Us, Them & the Boogeyman

Us, Them & the Boogeyman

“…Whenever dissent is scattered and unfocused, and whenever mutual suspicion and hostility rule, the only way forward or back to communal solidarity…is to pick a joint enemy and to unite forces in an act of joint atrocity aimed at a common target.  It is solely the community of accomplices which provides (as long as it lasts) a guarantee against the crime being named a crime and being punished accordingly.  What the community will therefore not suffer lightly are such people as refuse to join the hue and cry, who by their refusal cast doubt on the righteousness of the act.”

Zygmunt Bauman, In Search of Politics, p.15

Us-and-Them-by-Jeff-MacNelly
image by Jeff MacNelly

In just about every context I find myself of late, when the issue of politics comes up, my friends and I are for once in a long while united.  For the most part, people in my circles, be they conservatives or liberals, Democrats or Republicans, are decrying the rise of Donald Trump.  However, looking at his numbers and at the delegates he has apparently “won”, chances are many of my friends and acquaintances are choosing Trump as their mode of choice to “make America great again.”  Somebody, somewhere, is in fact voting for “The Donald”.

 

What was darkly humorous just a few short months ago has become a dawning awareness. A vulgar reality television personality whose accomplishments are nothing more than turning his name into a brand representing gaudy irresponsible opulence is about to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America.  How can this be?

This question sent me to my book shelf to retrieve Zygmunt Bauman’s In Search of Politics—a book I purchased several years ago as assigned reading for a course I was taking at Fuller Theological Seminary.  It has been a challenging read but also timely and helpful.  In a section of chapter one entitled, A Prowler Around the House, Bauman recounts the story of Sidney Cooke, a paedophile, who had been released from prison and was returning home.  He quotes a reporter from The Guardian who perceptively writes:

“If there’s one thing guaranteed to get people out on the streets today, it is the whispered arrival of a paedophile.  The helpfulness of such protests is increasingly being questioned.  What we haven’t asked, however, is whether these protests actually have anything to do with paedophiles.”

Bauman says that the reporter focuses on one particular town in which “the variegated crowd of grandmothers, teenagers, and businesswoman who had seldom, if ever, expressed any previous wish to engage in a public action had now laid protracted siege to the local police station, being not even sure that Cooke did indeed hide in the besieged building.  Their ignorance concerning the facts of the matter took second place only to their determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it; and their determination gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”

While there is no paedophile in this particular election, there is a strong perception by many, if not most, of the electorate that their government and the political process has failed them.  And while, in my humble opinion, most of what Trump throws up against the walls of public opinion is simply false, unworkable testosterone fueled bravado, he has tapped into this “unfocused and scattered” dissent and channeled it into a wave he is about to surf right down the center aisle of the Republican National Convention.

As I process what Bauman has written, I recognize that our biggest enemy in this election isn’t Donald Trump.  And it isn’t Bernie Sanders. Or Ted Cruse.  Or Hillary Clinton.  And it isn’t congress.  Or Barack Obama.  Yes, those ARE the enemies we all perceive to be “hiding in the besieged building”.  Those are the ones we have all labeled as the prowlers around our neighborhoods.  These political figures have all of us, regardless of party affiliation, riled up and angry and active.  And, to paraphrase Bauman, our “ignorance concerning the facts of the matter [take] second place only to [our] determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it [mostly on our social media feeds]; and [our] determination [has] gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”  

I’m starting to suspect that what’s hiding in the buildings we have all besieged is actually a figment of our imaginations.  What’s actually hiding in the building is our caricatures of the people we deem to represent all of our fears.  We’ve reduced ourselves to labeling “the other” as “the problem” rather than placing the actual problem on the table between us and examining it with all of the tools we have available.  Rather than solving anything, we have resorted to creating a boogeyman, and then we take to the streets (or our social media feeds) to call it names.  I’m just beginning to read what I’m finding to be a profound book by Dr. David Dark, a professor at Belmont University in Nashville.  Of labels, he says:

“When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully.   …Calling someone liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, atheist or extremist is to largely deal in curse words.  It puts a person in what we take to be their place, but it speaks in shorthand.  When I go no further in my consideration of my fellow human, I betray my preference for caricature over perception, a shrug as opposed to a vision of the lived fact of somebody in a body.  In the face of a perhaps beautifully complicated life, I’ve opted for oversimplification.”  —David Dark, from Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious

Some of the most useful and powerful tools at our disposal to tackle the huge problems we face in our world today might very well be the perspective of someone other than ourselves.  The tools at our disposal include all of us.  All of our values.  All of our beliefs.  All of our perspectives.  All of our creativity.  I’m reminded of a great line from an Indigo Girls song: “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.”  A little collective humility might be just what the doctor ordered.

