The Next Reformation?

Trump Luther

I’m going to go out on a limb here.  What if Donald Trump is like a modern day Martin Luther?  What if the message he is putting in the world (mistrust, fear, isolation, dispassionate individualism) is the dawn of an entirely new era in Western civilization?  What if the social convulsions he has prompted ultimately have as much impact as the the resistance initiated by the father of Protestantism.  What if Trump is symbolic of the dawn of a new “religion?”  For many liberal Christians thinking like this is akin to blasphemy.  For the unchurched or the non-religiously engaged it may amount to a “so-what?”  I would ask both groups to put aside their reactions or biases momentarily and indulge the following reflection.

In 1517, when an obscure academic monk named Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, he began a chain of events that are still playing out today regardless of one’s connection to Christianity or religion of any kind.  Some broad strokes of explanation may clarify this point.  Martin Luther had been compelled to post this document to open up the debate among clergy about the sale of “indulgences” (favors of grace) by the Pope (Leo X) to fund the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  In highly simplified terms, the Pope was “selling” the best seats in the afterlife and Martin Luther, among others, was not having it.  Although first printed in Latin, the 95 Theses spread quickly among the clergy and educated classes.  The result was stern rebuke from the Catholic establishment which was followed by Martin Luther’s master stroke of resistance: publishing a simplified “sermon on indulgences” in the common people’s language, German.  This pamphlet went, what we would call today “viral.”

Although Martin Luther was excommunicated in 1521, his actions led to the eventual formation of an entire branch of Christianity in “protest” against Catholic authoritarianism (aka: Protestantism).  This religious shift, in turn resulted in the rethinking of the meaning of commodities, investment and the entire concept of “capital” (Capitalism) as well as affirming the effectiveness of the printed word in communicating and influencing the masses (Media).  From these basic elements it is not difficult to see the path to everything from the Atlantic slave trade and the Industrial Revolution to modern education, the internet and the entire United States Government.

Donald Trump is a conundrum.  As President of the United States he is Commander in Chief, yet he has continually portrayed himself as being above the law.  His “style” of “governing” can be characterized at best as whim driven and at worst as intentionally divisive, racist and patronizing.  In addition, by raising the surprisingly existential question “what is truth?” Trump has completely destabilized the foundation of the information economy in the midst of the information age.  A real danger in Trump is his ability to appeal to an unseen mass discontent, just like Martin Luther.  Trump has given a focal point to a social stance that while deeply unpopular with the liberal establishment, has a powerful resonance with a surprisingly large though somewhat invisible population that liberal elites are quick to dismiss.  What’s more, this man who has only ever been part of the 1%, has managed to affect his message in the language of “common” people and he has spoken directly to them.  He has galvanized public ideological supporters under the guise of political affiliation while courting a disturbing number of a-political and even politically opposed people who privately agree with his agenda, even though they might decry his more offensive rhetoric in public.  The most threatening aspect of Trump that mirrors the power of Martin Luther is his ability to champion a message of personal agency and independent responsibility that too many are willing to accept as a hallmark of “American-ness”…even if it is wearing a white hood and a swastika.  But where Martin Luther points toward a personal relationship and responsibility with God, Donald Trump glorifies a personal relationship and responsibility with money as power.  Any entity that attempts to interfere with, bleed off of or mediate this relationship, is portrayed as an impostor, alien, illegal or sacrilegious.  And so we get walls, bans, cancellations, tariffs, restrictions and limitations all designed to keep the relationship with the Trumpian deity pure.

I’m convinced that Donald Trump is not a President whose term will simply end in a few years.  There is no solution to Donald Trump because like the fire ignited by Martin Luther, Trump is the symptom of a deeper social trouble and not the trouble itself.  To be clear, by comparing Donald Trump and Martin Luther, I am not attempting to paint the 16th century monk as a villain or to take Protestantism or religion of any kind to task (although there are many who would point to the total history of religion as villainy.) Nor am I trying to paint #45 as ANY kind of saint or prophet.  I am only trying to raise awareness to the potentially far reaching impact of what Donald Trump represents.  It did not take a genius to write the 95 Theses, but Martin Luther’s ability to leverage his words broadly achieved maximum and lasting effect.  Donald Trump is no genius (‘very stable’ or otherwise), but he is singularly focused on leveraging public sentiment to maximum effect.  To paraphrase comedian and writer Jennifer Saunders, trying to deal with the ultimate impact of Donald Trump may be a bit like trying to get toothpaste back in the tube.

