“They’re so easy to kill, birds…”

This, from Elizabeth Bruenning in the Washington Post about the Trump administration’s decision not to enforce the Migratory Bird Treaties Act, is so beautifully said and so profoundly sad.

They’re so easy to kill, birds; or rather, the power of human industry is so profound that only a little carelessness — the slightest abdication of that deeply human impulse to know and understand — is tremendously destructive for them. Perhaps this is why dead birds so often stand in literarily for human cruelty and corruption: Coleridge’s senselessly killed albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” for example, or the titular species of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

But maybe that’s the heart of it, and maybe that’s the heart of the Trump era: permitting cruelty without consequence for the powerful. It’s harmful to the weak — birds, in this case, whose beauty needs no argument — but also to the strong who, in the exercise of cruelty, become less humane, less human. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ tells His followers that not a single sparrow falls from the sky without God’s knowledge. Maybe this is why a person like Len Howard, with her deep and steadfast love of knowing her fellow creatures, seemed in some sense like St. Francis preaching to his birds, graced. But ours is not a graced age. So many more birds will die now, drowning in waste pits with greased feathers and electrocuted on power lines. We won’t even know.

“And for the first time I felt my nakedness.”

For several years I lived in what seems to me now to have been a very general way. My major aim was to keep writing, and I had done so by taking advantage of random opportunities, traveling here and there, living a year or two in one place and a year or two in another. And then in the spring of 1964 I turned back on the direction I had been going. I returned to Kentucky, and within a year bought and moved onto a little farm in my native part of the state.

That return made me finally an exile from the ornamental Europeanism that still passes for culture with most Americans. What I had done caused my mind to be thrown back forcibly upon its sources: my home countryside, my own people and history. And for the first time I felt my nakedness. I realized that the culture I needed was not to be be found by visiting museums and libraries and auditoriums. It occurred to me that there was another measure for my life than the amount or event the quality of the writing I did; a man, I thought, must be judged by how willingly and meaningfully he can be present where he is, by how fully he can make himself at home in his part of the world. I began to want desperately to learn to belong to my place. The test, it seemed to me, would be how content I could become to remain in it, how independent I could be, there, of other places.

– Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound.

Here Berry is making the important connection between race and place. In a book about his own coming to terms with racism and its psychological and spiritual impact on all Americans, but especially white Americans, Berry finds that his own healing depends on his willingness to submit to place, to stop living, as he describes elsewhere, as “urban nomads.” The reasons for this connection are many and Berry gets at some of these, mostly related to culture and economics, but he misses what I consider to be most fundamental, that race was created as a means to sever people from place. As Willie Jennings has pointed out, by granting the pseudo-scientific construction of race the power to define bodies, European colonialists (and their descendants) detached themselves and those they sought to exploit from God’s creation. No longer was the earth itself – with its cultures and histories – the lens through which peoples were encountered and understood (or understood themselves), now the warped veneer of race could be conveniently applied to those whose labor and bodies were desirable for profit.

Deciding to reject “ornamental Europeanism” for a local life submitted to place did not immediately lead to wholeness for Berry, but it did expose his racial nakedness and from that honest place he began his journey toward a more humane life.

Transgressing Whiteness

33897495274_9df3399f90_kAlmost daily I hear someone claim that the president has crossed a new line, that surely now his white Christian supporters will abandon him, or at least acknowledge (some of) his faults. It happened again yesterday after his press conference with Russia’s president. But this hoped-for line will never be crossed.

This president will never transgress the ideology most sacred to Trump’s white Christian supporters, their whiteness itself. We’ve watched him violate most of what politically-active white Christians have traditionally said is sacred about the USA: respect for the military, forms of sexual morality, even basic Christian doctrine. The president has repeatedly flaunted all of these and his supporters remain.

But this president will never transgress whiteness so he won’t lose the support of those Christians whose identity, it turns out, is primarily racial rather than ecclesial. Racist dog whistles, nostalgia for European culture, sympathy with white nationalists, violent responses to Latino/a migrants, slandering black nations… these aren’t embarrassments for Trump-ian Christians but assurances to their most deeply-held beliefs and fears. The sacred line that would need to be violated in order to lose these Christians is too deeply embedded within the president himself for him to ever cross. He shares this with his supporters… so he will never, ever lose them.

(I’m aware how deeply pessimistic, even cynical, this sounds. But the more precise we can be about the disease within much of white Christianity, the better we can address the sickness at its source. The treatment, I’m convinced, is a matter of discipleship, but that’s a subject for another day.)

Photo credit: Gray Salvation.