President Trump and the Acquiescence of Faith

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On 22 August, five days after the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia; President Trump spoke to a large crowd of supporters in Phoenix, Arizona.  His speech was a mixture of political and patriotic exhortation, and the denunciation of those working against his vision, especially the liberal media.  He reasserted previous statements of condemnation of white supremacists and the KKK.

As part of the build-up to the speech he chose two well-known religious figures to open with unapologetic Christian prayers: Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) and Dr Elvida King (Niece of Martin Luther King Jnr). Revd Graham’s prayer emphasised American exceptionalism and the danger of current social trends which overlook the poor, disregard equality and promote a personal ethic of greed and self-assurance. Dr King prayed for the right to life, a renewal of Christian virtue and a closing committal prayer to a One Almighty God.

President Trump was fulsome in his praise of those who had prayed and reasserted that America was a nation of faith. His speech then built upon an assumption of values which were inclusive and welcoming. The tenor of his speech was, thereafter, in parts polemical, wistful and condemnatory. The condemnation was particularly directed at those he regards as expressing a pernicious insouciance to the present and future state of America. The central part of the speech was a denunciation of the mainstream media, particularly CNN.  Though this admonition was central to his speech and garnered much vocal approval from the audience, others factors were significant:  President Trump referred to his love of all Americans and his desire for unity and cooperation. His demeanour throughout the speech was demotic and declamatory. This is a President who is realistic to his core supporters and not unaware of the ambiguities of his detractors, which he sees as their weakness.

From a religious perspective what were the main points of reference of his speech?  The prevailing assumptions underlying his oratory were that of American supremacy in the world and the importance of rallying the overlooked electorate to a renewed vision of an America under God which sets a standard for world polity. There were references to historical failures,   the triumph of American greatness over adversity and a belief in the destiny of America to lead the world by example and persuasion.

The event had a religious atmosphere – the feeling of a 19th century revivalist meeting – where all are included though not everyone belongs. There is a dissonance of this theology. Those who follow a path of inclusivity and universalism and believe in a God who is greater than any one nation, creed or character would hear phrases which challenge their view of an inclusive God.  Martin Luther King Junior once said:

“I’m not going to put my ultimate faith in the little gods that can be destroyed in an atomic age, but the God who has been our help in ages past and our hope for years to come, our shelter in the time of storm and our eternal home… Storms may come and go; our great edifices will come and go.  This is the God that demands and commands our ultimate allegiance”.

If his niece, and Franklin Graham, had referred to this vision it may have elevated the Phoenix speech to a higher level of oratory. As it stands, their contribution and President Trump’s speech are an expression of a set of political passions which play to a section of the American public but leave many more apprehensive and excepted.  If we are to assess Mr Trump’s presidency by its religious tenor, we can either acquiesce to his vision of religio-patriotic ascendency or pray that another “still small voce” penetrates the fascination of this populist, militant credo.

Fr Larry Wright, Religious Affairs Advisory Council, Westminster, London, September 2017

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The Woman

Syrian Refugee Woman

The child watched the woman.

She was Sunni, she was Christian, she was Shi’ite, she was you. And she was a refugee. Her tent was thin and the weather was cold.

She was from Raqqa, she was from Mosul, from Aleppo, or from home. And her daughter was a prostitute; whilst her son, her eldest, had gone to fight with Isis; and her son, the youngest, was trying his luck on the Europe trail.

She blessed her children. She loved them. They and they alone would keep her in her old age. Her husband was long gone, disappeared. She thought him a good man but he had abandoned her. Perhaps he was dead. Perhaps that was why he had not come back to her.

The child watched the woman. She would not last the winter, the boy thought. The cold would get her here in the mountains; which was good for she would not see her eldest boy die, as was inevitable, for most died who went to fight. In any case, the boy knew her son would die.

As for her, he would send angels to collect her soul.

God did that sort of thing when he could but he was running short of angels these days.

Selfish Selflessness

Being selfless because it is easier, is selfish.

There are degrees in sin. There are the great sins, of which the taking of life is the most evident; and the small sins, like, for instance, lying for convenience.

Then there are the hidden sins. Pride is an obvious one. But curiously selflessness can also be another when that selflessness trumps what is right.

Of course, selflessness on the grand scale, à la Schweitzer or Mother Teresa, is admirable and, if you have the inclination, should be emulated. But selflessness can also be obscene, as with Poland’s Colonel Mastalerz in the early days of the Second World War, who led his men to a futile but selfless death in a cavalry charge against modern armour at overwhelming odds in what must surely have been a act of moral cowardice, though advertised as selfless bravery.

