Our Struggle is not with Flesh and Blood

November 6, 2016

I won’t be touching the Gospel reading today, nor will I be preaching directly on Remembrance Sunday, though I think there is a connection to what I have to say. But I really feel I have to speak to the big event in the world this week. Tuesday our neighbours are going to the polls. The good news is, it will finally be over; this horrendous, interminable, soul-crushing election campaign will be done. You know what they say: the great thing about bashing your head against a brick wall is that it feels so good when you stop. The bad news: well, we’ll just have to see, won’t we, how bad the bad news is.

Here’s my dilemma this morning: on the one hand, I am so heartily sick of the whole sad spectacle, as I’m sure you are. We just want it to go away. And after all, we can tell ourselves, it’s not our election, we can ignore it.

On the other hand, I believe that something big is happening, something big and very ugly. Something that may have serious practical consequences for our lives and the life of the planet. But more than that, something that will have spiritual consequences, and in fact is already having spiritual consequences. We are worried, we are afraid, at least we should be. And also, we have already been somehow cheapened, all of us, haven’t we?

What is going on, what is different this time? After all, politics is often dysfunctional, especially American politics. Why is this not about politics as usual, or even really about politics? The difference is, this time the bottom has fallen out. We have a huckster showman and transparent fraud artist with no record of public service, in fact with open contempt for the idea of public service; a man who has boasted of sexual assault, who gleefully breaks every standard of decency; a bully who openly stokes racism and threatens violence. It is like an experiment to find if there is one thing too low, that would actually disqualify someone from being president. The result is depressing. Again and again we hear he has done or said something that will torpedo his campaign – and again and again what happens is that these things do not disqualify him, but rather, the effect is that he has made these things acceptable again.

Whatever our feelings about American politics and culture – and mine are deeply ambivalent – it is a huge part of the history of our time, and to see its integrity undermined as grievously as it has over the past several months is not a good thing for the world.

Which is why, despite feeling heartily sick of the whole business, I feel we need to talk about this this morning. Now I know, you certainly don’t need to hear my amateur political punditry – there is more than enough of that going around! But I believe we do need to make room to reflect on what is going on spiritually.

That really came home to me this week reading an article by the theologian John J. Thatamanil of Union Seminary in New York (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/11/03/4568238.htm). He poses the issue precisely as a spiritual one, and in this way, actually had something new to say about what is going on.

He begins by pointing out that the real problem is not Donald Trump. After all, he has been spreading his vulgar presence around for decades. It is rather the fact that tens of millions people enthusiastically support him. Now come Tuesday (pray God it is so) he will be going back to his TV network – but these tens of millions will still be with us.

Faced with the reality of these people, there appear to be two possible reactions on the part of sane people: righteous anger, an absolutely incandescent rage at his dishonesty and racism; or else a kind of hip mockery, which you can find on the late night talk shows, Jon Stewart or John Oliver, where we make fun of the colossal stupidity that is on parade at the rallies. I confess myself guilty of both attitudes, they can feel very satisfying.

But this is precisely the point at which Dr. Thatamanil calls us to something more. Rage and contempt may be effective political tools in the short run (or maybe not, as it turns out) but ultimately they serve to dehumanize our neighbours. They make us simply wish they would all simply disappear, a sentiment that should give us pause. And they are not going away, they will still be part of American neighbourhoods and communities whatever happens Tuesday, and maybe increasingly here too. As Christians we are called to love our neighbours. Which is why this article calls for a more difficult and challenging reaction. It suggests we need to grieve our neighbours, to grieve the spiritual damage they are inflicting on themselves.

Let me read to you the key paragraph in the essay:

“But another more demanding grief must also be named – namely, the grief that comes with witnessing fellow citizens engage in spiritual self-injury: millions of fellow citizens are permitting themselves to become enthralled by a misogynistic and racist Islamophobe at tremendous cost to self and other. Beneath the anger, outrage and self-righteousness elicited by this sorry state of affairs, we feel also loss and sadness both for those who are threatened by these sentiments but also for those who hold them.”

And then the article goes on to remind us that we must grieve those taken in by Trump’s rhetoric because they are God’s creatures, endowed, like us, with an infinite dignity and worth. Whenever we humans stoop to hatred and lies, it is our own human dignity we are trampling on. We are inflicting spritual self-injury.

