Yesterday as I walked along the river I was reflecting on what I might write about next. I began to imagine a conversation about bridges. I love bridges. I’ve seen and enjoyed many. Travel from one side of a bridge to another often takes us from one world into another. Traverse the entry to the San Francisco Bay on Golden Gate Bridge from the city side and you will find yourself in the beautiful, unspoiled Marin Headlands. The Galata Bridge in Istanbul crosses the Golden Horn to link the old city and its traditional Muslim inhabitants with districts decidedly more cosmopolitan and less Muslim. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is a movement from Manhattan to Brooklyn, the first permanent bridge to cross the East River and connect these two communities. Portland, Oregon is a city of bridges that seem to lace together different parts of that city across the Willamette. Puente La Reina is a gorgeous six arched Romanesque Bridge that crosses over the Arga River in Spain for the use of pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela along the Camino de Santiago. The Széchenyi Chain Bridge spans the River Danube between Buda and Pest, linking the old and hilly side of the city with the flat and modern area.
Most bridges cross rivers. They carry us over a natural barrier that stands between two areas. These bridges join the regions into one. They allow for connection between two different sides. Bridges allow a flow of people and ideas back and forth. You see where I am going with this?
Yesterday morning I was thinking about our divided nation. I read somewhere that in the new Congress and administration in Washington D.C. we might see a return of the “moderate middle.” We might have a government that was not stuck, and that those in power would actually find areas of agreement and get good things done. Maybe these next few years would be an era of building bridges! Between parties. In varied communities. Among a variety of races and cultures. In Washington. On the world stage. (I’ve always been an optimist.)
But then yesterday happened. People who believed the (false) claim of a stolen election gathered to protest in Washington D.C. You know the rest. President Donald J. Trump addressed the crowd. He encouraged people to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capital. (Click here for full transcript of his speech.) These people (largely white and male from my vantage point) decided it was time to take back “their house.” To stop the Electoral College count. The mob breached the barriers and moved past law enforcement security into the Capital. Fear was quickly created among the legislators in the building and across the nation. Windows are broken—there is invasion, and desecration, and violation, and death. President Trump sends out a few brief tweets (the first about 40 minutes into the riot) asking that people “stay peaceful” and later to “remain peaceful. No violence!” Two hours and fifteen minutes after the initial storming of the Capital Building President Trump posts a video asking for “peace” yet still insisting that the election was fraudulent and reminding the rioters that he “loves” them and that they are “special.” (See timeline here.) Eventually the Capital is cleared, a citywide curfew is put into effect, and things wind down. Finally, late into the night Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are confirmed as president and vice-president of the United States.
It will be a while before I think about building bridges again. Not because I don’t respect different points of view. Not because I don’t want people to come together. Not because I think I am right. But because these days there is one person, one leader on the other end of the bridge with whom there is no possibility of cooperation, compromise and meaningful positive leadership. That person is Donald J. Trump. His violent rhetoric, his hateful speech, his self-centered actions, his brutal use of power, his desire to win at all costs—convinces me that there is no way to work with or follow him into anything that looks like the common good for our nation.
Those of you who are my friends and hold a more conservative political perspective, please know this. I appreciate you. I respect you and your thoughts. I want to be in conversation with you. I think meaningful discussions can be had around many issues—the sanctity of life, personal freedoms, fiscal responsibility, the role of religion in American life, even the voting process. I can listen to your concerns about a society that you think may depend too much on social programs and misses out on the innovation and creativity that comes with healthy capitalism. But I need you to hear my heartbreak around racial injustice, my concern for those who are left behind by our system, my worries about how unchecked development can destroy our planet, and my desire for government to lead in ways that the private sector cannot. I know that we can find meaningful ways to be neighbors, friends, and fellow Americans.
Yet, even as I say all of that, I do not believe that President Trump has ever wanted to have those discussions, to find ways to work together, to create a “more perfect union.” Donald Trump has never been interested in bridge building.
In the Christian calendar, yesterday, January 6th, was the day of Epiphany, the day when the church celebrates the coming of the Magi to the home of the child Jesus. A part of the story that often gets glossed over is the story of these Wise Ones who first come to the palace of King Herod, the Roman ruler in that area. They ask him if he has knowledge of where this “King of the Jews” is to be born. He then calls Jewish leaders together who direct the Magi to look in Bethlehem. (Read the full Bible story here.)
Before the Magi leave Herod, he calls them together “secretly” to find out more information and to have them pledge to him to report when the child is born. Herod cynically assures the Magi he needs this information so that he also “may go and worship [Jesus].”
What we know is that after seeing the child, the Magi were warned in a dream and did not report back to Herod, but “left for their own country by another road.” Herod felt tricked by the Magi and was infuriated. He then did what so many tyrants do, he lashed out in anger. “He killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under…”
Tyrants do not like their power threatened. They will do anything to prevent the loss of position and influence. Their only concern is for their own status. Whoever stands in their way will be sacrificed.
Donald Trump is not Herod. Yet the characteristics reflected in this story seem all too familiar. A concern for self above all else. Strong reactions generated by a threat to his power. A willingness to lie in service of his ends. The choice of violence (or incitement to violence) as a way of removing threat. That is why the Magi return home by another way. They chose not to play Herod’s game. They chose not to walk over a bridge into his reality. They knew there would be no resolution with Herod that could serve God’s ends and the common good.
So no talk of bridges today. I cannot work together with those who have declared ultimate loyalty to Donald Trump. (One rioter yesterday is said to have removed and American flag from the Capital and replaced it with a Trump flag.) I do want to have conversations with Conservatives, Republicans, and even many who voted for Donald J. Trump. I will cross a bridge to build a healthy nation and world with these people and more. But if your loyalty as an American is to Mr. Trump—not this nation, not the common good —perhaps we need to stay on opposite sides of the bridge. At least for today. At least when it comes to politics. And maybe for a long time to come.
Spiritual Practice: Listen To Someone Who Has Very Different Political View From Yours
I know, I just said I am done with bridge building for now—and here I go. Asking people to build bridges. Maybe today is not the day. Maybe this is not the right time. Maybe certain people are not the right people. But if we are to survive as a people we do need to find ways to listen.
This is one of the hardest spiritual practices of all. To be silent and let another speak. To hear what another person thinks and not feel compelled to add our own point of view. I don’t really think that listening changes minds, so if that is what you want to do, it might not be a great practice for you. But listening does build a bridge. It builds a bridge because it creates a relationship. Listening is a way of saying to someone, “I see you,” “I honor your thoughts and feelings,” “you have a place in my life and this world,” and (to be a little theological here) “you are beloved.”
So, once we get past the rage, once we realize that we too contribute to the flaws and brokenness of this world, once we can start welcoming those who are different into our midst—perhaps then it is time to listen.