Conviction! Conviction? Conviction…

I serve as the pastor of a church with an old building that is constantly in need of attention. This becomes all the more important because we house several free clinics.

We’ve been having sewer issues. It’s a combination of old sewer lines that are addressed in piecemeal fashion, a limited pool of resources that prevents us from completely gutting and replacing everything, and people with various capacities and knowledge of appropriate use of bathroom facilities.

This week we had a blockage in our pipes which came about from someone stuffing paper towel (and probably other items) down the toilet. A whole lot of people utilize our church building and we have many people who come into the building with all sorts of challenging lives. I have learned that we make a mistake when we assume that everyone who enters the building understands how to use the facilities in an appropriate manner. The stuffing of the toilet resulted not in an overflowing toilet, but in a seepage from one of our sewer lines causing a mess in our basement.

A sewer problem at the church is unpleasant, unhealthy, and you have no choice but to deal with it.

For me, the sewer problems at the church is an appropriate analogy for the trials of the former president. Yesterday we heard the announcement that he was found guilty of all 34 counts in the so-called hush money trial. He is now a convicted felon awaiting sentencing.

The trials are like the sewer problems in the church I serve – unpleasant, unhealthy, and you have no choice but to deal with it. Do I really want to deal with the trial of a former president who is extremely divisive by nature and exhibits malignant narcissistic tendencies? Nope. Like sewage, I’d rather not touch it.

But like sewer seepage on the floor of the church basement, it has to be addressed.

Frankly I’m just saddened by the whole thing. I’m saddened that we have a former president who lacks character and exhibits malignant narcissistic traits and that there are lots of people who buy into it. I’m saddened to think about how society and individuals failed this man in so many ways that brought him to make the decisions he made without any remorse (and maybe not even understanding what remorse is). I’m saddened that we have a society that makes almost everything into a conflict of us and them almost immediately. I’m saddened in so many ways.

The reactions to the announcement of the convictions are predictable – calls for retribution and revenge, jailing opposing politicians, unfounded accusations of a rigged trial, etc. Others are cheering and gloating, reminding me of when Osama bin Laden was killed, and his body dumped in the ocean. I was saddened when I heard that news too.

It feels like we are in an unhealthy time in our country in so many ways. But I have to remind myself, is this really anything new? When have we been “healthy” as a nation? It is certainly new to have a former president on trial, especially in multiple locations for multiple possible crimes. But have we really been healthy all along? Was it healthy at the founding when the decision makers kicked the can down the road regarding slavery? It ended up being very costly in so many ways – we’re still paying the price for that. Was it healthy in the post-Civil War era? How about the Gilded Age? The early 20th century? WWI or II era? Post war America? Sure, we’ve had advances in technology. We’ve had a boost in the standard of living. We’ve made incredible advances in medicine. We’ve learned so much about the universe. And so much else that have been overall improvements. But there’s always been some level of unhealth. Violence, abuse, war, division, persecution of various groups of people, hatred, killings, and more have been a constant throughout our history. It seems that we have a difficult time in advancing the human capacity to relate to one another.

And so here we are – the conviction of a former president. He is finally being held accountable for something that he did, as proven in a court of law and judged by a jury of his peers. Yes, the ruling is evidence that no one is above the law. And yes, this is a sad day in America that we even had to prove that point in the first place.

Will we learn any lessons from this period of time? I don’t honestly put much faith in that in this current moment in history. Maybe in the long term though. Given that we are living in a period of upheaval in so many ways – politically, economically, health, trust in institutions, a changing world order, pandemic, etc. – what I observe more often than not is that people so crave a sense of certainty and control in their lives due to the chaos around them, that our capacity for openness to lessons is diminished right now. We are overwhelmed. We’ve been going through trauma and chaos and are not coping with them very well. The trials just add one more thing into the mix. All of this upheaval is hitting people’s sense of identity pretty hard.

And this isn’t new either. Too often we point to the chaos and upheaval of just the last decade. I think it goes back much further. I think an argument can be made that this has been going on since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s. As a nation, we knew what our identity was based on who we weren’t – The Soviet Union and communism. And when that external enemy disappeared, we were left asking ourselves the key question – who are we now? The problem with relying on answering that question based on who we aren’t, is that when you don’t have someone else to point to, you will do whatever you can to find an answer. And what happened to us is that we looked inward to find who we weren’t – those other people who are also citizens here in this country. We have been tearing ourselves apart for decades, seeing our fellow citizens as enemies and existential threats to the nation.

What the responses to the trials reveal is far more fascinating to me than that actual ruling of the trial, or any of the other trials for that matter. People reveal a whole lot about their core beliefs in how they respond to stressful events that they perceive impact their identity. The Trump trials (and everything else about him) certainly fit into that. I’m not talking about stated beliefs. Those usually end up being aspirations that are easily set side when inconvenient in the moment. I’m talking about the actual beliefs that guide how people live – you see the beliefs lived out, regardless of what is said. Those are on full display. They were on full display when the pandemic hit, and a variety of recommendations were put out. They are on display when it comes to debates at schools about curriculum and what books should be available. They are on display with how we treat enemies. They are on display with our relationship with money. They are on display with how we treat anyone who is different from ourselves in what we perceive to be significant ways.

In many ways, so much of this can be narrowed down to some variation of two core beliefs that cannot easily coexist – the ends justify the means vs. the means and the ends are equally important. The calls for revenge and retribution are really projections from people who don’t like the decision and have no factual basis to show how it was an unfair trial. These same people would have been cheering the result if it were different. All that mattered was the end to them. It’s about protecting their identity that they have shaped around a man who ironically doesn’t care one ounce about them. Narcissists never do. Other people are just objects to use to get their desired results. The ends justify the means is a costly belief system, grounded in narcissism, which is nothing more than the idolatry of self. It could be summed up with this statement – I am the norm by which everything else gets judged and I will use force to get my way.

Our faith isn’t in a politician, a political party, an ideology, or anything like that. Our systems are grounded (or are supposed to be grounded) in the idea of equal justice for all and trust – a variation of the means and the ends are equally important. Sometimes this actually plays out. And when it does, it keeps us going.

But it comes with a cost. It’s going to upset some people – sometimes a whole lot, to the point that they live into their core belief in the ends justify the means. We are in a time when these two ideas are on full display and in public conflict. Tensions are high. But we are worn out and exhausted and our brains are not functioning as they normally do due to the extended trauma we have all been experiencing.

I need to let all this sink in a bit more. There’s been a conviction! There’s been a conviction? There’s been a conviction… Now what? The sewage is on the floor of the nation and we have to deal with it. We didn’t ask for it. But ignoring it is not a solution. We have to deal with in order to go forward.

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