This is an absurdly long essay that goes nowhere. I doubt you want to read it. You probably would be better off googling cute puppies instead.
I am going to “think out loud” by writing about the interaction between pastoral availability, political responsibility, and free speech. So, if you want something concise, with definitive answers, and clear applications, you might NOT want to keep on reading. If however, you want to think alongside me, you are welcome to. Perhaps it might help you come to understand what you think by way of commenting on or critiquing what I have to say.
This all starts with a late night social media post. This is where a lot of things go wrong for many people I know. I had initially posted about our Christian responsibility to pray for the new President, even if we are fearful and anxious that he will do an incompetent or malevolent job of governing. Late that night, way down in the comments— in a comment on a comment on a comment— I let loose with some less than flattering caricatures of our President and Vice-President. And that is to my shame.
Because doing this kind of thing is against what I preach, and what I usually practice. In fact, in the past I have reprimanded people online and in person for scathing caricatures of both Presidents Obama and Bush, as well as numerous other people across the years. I believe we should love our neighbors as ourselves, even if we despise the actions they are taking. We can criticize actions, but we must respect and honor persons. At least that is what I try to practice. When we disagree with someone bitterly about economics or military intervention or healthcare or any number of issues, I always think it is best to stick with critiquing the issues.
Thus, it is always irrelevant to criticize someone’s physical appearance, unless they are trying to tie their physical appearance into their message (such as TV prosperity preachers: I will give anyone a pass on making fun of their appearance and affectations). It is usually irrelevant to criticize someone’s private life, except insofar as it affects their ability to govern (such as the crack smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford). And it is always wrong to make fun of the spouse or children of someone just because of who they are related to (unless, of course, they have an active role in governing as well, in which case we should criticize policies not persons).
So, all of those moral principles above: I ignored them. I let fly a short paragraph of invectives about Trump and Pence. And someone would have been right to call me on it in the comment thread. But no one did.
Instead what happened was that I was contacted (in a kind way) by a superior saying that the post was inappropriate (which it was), and that while expressing my reasoned opinion was a good thing, being intentionally divisive and contemptuous would alienate people I should be ministering to (which is true). After all, I am a pastor to everyone, regardless of whether they voted, or who they voted for. And, honestly, the comment I am referring to was hypocritical to my own beliefs about public discourse.
I was never asked to take the comment down. But I did. Because it was the right thing to do.
Now, here’s the rub: The supervisory figure found out about it because someone who did not comment on the thread lurked through the comments, found it, and showed it to my superior. Instead of contacting me, they “leveled up” and sought someone who had censorial power over me. Perhaps this was non-malicious: A spontaneous “Can you believe what he posted? That’s over the top!” Or perhaps it was intended to chill and silence. But I will never know because I never had the conversation.
They could have engaged in the discussion and said “that was inappropriate”, or even “Nate you are being an asshole” (which I was). But it raises the ethical issue: I should have self-censored in this case. But I didn’t. And anyone on social media could have asked me to self-censor by pointing out my hypocrisy in the comments. But it seems a breach of sorts to forego civil discourse altogether and find someone to hit the censor button.
Even before that post, I have been wary of what it might mean to post dissent in a culture that tilts heavily in the opposite direction. Since then, I have really been “looking over my shoulder”, hesitant to post certain things. And again, it is good to be hesitant of posting things that are against one’s moral compass. It is also good to be hesitant of posting things which could bring harm to someone else who does not deserve it. But it is edging toward totalitarianism when you become hesitant of posting things— not because it is harmful to anyone, or because it is against your moral code— but because you worry that someone might be lurking in the shadows, waiting for some kind of reprisal.
And I will say that this is not the only time I have been asked or encouraged to censor myself. Just the most recent. Most of these requests were kind. Some were not. Many were also correct that the post or article or email I had authored went too far and needed to be reeled back in.
And this, of course, is so very tame compared with what many suffer through. There are those who have been publicly critical of politicians through the years— and this administration in particular— who have suffered from severe trolling, threats, and even violence. I am in NO WAY comparing this to what activists or whistle blowers go through. But if fairly gentle censoring incidents are enough to chill me, I cannot imagine what it must be like to actually be thorn in the side of Power.
All of this came to me when I realized how WEIRD it was to report someone to their superiors for a post rather than just confront them directly. For instance, I have confronted people publicly and privately, online and in person, for making comments I found to be harmful or hateful to other persons. If they persisted, or became trolls, I have sometimes “unfriended” them, or otherwise limited my access to them. And, to be honest, if they seemed to be an actual threat to themselves or to others, I would contact law enforcement (this is a standard part of counseling and pastoral ethics, actually).
