Trump, Populism, and Christianity

It would not be an overstatement to say the result of the 2016 Presidential Election shook the world.  Defying every poll’s prediction, Donald Trump won the presidency of the United States against all odds.  What seemed, at one point, a bizarre and distant experiment – like Brexit – could only happen in Europe (and we don’t really understand what’s going on in Europe anyway) actually happened in our homeland, shattering a certain intellectual reality while bringing in an alternate one.  During this time, movie theaters were prophetically showing Dr. Strange, a marvel comic character who has the ability to morph one reality into another, depicting a real-life chaos on the silver screen.  

When secular intellectuals frantically tried to wrap their heads around what happened, some Christians explained that this was the will of God.  I suspect the people who made this kind of statement felt the result of the election affirmed their choice of the candidates (and perhaps also their prayer), but theological conclusion that takes the winner as confirmation-of-God’s-will really has no basis and is dangerous in the making.  This kind of “winner-confirmation” position inevitably traces back to every presidency and concludes that they were all God-ordained.  If applied the same principle to the divided kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament, then one will need to resolve that God willed figures like Ahab and Jezebel to leadership.  Even more disturbing in contemporary times, Adolf Hitler also would have made the list!  Rather to say that God has control of history through installing kingships, it is theologically more sound to think that God never lost sovereignty even in the most dire situations.  The crucifixion of Jesus makes the perfect example.  Just when the world thought the ministries of a carpenter’s son came to a humiliating end, God turned sufferings into the glorious enthronement of the Christ, creating the beginning of His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  Therefore, instead of retreating to a simplistic appeal to “divine choice” to explain Donald Trump, grasping a better understanding of how God shapes and forms history through the larger framework of culture and context makes a more preferable Christian approach.  This larger framework begins from populism.

Understanding Populism from Economics

Populism seems to be a unique phenomenon in the west; it was never observed in Asia.  Fareed Zakaria, the host of Global Public Square (GPS) on CNN, referenced a Harvard study to explain this extensively.  Western Europe and the United States have been experiencing a kind of economic stagnation since the seventies.  Although spurts of growth interrupted this pattern from time to time, the trend continued in spite of the variety of economic policies they have adopted.  Another global thinker Ruchir Sharma, who believes a “broad cause” should be responsible for such a “broad trend”, points to a direction that appears to be too obvious to miss at the first glance.  In The Rise and Fall of Nations, Sharma explains that the overarching factor is demographics.  Declining fertility in the general population have been putting a burden on the work force in the West.  Coupled with an aging generation that is growing in size, the sum total adds up to a fundamentally negative impact to the economy.

A second factor that compounds the situation is globalization.  Globalization opens up the markets, bringing a free flow of labor, products, capital, and information.  On the whole, free trade benefits economic growth; however, specific sectors like unskilled and semiskilled workers often get the short end of the deal.  Retail products make good examples.  Clothing manufacturing in the US could not possibly sustain operation when it needs to compete with the low wages in developing countries, and we all know the iconic American product iPhones are not made in America.  Yet, consumers enjoy the affordable low price on this “accepted” reality.  Furthermore, Rana Foroohar, the economics and business editor of Time magazine, explains that the practice of “financialization” has largely taken over capitalism.  In Makers and Takers, she says the original spirit of capitalism is distorted.  She argues that oligopolistic interests are “remaking our unique brand of American capitalism into a crony capitalism more suited to a third-world autocracy than a supposedly free-market democracy.” Companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo all behave like investment banks.  Back in 2013 when Apple had already stored away $145 billion in the bank, the CEO figured the best way to raise  another $17 billion was to borrow it because of taxation reasons.  Apple, in turn, used this money to buy back the company’s stocks.  As a result, the Apple stocks shot up.  Wall Street was happy.  Investors were elated.  But doing business in this manner siphons resources from R & D; ultimately changing a product economy to a finance economy, because the market actually punishes the former and rewards the latter.  In March 2006, Microsoft’s stocks fell for two months after the announcement of a major new technology investment; whereas the stock price jumped sharply later in the same year when the stock-buy-back news came out.  This may partially explain why new initial public offerings (IPOs) only measured up to a third of what it was twenty years ago.  Foroohar laments that “an IPO today is likely to mark not the beginning of a new company’s greatness, but the end of it.” A finance economy may provide us with short-term gain, but it cuts into the bottom line.  It directly impacts the professionals as the first line victim, but the damage spreads to unskilled workers and service industries.  In the end, financialization deepens inequality.

