Scorn, No. Alarm, Yes.

 

***I haven’t written an actual blog piece in a very long time, and really wasn’t in any hurry to do so. But after reading something on Christianity Today earlier this week, I felt like I had to stand up and say something. And yes, it’s about Donald Trump.***

Let me start off by saying that I really like Ed Stetzer. We both were columnists for Christianity Today, although I very much doubt he knew of my existence there. And I appreciate how he brings a consistently insightful and informed perspective to issues of evangelical life. His recent piece on scorn is no exception. In it, he cautions evangelicals against being scornful of other people who support Donald Trump, as such an attitude runs dangerously close to the Pharisee in Luke 18 who disdained another man for not being as holy as himself. This is excellent advice, as it is easy to get mired in a disdainful attitude towards those with whom we disagree. We should all take his words to heart and strive to speak with grace and love to one another, especially those of us who have become particularly snarky this election season (which might describe me, unfortunately).

And yet, I think an important counterpoint has to be made to Ed’s piece, and that is to remind people that although outwardly very similar, there is a huge difference between scorn and genuine alarm. And for people whose very place in this country is threatened by figures like Donald Trump, we are motivated to speak out with such vehemence because of the latter, not the former.

Responding with a measured and dispassionate tone is a privilege reserved only for…well, the privileged. When something alarms you but cannot fundamentally challenge your value or place in society, it is much easier to remain detached and avoid a tone of voice (or typing) that could be interpreted as contemptuous. If a person aggravates you but does not truly threaten you, a restrained response is the mature and correct one. But if that same person were to actually menace you in some significant way, or encouraged others to do the same, a collected and calm attitude would not only be more difficult, but abnormal.

I say this because a more measured response against a figure like Donald Trump is far easier for those who already sit in a place of privilege, and who are not fundamentally threatened by this man’s ascent into power. For a white evangelical, Donald Trump might be a divisive and even alarming figure, but he is not a dangerous one, not directly. If Trump were to become president, white evangelicals might bemoan the loss of civility in politics, or that he does not care nearly as much about conservative issues as they had imagined. But on the whole, white evangelicals would still remain a sizable and influential percentage of the American population, their place fundamentally unchanged. If anything, there might be cause to believe that evangelicals would politically benefit from a figure like Donald Trump and his (recent) conservative leanings.

But this is actually not the case for many people in America, namely minorities. To us, Donald Trump has promoted ideas that we find disturbing and even dangerous, not just on an ideological level, but a personal one. For instance, when he mocks Japanese people by using broken English – that is degrading to me and many other Asians who have been subjected to such taunts our entire lives. I can’t help but take such mockery personally. Or when he claims that because of his own outlandish pronouncements towards Mexicans, a Mexican-American federal judge is not fit to preside over a trial – that is profoundly alarming, that our own cultural heritage might be used to discount our abilities, or our patriotism. Or when he targets immigrants and advocates for the wholesale stoppage of entire people groups into this country, what are people who once were immigrants supposed to make of this? Are we supposed to shrug our shoulders because he’s not talking specifically about us this time? No, of course not. Those who are not directly affected by these kinds of proclamations may be able maintain a thoughtful attitude, but that is not really an option for those of us who find ourselves directly in the crosshairs of such statements.

vincent_jen_chin
Vincent Chin

Moreover, minorities in this country are not disturbed by Trump because he poses a heretofore unknown threat to us. It is our history that causes us alarm, not our overactive imaginations. For instance, it might seem farfetched that Trump would ban a broad swath of people from coming into this country, except that the Chinese Exclusion Act that did precisely that in 1882, as did the Immigration Act of 1907. So we know it can happen because it has happened. And a person might scoff at the idea that Trump could create a toxic cultural environment that was hostile to minorities. But that is exactly what happened to Vincent Chin in 1982, who was beaten to death in Detroit as a result of inflamed rhetoric against the Japanese auto industry. And so when we hear Donald repeatedly whip up resentment against immigrants or against China for stealing jobs, you can understand why we find this man so disturbing and react to his antics with such outrage – because he reminds us of something we have seen before.

One might argue that despite this, it is still unnecessary to feel threatened by Donald Trump’s bluster because he is just pandering to a certain demographic, trying to focus as much of the spotlight on himself as possible. Ultimately, he is a blowhard who will not do any of the things that he says he will, and so we needn’t be so apprehensive and overly sensitive.

Perhaps.

Perhaps Trump’s statements are nothing more than bravado designed to get everyone to overlook his lack of qualifications, I am willing to believe it. But even if he does not enact a single piece of legislation, his inflammatory rhetoric is already having a negative cultural impact. This is a man who has openly encouraged supporters to kick out protesters by use of force, and even offered to pay any of the legal fees they might incur for these illegal actions. And that is precisely what occurred, as his supporters bullied, shoved and punched protesters all the way out of the venue and into the arms of police. He did not have to pass legislation or issue an executive order to accomplish this. All he had to do was to use antagonistic and divisive rhetoric to create an environment that encouraged others to do it instead, and the end result is largely the same. And there are plenty of people who were just waiting for someone to provide the spark, which Trump seems all but happy to do.

Perhaps he is not planning to act upon any of the ideas that he recklessly bandies about. But perhaps he is. Perhaps he will build a giant wall between us and our neighbor, whose people live and work in our nation, and whose culture has so profoundly influenced our own. Perhaps he will force judges to step down because of their national or cultural heritage. Perhaps he will continue to verbally and culturally marginalize immigrants. Perhaps he will do worse. I spent a few years studying German history at Yale, and I remember reading countless accounts of how no one thought Hitler would truly act on his outlandish pronouncements, not realizing that he would actually go much further. History demonstrates that it is unwise to assume that someone will not do something just because we ourselves would never do the same.

Again, I don’t actually disagree with Ed’s main point – we shouldn’t be scornful or disdainful of other Believers whose perspectives differ from our own. We would do well to guard against this attitude as it dishonors the eternal bond that Christians share with one another. But by the same token, neither should we be too quick to confuse scorn with genuine alarm. And far too often, that is the response of white evangelicals to the outcry of minorities: to assume that our outrage is unwarranted and excessive, and so to dismiss it out of hand. But be careful, because privilege makes it all too easy to jump to such a conclusion. What one might characterize as “scorn” might actually be the legitimate fear of people who are being directly insulted or threatened by Trump, and have suffered real insults and threats before.

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