by Brayton Shanley
About six of us from Agape made our way to the Ware High School on November 3rd where the locals were voting. What we found there took our breath away: Ten or so Trump supporters standing steamroller strong along the road leading into the polling place, wildly waving their American flags and Trump/Pence banners. By mid-afternoon, election day they had established themselves as the only game in town.
In front of us lay the heavily trafficked main road into Ware. Trump’s people screamed past in their cars and trucks, revving their engines, and shouting out to their comrades. It was a Ware-styled, all male Trump rally.
What is raging right in front of us in the Trump phenomena is primarily angry men who are emboldened by their president to intimidate with bullying bluster. Although frightening to see, these men are wounded and remind me of the need for compassion.
We as a community had been in dialogue with other Catholic Workers and peace groups in the region to discuss how we might be a de-escalating presence on election day and beyond, especially if Trump lost, refused to concede and rallied his base to threaten violence. Peace people of all stripes were beginning to prepare for the worst.
We joined this Trump rally and unfurled our banner: “God’s Peace Heals All Division.” In community discussions with faith based peace groups, mostly Catholics and Quakers, we began to see that if we wished to rid our country of Trump’s juggernaut’s cruelty and heal the vicious divisions, we would have to do more than vote. A seething divide exists between college educated and mixed-race Democrats and working-class majority males who cleave to Trump no matter what he does. But now was not a time for partisan electioneering. The radical nonviolence that was needed was peace keeping, de-escalation of the violent tone and healing in this emotionally precarious moment and more so in the weeks and months ahead.
Since the 1990s we as a community have witnessed for peace in downtown Ware. But never have we taken a banner phrased in the name of God, reconciliation and healing into a working class, Polish Catholic town with plenty of unemployment, teen pregnancy and drug addiction to go around. This was a brand-new witness and, on election day even! We had no real idea what to expect. In past years we have taken the word and image of Jesus into a public square witness to protest war and violence. It has always been telling that Jesus taken into the streets always significantly slowed the negative reactions of passers-by to his message of nonviolent love.
Needing Some Space for God
We decided to move our presence out of the “Trump rally” to across the road where we could separate ourselves from the toxic aggression and be seen as a separate and distinct spiritual presence.
Jack, MAGA hat and all, was already standing in our new spot holding up his Trump signs. As we unfurled our banner, one of us asked: “What do you think of our sign?” He responded spontaneously, “Oh I’m all for it. We need it now more than ever.” I saw his response and friendly manner as an opening.
I walked over to him, introduced myself, and with a broad generous smile he introduced himself as “Jack.” “Our banner talks about God’s peace,” I began. “Do Trump people relate to that?” “Oh yes definitely,” he returned, “we are very often people of faith…Christian.” “Are you?” I asked. “Oh, yes,” he answered. “I am Catholic. I attend ‘All Saints Parish’ in Ware and have lived in this town all my life. Catholicism means a great deal to me and my family.” I felt an immediate chemistry; a person of faith, Catholic even, and I knew his pastor, Fr. Peter. Jack was eager to talk. All these are typically good conditions for true listening and meeting of the minds. I set out to center our conversation on Christianity and Jesus as they related to Trump and this election. I knew it was unwise to try to convince him that Trump was as dangerous as I thought he was.
“As a Catholic myself,” I continued, “I believe it is a central tenet of my faith that to be a disciple of Jesus I must endeavor to follow his teachings. This is the number one indicator of a true Christian. How does Trump measure up there?” “Well,” Jack responded with some force, “Trump isn’t a minister; he’s a businessman. So, yes putting Jesus first is good, don’t get me wrong. But Trump is not this saintly Christian that you are talking about. He is a businessman first. But he is a Christian who has done a lot of good for the country, creating jobs. Many people have benefitted from his economic policies. He has created a kind of economic miracle. My son has even been able to buy a house!”
Our dialogue required my ongoing self-control to avoid arguing the standard hot button anti-Trump positions, so we continued as just two Catholic elder men reflecting on the dangerous and divided political world we find ourselves in. I added, “Our banner speaks of God healing our divisions. Where do you see divisions in our country?” “Oh yes,” Jack retorted, the pace of his ideas still assertive, “The Church is divided, rich and poor are divided.” I cut in, “Does Trump care about the poor?” Jack says: “He is focused on the economy which helps everyone including the poor. He does spend his time with wealthy people.” “And where else are we divided?” “Media,” Jack continued, “I watch CNN and MSNBC, for balance. They both follow everything Trump does every day and they never say anything good about him, ever. They denounce him as someday kind of monster. It’s the same with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump is nothing but bad. During the impeachment hearings, Adam Schiff kept digging and digging for dirt. It was awful.”
