A Word to the Church in Trump’s America

I have been so focused on the book lately that I’ve done no meaningful blogging for a few months now.

The events of last week have convicted me that, book deadline or no book deadline, I need to be writing publicly again.

I have no illusions that a blog is some courageous stand for justice. But what I have to offer are my words and my tiny platform. They will not be enough, and they will not be where I stop. But here is my first attempt.

Today I share two quotes. The first is from Matthew Skinner, a professor at Luther Seminary, written on Facebook last week:

This number has haunted me over the last day: 60. Sixty percent of American voters who call themselves Protestant voted for a man who boasts of committing sexual assault repeatedly and with impunity, a man who harnesses vile undercurrents of antisemitism, a man whose words and proposals are the very definition of Islamophobia. Sixty percent.

Those of us who teach and lead in Protestant communities don’t necessarily need to wade into the unfamiliar world of political and economic philosophy. We might stay closer to home and simply ask: What one thing am I going to do today to chip away at the theological assumptions that continue to sow misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and exceptionalism in our “mainline” and seemingly respectable institutions, practices, rhetoric, and confessions? Start with one thing. Then try for two tomorrow.

Second: The other day a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook (disclaimer: haven’t read it) and highlighted the quote:

We need to find a way to bridge from our closed groups to other closed groups, try to cross the ever widening social divides.

I’m sitting in between those two quotes as I think about my role as a free-range pastor, whose “parish” may be anyone I happen to come in contact with. I’m discerning my call as a flawed and faithful follower of a brown man who stood with the vulnerable and the despised and was killed for it.

How do we cross the ever widening social divides?

I’m not talking about finding common ground with the white supremacists who have felt emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and are now painting swastikas. Maybe someone can do that work, but it’s too unsafe for too many people to wade into that.

But I am interested to understand the appeal of Donald Trump to those who do not march in KKK parades or rip off hijabs. I’m interested in the people who sit in Presbyterian pews and hear the gospel of Jesus Christ preached every week. What did they find compelling enough about his message and plan that they were able to dismiss the very real and very disturbing rhetoric he proffered? It had to be way more compelling than I am capable of grasping.

Some of my friends on the left are not interested in the answer to that question. They say these Trump votes (even lukewarm ones) aided and abetted racism, therefore the people who cast them are racist. (Sexist, homophobic, anti-Muslim, etc.)

This line of thinking is a dead end. Brene Brown has argued compellingly from research that shaming does not change behavior. Key quote:

Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy.

Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.

Researchers June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, authors of Shame and Guilt, explain that feelings of shame are so painful that it pulls the focus to our own survival, not the
experiences of others.

Shame suppresses empathy.
And empathy is the goal right now.

Which brings me back to Skinner’s quote. I’m more and more convinced that the divide in our country isn’t red state or blue state, or black and white, it is urban and rural. The map of the 2016 election makes this clear. (Disclaimer: this isn’t the final 2016 map, but it illustrates the point. Source)

counties

I don’t know very many people living in rural America. And they don’t know me.

But my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has connectional structures in place that can bridge the divide. I have friends I went to seminary with who serve churches in rural areas. We don’t even need to go far—our synods (multi-state jurisdictions within the PCUSA) encompass big cities and small towns and tiny hamlets. We’ve talked for years about whether synods have a purpose—maybe this can be part of their purpose.

The structure is there, but it needs some tweaking. I’m not talking about Suburban Presbyterian  Church swooping into Appalachia and building houses. Nor am I talking about Small-Town Pres trucking into the inner city to provide a day of labor at the various soup kitchens. Yes, as one of my colleagues likes to say, “Doctrine divides, mission unites,” but I don’t think unity is the right goal. Not right now. Things are too fragile. Empathy is the goal. Love of neighbor is the goal.

So I’m talking about cultural exchange. I’m talking about sitting at tables. I’m talking about sharing and bearing witness to stories of painful loss and soaring resilience. I’m talking about the kind of work Columbia Seminary does in its Alternative Context program, in which seminarians visit other parts of the world, not as helpers, not as tourists, but as pilgrims sent to listen and learn.

Advocates for justice movements talk all the time about “peopling” issues. It’s harder to take a stand that hurts LGBT people when you know and care about a specific queer person. I don’t expect the great honor of my friendship to move a Trump voter. But maybe when people start talking about the evil elites on the “Least Coast,” someone who’s met me or people like me will stand up for nuance and understanding. And when someone makes a joke about “flyover country,” I will intervene and say “Not that simple. Never that simple.”

I don’t know who’s willing to undertake such an experiment. But in the PCUSA at least, the structures are there. And the call is urgently clear.

Are there people willing to do this work?

19 thoughts on “A Word to the Church in Trump’s America

  1. Kelley Wehmeyer Shin

    Once again you have spoken to the heart of this for me. I just read your entire blog to my husband as we were having this same conversation and your email notice popped up on my phone. Thank you. I serve a church in a semi rural town (small town with a rural mindset) and my deepest grief has been knowing that so many congregants voted for Trump.

