this was ever a real danger with the majority of monastic people. Very few monks were ever tempted this way; the majority of people who left monastic life since the ‘60s left mostly because they discovered that was not their real path.
Now the other danger is the very real one and the more serious one: to think that in monastic life you are “above” all that stuff, that you are “immune” to its dangers, that only the “inner life” matters, etc. It is an interesting dualism that was at one time prevalent and still is present among Catholic monastics: “the world,” and “monastic life.” In a context of a society that is difficult to come to terms with, where life is lived in a complex and problematic way and ambiguous to the nth degree, where people seem to have so many mixed motivations, etc., etc., the lure to withdraw into a purely interior world or at best deal only with the people in your own life, well, that is a problem that is truly there. And you can see a bit of this in the Buddhist contributors also.
For contemplative monastics Merton issued many warnings about a false contemplative stance where the monks claimed an “innocence” from all that stuff. Here is one pertinent quote:
“The contemplative life is not, and cannot be, a mere withdrawal, a pure negation, a turning of one’s back on the world with its sufferings, its crises, its confusions and its errors. First of all, the attempt itself would be illusory. No person can withdraw completely from the society of his fellow men; and the monastic community is deeply implicated, for better or for worse, in the economic, political, and social structures of the contemporary world. To forget or to ignore this does not absolve the monk from responsibility for participation in events in which his very silence and ‘not knowing’ may constitute a form of complicity. The mere fact of ‘ignoring’ what goes on can become a political decision. Too often it has happened that contemplative communities in Europe, whose individual members were absorbed in otherworldly recollection, have officially and publicly given support to totalitarian movements. In such cases it can ultimately be said that the monk in his liturgy, in his study or in his contemplation is actually participating in things he congratulates himself on having renounced…. The monastic flight from the world into the desert is not a mere refusal to know anything about the world, but a total rejection of all standards of judgment which imply attachment to a history of delusion, egoism and sin. Not of course a vain denial that the monk too is a sinner (this would be an even worse delusion), but a definitive refusal to participate in those activities which have no other fruit than to prolong the reign of untruth, greed, cruelty and arrogance in the world of men…. The adversary is not time, not history, but the evil will and the accumulated inheritance of past untruth and past sin. This evil the monk must see. He must even denounce it, if others fail to do so. What is the meaning of this ‘denunciation’? Is it to be regarded as a political act in the sense of an expressed determination to influence politics? Perhaps indirectly so. I speak not only as a monk but also as a responsible citizen of a very powerful nation. However, it is not my intention to imply that a state which is, and should be, secular, has to be guided by the perspectives of an eschatological Church. But I do intend to say at what point I and Christians who think as I do become morally obligated to dissent.”
At this point we are still at this dilemma: how does a contemplative (and so many others also, who may be obligated by family responsibilities, for example) practice resistance? No easy answers here. Mostly you have to look into your own heart and your own circumstances and be very attentive to what you can and should do or say. Resistance can begin with a lot of little things; and most of all resistance has to become a state of mind. Example: years ago we all wondered how ever would the gruesome Soviet empire get taken down? Very little known at first, there were Russians who were beginning to practice a refusal to cooperate with the State, artists and poets at first, then many others. This grew into a tidal wave by the 1970s, and these people even got their own name: refusniks! They refused to support the brutal State in whatever way they could. By the early 1980s this State was crumbling. Ignorant American media attributed this to the Reagan “hard line,” but it was decades of inner sacrifice and courage and determination by millions to derail the machinery of oppression by simply refusing to cooperate with it.
