By Bruce Barkhauer
The day after the election, I noticed that the servers and waitstaff, none of whom appeared to be “from here” (Dallas, TX), were very quiet in the hotel restaurant on the post election morning. They went about their duties politely, but with a countenance of uneasiness. In the afternoon, as I waited for my plane, people of color and ethnic diversity looked back at me with questioning, almost empty eyes.
I am a white male, close to sixty, a bit overweight and on whom clothes never hang quite right - and for all the world to guess, one who looks like he voted to elect Donald Trump President of the United States. “The Donald,” who by his own words has made these people to feel unwelcome, unworthy, un-American – and somehow un-human. I wanted to apologize to every single one of them.
A gay couple clung to each other in the terminal as if they would crumble if they dared to let go. It is hard to speculate what the future will be like for them with an electorate that has handed all the levers of power to people who think they should not be able to love each other or enjoy the same rights and protections that my wife and I do. I fear for my daughter, who is gay and married to her partner. I wanted to tell them, all of them, that I have their back and that I am glad that they are a part of the fabric of our country and that they make us better and stronger for all their diversity. In the worst way I wanted to make eye contact with them to assure them they did not need to fear. I felt unclean, ashamed. I wanted a shower - but this will not wash off. The privilege afforded by my race and gender is the judge and jury of the sin from which I most often benefit, but did not choose.
The ugly truth is that I cannot promise them that they will be okay and safe from their neighbors or their government. But I will stand with them. I cannot promise that the undocumented will not be deported, that the LGBTQ person will be safe from abuse or that their elected leaders will protect or even care about them if they are. But I will seek to protect them. I cannot promise a place for the refugee family fleeing the terror of war and the broken covenant of a government that will neither protect or provide for them. But I will try to make a place for them.
For women who already suffer from a culture that glorifies their sexuality while denying their right to their own bodies; a society which tells them their contribution in work and creativity is worth less than a man’s labor for the same endeavor; and an pervasive attitude that says they should accept unwanted advances and physical contact as “just the way it is” because boys will be boys - I honestly don’t have a word of encouragement that this will change. We have elected to our highest office one who by his own behavior expressed these very “values,” and thus we continued to affirm those twisted values to be normative and acceptable. I will name it for what it is and that it is wrong.
For the kid bullied at school, I cannot promise you that your pain and exclusion will stop since we have chosen a bully to sit in the oval office. But I will stand up for you.
Tears well in my eyes - but they just won’t fully come. It would be a welcome catharsis. With my shame there is also anger. Yes, I am angry at those who chose this candidate because in their desperation for a change they could control in our halls of governance, and their fear of a change they could not shape in our world, they accepted the high cost of moral bankruptcy as a fair exchange.
I am angry with evangelicals who since the 1980s have made “character matters” their mantra but gladly sacrificed it all on the alter of the Supreme Court nominees. It is idolatry of the most subtle sort because it seems so righteous.
I am angry at the media for making this election about everything but the issues and who found more value in reporting news as entertainment instead of accepting the high calling of journalism. Without unbiased reporting, fact checking, and public accountability, a democracy cannot flourish and is subject to tyranny. We forget this at our own peril.
I am angry that emails became more important than tax returns. I really do believe where your treasure is that is where your heart can be found. Money, and what we do with it, reveals character. That information was kept hidden from us for a reason, and somehow that became acceptable. We should have been asking persistent serious questions and demanding they be answered. His opponent was figuratively stripped naked and paraded down main street via congressional hearings and federal investigation so that no secrets could have possibly remained. Every dark corner of her life received the light of sordid exploration. It revealed her imperfections, which oddly paled in comparison to her opponent’s without anyone noticing.
My real anger, however, is directed at myself. I placed my hope in the wrong thing. In my own progressive optimism, I began to believe that the government of my country could reflect the values of my soul. Perhaps “Washington” really could support an egalitarian community that saw commonwealth as primary, and thus individuality as a fruit of rather than the goal of liberty. With gains made in recent years suggesting greater inclusivity, I became both encouraged and lazy. I also saw the attempts to restrict the voices of minorities as Jim Crow raised its ugly head, but I believed our better angels would win the day because the attempts were so blatant that decent people would never allow it to stand. In my imagination, a new Supreme Court justice would help undo this mess, as I too crafted an idol from an empty chair on the high court.
I was wrong and I confess it to all who will read these words. The error was placing my hope in something less than God. As a theologian, I know that putting trust in anything less than the Ultimate will lead to ultimate disappointment. I want this country to reflect my values, but believing that putting someone in the White House or the Statehouse could make that possible was destined to be disaster. It doesn't mean it is not important, just that is not an end in and of itself.
We do well to remember our own history. It was the government that killed Jesus and sought to eliminate his movement of “the way.” When it could not stop Jesus’ movement, the government co-opted it to secure its own hold on power and to preserve its own values. A motive from which we seemingly have never fully escaped. Being too close to the seat of power carries great risk. Distance allows for prophetic perspective.
Creating a culture of generosity, welcome, justice, grace, and one that affirms the value of every person as a child of God is not the work of government – it is the work of the church. We can wish that our government could someday be the catalyst that makes this the law in our land - but we cannot place our hope there alone to make it so. And in the end, the law for all of its benefits, cannot legislate the province which is the human heart. That is reserved for the work of transformation, which again, only God can do, and do so only with the willing.
Bringing a compelling word about a better way of being is the only real hope of living up to the values we claim for ourselves as a nation. We need to engage not just in campaigning but in the work of conversion.
And so we can acknowledge our anger, grief, and sadness at the result of the election. But despite this crushing blow, we are not without hope.
Hope has always been a slim shimmering light in the darkness of despair, a courageous whisper softly spoken against the din of populist provocation, a tender branch unbroken thoughwhipped by the blustering winds of earthly principalities, and above all a belief that what might be is greater than what now exists.
This election should serve as a reminder to the Church - you have what the world needs, the change that it longs for but does not recognize. This is not the time to be paralyzed by our grief, or bound up in our anger, but with resolve on our tear stained faces to get to work as stewards of the good news of the Gospel.
It is up to us welcome to the stranger, create safe spaces for LGBTQ people, to care for the poor, to tend to the needs of the sick, to protect the earth, and by our living in beloved community to leave no doubt that all lives matter. We can pressure the government to conform, but we cannot worship at its alter nor stand voiceless against its abuses. The faith we proclaim believes that the cross and resurrection are less about us getting into heaven, and more about getting heaven into us, and through us, into the world.
I’m embarrassed to be a middle-aged white guy today - but not at all ashamed that I voted for the first women to represent a major party for president. I am deeply disappointed, but I am not without hope.