The New Testament story of Barabbas is the best metaphor I have found for what is unfolding in America after the release of Brittney Griner from a Russian prison.
The conservative branch of our fractured country has erupted like coyotes howling at the moon in blood-curdling protests of false comparisons, strange hyperbole, misunderstandings of patriotism, and garden-variety political pragmatism to condemn Griner, Biden, the Democrats and anyone who supports Griner’s release.
This is not to compare Griner to Jesus or Paul Whelan, the American still wrongly held in Russian captivity, to Barabbas, the insurrectionist the people wanted Herod to release instead of Jesus in the biblical narrative. Both Griner and Whelan are beloved Americans who have been severely mistreated by Vladimir Putin’s autocratic government.
Instead, too many American conservatives are treating Griner like a traitor and insurrectionist who deserves to rot in a Russian penal colony because she is a Black lesbian superstar athlete who once didn’t stand for the National Anthem to protest the treatment of Black Americans. They pile on by believing the trumped-up drug charges against her — minor even if true — make her worthy of Russian punishment just the way they believe Black drivers shot to death by white police officers should have “followed instructions.”
“We can almost hear their cries of ‘Crucify her!’”
Upon awakening Dec. 8 to news of Griner’s negotiated release in a prisoner swap, many political and theological conservatives were in no mood to celebrate; instead, they immediately condemned Griner and the Biden administration for getting the wrong person out. We can almost hear their cries of “Crucify her!”
Something has gone terribly wrong here, but it did not happen overnight.
The bad arguments
Conservative commentators took to the internet and television to argue that a professional basketball player, who is a lesbian married to a woman, has committed a heinous crime and deserves to be in a Russian prison for nine years.
Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business: “I wonder if her stance on American freedom and liberty changes after what she went through, the horror show she had to face. Of course, she did attack the National Anthem in basketball back in the day.”
Matt Walsh of the Daily Wire: “Brittney Griner broke Russian law. She brought drug paraphernalia into Russia. They didn’t fabricate the charges against her. She did it. She deserved to stay in prison until a deal that serves American interests — and includes Paul Whelan — could be reached.”
Political commentator and conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza: “The #BrittneyGriner trade is Biden’s version of Obama’s Bergdahl trade. In both cases America got back a nasty anti-American leftist in exchange for some really bad dudes likely to continue to do harm to this country. This is the Democrat playbook!”
CJ Pearson, a conservative activist: “We traded Brittney Griner for a terrorist and left a Marine behind. Is this supposed to be some kind of ‘win’?”
James Bradley, an aspiring ultra-conservative politician: “Brittney Griner HATES America. Why would Biden bring her back here?”
Nick Adams, a conservative political commentator: “If Brittney Griner ever kneels for the national anthem again, she should be sent back to Russia.”
The real enemy?
So much for the noise. American historian David Blight warns, “It is time to see the real enemy — a long-brewing American-style neo-fascist authoritarianism, beguilingly useful to the grievances of the disaffected, and threatening to steal our microphones midway through our odes to joy.”
Bad arguments have to be fought with good arguments. But they also must be fought with fierce politics, with organization and, if necessary, with bodies, non-violently. Bad arguments fill the outbursts of Griner critics. Babbling like incoherent, rampaging minions, they run the gamut of rhetoric’s traditional list of bad arguments: Either/or, ad homimen, ad populum, false cause, false analogy, circular argument, red herring, and hasty generalization.
Some of their bad arguments enter the realm of absurdity and have no known label.
One of the bad arguments has been the repeated mantra that President Biden left a Marine behind. Here the emotional content plays on the military code: “No one left behind.” Whalen was detained in Russia in 2018 and questionably convicted during the Trump administration — which also was unable to negotiate his release.
His own family issued a statement celebrating Griner’s release and hoping for the same eventually for their loved one.
The Biden administration was forthright in saying they were working diligently on Whelan’s case too but the Russians were not willing to negotiate — just as they were not willing to negotiate with the Trump administration.
“To imply the Biden administration faced a choice of getting only one prisoner released and chose Griner over Whelan is demonstrably false.”
To imply the Biden administration faced a choice of getting only one prisoner released and chose Griner over Whelan is demonstrably false and clearly intended to play to the emotions of illogical people.
These days, bad arguments spill out of conservative mouths like a ripped-open two-pound bag of Peanut M&Ms hitting the floor.
Another example is the accusation that Griner is not a patriotic American because she protested racial injustice by refusing to come out of the locker room and stand for the National Anthem. No one mentions that her entire team remained in the locker room or that the WNBA gave its full support to the protests along with other professional athletes.
