The Spirituality of Resistance

The Spirituality of Resistance

The surprise success of Donald Trump’s presidential bid and the scandal-a-day chaos of his administration’s early months has got a lot of people wondering whether tyranny can yet overtake America.  The 2017 Women’s March, which brought 5 million people into the streets of cities worldwide is arguably the largest protest in this country at least since the anti-Viet Nam protests of the 1960’s and 70’s.   The idea of resistance is in the air in America.  By the millions, Americans are not willing to go to the beach this summer and rely on Washington to keep the ship of state upright, while they play softball and eat ice cream.   Friends tell me that they go about their daily lives in a private state of bereavement over our country’s lurch toward authoritarian rule.

It’s into this angst that Timothy Snyder’s thin new book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, offers a sobering and energizing word.  Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale, is an expert in the rise of fascism and totalitarianism in Europe and the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century.  On Tyranny isn’t a list of characteristics of dictatorships—a oft-repeated exercise.  What Snyder offers are 20 disarmingly doable tactics that, like personal hygiene, will slow the contagion of repressive power on a personal level.   Practice–Snyder urges for example–your profession in accordance with its highest standards.  Snyder substantiates this, as he does all of his recommendations, by citing ways that attorneys, clergy, government workers, and others greased Hitler’s rise by setting aside the standards of their own profession.  It was an army of professionals in Germany, willing to color a bit outside the lines, that delivered their country to the National Socialist movement.

On Tyranny gives twenty of these.  Seemingly trivial practices like turning off the television and the internet, having a passport, reading, eschewing buzzwords and “talking points,” visiting friends and neighbors for face-to-face visits, daring to be different, and on and on, are all ways to disconnect and reduce the conductivity of the circuits that would allow free path through which a totalitarian power surge can travel.

I read On Tyranny in one sitting.  Not surprisingly, Timothy Snyder opposes the president.  He believes that the Trump Administration is the one that our 12th grade American Government teacher was warning us against.  But Snyder’s points are bigger than partisan opinions.  This is a manifesto of liberty that will thrill freedom-loving people on both ends of the political continuum.  The two or three hours I immersed myself in Timothy Snyder’s wisdom were like taking a long walk with your father after you’ve flunked out of college.  Snyder led me again and again to personal resolution: “Yeah, I can do that…I should do that.”

Something else stirred as I read Snyder.  Snyder’s astuteness, which is altogether free of religious talk, sheds a light on following Jesus.   Here’s how this works for me.  It’s more and more important for my faith to remember that Jesus’ central teaching is that a new order—the Kingdom of God—is being established in the world.   It’s inescapable–Jesus is political.

Now when I say “political” I’m not talking about Republican or Democrat.  The Gospel isn’t concerned with the partisan squabbles over a state budget or voting districts.  But it is deeply political in its concern for what values hold sway over Creation and the peoples of the world.  It’s political in its concern for what or who is revered, for how the wealth of the Creation is shared, and for who are entitled to life’s good things and who may not be.  Salvation, in turn, which means healing, is about setting the whole of Creation, including each person, “to rights,” as N.T. Wright puts it, under the loving reign of the Creator.

Not surprisingly, much of what Jesus teaches is behavior which takes sides with his good and emerging order.  He teaches also to resist the “powers of this world” which are being defeated.  A long Kingdom-discourse like the Sermon on the Mount bears an uncanny resemblance to what On Tyranny teaches.  Both resistance check lists insist that our everyday behavior, even in life’s details, is politically significant.

Consider the list of Kingdom virtues recommended in the Sermon on the Mount: sneak away in private when you pray (Matthew 6:6), don’t tell people what you give to charity (Matthew 6:3), don’t put people down or call names (Matthew 5:22), don’t leer at women (Matthew 5:28), don’t sweat what you eat and wear (Matthew 6:25), don’t just believe something…do something Matthew 7:21).  These are manageable personal behaviors with which we withdraw our cooperation with evil.  The advance of ugliness, untruth, and wickedness stalls in our personal world because we’re refusing to surrender to it minute by minute.  Timothy Snyder has his own way of echoing what Jesus teaches when he recommends that we “greet not only those who are like us, but also others who are foreign and maligned.”  Authoritarian political movements, not the least of which is the Kingdom of Darkness, draw energy by demonizing out-groups.    But if you’re on friendly terms with your Muslim/undocumented/LGBTQ/demented/ neighbor; if you take care of her cat when she visits her mother; if you have loaned her your lawn mower, it’s going to be much more difficult for you to go along with deporting that person or stripping her of her right to vote.

Timothy Snyder has given us a wise word and an unintended hat tip to an everlasting word.  Freedom is preserved in the small things.  We vote each day with our attitudes.  And the Resistance begins with a willingness to step out of the stampede of what is average.

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