by the Revd Professor Robert Gilbert, Biochemistry Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford and Anglican parish priest
Does his faith help us to see why Joe Biden is the American President needed right now?
Political debate, and public discussion in the media, have never seemed so angry and divided as in recent years. Both in the United States and the United Kingdom there is a growing realisation that we are disunited. In other countries too, such as Poland, Hungary and Brazil, a politics of extremes has flourished.
One way in which the success of extreme political positions can be explained is as a response to the experiences of people “at the grass roots”. As a response to a profound sense of alienation and impotence, and of financial and social disadvantage, too. They feel that a radical, new direction is needed, and that they need to take back control.
And for sure, many people are justified in feeling powerless, and alienated from the centre where the power is; and many people do live in poverty and are forgotten about, with no route that they can see of making a greater contribution to the common life of their community and country.
But the anger and division voiced in politics and echoed by it in the media have not been simply a response to the voice of the people. I think the French-American literary anthropologist René Girard can help us understand something else that has been going on, and why Joe Biden might be the person well suited to help bring the hurt and fury to an end.
In Girard’s view, within human social groups, communities and societies, competition for limited resources and opportunities, and resentment at (perceived) relative success of others and unmet desire, find a let out in the spontaneous creation of “victims”, or perhaps put more biblically, “scapegoats”. Onto the scapegoats get loaded everything which seems to be making the community or society all wrong with itself. The scapegoats are innocent, but the community that has fastened their problems to them really believes they are guilty. If they do not believe this, then the scapegoating mechanism will not work. When the scapegoat is driven out, or killed, no sense of relief will come.
Girard then realised that the life and teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus provide a total critique of this scapegoating process. Jesus seems to be the one who is driven out by his society, and whose death can bring people together: “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). For Girard’s analysis, Jesus’s resurrection, the return of the scapegoat in forgiveness and love, reveals the reality of human violence and demonstrates the power of God to contain it, forgive it, and end it. In the words of the British theologian James Alison, following Girard, in this “God himself has given us the key to discover and inhabit with God the ordinary and good “secularity” of everything that is” (On Being Liked, DLT 2003, p60).
The former American President, Donald Trump, fuelled his rise to power on the sowing of division. He cynically preyed on the anxieties and resentment, on the sense of alienation and impotence, of the people in order to maximise their anger and the blame they ascribe to others. In order to identify for them individuals and groups that can be held to account, and punished or driven from power, to make for a better and greater America.
That this is so seems plain from the language of his 2016 campaign. That he continued to rule by creating and stoking a sense of division fuelled by the identification of scapegoats seems plain too. They include the residents of Muslim majority countries he banned from visiting the United States, the Mexicans he sought to exclude with a border wall, as well as his political opponents in a way which reached its inevitable violent conclusion on January 6th in the storming of the Capitol. The spate of executions which accompanied Mr Trump’s last days in office look, frankly, like a series of judicial sacrificial murders, offered to satisfy people on whose support he relies.
Mr Trump’s strategy seems to have been to define “his people” – the people who are with him and support him – by the common objects of their hatred. There is every sign that the new President Joe Biden understands this very well and sees it for what it is. And there is every sign that it is his Christian faith which enables him to do that.
Quoting Augustine in his Inaugural Address, President Biden showed that he plainly believes that a people need to be “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love”. He understands that the things that Mr Trump used as fuel to build anger and resentment are real and need solutions, but they are not new, and recognising that is an important step towards building back better beyond them. President Biden clearly named “the foes we face – anger, resentment and hatred,” to which he added some of their effects: “extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, and hopelessness”. But he also understands that their solutions start with recognising the good, ordinary secularity, the natural worldliness, of everything that is. In other words, that we are in this together, and we are good.
For Trump, a strategy of divide-and-rule was essential. For President Biden, this division must end. We can disagree, but “every disagreement does not have to be a cause for total war”. The new President’s Address makes clear that he sees growth in unity relying primarily on growth in equality – for a need for mutual recognition of equality between the politician and the people they serve, between the scientist or expert and the person they advise. A mutual recognition of goodness, frailty and value.
Joe Biden’s Christian ordinariness is what is needed now. It’s needed in the United States, and I would suggest something like this is sorely needed here in the United Kingdom too.