The day the news services began to project that Joe Biden had won the U.S. Presidential election, I found it hard to stop weeping. As joyous countrymen and women reflecting the colors of our human rainbow danced in our nation’s streets, I felt as if a six ton elephant had finally stepped off my chest. I could breathe again. And I slept well that night for the first time in a long time.
Stanching the Hemorrhaging, Saving the Soul
Biden had been elected to be the Healer-in-Chief of a people deeply divided and a nation-state grievously wounded after four years of jingoistic, sectarian demagoguery. His election came at the end of a dark night of the soul in which the world held its breath as its most powerful nation appeared at times to be teetering on the edge of a dark authoritarianism only hinted at by historical antecedents.
From the beginning of the recent election it was always clear to me that the most urgent aspect of a change of leadership was simply the stanching of the hemorrhaging of the nation. Once the patient was stabilized, we would then have to look at deeper issues.
One of the real strokes of genius of the Biden campaign was its appeal to his countrymen and women to vote to save the very soul of America. It is rare that a political campaign can even recognize something as deep and as non-immediate as a nation’s soul and even rarer that its populace would respond to such an appeal.
That call came at a time when our nation is being required to come to grips with the crisis of a pandemic that threatens the health and the economies of the world. It also comes at a time when issues larger than the immediate loom on the horizon: America’s role in the world, systemic racism, income inequality and climate change.
Rosa sat so Ruby could walk so Kamala could run.
Mr. Biden will have his hands full, to say the least. It is gratifying to know that he will have the assistance of a very capable Vice President, the first woman and the first person of color to hold that office. The American success story that Kamala Harris embodies has won the hearts of our country and reflects the New America that is even now emerging from our nation’s womb.
The election was not good news across the board by any stretch of the imagination. At this point it is not likely that Mr. Biden will have a Democratic Senate to work with. And a Supreme Court recently stacked with Federalist Society ideologues could well prove a formidable obstacle to any programs the Biden administration would propose.
But deeper concerns arise from the patterns of voter response revealed by exit polls across the country. The divide between red and blue voters largely boiled down to two basic factors: race and religion. The 47% of Americans who voted to reelect a presidency marked by chronic dishonesty, cronyism and xenophobic tribalism were heavily white and evangelical.
Binding Wounds But No Cheap Grace
It is a troubling reality and in the time since the election, two thinkers have shaped my response to this revelation.
The first is Abraham Lincoln. A deeply spiritual man who stood at the helm of state through our nation’s deadliest war, Lincoln wrestled with how to bring a deeply divided country back together as the war neared its end. As he began his second term as president, he sought a reunion of his war-torn country even as he recognized both the natural punitive tendencies victors in wars always feel entitled to exercise as well as the resentful reluctance of the losers to submit to their power.
Lincoln knew that a response from the victorious North rooted in revenge would prove catastrophic to any hopes for reconstruction of the defeated South and any reunion of the country that would prove more than superficial. And so in his Second Inaugural address, he appealed to the “higher angels” of his countrymen and women advocating:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…
Binding up the nation’s wounds was the first order of business for Lincoln much as it is for Joe Biden. The process designed to produce healing would take place in an atmosphere marked by distrust, dishonesty and disrespect felt by both of the former bitter opponents. And yet, with its wounds unhealed, America could not survive. Lincoln knew this implicitly and so does Joe Biden.
But it is important to recognize that Lincoln’s compassion for the suffering in the nation was only part of his approach: “[W]ith firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” Much like the Hebrew Scriptures upon which Lincoln often drew for wisdom, mercy must always tempered by justice.
This brings to mind the second thinker who has shaped my response to the election, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A leader of the Confessing Church amidst the rise of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer would end up being imprisoned and executed by the Nazis for his role in a failed attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler.
Bonhoeffer is perhaps most remembered for his critique of what he called “cheap grace:”
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
One should hear an echo of Lincoln’s concern here: “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right…” Healing cannot happen without a recognition of the harm done to others, as all exercises in restorative justice teach us.
What is required before reconciliation can occur is repentance - rethinking, reconsideration, reexamination and reflection - on the part of all the parties involved. It means recognizing that the first elephant in the back of the room is systemic racism. It is the product of America’s original sin beginning with the genocidal conquest of the indigenous peoples and continuing with the practice of chattel slavery whose legal and cultural progeny haunt us to this day. It is going to mean coming to grips with the fears that play out in nightmares for European descendants who can no longer presume their own lives to be the norm for what it means to be an American. It means they will be called to share space and power with people from around the world. It means facing the fears that blind us to the creative potential of the synergy this New America promises.
For many people of faith, it is going to require a willingness to admit that the candidate they fervently and uncritically supported was a walking repudiation of the faith they say they profess. In their support for an administration that routinely embodied virtually all of the Bible’s deadly sins beginning with “a lying tongue,” it is difficult to see much of the Way of Jesus in any of that.
Regardless of its appeal to a fetishized approach to abortion, the tsunami of misanthropy that has marked the outgoing administration is simply impossible to reconcile with the great commandment at the heart of the Christian tradition that calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves.
That begins with the racial divide revealed in our voting patterns. It is hardly a secret that the outgoing administration engaged in systematic appeals to racist dog whistles and coddled white supremacist groups even as a nationwide outcry erupted over the targeting of black victims by police violence. That doesn’t necessarily make its supporters racists any more than it makes mere bystanders at a fire arsonists. But when the bystanders begin to supply the kerosene for the arsonist (unquestioned loyalty) and block the fire engines seeking to extinguish those blames (denial of the harm being done), at some point they must be seen as aiding and abetting a social pathology.
A religion which consistently engages in behaviors which betray the beliefs they allegedly profess will rightly be seen by outsiders as lacking in respectability if not legitimacy. In a day when the fastest growing reported religious affiliation is “none of the above,” being seen as illegitimate could well be the kiss of death.
A Festering Heartland
While the divides that this election revealed were primarily racial and religious, other distinctions also raise failings where repentance must occur before reconciliation can result. The rural/urban and educational attainment divides revealed in exit polls reflect a culture whose technological revolution and globalized economy have left many behind to suffer alone. The addiction and overdose rates from our heartland are a warning sign to a country mesmerized by the various forms of media which largely serve to distract us.
It is not hard to understand how the people left behind in these fundamental shifts in our economy would be resentful of the beneficiaries of these shifts, those who have been more prone to view them with contempt than compassion adding insult to existential injury. It is precisely among such people that charismatic demagogues - whose siren songs of rage and resentment have recognized and articulated their suffering - have always found support. The blind loyalty their followers display never arises in a vacuum.
It is deeply tempting to want our country to simply get on with things, to get back as close to “normal” as we can amidst a pandemic now that this election is completed. We are exhausted, mentally and spiritually. But we cannot just move on. There is no cheap grace to be had. If we are to recover from this round of the cold civil war just ended, it will require coming to grips with the demons that haunt us. Once our nation’s bleeding has been stanched, it will be time to begin that long road to self-confrontation and recovery.
In the Morning Prayer I led on Election Day, I ended our prayers with this plea: “May G-d please bless America…” If there has ever been a time when America needed G-d’s guiding presence with us, it is now.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2020