What’s happening in America right now is not normal. This is not the routine ebb and flow of liberal and conservative shifts in power. It’s not merely the heated aftermath of a contentious election. What we’re facing in this country is an administration characterized by unprecedented levels of authoritarianism, dishonesty, incompetence, and corruption, and a legislative branch unwilling to hold the president accountable.
Influenced by advisors whose white nationalists views are well known, the president has waged a propaganda war against ethnic and religious minorities, stoking fear and hate by lying about crime rates, terrorist attacks, and voter fraud and by issuing executive orders that have already hurt many thousands of people around the world, including desperate refugee families. Muslims, including lifelong U.S. citizens, are being detained at airports for no other reason than their faith, and law enforcement officials report a surge in hate crimes against them. When challenged by the facts or with the law, the administration responds with attempts to undermine the free press and the judiciary, even going so far as to call the free press "an enemy of the people."
To make matters worse, with some important exceptions, the white conservative Church has largely supported the president, shrugging off his rampant dishonesty, self-aggrandizement, racism, misogyny, and bullying. My inbox is filled with messages from young evangelicals who feel angered and betrayed as they watch their religious community align itself with values they don’t recognize.
It’s been hard for me write about all this, I confess. For one thing, I have what the parenting books refer to as an “active toddler”—a little hurricane of distraction, full of joy and fury and stale Cheerios. I’m also finishing up my fourth book, which like every other book I’ve written, is proving the hardest EVER. But most of all, like many other writers and artists with whom I’ve spoken, I’m struggling a bit to process what’s happening. When every day brings with it another startling act of authoritarianism or oppression, it’s hard to catch your breath long enough to think of something worthwhile to say. These times call for good words, certainly, but more importantly they call for creative, concrete action.
So, since many of you have asked me what sort of practical steps you can take to combat the abuses of this administration and help those most affected by it, I thought I’d share my own personal plan of action in hopes it might prove useful to others. I’m the kind of person who tends to get passionate about something, overcommit, and then burn out, so I purposefully made these plans manageable. This is not a weeks-long protest; this is a years-long counter-movement that has to be sustainable to be effective. So with that in mind, here are six ideas:
1. Identify where you have the most influence locally and nationally, and lead there.
Knowing I have something of a national platform, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to use it more effectively—perhaps by focusing my best op-ed writing on one or two and using the rest of my influence to amplify those church leaders, activists, and artists doing the good work of justice all around the world. (More on that below.) I’ve also been freshly convicted about the importance of strengthening my relationships with schools, nonprofits, and community organizations here in East Tennessee, and am considering new ways to volunteer/contribute that will work for our family over the long haul.
Perhaps you’re on the PTA at your kids’ school. What might you do to help encourage and equip teachers to combat what’s been called the “Trump effect”—an increase in bullying, particularly against children of color and religious minorities? What questions can you ask to ensure your school is teaching kids how to think critically about media and discern the truth amidst competing sources? It might be a good time to follow through on that longtime desire to volunteer as a coach or tutor and to familiarize yourself with federal laws protecting the rights of students with disabilities so you can speak up if they are threatened. Have the parents of vulnerable kids in your community organized? How can you lend your support?
Or maybe you lead a small group at church. What about introducing some justice-themed books into your weekly or monthly discussions? They don’t have to be overtly political; something like The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd or Forgive Us by Lisa Sharon Harper, Troy Jackson, Mae Elise Cannon, and Soong-Chan Rah might be a good start. If you’re an elder, or deacon, or on the vestry, consider proposing that your church sponsor a refugee family through a local resettlement organization, or partner with a local mosque or synagogue to engage in interfaith conversations and activities that are mutually supportive. Incorporate lament and confession into your worship and confront the sins of racism and white supremacy with boldness. Don’t be afraid your actions will be considered “political.” Remember, silence in this climate is a political statement too.
Maybe you’re just good at getting friends together and planning social events. How about rallying the troops for a weekend protest, or organizing an informal fundraiser for World Relief? Or maybe you’re the quiet, steady one your friends respect and come to for advice. Speaking up on behalf of immigrants or LGBT kids will mean a lot coming from you, so have courage and say something when the Spirit nudges. Don’t let a racist, homophobic, or misogynistic comment slide. For too long white folks have tolerated that nonsense and it’s one reason we have the president we do.
2. Identify the organizations, artists, and leaders from marginalized communities working for justice and support them/ follow their lead.
Many thousands of citizens, including many Christians, have been working for social justice for years—through nonprofit organizations, community organizing efforts, and justice-oriented churches. As tempting as it may be to try and start something new on your own, it is far wiser to identify these groups, at the local and national level, and lend your support.
For example, most cities have refugee resettlement organizations that assist families fleeing war-torn countries with housing, education, and employment. Ours in Chattanooga/Knoxville is called Bridge Refugee Services. Attend a fundraiser, volunteer a little time each week to help newcomers with errands, or partner with some friends to furnish a family’s home.
