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A Womanist Perspective on the Election of Donald Trump: What Pastors Are Called to Do


[1] When JLE’s editor, Dr. Carmelo Santos, invited me to pen an article to guide a pastor’s preaching and actions in the midst of this current, turbulent situation since our recent presidential election - I was intrigued, even eager, to submit something.  Yet I was also hesitant - I’m not Lutheran and I wondered if Lutherans would think that my voice is credible or worthy of being read. Then I thought to myself, “Well, my Lutheran siblings often tell me, ‘you are a child of God,’” then maybe I’ll start here.” So with this singular theological claim I often hear among Lutherans, along with the notion of being a “sibling,” that I will dwell for a portion of this essay. For as often as I hear it and believe these convicting words with all of my heart, soul, mind and strength, still I cringe when I hear them, because I don’t often experience an ethical response corresponding to the depth of meaning I attach to them.

 

[2] Therefore, I issue a warning now. My aim in writing this piece is not to offend, but rather offer some insights about how these words are in fact an affront - not only to me but even to the integrity of the words themselves - when offered to vulnerable people who are directly and negatively impacted by the election of Donald Trump. I am keenly aware that we are celebrating a half-millennium of Lutheranism, hence a word from another reformed partner as well as communion partner is most certainly in order. Moreover, I have been teaching at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago since 2000, and thus, have been entrusted with educating and preparing women and men for ministerial leadership in the ELCA for 16 years – and as such my academic credentials and theological gifts for the ministry of teaching are a proven asset. But just as teaching in this ELCA setting has been the joy of my life, as with all joyful things in life there have also been struggles, struggles, which I will also share.

 

Who am I?

[3] Let me introduce myself to you. I am a constructive theologian and anthropologist of African descent who comes to the task of understanding and analyzing the recent presidential election from a hermeneutic of plurality. I work from my many contexts and thus I consider myself a multi-disciplinary scholar. I approach this essay first from my social location.  I’m a temporally able-bodied African American, an out-heterosexual[1] woman, living in a country infused with patterns of behavior that force people to be pressed-down and constrained by a myriad of multi-sectorial societal structures. This inadvertent pressing-down is known as oppression, causing some to have a lived experience of not being able to breathe. And the Latin root of this word, “opprimere” meaning “pressed/pushed down,” I find compelling.

 

[4] I have a daughter who lives with asthma and often has trouble breathing. This is the case even though she takes medicine daily to control this disease, which still constricts her lungs causing sharp pain. Even an abrupt change in the weather can cause this. Last week when temperatures in Chicago dipped to below freezing she was transported by ambulance from her school bus to the ER. Going to an ER is no-joke, as it fills us with anxiety, disrupts our lives, and makes us wholly dependent upon medical professionals to both help my daughter breathe again and help us cope and find relief.  So I believe living with oppression(s) is similar to having asthma. One’s life is interrupted because an ascribed feature of one’s body/self-causes a person to struggle to breathe/live – to struggle despite God’s intention for all living creatures to have the breath of life.

 

[5] Like the drop in temperature that sent my daughter and me to the ER, Donald Trump’s election is such a dramatic shift in the life of this nation. Here at home and abroad, people believe the United States strives for the best for all its citizens and people. The office of the President of the United States is symbolically and structurally the most powerful office in the world. Though I do not believe that this office supersedes the Triune God’s power, I do know that this particular office, none-the-less, has the power to institutionalize policies that will harm all people - particularly the vulnerable. Trump’s likely appointment of Rex Tillerman, the Exxon Mobil CEO, as Secretary of State – with his ties to Vladimir Putin - will be a threat to our entire body politic. His appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General will likewise make Bull Conner – a chief antagonist of the Civil Rights movement - seem a puppy. Likely, lynching by gun or choking (e.g., Eric Gardner in Staten Island) will dramatically increase as it has over the last four years. Its victims will continue to be predominately black and brown people, but victims will also likely be anyone with visible or confessed identities that are not white, heterosexual, able-bodied, and Christian. The nation’s recent upticks in hate crimes since Trump’s election demonstrates this. The violent rhetoric of his campaign is now taking shape in his political appointments.

 

A Womanist Response to Trump’s Election

[6] Since I am an African American woman committed to a liberation perspective, I call myself a ‘womanist’ - using a term that Alice Walker coined in 1983.[2] Understanding what a womanist is and what the term means is essential for understanding a womanist perspective of a Trump presidency.

 

[7] A womanist such as myself is concerned about the vernacular, that is, what happens in everyday life to ordinary people. She is committed to dealing with concerns about food, shelter and clothing, about health, life and death.  She is concerned about these things because they bring concord and manage difference.[3] Thus, a womanist seeks solutions via grassroots and is committed to the notion that those historically silenced are indispensable to social change.

