Something is terribly wrong in America. We are in a mess. Perhaps even more disturbing is that there may be more people wanting to wallow in the mess because they wish to profit from our alienation from each other.
After watching Donald Trump’s weekend rally in Waco, Texas, the biblical story of the valley of bones is the best metaphor that came to mind.
The Wall Street Journal reports: “Trump arrived in Waco on his jet, which performed a fly-over for the crowd, and took the stage to a song performed in part by people sentenced in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. He stood with his hand over his heart as images of the assault were shown on video screens.”
The Hill gave more context: “Former President Trump started off his first official 2024 campaign rally on Saturday in Waco, Texas, with a rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ sung by a group of inmates that are incarcerated for their role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The song, called ‘Justice for All,’ features the defendants, who call themselves the J6 Choir, singing a version of the National Anthem and includes Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance over the track. Trump stood with his hand over his heart as the song played and as images from the Capitol riot, in which Trump supporters stormed the complex to overturn the 2020 election, played on a screen.”
This at a rally set against the 30th anniversary of the FBI raid on the breakaway Mormon sect, Branch Davidians, which also occurred near Waco.
Trump spoke in apocalyptic terms: “And 2024 is the final battle, it’s going to be the big one. You put me back in the White House, their reign will be over and America will be a free nation once again.”
This is idolatry.
Learn from Ezekiel
We should learn from the message preached by Ezekiel to the children of Israel about what would happen to them unless they return to God. He paints a picture of a valley of dead bones: “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.”
America, too, is on the road to the valley of bones. Never forget that democracy can disappear in a fog of fascism and tyranny. We are losing our national consciousness.
“I’m an American” is being replaced with something smaller, more dangerous, more divisive, more cruel.
This is not just about Trump; he’s the carnival sideshow on the road to the valley of dry bones; he’s the cipher in the mess for what’s wrong. The key indicators are greed, a dependence on spectacles and entertainment to numb the pain of meaninglessness, escalating authoritarianism, and an aggressive military always prepared to throw its weight around.
All these evils dominate the American culture right here and right now.
And we have lost all sense of proper empathy.
On the road to perdition
A parade of mini-Trumps and Trump wannabes — many spangled in religious rhetoric — are following this side show on the road to perdition.
Consider Minnesota state senator Steve Drazkowski, who recently said children in his state aren’t hungry enough to justify funding free meals at school. “I have yet to meet a person in Minnesota that is hungry,” he said.
Or Oklahoma state representative Jim Olsen, who recently said the Bible endorses corporal punishment of disabled children.
Or U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who recently spouted: “We need a national divorce. We need to separate by red states and blue states and shrink the federal government. Everyone I talk to says this.”
Pressed on whether this was realistic, she added: “It’s something we should work toward because it’s kind of the vision that our Founding Fathers had for America, and I think it’s great.”
She reminds me of Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who beat Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a walking cane on May 22, 1856, in the United States Senate chamber. Brooks was not censored by the House of Representatives. Instead, he was reelected to the House by his constituents. Sumner was unable to return to the Senate for three years.
“As a result of the caning, the country was pushed, inexorably and unstoppably, to civil war.”
As described by historian Stephen Puleo, “The caning had an enormous impact on the events that followed over the next four years. … As a result of the caning, the country was pushed, inexorably and unstoppably, to civil war.”
While her elected colleagues today seek to cane the poor, the disabled, the minority and the immigrant, Green proposes a rhetorical caning of our Constitution.
Greene will be ignored only by those who mistake her as a solo act rather than the soul of what has become today’s Republican Party. As heretical as Christian nationalism has become, we need to know this was only the beginning. In less than a year, Greene has moved from promoting a government operated by Christians to an embrace of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.
She was, of course, on the platform with Trump in Waco last weekend.
All this is an invitation to hell — or the valley of dry bones.
We are attached
Like it or not, we are attached. We are the United States of America. We are one nation, and some even insist one nation under God. We are one people. No doubt a single political party could go to hell, but not without doing serious damage to the nation. We need each other.
It took Catholics and Protestants more than five centuries to understand neither of us has a story without the other, and some are still grumbling in their beer and bourbon about it.
“In advance of our relentless march to the valley of dry bones, we can offer a different road.”
What can preachers do? We can preach. In advance of our relentless march to the valley of dry bones, we can offer a different road. We can change our ways, change our minds, change our direction. We can make a U-turn and take a new road.
We also can turn to Scripture to remind us there may be a latent fascist waiting to emerge in all powerful politicians. This is why I read Isaiah 14 with Ezekiel 37. God said to Isaiah: “You will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon.” Isaiah obeys God and taunts the king. “O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.’ But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit”.
Nebuchadnezzar went from the penthouse to the outhouse. He went from ruling the world to eating grass. He went from incredible riches to abject poverty. People scorned him, mocked him, derided him. “Who is this punk who once made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms?”
The warning is not just for Donald Trump; it is for us. If we don’t wake up, we are going to end up in the valley of dry bones.
American historian Timothy Snyder, in On Tyranny, advises us: Do not obey a voice of charisma and power without thinking about what he or she is saying. Do not obey the voice in advance. Take responsibility for the face of the world beginning in your local neighborhood because all politics is local. And defend and maintain ethics.
Why? Because character still matters. Believe in truth; pursue it, follow it, keep it. Listen for dangerous words and refuse to follow the slinger of such words. Keep your cool when the unthinkable happens. Be a patriot in its deepest, truest sense. The true patriot carries on a love argument with the nation.
And a true patriot is not motivated by greed or selfishness — the stock-in-trade of Trumpism.
Greed perpetuates a world of scarcity — a world suspicious that showing too much empathy will not leave enough for the privileged. As the prophets preached, empathy must be acted upon, not just spoken of. A liberal who insists on empathy in every area of human life but never takes any action is a person who only uses empathy as a weapon against conservatives.
Empathy is a strong moral value that requires the responsibility, the courage, the will and the strength to act.
At root, this is what is missing from Trump and Trumpism
Fortunately for all humanity, Jesus showed us another way. Perhaps no one has ever expressed it with such power as the Apostle Paul, who said Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”
This is the empathy that should structure all of human life, including our government. There’s no such thing as too much empathy. It is the lack of empathy — replaced by vanity — that hurts us the most and leads us to the valley of dry bones.
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 Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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