Trump: first mourn properly, then think and organise

By Simon Barrow
November 9, 2016

One of the consolations and trials of being plugged into digital media is that you’re never alone with your feelings in a moment of tumult like the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America.

The upside is that you can rapidly track down those you value most in order to offer and seek reassurance, fellow-feeling, support and solidarity in whatever it is you’re experiencing most strongly: rage, despair, defiance, numbness or a peculiar cocktail involving the above.

On the downside you can also get to be overwhelmed by a welter of emotion and reaction, as people announce urgently to the world that it should revolt, join this or that cause, get drunk, pray fervently, sign a petition, chill, smash the system, take a vacation, accept the verdict of the people, celebrate democracy, rage against the machine, or simply ‘get over it’.

Within a few hours of the news that Trump had won the Electoral College, I was faced with all these bits of advice and more. It can be very trying…

Feeling low? That’s soooo half-an-hour ago! In that time, pal, you could have written an article telling everyone that Bernie would have walked it, launched a new political movement, pronounced the world doomed, or wheeled out at least half-a-dozen slogans to mobilise everyone on your side. Come on, stop whimpering and ‘(wo)man up’!

If you’re politically engaged, the kind of advice you will have received is probably best summarised as, “don’t mourn, organise.” Right, OK then. Could I take a shower and grab a few minutes to cry into my coffee first, or is that a little too passive and defeatist?

If you’re a religious believer, on the other hand (or as well), you’ll most likely be reminded in pious tones that “God is in control”, even if all the evidence might look to be in the opposite direction. Either that, or someone will suggest that “God shares our pain”, as if that obviously makes any difference to those being crushed in the undercarriage of events in a decidedly non-sharing, non-voluntary way.

Of course, it’s also easy to traduce other people’s responses as simplistic, partial and knee-jerk, as I’m perhaps in danger of doing right here. My point, however, is that the instantaneousness of the digital world (in which you really don’t count unless you have a feeling or opinion ready for the ‘send’ button) militates against the simple human possibility of living with confusion, turmoil, suspense and uncertainty for a sufficient period of time, before responding. Creativity needs disturbance.

In my Christian tradition we have inherited and purloined from ancient Hebrew culture a difficult, honourable and mostly forgotten practice of Lament – a period of deep, communal immersion in sorrow, regret, agony and loss which precedes a period of thoughtful, shared re-orientation towards real hope. And by ‘hope’ I don’t mean wishful thinking, neurotic activism, desperate optimism or online reactivity with a suitably defiant face.  I mean being re-embedded within a community of solidarity, reflection, forgiveness, ritual, desire and pain-bearing out of which the seeds of a better future can be imagined and enacted beyond the present defeat.

If that sounds like hard work, it’s because it is. It entails the character, wisdom, vision and virtue required to go through the valley of death together and emerge the other side with something more than disabling wounds or unresolved anger. This isn’t something you can simply come up with on the back of an envelope after a bad day at the office. It needs a cultivated tradition of understanding, believing, belonging and engaging which will be nurtured over a period of time. That is, a way of being which rests its hopefulness in something rather more sustainable than whims of the flesh, a Facebook update, a community organising programme or a really well-produced manifesto.

For the time being I’ll leave it up to you to decide what that ‘cultivated tradition’ might be, how it can be activated and where it might be located and nurtured. It may not surprise you to know that, as a Christian, I have some instincts about that. Or that I find institutional religion a pretty frustrating and unpromising space for looking at it right now. Churchianity and Christendom are in profound crisis and their capacity for heavy lifting in the face of major change seems significantly degraded, to say the very least.

That’s something I feel that Ekklesia and our specifically Christian friends need to address with renewed intensity. Either ‘church’ is redundant in the face of social, cultural, political, economic and environmental turmoil, or else it needs to re-engage its founding passion with intelligence, poetry, perception and a forward-looking praxis. Playing prettily at ‘religion’ will no longer do.

Equally, for those reading this to whom Christianity or ‘religious belief’ is already redundant and not the reason you come to Ekklesia, the task is to look at what particular fears, hopes, foibles and beliefs are shaping the lurch to Brexit in Britain, Trump in the USA and destructive confrontations in many other parts of the world – and then to ask how, in practice aligned to positive theory, such fears, hopes, foibles and beliefs can be reshaped towards a usable future for more than just us and ‘our tribe’.

Actually, I think those two tasks, though they may attract different people with different life-stances, are linked; and that Ekklesia can be involved in both in varying but overlapping ways, locally and globally.  

How that could be the case, and to what ends, I’ll leave for another time. Suffice it to say at the moment that I don’t think we should accept a binary choice between ‘mourning’ and ‘organising’ in the wake of the Trump ascendancy and the troubling forces it unleashes. I think we need to do both, and to link them through some hard, unsentimental but strongly compassionate thinking. (So no pious platitudes either, thank you.)

The useful trajectory, therefore, seems to me to be from lament to reflection to action, guided by a fresh sense of solidarity and priority. But we can also talk through the detail of that in days to come. Right now I need more tea, some sleep, and preferably a bit more time to catch up with myself, those I love and the debris around me. The first two may be easier than the latter.

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© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia. He lives in Edinburgh and on the internet. He also has family in Trumpland. His latest co-edited book is Scotland 2021 (Ekklesia and Bella Caledonia, November 2016). 

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.