In Times Like These, No One Can Be Neutral

“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” – Martin Luther King Jr.

I am so blessed to know so many good, special people.  And many of them are looking at me now like I’m insane.

I am, of course, not the only one in this situation, not by a longshot.  All over America, people are looking at people like me, people who used to call for moderation, calm, and evenhandedness, and are wondering how they suddenly have become so “extreme.”

It seems to have come out of nowhere, in this age of Trump, as if this angry orange man had brought out some sort of animal in us that causes us to suddenly go into long Facebook rants, losing friends (virtual and real) with each one.

For many of my good friends, who observe me in my anger and my sudden black-and-whiteness, this outrage scares them.  I have had some wonder if about my mental health, others tell me I need to “relax,” and still more simply cut off contact.

I am, in other words, one of the “resistance,” a term I used jokingly before the election and use with extreme seriousness now.  It sounds like something out Star Wars, or an attempt to appropriate the narrative of people who have actually had to risk their lives to fight the truly horrific despots of their time.

But I mean it.  And it is this extreme rhetoric that has many around me confused, shaking their heads in bewilderment, or extremely, extremely angry with me.

Again, this is not my story, but I suppose I am a good an example as any.  We are going through times that seem to have thrown us all off course, to have made us all confused, and so, as this happens all around us, we naturally look for the cause.

The ones who are angry at me support Trump.  They do not understand why I cannot simply accept his rise to power.  They wonder how I, a person who espouses things like “a person matters more than an idea” can be so unshakeable against the idea of Trump being president.  They look at me going to rallies, and they see it as a personal affront.  And indeed… it is.

The others, though, they are the ones I have come to worry about more.  They are, for lack of a better term, Trumpian pacifists. Or maybe rhetorical pacifists, since they are more concerned with the strong, divisive language people like me use online and protests than actual violence.

They are usually in the category of either being anti-Trump, but not to the point of protest, or reluctant pro-Trumpers.  Either way, I would argue that about 70% of my friends are some form of pacifist in this fight.  They are the silent majority, the people who cannot see how it’s possible to actually lose friends over politics.  Like me only a year ago, they look in open-mouthed wonder as it seems the two sides that surround them have gone batshit mad.

And while they had spent most of the election quiet, hoping to stay out of it until things calmed, as they see things deteriorate further with Trump’s election, they are beginning to express their pacifism more and more.

They say things like:

“Division is what Trump wants!”

“It’s the conflict between us that’s really ripping us apart.”

“By fighting Trump you give him strength.”

These are logical positions.  Laudable positions.  In normal times, they would be right.

But these are not normal times.

For the record, in every time of conflict, pacifists have made these arguments.  People even make these arguments about fighting terror. And, of course, there are important truths contained in them.

The problem is that pacifism in the face of evil is almost always the wrong response.  I am not talking about your run-of-the-mill, corporate banker stealing money from the little guy evil.  I am talking about evil that threatens the foundation of the world we live in.

This is what Trump and his cohort of evil minions represent.  Just as I write this, Trump has tweeted an attack on a judge for striking down his executive order to ban refugees and legal immigrants from arriving on our shores.  He has used the same rhetoric as any totalitarian-in-training would: that now we are all in danger because of this horrific threat.  In his words, “If something happens blame him and court system.”

This is the same man who has joked that his supporters should murder his opposition. Who said that, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” And who hired as his top aide a man who said, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

But we’ve been over this already, haven’t we?  It’s not the debate over whether Trump is an authoritarian that has caught my pacifist friends in its web, but the question of how to deal with such a person.

And it is truly hard.  These are times like my relatively coddled generation have never seen.  One where we are suddenly looking around and seeing fault lines rise up where they never were before.  And so the obvious answer seems to be that the best way to repair the damage Trump has wrought is to rebuild connections, calm nerves, relax.

The problem is that there are now a large group of people who support Trump.  Not just grudgingly, but with an incredible amount of energy.  This is how he has risen, how he has stayed at the top.  Ever since the primaries, there was a core group of people who backed him, who gave him an energy that no other candidate had.  And the longer he stayed in the limelight, the larger that group grew.  It is his success, in other words, that has allowed his power to grow.  It is his support that strengthens him.

But there is another element to this group’s growth, and it matters even more: the group that stood quiet in the face of his evil.  Believing that Trump would eventually disappear, self-combust, or reform (we see this now with people who think he won’t severely damage our institutions, he’ll get impeached, or he’ll change), they stayed quiet.  These were Republican leaders, the conservative media, and the Republican voters themselves.  They were the pacifists of the primaries.  And because they were quiet, Trump gained in power.  His extreme arguments became more and more accepted.  Muslims registries, threatening journalists, encouraging violence at rallies, these were all things that would once have been vigorously fought by all, and would have then disappeared into nothingness.  But Trump had support, strong support, and it was this support combined with the quiet of his opposition that allowed him to gain steam.

Many of the Republicans who were pacifists then were right about one thing, as are the people who argue for pacifism now: fighting Trump causes disunity.  Republicans were worried their party would fracture if they fought him, and so they capitulated to him, letting him be their standard bearer.

And so, they are unified.

Unified in their fear.  Unified in their quiet.  Unified in their being unable to challenge their leader.

Resistance within the government, we have seen, directly leads to Trump firing them.  The challenges from the supposed leaders like Paul Ryan have become more and more muted.  And the supposed “establishment” voices that were supposed to help moderate him, like his press secretary, have literally become the voice of his extremism.

Unity that does not allow for disagreement or for debate or for differences in opinion is not true unity.  It is submission.

And so when a tyrant demands submission, being a pacifist is not a passive choice: it is an active decision.  That is why the pacifists have suddenly become active, telling people like me that we are “hysterical” and “overreacting.”  They have become the tools of the tyrant.

And so I will not submit.  I will not be a pacifist.  Because I have seen what will happen when we do.  I see what has happened.  There simply is no choice when faced with a leader who demands that all those under him subject themselves to his will.

This is why the word resistance matters.  In normal times, in democratic times, speaking up would not be resistance.  Protesting would not be resistance.  Arguing, debating, having a difference of opinion, these are not things that would have labeled people like me as resistors.  We would simply be part of the normal democratic process of healthy debate.

It is within the framework of an authoritarian that speaking up is resistance.  It is in the framework of his followers taking our speaking up personally that it becomes resistance.  Where speaking up is an assertion of freedom, of holding onto the liberty we have, and refusing to let go.

The sad truth is that pacifism in times of conflict against a looming, evil danger is submission.  It is simply the way of things.  There is no good answer for why it is so, except that God has built the world to do more than to live in peace.

There are times where conflict itself is wrong.  Maybe one year ago, before this all started, was one of those times.  It no longer is.

Today, conflict is holy.

And while my pacifist friends will look at me with bewilderment when I use those words and others will call me an extremist, I can only say this: Are you truly worried about “division” or are you afraid of something else?  Afraid that these times are as scary as some part of you fears?  Afraid you will lose friends?

Fear has been the source of so much of all this.  It is the agent of authoritarians.  It is the weapon they wield.  And while some succumb to fear turning to hate, others allow the fear to paralyze them.  The best way to address that fear is not through quiet: it is through resistance.

And it is through resistance that we will actually be able to achieve the peace we are all looking for.  That is what makes it holy.


Image by Bryan Rosengrant