Keeping Faith While Our World Fractures
January 12, 2021 – David R. Weiss
Days of reckoning are upon us. The FBI reports that it is aware of plans for armed protests at all fifty state capitols—and again at the U.S. Capitol—between January 16 and January 20. Is this madness or what? It’s not madness; it’s what. And this what has been rushing toward us for years now. The Trump presidency accelerated the pace and heightened the intensity, but it hardly started with him. The tectonic plates beneath this reckoning have been moving slowly and inexorably toward this moment for generations.
Still, even for those of us not entirely caught off guard, the surreal spectacle of it all remains disorienting. Yet I fear this is only the beginning. It’s likely to get worse—far worse—before it gets better. And, “better”—that word is more wistful than assured. “Better” is the best-case scenario, the result of almost unprecedented cooperation and good will. Absent that, terror by largely white mobs will (once again) be the new normal in our country. In fact, just as I was preparing to post this, a report came out that members of Congress were briefed Monday night about three new violent plots—one of which involved assassinating Democrats so Republicans would take charge of the government.
How do we—believers and non-believers alike—keep faith while our world fractures? How do we hold on to an overarching sense that our lives host both personal meaning and common good even when fraught with uncertainty—how do we do this while the very weave of our social fabric rips away?
I offer four observations below. The first three name uncomfortable truths we need to keep in front of us in the weeks ahead. More violence is very likely. These first observations say why. Longer essays and whole books explain why. For now it’s enough to simply say why. The less we are surprised by the violence when it erupts, the more steadfastly we can hold onto to our humanity, our chosen posture toward the world, our faith—which is the focus of my fourth observation.
(1) This moment is fraught . . . and its roots run deep
From the widespread “Open Up” protests this past spring to the threats of right-wing violence at racial justice protests this summer to the armed gatherings and kidnapping plot at the Michigan capitol, we’ve been experiencing a forward surge of right wing white nationalist anger escalating to the edge of open violence.
The roots of this run deep—interwoven with our national history. While the groups active today are diverse in their details, they share a desire to impose their worldview on society and a readiness to use violence as their means to do so. Offended by Obama’s election (how dare a black man be president?!), they multiplied during his 8-year presidency, even while moderates and liberals found it easier to congratulate ourselves on our nation’s “racial progress” rather than call us to face head on our racist past-present.
When Trump won the GOP nomination and then the presidency he ushered in four-plus years of unrestrained racist-nationalist-xenophobic rhetoric and action (amplified, echoed, excused, or ignored by his GOP compatriots). These years provided an adrenaline rush to those disenchanted by civil rights, anxious over shifting racial demographics, and often marginalized by increasing social inequity. Scapegoating moved from a shadowy pastime to 24/7 primetime on Trump’s twitter feed.
Many in these groups were counting on a second Trump term to fully consolidate white supremacy and authoritarian leadership—and provide four more years for strengthening their own movements. They see the waning days of his presidency as a “now or never” moment.
(2) QAnon. Is. Simply. EVIL.
Let’s name it for what it is: a quasi-religious hate cult masquerading as a conspiracy theory. It is NOT “cult-like”; it is out and out cult. Period. A new “form” perhaps, as it lacks an obvious charismatic leader (beyond the fictional Q), but it ticks off other identifying characteristics of a cult one after another. Preys on persons who are vulnerable-hurting-angry; bequeaths a false reality—and isolates its adherents from anyone who doesn’t embrace it. Creates a self-fulfilling worldview so any challenges only deepen conviction. Fosters such an all-consuming loyalty that any fundamental challenge to its illogic becomes an assault on one’s existential identity.
Moreover, QAnon is nearly self-extending through countless permutations—seemingly fashioned on the model of a Live Action Role Playing game … except this game plays people. As a game it inculcates its core impulse in its player-adherents: pervasive doubt toward the common shared reality that most of us function in. By reinforcing the human propensity for discerning patterns in the world—and then eclipsing any capacity for critical thought—it places adherents into a posture where reality, morality, and agency are all malleable at the slightest suggestion. QAnon’s ability to instill an off-balance readiness to be spun toward murderous hatred is almost without limit.
If, as I suggest above, faith is the overarching sense that our lives host both personal meaning and common good even when our lives are fraught with uncertainty, then QAnon is the epitome of false faith: it intentionally fragments meaning-making capacity and harnesses human frenzy to serve the purposes of hate and death. In religious language it would be fair to call it demonic—and to say that its name longs to be legion.
(3) Accountability is key. The President and the GOP are complicit—and worse.
