Back in the 80s my go to source for all things left was In These Times, which Wikipedia describes as “an American politically progressive/democratic socialist monthly magazine of news and opinion.” I really hadn’t thought much about it recently (like the last 25 years or so), but my appreciation for it has been renewed by Timothy Snyder’s article, “20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America.”
Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, originally published his 20 Lessons on his Facebook page. It’s proved to be so popular that In These Times republished it. And I’m glad they did. Snyder begins with these words:
Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are 20 lessons from across the fearful 20th century, adapted to the circumstances of today.
And while these 20 lessons are written from a secular perspective, I think that many (most?) of them speak directly to people of progressive faith. Here’s a quick rundown:
- Do not obey in advance.
- Defend an institution.
- Recall professional ethics.
- When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words.
- Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
- Be kind to our language.
- Stand out.
- Believe in truth.
- Practice corporeal politics.
- Make eye contact and small talk.
- Take responsibility for the face of the world.
- Hinder the one-party state.
- Give regularly to good causes, if you can.
- Establish a private life.
- Learn from others in other countries.
- Watch out for the paramilitaries.
- Be reflective if you must be armed.
- Be as courageous as you can.
- Be a patriot.
Let me first point out that much of what Snyder says here reminds me of the work of James Luther Adams, arguably the most important Unitarian Universalist theologian of the 20th century. Take a look at Snyder’s lessons, then check out Chris Walton’s excellent review of Kim Beach’s Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams.
So let’s take a look at the lessons I think most directly speak to religious progressives.
Defend an Institution. Snyder pulls no punches when he says, “Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.” Now is the time for us to defend the institutions of liberal religion. Go to church. Increase your pledge. Tell your friends. If we don’t do it now, our beloved tradition may not be there when the world needs it most. (See my first post in this series for what religious institutions can offer to be worthy of supporting.)
Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Think equanimity here, “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” People of faith need to be the least anxious presence in society when terror strikes.
Be kind to our language. Snyder says, “Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying.” This is even more true with the language of faith. Use it thoughtfully, authentically, compassionately. (See the second post in this series for some examples.)
Stand out. “Someone has to,” says Snyder. Our friends, neighbors, fellow citizens need to see and hear people of progressive faith answering the call of love.
Believe in truth. And help others believe. It’s the free and responsible thing to do.
Practice corporeal politics. “Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.” Again, it’s what we do. Show up!
Make eye contact and small talk. “It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust.” It’s also how people know they can trust you. And there are a lot of anxious people out there wondering who they can trust.
Take responsibility for the face of the world. The signs of hate are already appearing (see White Nationalist posters appear at Purdue). “Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.” And replace them with signs of love. (Here’s another one: www.hnpca.org.)
Give regularly to good causes, if you can. This is in addition to supporting your congregation and denomination. “Pick a charity and set up autopay,” says Snyder. I say volunteer your time, too, especially in those unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Don’t forget the eye contact and small talk!
Be as courageous as you can. It takes courage to give courage. Bravery is contagious. I love the language the UUA is using to describe us these days: “We are brave, curious and compassionate thinkers and doers.” Emphasis on brave.
Snyder also encourages us to “Establish a private life.” He’s talking mainly about privacy here. “Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.” I would also suggest we double/triple/quadruple down on our interior lives.
Cherish your interior life, is how I’d put it. Make regular spiritual practice part of your daily life. I love John Ortberg’s definition of spiritual discipline: “A spiritual discipline is simply an activity you engage in to be made more fully alive by the Spirit of life.” It reminds me to take Howard Thurman seriously: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Next up, Care-frontational Conversations.