Two Sundays ago, President Donald Trump called for NFL owners to fire any player who kneels during the national anthem.
The ensuing media backlash resulted in what has become so common after statements from President Trump: a people divided.
A New Normal
How Trump’s statements cause division is seen regularly in his peculiar use of Twitter.
He tweets. He incites a controversy. It then divides the American populace. It leads to one side—his “base”—digging in and defending the president against the side which has been energized against him. In the process, his “base”becomes more deeply ensconced in allegiance towards him, becoming even more loyal to him than they were before.
So these past weeks, NFL football players joined hands, locked arms, and took a knee in defiance of Mr. Trump’s tweeting. But Mr. Trump was fine with that. Trump creates enemies intentionally, and in so doing, he solidifies his base. By all appearances then, Trump’s latest Twitter storm was a success. His objectives were accomplished one more time. Is there anyone on any of the sides of American politics that doesn’t see this? Trump creates enemies intentionally, and in so doing, he solidifies his base. Click To Tweet
After the violence of Charlottesville, Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former policy advisor, notoriously claimed Trump’s “all sides” comments was a win for Trump (see Bannon’s comments here). Bannon claimed, that any time the President can put the country’s focus onto another identity group in a war against his own base – he wins. Each time, he uses the orchestrated backlash to align “his base” towards himself with more fervor and allegiance than before. As Bannon says: isolate one group’s rights over white people, and “economic nationalism”—code word for white privileged economy—will win every time. It is the new normal of American politics.
And so the strategy of the White House is to bait the citizenry into an ideological antagonism any time they need to. Absurdly, Trump did this with the Puerto Rico tragedy this past weekend. So I ask our readership, is this strategy not obvious to all?
As a result, it’s hard to know how to be a citizen, going from one piece of incitement to the next. Amidst the never ending constant distraction, Trump keeps our heads spinning—and we are slowly being worn down. We sense we have little impact. It is all part of the way ideology works.
Christians, therefore, face a quandary: do we participate in the Trumpian stoking of antagonisms that has become the new normal for USA politics? Or do we sit in silence and just watch it go on?
This is the dilemma of the new normal of US politics today.
#TakeAKnee as an Opportunity for God to Work
But perhaps those two options above are not our only options. I suggest viewing #TakeAKnee as a model opportunity—a model for how Christians may enter in to the antagonisms of our society and open up space for God to work for His transformation in the world.
I suggest viewing every President Trump induced antagonism as such an opportunity, no matter how many times he rolls it out.
To do this, I suggest three tactics:
1) Disrupt to open, not close down, space.
Were you one of the angry justice warriors tempted to enter the #TakeAKnee controversy by hurling anger and snark, demonizing anyone who agreed with Trump? If what I have said above is true, you actually played into Trump’s hand.
Every time you demonize those who disagree with you, the President wins. It’s the way ideology works. Every time you demonize those who disagree with you, Trump wins. Click To Tweet
Let us instead disrupt the ideology by entering the social space of the argument. Even with facebook, resist attack. Sit peacefully (this forces us to locating antagonisms with real people, social situations and relationships). Then, as space allows, ask good questions, reveal contradictions (with humor if at all possible). Disrupt peacefully, in a way that opens space, as opposed to closing it down, for discussion and mutuality.
We cannot expect God’s justice to come without disrupting the frameworks people are trapped in—and that includes us. So disruption is to be expected. Jesus realized his presence alone would disrupt the world (Luke 12:51; Matthew 10:34). But speaking truth directly to (worldly) power is the strategy of those who have (worldly) power. Instead, Jesus asked questions, observed contradictions, revealed the true motives of people in power. He helped those who had eyes to see what was happening.
Let us disrupt like Jesus. Disruption is good, but we cannot enter into the issues of our day on the terms given to us by an ideologically-driven and antagonism-based society. It’s a skill we need these days more than ever. Let us disrupt in a way that opens space, not closes it down. Click To Tweet
2) Don’t underestimate the power of small places.