If voting rights are a concern to you, (and they should be, especially if you live in North Carolina), consider connecting with Rev. William J Barber II of the North Carolina NAACP as he leads protests and organizing efforts around voting rights and other important causes. Find out if your community has a local chapter of Black Lives Matter or attend the next Gay Christian Network conference or Reformation Project gathering. If you’re unsure of where to start, you can find a long list of faith-based community organizations through the PICO network.
Nationally, this is a good time to donate to the ACLU, the National Immigration Law Center, and organizations that protect reporters and a free press. If you’re like me, you’ve probably already “rage subscribed” to every newspaper or magazine the administration deems “an enemy of the people” for reporting the facts. Keep speaking up for a free press, and be sure and offer an encouraging word to any journalists you know.
Of course, there are many, many more that could be mentioned, which is why, through the 40 days of Lent, I’ll be using my social media feeds to offer “40 Days of Support” featuring 40 individuals, organizations, and initiatives whose work is crucial during these times. Be sure to look for that on Facebook and Twitter, where I’ll list specific ways you can help.
The important thing here is to follow the lead of those people who have been working within marginalized communities for years. They don’t need you to be their voice. They just need you to listen, to learn, and to offer support.
3. Get Political.
This president cannot continue to abuse his power at the expense of the vulnerable without the support of congress, which means it is our duty to hold them accountable and demand change. I know some Christians are uncomfortable with that, preferring not to “mix” faith and politics, (as if we can compartmentalize), but as Aaron Niequist put it the other day, “if we want to love our neighbor, we will naturally get involved in building the systems that lead to flourishing, and fighting to change the unjust systems that target the poor, weak, and marginalized. We can't pretend to love our neighbor while we ignore the realities that hurt them.”
The gospel may not be partisan, but it is certainly political, and it’s as appropriate as ever for Christians to ask that the people who represent them represent the concerns of the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and the strangers whom Jesus loves. It’s appropriate, too, to expect Republicans in congress to hold this administration accountable to basic ethical standards, and to vote them out of office if they refuse to do so out of party loyalty.
Everyone I know who works in Washington tells me that calling your representatives is one of the most effective strategies for waging public protest. This year I added the phone numbers of my representatives to the contact list in my phone, and I try to call at least three times a week. (It might help to set an alarm on your phone if you’re busy or forgetful.) As one who struggles with a touch of phone phobia, I’ve benefited from scripts you can find online, which I adjust to reflect my own personal concerns. It also helps to ask questions—“Has Senator Corker spoken against Steve Bannon’s position on the National Security Council? Is he aware of Bannon’s white nationalist views?” And since all of my representatives claim to be Christians, I usually try to appeal to Christian values to find some common ground. Here’s how I see it: In the time it takes me to scroll angrily through Twitter for five minutes, I can write a script and make a call.
In addition to calling your representatives, consider attending a town hall, writing letters the editor of your local paper, connecting with the local Democratic Party to help with voter registration efforts and to challenge voter suppression/gerrymandering, and (because it’s becoming painfully obvious that progressives have ceded local politics to the extreme right for too long), running for office or helping a better candidate get the job. If, like me, you live in what seems like a hopelessly red district, you might want to check out Swing Left, which helps you locate the closest “Swing District” that will decide the majority in congress and join a team working to elect democrats, who won't give this president a free pass, to those seats.
4. Ground yourself in community and contemplation.
I had the privilege a few years ago of meeting Dr. Cornel West, a man who has been engaged in activism and justice work for decades. As others will certainly tell you, the most immediate impression you get of Dr. West when in his presence is that this is a person of deep, seemingly limitless joy. Dr. West is no fool. He hasn’t got his head in the sand. Few people are as aware of the inequities that persist in our nation and as committed to prophetically calling them out. And yet Dr. West brings such a sense of hope and peace to his work, it’s contagious. “I cannot be an optimist,” he says, “but I am a prisoner of hope.”
These are trying times, and sometimes just keeping up with the latest news tempts one to despair. Dr. West reminds us that the only way to work for justice in a sustainable way is to be rooted in the nourishing soil of contemplation and community.
By contemplation, I mean spiritual practices of rest, prayer, and devotion that connect us to God in a way that unburdens. For some, this means beginning and ending each day in prayer and mediation. For others, it means taking a Sabbath away from all the noise of social media to hike or cook or read. For extroverts I suppose it means finding some friends with whom to verbally process…like, at a bar…or something? (Sorry. I don’t really understand your world.)
