Eschatology and Solidarity: on Still Feeling the Bern
March 9, 2020 – David R. Weiss
I didn’t actually vote for Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday. I cast my ballot … for Us. It just so happened his name was next to that box.
Now, pretty much every decision I make is thought through frontwards, backwards, and sideways. That’s not always as asset, but while you can call me a lot of things, “thoughtlessly impulsive” is not one of them. I did not fill in the box next to Bernie’s name lightly. To be sure, every candidate—including Bernie—has plenty of flaws. My singular interest here, in the words 1 Peter 3:15 and in light of the box I checked last Tuesday, is “to offer an accounting for the hope that is in me.” That is, in Us.
Eschatology. The word literally means “pertaining to the last things.” It’s often used in reference to the End Times, as though it concerns things that are “off limits” until the end of history. Often, but not always. Elsewhere in theology—and as I use it here—it concerns the fullness of God’s desire for humanity, indeed for all of creation, and how the fullness of those desires come about. In fact, John’s gospel is so shaped by the immediacy of this fullness, that scholars coined a term for it: “realized eschatology”—the notion that this present moment carries within it the fullness of God’s yearning just waiting to be realized. NOW.
Long before Jesus, the urgency—the Sandersesque anger(!) of the Hebrew prophets—is animated by the same conviction: that God’s great desire is for justice in which all can flourish, and nothing stands in the way of actual justice right now more than our own preference for the injustices we find more convenient. That isn’t to say that a perfect utopian society is within our reach. We remain finite and fallible, yet both the prophets and Jesus were consumed by a zeal for justice that was not moored to the next life, but to this one. And in their eyes our fallible finitude does not excuse the cruelty we’ve built into our society.
There may come a moment when I throw my unqualified support to Joe Biden, a man intent on challenging the gross injustices of the status quo in ways least offensive to those holding wealth and power … but with sincere empathy, decency, and a degree of constitutional respect altogether absent from the Oval Office today. So, yeah, I’d vote for that over an unhinged narcissist intent on turning our Republic into a white nationalist, misogynistic, ecocidal state.
Still, as a Christian whose imagination is fed by prophetic/messianic this worldly eschatology, I’ll make no deals with centrist “realism” until there are no other options on the table. For me, to make any easy peace with Joe Biden right now is to agree that the doors to God’s kin-dom (genuine this worldly societal transformation in the direction of justice) can be closed and locked for the remainder of this election cycle (and likely the next four years) … since I’m (mostly) on the inside of those doors. But I can’t get the powerful refrain from Rev. Michael Cobbler’s sermon at Anita Hill’s ordination out of my head. (Anita was ordained to ministry in 2001 in defiance of ELCA policy, which, in good “centrist” fashion, affirmed her worth in the eyes of God, but found her unfit for ministry because she was in a covenanted relationship with another woman.) On that day Cobbler’s booming voice reminded us again and again, “And there are others who are knocking at the door … and there is room for more!” Sanders’ campaign says the same.
Heck, I’ll even toss my religious faith to the side and say that simply as a human being with a visceral longing for justice that includes not just my tribe but all persons (and the rest of the natural world as well—we are one Earth community), it would feel like a betrayal of both conscience and creation to say right now in early March, “I’m good with Joe, let’s just unite behind his tepid vision for a return to what wasn’t really working very well back then anyway.” No, even apart from my faith-driven “lofty idealism,” this chapter of the political season is surely about exercising our imaginations vigorously for the type of world we want. It is far too soon to be ushered by pundits (or by friends) toward settling for the type of the world our keepers prefer to offer. Not yet. Not me. Us.