But I don’t think I have ever, or would ever, contact someone’s superior and seek to have them censored or silenced. Not even in a gentle way.
I know far too many people— online and in person, at work and privately— who have equated Bush or Obama or Hillary or Trump with Hitler, who view them as evil, and have wanted them to encounter harm or death. More ugly memes than anyone should see in a lifetime come to mind. And while I have confronted people about, and on occasion have been confronted about, statements such as this, I have never tried to coerce their censorship.
So, has it come to the place where, as a culture, we are going to censor freedom of speech, by seeking to censor each other? And if it has come to that place, is it a harbinger of something more repressive coming in our culture? For now, let us bracket these questions, and return to the issues of political responsibility and pastoral accessibility.
On one hand, my situation is different from many. I have a literal “bully pulpit”, and regularly have over 500 people listening to what I say at any one time. And those 500 people represent a very diverse swath in terms of gender, ethnicity, culture of origin, religion, and political viewpoint. To the best of my ability, I need to follow St. Paul’s dictum to “become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (cf. 1Co 9.22). Thus, I cannot alienate a whole swath of people, and make them feel like I view them as “less than”, because we disagree about political policies.
The truth is, we are all at least a little wrong, a little right, quite a bit shortsighted, and infinitely loved by God. And if I let the temporary problem of politics hinder someone from encountering the eternal Love of God and healing of Christ, then I have failed as a pastor. So it is NEVER right, as a pastor, for me to speak out on political problems in such a way as to say to one side “You are completely in line with God’s will”, while saying to the other side “You are wrong and worthless and have no place”. A great example of this is when we label people with unredeemable labels which do not allow them the dignity of change and repentance. For instance, by calling them “Nazis” when they have not labelled themselves as Nazis. I have written about this problem elsewhere, as well as hypocritically ignored my own advice several times in the last two decades.
But here is the flipside: A good pastor cannot exempt themselves from speaking out on political policies either. Ceasing to ridicule and condemn persons does not imply ceasing to ridicule and condemn policies and activities. There are some policies that involve embracing values which are antithetical to following Christ, and antithetical to the health of society and the individual. And if we do not speak out on these policies and activities, we thereby actively contribute to the sickness of society at large, and our congregation members in particular.
And it seems to me that there are moral and spiritual values at work in the policies advocated by this Administration which destroy people and rip apart the fabric of society. There is implicit and explicit racism and xenophobia. There is an embrace of anti-intellectualism. There is an advocacy that the highest good of humans is the accumulation of wealth, possessions, and power. There is a sense that moral values do not matter as long as we gain power, because “the end justifies the means”. There is a zero-sum logic where the world has to be divided into “us” versus “them”, and “we” have to demonize and crush “them” completely. And all of these values have specific embodiments in policies and political appointments which are worrying, to say the least.
And it is not entirely fair to say “Why didn’t you criticize Obama for similar issues?” It is not fair because a person can only criticize what is apparent for them to criticize. I simply wasn’t as aware of certain things at an earlier stage in my life. And secondly, I have criticized Obama and Bush before him for manifestations of these values. I have criticized our seemingly endless and fruitless wars of empire in the Middle East. I have criticized how corporations have increasingly gained control over all public spaces, all public speech, and all the levers of public power. I have criticized the Surveillance State and how civil liberties are under attack. I have criticized the financial welfare given to corporations in the 2008 bailouts, as well as the abysmal failure of compromise legislation on Universal Healthcare which is Obamacare.
So, is Trump doing similar KINDS of activities to Obama and Bush before him? Yes. But, is he also doing these things with a greater intensity and frequency than those before him? Yes. Effective con men and effective salesmen both use similar tools, and perform similar activities. What separates them is the intensity and frequency of such activities, and the motive for which they are accomplished.
Jesus warned pastors to warn their flocks about wolves in sheep’s clothing (cf. Matthew ch. 7). If, as a pastor, I become fundamentally convinced that someone is a wolf in sheep’s clothing— or even just a wolf dressed as a wolf!— then we are duty bound to say something to those around us. In the words of the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah: Woe to us if we do not warn about the things we see which can destroy our people.
I find Trump to be a con man, a wolf in wolf’s clothing, who seems to be a clear and present danger to everyone in our Democracy. I could be wrong. But I doubt it. And this doesn’t mean I am therefore a fan of Obama or Hillary. If anything I would characterize Hillary as a lesser evil than Trump, not a positive good. And she seems to be a continuation of the largely negative presidency of Obama. I think Bush and Obama, and also Hillary, are various degrees of wolves in sheep’s clothing. But a wolf that has enough of a sense of caution and shame to wear sheep’s clothing is morally preferable to a wolf who has no sense of shame, and boldly wears wolf clothing.