Another powerful force behind the making of populism is information revolution.  First, the rapid progress of IT (information technology) renders globalization a one way ticket – it will not reverse course.  But more importantly, new technologies ultimately cause certain types of jobs to disappear from the face of the earth.  We have seen how chain stores like Tower Records closed down from years ago.  Even a large corporation like Eastman Kodak could not survive because of the invention of electronic camera.  Now that Google, Tesla, and Uber are developing self-drive cars, over three millions truck drivers in the US are facing a grim future.  One statistic figure reflects this trend.  During the Obama administration, eight million jobs that required a college degree were created.  And for jobs that did not – only eighty thousand.  A difference of one hundred times!

The final challenge has to do with limited government interventions in times of need.  Zakaria points out that almost every Western country faces a large fiscal burden.  At the time of writing this article, the debt-to-GDP ratio for the UK is 81% and the US 104%.  From a pure economic perspective, the numbers aren’t so bad.  When comparing to the second and third largest economies, China’s ratio is as high as 300% with Japan looming at 229%. However, these numbers “do place constraints on the ability of governments to act.” When the people looked towards a government for bold actions at times of great distress, they became disappointed.  And, when a group of people were disappointed over a long period of time because they felt entrenched in a situation that they did not see a way out – or even worse, that nobody seemed to remember them anymore – they started to look for a different leader who will.  This changed the voting patterns of the working class.

Understanding Populism from Immigration

As much as “build the wall” may not sound like a sensical strategy, this slogan captured the core spirit of Trump’s campaign with regard to an anti-immigration sentiment.  Zakaria calls this phenomenon of mass-migration “the globalization of people.”  He says Westerners “have come to understand and accept the influx of foreign goods, ideas, art, and cuisine, they are far less willing to understand and accept the influx of foreigners themselves.” Embracing diversity and plurality may sound like good liberal values, but white working-class felt that the rightful ownership of this country really belongs to them.  Coupled with manufacturing jobs vanishing, Trump’s message came close to heart.  They see “undocumented immigrants” as invaders of America and ultimately have turned them into casualties.  “Voters needed a narrative for their lives,” George Packer recalled what Hillary Clinton says in an interview.  “Including someone to blame for what had gone wrong.  Donald Trump came up with a fairly simple, easily understood, and to some extent satisfying story.” Here, in the US, the blame fell on Mexicans and Muslims.  For sure, voters needed a narrative, and they liked Trump’s – even when it is not true at times.  Zakaria points out that the net immigration from Mexico has been negative for several years.  Illegal immigration is not growing.  It is shrinking.

In the case of Europe, people often felt that their government is more committed to outside establishment like EU and IMF than to their own people.  While there are true concerns with security along with the mass influx of foreigners, the fear of terrorism does not always dominate the sentiment of the public anxiety.  According to polls, the French are relatively less concerned with the link of refugees to terrorists, and the Germans’ view on Muslims have improved over the years.  But fear still exists.  And Zakaria’s conclusion is succinct.  He suggests that when mainstream politicians fail to heed the citizens’ concerns, populism will rise with political entrepreneurs fanning fear.  On the other hand, those countries that have made practical efforts to manage immigration and integration have not seen a rise in populist anger.  In this case, Canada is referenced as the role model.

So far, we have understood populism as an anti-elite and anti-government sentiment from a marginalized blue-collar working-class, who have suffered from an economical entrenchment because of a global-financial trend.  When they seek an understanding of their plight, they take on a narrative that identifies themselves as victims of a foreign people who usurped their rightful ownership as the master of this land.  Tracing back in American history, Michael Kazin, the history professor in Georgetown University, calls this old wine in a new bottle.

Understanding Populism from History

Kazin explains that there have been two competing traditions of populism in American history – both direct their anger upward against corporate elites and the government, who betrayed “the interests of the men and women who do the nation’s essential work.” The first type of populism defines these common men and women strictly by class.  They embrace the larger American story of believing in the individual’s “inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and in a democratic government that derives its legitimacy from the people’s consent.” Therefore, when they felt the governing class chipped away their platform of attaining these purposes, they begot a strong sense of betrayal.  Instead of for the people, they felt the government was against the people.  The second type of populists also blame the elites and the establishment, but they have a narrower and more ethnically restrictive definition of “the people”. To them, the rightful ownership of America belongs to the citizens of European heritage.  Kazin explains that this group has a long suspicion of the government conspiring with the bottom “unworthy dark-skinned poor” marginalizing the interests of the patriotic white majority in the middle.   The contemporary version of populism seems to pertain to this form, as the country’s focus revolves around Mexican immigrants and Muslims.

