By Cheryl Leanza, civil rights advocate and policy advisor to the United Church of Christ’s media justice ministry.
We have one week to go until our nation goes to the polls. Everyone acknowledges that this electoral season has been one of the most vitriolic in modern memory, perhaps not surprising given the evidence we’ve seen that our country is becoming increasingly polarized on the basis of race, political ideology and geography.
The progressive community has been justifiably alarmed over some of the rhetoric that this year’s campaign has inspired. To the degree we have data for 2016, hate crimes seem to be up and reported instances of hate speech are also up. A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center documented children who are worried that they, or their Latino or Muslim friends, will be killed or deported. Similarly, people who criticized Trump’s connection to extreme right-wing ideology are hounded online with unspeakable horror. Recently, Trump supporters have promoted ending women’s right to vote because they are voting against Trump in large numbers.
No matter how we may feel about some of the rhetoric, we cannot deny that it is tapping into a deep fear and distrust of existing power structures in our country. Millions of Americans are disaffected; they are filled with rage, seeking to overturn existing governmental institutions and values. No matter who takes the oath of office in January, many, many Americans are going to be nursing very real wounds. And no matter who wins in November, we may find ourselves living in a political system that is focused solely on blocking action by the opposing party, rather than seeking any common ground.
The United Church of Christ’s media justice ministry recently sponsored the 34th annual Everett C. Parker Lecture on Ethics in Telecommunications, and we were pleased this year to feature a leader of the UCC itself. Rev. Traci Blackmon’s remarks provided a provocative review of how the media had failed to accurately record the facts and events surrounding the shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr., near her church outside of Ferguson, MO. She explained the importance of context — that Michael Brown’s death was connected to white flight in the 1970s and 1980s, to a move to splinter the St. Louis suburbs into dozens of small jurisdictions, and to the more recent record of a predominately white police force and judicial system that disproportionately arrested and penalized African-Americans in the community where Michael Brown lived. She noted that the residents of Ferguson had protested peacefully for longer than any other civil rights protest in the United States, except for the Montgomery bus boycott. Nevertheless, she reported, the media focused only on the three days when the protests erupted in violence.
Blackmon spoke powerfully about the need for all of us to try to understand the context behind actions that disturb us. And even as she wisely taught of about the underlying injustices that gave rise to BlackLivesMatter, she also asserted that we cannot fight hate with demonization. She acknowledged that it is easy for her, too, to “demonize the candidate I do not support,” but reminded us that we cannot do unto others that which we do not want done unto us.
The Christian ideal of turning the other cheek, or forgiving people who engage in unspeakable evil, does not mean being passive or weak. Rather, it requires great power and stamina. Some of our most powerful images of protest and activism are rooted in peaceful resistance — especially when antagonists would seem to deserve violent retribution. As Cesar Chavez said, “Violence just hurts those who are already hurt. . . . Instead of exposing the brutality of the oppressor, it justifies it . . . .” This is why the example of the Mother Emmanuel Church families who publicly forgave the racist man who shot their loved ones is such a powerful one. We cannot stand by and let hateful speech and hate crimes proliferate, and yet demonizing those who seek to demonize us or others is not the answer either.
Recognizing the needs of those with whom we disagree is in our own self-interest. Political commentator E.J. Dionne, a self-described man of faith, points out that after the election, “the anger will remain.” But he asserts, “We can condemn prejudice and still understand the adversity afflicting Trump supporters.” We cannot promote peace and understanding, or even a reduction in hate speech, if the message to the supporters of unsuccessful political candidates is that theirs is some sort of Weimar Republic-style defeat — it will only engender more hate and vitriol. In fact, because many of our current divides are rooted in class, many lower-income Trump supporters may have more in common with Black and Latino activists who are also from lower socio-economic backgrounds that we might expect.
As we begin to reflect on life after the election, several faith leaders have also started to focus on how our country can struggle to heal itself after the divisiveness of the election season. How do we stand up against hate — #WeStandWithLove — and still try to hear the pain and circumstances that might lead those who spout it to such an awful place? More important, can we initiate a dialogue where we are willing to listen to the fears and worries, hopes and dreams, of those who support candidates we do not support?
Rev. Bob Chase, founding director of Intersections International, has written about a dialogue his organization is sponsoring to bridge the partisan divide. He is promoting these tactics, among others: listening, finding small areas of agreement, and creating safe spaces for the non-judgmental sharing of ideas Rabbi Joel Abraham highlighted similar ideas in his post for the Jewish Reform Action Center, describing the concept of b’tzelem Elohim — because we are all created in the image of God, I should assume the other person is just as intelligent and thoughtful as I am, and l’shem Shamayim — that the purpose of a conversation is to understand the other, and to discover what you have in common. And in OnFaith’s series of post-election healing blogs, Deepak Chopra strikes the same chord, looking to the yogic tradition of Ahimsa or non-violence, and noting, “As much as right-thinking people are appalled by him, Trumpism strikes a chord in everyone, because we all have a shadow.”
Taking the idea of listening to the streets, Rev. Elizabeth Mangham Lott, senior pastor of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, set up a “kindness corner” with coffee and snacks, reminding us of the importance of being polite even when we disagree with someone or see her as the “other.” And members of Christ the Healer United Church of Christ in Portland, Oregon, held up signs in public places that read, “Voting for Trump? Talk to me, I will listen,” as part of a spiritual practice of listening to others and promoting community and healing.
We will need a nationwide season of healing and listening, lasting from at least November 9th until Inauguration Day and beyond.
After the election, we will need to build on these small efforts in a nationwide season of healing and listening, lasting from at least November 9th until Inauguration Day and beyond. The annual holiday celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr., a great practitioner of non-violence, will take place the same week a new president takes office. Can we make time then to practice deep listening and respect for one another? We are challenging the national media and faith leaders to offer opportunities and models for civil conversation during this time. We need television programs and blogs, podcasts and webinars. We need to hear multiple points of view, to learn more about the people with whom we disagree — without providing a platform for hate. Local leaders and local faith communities may be able to lead the way — because local issues can often provide the basis for common work across ideological and partisan lines. And we’re challenging everyone to stop watching the media of divisiveness. It is hard, no question about that. But if we choose to watch, we only increase the financial incentives for those companies to produce more screaming matches and less thoughtful dialogue.
Can we stop hate and see the humanity in “the other?” It will not be easy, but I think we can.
Cheryl Leanza is a civil rights advocate and policy advisor to the United Church of Christ’s media justice ministry.