My first reaction on reading this was that it sounds so old-fashioned and quaint. Spiritual self-injury is not really a category we use in political discourse. We don’t count the cost of our political positions to our immortal soul, to our innate human dignity. But maybe that is precisely the problem. Maybe it is because we have stopped asking questions in the public sphere about our immortal soul that we have arrived at this point where everything goes.

The second thing I find helpful about this article is how it clearly distinguishes between the ideas, which are absolutely hateful, and the people who espouse them, whom we are supposed to respect as God’s creatures. It reminds us who the real enemy is, the ideas and not the people. There is a biblical principle at work here. In Ephesians we read:

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Now the language of Ephesians is foreign to us; it probably sounds a bit over the top. We’re not comfortable with all this talk of spiritual forces of wickedness and cosmic powers of darkness. So whenever we come across language like this in the New Testament (and there is a surprising amount of it), we tend to ignore it as crazy talk. But some theologians in recent decades have challenged us to look again at what is called the “language of the Powers” in the New Testament, suggesting that it has something to teach us about the realities it names. We are not to imagine this reality as a supernatural world of invisible demons spooking around in the air; we are not to take it that literally. Rather, the language of the Powers names a reality that is embedded in human institutions and ideas. It is a way of talking about the rather complex reality that the words we use, the ideas we believe in, and the institutions we serve, tend to take on a life of their own. Although they are human creations, they develop a power that is bigger than any one of us, and then they start to control us.

That is why we really do have to take the way we use language seriously. And that is why there is a real danger in the rhetoric of hatred and racism and flagrant untruthfulness that Donald Trump has so energetically adopted. It has a much greater power than this one man, a power that will continue to inflict harm long after this petty man has gone away. These habits of language will just keep on corroding our common life with their contempt for any standards of civic decency.

Now of course, sure, Trump is no Hitler. He doesn’t have the discipline, to begin with, or the work ethic. At least Hitler had a program, evil as it was. But in the language Trump uses, the boasting glorification of bullying and violence, the contempt for the weak, the scapegoating of minorities, the mocking of standards of decency, I don’t see a big difference from the way Hitler was talking in the 30s. And I fear the demons he has conjured up will still be poisoning public life in the US and throughout the world, long after he is gone. Worse still, perhaps the next person to take up this language will be less of a venal, depraved spoiled child, and something altogether more sinister, driven, and focussed.

“Our battle is not with flesh and blood”; but – and this is the reason I am talking about this this morning – it is our battle. Not the battle against Trump, perhaps; we have no say in that. But the battle against the demons he has summoned up: against blatant, open, shameless lying; against the unrepentant sexism and racism of smug privilege; against the cheapening of public policy to a showbiz clash of egos; against the embrace of violence and bullying.

These are all things we are called to take up the battle against. Whenever we see these demons raise their ugly head in our community, in our civic life, in conversation at Tim Horton’s – and I predict we will be hearing more of it, now that the demon has been awakened – it is our job to take a stand. Not against the people, not reacting to our neighbours in anger or contempt; but against the ideas.

It is our job to stand up for another set of values. Call them what you like, call them Christian, call them Canadian, call them simple decency. We need to stand up for careful truthfulness; for the responsibility to understand and care about one another, rather than reject others in contempt; for respect for those different than ourselves; for special attention to the weak; for common human decency.

You know what’s crazy? There’s this perception out there that Christian faith, that the values Jesus taught, are all very sweet and quaint, but are somehow irrelevant and meaningless in today’s world. This sense can be so strong that we sometimes start believing it ourselves. We can start thinking of our faith as our own private thing, but that we don’t have a real role to play as Christians in our society. And all the while those attitudes that are the exact opposite of what we believe are on the rise, and dragging civic life (at least south of the border) into the gutter. What are we missing here? It seems to me that the values we hold to as Christians are more relevant and necessary than ever, that our voices need to be heard, more and more with each passing day.

And finally, please pray. Pray for those who give way to this rhetoric, who are tempted by the allure of rage and contempt, pray for their dignity as human beings, for the integrity of their souls. And pray like hell for the lesser evil to triumph on Tuesday!