I took part recently in a convening of progressive Christian leaders from across the country that followed the usual script for these affairs. We looked at aspects of our internal culture and capacity, at our tools and strategies, at core unifying issues and themes. The conversation was illuminating and helpful as far as it went. But afterward it occurred to me that we didn't go deeply enough into the historical moment. Participants noted somewhat casually that we are now living through a period of violent late empire and imperial decline, of a thoroughly financialized economy that is still dominated by reckless speculators and shameless usurers, of stalemate and even retrogression in respect to combating climate change, and of ever more subtle and pernicious forms of racism, xenophobia, heterosexism, and homophobia.
In our meeting room there was also broad agreement that the dream of "change we can believe in" has almost completely evaporated -- that while we may have been delivered from the eight-year Bush nightmare to a reality-based presidency, our new president has not done much and will not be able to do much to transform the uglier realities of corporate and military domination or of entrenched racism and patriarchy. My lingering question: How could we have been even a little bit casual about any of this? How could we treat any of this as mere backdrop? As I was the group's facilitator, I blame myself that we did not spend more time interrogating our historical moment more carefully. For I fear we may in fact be slouching towards Bethlehem a bit faster than anticipated--indeed, slouching along quite rapidly in the manner anticipated by Mr. Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
American Christians should not wish to find themselves in the position of the minority of German Christians who belatedly found themselves asking, "Wait a minute--what just happened?" and who then finally organized themselves into a resistance force via their Barmen Declaration of 1934. Being too late in these matters can be costly. Unbelievably so in the case of the Nazi regime's victims.
The Coming Firestorm? A Plausible and Frightening Scenario
Here, it seems to me, are some developments we might reasonably expect to see take place in the near term, whether singly or in combination:
- There is a new and successful terrorist attack on American soil that prompts an outcry to arrest and detain pretty much every Muslim who has any kind of critical view of American Empire;
- A Huey Long/Father Coughlin/Sarah Palin populism with real legs emerges from a continuing severe employment crisis. And while our corporate - friendly liberal Democrats find themselves utterly flummoxed by this development, Republicans figure out how to harness fear and rage so that an unprecedented number of Democrats get removed from legislative office.
- Related to this upsurge in raw populism, Congress now decides to incarcerate or deport anyone they imagine might possibly be an undocumented immigrant;
- Our new leaders, riding the crest of this new fear-based populism, also complete the long-running project of effectively gutting Constitutional due process and First Amendment provisions -- and a supine, Right - leaning Supreme Court declines to object or interfere with this final gutting;
- Following some further traumatic event or events, we turn decisively to military rule and suspend all further possibility of protest.
What a Saving Remnant Looks and Acts Like in the Short Term
And here is a big problem: almost no-one in our religious communities takes the scenario I just sketched very seriously. Just a handful of clear-sighted leaders see the potential for this kind of firestorm. These leaders thus run the risk of being viewed as slightly deranged or just plain weird if they now ask their congregations or their co-religionists to get ready to form an active resistance. For them to use language and imagery that cast progressive people of faith in the role of resistance fighters comes across as far too reminiscent of the language and imagery that's already been "taken" by proto-fascist religious groups. God forbid we should go in that direction or become that alarmist or that presumptuous!
In the face of this problem it seems to me that the only way forward for leaders who fully understand the dangerous nature of these times, but who nevertheless need to avoid freaking out their flocks, is to be both persistently reasonable and persistently theological.
The persistently reasonable part means opening the space for real conversations: conversations that will take time and show forbearance and generosity toward all who take part. My organization recently asked LA-area congregations to experiment with what we called a "Safe Space in Tough Times" program: i.e., opening their doors to anxious, hard-pressed people in a given community who would then gather from week to week in order to talk candidly in a protected space about their struggles with health care costs, job loss and job degradation/overwork, foreclosure issues, parenting struggles, and even the ways in which mass culture mocks the struggles of working people while glorifying the lives of the idle rich.
We didn't have too many takers, and I think the reason is that pastors and other congregational leaders could not see the potential transformational power of creating what sociologists would call a free social space of this kind. But the best way for religious leaders to be persistently reasonable in a potentially pre-fascist era is precisely to let people talk it out carefully and slowly. And in these contexts leaders also have a responsibility to introduce what may be uncomfortable or inconvenient truths, like the fact that in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, business leaders are losing no time in marshaling their sheer money power to achieve nefarious ends as never before (e.g. the U.S. Chamber of Commerce now preparing to outspend both political parties in grassroots organizing and electioneering efforts).
The persistently theological part simply means calling attention, again and again, to all the ways in which biblical values run completely against the grain of the central American ethic of "I've got mine and to hell with my neighbor." Good Bible study, good preaching, and good liturgy can all remind us that we belong to a very different ethical order that insists on neighbor love, shared abundance, and the God-given equal worth and dignity of every human being. Just by itself, providing this level of theological leadership to help everyday people live into God's reign begins to become radically countercultural. By itself it begins to express significant resistance to the claims and presumptions of powers and principalities. By itself it begins to prepare us for the much deeper level of resistance we may yet be called upon to offer. And yes, were we to take our theology that seriously we would be giving Glenn Beck something real to talk about.