Act I is over. Remember Act I? All those presidential candidates sniping and name-calling and down-shouting. I confess at first I found it rather entertaining, but before too long it became depressing yet mesmerizing, rather like watching a snake charmer seducing a crowd. Act I culminated in the national political conventions where the unbelievable happened. The man most people voted the least likely to succeed in politics walked away with the Republican nomination and the woman with one of the most substantive public service resumes ever earned became the first woman to accept the nomination of a major political party for the office of President. Those political conventions were the opening scene of Act II.
Now, Act II is over. The general campaign was brutal, bloody, bizarre, virulent, draining and depressing as two vastly different visions of our nation emerged. Let’s face it: today as I write these words, no one is completely satisfied with the process or even the outcome. The wounds and the scars are deep. But now Act II is also completed, with the election of Donald J. Trump as president-elect of the United States of America. We’re now in the intermission of the transition, and that will end on 20 January 2017 when Mr. Trump places his hand on a Bible and swears the Oath of Office and he becomes President Trump. At that moment, the curtain will rise on Act III.
The question for all of us is quite simple: What do we do now? We are not an audience at a play. We are not observers, but participants in our public life. There is a term which became common during the Second Vatican Council: we are “co-responsible” for our lives and the life of our republic. So where does that lead us today, the first day following the election? The people who supported and voted for Donald Trump are ecstatic and triumphant; those who supported and voted for Hillary Clinton are reeling and depressed. Those who supported third party candidates or who chose not to vote for any candidate are, well, I honestly don’t know how they feel. But the bottom line, in my opinion, is that one feeling is prevalent on both sides of the political divide: almost everyone is feeling cut off and disenfranchised. That was the stated position of those who supported Mr. Trump; it is also the position of those who supported Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton. What should we be doing as we prepare for Act III?
Homer’s Odysseus, navigating his way home after the Trojan War, encounters the twin hazards of the Scylla and Charybdis: steer too close to the “rocks” of the Scylla and six sailors will be taken; steer too close the whirlpool Charybdis and the whole ship and crew will be lost. It’s the classic conundrum much like our own expression of being “between a rock and a hard place.” In today’s America, then, do we just proceed as we have over the last year and a half, and keep speaking of the Scylla of “winners” and the Charybdis of “losers”? Is there a way, perhaps of navigating between these two hazards and overcoming some of the polarities of our national life? There are people — good people! — who supported and voted for Donald Trump. There are people — good people! — who supported and voted for Hillary Clinton (and for other candidates). Caricatures on both sides will not help us move forward.
What I’m proposing below is something that we who are people of faith might do within our various churches and communities to move forward in a positive way, to seek the light and not to descend into darkness. How might we be, in the famous words of the Second Vatican Council, “a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God”?
I offer four things to consider. These are clearly suggestive and not exhaustive, but these will help suggest others.
- We must be active agents of peace and reconciliation. No matter who had won the election, it’s been clear for some time that half of our people are going to feel left out, disappointed, angry and marginalized by the outcome. We must find a way to take the high ground and model between each other and toward our sisters and brothers who have supported “the other side” the Christian love that is to characterize us all. How we relate to each other, even privately, can have either a positive or negative effect as we go forward. For those of us who serve as public ministers of the Gospel, we must guard are tongues and our behaviors – not only for the sake of others but for our own as well.
- We must move beyond categories of “winners” and “losers”. If we permit this kind distinction to permeate our communities, we enable the very gridlock that has characterized so much of our public discourse for so many years. I am reminded of the senior Republican leader who, after the first election of President Obama, declared that the agenda of his party would be to make sure nothing of the new President’s agenda was successful. However, this is certainly not unique to one party; both parties share in this kind of attitude, and their public assertions have affected many in our communities, churches and parishes. It seems to me that we must find ways to stress those things that bind us together rather than divide us. As Catholics who share in the sacramental life of the Church, and especially as we gather around the sacrificial altar of the Eucharist in communion, we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy, and we are all God’s children saved by Christ’s saving action and filled with the Spirit of reconciliation and mission.
- We can offer opportunities for listening and dialogue, with a view toward reconciliation. If it seems appropriate within your parish and community, perhaps we might offer guided listening sessions in which people might share their own pain and concerns. It will be important that someone skilled in facilitating such sessions be involved so that they do not simply increase the tension. The purpose is not to exacerbate the problems, or to argue the various issues all over again! Rather, this would be an attempt to map out how we can all move forward.
- Finally, how might we all become even more involved in the local political scene? For those of us who are clergy, we are restricted by canon and civil law in the ways we can do so, although deacons in the Catholic Church — with the prior permission of our bishops — can be active to a degree that priests and bishops cannot. As we have seen in previous columns, our deacons might even serve in public office as long as they get prior written permission from their diocesan bishop. But even more important, how might we continue to encourage even greater participation in the public life of the community? We all have a responsibility to do something and not just complain about things.
We all need to take a deep breath and — as we sailors like to say — “take an even strain” on the lines. If we take the high ground and stay energized and motivated to work for the common good of all, we can indeed move forward. We can — we MUST — see this new Act as an renewed opportunity to help transform, even if on a small and local scale, public discourse and the political landscape in which the common good of all can be served. I will bring this essay to a close with the words we all learned by heart in elementary school. May we now live them in a mature and profound way as we move forward.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.