Thoughts on a Prayer Walk

One important part of the Writing Process is the “The heck with it! I’m taking a long walk!” phase. Some days your brain is in vapor lock and you cannot get motivated to write a word and your head is buzzing and everything is boring and bad and you find that you are just babbling run on sentences like this one that nobody would ever read.

So you go for a walk.

In my case, the excuse for the walk was a blood draw my doc needed. So I hitched a ride with Jan on her errands, got dropped three miles from home, gave the requisite life blood, and walked home.

I typically use such walks for reading/praying/thinking/all three. This particular day it was mostly prayer/thinking (though I do highly recommend Tom Holland’s IN THE SHADOW OF THE SWORD, his excellent survey of the sociological forces in play in the late Roman, Sassanid, and Persian Empires that led to the rise of Islam).

I’ve been struggling in my soul with the shocking selfishness and narcissism of so much of American conservative Christianity. There is a strong element of “Though everyone else deny you, I will never deny you!” in that subculture that, when put to even the most elementary test, has failed utterly.

Here are people who boast of their willingness to bear the cross, die for the gospel, die for their country, etc. For twenty years I believed them when they assured me that the damn libruls were Cafeteria Catholics[TM] who only took the bits and pieces of the gospel they happened to like and did not truly believe in Jesus.

Yet 15 years ago, in order to save their own skins, they led the charge in battling the obvious teaching of the Church in order to fight for the absolute idiocy of Bush’s torture regime. A few years later, they instantly went to war with the Pope after years of bragging about their super-duper fidelity to the Magisterium, because he challenged their commitment to Mammon and their use of the unborn as human shields for their selfishness and cruelty. They twisted themselves into pretzels to go on claiming the “prolife” mantle while defending crap like this:

trump disability GIF

And when asked to do something as pathetically easy as wear a stupid mask for ten minutes in Kwiki Mart or get a simple shot to protect their neighbor from a plague that will kill more Americans than the entire Civil War in half the time, they not only refuse but pose in the mirror and applaud their own heroism for spitefully spitting in the faces of decent people.

All of this has been, ‘ow you say?, a challenge to my ability to love. It is not a challenge to my faith in Jesus. He has, after all, surrounded himself with people who betray, deny, and desert him since the very start. Who else does he have to work with? And my failure–my inability–to love these people is its own form of desertion. I would love to be a disciple who can return blessing for curses and prayers for nasty people. But my real response has been, “What a bunch of vile narcissists!” It’s been all I can do not to just give in to hatred of them. Loving them is beyond me. I try to forgive and hand them over to God. But they are back again the next day, being horrible, and I just feel beaten down by it all.

So that’s a lot of what I talk about on my prayer walks. Just begging the Unjust Judge of the parable to do something about this embarrassing MAGA Catholic subculture or make me able to move past all this and do something useful instead of just perseverating about it.

Anyway, one of the things I realized as I was on the walk was that my anger about the sheer narcissism of this subculture, which constantly sees itself in the role of the persecuted victim martyr even as it spreads disease to its victims, made me wonder if somehow my need for the love of God was itself narcissistic. It’s easy for me to look at the sufferings in the world and think “Why do you think your stupid little problems matter? Think about somebody else!” and attribute that voice to God. I come from a background in which the notion that God should bother with any of us struck me for most of my formative years as identical with going on the dole. You did your job and kept your nose clean and didn’t expect a pat on the head or recognition for it and if you did you were a self-absorbed child. The only time you should expect to hear from Upstairs is if you screw up.

This resulted, unsurprisingly, in a fraught relationship with God since it was very hard to credit the idea that he loved me but very easy to credit the idea that I bring him nothing but frustration and displeasure.

None of this is God’s doing, of course. It’s just family dynamics playing out into my sixth decade.

Anyway, it occurred to me on my walk that needing the love of God is like needing food, not like being a glutton and there was no shame in it. The psalm for that day helped:

When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
    the moon and the stars which thou hast established;
what is man that thou art mindful of him,
    and the son of man that thou dost care for him?

Yet thou hast made him little less than God,
    and dost crown him with glory and honor.

I needn’t be ashamed of needing God’s love any more than I need be ashamed of needing to eat each day. The shame comes only in denying the hungry their portion.

And that brings me to the second thing I sort of dimly start to get–though I’m not sure I know what to do about it. Namely, it started to occur to me that so much MAGA cruelty comes out of fear. The selfishness: fear of losing What’s Mine. The racism: fear of losing power. The projective spite: fear that the ones they hate are like themselves. Indeed, an awful lot of of their repellent behavior seems to come out of a fear that the whole human race is as awful as they are. I even read a piece in Breitbart recently in which the author projected on to leftists a sinister plan to try to kill MAGA by urging them to be vaccinated, knowing that they would refuse out of sheer spite. It was deeply pathetic.

