I’ve been mulling over writing a post called Me and Barack and God, about why I find Obama’s rhetoric so powerful because I share his religious tradition, as well as working intermittently on a post about talking about race that I can’t bring to conclusion because, I realize, I don’t know what the conclusion is. But a narrower post about us-them language in the election I think can raise some of the themes I’ve wanted to address. For the first time I can remember, Republicans are getting mauled in the media for saying that some people are “real Americans” or for questioning the patriotism of people who disagree with them. They are actually having to back down and apologize, at least when the national news is watching. I’ve never seen this before. I think Obama’s refusal to engage in tit-for-tat is why we are seeing this. In Pennsylvania, where a Democrat referred to white voters in the western part of the state as “racist” and then as “rednecks” when he tried to correct himself, McCain got more of a pass when he called people the “most patriotic part of America” because he was countering an attack on them, and the name-calling seemed more balanced. My daily “spirituality and peacemaking” email arrived today with this quotation from Henri Nouwen in Peacework:
Here we touch one of the greatest dangers that face peacemakers: that peacemakers themselves become the victims of the evil forces they are trying to overcome. The same fear of “the enemy” that leads warmakers to war can begin to affect the peacemaker who sees the warmaker as “the enemy.” Words of anger and hostility can gradually enter into the language of the peacemaker. Even the sense of urgency and emergency that motivates the arms race can become the driving force behind the peacemaker. Then indeed the strategy of war and the strategy of peace have become the same, and peacemaking has lost its heart.
One of the reasons why so many people have developed strong reservations about the peace movement is precisely that they do not see the peace they seek in the peacemakers themselves. Often what they see are fearful and angry people trying to convince others of the urgency of their protest. The tragedy is that peacemakers often reveal more of the demons they are fighting than of the peace they want to bring about.
The words of Jesus go right to the heart of our struggle: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly” (Lk 6: 27-28). The more I reflect on these words, the more I consider them to be the test for peacemakers. What my enemies deserve is not my anger, rejection, resentment, or disdain, but my love. Spiritual guides throughout history have said that love for the enemy is the cornerstone of the message of Jesus and the core of holiness.
So, here’s the thing, as Obama would say. Calling people racist makes us look bad, even if the name is deserved in some objective analytic sense. It is understood as name-calling by most Whites, it increases hostility, it makes racial antagonism worse. It makes us look bad, and it increases resistance, because it boxes people into a corner, and makes them defensive. Believe me, I understand the problem with what is called colorblind racism as much as the next person, and I spend most of my time being confronted with the real harm being done by racial hierarchies every day. I know what institutional rcaism means and why it is important and spend a lot of my time calling it out. And I can roll my eyes about what other people say with the best of them. And I know why Black folks get frustrated when White people’s objections to the r-word, because it does shut down discussion and make it impossible to talk about what is really going on. And I know that power concedes nothing without demand and that sometimes you just have to force people. I understand the importance of critique and the necessity of speaking up to injustice. I know all that. But if you want to persuade people to vote with you, you can’t use an us-them rhetoric against them, you have to use an inclusionary language that draws people in. That’s what Obama is doing, that’s the power of his rhetoric. I’m pretty sure that if your goal is for the Democrats to win this election, you want to be singing Kumbaya and holding hands and talking about how all God’s children love each other and quoting Obama’s stump speech over and over. (As well as getting out the vote and guarding against voter suppression, of course.) I just listened last night to the 2004 convention speech, which is still pretty much the speech he’s giving. This is not liberal America and conservative America, it is just America. It is not Black America and White America and Asian America [he left out Native Americans and Arabs btw] it is just America. If you want the Democrats to win, you have to be reaching out to people you don’t get along with and saying you recognize their humanity and you hope we can find a way to live together. And you have to find out about and care about what is important to them, not just what is important to you.
Even as I write, I’m aware it is more complicated than I’ve said it. It is important to call out the overt or covert racism or other attacks of political leaders. It is important to publicize and shame the overt racist images and rhetoric. It is important to challenge and reject attempts to paint liberals as unpatriotic or unAmerican. But you have to draw the line at demonizing back. You gotta hate the sin but love the sinner, as we say in some circles. Reject the act but welcome the perpetrator into repentance and restoration. More importantly, if you want to live in a society in which we care for each other, you have to care for the people not like you, whoever they are. If people want to live in a just society but are blind to what it will take to do it, I say welcome them in and help them see what needs doing, as well as listen to what they think.
I think maybe wanting us all to get along and wishing we could get beyond race and telling ourselves we can do it is halfway there to doing it. Not all the way there, but half way there. It is our hope. Not deluding ourselves that we are already there. Not blind to the very real divisions and problems, not denying how much work there is to do, nor, Lord knows, denying the ways in which things have gotten much worse (e.g. in the criminal justice system), but believing that a better world is possible and that we can make it possible, and that we can connect with people who have been rejecting us if we are willing to stop rejecting them. Being willing to really listen to the people we oppose or are afraid of. Part of making this happen is talking as if it is happening already. How we talk matters a lot. Talk is one form of action.
End of sermon.