The temptation is to get so wrapped up in the world of social media or national discourse that you forget to engage with the people around you. Resist that! Instead focus on being with people in real social spaces in your neighborhoods. Every time an antagonism bursts out in a group, make space for His presence to inhabit. Pray for His presence in that space. Then engage through the questions and observations tactics suggested above.
In every angry person, there’s a story. There’s a background to their hurt, suffering, and pain. If God can open a space to get to that pain, there shall be opportunity for healing, salvation, reconciliation, and a new world to be born. Whenever God opens a space to get to our pain, there is opportunity for a new world to be born. Click To Tweet
When I visited Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, the church Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pastored at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, I was shocked by how small it was in the shadows of the state capitol buildings down the block. And yet God used this place to begin discussions and tactics. When I saw the Greyhound Bus Station in Montgomery a little bit down the road, I could not believe how small and insignificant it looked. Yet here, just a few freedom riders rode those buses, defying the Jim Crow laws regarding where and when people of color could ride those buses. The frames were disrupted. Riots broke out. Conversations began. And from these little places, a movement grew, and new efforts and legislative change began. It was driven by non-violent presence in the spaces of Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma.
It is amazing how one guy—Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, a simple act of resistance—set off the #TakeAKnee movement and disrupted the edifice of empire called the National Football League. But it was simple. It was nonviolent. It was the presentation of his body as an act of presence, saying something huge.
It now, however, risks being subsumed and absorbed into the very structures of power that shape that racism in the first place. And so we see Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, taking a knee on the field with his players, with no reflection as to what that might mean for his own life, his business practices, or his team operations. We are beginning to see how #TakeAKnee can become branded to enhance and sell the NFL, bypassing any change it might require.
This is why awareness is only the beginning of a journey towards justice.
If Colin Kaepernick’s #TakeAKnee just stirs up a bunch of anger and antagonism, firing up Trump’s base, things will be no better. Indeed, they will be worse. If we are not careful, raising awareness can be used by the structures of worldly power to divide, and further the agenda of the existing structures of power.
But this need not be. Every antagonism, every disruption can be the place for Christians to make space for Christ’s presence, conversations, reconciliation, prayer, Kingdom dynamics, action, and change. But we must disrupt peacefully. When the opportunities come, we must do the on-the-ground work of opening space for relationally engaging the issues, and whatever else God would empower us to do. Don't underestimate the power of small places. This is where God works. Click To Tweet
3) Start with Listening.
As we tend to the presence of Christ in those small places, we start by listening.
I was on my back deck two Sunday nights ago. Some neighbors were over. We were getting into some touchy subjects. Some of the conversation was getting a little testy. I took a deep breath, prayed God’s presence be here, and leaned in to ask some peaceful, yet intense, questions. Looking into my neighbor’s eyes, I looked for what God might be doing by the Spirit in His life and in this space. I looked for what I might learn. I trusted God, by His presence, to open space. Good things started to happen.
I’m not always good at that. But when I engage His presence among us, I’ve seen God work.
What starts out small can lead to an earthquake. The ground shifts. I know a woman today who, when I first met her, was over a year without a home. Through a year-long journey, she found a home in our church community and in a local apartment building. Racist arguments started boiling over this summer in the back parking lot. She stood in the midst, asking questions, pointing out contradictions, making observations. I’ve seen her start a Bible study among some of those same people. It is amazing how disruptive this woman is to the racism in this place by just a posture of listening, asking bold questions, and making bold observations in this small place in town.
“Start with listening” can sound so trite. But it can not only change a life, it can change a neighborhood, and then the world. Start w/listening may sound trite but it can change a life, a neighborhood, & then the world. Click To Tweet
This nation’s current president desires to divide a people for his own purposes. Will the Church resist the antagonisms that have become the new normal and instead, use these moments as opportunities to be faithfully present among people for whom these antagonisms are real in their everyday lives? Will the church see this new normal as the opportunity to be the church and work for God’s subversive healing revolution that our country so desperately needs in this time in American politics?