Another example–this time of what could have been/should have been: Standing Rock. We all know what is going on there. Native Americans planting the seed of what might become a major movement. It made me wonder….why did not all the Trappist monasteries at least issue a statement in support of these people. That might have jolted the Catholic population. Even more interesting and potent would have been if all the monastic groups would have sent a delegation of several dozen monks to join the Native American protestors on the front lines. Gosh, these monks go to all kinds of nice conferences and gatherings–doesn’t seem to bother their “contemplation” to do that, so why not to Standing Rock. It would have been noticed, believe me! Come to think of it, it probably would have been even better if they had networked with Buddhists, Sufis and others, all these together would be present at the side of these Native Americans. And I think they were badly needed. Recently I read that a lot of whites have come who are treating this like a Burning Man gathering, hanging out and smoking pot, and not participating in a disciplined way in the protest. This is troubling to the Native American leadership as it adds to their concerns. This is an extremely important point: nonviolent protest has to be disciplined, focused, not just a “happening.” Monks would have been a good presence.
By the way, here is a link to a nice video presentation of Chris Hedges doing a report on Standing Rock:
Let’s turn now to that toxic mixture of anger/hatred and political realities. A real lot of that lately. A number of commentators, some are white leftist or Democratic pundits, but more are commentators who are people of color and are fed up with white voters. One good example of this is a piece by Sonali Kolhatkar with the title, “I’m Done Trying to Empathize With Poor White Trump Voters.” Here is the link:
Sonali’s position is well-stated, powerful, and convincing. I am white, but I felt something of that anger the day after the election. However, it must be pointed out also that the communities of color either did not show up at the polls in the same numbers as they did for Obama or even worse, more people of color voted this time for Trump than they did for Romney or McCain in previous elections. Granted this is not a large number but it does indicate something else is going on. But most importantly, no matter what the facts be, the feelings and attitude expressed in this article will not help us to advance to a real form of resistance for the long term—and a long term will probably be needed. We do need to better understand those who think so differently from us, and when we confront them, and confront them we absolutely must, our state of mind and heart must be in peace and truth, humility and freedom, courage and seeking understanding. A bit of that is apparent in another piece, this time by Chris Hedges, “We Are All Deplorables.” Hedges is a very tough critic of our society, one of the toughest out there, and he doesn’t hesitate to paint a picture that is very dark and scary. Coming from a religious background, having studied theology at Harvard Divinity School, he sometimes sounds like one of the Old Testament prophets. Tough language indeed. However, here he is trying to understand who we are and where we are and why,….why did so many vote for Trump. Like I said, I think this step is badly needed if we are going to have a real resistance and a real encounter with our brothers and sisters who think differently. Here is a long quote from that article:
“My relatives in Maine are deplorables. I cannot write on their behalf. I can write in their defense. They live in towns and villages that have been ravaged by deindustrialization. The bank in Mechanic Falls, where my grandparents lived, is boarded up, along with nearly every downtown store. The paper mill closed decades ago. There is a strip club in the center of the town. The jobs, at least the good ones, are gone. Many of my relatives and their neighbors work up to 70 hours a week at three minimum-wage jobs, without benefits, to make perhaps $35,000 a year. Or they have no jobs. They cannot afford adequate health coverage under the scam of Obamacare. Alcoholism is rampant in the region. Heroin addiction is an epidemic. Labs producing the street drug methamphetamine make up a cottage industry. Suicide is common. Domestic abuse and sexual assault destroy families. Despair and rage among the population have fueled an inchoate racism, homophobia and Islamophobia and feed the latent and ever present poison of white supremacy. They also nourish the magical thinking peddled by the con artists in the Christian right, the state lotteries that fleece the poor, and an entertainment industry that night after night shows visions of an America and a lifestyle on television screens—“The Apprentice” typified this—that foster unattainable dreams of wealth and celebrity.
Those who are cast aside as human refuse often have a psychological need for illusions and scapegoats. They desperately seek the promise of divine intervention. They unplug from a reality that is too hard to bear. They see in others, especially those who are different, the obstacles to their advancement and success. We must recognize and understand the profound despair that leads to these reactions. To understand these reactions is not to condone them.