    Reply
    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Well, and what complicates this (or maybe gives us a way in) is that many of us who live in the cities grew up in rural areas or townships, so we understand that culture somewhat. It doesn’t go the other direction as often, but still does sometimes. There is a semi-permeable boundary.

      Reply
  2. Laurie Fields

    If you don’t know about them, look up the Tablesetters. They are a fairly new group but Matthew and Marvin have many years of experience of bringing groups together and I think their model would be very useful for groups wanting to try to bring folks together across the rural/urban divide. They are on Facebook – if you can’t find them and want to know more, let me know and I will try to find a link for you.

    Reply
  3. Tony Palubicki

    I have not read your blog in the past but I am so grateful to a friend for sharing it with me. I pastor two micro churches in the coalfields, the economically depressed and struggling coalfields, of southwest Virginia. The vast majority of those that I serve voted for Trump, but I do not grieve their votes because they are not racists, misogynists, or any other such thing. They are hard working people who feel as if they have been ignored, misunderstood, maligned, and forgotten. I, for one, would welcome engagement and am ready to do this work for the people of God that I serve and believe they are ready as well. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful insights and call to the work of love and empathy.

    Reply
  4. Karen Kinney

    This is so where I feel called having lived in urban areas but being born in southern WV and now pastor in a small rural church in central WV. I talked to some nonprofit leaders here who said they would like to talk to urban nonprofit leaders to see where there is commonality particularly around the issues their clients face. For decades I have been struck by the similarities in these issues. There is so much misunderstanding between urban and rural.

    Reply
      1. Karen Kinney

        Thanks – Heath Rada said that he thought he would do some work trying to better understand and identify the needs of rural churches in his post-moderator life. Wonder if he has is starting on that. I just feel my call shifting and wonder where God is guiding me. As a former member of Church of the Pilgrims – they guided me through my candidacy process – I wonder how to connect urban and rural Presbyterian churches.

        Blessings on your work!

        Reply
  5. Elsa Cook

    I have not been quite able to name this as you have here, Mary Ann, but as another “free range pastor” who will find herself again and again in more rural areas in the next few years, I wonder about my role. What is it that I can do to support imagination, creativity and grace when I’m not in the more traditional mode of leadership in the pulpit every Sunday in the same place? I don’t know but I join you in the quest.

    Reply
  6. Garrett Anderson

    MaryAnn you have hit the nail on the head. Here’s an article from Washington Post that shows the research to support this intuitive blog.https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/11/08/a-new-theory-for-why-trump-voters-are-so-angry-that-actually-makes-sense/

    I just saw this follow-up article but haven’t read it yet. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/11/15/donald-trump-didnt-hoodwink-his-voters-says-professor-whos-spent-nearly-a-decade-researching-them/

    Reply
  7. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

    A reader sent me this comment via email. I thought more people should see it than just me, so with the person’s permission I am posting it without identifying information. (Will also post to Facebook.) The writer is a pastor in a conservative area of the country.

    “While I appreciate your point about not shaming those who voted for Trump, I also cannot help but think about the people who are most directly affected by Trump’s win. It is easy for me, a white woman, who is not as overtly affected by this as my sisters and brothers who are Black, Muslim, Hispanic, Jewish, etc., to say don’t shame those white folks who voted for Trump. Empathy is a goal, but I think all of us who sit in white pews and preach from white pulpits need to take a long, hard, searching, honest look at ourselves. If any of us have ever studied history, we should not be surprised by the outcome of this election. A black president held the highest office in this country for 8 years; the sad truth is that the backlash — or whitelash as some are calling it — was inevitable. That is not to excuse it, I am just calling it by name. And it happens time and time and time again — to African Americans, to women, etc. If one group threatens to become too prosperous, too successful, white fear and white rage set in. How do we contribute to it? How have we deluded ourselves that we don’t contribute to the problem? How infected are we really by paternalism and privilege? I mean no disrespect to you or to your call for empathy. I agree. But it seems to me that we in the church — predominantly white churches — cannot just call for empathy, we need to confess. My hope is that the Belhar Confession may be one way to begin this process. Thank you for taking time to read this, and thank you for all you do.”

    Reply
  8. Kathy Randall Bryant

    My husband and I are at a very rural church where he is the pastor and I’m free range.

    What I want to do is invite each family over to dinner, to sit at the table with each person over the course of the next year, because we have not heard each other’s stories.

    Reply
  9. Keith Tipton

    I just read this short piece today: http://www.rollcall.com/news/opinion/im-a-coastal-elite-from-the-midwest-the-real-bubble-is-rural-america which makes the point that rural types really don’t get out much, don’t visit the big cities, know no Muslims or gays or immigrants and never have and probably never will. He says it’s on the rural types to get with it and see the world as it is and admit that it has been changing for decades. I always liked going from my small town in SE New Mexico to Albuquerque or Lubbock or even Dallas for a shopping trip or visiting other family or whatever. Is that not what people do any more?

    Reply

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