 

[8] Further, as an anti-oppressionist discipline, womanism is against all forms of oppression and actively fights against them. A womanist is not limited to battling racism and sexism but also fights against homophobia/heterosexism, ableism, ageism (discrimination based on youth and age) - anything that thwarts the development and flourishing of the systemically oppressed. Womanism advances shared aspirations and seeks the best possible quality of life all members of a community.[4] Finally, womanism affirms the spirit. A womanist is fully cognizant and clearly articulates her relationship with “a spiritual/transcendent realm with which human life, living kind, and the material world are all intertwined.”[5]

 

[9] There are many ways a person’s life can be blocked by overlapping oppressions that create death-dealing realities for those under multiple subjugations (e.g. transgender Muslim Latinxs living in poverty).  Intersectionality demonstrates that multiple identities do not function autonomously, but rather transect and coalesce.  My own intersectionality is being a black woman, juxtaposed with being an African American Christian woman ordained in the United Methodist Church. Adding to this list, I approach my work as an African American Ordained Christian Theologian in the Womanist tradition. I am also an anthropologist called to love my neighbor as myself, and I must love myself first so I can love my neighbor properly. If I confess that all people are made in God’s image; if every human being is a child of God - and therefore my sibling - it means that I have a familial obligation or a moral ethic to stand upon with my neighbor.

 

[10] Hence, it perplexes me that Christians who voted for Donald Trump expect me to feel good when they assert with authority, “You are a child of God and therefore we are siblings.” I know and believe the first part of the theological claim and I know the second part “therefore we are siblings,” is a theological claim but it is tortuous for me to hear and difficult for me to believe. As such, I view it as an empty theological declaration because there is sociologically speaking little ethical evidence that “we are siblings” demonstrated in our day-to-day relationship. Another way to state this is that the theological anthropology of our relationship is not congruent with our faith claims.  If we are siblings, then we are to love each other as we love ourselves. (Love your neighbor as yourself.) My self-love is demonstrated by the ways I, with God’s help, support my own flourishing. Thus, when I love my neighbor as my sibling I want her/him to flourish as well. As such when I hear or see things that harm my neighbor/sibling I ask theological and sociological questions because siblings stand up for each other. As such in our present climate with a president-elect Trump I implore, what does it mean that our new president, based on statements and gestures that he has publicly made, does not seem to view Mexicans, Muslims, people living with disabilities, women, and African Americans as fully human; that he is committed to “Stop and Frisk” policies that buttress the prison industrial complex as well as the elementary-school-to-prison pipeline for black and brown children; that he called President Obama “stupid”; that he knowingly twists the truth to suit his interests; that I live in fear for my Muslim neighbor’s life and for my Mexican sibling’s children. So I must say to Trump, “Get your hands off my sister! Stop saying psychologically harmful things to children of immigrants! Stop saying dangerous things that make grown men live with fear.”

 

[11] Therefore, I must and I will  resist Trump’s harmful policies with every fiber in my body because they oppose life for my vulnerable siblings, children of God. Since I understand “sibling” to involve having a serious relational connection to another child of God—I ask you not to call me sibling if for you that word does not have my correspondingly responsible vernacular ethic. Don’t say “we all of us are children of God” to make yourself feel better. I already know that I am a child of God, which is the reason I fight oppression for myself and other vulnerable folks. When your self-interests mean my demise, then know I that you view dimly those who endure intersectional oppressions, as I do. Our bright lights will never be dimmed, for their current runs straight from the living, Triune God.

 

The Terror of Living in a Trump Era

[12] The sage poet Maya Angelou had a saying that comes to mind whenever I see someone who behaves in a way that is not congruent with the values they claim to live by: "If people show you who they are, believe them."[6] So when listening to the news on television one evening, after I heard Donald Trump call president Obama “stupid,” I walked over to the television, hands still wet and dripping from the dish water soap, and turned it off. For I could read between the lines that this six-letter word was really meant as a four-letter word. That six-letter word is not allowed in my house, especially as my daughter can hear it. Angelou’s dictum applies here – but Donald Trump has shown this nation and the world over and over again exactly who he is and people don’t seem to want to believe him.

 

[13] I now find myself post-election remembering the words of Heidegger, “Only a god can save us.”[7] For me ‘a god’ is the Triune God of our faith. What would make an African American womanist scholar quote Heidegger?  I understand Heidegger’s statement to be in a particular historical moment, and as January 20, 2017 draws near with Trump officially being sworn in as president of this country, I see parallels between our present moment and Nazi Germany. As in these post-war years, I hear people re-declaring these beautiful words: that “the Holocaust” will never happen again. “We will not allow it,” they say, “not on our watch” – and I add myself to this chorus.