Solidarity. Both Jesus and the Hebrew prophets call us to justice, mercy, and compassion—and that call comes to us not primarily as individuals but as communities. No merchants of personal morality, they were serious social visionaries. Altogether intent on getting us to feel their Bern. Today we could call them proponents of radical, uncompromising solidarity (which is only “ideological purity” when viewed from privilege). Their perspective is echoed in the words of the American socialist Eugene Debs (1855-1926): “While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there’s a criminal element, I am of it. And while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” This is not yet a policy agenda. Rather, it’s the gut-level vantage point that undergirds a socialist ethic. It begins, not with an insistence on radical equality, but with an inward cultivation of radical empathy: a feeling for and with “the least of these” as the lynchpin of all liberatory politics.
This is what drives Bernie’s agenda, and it explains why his message—and the restless tone of his rhetoric—resonates with so many who find themselves at the edges of society. Sanders unexpected rise in the polls over the winter months, triggering so much anxiety among the pundits, might spark an edifying moment of humble curiosity for those of us in the moderate-reasonable middle. How did we, in spite of our oft “bleeding liberal hearts” miss that the economic hurt in America (and the anxiety over the future harbored by so many youth) runs so much wider and deeper, across color and religion, than most of us dared to imagine?
In his campaign’s tagline (“Not Me. Us.”), the “Us” is anyone who chooses to be part of it, but the real target is the people who’ve been relentlessly impoverished by the way our present economy functions: saddling people with debt that limits their future and their freedom, increasing wealth inequality without limit, and viewing the planet as mere background to our “progress” (when, in fact, our fortunes—people and planet—are wholly interwoven). Bernie’s vision—cancelling medical and educational debt, supporting tuition-free college/trade schools, providing universal health care through a national program, universal early childhood education, and radically prioritizing our climate response, to name some of the hallmarks —is indeed a wholesale societal transformation. Because nothing less will suffice.
Most of us have lived ALL OF OUR LIVES inside an economy designed by debt and hitched to unlimited consumption. One might argue that, alongside mass incarceration, the color of American debt is another tool of white supremacy (although one that increasingly sweeps up many of us who are white as well). Sanders’ proposals portend an economic reset in our society that would be as dramatic as the abolition of slavery. For those nearest the bottom such a reset is unmistakably liberatory, while for those of us still buffered from that level of desperation it feels decidedly ambiguous and disorienting. It is, after all, the changing of a world. And for those nearer the top—and the pundits often in their pay—it seems downright cataclysmic. And it is … to the extent that our present “normal” necessitates extreme need. Justice will be cataclysmic for the rich. It need not be vengeful, but it will upend their world.
How can it NOT seem fearful, then, for those of us in the anxious, comfortable/uncomfortable middle, to be asked to back a candidate whose real passion is for the least of these? Of course is it a fearful thing to choose a world not yet seen. (Ask any of Jesus’ disciples.) And yet, that’s exactly what President Lincoln did. And it is what Bernie Sanders is inviting us to do. But note, despite its disorienting prospects, this invitation comes with this modest promise that nearly all of us will be decidedly better off in a world unhinged from debt and exploitation. And that’s precisely why those intent on preserving their wealth or power prefer to keep us scared of such fundamental transformation and pitted against the real interests of the poor—at least in the pit of our gut, where our liberal ideals run thin.
Feeling the Bern. I worked fervently for a “revolution” in the ELCA: the full affirmation of LGBTQ persons as manifest in the celebration of their lives, the blessing of their partnerships, and the ordination of those called to ministry. We sometimes overstepped our “place” in the church’s scheme, as when we gathered in community and in Spirit to ordain persons whom the church refused to. Our fellow Lutherans cried foul, wanting a more patient, “centrist” path. “How dare you?” they asked. We responded politely but firmly, “We borrow our authority from the future.” Bernie’s agenda does that, too.
It won’t happen overnight—this wholesale societal transformation—but if it doesn’t happen dramatically and soon (which is exactly what scares so many of us) we will reach a point that neither people nor planet can bear, and those results will be truly scary.
Meanwhile, for those already living near the edge, “dramatic” and “soon” are words that carry good news. In Christian parlance we call that gospel. And we stake our lives on it. And not just me. Us.
David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.