So often, day to day, people conduct apparently selfless acts whereas in reality they do the wrong thing out of expediency either to avoid confrontation, as when indulging a child, or for the “righteous” pleasure of self-sacrifice. Doing what is right does not always mean doing what is selfless. The dollar to the beggar is a noble gesture but with the caveat that it could be used to buy whisky whereas that same dollar to a charity may be the less convenient but wiser approach. Instances of selfish selflessness abound and these can sometimes (but by no means always) be very great sins.

Intervention

Process theologians reckon that we are, in a sense, the body of God.

This is a living, breathing universe that is composed of the very stuff God’s made of – but that stands apart from God. A broken universe that, in the microcosm that is this world, protests at our gross neglect of creation – hence, for instance, the earthquake in the Indian Ocean and consequent Tsunami, the floods in America, and all such incidents, were a warning – a response to our bad stewardship of the natural world . . .

However God simply doesn’t recognise the great crises, such as death, indeed most particularly death, as we do. Thus God is God of the minutiae – interfering to direct the small things as each day passes – indeed even intervening in major ways should it not impact the free will of another – and should We ask for His intervention. But not on the macro scale in this broken world. Not normally. Scarce ever.

And if we set ourselves up to judge the actions of God, we should perhaps also judge ourselves. Whether we intervene or not is a judgement we make just as God makes His. The key, though, is that we should act in a spirit of selflessness. Which of course means we think nothing of our own death, of our own needs. Our total focus is on the other.

Seeking Purity

At the outset, it should be clear that purity has nothing to do with piety, though the two are not mutually exclusive. Nor is purity some virginal quality denied to the worldly wise.

For me the word “purity” has five key elements. They shine like beacons. For you the definition of purity may have other elements, or perhaps you would restrict purity to some state of sexual abstinence, of non-exploitation of the other. We make choices here. The following list is inevitably subjective

  1. LISTENING: The first key element, or perhaps pre-requisite, in any state of purity is the ability to listen. That means finding the space and time in the hubbub that is modern life to commune with the inner voice. For the religious that may mean communing with their God. But the still small voice deep within can be accessed by all, saint, sinner and atheist alike. There is a paradox in that. You do not have to be good to be pure. Goodness may be valuable, indeed is valuable, but it is not the quality we speak of here per se. Those who are pure subject themselves to guidance. They listen. They are capable of being still.
  2. RESPECT FOR LIFE: An absolute respect for life is the second great requirement, or pre-requisite, for those that wish to attain purity. A practice that is common to many primitive societies, is that of thanking the animal you kill for surrendering its life to feed you, that of treating your prey with respect. Similarly in the Muslim tradition it is written that to save one life is as if you had saved the world, and to kill one human being is as if you had killed all, so great the error. And perhaps the defining quality of modern humanism is respect for life. Without respect for life we are inevitably less than completely pure.
  3. NONVIOLENCE: Is nonviolence a prerequisite for purity? Not pacifism. Pacifism is a potential excuse for cowardice. Nonviolence is proactive and involves putting yourself at risk if necessary. Martin Luther King Jr believed that it was wrong to defend yourself but right to defend the other. For some nonviolence is conditional on the nature of your opponent. The adage “Do not hurt or fight with gentle people”, being one way of putting the concept being advocated here. Could the soldier who lays down his life for a cause greater than himself or herself be pure in heart? Yes. But not the soldier who accepts collateral damage, or the collective punishment of a people for the sins of the few. The pure in heart could never, would never, harm a non-combatant.
  4. SEXUAL PURITY: The line from ‘The King and I’ is à propos: It is natural for the bee to go from flower, to flower, to flower; not for the flower to go from bee, to bee, to bee. Banish such disparity of thought. What applies to the male applies to the female. Are we talking of Bible Belt purity, whereby the homosexual is condemned? What then? Our sexuality is primal. So wherein lies sexual purity? Sexual purity involves the abnegation of the predator within. Sexual predation is fundamentally impure. The sexual betrayal of the other to whom your commitment was absolute is impure. Taking without giving, the exploitation of the other, is impure. Divorce, at the expense of children, is almost always impure. ‘Almost always’ because to remain trapped in an abusive relationship is an abnegation of honesty out of mere moral cowardice. Sexual purity means valuing the other. Sexual purity is an attitude of mind.
  5. THE AVOIDANCE OF MATERIALISM: Curious is it not, that there is no obvious word to describe the opposite of materialism. Our world is supremely materialistic. The acquisition of wealth and its trappings consumes the energy of fully half the world. We are too often like magpies, salting away treasures we do not need, or even truly want, for mere gratification. It is understandable. It is an easy measure by which to gauge our self-worth in comparison to that of the next man or woman. We enjoy luxury and comfort. Can that be wrong? The acquisition of wealth is dangerous, most particularly when that acquisition means the accrual of more than we need. The pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake is impure. It is honorable to pursue a credible goal and to accrue material wealth in order to facilitate that work. It is dishonorable to make mere financial gain our ultimate objective.