Today marks a month since the Election Day shocker in the presidential race. I’ve been talking to younger colleagues who, in its wake, were paralyzed by incredulity and disorientation. I certainly understand that a Trump presidency feels apocalyptic to them; I was as stunned and depressed as anyone.
But if there is a silver lining here, it’s that we have seen this awful movie before.
It’s sobering to realize that folk under 40 were either not born, or too young, to have experienced the advent of the Reagan presidency in 1980. To many of us, that moment also seemed apocalyptic. It rhymed in so many ways with our present shitstorm:
Celebrity buffoon doing the bidding of the corporate class confounds political conventional wisdom by mobilizing right wing “populism,” and then populates Washington with the worse sort of (putatively anti-government) far right ideological plutocrats.
Trump—but also Reagan. (This piece from last summer notes at least 15 parallels between the two political phenomena, though written sympathetically to them both. It’s the source of the above photograph of the future and reigning Republican upstarts).
To be clear, the Reagan era was disastrous on so many fronts, and hell on the poor at home and abroad (Central Americans in particular). Moreover, it seeded the political, economic and cultural forces that have come to fruition in Trumpism (including the Project for a New American Century, Fox News, and the politicized Christian Right).
At the same time, let us not forget that that the Reagan years animated many significant social movements of opposition and imagination, such as Witness for Peace, Sanctuary, immigrant rights, radical environmentalism and ecojustice, multicultural insurrections—even Jesse Jackson’s insurgent 1988 presidential campaign.
The thing is, I came of political age during that era. I was 25 in 1980, having been an activist for only 5 years. My point: it is possible (and imperative) to build stronger movements in a chilling season, because we have before.
Trump’s “election” is indeed an apocalyptic moment, in the true sense of that word: his administration will unmask the face of the corporate oligarchs we are truly up against. (I commend the succinct summary in Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times piece entitled “The Pretend Populism of Donald Trump”). But as Jesus reminds us, such disastrous political developments do not portend the end of our work; rather, they invite us into the beginning of our real discipleship (Mk 13:7-8; on this, see here).
I have often wondered if my writing from the 1980s and 90s is too dated for my younger colleagues, especially the book that most passionately outlines my understanding of faith and practice: Who Will Roll Away the Stone: Discipleship Queries for First World Christians (Orbis, 1994). But I don’t think so—especially not now. Because those efforts to reflect theologically on faith-rooted struggles for justice--with their hermeneutical lens of nonviolent resistance to the Powers—were incubated precisely in the dark Reagan/Bush years. So I believe the gospel’s call to radical discipleship resonates more than ever in this new moment.
One things is for sure: we’ll need much deeper theological and spiritual grounding to weather this storm. A thin faith will not do, nor will it inspire powerful social movements of resistance and renewal.
To that end, we warmly invite you to our upcoming annual Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute in February, which we’ll convene her in Oak View, CA, exactly one month after Donald Trump’s inauguration! We will draw on the historic vision of Martin Luther King's "A Time to Break the Silence" sermon, 50 years old next year. And we will deliberate together about how to recontextualize its intersectional analysis and organizing in this cold new political moment.
At this gathering, King’s wisdom will provide a welcome antidote to Trump’s foolishness—appropriately, on the President’s Day holiday. And community solidarity and re-committing ourselves to radical discipleship will remind us, as this week’s Third Advent prophetic reading intones, to
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” (Isaiah 35:3-4)