Love and Justice in the Age of Trump

How does one live a life of the spirit in times like these?

The road ahead will be long, and at moments, no doubt, it will also be dark.

In just a few short weeks, Donald Trump, a man who is psychologically, morally, and intellectually unfit for office will assume the presidency of the United States. During his campaign, Trump shamelessly paraded his assorted bigotries for all to see; he pretended to care for the kinds of workers he had spent his entire adult life brazenly mistreating; he made countless promises that are just so much pie in the sky. And yet tens of millions of Americans gave him their vote, and he will soon take office.

None of us can know with any certainty what a Trump presidency will bring; I suspect that he himself does not yet know. It seems a reasonable surmise that, as is his way, he will pursue whatever furthers his own aggrandizement and enrichment. Trump has seen that he can get away with just about anything; accordingly, he is emboldened, and he is dangerous. The fact that he is so resolute in his ignorance renders him all the more frightening.

(Perhaps our greatest hope lies in the fact that at bottom, Trump is little more than a hollow opportunist; if he does not feel that pursuing his ugliest threats will serve him, he will simply jettison them, just as he will abandon the workers he purported to care about.)

If the Bible teaches us one thing, it is that God loves the vulnerable and summons us to do the same (Deuteronomy 10:17-18). And so we are called to vigilance: we must commit to protect those in our society who are most threatened. This requires asking very concrete questions: what are my red lines and what will I do if they are crossed? (Such are the burdens of responsible citizenship.)

It is no doubt tempting to celebrate those who fought for civil rights in the past while remaining silent about civil rights in the present. It is about to be 2017, and (to take just two examples) we are still struggling to ensure that African-Americans have the right to vote (there is no greater fraud in American politics than accusations of voter fraud); we are still wrestling with the kind of bias that leads to unarmed black men being killed by (often well-meaning, hard-working) police officers. We earn the right to valorize past heroes only when we agree to carry their mantle.

Eulogize a civil rights hero of the past and you will be congratulated; point out a civil rights crisis in the present and you will often be castigated. So be it: there is a mandate to love, but there is no mandate to be loved. Genuine piety is not a popularity contest. It is about being accountable to God (even as our judgment is always, always fallible), not to those who hold power and dispense prestige at any given moment.

What this precarious moment requires of us is a more intense version of what every moment requires of us: a commitment to love and to justice. We must fight for justice, but a commitment to justice alone is not enough. Love helps us remember that justice is not an abstraction; the lives of real people-- human beings just like us, with hungers, fears, needs, and dreams-- are on the line. (And only love in our own lives will keep us from becoming angry, brittle, and self-righteous.) We must commit to love, but love alone is also not enough. The call to justice reminds us that beyond the ever-crucial mandate to interpersonal kindness and compassion, there are social and structural questions to be addressed. Without confronting racial discrimination and economic despair, what ails us as a society will only fester.

To live in the spirit is to live counter-culturally. Despite what we have just seen, and perhaps because of what we have just seen, we must raise our children to believe that words and deeds do have consequences; we must convince them-- we must model for them-- the sense that every human being on the face of the earth, regardless of race, gender, economic status, or sexual orientation is an infinitely precious child of God. I used to think that the defining issue of our time was going to be the struggle for the full equality of women; now I understand that the struggle will be for elemental decency.

We are not permitted despair; hatred and bigotry cannot be allowed to have the final word. The final word goes to God, who calls to lives of love and justice, no matter the costs.