If anything has been proven true over the last year, it’s that there really is no ceiling on the number of Internet think-pieces penned in an attempt to articulate how exactly we’ve gotten to where we are as a nation. Which, to be clear, is the governing equivalent of that final scene from Thelma & Louise where their car soars off the edge of the Grand Canyon.
It isn’t that these articles don’t entertain and (sometimes) inform us, it’s just that more often than not they simply leave all of us atop this growing-more-scorched-by-the-news-cycle-Earth with few options other than self-righteous finger pointing, Internet ranting, and despondent shoulder shrugging while Rome burns to the ground around us.
Explaining President Trump, understanding President Trump, and exploring the genesis of President Trump’s rise to power, has become a cottage industry creating existential distance from the collective responsibility we all bear for placing the launch codes within reach of arguably our most fearful, most confused, most social media addicted, and most desperate to be affirmed selves.
“Who’s to blame?!” we ask exasperatedly as a fresh barrage of tweets greets us each morning with more news of our democracy (and our globe's) ever-worsening terminal condition. As one “outlaw pastor” put it a few years ago:
“We shape our God, and then our God shapes us.”
Let's take a quick foray into the Bible, trust me, it's worth it:
In the thirty-second chapter of Exodus we encounter an odd tale about the way in which the newly-freed-from-slavery-in-Egypt-Hebrews manage to fill the void left behind when their fearless leader, Moses, tarries for too long in conversation with God atop a nearby mountain.
As Moses and “the LORD” concluded their negotiations that would become the historic Ten Commandments, the followers back at base camp approached Moses’ brother, Aaron, in order to have him “make us gods who will go before us,” for reasons the text makes clear: “as for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
In the absence of his brother, Aaron has the people immediately bring him their golden jewelry in order to cast it into an idol shaped like a calf who would then serve, not as THE GOD (a popular mistake), but as the image of God on Earth. This point is underlined by the subsequent camp-wide “festival to the LORD” soon-following Aaron’s idol-smithing.
Upon discovering the regrettable actions of his tribe, the LORD initially decides to simply do away with this “stiff-necked” people once and for all. However, Moses quickly talks the LORD down from an ill-advised nuclear strike, endeavoring instead to return himself to the encampment in order to break up the teenage rager taking place at the foot of the mountain.
Moses then wades through what I can only imagine had to be a sea of solo cups, smashes the Ten Commandments in a blind rage, melts down the idol into a mixture of water and gold, and then commands the idolatrous partygoers to drink the liquid remains while he looks on.*
(*NOTE: The Bible is amazing.)
When he is finally able to directly confront his brother Aaron, Moses inquires:
“Dude, how many pitchforks and torches did it take for the people to convince you it was a good idea to just “let a few friends over” while I was out of town?!”
Aaron’s actual response recorded for posterity over millennia:
“Do not be angry, my lord…you know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, AND OUT CAME THIS CALF!*”
(*NOTE: See, I told you, THE BIBLE IS AMAZING and incredibly relevant for teens!)
What this has to do with our collective finger-pointing, bomb-shelter-building, and political-point-scoring is found in the ways in which both premodern nomadic former slaves and citizens of the wealthiest nation in the history of the globe automatically fill the liminal spaces of our lives in moments of collective crisis.
In their case, in the absence of their grizzled, peripatetic, and once-murderous leader Moses, they fill the space with the image of the bloodthirsty, capricious, and powerful gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia (seen in the image of the bull/calf), thinking that this is the way that nations with a unique backstory comport themselves in the (then) modern world.
They then spend the next several generations mired in violence, fear, mistrust, and eventually, exile.
In our case, in the absence of better alternatives, we continue to fill the Oval Office with the image of the bloodthirsty, capricious, and powerful gods of Wall Street (seen in the image of the bull/bear), thinking that this is the way that nations with a unique backstory comport themselves in the (now) modern world.
These days, it seems as if violence, fear, mistrust, and eventually, exile are the least apocalyptic fortunes awaiting us.
“Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” sounds incredibly familiar to the justifications I and people opposed to the ways in which I understand human flourishing make for our verbal (and sometimes actual) disembowelment of one another on the altar of the partisan political process. What’s hard these days isn’t to resist or support the Trump administration, what’s hard is not to lose our souls and our shared humanity in the process.
It doesn’t quite matter if we aren’t on speaking terms when our car crashes into the rocks on the canyon floor. I mean, at least Thelma & Louise were holding hands in their final moments together.
The answer now, as it was then for those premodern nomads wandering outside Egypt, is to cease locating the image of God in places of power, strength, violence, and wealth. And to instead, as the Biblical narrative reminds both them and us, to locate our identity in a collective effort to create a world in which the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the immigrant, and “the other” have a seat at the table. Because, as these ancient Hebrews are often reminded in the midst of building their Empire in the name of God: “Remember, you were once slaves in Egypt.”
But they forgot where they came from, and so have we.
so have we.
so have we.
When we persist in believing, across the partisan spectrum, that our God sides with the vengeful, wealthy, and punitive in his pursuit of power and control, it shapes our own, God-ordained incarnations of vindictive wrath in the pursuit of power for generation after generation after generation (no matter one’s particular generational predilection for church-going and the free-market, or avocado toast and the New York Times).
It is no longer tenable (regardless what stickers may adorn your bumper) to persist in simply blaming the flames of our partisan political “process” for the fashioning of someone like President Trump. As it was us bringing our wealth, fears, anxieties, ignorance, and anger to the feet of institutions, churches, and leaders out of which our democracy and our religious practice were fashioned.
“and out came this calf!” is no longer good enough.
“that’s just politics” is no longer good enough.
What comes next is the hard part, because it involves refusing to persist in externalizing our own contributions of anger, anxiety, and snark stoking the fires of our shared demise. In our anxiety, to push the image of God out of each other and into an office, a policy position, a political party, an institution (religious and otherwise), or even just a strident belief in the inherent rightness of our seething indignation, is to breathe more violence into the world for generation after generation after generation misguidedly in the name of God.
I would argue that Jesus-centric Christianity, much like a tree, is the only thing with enough guts to breathe in the violence, rage, and anxiety characterizing our world, in order to convert a contentious atmosphere hellbent on global destruction into one of enough oxygen, grace, and peace to go around. I’m not naive, I realize that oftentimes this conversion of partisan violence into lasting peace requires blood. It’s simply that I refuse to believe the truly Christian response locates this sacrificial blood in anyone else’s veins other than those of our savior and ourselves.
“We shape our God, and then our God shapes us”
or, as another outlaw rabbi put it years earlier:
“If you want to save your life, you must lose it first.”