“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” ― C.S. Lewis,
For a variety of reasons, I voted for Hillary Clinton for president.
Like many, many others, I did not get what I wanted.
But I did get something valuable.
I received the gift of pain.
As gifts go, pain is not usually high on anyone’s most-wanted list. It’s the reason why, when people want to exclaim strongly about how much they dislike something, they usually offer up a painful alternative that they would rather choose. I’d rather light myself on fire. I’d rather snuggle with razor blades and bathe in lemon juice. I’d rather have a root canal.
Actually, that last one seems rather apt, because the potential for pain from a root canal stems from the exposure of nerves in our teeth. We hurt because we are getting unfiltered, unadulterated, no-holds-barred pain signals from our bodies’ specialized pain sensors. When you need a root canal, your teeth hurt to remind you that hey, something is REALLY WRONG.
That’s right. Pain is a messenger.
And if we don’t get those messages, it’s usually because we’ve been given an anesthetic to numb the pain; that is, to cancel the message. In this context, it makes sense that only licensed physicians are allowed to administer anesthesia. Otherwise, serious damage can be done to the body if we just cancel the signal without dealing with the root problem. It’d be like if your smoke alarm had a snooze button. Bad idea, right? Certain alarms are meant to motivate us to take action. If we fail to find the appropriate remedies, then the problem only gets worse.
And when it comes to our American political climate, I suspect that’s part of the problem of how we got here.
[SIDE NOTE: White evangelical conservatives, you can skip down to the bottom. This part isn’t for you.]
See, I’m a moderate progressive, politically speaking. I’m not quite full-on liberal, but I identify and struggle with (and sometimes against) liberal causes. And like many millennials and younger Gen-X-ers, I came of age politically during the backlash against the George W. Bush administration and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. And to deal with the confusion and frustration and pain during that time, I did what a lot of us did — I turned to comedy. I became a fan of The Daily Show, and later The Colbert Report, all because I found comedy to be a great way to deal with the pain. In many ways, my current interest in stand-up comedy was taking root through my fandom then, because I realized that comedy can be an excellent way to articulate and generate enthusiasm about a specific worldview. When I realized that my own worldview wasn’t particularly represented well in the world of comedy, I decided to try my hand at it. My love for comedy was, and still is, rooted in my affinity for cynicism. In many ways, I find it cathartic.
But not completely so.
That is, there’s a reason why I don’t do it all the time. The cynical posture can be a way of creating a stress-release from pain, but it can never solve the root problems that cause the pain in the first place.
So, for example, I like to tell jokes that come from my unique perspective on racial dynamics. But jokes alone cannot help someone overcome racism. They might be able to shine a light on the problem, or cast the issue in a new light, but the hard work of building relationships, combatting fallacious racial stereotypes, and generating a consensus about dismantling white supremacy… that takes a lot of time and intentionality that can’t be supported by comedy alone. You need trainings and books and policies and social events and budgets and meetings and Lord-knows-what-else.
I think many of us on the left are full-on shell-shocked by Trump’s electoral victory because we underestimated the extent to which pain was a factor.
That is, we’ve learned to be content to laugh along with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert (or more recently, with Larry Wilmore or Trevor Noah) as a way to deal with the pain of political dysfunction, while still remaining helpless to change it. Our default response is to laugh and shrug.
(I’m pretty sure whoever invented the shrug emoji — ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ — was a progressive millennial.)
So we don’t really know what to do with the pain, other than anesthetize it with comedy and share the misery with like-minded friends on Facebook.
But worse is that during the run-up to Trump’s ascent as a viable political candidate, we used our own pain to justify our expressions of anger and protest, but denied our opponents the right to do the same. I don’t excuse the blatant racism, misogyny and xenophobia that streamed out of the Donald’s mouth on a near-regular basis; as a political candidate, it is inexcusable, immoral, and irresponsible, and his subsequent election doesn’t change that.
But Trump won because he tapped into a lot of conservative white pain, from people who felt like the system was rigged against them. If rioting is the language of the unheard, then so is yelling “lock her up!” Not saying the situations are equivalent, but the sentiments are similar. We failed to anticipate Trump’s electoral victory because we saw all of the racism and misogyny and xenophobia and bullying only as a catalyst for our own pain instead of as an expression of our enemies’ pain.
