This op-ed piece first appeared in the Erie Times News on November 17, 2016
In the days after a presidential election, the news is full of public figures talking about reconciliation. Leaders of all kinds are pledging to put a divisive campaign behind them and work together for the common good. Church leaders like myself are particularly given to these sort of sentiments. They appeal to our pastoral instincts and allow us to imagine that we are what the prophet Isaiah called “repairers of the breach.”
It is difficult to oppose reconciliation. Jesus said peacemakers were blessed, and as a Christian, I certainly want to be on his good side, but before we strike up a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya,” I hope we will pause to make sure we understand that real reconciliation requires deep self-examination, an ability to acknowledge both when one has been wronged and when one has done wrong, and the willingness to behave and communicate in new ways. Reconciliation is not a synonym for the silencing of dissent.
Many voters saw this election as a choice between the lesser of two evils. While I don’t find that characterization useful — there are no perfect people, and hence no perfect candidates — it is true that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton was especially well thought of by much of the electorate. But the country has made a choice. The time for comparing his flaws to hers is over. The time for looking squarely at the person whom we have elected to the highest office in the land is at hand.
Nothing about Mr. Trump’s campaign suggests that he has any interest in uniting our country. He has repeatedly made racist and misogynistic comments for which he has not apologized. He stoked rage against dark-skinned immigrants and refugees — rage that is already resulting in increased reports of hate crimes across the country. And he refused to condemn the worst excesses of his supporters.
It is possible to argue that, despite these flaws, it was morally necessary to vote for Mr. Trump. But it is not possible to argue that voting for him absolved him of these sins. So what does it mean to “reconcile” with such a person? How much repentance or self-scrutiny is it possible to expect? These questions are especially pertinent to white Christians like myself because we provided the votes that elected Mr. Trump.
As a Christian, I believe that every person is created in the image and likeness of God, that God loves each of us passionately and that God wills that we love one another. We are called to love people whose views are profoundly different than our own, even those who espouse bigotry and hatred. To the extent that “reconciliation” means caring for all people, taking their concerns seriously, working together when we can find common ground, put me down as pro-reconciliation.
But if we truly believe that all people are created in God’s image and likeness, then we have a duty to resist any attempt to exclude people from our common life or from the protection of our laws based on race, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation. And those of us in the Judeo-Christian tradition have to be faithful to the unbroken scriptural teaching on caring for the poor and the displaced.
Real reconciliation will require us to follow the examples of Old Testament prophets. They took as their task not so much offering visions of the future but warning their leaders what would happen if they were not faithful to God’s laws. They aspired to be the consciences of their nation. Sometimes that meant working closely with secular rulers, but sometimes it meant standing against them and paying the price. Jeremiah, as you may recall, was lowered into a muddy cistern and left to die by the king’s son.
I am not asking anyone to get themselves tossed down a well, and I hope to stay dry myself. But we must be prepared both to swallow any resentments we might have when the opportunity arises to work together for the common good, and to stand up for the most vulnerable members of our society if they become targets of the new administration or its most extreme supporters.
The Rt. Rev. Sean W. Rowe is bishop of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, and bishop provisional of the Diocese of Bethlehem.