If I am fundamentally convinced of this threat level, I am compelled to say SOMETHING, even if that something has to be worded in a way as to let all people know they are loved and redeemable in Jesus Christ.
And while we are here, let’s talk about threat levels. I know many who have said for years that Obama was the world’s greatest threat: That he would take all of our guns and throw us into FEMA concentration camps after the completion of Jade Helm. None of that, of course, came true. And the converse is now being claimed, and counter claimed, about Trump. Some see him as a clear and present danger, while others say that we will look back in 8 years on Anti-Trumpers in the same way we are looking back now on Obamanation conspiracy theorists.
But as an analogy, let’s take two people: One thinks that unpasteurized milk is a horrible danger. But they think it is fine for someone to drink alcohol until they get a bit tipsy, and then drive home. After all, they have known family and friends who have done that for years, and nothing bad has ever happened other than driving into a ditch every now and then. The other person drinks unpasteurized milk every day. But they think that drinking and driving is incredibly dangerous and should be punished by the fullest extent of the law.
Now, both are right in one sense: Unpasteurized milk can be dangerous, and drinking and driving is always dangerous. But if one looks at the total number of injuries and deaths from both unpasteurized milk and drunk driving, it is clear that drunk drivers are vastly more dangerous and harmful than unpasteurized milk. Thus we would have to say that the first person has a fundamentally inaccurate ability to assess threat levels, at least in this case. The second person may under-estimate the danger of unpasteurized milk, but his under-estimation is not as dangerous as the one who under-estimates drunk driving.
In the same way, I would say that anyone who says that Obama, or even Bush, was a greater threat than Trump, has a fundamentally skewed view of the political stakes, and does not realize the full threat level implied. Again, I could be wrong. But I am betting I am not. In fact, I am betting that Trump is setting up his administration in such a way as to maximize the amount of wealth he can pilfer from Tax Payers and funnel to his friends and corporate interests.
To me, it seems he is doing the legislative equivalent of setting fire to the living room to distract us from the fact he is cooking meth in the kitchen. And the fire in the living room is a real problem: The Muslim Ban is a real problem that affects real people. But this Ban and other “surface level” outrages are just the fire in the living room, masking deeper problems in how Trump is gutting the National Security Establishment and the State Department. Back in the kitchen he is allowing Bannon and Corporate interests to cook up disaster as they take charge of the national security and judicial establishment, while neutering every major Federal agency, so that they can take complete control and start siphoning money to their interests.
I would be happy for another narrative to make better sense of the facts I can see. Really. I would absolutely welcome it if there was some way to look at this whole situation and say “Whew! I was so wrong! This is all being done for the good of everyday Americans and the world we inhabit!” But when I look at all the pieces, and ask myself the question “Who is profiting from this?”, all I can reasonably see is some sort of con man scenario. My best advice is to pay attention to the kitchen!
It all honestly reminds me of the dynamics of an abusive relationship, which I have encountered many times over the course of 25 years of ministry and social work. This led me to another “Political Parable” I wrote recently:
“Looking for advice: I know a nice old lady who is being taken advantage of. She is wealthy, but very lonely and affection deprived. Along came this jerk who is a complete con man. He systematically gas lighted her, made her feel worthless, made it sound like he was her only hope for happiness, and turned her against her closest friends and relatives. He's even made her think that all of her neighbors are out to get her. Now she's isolated with him in her big house, and he is stealing her blind. Recently, he's started bringing his friends in to mooch off her as well. And he has gotten her to act against her values and best interests. She once was kind, caring, and hospitable. Now she is fearful, angry, and suspicious. She rejects anyone who tries to warn her, or tell her that he is bad for her. And she believes everything he tells her despite the fact she catches him in lie after lie after lie. I don't think this will end well, but she won't listen to anyone. Any advice out there?”
I also posted this on social media. But after about 10 hours, I self-censored myself and took it down. The reason for this was four fold:
First, there were many good hearted people who responded to this with concern for the old lady, and who did not seem to realize it was a political parable. Someone even asked for the address so they could go “take care of the guy” with no questions asked. With the death threat implied— even in jest— I decided to take it down.
