Candidate Donald Trump’s recorded comments about groping women were an unconscionable flatuosity about sexual assault. This, as with so many shouts, exhalations, repetitions, fabrications, and most of all, I think, sheer carelessness and callousness from candidate Trump need to be resisted (I will write about Clinton another time – another rich person running for office). We are trying to have a national dialogue about things that matter, things that resonate through the lives of vulnerable people in our country and around the world, things that have the possibility of making our planet a more joyful or miserable place in the coming decades. And this polluted torrent is what we have instead, coming from candidate Trump.
Nevertheless, what is in my own id, inner self, and sub-surface soup of impulses is no better. My full self is not a vast, unbroken personal landscape of acceptability, incorruptibility, and responsibility. It is true that I have been faithful, to my wife, my family, in my work, in my friendships. There are no outright betrayals there. But this is only because of self and communal regulation, not because such inclinations and impulses are absent.
I had the good fortune to be raised by parents who taught, through their lives and words, in clear terms about honesty, responsibility, integrity, compassion, and related values. These values were enlarged upon and strengthened by our church community. The Mennonite/Anabaptist sense of community is that we live our lives transparent to God and to each other. It is not that there is no privacy. We do not need to know all the “gory details.” (Porter Osborne, in Ferrol Sam’s very funny book Run with the Horsemen, famously says that he keeps some things in the part of his mind that even God can’t see!) But in both the personal details and in our public lives, we speak and behave in ways that are communally supportable. This creates both a practice of self-regulation – I have internalized these values – and communal regulation.
Communal regulation happens not so much through following stated rules. Rather, it is primarily enacted through the dedication to draw near to each other on a regular basis. In so doing, we form an ongoing experience of mutual influence. At its best, this is influence fully defined by love, a love which has its ultimate source in the infinite outpouring of God’s own Spirit. It is unlimited, unconditional, and supports joyful, generous living with each other. All this may simply be called, as we say in the world of blues music, “taking it to church.” The core experience is repeatedly drawing into proximity in relationships of love. This creates an envelope or context or practice that supports lives lived well. This, as C. Arnold Snyder writes, is the only real sacrament in the Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition. It happens whenever we meet in the presence of Christ.
But there is no pretense that this makes anyone any better or more worthy than anyone else. The Amish families in response to the horrific Nickel Mines shootings of their children offered forgiveness to the shooter. But, although they believe in heaven and hell, and they were offering an immense grace of forgiveness, the Amish refused to speculate on any difference between themselves and the shooter. Such questions are in God’s hands alone (Amish Grace p 168). This sort of spiritual deference underlines the idea that we are a community of sinners saved by grace and that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, as Paul writes in Romans. So we have no basis for self-righteousness. This is a hallmark of Mennonite/Anabaptist community.
Nor do we have any basis for taking joy in the failings or destructive behavior of others (schadenfreude). It is unwarranted: we’re not so perfect either. And it doesn’t get us to where we want to be. It simply does not advance the project of an intelligent, compassionate national conversation when we rejoice in the failings of others. Nevertheless, I do it! It’s fun, funny, and a way of blowing off steam. Fair enough. But I suppose we just need to understand that too much of this can damage our great political project. Do we want to be a nation of snark, or of constructive, courageous public life?
Wallace Stegner, in his great book Angle of Repose, writes at one point: “I don’t resent them; I just resist them.” I think this is exactly right. There is much to be resisted in the current electoral cycle. But we may do so without rancor or self-righteousness. It is enough, no, it is far more effective, to simply and forcefully resist, knowing not that we are better people than the ones we resist, but rather that we are simply living and acting on the basis of the best understanding we have at this time.
To be specific to where I started these reflections, it now comes to all of us to be more open, more forthcoming, and more attentive to the plague of sexual assault in our culture. It must be resisted firmly and comprehensively, out of a place that says “there but for the grace of God go I” and also, because of my commitments and all that I care about “this shall not stand.” This is a deep root of non-violence, both in what is resisted – sexual assault – which is a form of violence, and in how it is resisted, through humble but firm action.