The First Rule
Our 3-year old granddaughter is a lot like most of us. When things are running smoothly, she is an absolute delight, a first rate joy-bringer. But when things don’t work out the way she expected, when the milk gets spilled or a knee gets scraped, she can go slightly bonkers. So, her parents are teaching her, “The first rule is ‘Don’t panic.’ We can fix this. Things will be okay.”
During Advent, Mattie and her 1-year-old sister were learning the Christmas story. When her mother asked, “Mattie, what did the angel tell the shepherds?” Mattie replied, “Don’t panic!” She got the message the angels proclaimed!
I’m trying not to panic over what lies ahead in the Trump administration; doing my best to look for signs for optimism; hoping against any rational reason for hope that something good will come from this peculiar election. But just about the time I see a glimmer of hope, the President-elect sends another childish, viscerally-motivated, self-aggrandizing, truth-twisting Tweet…as if the complex issues we face at home and abroad could be understood or solved with 140 characters!
Without panic, here are two things that disturb me about what we have seen across the decades of Trump’s media-saturated behavior.
The “Post-Truth” President
The Oxford English Dictionary picked post-truth as the 2016 “word of the year.” They defined it as:
“relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influenctial in shaping public opinion than appeal to emotion and personal belief.”
An editorial in The Christian Century said we have moved into “a world in which widely available facts seem unable to dent the appearance of attractive falsehoods.” A friend in the Air Force wrote, “The truth is declared a lie, lies are declared truth, and facts don’t matter. Lord, have mercy on our nation.”
The same editorial said:
“Truth telling involves having the humility to be corrected…There has to be a shared reality beyond self-interest for the concept of telling the truth to gain traction; otherwise speech is mere self-assertion.”
The President-elect has consistently demonstrated an astonishing lack of anything akin to “humility to be corrected” along with an equally consistent willingness to lie, even when it means contradicting things we all heard or watched him say.
- He refuses to accept facts confirmed by our Intelligence agencies.
- He attacks responsible journalists who uncover unpleasant facts about his behavior.
- He and members of his future Cabinet deny scientific facts about global warming.
- His primary spokesperson said we should not listen to his words but to his heart…a suggestion as absurd as it is disturbing. Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts…adultery, sexual immorality…false testimony, slander.”(Matthew 15:19)
Jesus promised, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) One of the most patriotic things people of faith can do will be to sort out objective facts from politically-adventageous fiction and to attempt to hold our post-truth President accountable to it.
“A Humorless as a Chicken”
John Steinbeck described one of his characters in East of Eden as being “as humorless as a chicken.” Have we ever seen the President-elect laugh? He appears to be the most joyless person on the national scene. It’s almost painful to watch him smile. He is utterly incapable of laughing at himself. By contrast, just about every President in my lifetime has had a winning smile and a memorable laugh.
That may seem like a small thing until you remember that during the most difficult days of his Presidency, Abraham Lincoln said that his sense of humor helped him maintain his sanity. The psalmist declared, “The one who rules in heaven laughs.” And what makes God laugh? God laughs at the arrogance of “the earth’s rulers” who “scheme together against the Lord.” (Psalm 2:1-4)
G. K. Chesterton said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly. Satan fell by force of gravity.” A biblical scholar writing about the humor in the Old Testament said:
“We need to be able to laugh at ourselves…Maybe we wouldn’t be so destructive if we didn’t take ourselves so seriously…Laughing at kings is a way to not give the powerful the power they so pompously claim.”
I’m appalled by Trump’s vulgarity, greed and sexual immorality. (Whatever happened to “family values”?) I’m disturbed by the way he pandered to some of the worst elements of racism and bigotry in the underbelly of our culture, his all too apparent narcissism and his vindictive attacks on anyone who dares to criticize him. I fear for his distain for freedom of the press. But his careless disregard for truth and his mean-spirited narcissism may be the things that frighten me most about what lies ahead.
But the first rule is, “Don’t panic.” That’s not because there aren’t good reasons to be afraid, but because our Constitution is still in tact, because some of his Cabinet nominees have said they won’t hesitate to stand up against him and because our faith is deeper and stronger than anything that happens in our politics. Martin Luther King, Jr., often quoted James Russell Lowell’s powerful words:
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And beyond the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadows,
Keeping watch above his own.
Our ultimate trust is in the God who consistently says, “Do not be afraid.” Or, as Mattie puts it, “Don’t panic!”
Grace and peace,