By Reverend Rachel Kessler
I have spent the last seven days walking with people in the grip of acute grief. Given my position as chaplain at a small liberal arts college, that statement might conjure images of the oft-ridiculed, overly-coddled millennial incapable of enduring even the slightest disappointment. But as my students would be quick to say, with eloquence far beyond my own, their feelings go beyond frustration at a political defeat.
In light of an election which legitimized the rhetoric of white supremacy, they and their friends fear for their own safety. They have seen a vision of an America committed to openness and inclusion soundly rejected. In the spirit of honesty, I can fall into such feelings myself (hardly surprising, I suppose, since I am one of those mysterious millennials as well).
I am also a parish priest. In that role I have a sacred responsibility to engage with the variety of convictions and lived experiences that define our local community. Perhaps the one thing individuals across the ideological spectrum can agree on is that the election of Donald Trump has thrown our nation (and the world) into unpredictability. Some are excited by that. Some horrified. But we are all shocked.
This election was an apocalyptic moment. I do not mean that in an alarmist sense that our new president-elect will bring about the end of the world. What I do mean is that this election was an apocalypse—it was a “revelation”, an unveiling of existing realities many of us preferred to be kept hidden. The moment challenges us to look at truths we might rather not face.
We must name the chasms of understanding that exist between us. We must be willing to face the reality that good and decent people found their consciences compelling them to vote in different ways. At the same time, we all must be willing to name the reality that the first black president in our history will hand over power to a man openly endorsed by the KKK. We cannot look past the reality that the incidents of hate crimes against various marginalized communities have risen more than they did after the 9/11 attack. That is the apocalyptic moment in which we live, however we voted last week.
There has been much talk over the past few days of the need to come together as a country. We are called to reconciliation and healing. As a Christian leader, I share in that call to empathy and mutual understanding as the only path forward for our nation. But I also want to make something else abundantly clear, which is about where we place the burden for empathy in this moment. Christianity in particular has a really unfortunate track record of putting the burden of empathy on those who have been victims. Victims of abuse are called in the name of Christian charity to forgive their abusers before they have had the time to name and work through their trauma. Victims of systemic racism are called to be the agents of reconciliation in a country where we cannot even admit that we have a problem with systemic racism.
We need to get over that. In this moment, the burden of empathy lies first and foremost with those who now have power. Those who made the choice to support a candidate—for whatever reason—whose rhetoric legitimizes hatred towards women, people of color, people who are LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, Muslims (the list goes on) have a particular burden on them to stand up and defend those communities. They have an obligation to write their elected representatives, affirming the dignity of every human being.
They also have the special burden to understand why so many people are afraid and grieving. There can be no excuse for any of us—especially those who supported our new president-elect—to claim ignorance about why a person of color is afraid to walk alone in a small Midwestern town. There can be no excuse for any of us to claim ignorance about why a same sex couple might suddenly be afraid their marriage will be deemed invalid.
Others, like myself, are deeply grieved about the election. And yet we are not at this moment in particular danger. It is our burden to reach across the aisle in the opposite direction and understand the factors that led someone to support a candidate we cannot begin to understand. It is our obligation to reach out to neighbors, coworkers, or family members and offer to hear their story—their fears and concerns—as well. We must also call them to join us in the work of resisting the rising tide of malice that is being unveiled around us. That work belongs to democrats, republicans, and everyone in between.
In the coming weeks and months, we must work together to build a truly better America. Regardless of political affiliation, we must join with local groups in our own communities already forming to oppose the increased bullying and harassment. We must support organizations committed to equality and justice. And, most importantly, we must all work to acknowledge and repent of the role we have played in producing a society so fundamentally broken.
Perhaps the greatest thing for us to remember today is that the work of reconciliation and endurance is not the work of a political party or a government structure. It is the work of human beings bearing with one another in self-giving love that defies all reason. These moments of grace, forgiveness, and repentance are the building blocks of God’s kingdom. My deepest hope is that we can indeed work together to build a reality that defies what we can possibly imagine.
Previously published as ‘The Need for Faith in a New America’ in The Wild Word magazine. thewildword.com
The author would like to state that she does not represent any institution and that all views and opinions expressed here are her own.
Reverend Rachel Kessler is a college chaplain and Episcopal priest. She enjoys commenting on the intersection of faith and popular culture.
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