One cold day in January, I woke up and realized I was in a new relationship. As it happens, so are you.
No matter who we voted for in the November presidential election or what our personal opinions are about the health and integrity of our electoral process, we have a new man in our lives: Donald J. Trump, the person sworn in as president of these United States on Jan. 20, 2017. Because of the outsized impact U.S. economic and military policy have on the rest of the planet, the entire human community is in this relationship.
In some ways, the relationship is a familiar one. This is not the first time I've found myself in disagreement with the policies and actions of the person occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
As a Catholic, I apply the basic principles of Catholic social teaching — including the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity — as I participate as an active citizen in our democracy. This is the lens I use as I try to be a faithful citizen and "evaluate policy positions, party platforms, and candidates' promises and actions in light of the Gospel and the moral and social teaching of the Church in order to help build a better world" (Forming Consciousness for Faithful Citizenship, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops).
I've certainly disagreed strongly with the policies of former presidents in my life and felt called to act on behalf of justice. I've written letters, made phone calls, signed petitions and, most importantly, voted. I protested inhumane welfare reform under President Bill Clinton. I stood vigil and marched many, many times against the pre-emptive wars of President George W. Bush. I challenged the mass deportations of immigrants under President Barack Obama as well as his increasing reliance on drone warfare at the cost of innocent lives of those labeled "collateral damage" simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time in the vicinity of a suspected terrorist in a foreign land.
Yet this particular relationship feels inherently different.
I am still called to march, protest, organize, write letters and sign petitions. This being 2017, I'm taking advantage of new technology to stay engaged in the midst of my busy life. I recently discovered Resistbot, a free service that turns my daily personalized text messages to my members of Congress into letters faxed to their offices, where a staffer may actually read them and include them in a tally of concerned citizens.
This week, I participated in my local weekly peace vigil, where faithful souls have stood every Wednesday since the start of the Iraq War 14 years ago this week. Given the calls for war now echoing in Washington, I know I will need to make this a regular event on my calendar for my own sanity and sense of doing something in the face of so much that makes me feel powerless.
I am heartened that many of my friends — moms, librarians, corporate attorneys, teachers and scientists — who do not normally consider themselves activists are nevertheless paying attention, standing up and speaking out like never before. The new level of active participation in our democracy these days is, in my book, the best part of our new reality. My prayer is that those who have been newly called to resist injustice make sure they take time for self-care, pace themselves, and don't burn out.
At the same time, I must admit to being disheartened by the persistent level of discord, vitriol and dehumanization in the air when it comes to those with whom we disagree. In the past, we've looked to leaders in our government and society to set a civilized tone and model civil discourse. In our new reality, we each need to step up and model what is lacking in our democracy, on our social networks, and in our conversations. Our democracy and our very humanity, I fear, depend on it.
I've been rereading a classic bit of feminist theology, Rosemary Radford Ruether's Sexism and God-Talk. While her particular lens is the social sin of sexism, I have found her work helpful in discerning my own response to all forms of social sin, including national policies that exacerbate poverty and inequality, exploit our common home, export and profit from violence, and separate families in the name of national security.
"Sin exists precisely in the distortion of relationality," Ruether writes. Social sin, as the collective systematization of this distortion of relationship, is bigger than any individual. That's where our sense of powerlessness comes in. Yes, we are connected to social sin and part of it, but that also means we have power — individual and collective — to heal distorted relationships at the root of social sin.
"Thus, in spite of the reality of systemic evil which we inherit, which has already biased us before we can choose, we have not lost our ability to choose good rather than evil, and hence our capacity for responsibility," Ruether continues. "We can begin to shape at least our personal identity and then our more immediate relationships with others in a new way."
I've taken this to heart in a very surprising way. In addition to recommitting to my own active citizenship — reading the newspaper daily, taking action for justice, standing up and speaking out — I have also committed to relating to President Trump as a human being.
First of all, I have committed to praying for him every day, and then, because he seems to be interested in Twitter as his main communication platform, I send him a daily tweet. In my allotted 140 characters, I tell him that I'm praying for him and then share my own opinion and viewpoint on his latest executive order, national policy, or other statement that seems at odds with my own belief in government for the common good. Moreover, I've committed to sending him a message each day of his presidency.
Am I under the misconception that he is reading my tweets or that they will have an impact on his policies? No. But I will tell you that just over 60 days into this daily practice, it has been transformative in my own life. It is the hardest spiritual practice I've ever attempted and so very fruitful. I find myself calmer and more focused on the issues that matter. I am less distracted by the crazy. I do believe in the power of prayer, and that begins in my own heart, disposition and relationships. I am moderating my own responses and centering on what really matters: love, healing, peace, goodness and relationship. I'm also claiming my voice and speaking out. I'm simply choosing to do it in a way that models and points to the world Jesus calls us to build.
[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]
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