Either Exile or Exodus
Paul O. Ingram
Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
Like most Americans, as well as most non-Americans world-wide, I was appalled by the results of the Presidential Election on November 8, 2016. I still am. Even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by well over two million votes, Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote. With the help of an antiquated electoral system Republicans and some Democrats elected a greedy, racist, fascist, wealthy con artist who is also a misogynist sexual predicator to the Presidency of the United States for at least the next four years. The Republican Party was swept into control of both houses of Congress, while even as I write this piece, Trump is in the process of appointing white nationalists and racists and climate change deniers to his cabinet. What depresses me most are the parallels between Trump’s election to the Presidency of the United States and Hitler’s election as Chancellor of Germany in 1933. And at this moment of US history, it’s difficult not to see Fascism rearing its ugly head. It seems that many Americans have not learned the hard lessons of World War II, which is perhaps part of the evidence for the devaluation of liberal arts education throughout the United States in favor of the natural sciences and technology. George Santayana was right: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Although I must confess that even those who do remember the past often seem condemned to repeat it.
Still, as one who devours the writings of Alfred North Whitehead and John Cobb with the appetite of wolves at entrails, I continue to look for signs of hope. We must remember (prehend) the past, both positively and negatively in the present’s fleeting moments as we anticipate an unpredictable future that is not merely a repetition of the past. And here lies the problem: conservative communities like the Republican Party hang on to their past like addicts cling to their drugs, while ideological “liberals” cling to their “progressive” interpretations of the past with the same intensity. As my Buddhist friends never tire of reminding me, clinging to anything is a search for permanence in an impermanent universe and only causes individual and communal suffering. The past is dead and clinging to it is clinging to death. The question is always how to appropriate the past without clinging to it as we imagine and work for a future of new possibilities for creative transformation. We can’t escape the past, but we do not have to cling to it.
It was in this state of depression that my wife, Regina, and I along with our pastors, attended an evening fundraising dinner sponsored by the Faith Action Network in Seattle on November 20, 2016. The Faith Action Network (FAN) is comprised of Christians of all sorts—Protestants representing most “mainline” denominations, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, even a few “liberal” Evangelicals—Buddhists, Sunni, Shi’a, and Sufi Muslims, Sikhs, Native Americans representing the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, and those who identified themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” (I have never understood this distinction.) As soon as we entered the venue it felt like the depression I was experiencing had merged with the collective depression that seemed to hover over the room like clouds shrouding the tops of evergreen forests during winter rain storms that are common in the Pacific Northwest. And yet there was also hint of optimism circulating through the crowd as we met new and old friends and shared our fears and hopes while filling our paper plates with food and making our way to our assigned tables.
The central purpose of FAN is creating opportunities for interreligious dialogue between the various religious communities that populate Seattle and all cities and towns north to the Canadian border and west of the Cascade Mountains. These dialogues include: “conceptual dialogue” focused on the defining teachings of these religious Ways; “socially engaged dialogue,” focused on the distinctive views of these Ways on issues of social, economic, gender, and environmental justice; and “interior dialogue,” meaning participation in the specific practices of each religious Way, for example, meditation, contemplative prayer, or dancing with Dervishes. But in fact, these three forms of dialogue are so interdependent that their separation is merely instrumental. What I most appreciate about FAN is its collective refusal to engage in one form of dialogue over the other two. It is a wonderful interfaith community focused on achieving the common good for all human beings in interdependence with all sentient beings with whom we share life on Planet Earth.
The fog of depression was finally blown away when the Keynote Speaker, Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick, Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Seattle, began speaking. The foundation of everything “Jewish,” she noted, originated in the Exile of the People of Israel into slavery in Egypt and the Exodus led by Moses from slavery into the wilderness and eventually new life in “the Promised Land.” The people had a choice, she said: “Either choose Exile or Exodus, either slavery or freedom, either fear or courage, either death or life.” Searching for life is journeying to the Promised Land, a place of freedom and life that cannot be identified with any specific place on this planet, and “most certainly, she said, “with the State of Israel.” The Promised Land is a place of shalom, a place of wholeness, compassionate justice, and community, a place of God’s choosing and time. “It’s not the arrival in the Promised Land that’s important,” she said. “It’s by undertaking Exodus to the Promised Land that we can glimpse here-and-now, but never fully, provided we choose Exodus.” The Exodus journey is an ongoing journey.