Wounded Knees

Forgiveness Ceremony
Forgiveness Ceremony at Standing Rock Casino (c) 2016 Josh Morgan/ Huffington Post

The poet in me can’t resist the significance of knees in this week’s episode of America: 400 Years of Racial and Ethnic Culture in Conflict.  First there is the gesture itself: kneeling.  This is what people do when they propose marriage, what they do when they surrender, it is a universally accepted gesture of homage.  It is also an image that is depicted of European colonizers when they landed on the shores of this continent, often being described as kneeling in Christian prayer.  When I read Eric Reid’s Op-Ed reflection on why he and Colin Kaepernick landed on this gesture and not something more dramatic like turning their backs, I’m reminded that, like the history of resisting racism in this country, there are many different layers to how it actually works and what it all means in real time.

The poetry continues when you consider the fact that so many people today associate the playing of the national anthem at sporting events with honoring the armed forces.  A colleague of mine reminded me the other day that no one ever asked if anyone minded this association (which saw a big boost post 9/11).  The national anthem isn’t explicitly a battle cry (it is based on a drinking song).  But looking at the origins of the practice of playing the anthem which was recorded as first happening during a WWI era baseball game, it is very easy to understand the association.  Just in case you forgot, until after the end of WWII, both baseball and the US Military were segregated specifically against blacks.  Anyone who tells you that sports, race and military service have nothing to do with each other, tell them to read a book.

A final (but certainly not the last) piece of poetry that resonates with me is anatomical.  When I think of kneeling and conflict in the United States, the first thing that comes to mind is Wounded Knee.  In Western US culture and history, we are aware of the name “Wounded Knee” because of the massacre that occurred at Wounded Knee Creek.  This slaughter of Indian people (including children) may have taken place nearly 130 years ago, but the battle is ongoing.  The Wounded Knee Massacre is considered by American historians as the last armed conflict between whites and Indian people.  But these historians forget about the resistance at Wounded Knee in 1973.  And of course one just needs to think back a short 12 months ago and remember that descendants of the same Lakota Sioux people who were targeted at Wounded Knee were the same people under threat and ultimately forced off of Standing Rock.

Anatomically, the knee is a pretty amazing joint.  It is designed to absorb the most incredible forces that our bodies sustain.  Its strength and suppleness is the key to evolutionary human survival, allowing for us to run fast, jump and climb.  The knee allows the human body to dance and to create shapes and movements.  It is an incredible juncture within the body.

And human beings have also learned to thrive without knees.  Paralysis, injury, amputation have always opened up different ways to comprehend human movement without the knee.  You don’t need knees (functional or otherwise) to have a beating heart or a brilliant brain.  Even the name of the creek “wounded knee” (Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála) honors a warrior who has lost use of this joint.

The knee can be used to great advantage by human beings.  It can allow us to reach heights that we cannot reach without it.  At the same time the knee is not essential to human life.  It can be immobilized, absent or even just wounded and we will still survive.  These are parallel lessons that people of color in the United States have demonstrated time and time again in the face of oppression.  Today’s battles are not new, the protests are not novel.  This is the perpetual state of things in a nation built on the obliteration of one people and the monetized subjugation of another.  The resilience of people of color in this country, with and without knees in the face of this status quo speaks to our permanence here and across the globe.

If you are flummoxed by the current state of affairs in this country, maybe you need to consider more deeply where your body can bend to have more leverage in the battle or how you can adapt without that joint altogether.  Some of us prove that both are possible every single day.

These Times

Some folks are in agony wondering
“What can we do and how should we feel ‘in these times’?”
Yet, while they’ve been busy
Creating ‘safe’ and ‘brave’ spaces
And learning about ‘diversity’
And pondering what it means to ‘dismantle’ racism in ‘these times’,
‘These times’ have been the entire context for Africans in “America”
‘These times’ have been the human history of rape
‘These times’ have been the ongoing Indian genocide.
Across the globe, right here at home, historical and modern, physical and social
‘These times’ are and have always been right now.
The only reason one could possibly see any of this as either new or shocking
Is because of  the highly evolved, totally unique United States Brand™ privilege.
It is not just a simplistic privilege of skin color
But the complex construction of an entire privilege culture
Based on race, fueled by fear, multiplied by greed
Locked in systems of opportunity, loaded in government
And fired down the barrel of a very specific social order
Laying waste to everyone in its sights.
The only way to truly deal with ‘these times’
Is to admit that ‘these times’ are business as usual
Face all the signs that say we have to start from scratch
And begin the experiment entirely anew.

Reid Kaepernick
Eric Reid, Colin Kaepernick, kneeling during the National Anthem (c) 2016 Marcio Jose Sanchez/ AP