The suffering of the white underclass is real. Its members struggle with humiliation and a crippling loss of self-worth and dignity. The last thing they need, or deserve, is politically correct thought police telling them what to say and think and condemning them as mutations of human beings.”
“Those cast aside by the neoliberal order have an economic identity that both the liberal class and the right wing are unwilling to acknowledge. This economic identity is one the white underclass shares with other discarded people, including the undocumented workers and the people of color demonized by the carnival barkers on cable news shows. This is an economic reality the power elites invest great energy in masking.
The self-righteousness of the liberal class, which revels in imagined tolerance and enlightenment while condemning the white underclass as irredeemable, widens the divide between white low-wage workers and urban elites. Liberals have no right to pass judgment on these so-called deplorables without acknowledging their pain. They must listen to their stories, which the corporate media shut out. They must offer solutions that provide the possibility of economic stability and self-respect.
Martin Luther King Jr. understood the downward spiral of hating those who hate you. “In a real sense all life is inter-related,” he wrote in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. …”
We cannot battle the racism, bigotry and hate crimes that will be stoked by the Donald Trump presidency without first battling for economic justice. This is not a gap between the tolerant and the intolerant. It is a gap between most of the American population and our oligarchic and corporate elites, which Trump epitomizes. It is a gap that is understood only in the light of the demand for economic justice. And when we start to speak in the language of justice first, and the language of inclusiveness second, we will begin to blunt the protofascism being embraced by many Trump supporters.
I spent two years writing a book on the Christian right called “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” I spent many months with dispossessed white workers in states such as Missouri, Kansas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and California. I carried into the book project all the prejudices that come with being raised in the liberal church—a disdain for a magic Jesus who answers your prayers and makes you rich, a repugnance at the rejection of rationality and science and at the literal interpretation of the Bible, a horror of the sacralization of the American empire, and a revulsion against the racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and blind intolerance that often afflict those who retreat into a binary world of good and evil.
Those enthralled by such thinking are Christian heretics—Jesus did not come to make us rich and powerful and bless America’s empire—and potential fascists. They have fused the iconography and symbols of the American state with the iconography and symbols of the Christian religion. They believe they can create a “Christian” America. The American flag is given the same sacred value as the Christian cross. The Pledge of Allegiance has the religious power of the Lord’s Prayer. That a sleazy developer and con artist was chosen as their vehicle—81 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump—for achieving this goal is startling, to say the least. But this is not a reality-based movement. Most of those who profit from this culture of despair, many wrapped in the halo of the ministry, are, like Trump, slick, amoral trolls.”
Hedges looks toward the future, and it doesn’t look very bright, in fact rather dark. Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better, and Mother Nature may have the final word on this human experiment on Planet Earth. I think he is basically right, and if you think that all this gets resolved when we kick Trump out of office in 4 years (if then!), I think you still haven’t grasped how really bad off we are. Resistance is the only authentic way of being human in this situation, no matter what the future holds. We all have a vocation to be “refusniks” now. Monks were the original refusniks. It remains to be seen if today’s monks will have the vision to see what their “resistance” is all about. Beautiful liturgy with beautiful chant will not be enough.
I will let Hedges have the last word:
“There will be rebels. They will live in the shadows. They will be the renegade painters, sculptors, poets, writers, journalists, musicians, actors, dancers, organizers, activists, mystics, intellectuals and other outcasts who are willing to accept personal sacrifice. They will not surrender their integrity, creativity, independence and finally their souls. They will speak the truth. The state will have little tolerance of them. They will be poor. The wider society will be conditioned by mass propaganda to write them off as parasites or traitors. They will keep alive what is left of dignity and freedom. Perhaps one day they will rise up and triumph. But one does not live in poverty and on the margins of society because of the certainty of success. One lives like that because to collaborate with radical evil is to betray all that is good and beautiful. It is to become a captive. It is to give up the moral autonomy that makes us human. The rebels will be our hope.” Amen!