Two historical events exemplify this second type of populism – the Chinese Exclusion Act and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the already struggling labor union felt threatened by the influx of Chinese and Japanese workers who competed for construction work with the white working class.  The founding of the Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC) in 1877 by Denis Kearney culminated this anti-Asian sentiment.  Eventually, the Kearney camp gathered enough traction to get Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, barring all Chinese from entering the country.  Two decades later, a similar attempt was made to lobby Congress to ban all Japanese immigration based on the allegation of suspected espionage – not unlike how immigration from Muslim countries are being framed in the current debate.  In a similar manner, the rise of the KKK in the twentieth century never sustained to become a major cultural force but did make its mark in American politics.  A strict annual quotas on limiting immigrants from eastern and southern Europe was made in 1924 and was not revoked until 1965.  As much as Trump has expressed that he does not endorse the racial agenda of the KKK, the latter felt what he advocates has vindicated their positions.

The Face(s) of the Populist

When Americans flocked to understand this strange new world of populism, the majority did not read up on intellectual treatise like What is Populism? by Jan-Werner Muller or The Shipwrecked Mind by Mark Lilla.  Instead, the memoir of a hillbilly who got out of the Rust Belt reflecting on his family and neighbors with a warm tone of love and pride, mixed in with a sense of sadness because of a pessimistic outlook made the New York Times bestseller’s list.  J. D. Vance is a Yale law school graduate.  In Hillbilly Elegy, he describes for the American public what “White Working Class” look like.  But it is not a story about “them”.  It is about him.  

Vance reminds us that “white trash”, “rednecks”, or “hillbillies” are real people whom the rest of the country has largely forgotten.  They came from the Scots-Irish heritage endowed with human paradox that formed an almost exclusive culture, not unlike Amish in the sense that if you’re not one of them then you don’t belong.  Vance describes the hillbillies as the kind of people who would skip their favorite pastimes to dig a stranger’s car out of the snow.  They have great respect for the dead that they would step out of their cars and stand at attention whenever a funeral procession drives by.  At the same time, this is the same group that would father many children but don’t bother to stick around to care for them, constitute a high statistics in drug abuse, and cheat the system for social welfare.  Hillbilly culture is clannish.  They pay a “robust sense of honor and devotion” to family but often blend with a “bizarre sexism” into the mix.  Vance recalls his uncle telling him that before his grandmother (whom he calls Mamaw) was married, her brothers would be willing to literally kill boys if they showed disrespect to their sister.  However, after she got married, and now the brother-in-law was considered more a brother than an outsider, they would take him to drinking and chasing women!

The last story, by no means, intends to portray hillbilly women as easily exploited.  Another Mamaw’s story may illustrate this.  Vance describes his grandpa (Papaw) a mild-mannered man.  At the same time, he was also a drunk.  The drinking often led to violent fights between him and the wife.  After one of such fights, Mamaw announced that if Papaw came home drunk again, she would kill him.  One week later, he came home drunk and fell asleep on the couch.  True to her promise, Mamaw poured gasoline over her husband, lit a match and threw it on him.  His life was spared only because their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action right away and put out the fire.  Miraculously, he had only minor injuries from that incident. Perhaps the story would not be a surprise if I had mentioned that Mamaw took a rifle at the age of twelve and shot the leg of a man who was trying to steal the family cow.  If she wasn’t stopped by a grownup, she would have actually finished the job before the man crawled away.

Hillbillies share a common trait of “taking care” of their own business; and they don’t need the law to interfere.  Vance speaks of an incident that happened in a small town in the Appalachia with regard to the raping of a young girl.  One day before the trial, the authorities found the body of the accused man facedown in a local lake with sixteen bullet holes in his back.  The police never pursued the murder, and the local newspaper reported this incident the same morning they found the body.  The word choice of the reporting captured the essence of the hillbilly culture:  “Man found dead.  Foul play expected.”  It was expected – not suspected.  During the Presidential campaign, Donald Trump boasted that he would not lose any vote even if he went out and shoot someone on Fifth Avenue.  I truly believe him after reading this story.  To the ears of an Appalachian, those words were not deplorable.  He was speaking the culture.