 

[14] Let me respond by saying a couple of things. First, my point of departure, as a liberation theologian, is ‘from below.’ I examine culture and history through listening for and to those whose narrative is missing, erased. Who are those that suffer macro-aggressions in micro-contexts? Who are so pushed off the map that we don’t even notice that they are missing? Consequently, as a womanist I am deeply concerned about those who are forever “invisible in plain sight,” who are not noticed as missing by their peers. When these most vulnerable members of our society begin to say, “I can’t breathe.” “I don’t feel safe.” “Something’s wrong.” - then I know we are close to a crisis. Those who are marginalized during normal times are completely erased during a time of crisis, scapegoated by those in power. This is dangerous and we must take their concerns with the utmost seriousness.

 

[15] Second, Trump has shown us who he is by his discourse. His rhetoric polarized the nation to the extent that even clear-thinking people shooed his words away, as though calling him into question was not allowed. And even though some did criticize him, our press habitually fell prey to the whims of a candidate who is a master of getting attention –and hence elevated destructive discourse instead of setting boundaries and standards. For the media, “unbiased reporting” on Trump seemed to have meant reporting what frankly amounted to trash in order to boost sales or perhaps to assuage our collective guilt for having chosen wrong over right. Did critical thinking enter into their editorial calculus? Did their analysis ever admit that harm was being done to the common good? When does the first amendment consider that yelling fire in a crowded theater sounds a little like saying, “Russia, find the emails!”[8]

 

[16] It must not be forgotten that in Germany in 1933, Hitler’s grand plan was parsed out little by little over a long period of time – the seeds of which he’d cultivated since 22 years of age. And it was all put in place so gradually that no one noticed the build-up until it was too late.[9]

 

[17] I am also painfully aware that while the Jewish Holocaust is the best-known it is by no means the only genocide that has occurred. Since many among the US citizenry do not seem to see indigenous peoples (First-Nation people who are sovereign nations within our borders) we don’t speak about the genocide of Native peoples; in fact, in some circles it seems sacrilegious to even mention it. There are also the Armenian and Rwandan genocides as well as the torturous Middle-passage where an African genocide was committed in the name of early global capitalism and justified by the idea of “progress.”  My point is that as a womanist I know that it is simply insufficient to just say “Never again!” when in reality this has never really stopped happening. This too, we must admit.

 

What pastors can preach.

[18] Pay attention when vulnerable people share concerns that are not noticed by the historically dominant culture. The dominant culture often minimizes these voices to their own detriment. Even more significantly, some historically “othered” people who work, live and have their being in a historically dominant culture often “go along to get along” because it is difficult to express their full worth in unsafe environments. So as with rape victims and children - we are called to not discount them when they cry out for help. This must not happen. And when brought to their attention, pastors must be willing to take a stand and speak out.

 

[19] Pastors can also offer hope. Many African American pastors have had to weave a tapestry of Gospel-hope even as their flocks are persistently dismayed, disappointed, heartbroken, and angered. These preachers have always given sermons reminding their people of similar times in the history of this country when African Americans have had to “keep on keeping on,” especially on the morning after death-dealing decisions have stifled our breath. Look at our history for confirmation. We came through the following, each an infamous illustration of our struggle:

 

·       [20] 1851—Dred Scott v. Sanford. The U.S. Supreme Court rules that Dred Scott cannot sue for his freedom in a free state because he is still “property” in another state, a ruling that denied any possibility of citizenship for African Americans, imperiled fugitive slaves, and set abolitionists two steps back. The U.S. Supreme Court hence legalized slavery in all the territories, exacerbating the sectional controversy and pushing the nation toward civil war. The ruling had only one precedent, where the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional, and handed an indisputable victory to slave-holding states.

 

·       [21] In the 1890s “the number of lynchings peaked in 1892, at 230, and continued at rates of over 100 murders per year. Southern states invented new measures to disfranchise black voters.”[10]

[22] Likewise, a ministerial leader must first do some intentional introspection to become self-aware of what the defining points of tension were for her or himself during this recent election, just as free African Americans in centuries past have had to do to ground their own hopes and actions.

 

[23] For some it may have been the chanting of campaign slogans like “build that wall,” calling opponents “stupid,” or saying of a more-qualified presidential candidate, “she’s a nasty woman”; for others, it may have been the shock of Trump’s “locker room talk.” For others, the tension may be that Trump is the first nominee/president-elect who did not disclose his income tax statements. For others, the tension is that he made a white supremacist, Steve Bannon, his chief strategist. Religious leaders must acknowledge and find power in the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back,” or as Reverend Frank Thomas said in a sermon on December 4, 2016 - we need to say that we are in mourning and then state what we have lost – helping the wounded and angry to stay reflective, as opposed to reactive.