The argument that this was “either/or” doesn’t fit the setting. Our Constitution allows us to oppose racial injustice and to protest by not standing for the National Anthem. Declaring cult-like adherence to the National Anthem is a conservative fabrication, not a requirement for citizenship.
“Declaring cult-like adherence to the National Anthem is a conservative fabrication, not a requirement for citizenship.”
Then there’s the bad argument that the deal with Russia makes America look weak and disrespected. This is right out of the Trump playbook. After all, during his campaign for president, Trump constantly whined, “We don’t have victories anymore.” Now, Donald Trump Jr. moans, “How long till other countries realize that they too can take total advantage of the United States and get whatever lopsided trade they could want by simply kidnapping, harassing and wrongfully imprisoning Americans abroad?”
This doesn’t even make sense. But consider the source.
Bad arguments jump to unproved and unprovable assertions. For example, when James Bradley says, “Brittney Griner HATES America. Why would Biden bring her back here?” he implies he knows her deepest thoughts. At no point has Griner ever said she hates America. Instead, she has insisted she loves America enough to protest its wrongs.
The compilation of so many bad arguments leaves me ready to scream.
A lesson from John Adams in 1770
Phil Mushnick reminds us that in 1770, John Adams, a Massachusetts lawyer who lent his intellect and soul to the American Revolution and went on to become the second U.S. president, risked his life and liberty to defend British troops accused of murder in the Boston Massacre, which left five colonists dead.
Adams was vilified by claims of his treason and tyranny because he felt the aggressors were not the British, but a mob of his anti-British Confederates. The facts told him the Redcoats, about to be engulfed by a throng, fired in self-defense. That Adams resented the crown for having shipped troops to Boston was irrelevant. And no matter his personal peril, Adams wanted a fair trial. Adams won the troops’ acquittal, saving their lives.
Critics of Brittney Griner’s release from a Russian prison also need lessons in patriotism. People often confuse nationalism with patriotism. Good patriots are not nationalists. A nationalist is a bad patriot. To protest the release of Brittney Griner for political gain, for petty grudges against liberals, gays, Democrats and others makes cowards of the critics, not patriots.
“Good patriots are not nationalists. A nationalist is a bad patriot.”
For reasons hard to discern, some Americans can’t get it through their heads that dissent is not unpatriotic. In all the hyperbole and outrage over Griner’s release, there’s the echo of a 1960s saying: “America, love it or leave it.”
These are the people who disdain dissent, national debate, deliberation and rational decision-making but favor mindless conformity and obedience no matter the evil involved. According to rhetorical scholar Robert L. Ivie, “Democracy exists only in the presence of dissent,” and as such nothing could be more important than practicing dissent. Dissent is one of the musical scores for democracy’s lyrics.
To accuse Griner of not loving America is a false and misleading charge. Don’t say, “My country, right or wrong.” The true lovers of America say, “When my country is wrong, I protest. I change it.”
‘God mend thine every flaw’
Those who love America do so with a transcendent ethic that alone can fulfill “the patriot’s dream that sees beyond the years, her alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.”
Katharine Lee Bates honored America in her hymn, America the Beautiful, but hers was not a white-washed vision of American perfection. “God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!”
William Sloane Coffin reminded us that “there are three kinds of patriots, two bad, and one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country; a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world.” True patriotism receives into its bosom the storms of dissent, calms, resolves and improves and continues to flourish.
“Bad patriots are bellowing about Griner’s lack of patriotism, but they are not speaking the truth.”
Today, bad patriots are bellowing about Griner’s lack of patriotism, but they are not speaking the truth. The lover’s quarrel always demands full equality and equal rights for everyone. A true patriot never condemns protests. America must honor its protesters. If there never had been any protests, we would not have an expansion of rights for slaves, women, African Americans, working men and women, immigrants, foreigners, gays and Native Americans. But on second thought, some of today’s conservative evangelicals don’t favor those advances either.
True patriots go about doing all the good they can for all the people they can, repairing a broken world, opposing our entrenched fondness for power over nature, humanity, institutions in the name of control. True patriots keep the faith no matter the consequences.
The authoritarians with their legalistic arguments, their insistence on punishment, their false comparisons between Griner and a Marine, their ignorance of true patriotism — they are noise in the breeze. Griner’s critics sound as if she is not one of us, as if she is an alien presence unworthy of our support and loyalty.
Ultimately, these critics stand for something in the American mindset that is much narrower, meaner, less compassionate, than the better angels of our great spirit.
Today, we all should celebrate.
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor in New York state and serves as a preaching instructor at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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