Today, Eastern and Western Christians celebrate the presence of God in Christ. Whether Epiphany or Theophany, today’s feast is about the revelation of God to us, the presence of God with us in the person of Jesus Christ.
Imagine then, how Cliven Bundy’s comment to a gathering of the Independent American Party in St. George, Utah over a year ago jumped out at me:
If the standoff with the Bundys was wrong, would the Lord have been with us?” he asked, noting no one was killed as tensions escalated. “Could those people that stood (with me) without fear and went through that spiritual experience … have done that without the Lord being there? No, they couldn’t.
The PBS Newshour is hardly the only news outlet that has highlighted the blend of Mormonism and anti-government sentiment that fuels the ongoing occupation of the empty headquarters of Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge by the Bundy militia. For the elder Bundy, God’s presence is confirmed by fearlessness and no loss of life, and it seamlessly affirms occupation of the land, the land which White Aryans in the Pacific Northwest call “God’s Country.”
The summer between high school and college, I spent three weeks at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as a senior counselor at the Summer Seminar for High School Juniors. I remember many plays from that season. Henry V remains my favorite Shakespeare play because of that summer, and I will always love Ibsen’s strange Peer Gynt. But it is the play that I saw three times, once from the Stage Manager’s booth, that left its indelible mark of grief and horror: Steven Dietz’s God’s Country.
Over the years I lost the details of the play, the names of its historical characters (Alan Berg and Robert Jay Mathews), its main events (the ‘assassination’ of Alan Berg and subsequent Seattle trial of the white supremacist paramilitary group responsible for his death, The Order) or even the end (the death of Mathews in a FBI gunfight on Whidbey Island). But the impression it left on me often comes back to haunt me. I can feel again the creeping horror that enveloped me as I stood in that darkened control booth, looking at a darkened stage, watching evil speak in the language of my religion, and occupy places that I could name, that I have visited, that I love. The horror at realizing that the paradise that I grew up in was a white paradise because of the ideological ancestors of people who founded The Order, the Aryan Nation, and the National Alliance. These people, these organizations, they thrived in my beloved home.
Over and over again, I have felt that same horror, had scenes from that play I saw over twenty-five years ago flash through my mind, as I have followed the story unfolding far to my east. I have felt a bit ill as I laugh at the brilliant snark highlighting the hypocrisy in the incommensurate levels of government response to armed and threatening white ‘revolutionaries’ versus black children playing and black adults asking for help.
In part, my discomfort is that I actually sympathize with the purported cause of the uproar since I think mandatory minimum sentencing is an egregious legal farce that has had only deleterious effect, underscoring that our legal system is geared to retributive justice, not restorative (Kudos to John Oliver on this). I also share the concern of Jamelle Bouie at Slate that the stream of snark risks missing the more important point:
… why won’t they shoot at armed white fanatics isn’t just the wrong question; it’s a bad one. Not only does it hold lethal violence as a fair response to the Bundy militia, but it opens a path to legitimizing the same violence against more marginalized groups. As long as the government is an equal opportunity killer, goes the argument, violence is acceptable.
Bouie rightly argues that we should ask “why aren’t they more cautious with unarmed suspects and common criminals?”
Yet it was not until I read Bundy’s theology of God’s presence that I my discomfort became acute. You see, I agree with Bundy. God is present. All the time, everywhere in all things. God is not present because our cause is just, because our way is right. God is present because it is in God’s very self, very nature, to be for us (Linn Maria Tonstad has recently reminded me of this by way of Kathryn Tanner). But presence is not approval. Rowan Williams (in a reference that I do not have at hand) reminds us that scripture is the story of God’s presence and our response to Godself-in-our-midst. It is not then God’s endorsement of our response. I find this helpful when I read of the Exodus from Egypt that led the genocide of those inhabiting the land to which Israel was returning. Presence is not approval. Thank God.
And herein lies my concern with the mockery directed towards the Bundy Militia: does our mockery prevent us from acknowledging the ways we may share common concerns (if not common causes or means), does it allow us to scoff at the particular form of Mormonism they espouse, and the white supremacy they may (or may not, it is frankly a bit unclear) embody? Are we too confident that God is with us, God is on our side, and so allow our mockery to relieve us of the burden of asking, how are we like them?
When I watched God’s Country I was not horrified at them, I was horrified that my faith, my religion, my God, could be twisted to ends that seemed to me to be at cross purposes with my vision for the common good into which we are all called to participate. I was horrified at what they revealed about the place and home that I love. Worse, their desire to exclude non-Aryans (by their geographically and nationally incorrect definition of the term) from their white paradise was reflected in the theology of exclusion practiced by so many Christians: we are confident that God is with us (based on our ‘right belief’, right prayer, right practice, right morals), and not with you.
We should have no illusions about that last clause, and not with you. When we decide that someone cannot be a part of our family, our community, our meal, what we are saying is not that God is with you in some way I do not understand or with which I cannot agree. What we are saying is that way you believe, that heresy you teach, in that thing you do, God is not with you. Like The Order, we create our own purified world. A world with which we should probably be horrified.