I am not sure where I first read the quotation often attributed to Winston Churchill, “America will always do the right thing…at the last possible moment.” But evidently, I grew up believing its truth, that in the truly crucial moments America would default to its ideals. I hadn’t realized how much confidence I had in the United States, however, until I felt that faith fading away on the evening of November 8th as the election results became more and more clear.
The United States, who had elected Barack Obama eight years before, had chosen to replace him with a man whose political career was launched by questioning President Obama’s very Americanness. Donald Trump is a man who flaunts his misogyny, builds wealth on the backs of the vulnerable, mocks the disabled, scapegoats religious and ethnic minorities… The list of deeds and statements which bear witness to Mr. Trump’s flagrant meanness and despicability goes on and on.
I was naive and foolish before election night for refusing to fully face up to the depravity that might deliver the office of the presidency to a man like Donald Trump. In fact, I fear that mine has been a willful foolishness, born of the privilege of having lived in easy circumstances, never having had to make the difficult choice to stand exposed against power.
This week features the harsh juxtaposition of Martin Luther King Day with Inauguration Day, which forces to my mind the necessity of resistance against the powers and principalities that Mr. Trump’s administration clearly represents. At this moment, I have found one of Wendell Berry’s untitled poems from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 to be an especially edifying piece of resistance writing, filled with wisdom about how to proceed:
To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin, November 6th 1995.
Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,
for I know that you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know
there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine
though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.
You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light. It will be
the light of those who have suffered
for peace. It will be
I value this poem for several reasons. It doesn’t flinch from the wickedness of which humankind is capable. As countless testimonies have reminded us, the weak and vulnerable of this world are always under siege from the forces beholden to death. The choice is always there before us, whether we acknowledge it or not, to resist the darkness that desires to consume us. Berry’s poem ennobles all of those who, successful or not, engage in the struggle for justice and peace.
Even more importantly to me, Berry’s poem acknowledges the fear and hatred toward which we are all tempted to submit. I live in the South, in a county in which more than eighty percent of voters selected Trump. And since the election night, I have felt at times within me a percolating hatred and distrust toward my Other, those who supported Mr. Trump’s candidacy. But I also have had to remind myself that those others are not, in fact, “others.” They are, instead, my work colleagues, my church members, my friends, my students–in short, my neighbors.
Mr. Trump’s election win, surely, was a triumph of hatefulness and ignorance, cultivated as it was within a culture of bitterness and fear. Mr. Trump’s policies promise to be cruel and destructive, and we must be willing to stand with the suffering and against the looming injustices. But Berry’s poem also reminds its readers that the hard work of resistance is even harder than it at first seems because it also means combating the very culture of darkness that produces such men as Mr. Trump. Resistance must also be carried out with an eye toward the stronger community of peace we hope to build with all others in a hopeful future. To me, that means that I must find the courage to resist the abuses of the Trump administration with fervor, but I must also maintain the resources of hope and love necessary that I might do so without caving to the impulses of hatred. Such resistance strikes me as a difficult–but necessary–order indeed.