“Here’s the key,” I thought. The minority who elected Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States and swept the Republican Party into control of the House of Representatives and the Senate voted for Exile, for a return to a time when wealthy white men controlled the politics of this country through local, state, and national laws that discriminated against all people of color and women; the exploitation of coal, oil, and other natural resources without concern for the environmental consequences; a time when working class men and women were economically oppressed by large corporations and had to literally struggle like hell for living wages; a time when the CEOs of corporations actually wrote the laws enacted by Congress when their economic interests were affected; a time when “the industrial military complex” pushed for military action throughout the world to “protect American interests.” And the beat goes on. Come to think of it, the differences between fifty years ago and now are not that great: white working class men trying to hold onto their jobs to achieve the “American dream,” whatever this means, by voting for rich Republicans against their own self-interest. Be afraid of the future, cling to an ahistorical vision of the past in the name of making “America great again.” In other words, run back to Exile.
But it’s still possible to choose Exodus. Choosing Exodus means not clinging to the past. Choosing Exodus is incorporating the past into the present by learning from it without clinging to it through what Whitehead called “positive” and “negative prehensions” as we envision future possibilities for individual and communal creative transformation. The Exodus journey requires rejecting any-and-all forms of racism and misogyny. Choosing Exodus means regarding the LGBT community as part of the human community; Choosing Exodus means rejecting a free market capitalist economic system that seeks to strip the Earth bare of the natural resources necessary to support both human and nonhuman life on this planet. Choosing Exodus means replacing oil and coal with wind and solar power while training coal miners and petroleum workers for jobs in clean power industries. Choosing Exodus means breaking our addiction to gas guzzling automobiles that make air unbreathable, as anyone who has driven a car on a Los Angeles freeway on a hot July day knows by experience, and building energy efficient rapid transit systems capable of transporting large numbers of human beings efficiently and safely. Choosing Exodus means choosing nonviolence and refusing to cooperate with any-and-all governmental policies that require war. Choosing Exodus means resistance against any-and-all forms of discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, race, or religion. Choosing Exodus means standing for justice and compassion as the heart of community building, as the Hebraic prophets and the historical Jesus instructed so long ago.
The motivations for choosing Exodus and rejecting Exile are perhaps as numerous as the people undertaking an Exodus journey. Trump is currently pushing for a national registry for all Muslims living in the United States as a way of identifying “threats to national security,” a policy that is contrary to the Constitution. It’s also not particularly “Christian,” in spite of the opinion of the Christian right. So, inspired by Rabbi Zlotnic, Christians in my local community, Pointe of Grace Lutheran Church in Mukilteo, Washington along with other church communities have decided that if our Muslim brothers and sisters are ever required to declare their faith on a governmental registry we will also add our names. After all, it makes perfect sense. “Islam” names the act of surrendering to God’s will in all things, and “Muslim” names he or she who surrenders to God’s will as tested and measured by the Qur’an (the “Recitations), the Sunna (“Tradition,” meaning stories about what Mohammed said and did). Christians also seek to surrender to God’s will as reflected in the Lord’s Prayer (“Your will be done”) and the historical Jesus’ struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane in prayer asking for God to “deliver” him from a death he knows he will suffer, yet willing to follow God’s will even if it meant death. In fact, the Muslims I know regard Jesus as “Muslim.” To be sure, Muslims and Christians test and measure the meaning of “surrender” differently, but these differences pale into insignificance in actual dialogue with Muslims. It is my hope that other Christian communities throughout the United States will undertake a similar Exodus journey by actively resisting all injustices wherever they occur in whatever form they occur.