In Grade 10 the head of MCEC spoke at my school about their strategy for dealing with sexual diversity.
I was greatly disappointed.
In my progressive mind the Mennonite Church should have been taking more leadership to ensure people’s rights were being respected. In the years since I have been disappointed, offended, and flabbergasted at the outright homophobia of the Being a Faithful Church process.
I just couldn’t understand how Mennonites could continue to endorse such hateful policies, beliefs and practices. At least I couldn’t until 2016, until the phenomenon of Donald Trump (or Drumpf).
In case you hadn’t heard, Donald Trump is running for President. And he’s doing a swell job of offending everyone while doing it.
For several months my Facebook feed has been lit with offended progressives lamenting the post-apocalyptic future that will erupt if America elects Darth Trump.
Hordes of terrified Americans have been swarming Immigration Canada and spamming Google with searches for “How to Move to Cape Breton Island”. You can’t go a day without hearing how he’s a racist and misogynistic islamophobe whose continued public presence poses a significant risk to the safety of minorities.
And yet, millions of people support him and he’s virtually sweeping the Republican side of the election. How is this even possible you might scream into your cereal bowl? (If you still eat cereal…)
During this Shakespearean tragedy that is Trump’s electoral pursuit I have had a hard time joining the progressive outrage of the anti-Trump movement.
It is not that I don’t find a lot of what he says offensive (even ISIS seems to be aware of the harms of his xenophobic rhetoric).
It is just that I don’t find it surprising or novel.
There is a reason Trump is sweeping the Republican primary, because this rhetoric has been alive and well for a while in America and especially in the GOP. Is Trump really that much more offensive than his competitors like Cruz and Kasich? I may disagree with these views, but I shouldn’t be surprised that they continue to exist.
However, I think this is the position our progressive outrage can frequently lead us. We get so focussed on what is ‘right’ that we are confounded when people posit positions counter to ours. “I can’t believe they think that,” we say, “that’s just wrong”. I certainly have that reaction when reading some of the editorials in the Canadian Mennonite.
And that is definitely a common response to Trump and his supporters. Trump’s reality TV past and larger-than-life persona can make it hard to see him as anything but a caricature. But he is still a human and his millions of supporters are far more normal than we may care to realize.
Millions of people don’t end up voting for a politician like Trump for no reason. He is clearly resonating enough to stop them from binging youtube, and to make signs, attend rallies, and vote.
There are lots of legitimate reasons that compel people to vote for Trump. If you don’t believe me you should start listening to Trump supporters themselves.
Vice has had some great coverage of the election so far which I suggest you check out. It’s hard not to have empathy for these people, who are often struggling, just not in the ways of the traditionally marginalized.
We get so focussed on what is ‘right’ that we can’t listen to positions counter to ours
One could say that by supporting someone like Trump these people are willfully ignorant to current understandings of human rights and social justice. But I would argue that most of these people support Trump because we haven’t given them much of a choice.
There is an excellent video series titled “Why are you so angry?” which unpacks how well-meaning people endorsed the sexist and white supremacist views of the Gamergate movement. It puts the blame solely on moral thinking’s black-and-white dependency on right and wrong.
Since progressives are all about pursuing an ideal they are constantly redefining what is right while simultaneous labeling more and more people as wrong. Everyone else has to either admit they are wrong or fight back/disengage until communication lines are broken. Whether it be Gamergate or Trump supporters, when we don’t have empathy for people who disagree with us and deligitimize their experiences and beliefs – what choice do they have but to dig in their heels?
That is why I actually like Trump. Because he forces us to acknowledge the existence a group of people we too often dismiss as being inconsequential. Trump gives these people a voice and brings them into the mainstream political discourse where they have to be taken seriously. The longer Trump stays around and the more successful he is, the more time people have to listen to each other. And it is only through listening that we can develop empathy.
Now I’m not trying to say that Trump is a magic cure-all and that there aren’t harms to bringing these conflicting groups into closer proximity with each other. But, the conflicts that divide Western society can only be resolved through discourse and that can only happen when all parties are treated with legitimacy and empathy.
Trump is creating a great opportunity for this to happen and I hope people use this to help our society heal and grow. Progressives have all these ideals for what our society should look like but we will never reach them until we create enough space for everyone to get there. Rather than view people as right or wrong we need to view us us all as being on the path towards our best selves. By taking the time to help others learn and grow we can move past conflict to resolution.
I was debating this very point with my brother a few weeks ago on our way to a Mennonite-Aboriginal reconciliation event at Mannheim Mennonite Church. As I walked into the building I picked up some literature for the Being a Faithful Church process and scowled. My progressive outrage surged forth and I began to dismiss the church once more.
But then things shifted. Literally seconds prior I was defending the value of Trump and yet I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge the existence of Mennonites who disagreed with me.
Looking back my disconnect was laughable.
I could not only legitimize but empathize with Trump supporters; I could look past his racism, sexism and all-around bigotry and see the massive opportunity for conflict resolution he wields in his tiny fingers. Yet I couldn’t even give the the same grace to people in my own church context. For the first time ever I saw saw value in the Being a Faithful Church process, all thanks to Trump.
Like Trump the Being a Faithful Church process is forcing the conflicting factions of the Mennonite Church into the same discourse so they have to acknowledge each other. There is thus the opportunity for people in conflict to legitimize each other’s experiences and empathize with each other.
However, the Being a Faithful Church process goes even further than Trump. It not only brings both groups together but it establishes a framework of mutual respect to encourage and foster such activities. Hopefully, through this process we can stop viewing the different views of sexual diversity as right or wrong and see them as points on a continuum towards God’s love.
If we can capitalize on this opportunity to communicate with those who disagree with us we can begin to shift the Mennonite Church into a more loving state. But to get to that state means bringing all Mennonites there, which means we have to create space for those who disagree with us and provide them with the support to grow and learn.
I still have lots of criticism and concerns about the Being a Faithful Church process. But rather than dismiss it outright I now see it as an opportunity for resolution and growth.
I hope the Church sees this process for the amazing value that it has to be a transformative and healing experience. This process really isn’t about sexual diversity but diversity in general. How do we as a church of peacebuilding deal with those who disagree with us?
If we can sort out how to do that with our neighbours, then I’m positive we can be a light in the world that can transform people like Trump into opportunities for peace. So the next time you feel yourself freaking out about Trump take a moment to turn your enemy into an opportunity.
David Alton tries to bring joy to the world through story telling and walking adventures. He also moonlights as Spiritual Life Director at Fraser Lake Camp. He likes the colour yellow and is currently planning a roadtrip to San Francisco.