What sets the hillbillies apart is not only culture but also economy.  As Vance points out in his book, the Scots-Irish are one of the most distinctive subgroups in America.  He confesses that he does not identify with the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) in the Northeast.  Rather, he finds his kinship with the “millions of working class white Americans” who have no college degree.  And, to these folks, “poverty is the family tradition – their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times.” After WWII, people from Appalachian small towns had two choices.  They either had to uproot and move to the new American industrial world or to remain behind as coal miners living on the edge of poverty.  Vance speaks of the time when Armco, a large steel company, aggressively recruited in eastern Kentucky coal country when they promised high priority on the employment list if applicants already had a family member working for the company.  Looking back, this kind of industrial development created a mass migration of workers that led to two economic phenomena.  The first is that it instituted the kind of one-company-dependent communities that a single employer literally determined the livelihood of that community.  While this model worked well when the prosperity of the company equated to the common good of the people (or employees), it also turned into a pitfall when automation started to replace manpower in the future.  Mass migrations also created a second socioeconomic phenomenon when it left behind small towns with no young workforce.  These already struggling “left-behind” small towns never recovered from the financial tsunami that hit the country in 2008.  A general sense of hopelessness continued to nurture high rates of drug abuse, domestic violence, and other social problems associated with poverty.  There was no way out.   These downtrodden people felt that they are abandoned by the rest of the world, and they are eager to know who is to blame for.

On the other hand, those who moved to the cities and start anew their industrial lives do not necessarily become transformed to the new middle class over night.  A saying goes “You can take the boy out of Kentucky, but you cannot take Kentucky out of the boy.” One such hillbilly from the “Bluegrass State” worked as a mail carrier in Ohio.  He raised chickens in his backyard the same way he did in his hometown and would collect eggs every morning from his flock.  When the size of the flock grew too large, “he’d take a few of the old ones, wring their necks, and carve them up for meat” – right in his backyard.  While this is everyday life in Kentucky’s farmland, it simply does not sit well with the well-groomed housewife with her kindergarten daughter watching in horror from next door.  The quote Vance referenced from another book Appalachian Odyssey succinctly describes the cultural clash of hillbillies in Detroit:

It was not simply that the Appalachian migrants, as rural strangers ‘out of place’ in the city, were upsetting to Midwestern, urban whites.  Rather, these migrants disrupted a broad set of assumptions held by northern whites about how white people appeared, spoke, and behaved…the disturbing aspect of hillbillies was their radicalness.  Ostensibly, they were of the same racial order (whites) as those who dominated economic, political, and social power in local and national arenas.  But hillbillies shared many regional characteristics with the southern blacks arriving in Detroit.”

When reflecting on why these people whom he calls neighbors, friends, and family got trapped in a pathetic socioeconomic situation, surprisingly, Vance does not put the blame on the government.  He does not think too many regulations hurt the people (per Republicans) or the immigrants took away the jobs (per Trump), nor did he think increasing the minimum wage would solve the problems of this community (per Democrats).  While public policy helps, he believes there is no government that can fix the problems for his people.  They have to solve their problems themselves.  To start with, the Scots-Irish descents need to recognize that they should take some responsibilities for being trapped in poverty.  He recalls working with a nineteen-year-old young man Bob in a tile company one summer when he was a student.  Bob had a girlfriend who was pregnant at the time.  The manager gave her a clerical position to answer the telephone.  One would imagine that they would appreciate the opportunity in such financially compromised position, therefore would work hard to secure their needed jobs.  The opposite was true.  “The girlfriend missed about every third day of work and never gave advance notice…Bob missed work about once a week, and he was chronically late.  On top of that, he often took three or four daily bathroom breaks, each over half an hour.”  The girlfriend lasted only months after repeated warnings.  Eventually, Bob was also fired.  Instead of acknowledging his own misconduct, Bob lashed out at the manager for not considering that he had a pregnant girlfriend.  Vance comments that while economists worry about manufacturing jobs have gone overseas making lives for middle-class harder in the industrial Midwest, there is another story behind that.  “It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible.  It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