In the midst of these forces ripe with simmering anger and anxiety, unmistakably tinged with racist bias, Trump chose to forecast election fraud long before the election even happened and dragged a wide swath of the GOP along in the weeks afterward. Their actions deliberately sought to sow ill-reasoned mistrust in an election that by all accounts—including all 60-plus court cases decided thus far—was free of fraud. (The only case the Trump campaign “won” concerned absentee ballots duly cast and duly “cured,” that is, any ID questions were satisfactorily resolved after the ballots had been cast. The case challenged the interpretation of the last date for the curing process; it prevailed and a small number of ballots—protected from fraud by the “curing” process—were set aside.)
Trump’s desperation to challenge the election might be credited to his pathological narcissism (which may explain but not excuse; it ought to have removed him from the presidency years ago). Those in the GOP who chose to join him in deliberately fanning disinformation about election integrity may have chosen to do so out of political cowardice or political aspiration; in either case they were unquestionably complicit in fanning the unwarranted hysteria that rose steadily from November 3 to January 6.
Given the loudly trumpeted worldviews of the individuals and groups Trump has played to throughout his presidency, neither the President nor any member of the GOP can reasonably pretend to be innocent of meaning to provoke through a deliberate disinformation campaign—their insistence on casting doubt on the election—sufficient “noise” to effect political change. Indeed, some GOP members of Congress have even alleged they supported the objections to the Electoral Count only because of genuine fear for the personal safety of themselves or their family should they not object—in effect confirming that Trump and his compatriots were engaged in a coordinated effort of political terrorism.
The exact measures of accountability for the President and those who aided and abetted him may be debated. But any debate ought not be over their political acceptability but on the terms of their efficacy in deterring our leaders from ever engaging such craven actions in the future. Their reckless posturing brought people, some wearing combat gear and 2-way communicators, along with nooses, guns, zip-ties, flash bangs, Confederate flags, Nazi flags and symbols, and QAnon emblems, storming into the Capitol while voicing intent to hang Mike Pence and harm or kill others in the building. At least one gallows erected outside. The consequences for these politicians ought not be driven by vindictiveness, but as actions that marshaled lies to evoke public unrest that turned predictably both violent and deadly, the political price ought to be severe. Talk of “unity” in this moment is sheer treachery, it offers no recognition of the perils just provoked and indeed offers comfort and cover to those waiting to act again.
(4) Hope in this moment lies beyond-within and between.
Even if diehard insurrectionists comprised a minority of those in the Capitol building last week, the energy of the mob provided cover to those with the worst motives. Thus, while it may have been an unwieldy storming of the Capitol, it more than accomplished its minimal objective: to prove how unprepared we are—both physically and psychically—to meet such a surge of focused violence. The armed protests slated for the coming weeks will no doubt count on last week’s chaos and mayhem to amplify their effect across the nation.
Hence, the next two weeks will understandably be framed by apprehension. And even when the Inauguration has passed, the potential for right wing white nationalist QAnon fueled violence will remain near the surface. How do we live in the face of such threat? How do we keep faith while our world fractures?
I’m not trying to propose a plan of action here. I’m not saying we shouldn’t respond to the planned protests, but I’m not competent to make that type of proposal. My words are about inner care and other care.
First, the simplest, truest source of hope and calm that we carry is tethered to the values that enliven our lives. For some of us those values are rooted in what we regard as a spiritual reality; for others those values are humanist. In this moment it doesn’t matter where they’re rooted. They link us to the Within-Beyond. Exercise them. Small kindnesses in abundance can help anchor one’s soul. Be extra attentive to stop for a pedestrian. Bake bread for a neighbor. Write an overdue letter. Offer a smile. Again and again. Far from being merely mundane, these kindnesses reinforce our social fabric while other forces attempt to fray it. Just as importantly they act as embodied prayers, invoking the holy (or the truly human) to rise within.
Second, check in on your friends. Not casually; with your whole presence. Pick a different friend (or two) to check in on each day. Own your own sense of vulnerability and acknowledge theirs. The healing of our human community rests on the authentic depth of our connections—Between. This is where we touch our power. Such power is nonviolent, rooted in the mutual affirmation of our vulnerability held tenderly together. This power may well be the strongest force in the universe. It bestows meaning and purpose by the exercise of human care.
Days of reckoning are upon us. Much of what transpires in the next few weeks is beyond our control. But we can take charge of our perceptions—seeking to understand the tumult that has dawned. And we can be agents of kindness and community and care. These small actions may not stem the unrest that has been planned by others. But they can provide inner rest for us and care for others. And by placing us as they do in the flowing current of the universe, these small actions sow the seeds of a new day. May that day come soon.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.