by Mike Kinman, Rector of All Saints Church
There is an element of the first days of the Trump administration that is like “Shock and Awe.” It is not just the depth of the threat and the damage being done to vulnerable individuals (ACA rollback, global gag rule), peoples (DAPL), the planet itself (Keystone pipeline, and silencing of the EPA and NPS), and the trust which is the foundation of the contract between a government and its people (the Orwellian normalization of lying in the face of clearly contradictory facts) … it is the rapid pace with which these actions are being unleashed.
Today, we can expect more of the same — executive orders that will order the construction of a Mexican border wall as well as targeting Muslim refugees from resettling in the United States.
Intermixed in these actions are other moments designed to strike fear and distract our attention — terrifying tweets (like his threat to send federal troops into Chicago), arguments about crowd size, and so on.
That doesn’t even mention the onslaught of Cabinet appointments, almost all of which represent deep dangers to the most vulnerable among us, the environment and/or our Constitution. And later this week, we have a Supreme Court nominee to look forward to.
This is by design. It is a time-tested strategy not only to continue to energize those who voted him into office by appealing to the worst of instincts — our human tendency to feel stronger and more powerful when we are part of an “in group” that is imposing its will by force over those who are different — but to demoralize those who would stand against them by the same sheer force.
Make no mistake, particularly after we had the temerity to stand up in unprecedented numbers and in unprecedented global solidarity last Saturday, the actions of this week are designed to make those of us who stand against this President and his administration feel “alone, afraid, vulnerable, close to despair.”
I begin each day with three acts of resistance.
I spend 20 minutes in centering prayer.
I spend 20 minutes learning Spanish.
I spend 20 minutes reading the Bible — recently the Book of Genesis, with the assistance of the excellent commentary on it by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks “Genesis: The Book of Beginnings.”
This morning’s reading was Jacob encountering God in a vision of a ladder and angels and his struggle with an unknown adversary. Jewish tradition holds that just as Abraham established morning prayer with the dawning of a new faith and Isaac introduced afternoon prayer with his continuity of the tradition, this is Jacob introducing evening prayer. He writes:
“Jacob is night. He sees his great vision of the ladder and angels at night. He struggles with an unknown adversary at night. He ends his days in exile, at the beginning of the long, dark night of slavery. Jacob’s great strength is that he does not let go. He is born holding his brother’s heel. He refuses to let go of the stranger wrestling with him. If Abraham is originality and Isaac continuity, then Jacob represents tenacity.”
But Sacks notes that there is something different here. In Jewish tradition, unlike morning and afternoon prayer, which are mandatory, evening prayer is not obligatory. He believes that is because unlike Abraham and Isaac, Jacob does not initiate his prayer — God does. God comes to Jacob in a night of fear. Sacks writes:
“There is an element of the religious life that is beyond conscious control. It comes out of nowhere, when we are least expecting it. If Abraham represents our journey toward God, and Isaac our dialogue with God, Jacob signifies God’s encounter with us — unplanned, unscheduled, unexpected; the vision, the voice, the call we can never know in advance, but which leaves us transformed. As for Jacob, so for us, it feels as if we are waking from sleep and realizing, as if for the first time that ‘God is truly in this place, and I knew it not.’ The place has not changed, but we have. Such an experience can never be made the subject of an obligation. It is not something we do. It is something that happens to us. Vayfiga bamakom means that, thinking of other things, we find that we have walked into the presence of God.
“Such experiences take place, literally or metaphorically, at night. They happen when we are alone, afraid, vulnerable, close to despair. It is then that, when we least expect it, we can find our lives flooded by the radiance of the divine. Suddenly, with a certainty that is unmistakable, we know that we are not alone, that God is there, and has been there all along, but that we were too preoccupied by our own concerns to notice (God). That is how Jacob found God — not by his own efforts, like Abraham; not through continuous dialogue, like Isaac, but in the midst of fear and isolation. Jacob, in flight, trips and falls — and finds he has fallen into the waiting arms of God. No one who has had this experience ever forgets it.”
“‘Now I know that You were with me all the time but I was looking elsewhere’ — that was Jacob’s prayer. There are times when we speak and times when we are spoken to. Prayer is not always predictable, a matter of fixed times and daily obligation. It is also an openness, a vulnerability. God can take us by surprise, waking us from our sleep, catching us as we fall.”
As I think about how we are called to respond and resist to the actions of this week and their intention to lead us feel “alone, afraid, vulnerable and close to despair,” I believe there is great wisdom here.
I think we are called to respond and resist through intentional practice.
Through daily prayer and study of scripture — grounding ourselves in the God who has delivered and liberated God’s people without fail throughout history.
Through celebrating the beauty and solidifying bonds of love and community with those this administration would demonize and target … be that by learning a different language, celebrating a different culture’s art and beauty, saying a simple “I love you” to someone who is in the crosshairs.
Through dismantling the “shock and awe” by choosing one of these actions and dedicating yourself to resisting it. Maybe it’s stopping the border wall. Maybe it’s resisting the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Maybe it’s standing with Standing Rock. No one person can do it all, but together we can. Then find others who have chosen the same thing you have … and then work with others who have made different choices because our intersectionality and solidarity is one of our greatest strengths. And to do so with the tenacity of Jacob … refusing to let go until the adversary blesses us.
But Sacks and Jacob remind me that we are also called to respond and resist to remembering and being open. To remembering that God’s promise of faithfulness to us, God’s promise of presence with us is eternal and unshakeable. To being open to God breaking through in the night of fear and despair. To resist the temptation of fear to shut down and run away and instead, holding one another’s hands, to embrace that prayer that is “an openness, a vulnerability,” leaving room for God to “take us by surprise, waking us from our sleep, catching us as we fall.”
It is the very heart of Jesus urging us to “keep awake, for you do not know the hour.” This week feels like night. And God is a night owl.
As my sister Traci Blackmon reminds me, “Justice is a marathon, not a sprint.”
If this feels like a new and more terrifying night to us, we must listen to the voices of those among us who have been continually targeted for generations unto centuries — people of color, LGBTQ persons, Jews, Muslims, the list goes on — and know that the tenacity of Jacob is part of our DNA, for so many among us have been exhibiting it their whole lives long.
If this day we are Jacob, tenaciously wrestling with the adversary with our hip out of joint, we trust that tomorrow we will be Moses or Miriam, with God daring us to bear her liberating power to bring about God’s dream of new promise for the people.
Justice, salvation, liberation … all of these are marathons. And God is with us, dreaming and luring all of humanity and all of creation (with NO exceptions!) into that new day.
Today, I pray we will all be open to tripping, falling and finding that God’s arms have been there waiting for us all along.