We are living through a dangerous moment in our national life, of an intensity and potential for destruction unseen since 1968. Then, a teenager, I watched U.S. Army tanks patrol the streets of Baltimore around the African-American parish where I worked. Now, a Medicare card carrier, I’m just as concerned about the fragility of the Republic and the rule of law.
A uniquely vile presidential campaign has been followed by a post-election rejectionism that conjures up images of 1860. Electoral refuseniks who cannot abide the verdict rendered on November 8 put on a vile display in Washington the day after the inauguration – and this despite President Obama’s plea for civility and a dignified transfer of power. The new administration has not helped matters with its own tendency toward raw-meat rhetoric, seemingly aimed at keeping its electoral base in a state of permanent outrage.
In today’s deeply divided America, the public debate is too often being framed by those who substitute invective for argument while demonstrating a visceral contempt for normal democratic political and legal process. Unless reason reasserts itself over passion, the potential for short term chaos is great and the risk of long-term damage even greater: an ongoing cycle of resentment, bitterness, and revenge that will lead to more of the gratuitous violence that was seen on the streets of Washington this past January 21.
Americans once knew a different way. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the civil rights movement promoted, not rage and disruption, but nonviolent civil disobedience, accepting the penalties imposed under what protesters deemed unjust laws in order to awaken consciences to the injustice of those laws. The canonical text here is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s brilliant Letter from Birmingham Jail. In it, King married a Gandhian theory of nonviolent direct action to Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of the relationship of moral law to civil law, calmly but forcefully explaining his cause and his actions to skeptical fellow-clergymen who were critical of his methods. The Letter is thoughtful, measured, and well worth re-reading – not least because some religious leaders today are taking an opposite tack.
These leaders may imagine that their calls for “disruption,” of the sort Saul Alinsky described in Rules for Radicals, stand in continuity with King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. They do not. They appeal to outrage, not to the people’s instinct for justice. They risk little or nothing, whereas King risked everything. Their program, such as it is, calls for resistance and defiance rather than correction and civic renewal. There is little in their message about “dialogue,” a key theme of Pope Francis; but there is a lot of hot rhetoric about impeding the enforcement of the laws, in terms weirdly reminiscent of the states-rights or “nullification” theory of John C. Calhoun, recently disowned by Yale University for his defense of slavery.
I do not raise these concerns as an apologist for the present administration. I publicly opposed the nomination of Mr. Trump and did not vote for him (or his opponent) last November. A clever e-mail correspondent spoke for me and perhaps many others when he asked, on November 9, “Do the Germans have a word for ‘euphoric dread’?” (They don’t, alas.) The administration has made decisions and appointments I applaud, and decisions and appointments I deplore. I often find the rhetoric from the White House a degradation of what we used to call “the public discourse.” But that fevered talk has been quite matched by the administration’s opponents in a public scream-in.
In a volatile situation like this, the task of religious leaders is not to imitate Saul Alinsky or to mimic Lenin’s strategy of heightening the contradictions. The task of religious leaders is to call their people to live citizenship as discipleship, which in this instance means using the arts of persuasion rather than the anarchic tactics of disruption to do the work of justice. Discipleship will always involve speaking truth to power. But Christian discipleship is a matter of speaking that truth and attempting to persuade others of it, not barking epithets.
Order is fragile. Order is gravely threatened by incivility, from any source. Whatever their politics – left, right, alt-left or alt-right – those contributing to that incivility and that assault on order are playing with fire, which means they’re behaving irresponsibly. Their counsel should be ignored.