Would some of these tools be more effective in solving our problem than others?  Absolutely.   Do I disagree with some of the propositions being proposed?  Adamantly!  I’m NOT simplistically saying, “It’s all good.”   But what I am saying is that we’re all human beings.  And the God I attempt to follow values all of these human beings — in fact my understanding of God holds they are ALL created in God’s image.

As I continue into the dark and cynical hole that is this election season, I’m going to attempt to ask a couple of things of myself:

  • To recognize that I’m not a cold, objective (and correct) observer.  I have a bias.
  • To give myself and others a break.  For the most part, we’re all trying to make sense of something extremely complicated that no one really understands.  We’re all doing the best we can.
  • To, with the best of my ability, lean into the space between myself and others with grace and peace…with love.

Can I be so bold as to ask the same of you?  I don’t mean to preach.  I just happen to think the boogeyman is actually a collective “us”.  While there are a lot of things out of our control, we actually do have choices.  We can decide how we respond to our neighbors.  We can decide the words we use.  We can decide that a label doesn’t define anyone any more that it defines me.  And ultimately, WE can solve these problems we’re facing. We have before.  I’m confident we will again.  Seems to be a better way to live than being afraid of the boogeyman.  Especially when the boogeyman has probably been me the whole time.

Suggestions for Riding a Bus

Suggestions for Riding a Bus
Rosa Parks On Bus
Rosa Parks seated toward the front of the bus, Montgomery, Alabama, 1956. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

The picture below is of an amazing document. It is “Integrated Bus Suggestions” provided by the Montgomery Improvement Association which was an organization established to help guide the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December of 1956 in the wake of the arrest of Rosa Parks. It is an amazing document to read.

My pastor posted the picture on his Facebook page this morning with the comment, “We have no idea.” And we truly do not. But on this Martin Luther King day, I would like for you to place yourself on that bus. Pick a role. You can be the African American entering the bus. Be the bus driver, just wanting punch the clock and make it through the day to return home to your family. Be one of the other passengers, recognizing or maybe not recognizing, the sea change that is occurring right before your eyes. If you are in a city with public transportation, take a bus ride and bring a copy of these suggestions and be transported back to a time not to distant when a document such as this was necessary.

As you read this document, imagine stepping onto a bus with these “suggestions” seared into your memory. The jolt of adrenaline and fear and nervousness that wells up as the door opens and you mount the first step. As you reach the top step, what does it feel like to see the seat you are to occupy and feel the all the eyes on the bus wielding looks that communicate the full gamut of possible emotions. There is hate in some of those eyes…but there is also hope in others. There is anger but there are others illuminated with the dawning recognition of what is right. There is fear but also determination.

I discovered a quote by Dr. King yesterday:

 

Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency ask the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?

But, conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

I would encourage and challenge you to think about what metaphorical bus you need to step into. What difference could you make if you allowed courage to spawn creativity and change?  Allow your conscience to ask the question, “What is right?” and then step on that bus armed with these suggestions. They are still just as valid as they were in 1955.

Peace.

Suggestions for Riding a bus

Integrated Bus Suggestions Provided by the Montgomery Improvement Association for the bus boycotts.

How can we find peace?

some thoughts by Thomas Merton (from the book Choosing to Love the World)…

We prescribe for one another remedies that will bring us peace of mind, and we are still devoured by anxiety.  We evolve plans for disarmament and for the peace of nations, and our plans only change the manner and method of aggression.  The rich have everything they want but happiness, and the poor are sacrificed to the unhappiness of the rich.  Dictatorships use their secret police to crush millions under an intolerable burden of lies, injustice and tyranny, and those who still live in democracies have forgotten how to make good use of their liberty.  For liberty is a thing of the spirit, and we are no longer able to live for anything but our bodies.  How can we find peace, true peace, if we forget that we are not machines for making and spending money, but spiritual beings, sons and daughters of the most high God?

I’ll not be able to improve upon that…