The recognition of the intense fear that motivates these horrible, nasty people does not, I’m afraid, imbue me with clarity about what to do in response to them. They remain, so many of them, appalling human beings. I know that anger only makes fearful people more fearful, but I don’t know what to do instead when they think, talk, and act like that Breitbart writer. I know that somewhere under the narcissistic gluttony for power is a legit hunger for some kind of healthy love. But I’m jiggered if I know how to provide it for them.

So I guess I’ll keep praying and trying to forgive till I get further light. I wish I were a better person.


18 Responses

  1. You are not the only one struggling to love these sad MAGA souls. Anthony De Mello: There are only two things, love and fear. And fear is the source of all evil.

  2. “Be ruthless with systems; be kind to people.”
    Michael Brooks – 1983–2020

    I think you would’ve liked him. While looking up that quote a short while back, I found this article reflecting on his passing at the time:
    “Left is best” by Adam Quaeck

    So my two younger siblings are refusing to take the vaccine. It would be easy if I could just write it off as them being MAGA-heads or conservative Christians, but they don’t fit into either of those categories.

    My brother’s girlfriend is a frontline worker nurse who has told him that the pandemic is being blown out of proportion, and my sister’s general skepticism and distrust of government has over time led her down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole.

    Yes, I’m quite frustrated with them, but I can’t hate them; not really. I reserve the bulk of my anger toward social media companies that put profits over people, by creating increasingly isolated and saturated online spaces, rife with misinformation. I also direct some of that anger towards an economic system that heavily incentivizes them to act that way in the first place.

    I guess what I’m saying is that you shouldn’t forget that at the end of the say, these are your brothers and sisters we’re talking about. And while yes, they are ultimately responsible for their own actions, they didn’t get that way on their own. A lot of this is just the logical results of the incentive structures we all live under.

    You know, just keep things in perspective; if statements by the current and previous Pontiffs are any indication, I’d say that’s a very Catholic thing to do.

  3. So much to say about this. I voted for Trump twice, while holding my nose, never fully bought into the messianic hopes, but do have a number of friends in this camp.

    I’d say you’re on the mark about fear undergirding a lot of this. Fear of the other, fear of difference, fear of change, etc. There are forces on both sides which serve to encourage and reinforce these fears. For instance, breathless news stories about “the illegals” coming into the country bringing COVID with them (interesting how it is downplayed as being the equivalent of the flu… until it is politically useful to acknowledge it).

    I think another fear at work is the fear that maybe God doesn’t love us, and maybe won’t provide for us.

    A book recommendation on this topic: “Into Your Hands, Father: Abandoning Ourselves to the God Who Loves Us”, by Fr Wilfrid Stinissen. A really awesome book, about a hundred pages. I bought another copy after giving mine away. I need to read it again.

  4. Mark,

    I mentioned that to help describe where I’m coming from. I have serious concerns about both party platforms, frankly. I voted for him due to the promise of being “pro life” which apparently doesn’t include the death penalty, and may well just be a political strategy to win votes, as you and others have argued.

    I appreciate you calling out the GOP and maga types on your blog, because it helps me to see their problems, some of which I too suffer from. Are there any problems with the Democrat platform?

    It all looks a bit more grey to me now, sort of like Hudge and Gudge. .. maybe they’re all on the same team, polarizing us into imaginary camps and distracting us from the work on front of us.

    1. It doesn’t include the unborn either, except to use them as human shields. If you had paid attention, you would know that. Abortion rates spiked under Trump.

      Of *course* there are problems with the Democrats. Anybody can see that. But the attempt to posit a moral equivalence between them and the MAGA cult, much less the preposterous notion that, on the whole, the GOP is the morally superior party is gobsmacking to me. The work in front of us is care for the least of these. By any conceivable measure–including abortion rates–the Dems do that. The GOP is at open and naked war with the least of these. Wake up!

    1. @ mike

      There is a heritage foundation report that says exactly that. Im sure if they could have equivocated on it, they would have,

    2. If you think voting for Trump mattered Because Abortion even though abortion rates rose, but deny that Dem policies had anything to do with lowering abortion rates, you only demonstrate again the incoherence of your thinking. The residual belief of conservative Christians that the GOP is “prolife” even as their sadism drives up abortion rates, coupled with the conviction that Dem “promote abortion” while driving those rates down–coupled with the nonsense that their policies have no effect on abortion rates–only shows again the power of tribalism over fact.

