In recent days I’ve mused about the urgent challenges that prophetic people face as we live and work in communities and congregations affected by what renowned Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann termed “the national security state.” In his 2011 book, Disruptive Grace: Reflections on God, Scripture, and the Church, Brueggemann wrote that every pastor joins folk in walking a “journey of vulnerability, dread, and surprise” and that “every pastor is compelled to talk the talk of vulnerability, dread, and surprise.”
These days I wonder how pastors in the United States are “talking the talk” of “vulnerability, dread, and surprise” considering the tremendous amount of denial about the latest threats to liberty, justice, democracy and peace posed by President Donald Trump and the Trump administration’s actions and policies.
To name but a few:
- Trump ordered and bragged about the murder of a leading figure in Iran (Qassam Suliemani).
- Trump fired people who testified truthfully (and in compliance with congressional subpoenas) about the unlawful withholding of security aid to Ukraine to advance his personal political interests.
- Trump profaned what was supposed to be a bipartisan National Prayer Breakfast by threatening retribution against his political opponents, which clearly was no empty threat.
- Trump publicly opposed sentencing recommendations from career Justice Department prosecutors concerning his political supporter and crony Roger Stone, convicted on seven federal criminal counts including witness tampering and lying to investigators.
- Trump led a hateful campaign of vitriol against Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the lone Republican member of the Senate to vote to find the president guilty of abuse of power.
These latest examples notwithstanding, the U.S. president’s sociopathic personality, intellectual dishonesty, voracious greed and pathological vanity are not the greatest threats to democracy, liberty, justice, and peace in this country and across the globe. The greatest threats stem from the fact that people in the U.S. have long been in denial about racism and white supremacy, sexism and patriarchy, capitalism and materialism, militarism and authoritarianism, and white religious nationalism.
“People who live in denial about truth must be boldly confronted.”
That denial is so deep-seated and longstanding that people now fail to realize or refuse to admit that Trump represents what has long been obvious about U.S. public policy. As South African liberation theologian Allan Boesak shared with me in an email exchange one week after the 2016 presidential election, “Donald Trump is not a new, alien phenomenon that has fallen out of the clear blue sky. He is … the logical and inevitable consequence of American politics.”
The painful truth people that must now be told with trumpet-like clarity is this: The majority of U.S. citizens, including religious people and their leaders, deliberately chose to be a society driven by lies, capitalistic greed and corruption, and imperialistic militarism, bigotry, and violence.
The United States rejected Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic warning on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values” away from what King termed the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” Politicians, journalists, commentators and other pundits from both leading national political parties denounced King for daring to say:
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death….There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”
We live in a moral creation where present choices are related to future consequences and past choices have produced our present crisis. Senate Chaplain Barry Block emphasized that point in his invocation on Jan. 31 when he reminded senators during Trump’s impeachment proceeding that we always reap what we sow. We reap what we sow, no matter how much we engage in denial, because we live in a moral creation.
Now the United States is reaping the bitter harvest of centuries of lies about itself and hypocrisy about being committed to liberty, justice, democracy and peace. In the words of the cartoon figure Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
“We reap what we sow, no matter how much we engage in denial, because we live in a moral creation.”
People who live in denial about truth must be boldly confronted by prophetic truth-tellers. Truth-telling is a moral imperative no matter who may resent hearing the truth, no matter who may refuse to believe the truth, and no matter what people who oppose the truth may do to truth-tellers.
The harsh truth is that our present crisis is not merely due to Trump’s pathological presidency and its wickedness. We are here because we refused to know the truth about this nation. We refused to tell the truth to one another about this country’s unjust beginning and unjust conduct from that beginning. We rejected truth-telling prophets. Trump’s presidency is the harvest we are reaping.
Now this society must be told the truth with the same kind of prophetic clarity and moral conviction as the dreadful words Jeremiah declared concerning Judah in an oracle that merits quoting at length:
Declare this in the house of Jacob,
proclaim it in Judah:
Hear this, O foolish and senseless people,
who have eyes, but do not see,
who have ears, but do not hear.
Do you not fear me? says the Lord;
Do you not tremble before me?
I placed the sand as a boundary for the sea,
a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass;
though the waves toss, they cannot prevail,
though they roar, they cannot pass over it.
But this people has a stubborn and rebellious heart;
they have turned aside and gone away.
They do not say in their hearts,
‘Let us fear the Lord our God,
who gives the rain in its season,
the autumn rain and the spring rain,
and keeps for us
the weeks appointed for the harvest.’
Your iniquities have turned these away,
and your sins have deprived you of good.
For scoundrels are found among my people;
they take over the goods of others.
Like fowlers they set a trap;
they catch human beings.
Like a cage full of birds,
their houses are full of treachery;
therefore they have become great and rich,
they have grown fat and sleek.
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness;
they do not judge with justice
the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper,
and they do not defend the rights of the needy.
Shall I not punish them for these things?
says the Lord,
and shall I not bring retribution
on a nation such as this?
An appalling and horrible thing
has happened in the land:
the prophets prophesy falsely,
and the priests rule as the prophets direct;
my people love to have it so,
but what will you do when the end comes?
(Jer. 5:20-31, NRSV)
There can be no doubt: An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land. What will we do – before the end comes? Sooner or later, people who feed a death wish find a way to destroy themselves.