That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it understandable.
So in the wake of this historic upset, it’s time that progressive Christians remember that pain is a messenger, and that just like a root canal, if we only numb the pain without digging into the hard work of trying to change things, we’re only delaying the inevitable letdown. If we’re going to continue to live into our calling as Christians, we must let this pain drive us to action. Real action. Not just lashing out or pretending we’re going to move to Canada.
My brother Jomo expressed my thoughts well when he said on Facebook:
Dear white people that are shocked: This is what we’ve been talking about for decades. We’re not joking about the hostility that we face on a day-to-day basis. I’m going to need y’all to take your head out the sand and get to work.
It’s appropriate to mourn, to be frustrated, and especially for the legion of women who felt like this was finally their opportunity to break through the glass ceiling, I understand your alienation, hurt, and frustration. But if you want to make a difference, let that pain continue to drive you to the action of creating substantive change.
If the pain and shock over this election can cause white liberals to truly mobilize and engage the work of anti-racism and dismantling white supremacy, then Donald Trump’s election can become an actual blessing.
But unless you’re willing to do that, save your shock and awe.
[White evangelical conservatives, welcome back! This part is for you!]
The root of issue of pain is also very important for conservatives too, and for one huge reason: White conservative pain was the driver of this election.
Van Jones said it best on CNN when he referred to this election as a “whitelash.” It’s an awkward phrase, but I know exactly what he meant. Donald Trump won the right to become president by stoking the resentment that many white people have about their position in society. And I’d be willing to bet that if you voted for Trump, you have strong feelings about “reverse racism,” the role of Christian faith in society, and how our country can be great again. You might even think that Donald Trump, in all of his bumbling brashness, might be God’s vessel for this time in America’s story.
If that’s you, I have another important C.S. Lewis quote from The Problem of Pain:
“For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.”
God uses everything and everyone for His purposes, but not all of us are cooperating with his purposes. Some of us are used by God, not because of our choices, but in spite of them, because God is powerful and omnipotent enough to weave all things into a tapestry of wonder and might that manages both to give himself glory and us triumph over our sinful impulses.
I bring this up because there are some of us evangelicals who are so craven to the scoreboard of success that we will excuse any behavior if we think it will help us achieve our political goals, and the overwhelming support of Trump by evangelicals is exhibit A. I echo the disappointment and horror many of my liberal friends are feeling, although I’m not so much worried about how my children will respond (as of yet, I don’t have any).
No, my chief concern is for the church. Or more specifically, it’s message. What about the gospel?
The election of Donald Trump has catastrophic potential for doing damage to the gospel of Jesus Christ, in part because most of the white people who say they have embraced that gospel have also embraced a candidate whose behavior has done everything to repudiate it. (Lest you think I’m exaggerating, the Donald even said, in the context of talking about God, he’s never asked for forgiveness.)
So if you’re white, and an evangelical, and especially if you voted for Trump:
What are you doing with your pain?
Are you using it to live out the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Or are you using it as justification to “take the country back,” and take out your frustrations in the process?
Because the world is watching. For better or worse: white evangelicals, you now own this election. The ball is in your court. If you thought it was unfair to paint Trump support as a tacit acceptance of racism, sexism, bullying, xenophobia, ignorance, and whatever other symptom of pain that Trump tends to bring out of people, then prove us wrong by how you live.
Show us that white people can be compassionate and fair when it comes to solving our debt crisis, or in dealing with immigrants, or in combatting sexual assault on college campuses. Show us that abortion can be prevented by holistic care, family support and community health initiatives. Give us inspired examples of community policing where local police can form bonds with people of color and not be viewed as a threat.
If pain is a message that something is wrong, then show us you know how to fix it. Or, failing that, show us the humility it takes to invite others to the table so that we can do it together.
Because up to this point, your candidate has only excelled in keeping others out.
And, by the way, show us all this ASAP, because the clock is ticking and 2020 will be here before you know it.
Also, if you call yourself a Christian, then think about what effect your candidate has had on public discourse, and then meditate on Matthew 18:6:
If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
And if you really want to avoid pain, you better hope that Christ doesn’t return before the Democrats do.
Because either way, it’s gonna be painful.