In the end, Vance’s words are redemptive.  “I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth.  We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother.  We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister’s honor.  But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help [ourselves]?  Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it?  Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?”  J. D. Vance is a hillbilly who got out of the Rust Belt but left his heart there enough to ask tough questions.  Like he said, he and his kind chose to lose contact with their love ones not because they didn’t care.  They did so to break away from an environment that was harmful to character formation that will bring them down one day.  They did so to survive.  At the end of the book, he does not give his reader the impression that he has the answer.  But, he is asking good questions.  There is a sense of plain and honest confession that the wittiness has come to an end and he has stripped off any shred of pride that remains.  “These problems are not created by governments or corporations,” he says.  “We created them!  And only we can fix them.” All civility of the Yale Law Grad is gone.  What appears behind those words is the young Kentucky boy finally finding his voice in the very first place where he grew up.  “We don’t need to live like the elites of California, New York, or Washington, D.C…We do need to create a space for the J.D.s…of the world to have a chance.” The reason why I think his words are redemptive is because there is a change of heart here.  If Adam represents mankind, then J.D. Vance speaks like the first Adam of the hillbillies.  “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”  If there is a biblical voice that resonates with what he says, that would be the voice of the prodigal son.  The Hebrew word for “repentance” means turn around.  There is a change of heart here that turns from blaming the world outside to looking at the inner heart of oneself; there, he beholds a new world.

Gauging The Politics From A Christian Perspective

The year was 733 B.C. The political calamity at the time far exceeded the contemporary.  The ambition of the Assyrian empire to dominate the world threatened every single nation.  For some, they had the choice to succumb to Assyria and pay a tribute to maintain their independence.  However, these payments often laid a heavy burden on the tributary state and sometimes proved to be deadly to the sitting king (2 Kings 15:23-25). If they chose to rebel, they will face total annihilation.  And, the Assyrians were known for their cruelty to their enemies.  An inscription that describes how the Assyrian king cut off body parts of his enemies and piled them up was found in the ruins of ancient Assyria. It was truly an existential crisis.

It was under this backdrop that Israel and Aram joined forces in the attempt to resist Assyria.  Knowing their coalition might not be enough, they sought help from Israel’s sister state Judah.  However, King Ahaz of Judah decided against joining them – possibly under the calculation that such an act would prematurely bring on himself the wrath of Tiglath-Piliser, the Assyrian king.  What he did not realize was that the backup plan of the coalition was to invade Judah and take all the resources in the event that he refused cooperation.  Facing a great dilemma, Ahaz resolved to making a deal with the devil.  Instead of joining the resistance, he prepared to take on the status of servanthood and make Judah a vassal state to Tiglath-Pileser in return for Judah’s relief from the Israel-Aram coalition.  It was under these circumstances when the prophet Isaiah confronted King Ahaz at the aqueduct of the Upper Pool and gave the famous discourse of the prophecy of Immanuel in Isaiah 7.

Prophets are perhaps the most misunderstood character in the Bible.  Many think of them as “soothsayers” because they foretell what happens in the future.  In reality, they work as special messengers of God.  Unlike angels, which are spiritual beings, prophets are men (or women) who walk the soil and dirt on earth but with their heads and necks sticking in the cloud seeing and hearing the voice of God.  While God might send His message to the prophet supernaturally, the norm showed otherwise.  The prophet realized the voice of God in his daily living through his fully devotion to the LORD and his love for Israel.  He prophesied when Israel deviated from the way of God – from Torah.  Therefore, his prophecies comprised of judgment and comfort.  The judgment gives warnings of Yahweh’s future action if Israel continues her waywardness; and comfort often points to the apocalyptic promises.  Thus, giving the impression that the prophet speaks of the future!

When seeking for a biblical response to the populism that gave rise to Donald Trump, a historical figure came to mind.  Abraham Heschel was a Jewish scholar who witnessed the populism in Germany during WWII, escaping Adolph Hitler, came to the United States, and experienced the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.  Heschel finished writing his doctoral dissertation on the biblical Prophets in 1932 at the University of Berlin, and submitted for publication just weeks after Hitler came to power.  At the time, for a Jewish student to receive a Ph.D. in Nazi Germany had already become difficult.  The publication of his dissertation was finally approved, partially because some German Christian scholars considered The Prophetic Books in the Old Testament an anti-Jewish book.  Outside Germany, he received international attention in both Europe and the United States, with the subsequent publication we now know as The Prophets becoming a companion guide to evangelicals who wish to study this subject.