  5. The Snopes article was published in 2016 and cites data that ends in 2012. More recent data is linked below. It shows a steady decline throughout the Obama presidency, followed by a small rise under Trump in 2018, the last year of the data set. So Mark is largely correct in his claim about abortion, though he probably should stop saying abortion “spiked” under Trump, because the increase is small in 2018 and we don’t have data after that.,_1970-2018,_CDC.png

    – joel

  6. I have struggled unsuccessfully to understand the MAGA movement myself. But I did find George Marsden’s book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and The Crisis of Liberal Belief (ISBN-13: 978-0465030101) useful in mapping the political forces currently shaping American politics. It is worth a read.

    1. David Brooks wrote a nice article for The Atlantic recently: How the Bobos broke America.

      My takeaways:
      1. Most of the economic activity in the US is in blue counties. To the tune of 70% to 30% or thereabouts.
      2. There is a lot of RESENTMENT from people in red counties, or their sympathizers.
      3. Resentment is driven by economics, sure, but also snobbery (in my view either perceived or actual) from the more academic, intellectual classes. We are in the Information Revolution after all, so academic achievement, and the careers that flow from it, especially technology, finance, and management, are lucrative and at a premium.
      4. To close the resentment gap: value and compensate people for things other than academic achievement: kindness, trustworthiness, honesty.

      That MAGA is driven by resentment makes MAGA a non-starter for me. Envy is a deadly sin, and I want no part of it.

      That being said, I am up for fighting sin, by pointing it out, sure as Mark does, but I am also up to listening to, working with, and living at peace with people of a wide range of political persuasions who can demonstrate kindness, trustworthiness, honesty.

      1. Wait. This is your reply to my book suggestion which only obliquely addresses the central question by adding additional context? Why?

      2. I believe I was reacting to your first sentence: “I have struggled unsuccessfully to understand the MAGA movement myself.” And it reminded me of the Brooks article, so I just wanted to share. Just chipping in to the discussion.

        I will have to check out the books you recommend.

  7. Mark, I think you lost a lot of people in your life when you drew that line in the sand about Trump. That hurts. I used to feel a bit hurt when perfect strangers online would tell me that I wasn’t a good Catholic, but I didn’t know them. You sat down with them at table. They were a major part of your life and work. They must have turned their backs on you by the dozens!

    When some of my family members treated me with disrespect I realized that they were *always* that way, and it didn’t take a Trump to make them jerks–the wheel was already well oiled. I’m not really mad–it’s more like I feel horror on their behalf. Who wants to have some jerk-like qualities all the way to the last gasp?

    Last Sunday’s story of Bartimaeus: “Lord that I might see!” always reminds me about the inevitable blind spots in my own life. I hope they can be fixed before I croak.

    Which begs the question, does my glee at making fun of Ted Cruz’s punchable face or Raymond Arroyo, or Rick Santorum or Cardinal Burke’s lace train, or Melania’s squinty cynical glare –make me a tiny bit of a jerk ? Sigh.

    Anyway, I think you are right about money and racial superiority complexes. 99% of the problem.

  8. Just clarifying a few points:

    I didn’t realize that article is so dated, thanks for pointing that out. Abortion rates are largely driven by state level policy, according to that article, thus it’s not really tied to the presidency. Just asking Mark to understand it’s not the knockout punch he takes it to be.

    Years ago, I bought into the argument that abortion is worse than other life issues, because of scale, sheer numbers. However, as Mark has pointed out in the past, the GOP court gave us Roe and Casey. That’s hard to argue.

    I’m not trying to argue that Democrat policies are all bad, nor am I claiming that GOP policies have been all good, nor that I believe GOP is morally superior. It’s definitely possible that Dem policies have reduced abortions. No idea. I don’t fully buy that Dems always support the least of these, witness the Haitians at the border incident under Biden. Trump no doubt would’ve done similar, however.

    As I said earlier, I appreciate your pointing out GOP shortcomings, it helps me to see things more clearly. I don’t think you need to engage in such hyperbole when doing it, but maybe it’s therapeutic for you. I’m sure it would turn off many folks from my camp: easy to toss you in the librul bin and disregard.

    Thinking about this also has helped me to understand that my decision to disengage from daily consumption of national politics has been a good one: I don’t have time for it, and it’s not as clearcut as the powers would have us believe. It does feel like we’re “doing something”, doesn’t it?

    Thanks for listening.

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