Christena Cleveland offers some really helpful ideas for both action and healing in her post “Wellness in the Age of Trump and Terror,” as well as some excellent reading suggests in “15 Books for Fighting for Justice in the Trump Era.” Ed Cyzewski writes one of my favorite blogs for contemplatives, and Lisa Sharon Harper’s The Very Good Gospel strikes me as an especially timely read at this moment. I’ve personally enjoyed returning to the work of Madeleine L’Engle and to the psalms in Scripture, and I stay in a much better state of mind when I take every chance to take my little guy to the park to blow bubbles and soak in the sunshine. (See also: “How to Stay Outraged Without Losing Your Mind” by Mirah Curzer.)
It’s also important to stay connected with community. I know a lot of folks want nothing to do with the church right now, and I get that. If your faith community is actively working to support the systems of white supremacy and patriarchy that are enabling this administration, you may need to take a break, or leave. (There are plenty of other churches actively working in the other direction, believe me!) But whether you go to church on Sunday mornings or not, try to stay tethered to a larger community in which you have an investment and which has an investment in you—maybe it’s a small group that gets together for pizza and conversations on Thursday nights, or maybe it’s the local chapter of a community organization, or maybe it’s the people in your neighborhood. Community keeps us accountable and compassionate. It prevents us from thinking too highly of ourselves and taking too much on. It reminds us that we need one another, that we’re not alone, and that we have a great cloud of witnesses spanning thousands of years and hundreds of cultures from which to draw strength.
5. Create opportunities for meaningful (but not necessarily “polite”) dialog.
Probably the most common question I’m asked on the road these days is, “how can I talk to family, friends, and fellow churchgoers with whom I disagree politically?” I feel a bit hypocritical admonishing my readers toward kindness and understanding when I too have been avoiding such conversations like the plague, but I do think healthy, constructive dialog is possible, and that it’s best tackled around a shared table, over steaming plates of mashed potatoes and green beans, amidst the laughter and grace that emerges organically from deep, trusted relationships.
That said, we shouldn’t avoid talking about injustice because we’re afraid of making things uncomfortable or offending someone. Having lived down South my whole life I know exactly what it feels like to smile through racism and xenophobia in order to maintain that false, sticky-sweet sense of decorum. But this enlightening article from a German writer about how Americans are far too timid when confronting prejudice—“at the dinner table, I’ve noticed, what Germans call a discussion, Americans call an argument”—reminds us that this fear of confrontation is exactly what preserves the status quo, often with disastrous consequences. Now’s not the time to play it safe. If someone in your Bible study repeats a lie about Muslims, call it out. If your Grandma makes a racist remark, tell her it’s not okay. We’re stuck with this president in large part because white people are so worried about hurting other white people’s feelings we won’t name the sin racism.
(Here it’s important to note that telling oppressed people they need gracefully engage their oppressors is unhelpful. Let them make the call on how, and with whom, they engage.)
As far as creating opportunities for dialog within your faith communities, I’d recommend starting with a book club, perhaps around a book like Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew Hart, or The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, or Assimilate or Go Home by Danielle Mayfield, or Forgive Us by the authors mentioned above—something that’s not directly about this election or this presidency, but that addresses issues related to justice. (If your conversation partners are more conservative, you can take turns picking the title.) This creates the opportunity for conversation without setting it up as a debate.
6. Plant onions.
As I mentioned in my post, “2016 and the Risk of Birth,” in revisiting Madeleine L’Engle’s Genesis Trilogy, I’ve been struck by how forthcoming the author is about her own fears around raising children during the Cold War. She writes of one particularly worrisome season: “Planting onions that spring was an act of faith in the future, for I was very fearful for our planet.”
“Planting onions” has come to signify for me the importance of remaining committed to those slow-growing, long-term investments in my family, my community, and the world, no matter what happens over the next four years. Right now it may seem like an afternoon of changing diapers and wiping noses has little to do with “the resistance,” but raising decent, compassionate kids, and being faithful to the call to love them exactly as they are in exactly this moment, is the good work of the Kingdom, in any age. There have been times when I’ve wondered if all the hours I’m pouring into this next book, a book about the Bible, will be relevant when all anyone’s talking about these days is politics, but then I remember that this is the creative ground I’ve been called to cultivate, so I will trust my Maker with the yield.
Those after-school tutoring sessions may strike you as low-impact when you survey the great needs of the world, but the investment of your time and care may alter the trajectory of a kid’s life forever. Pastors, I know many of you are struggling with how to shepherd a politically diverse community through these tumultuous times, but please know those relationships you’re navigating one visit, one meal, and one awkward coffee hour at a time matter more than any political speech delivered by a celebrity.
We are bound to get discouraged, certainly, but we won't become useless until we abandon our onion patches, those little pieces of earth where we cultivate our greatest hopes and dreams for the world.
So, resist. Speak out. Call your representatives and get behind the people and organizations working for change. But don’t neglect your gardens—both of the literal and metaphorical type. Plant like the rain will come.
“How to Stay Outraged Without Losing Your Mind” by Mirah Curzer
“The Time For Welcome is Now: Ten Ideas” by D.L. Mayfield
“Call the Halls” by Emily Ellsworth
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