 

[24] The next step is to understand (though not necessarily agree with) the reasons why so many people voted for someone like Mr. Trump.  What life experiences lead women and men to vote for him? Was it because of a perceived loss of status and racial privilege during the Obama presidency? Was it a reaction against being kicked to the curb by career politicians? Was it that people felt that they had lost their voice, money, and their lot in life seemed cursed?

 

[25] To hear the perspectives from others who thought or voted differently than others such as myself, we must develop the ability to take seriously the experiences and understand their positions. That takes some real work. Work that so many don’t want to bother doing. It’s easier to blame someone else for your challenges without the work of learning the cause of your situation, as well as learning about the perspectives of others. Believe it or not, we are going to have to be able to “adapt one’s mindset and behavior to bridge across differences.”[11] But we also have to talk about justice.


Linda E. Thomas teaches constructive theology and anthropology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

 

 

 

 



[1] “Out-heterosexual” signs that I am aware of my heterosexual privilege and desire to underscore that heterosexuality is a sexual orientation although it is rarely acknowledged by those who are the historical dominant group who foster heteronormativity. People who say that they are “white” join other racial-ethnic groups that are routinely called by a racial/ethnic designation such as “Native American,” etc.

 

[2] Alice Walker, In Search of My Mother’s Garden (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983). See also my article “Womanist Theology and Epistemology in the Postmodern U.S. Context” in Another World is Possible, Marjorie Lewis and Dwight N. Hopkins, eds. (London: Ashgate Publishers, 2009), There I acknowledge that Alice Walker used the term womanist in 1983 and Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi used the term in 1985. See also Layli Phillips, The Womanist Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006).

 

[3] Layli Phillips, The Womanist Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006), xxiv.

 

[4] Ibid. xxv.

 

[5] Ibid.

 

[6] Words that matter: Everyday truths to guide and inspire, O, The Oprah Magazine (New York: Hearst Communications, 2010),. 48.

 

[7] Martin Heidegger. "Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten," Der Spiegel 30 (Mai, 1976). 193-219. Trans. by W. Richardson as "Only a God Can Save Us" in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker edited by Thomas Sheehan (Chicago: Precedent, 1981), 45-67.

 

[8] Ashley Parker and David E. Sanger, “Donald Trump Calls on Russia to Find Hillary Clinton’s Missing Emails,” The New York Times (Wednesday, July 27, 2016).

 

[9] I wish to acknowledge and thank Paul Wilson for a conversation that helped crystalized my thinking about the events that lead to the rise of Hitler and the seeming acquiesce to his demonic plans by the German and the world.

 

10 Rebecca Edwards, “1896 – Racial and Religious Prejudice,” 1896 – the Presidential

Campaign, Cartoons and Commentary (Vassar College, 2000), seehttp://projects.vassar.edu/1896/1896home.html.

 

[11] Mitchell R. Hammer, Intercultural Developmental Plan, IDI® and the IDI Intercultural Development Plan® are registered Trademarks and Copyrighted (2007, 2011) by Mitchell R. Hammer, Ph.D., IDI, LLC, P.O. Box 1388 Berlin, Maryland 21811 USA.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Ackerman, Spencer. “Obama Under Mounting Pressure to Disclose Russia’s Role in the US Election.” The Guardian. Wednesday, December 7, 2016.

 

Amar, Akhil Reed. “The Troubling Reason the Electoral College Exists.” Time Magazine. Nov. 8, 2016 Updated: Nov. 10, 2016 2:19 PM ET

 

Editors of “O, The Oprah Magazine”. Words that Matter: Everyday Truth to Guide and Inspire. New York: Hearst Communications, 2010, pp.48.

 

Edwards, Rebecca. “1896 – Racial and Religious Prejudice.” 1896 – the Presidential    Campaign, Cartoons and Commentary. Vassar College, 2000. http://projects.vassar.edu/1896/1896home.html.

 

Heidegger, Martin. "Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten," Der Spiegel 30 (Mai, 1976): 193-219. Trans. by W. Richardson as "Only a God Can Save Us" in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (1981), ed. T. Sheehan, pp. 45- 67.

 

Kenneth, David. “What Happened to African Americans During 1877-1920?” The Classroom – Synonym.com. www.synonym.com.

 

Parker, Ashley and David E. Sanger. “Donald Trump Calls on Russia to Find Hillary Clinton’s Missing Emails.” The New York Times. Wednesday, July 27, 2016

 

Phillips, Layli, The Womanist Reader, New York: Routledge, 2006.


Articles published in the journal reflect the perspectives and thoughts of their authors and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.​


 

© December/January​ 2016/7
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 16, Issue 10