The American elections take place tomorrow. Does that mean that the polarizing populism that breeds on people’s resentment and fear, that has emerged not just in Trump’s candidacy but also in Brexit, European nationalist parties, and a number of discussions online, will be over?
Not quite. A fascinating article at the New York Times puts the finger on the crisis of identity that has blossomed in segments of the majority populations in Western nations. I’ve never seen this phenomenon so well explained. Please read it.
In a nutshell: people who are accustomed to a homogenous environment get anxious when a society begins to change. The “other” is hard to digest, especially to less educated, rural populations who are not used to the diversity of cities and who lack a professional identity centered on individual accomplishments. They depend on their national status for a perceived sense of worth. So when “the other” arrives to the neighborhood in phenomena like immigration, globalization, and religious pluralism, they perceive it as an insult to their way of life. Without the articulation to understand this sense of crisis, and with few publically acceptable ways to express it, populist politics like Trump’s lets them “vote with their middle finger” and express this angst.
The article does not mention how religion intersects with this sense of crisis. Correctly, in my view: religion is indeed not the motivator for this crisis. It is used by many of these populations to shore up their sense of identity (“this immigrants are not good-standing Christians like we are”). And it can just as easily be perceived as the repugnant “Other,” like in the case of the black congregation that was burned down by Trump activists. But when faith is invoked by those who oppose racial diversity, it is not real, transforming Christianity. It is civic religion that is just one more element to name “the way things used to be” and “who we are as a people”.
That’s ironic, because transforming Christianity is actually the best resource to deal with this crisis and the best antidote to populism. It’s centered on a Middle-Eastern Messiah who taught love for enemies, who exalted a despised Samaritan as an example of compassion, and who died for the salvation of Jew and Greek alike. It offers salvation not by merit – be it religious works, bloodline, or career accomplishments – but by grace, which gives people not just a sense of worth larger than their national identity, and thus the empathy to welcome and love “the other”, but that transforms it too. It’s a gospel that has fostered multicultural communities of love and otherness throughout history.
As a second century Epistle to Diognetus has put it,
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life… And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country.
Christianity finds itself today in the curious position of being invoked by those who idolize national identity and by those who aspire a cosmopolitan internationalism. It is indeed the faith of the “Bobs” and the “Carmens” in our nations.
But at its best, it is not a motivator to keep the different people out. It is an invitation to welcome them in. Grace enlarges our insecure hearts to help us embrace them, even in our fly-over towns and in our monocultural congregations.
The Middle-Eastern Messiah demands nothing less.