Jack was hitting his peak of frustrated passion. I tried to just listen, give him space and challenge occasionally. Pelosi-Schumer-Schiff, CNN and MSNBC represent the heart of the bitter division–the elites vs. the working class, liberal vs. conservative, pro vs. anti-immigrant. Jack’s tension on these points, I imagine, comes from the relentless anti-Trump attacks regarding his (yes, reprehensible) behavior that his people must constantly defend or attempt to deny. This liberal/conservative divide is a flat out, take no prisoners culture war. For me and multitudes of others worldwide, Trump’s evil ways seem an obvious threat to our country and planet’s future stability. But if this culture war divide continues completely fraught through political side taking, (CNN vs. Fox) these vicious divisions will never abate but only deepen. Keeping Jesus in our dialogue exposes the hopelessly partisan political process as a win/lose business, no self-reflective admission of wrongdoing, no compassion or forgiveness, no love for the adversary here, therefore no healing.
Can a True Christian Support Trump?
I picked up the challenge a bit. “Jack, don’t you think Trump is divisive? Calling Mexicans rapists along with his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric?” Jack jumped in, “He didn’t say all Mexicans were rapists.” My retort, “but that kind of language is divisive, violent, dangerous. That inflames hatreds does it not? Jesus speaks of forgiving love and nonviolence.”
I wanted to cut to the chase of how the values of Trump and his base are the antithesis of the spirit of Jesus. “Doesn’t Trump’s racially charged rhetoric as a politically powerful white man stoke division between us white folk and black people?” Jack confessed a truth I have heard from most of the Trump people I have listened to. “I don’t agree with everything he says.” In the netherworld of their hearts is it true that Trump supporters have a love/hate relationship with their president? It seems that they want to say, “Trump is very nasty, yes. I do not approve of it but he so much more real (and like me!) than a politically correct Democrat elitist, a liberal woman or (God help us), a Black president.”
Despite some of his vintage right-wing attitudes toward the poor and people of color, I found Jack likeable even in his raw and seemingly un-self aware positions. The more space I gave him the more he talked. “Look, I work in prisons, I work with gang members, some of the worst cases…pure evil. As far as black lives matter, I believe black lives matter…all lives matter, but as for Black Lives Matter as an organization I am against them.” “Why is that” I cut in. “Because they do not do anything to improve the lot of their own kind.” I continued my query, “How do you know that?” Jack rejoined, “I never see them helping, just protesting that often turns violent.”
For the first time in the discussion I was stymied. I thought how opposite the stereotype of the Trump supporter can you be…prison work? Gang work? Yet if you have to say “All Lives Matter” in the face of 164 Black people being killed by the police in 2020 and George Floyd tortured and killed because of the color of his skin, it seems Jack still has his denial blinders on. Is it a fear of compassion for the oppressed that infects and indicts privileged white men who live divorced from the poverty and enslavement in ghettos of people of color? True, I conjecture even in this small rural suburb of Ware, Massachusetts.
God and Country Are One?
I changed the subject back to the rally scene with a challenge. “I always see a lot of American flags in gatherings of Trump supporters. When I think about a Christ like, gospel faith I don’t think of waving a country’s flag. Are you trying to say my country is the best? Doesn’t Jesus call us to love all people in all countries, to love enemies not hate or fear them?” Jack answers: “Because of your putting Jesus first kind of Catholicism you may not see the world the way I do. My first loyalty is to my family, then to my neighborhood, and then to my country.” When Jack spoke, he projected a full-bodied force of his conviction, yet he never seemed defensive. He could just simply and honestly say, “My family comes first, America first” and just drop Jesus and his Catholic identity into the void. This is Trump think, and I presume it is saturated with fear of the foreigner, and a world Jack inhabits where he believes his family, neighborhood and country are not safe from enemies and undocumented immigrants. A living Christ-like love of the poor begins to wilt here.
Although the way Jack responded to my challenge to “put Jesus (not America) first”, I sensed he deeply respected that view, but he just did not know how to get there. Of course, this problem of Christianity without Christ is all too common in Catholics. Just look at how many of us enthusiastically support war and capital punishment. Nevertheless, Jack remained oddly reachable and maintained a warm presence in spite of our differences. This kind of exchange continues to convince me of the value of dialogue with the opposition even when it apparently does not change anyone’s position. If enough listening happens our humanity should shine through and that can be enough to bind us.
Because Trump has been consistently saying that if he loses, he will claim the election was stolen and will not concede, I took the question to Jack. “If Trump loses the election after all the votes are counted will you accept the validity of the election and support a peaceful transfer of power?” “Yes, I will,” Jack reassured me. “Do you think your fellow supporters will accept the loss?”, I followed. Jack offered, generously, “I will pray to the Holy Spirit that we will be at peace with the results.” Looking back at this bizarre scene in front of us, I offered back, “I will pray for you Jack. May God’s peace heal us from all this battling.”