“Civility is one thing you can expect at an Episcopal church,” my uncle said to me two Sunday’s ago as we motored along Interstate-170, a short, sometimes bumpy highway that cuts through St. Louis’s central and northern exurbs.
I laughed and nodded, realizing that we were going to be a few minutes late making it to a small Episcopal parish on the extreme northwestern edge of St. Louis. Earlier we thought about attending mass at a larger, more prosperous Episcopal church in a tony suburb. High church. “Smells and bells.” My uncle cherishes uncle liturgical rituals. And, well, so do I.
As visitors, the least we expect is civility. Episcopal hospitality is good coffee, tasty nosh, and friendly banter. But the Book of Common Prayer ties us together — the sacraments, rites, ceremonies, prayers, canticles, and collects of the Anglican Communion.
Before we left my mother’s home, Moses corrected himself and decided to go to Ascension, his home parish. Lately, without reliable transportation, getting to Ascension hasn’t been easy, though. I was happy to oblige.
There were 25 people at the 11 a.m. service. Ascension was a much larger church, in the heart of St. Louis. Due to dwindling attendance and resources, the bishop is merging Ascension with All Saints, another historically African American Episcopal church. The latter is still home to some of St. Louis’ more prominent African American families.
Other than the priest, his wife, and the deacon, Ascension’s parishioners on Sunday were African Americans. It’s a mostly working class community. Ascension’s current home is small, but well kept. Its lack of ostentatiousness is comforting.
Ascension’s members hold hands in an elliptical chain in the aisle during the Lord’s Prayer. Chains are closed, yet this one feels limitless, as if wanting or even expecting some challenged soul to walk in. Such a person would be welcomed.
“We don’t shake hands, we hug,” Georgia said, as she grabbed me close. I’ve known her for years. She is that spirited, spiritual, and cultural “auntie,” in that one does not need to be from the same tree to know that you are kin. The least you can expect is love.
Two black parishes: same city, same bishop, same set of liturgy, but building a new community out of the two has no been easy. I know, in my heart, that civility will see them through toward love.
I was reminded of the need for civility while witnessing Donald Trump and the United States lurch from one crisis after another. The president’s wild press conference from two weeks ago still hangs in my head.
President Trump rambles on as if communication is a series of 140 character segments. Incoherent? Sure, but he’s doing it his way, and it neither bothers him or the portion of the electorate that enjoy watching him frown, point, and accuse the media of being enemies of the people.
Reading him, on the other hand, is where Trump’s ramblings are truly astounding, if not strangely unsettling for their moments of clarity. Hearing him, then reading him reminds me of — and I’m going to geek out here — a Cylon Hybrid from the show Battlestar Galactica.
The Hybrid is the biomechanical being that controls a Cylon baseship. It rattles off strings of nonsense, analysis, and even prophesies. These utterances shoot out the Hybrid’s mouth like a comic, cosmic cacophony of tweets.
And so it goes with our president — insight amidst the discord.
“There are two Chicagos, as you know,” the president said late in the press conference. “There’s one Chicago that’s incredible, luxurious and all — and safe. There’s another Chicago that’s worse than almost any of the places in the Middle East that we talk, and that you talk about, every night on the newscasts.”
He’s absolutely right. “Chiraq” became a morpheme due to weeks where more people were killed on the streets of Chicago than soldiers fighting in an actual war zone.
Trump hit on the obvious race and class differentials that I’ve never heard from a Republican president.
And then the president swerved with back into Crazyville.
When asked by reporter April Ryan if he’d sought out the Congressional Black Caucus for assistance or guidance, President Trump wondered if the journalist could arrange a meeting. It was a jaw-dropping moment that not even the great Ishmael Reed could’ve imagined.
Tuesday’s speech before Congress is being hailed as the possible introduction to the buttoned-downed Trump some political observers had expected to emerge weeks ago.
Yes, the president condemned the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and threats to community centers and schools, as well as the murder in Kansas of two Indian engineers by a white man who believed they were Iranian.
But, and this isn’t a quibble, why did it take him so long to denounce what other presidents in my lifetime would’ve condemned much faster?
In St. Louis, for example, Trump’s rebuke came long after local Muslims came to the aid of their Jewish neighbors. This Samaritan moment shines as the administration and its supporters demonize Islam.
ISIS is a real threat to humanity, but it’s no more a hub for Islam than the Ku Klux Klan spins Christianity. If we reject one, why do we accept the other?
My thesis is that Steve Bannon’s wishes are behind the president’s soft peddle against to reactionary nationalists. The president’s chief advisor has been demonized by so many for so long, including having him as the literal specter of Death on Saturday Night Live.
It’s funny, but Bannon, Harvard educated and Goldman Sachs trained, is hardly a fool. He can be engaging, at least on paper. But his analysis of extremism inside of center-right populism is a severe blind spot that has to be rectified before we can reach civility.
My supposition here is based on a teleconference he gave to a Vatican-hosted conference on poverty in 2014. Bannon’s initial remarks highlight the surface split between rightist and leftist populism. For example, he busts Wall Street and Ayn Rand-inspired capitalism that has “that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost — as many of the precepts of Marx — and that is a form of capitalism, particularly to a younger generation [that] they’re really finding quite attractive.”
“And if they don’t see another alternative,” he adds, “it’s going to be an alternative that they gravitate to under this kind of rubric of ‘personal freedom.’”
When you differentiate between democratic socialism and oligarchical Marxist governments of the former Eastern bloc, Bannon’s analysis sounds right on. His remarks didn’t seem so far afield as to trigger alarm and fear.
Then we get to the question and answer session. And that’s where it gets dicey, very early. When asked about the rise of anti-Semitism and racism within rightwing populism in Europe and, ostensibly, in America, Bannon, while defending UKIP and Tea Party, admits to the obvious with an alarming caveat.
“But there’s always elements who turn up at these things, whether it’s militia guys or whatever,” he says. “My point is that over time it all gets kind of washed out, right?”
Washed out? WTF does that mean?
“People understand what pulls them together, and the people on the margins I think get marginalized more and more.”
I’ve tried not to use the morpheme “whitesplaining,” but I can’t think of a more apt word here with the possible exception of naïve. Given Bannon’s intelligence and political acumen, I refuse to believe it’s the latter.
Bannon “whitesplains” a complex issue that has haunted the United States since Jamestown by assuming a common political philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology will somehow “marginalize” racists.
After 50 years of watching this country strain over what it means to be inclusive and American, Bannon’s analysis is extraordinarily dangerous. We all share a common document in the Constitution, but yet, African Americans see an already divided will only grow worse.
White nationalists marched Trump to Washington. If Bannon and Trump truly believe they can control and curtail that aggression, it’s going to take something more than hope that “it all gets kid of washed out.”
Neutering the Justice Department’s civil rights division signals they would rather gamble on their aspirations than fund a proper defense.
There’s no civility in that.
This article originally appeared on Medium.