I just got home from the first yoga class I’ve attended since the recent (11/8/16) U.S. presidential election. I cried for the entire 75 minutes—through forward folds, downward facing dogs, exalted warriors, and especially shavasana (corpse pose). The young man (probably in his thirties) doing his yoga practice next to me asked after the closing Namaste, “Are you all right?” “No, not really. I’m very upset.” He nodded his head as if to say he understood.
Ever since the nation’s president-elect declared victory, I’ve felt a huge sense of angst. Why? A huge percentage (81%) of white evangelical voters propelled him to that victory. I grew up in a branch of the evangelical church. The church, to a large degree, is all about translating a particular understanding of God’s will as “revealed” in Scripture into public policy and law, keen on imposing that interpretation on our pluralistic society.
Since most evangelicals believe homosexuality is sinful—a perversion, if you will—they work tirelessly within the legal system to restrict gays and lesbians from living fully and authentically in the public sphere, thus violating (doing violence to) their humanity. Same thing goes for abortion. Most evangelicals believe God is against abortion. Why? Because they say so. My evangelical friends respond, “No, we don’t say so. God says so.” They may add the popular slogan, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” remaining firmly planted in their official, rigid reading of their Scripture. They do not explore beyond the boundaries of their cocooned community, asking the hard questions that come about from observing the difficulties people in dire circumstances endure. If they did, they might see differently. After all, there are multiple interpretations of the sacred text they claim to uphold. They believe in only one interpretation—theirs.
It’s abundantly clear to me that the president-elect is a mirror image of the evangelical community I once called home. Evangelicals create God in their own image and then say that God “hath spoken.” The president-elect does the same, creating “truth” by proclaiming whatever he says to be so. In addition, both the evangelical God and the president-elect are fickle. God commands the slaughter of the “enemy” du jour, drowns a whole population in a flood, yet picks a favorite man and his family to “save.” Sometimes God “repents” for His impetuous acts, but one is never sure when the thin-skinned deity and president-elect will have a change of heart and get back to the job of destruction. No wonder evangelicals are drawn to him. He’s a lot like their God—an authoritarian bully.
What has happened to the virtues of love, justice, truth, mercy, and compassion in all of this? What do these virtues even mean? All words take on meaning(s) based on geographical, historical, and circumstantial context because people in various places and circumstances have inculcated particular meaning(s) into them. Words are symbols and symbols reflect meaning(s) embedded in them.
For example, in the U.S., our idea of justice has changed over time. It’s why we’ve needed constitutional amendments. What had at one time been thought of as “just” changed as culture moved forward. Slavery. Women’s suffrage. Disenfranchisement of gays and lesbians and everybody else who is not an elite, white male. The meaning of justice has evolved over time as other voices representing their own experience(s) have been incorporated into the definition.
In my evangelical community, the virtues of love, justice, truth, mercy, and compassion were defined and played out in specific ways. For years I accepted what the community taught. So, loving someone might mean ostracizing them—for their soul’s sake, of course. Being just often meant you killed sentient beings since war is not only “just,” but necessary, because “they” (the enemy) hate all we stand for. Same goes for the death penalty. It’s necessary to insure a stable society. Criminals deserve death (defined as mercy and compassion in this case) “after all they’ve done.” Really?! Isn’t a huge part of evangelical mythology rooted in the story of substitutional atonement—Jesus died on the cross and bore my sins so I could be forgiven and live eternally? The mythology often doesn’t translate into a definition of compassion that promotes peace. One might think that if one is forgiven much, one would forgive much. Evangelicals declare that some sins are so heinous, the only mercy for the offender is death. And it’s true because they say so.
The president-elect reflects this same pattern of thinking.
Recalling my complicity with the system during the time I identified as an evangelical Christian is what triggered my sobbing in yoga class this morning. My community believed that parents (and teachers) ought to take seriously Proverbs 13:24. “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (King James Bible). Of course, the interpretation was a literal one. Spanking your children was proof you loved God. Behaving violently towards your children meant loving them.
I so regret disciplining my children in this fashion. At the time, all that violence inflicted on them felt virtuous. I believe many evangelicals feel that whatever violence comes about as a result of this election (deportation, harassment of marginalized groups, and damage to the planet, for example) is something they must do (and perhaps endure) in order to live virtuous lives. The president-elect and the evangelical God define justice in ways that suit them in order to promote their interests. No need to give a voice to those affected by the definition. Such a warped sensibility!
Violence is never virtuous. I am grieved and sorry to have violated the sacredness of my children’s bodies, inflicting pain, suffering, and humiliation on them. They deserved better. So does our country.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.