Angels and Demons: A Spirit Unleashed

(I wrote this in the wake of the 2017 Inauguration. It is a section of Principalities in Particular: A Practical Theology of the Powers.  Only truer today than then.)

Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, called on Americans to summon “the better angels of our nature.” Donald Trump’s candidacy, and so far his presidency, has been Lincoln’s exhortation in reverse. Bret Stephens, Foreign Affairs correspondent, Wall Street Journal

Proximate to the discernment of signs is the discernment of spirits. This gift enables the people of God to distinguish and recognize, identify and expose, report and rebuke the power of death incarnate in nations and institutions or other creatures, or possessing persons, while they also affirm the Word of God incarnate in all of life, exemplified preeminently in Jesus Christ. William Stringfellow

Who would have imagined that the most immediate and caustic outcome of the campaign, actually culminated and triggered by the election itself, would be the unleashing of a spirit of domination. Ground level and street level. The worst impulses of human beings, however suppressed, were conjured, summoned, and granted a free rein. Fear, hatred, contempt, all were sent on newly appointed errands, house to house. White supremacy is back like guns in an open carry state. Misogyny is a legitimate political position. Homophobia a heroic stance.

Hate crimes spiked in the days immediately following the election, many openly employing Trump’s name or campaign slogans.

Reports circulate of a school boy grabbing a classmate by her privates and declaring, “If the President can do it, so can I.”

The sale of confederate flags, briefly stigmatized in the wake of the Charleston church massacre, soar again during the campaign as people fly them from trucks and homes and businesses.

Hate fires against mosques and synagogues ignite, spread.

In the cafeteria, middleschool students in a Detroit suburb begin to chant, “Build the Wall! Build the Wall!”

Two men from India are shot, one fatally, in a bar – mistaken for Muslims.

Online troll storms foul response spaces with hate language.

A woman on the law faculty teaches of Georgetown University was targeted after posting a column which imagined a worst case scenario – What if the President, in an erratic move, made to invade or bomb a country, might senior military officials simply tell the president, “No, sir, we are not doing that.” When Breitbart News posted it under the headline, “Ex-Obama Official Suggests ‘Military Coup’ Against Trump,” and it went viral among the alt-right, her inbox and phone were flooded with a huge variety of death threats and all manner of curses, particularly misogynist and racist. Such mass attacks can be spontaneous or organized and orchestrated.

Stringfellow numbers “cursing” among the tactics of the principalities but it is a stratagem fueled by such spirits. “The demonic powers curse human beings who resist them. I mean the term quite curse quite literally as a condemnation to death, as damnation. In earlier times, American Indians were cursed as savages in order to rationalize genocide. Somewhat similarly, chattel slavery involved cursing Blacks as humanly inferior.”

Whole groups and classes of people are cursed and marked for fear. In keeping with his campaign threats and promises, the two most palpable enactments in these early weeks of the Trump administration have been the travel ban against the seven Muslim-majority countries and the broadening acceleration of pick-up and deportation of undocumented immigrants, specifically Mexican and Meso-American. Because of his campaign threats, including the projection of a Muslim registry, it is neither spurious nor disingenuous to call the former a “Muslim Ban.”

Upon signing his executive order halting travel and immigration from the seven Middle Eastern countries, not only did ordinary people appear at airports and refuse to leave until detainees were allowed in, but a Federal court order was issued halting its implementation. Initially, though chaotic, it appeared that Homeland Security and Customs officials might simply continue to act on executive order, provoking, in effect, an immediate constitutional crisis. Would the president and the executive branch honor the restraining power of the courts? For a moment it seemed not. So it was major political and legal concession to the Constitution when the Attorney General’s office appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit, rather than simply cursing and ignoring the “so-called judge” (a presidential tweet) of the lower court, whose ruling was, in fact, sustained.

As to the undocumented, “Which part of illegal don’t people understand?” asks an ICE agent in Arizona. The administration speaks openly of “taking the shackles off” ICE and Border patrol agents who in turn report how quickly “a new atmosphere has taken hold” in their agencies. Gone is the priorty of arresting and deporting firstly those committing serious crimes. In the new order, to be undocumented is to be a criminal. The President casually describes an ICE raid as a “military operation.” In Virginia agents wait outside a church to arrest immigrants who had gone in to stay warm. Everywhere is declared unsafe. The president describes a And the panic and terror engendered among Mexican families and communities functions in much the same way that the Klan did in the Jim Crow south. It keeps entire communities passive and quieted, vulnerable to isolation, wage theft, even sex trafficking. On the other hand, its impact can be the very opposite of that publicly intended: driving communities underground into the darkness of criminalization and even crime.

A similar free reign is being granted to local police forces. The Attorney General says they will no longer be monitored by the Federal Government in the effort to reduce killings at the hands of law enforcement. Such constraints only reduce effectiveness, he says. Profiles and cursing tweets may proliferate. Black and brown bodies will feel the heat.

Water Protectors at Standing Rock Camp have faced heavily militarized police on the premise that they are dangerous. People with ties to the camp are approached by the FBI joint terrorism taskforce. After months of military-style police activity, the camp is closed down in a sweep following Executive Orders pushing the Dakota Pipeline forward.

Among specific curses of the present moment is “enemy of the people.” The phrase, freighted with history going back to the French Revolution but most vivid as a Stalinist condemnation, has been directed by Trump against mainstream and established media such as The New York Times and CNN.

America First! Make America Great Again! Such nationalism is less a policy (even if it might translate into moves on NAFTA or the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deals) than it is a driving ideological spirit which has been invoked and claimed by the Trump regime. Stringfellow warns that nation and state, though distinct principalities, are merged in authoritarian governments. In totalitarian regimes, he writes, “any substantive distinction between the principality of the nation and the principality of the State is lost.  The ethos of the nation is absorbed into the apparatus of authority.  Or, to put it a bit differently, the spirit and tradition of the nation are abolished by the administration of the State or displaced by a fabricated version of tradition furnished by the State.  For all practical purposes, in a totalitarianism, the nation and the State become merged.”

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