Sometimes it takes twenty-five years for something you hear to take on its full meaning.
We’re coming to a time when revolutions, instead of being the locomotive that pulls history forward, will be people pulling the emergency brake, locking up the wheels, saying “We’re going too fast.”
This was the statement, uttered by a professor in a doctoral seminar in the early 1990’s. The topic at the time was the wars in the former Yugoslavia—wars between Bosniaks, Serbs, Slovenians, Kosovars and more; wars that brought us the euphemism “ethnic cleansing.”
Based on the conversation in that seminar, I proudly produced one of my first articles for Perspectives. I wrote,
The slaughter in Bosnia is not a return to the days of religious intolerance. A decidedly more modern phenomenon, the Cold War certainly bears some responsibility. Is the problem in the former Yugoslavia too many churches, cathedrals, and mosques, or is it that post-Cold War Europe is awash in weapons? The people in the former Yugoslavia…are engaged in a desperate, often violent, attempt to recover their own traditions and particularities, which our tolerant era had deemed backward, divisive, and superstitious. Far from being a retrogression, Bosnia is more likely the destination of our modern ideas, a tragic preview of coming attractions.
All of this came to mind, as I tried to process the ruthless and relentless terror of the Islamic State, the ascendancy of Donald Trump in American politics, and the surprising outcome in the Brexit vote. Maybe these events are not crude retrogressions, as they are often depicted. Instead they might be this new sort of revolution, desperate yankings on the emergency brake of history.
Let me be perfectly clear. What follows is in absolutely no way an apologetic for the Islamic State, Donald Trump, or Brexit. I have not the teeny-tiniest trace of a scintilla of a speck of a scrap of sympathy for anything about the Islamic State. My feelings about Donald Trump are about similar. My leanings around the Brexit vote are less intense, but certainly were with the stayers.
After 9/11, those who tried to ask “Why do the terrorists hate us so?” were shouted down. Even to ask the question was seen as too sympathetic. I think that was a mistake. I view the Islamic State extremely negatively. It is what happens when angry young men with machine guns are given absolute power. But I do wonder about the energy and sentiments they are able to tap into. It seems like a wrenching pull on the emergency brake of history. Isn’t it a protest against ever-encroaching Western ways perceived as decadent, aggressive, and corrosive to their ways? Is there any way to take these grievances seriously, while also utterly rejecting and thwarting the Islamic State’s brutal tactics?
Similarly, I am repulsed by Donald Trump. Like many, I believe that threatened white hegemony is the star around which his solar system orbits. But I am curious and concerned about his supporters, especially his original audience. That doesn’t mean I am soft on authoritarians or white supremacists, or that I’m much interested in his Johnny-come-latelies—the reluctant party loyalists and the “I can’t vote for Hillary” crowd. I’m thinking of those for whom the bridge to the twenty-first century wasn’t long enough. Compassionate conservatism only sent their children on a fool’s errand to Iraq. And the promised hope still leaves them despairing.
For months now my social media feeds have been full of denunciations of Trump, using words like “demagogic,” “xenophobic,” and “hyperbolic.” Does anyone seriously think Trump supporters read them, let alone are swayed by their snobbish tone? I’m trying to be very careful here. In discussing the “white working class,” it is so easy to be patronizing. “Why are they so gullible?” “How do we keep them from being such rubes?” “Don’t they understand their own best interests?” I want to ask if there is any genuine kernel that we should attend to in these people, anything in their resentments and dissatisfaction that might stir us?
On Brexit, we have all heard that it was the elderly, the English, the rural, the uninformed, and those who still like to whistle “Rule Britannia” who voted to leave. But is there anything more to it? Is there anything to be gained by listening to distress about being melded into an amalgam with whom you don’t identify, or feelings of being governed by faceless people far away?
Two larger thoughts. First, are any of these people—alienated Muslims, white working class Americans, or the leavers in the Brexit vote—in any way, “the least of these,” our sisters and brothers? Or have I just stooped to the condescension I warned against? Can we simply write them off as reactionary surds? How do we even begin to talk with them when they seem truly dangerous, strange, and retrogressive?
Second, have progressive Western Christians become so aligned with “civilization” and “progress” that we automatically assume a project like the European Union is God’s cause? I’m not trying to pick especially on the EU. My French in-laws are fond of reminding me that “We had three wars with the Germans in 70 years, but since the EU we’ve had 70 years of peace.” But are we advocates of globalization because it is in accord with Jesus, or simply because that’s what sophisticated twenty-first century people do?
I don’t have answers. And much of what I’ve said here is an odd fit with my usual ways of thinking. But I can’t quite get beyond that image of people pulling on the emergency brake of history.