In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’m writing today because I don’t want to be such a friend—most especially to the young man who struggled passed me in the park today. He was jogging, trailing behind a large group of other teens, but he wasn’t smiling or enjoying the camaraderie with the others. His body was twisted and he was leaning forward, looking down, and trying hard to keep up. Still reeling from recent events: the unpresidential debate, Trump testing positive for COVID-19, his calculated, defiant, act of removing his mask on the balcony carelessly exposing the White House staff to infection, I found myself wondering what place that young man would have in the new America—yes, the new America if Trump were successful in declaring a fraudulent election and were then reinstated by the Supreme Court.
I suspect this struggling young man would be relegated to the same place where all the others deemed to be dispensable would go, like the disabled reporter whom Trump mocked, people of color, Jews, and, most especially, anyone daring to express a dissenting view in this new Trump regime. I could imagine that, as part of the banishment, each would be branded with the appropriate scarlet insignia: “loser,” “disaster,” or most recently, “monster,” given to Senator Kamala Harris after the Vice–Presidential debate.
A stretch, you say? Just a cursory look at the key steps would–be dictators follow to come to power in a democracy, combined with the most basic understanding of narcissism, paints a clear picture that is as unmistakable as it is terrifying. And you can’t say we weren’t warned. Donald Trump has given us the true deal since that first debate moderated by Megan Kelly. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse to, now, simply dangerous because now he is unabashedly calling out white supremacists, with neo–Nazi leanings, like the Proud Boys, to “stand by.” Dare we imagine for what?
It certainly isn’t hard to see how we got here. This isn’t about political ideology or public policy. No, this is about a man, largely protected by his own party, who’s been allowed to progressively flaunt dictatorial bullying behaviors: controlling the public narrative, declaring all differing opinions “fake,” showing no true empathy, flaunting established norms and rules of operation, displaying little respect for authority to name a few. And many of his fellow Republicans have consistently looked away when he’s acted most predictably: the indiscriminate lying; the degradation of others, the public mocking and name calling—behaviors that would be deemed unacceptable by most in any ten–year–old.
And, so, we shouldn’t be surprised with the results: an inability to distinguish the reality of what is from desired fabrications; to hear the cries of small children taken from their parents and left in cages; to witness the shameless cowering to dictators like Putin while disparaging true heroes like John McCain; or his refusal to denounce white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups like the Proud Boys because simply—they worship him.
If I put on my mental health hat or dawn my ministerial robes, I can truly feel compassion for him . . . and for the Proud Boys and others like them. Anyone able to see past the exterior to what is essential will find there an abyss of sorrow, rage and tears. But that cannot sway us, in the moment, to allow or excuse behaviors that are hateful and harmful without calling them out. And, let’s not forget, that we, you and I, are not immune from culpability. Collectively, we’ve participated in this society where we’ve allowed a great chasm of inequity to separate us one from another, leaving many behind, creating ripe conditions for a would–be savior–autocrat. And, sadly, along the way, many of us of privilege have continued to see–but–not–see how systemic racism has progressively continued to marginalize our African American brothers and sisters—the results of which are now being laid bare on our streets as, surely, they must. For the human spirit in search of fairness, justice and equality will not be silenced for long. It will rise up and, rest assured, will ultimately prevail.
None of this is news! It’s all being said every day on news outlets and on social media. What’s new is that I, a clergy member, am now speaking out to join others sounding the alarm. Why? We know that it was clergy among those who remained largely silent when Hitler was coming to power. Yes, clergy. So, particularly for those of us of faith, it’s important for us to lead, following in the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., encouraging all who can to follow, today, and to join in the great march to that most sovereign representation of our democracy—the ballot box. Then, critically, we must join together to address those economic and systemic injustices festering in that vast, stark, abyss that continue to scream out for equity and healing. It’s the only way we can have any hope of becoming one America again.
I’m so grateful for the young man who jogged passed me today. I was reminded of who it is who suffers most in an autocratic regime: the “so–called” weak and imperfect, the marginal, unimportant, the imperfect in measuring up to the standards of narcissistic perfectionism. He reminded me that there is nothing religious or spiritual about seeking to bask, or hide, in the light while the shadow of darkness is quickly shrouding our very existence.
So, today this clergywoman made a silent vow to my friend who passed me in the park to speak out and to be heard. I encourage all of you to do the same in the ways that feel most appropriate for you. It’s our last hope because Trump’s call to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” crossed a line—the last line clearly separating our cherished democracy from his autocratic rule.
Do it for the children. Do it for all who would be left behind. Do it for that stranger you never knew who hobbled by me on the trail—a young man, a little different from the rest, who struggled to keep up. Now your friend as well as mine . . .
A friend for whom we cannot remain silent.