Just so the symbolism is clear (because it wasn’t for many): The con man is Trump. The old lady is the American people in general, and in particular those who are convinced Trump supporters. The con man’s friends are Trump’s appointees, including hacks like Rick Perry and Ben Carson who have no idea what they are doing, kleptocrats like Betsy DeVos and Rex Tillerson, and scary ideologues like Steve Bannon. And the “me” who is talking refers to the millions of us who think that Trump is swindling us. But since that symbolism didn’t seem at all clear to some folks, I decided it was best to take down.
Second, I wondered if I had violated my own moral standard or upheld it: Had I crossed a line by using symbolism clearly portrays the President as a con man? On the other hand, if my threat assessment (and that of millions of others at home and abroad) are anywhere near accurate, is he not a con man? And if he is, should we not call him out as such?
Third, let’s say I am accurate. Let’s say the President is a con man. Is it pastorally unwise to proclaim it? Would I be un-necessarily alienating those who voted for Trump from the pastoral care and concern they need? Just because I am making a statement about the threat level of the person someone voted for, it should not thereby mean that they are unworthy of grace and love. And it also in no way transfers over to all the things that I respect in those people. I know very talented and capable people who voted Trump. I respect who they are and the work they do, even if I don’t respect the person they voted for. After all, I voted for Ross Perot and George W. Bush (twice), and I now disagree with myself on these decisions.
On the other hand, if I do not proclaim my evidentially-based opinion that he is a con man, do I do them a disservice? Would it be the pastoral equivalent of turning a blind eye to a spouse in an abusive relationship? Do I consent and enable that “abusive relationship” to go on by not saying anything?
Fourth and finally, I took it down because I don’t want reprisal or anyone to troll me into censorship. I have a great job in a great place with great people, and my family relies on my job for housing, clothing, food, tuition, and medical care (among many other things). I don’t want a silly parable that compares Trump to a con man to get in the way of that.
So that is where I am at. No good answers. Too many questions. Multiple conflicting responsibilities.
And as you come to the end of this, you may be asking yourself: Why then would you write all of this down and post it in a public place? That’s a good question. Here’s why:
I understand myself by writing. And in this case, since this is a problem that is currently vexing so many that I know and care for, I figured my wrestling might help them. So, if you are helped, great. If you are further vexed, I am sorry. I wish I had answers.
Also, let’s be honest: How many people are really going to read this much text? Very very few people are going to care enough about this to get this far. And if you are one of the people who has, you are probably rational enough and invested enough in this subject to have a decent discussion, even if we disagree.
Finally, I want there to be a record. If things get as bad as I fear they might, I want there to be a record for my grandchildren that I didn’t passively sit by as things unravelled. I want there to be a record that I spoke out— perhaps not loudly enough, perhaps not often enough— on behalf of the values of the Kingdom of God. That I advocated loving my neighbor as Christ has loved me, and that I did not accept the scapegoating and diminution of Muslims or Immigrants or Gays or Women or any other group. And also that I was willing to rationally discuss with those I disagree with, and treat them with the dignity and respect that is their birth right as children of God.
Now, I hope and pray that I am being a total Drama King over all this, and blowing everything out of proportion. I hope that I will look back on this post in 4 years or 8 years and say “Whoa! We were making mountains out of mole hills”. And if history proves me wrong in whole or in part, I will gladly admit and repent. But, if I am honest, in the words of Han Solo in the trash compactor: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”.
In every society where a Hitler or Stalin or Mussolini or Nero has come to power, there has always been strong pro-administration voices who say to dissenters “You are making it up! Give the leader a chance! What’s the worst that could happen?” And under every good government there are always conspiracy theorists who are constantly saying the sky is falling. But the sky never falls. So, the hard thing about saying that it seems like the sky is falling is that we never know for sure until after it has fallen. Or not. But in the meantime we have to go with the best read of the evidence we can get.
Whatever happens in the short term, in the long term I hope that our Country can return to a value-based culture, where our highest good is not found in the accumulation of power, or the pursuit of possessions, but in the accumulation of wisdom, and the pursuit of compassion. I hope that we can return to a place were we can passionately and rationally debate about issues affecting our common life, without fearing censorship or coercion, but also without crossing the line into demonizing those we disagree with. This does not seem like an open option for society right now, and I am at least partially to blame. But while I fear the worst, I hope for the best, and pray for the strength to accomplish it. And Revolutions are built on hope, because, as Saint Paul tells us “hope does not disappoint” (cf. Romans 5). May the God of Hope guide us all in the future of Wisdom and Compassion which God dreams for us.
Or, on the other hand, I could not worry about any of this stuff. I could just ignore the outside world like many do, snuggle into my comfy bubble, and post pictures of puppies. Because everyone loves pictures of puppies.
Except cat people.