Should We Condemn Demagogues?

Reflection for the Fifth Sunday of Lent by FAN Director of Franciscan Earth Corps, Rhett Engelking

This reflection was originally posted in our March 7th Newsletter


So much of the bombastic and divisive rhetoric in this current election season is lacking the language of reconciliation. As Christians we are called to deeply listen in when presented with slogans such as “Make America Great Again.” Neither Isaiah nor Paul promised to return or recreate the past because they recognized that God’s calling was for “doing something new” and “forgetting what lies behind.” The coming of Christ was inevitable before Jesus of Nazareth was born and after he was resurrected into Heaven. This point is important, because a Christ that is trapped in history is only a memory, a thought, and a shadow of God’s revealed glory. Unfortunately, American citizens have demonstrated a compulsion to cling onto past glories until they become a cancer that threatens to devour hope and marginalize cultural reconciliation. The pursuit of the past is the common thread that links the fundamentalism of terrible jihadists like ISIL with the wicked triumphalism of white nationalists like the KKK. Their leaders use popular prejudices, false claims, and promises in pursuit of power. This demagoguery feeds upon the sins of individuals and self-righteously launches attacks on whole cultures.

The readings for the fifth Sunday of Lent are about letting go of past sins to make way for God. Isaiah reminds Israel that God implores them to let go of a cultural grievance “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see I am making something new.” Paul acknowledges that his self-righteousness and possessions impede his relationship with Christ and he has “accepted the loss of all things.” Then, in the Gospel, the “one who is without sin” does not step forward to carry out the honor killing of a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. In each reading, the letting go is to make room, in faith, for some gift that is yet to come. This is all part of the subtractive process of reconciliation. It is a process for giving and receiving the Spirit. It is also the first line of defense against demagoguery.

When we ask, “How can crowds of people support this or that demagogue?” we need only look to Sunday’s Gospel. As a ploy to undermine Jesus’ authority, the crowd gambles a woman’s life while simultaneously ignoring the participation of the unnamed man who was also involved. The Christian message here is that no sin has a singular origin. Often it takes a village to sin, and any one sinful behavior may occur as a symptom of an aggregate of social sins and competing interpersonal sins. Jesus observed the narrow view of the crowd and recognized the source of the crowd’s grave power: a mistaken belief that sacrificing one sinner can atone for the sins of the many. When Jesus confronts the self-righteous fervor of the crowd of elders, scribes and Pharisees in the temple he effectively wields a political force that so many have struggled to muster amid the terrorizing bluster of this 2016 election cycle. When so many would rally behind defining who is to blame for our sufferings, the Christian response is to widen our awareness of our collective complicity in sins that define suffering. Politicians condemn where peacemakers confront, and so our political landscape is bogged down with competing condemnations. In the face of incendiary rhetoric, we could continue to self-righteously trade condemnations with demagogues, but then we risk amplifying their tirades when inevitably they slip into the victim role or “score points” by pointing out our inconsistencies. Instead, we can bind ourselves with Christ: confront the past wounds, confront our complicity in sin, and most of all confront the ways in which our identity as Christians is bound up with all, even demagogues. Humility is confrontation, and the one whose first impulse is to thoroughly confront is truly “the one among you who is without sin.”

Rhett Engelking
FAN Director of Franciscan Earth Corps

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Published in: on March 8, 2016 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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