During Heschel’s time, Germany was undergoing the rise of right-wing populism in reaction to a period of globalization.  Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Columbia University, reminded us that the newly introduced capitalism destroyed “traditional communities, professions, and cultural norms” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. New agricultural technologies and cheap imports killed the jobs of rural peasants, forcing them to move to the cities to look for work.  And, city folks in poor countries moved to rich countries.  After WWI, most of Europe was hurt badly – both in the physical sense but more so with its economy.  The new found democracy did not know how to maneuver with all its tools.  When facing the Great Depression, German leaders did little to help.  Unlike Franklin Roosevelt who introduced the New Deal in the US, they actually adopted austerity that eventually pushed the economy down even further.  Social disorder became endemic.  Violence predominated.  This environment of fear and anger created a “fertile ground for new politicians who claimed to have the answers.”

The inspiration of Heschel that we may borrow today came not from his personal dealings with populism but from his understanding of the biblical prophet.  To him, the prophet was a living witness to God.  The message of the prophet was not only in what he said but more so in who he was.  “The prophet [was] a person, not a microphone.” He never spoke of God objectively from a distance.  He had no concern with the nature of God.  Rather, he centered on God’s concern for man.  Heschel says, in biblical view, “man’s deeds may move Him, affect Him, grieve Him…gladden Him and please Him.  This notion that God can be intimately affected, that He possesses not merely intelligence and will, but also pathos, basically defines the prophetic consciousness of God.” Perhaps Heschel’s daughter Susannah (also a biblical scholar) says it best:  “The overriding importance of the prophets was not the content of their message, but the kind of religious experience they exemplified.” Isaiah did not go to Ahaz in chapter seven because he received a fax from heaven.  The Bible author makes clear to the reader that this incident occurred as a direct consequence of Isaiah’s vision in chapter six.  The vision actually happened quite a bit earlier than the crisis of the Israel-Aram invasion, therefore the biblical sequence of the events must be strategic and intentional.  In the year King Uzziah died (Isaiah 6:1), God gave Isaiah a vision to see that no earthly king sat on the throne of Judah except God himself.  Through this “religious experience”, Isaiah proclaimed to King Ahaz that he should have no fear of Aram and Ephraim (the capital of Israel) that “God is with us” (Immanuel).  Notice that the prophet did not only prophesy piety – like be brave or be loyal, but he prophesied with a deep knowledge of the political situation at hand.  He spoke of the destruction of the northern powers (Israel and Aram), and he also spoke of Ahaz putting his faith in the wrong place.  While trusting in the king of Assyria instead of the true ‘King’ of Judah (6:5), Ahaz had brought on a deceptive salvation that ultimately will bring Judah her calamity (7:18-25).

Although evangelicals largely believe that the gift of the prophet has ceased to exist, lessons can still be learned.  In the treatise of this subject, there is only one prophet model observed – J. D. Vance.  He lives among his people.  As much as he recognizes his families and friends have brought on themselves their calamities, he never writes them off.  He walks the dirt his people walk.  Escaping from the Rust Belt does not cut his ‘ties’ with those he calls hillbillies or white trash.  He embodies the “white trash”.  When listening closely to the stories in Hillbilly Elegy with the same kind of pathos that Heschel urges us to embrace, a loud message thunders through:  white trash matters! In fact, that is plausibly the most significant message in the birth of Trumpism as a product of the populist movement at hand.  Not the immigration stuff!  Not the terror or safety stuff!  All those are sentiments reflecting a deeper sense of abandonment by the larger society and perhaps by the rest of the world.  Fareed Zakaria commented on TV that the lesson we can learn is that some of the white working class are willing to pick someone whose policies might even hurt them more just because they felt being respected!  The prophet is not that person who preaches another insightful sermon or has some smart things to say.  He is the one who laughs and cries with us because he loves us so much but is still angry with us because we don’t see the way.  His anger comes from his gut being twisted from seeing his own people tearing themselves apart and not running to God.  His sorrow is wielded from witnessing his kinsmen battling each other thinking that they are all battling for God.  At the same time, the prophet prophesies not only piously but also intelligently.  As Isaiah who understood the complex politics that his nation faced, today’s prophets also need to understand how God shapes and forms history through culture and context.  Understanding populism at its core is not an option.  Otherwise, preaching “holiness or righteousness” will mean absolutely nothing to the ears on either side.  Only in this context of sorrow and knowledge that the divine messenger could find his prophetic voice.

We must learn to live among those we abhor and listen to the voice of God with our greatest pathos in this “religious experience.”  This religious experience will start out as a lonely journey, but we must gather with those who share the same vision to listen to the anger and empathize with the pain of those we dwell within.  The prophet does not seek to be understood, like God does not seek to be approved; therefore, we must be prepared to be crucified.  This is the model of the prophet.  This is the model of a Christian, a follower of Christ.

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