As a kid I remember singing a song about being in the Lord’s army. It was a fun song, probably one of my favorites. It was an action song, I think that was the appeal when I was such a young kid. There were these dynamic movements that had all of us Sunday School kids marching like we were in an infantry, spying on the enemy, and taking aim and firing a gun. That was a long time ago. Tomorrow I go on a meditation retreat. It’s a far cry from the Lord’s army or Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric that flirts so coyly with the idea of a holy war against Islam. I am, quite literally, going to sit on my ass for ten days.
Donald Trump’s recent statement about closing the U.S. border to all Muslims might have shocked some, but the thinking behind it has been in the works for a while. There have been many people in the U.S. putting a good deal of energy into the effort to define the whole of Islam as a violent and evil religion. It isn’t just “radical” Islam that breeds terror, they say, it’s all of Islam, the whole religion. Ironically, I’ve found this to be a popular view among Christians.
In the few instances where I’ve had a chance to respond, as on Facebook or something, I’ll usually talk about the violence in the Bible, the genocides that god sanctioned, for example, back when the nation of Israel marched into “the holy land” and drove out the inhabitant, or else I’ll perhaps mention the imprecatory Pslams that condone things like smashing the skulls of infants against the rocks. Christians are outraged, of course, when I point this out, and it usually triggers a very admirable chain of intellectual acrobatics that much resembles the old game of Twister. But to me, it is only a very twisted and perverse perspective that can ignore the heinous violence perpetuated in the name of your own god but then condemn other religions on the same behavior.
More fair-minded folk tend to keep it real, and keep it real simple and to the point: people can act badly; scared people can act very badly; and when scared people herd together, then a maniac like Hitler or Trump can become a Messianic figure.
In a hysterical herd, scapegoats make sense. That’s the Trump Card. Playing the Trump Card means executing an innocent bystander. Playing the Trump Card means saying that the problems in the United States didn’t happen because we made the wrong choices or put into play bad policy. On the contrary, it’s the poor Mexican immigrants who are to blame, or we declare a holy war against the whole religion of Islam.
To me, and to many, it seems obvious. Mexican immigrants didn’t make the decision to deregulate the financial sector and turn a blind eye to the housing crisis, and it was George W. Bush who led us into two pointless wars, not the religion of Isalm. We’ve made many very bad decisions in recent decades that have led to a decrease in good jobs, levels of inequality that would make an ancient monarch salivate, and a massive prison-industrial complex that locks up more people as a percentage of our population than anyone else in the world.
These bad decisions lead to the hysteria that can somehow give bankers a free pass but not a poor worker who is just trying to feed his family. But the decisions we’ve made haven’t just been bad decisions, they have been cruel decisions, rooted in greed, pride, anger, and fear — all those old traditional vices that have always plagued us.
For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light…Let not the foot of pride come against me, and let not the hand of the wicked remove me. – Psalm 36
The Trump Card feeds on these old vices. It’s a card that has been played time and time again throughout human history. It’s our most sinister side as a species. It seems to touch us deep, into the worst element of our sense of tribalism, that sense that it’s us versus them, and the “them” seems always to be some big evil other. This dynamic is difficult to define in any precise way. It defies explanation because it’s crowd psychology, the mob mentality. It’s probably best described by seeing it in a story, like the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a national bestseller that turned a mirror on our culture’s propensity to crucify the scapegoat.
And speaking of scapegoats, there’s that Jesus bloke. The Apostle Paul and other theologians transformed Jesus’ death into a cosmic showdown of redemption and triumph over death, but in one of the earliest accounts we have of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark, the story ends with Jesus in the grave. There is not triumph over death. The point of the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus suffered as a scapegoat. The lesson is to go and do likewise, in the hopes that the world will finally get the point, that the Trump Card will lose its potency, and that as a species, we will finally learn to tap into the better angels of our nature and stop resorting to scapegoats.
I’m not any better, though, if I’m honest. I’m a human being, and I’ve got those old vices inside of me, habits of mind that if left unchecked can lead me down a dangerous path. Joining the Lord’s army isn’t the answer for me. It isn’t the answer for anyone. Blaming the religion of Islam doesn’t make sense either. It may sound strange to you, but meditation, i.e., sitting on my ass, is the best thing that I’ve ever done to address those old vices and to take seriously my own small role in this mad world.