Tag Archives: antifragile

Why are the Post-Covid regimes so cruel?

A few leaders of my church were afraid this post tries say something to them without naming them.  Not so. The entry is directed at me as much as anyone; I lead things, too. My point is that all of us are tempted to be cruel in the post-Covid age of Trump and act the four ways I list. I need to watch it, and if you think you need to watch it, you are probably right. 

Some questions beg for an answer, even though the answer is not easy or even welcome. But I have been asking the title to this piece all week: Why are the Post-Covid regimes so cruel? Here is some of what I hear.

Donald Trump is one big reason everyone is more cruel. Trump may be forever pre-Covid – since he may think the virus is fake news, his recovery from it notwithstanding. But he has greatly influenced what is taking root in the world and may bloom. You run into his disciples all the time. They are cruel.

For instance, Trump’s response to the death of Colin Powell last week was very cruel. I was going to say “breathtakingly” cruel, but he, of all of today’s wicked actors, has done so much to normalize cruelty we all feel a new license to take someone out, to maliciously undermine someone, to build walls against enemies, and to make exclusionary laws. It is all normal. His wickedness no longer takes our breath away. You probably saw Trump’s response, since he is the king of “all publicity is good publicity” and he horned his way into the national honors afforded Powell. I don’t want to repeat it, but you can see it here. It was cruel.

Infamous border patrol picture

Trump is not alone. The country is filled with policies and practices that require people to be cruel. For instance, in a couple of weeks I will be at the southern border with MCC folks. I know I will meet people full of love there. But that love will be more evident because it contrasts with the visible and relentless cruelty of the government.

I am asking the question because of Donald Trump and the border. As a country we are attacked from within and hemmed in from without by a siege of cruelty that is affecting how we think and treat each other. Just witness the incredible popularity of Squid Game.

But more, I am asking the question that needs to be asked because I am seeing the cruel impact of new, post-Covid regimes, inside the church and out, which impact people I know and love: my clients, fellow church members and friends around the world.

Somehow the upheaval of Covid has loosened a new need among a new generation to reform (hopefully, but at least deconstruct) any culture or organization that does not meet a new set of standards. Their passion is often cruel in its application. In so many organizations I hear about, relationships are frayed, leaders are strangely authoritarian, and dialogue is unusually vicious. Here are four stories remembered during a sleepless night that illustrate some of the characteristics of the new cruelty.

Cut off, don’t reconcile

A pastor I know was trying to talk a church member into listening to the struggle of someone reeling from new, “progressive” language about race. She told her pastor, “The hell with’em. Let’m go.” Somehow the new regime has lost Howard Thurman’s way to love, like I said last week, and has decided to perfect the hate. It seems that even Christians, with their “ministry of reconciliation” have perfected the cut off.

Be secret, not transparent

I was in a small group and a pastor told us about the “parking lot meeting” his board had about him last week. In his polity, he is on the board. Outside the church, it is common for accusations to go to HR or to campus committees. The accusations may or may not be true, but sometimes before guilt is established, the accused is hounded out. The spirit of due process is going out of fashion. It is not unusual for someone to get an email notifying them in some oblique way about what happened to them behind closed doors.

Stay safe, not antifragile

In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind,  Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe how the new regimes of the new generation have expanded the idea of safety in ways that undermine community and cripple their own development.  They insist that we will be happier, healthier and stronger if we

  • Seek out challenges rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that “feels unsafe”
  • Free ourselves from cognitive distortion rather than always trusting our initial feelings
  • Take a generous view of others and look for nuance rather than assuming the worst about people with a simplistic us-versus-them morality.

An over-emphasis on safety makes us fragile and so in need of more safety. A realistic approach to resilience makes us antifragile, more adaptable, more immune to things that might truly harm us. A hallmark of the “be safe” mentality that took on steam in the 2010’s is a preoccupation with words that make people feel uncomfortable. The new regime protects abstract people from abstract issues, but doesn’t have enough relationship to achieve immunity from the everyday wounds of love. People end up needing to protect themselves from love.

Enact law, not grace

One of my pastor friends in the Jesus Collective ended up on the other side of a pandemic-long, zoom-based fine-tooth-combing of his church’s by-laws. That choice, in itself, is a bit breath-taking. During the hardest thing most of us have ever experienced, the leaders decided to take a hard, virus-ridden look at themselves! They re-oriented the church so much he was, effectively, eliminated and could only see a door out as the way ahead.

There is a new focus on law, and especially laws that protect identity. It is true that such protections are a must in our “slave economy,” as two of my Black clients called it last week. But it is not unusual for everything to be seen through a lens of identity and the power struggle to get a just piece of the American pie. If someone promotes the generosity of God, the rain and sun lavished on the good and bad, they might get called out as giving in to oppression. Jesus could end up looking like some sort of supremacist because he chooses to die for others while others have no choice but to die, and atonement sometimes becomes an endless repentance for collaborating with oppressive systems. One of my newest favorites, Karith Foster, suggests a better way to undo white supremacy with C.A.R.E.ing not coerceing.

Fra Angelico – Paradise

I blame Covid for much of the cruelty happening, right now. In 2023, when we have all had a year of face time, those of us who have begun again might come up with something as breathtakingly beautiful as Donald Trump is breathtakingly cruel. It is a common thought that the Bubonic Plague in Europe caused so many social, economic and religious changes it led to the emergence of the Renaissance, an amazing era for art, architecture, literature and invention. I’m holding out for that kind of movement and hoping the present regimes are precursors to it.

We are not there yet. And you may be suffering under a new regime flexing its muscles and imposing its ill-considered philosophy or theology. I wish I knew what to tell you to do. My own solution leans toward creatively suffering . I am curious about what is coming. I am going to give my gifts to build it. I want to be the presence of love in it. I am going to trust Jesus to be with us through what could be the worst and best of times.

My boat is so small — looking to be antifragile

The spiritual and philosophical seas are stormy. Will our small, fragile ship get broken apart in the waves? JFK kept a plaque on his desk in the Oval Office that read “Oh God thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”  This Old Breton prayer was given to new submarine captains by Admiral Rickover who gave the plaque to the President. JFK used it in his remarks at the dedication of the East Coast Memorial to the Missing at Sea, a few months before his death in 1963. I don’t have an oval office, but I also think the powers seem rather large this week and my boat is so small.

Stormy philosophical seas

President Obama gives a nice eulogy at the memorial at Mother Immanuel (and sings) but doesn’t mention the Lord of the departed. A Methodist pastor sets himself on fire for inclusion. The Dominican Republic disenfranchises Haitians. In Obergefell v. Hodges the Supreme Court redefines marriage for the law — the majority and dissenters sound miles apart. Stormy seas.

I don’t usually read Supreme Court arguments but the recent one about marriage is pretty interesting. We had our own dialogue last year and came up with a good conclusion that put together what the court split apart. A couple of quotes point out how stormy our political seas really are: The majority says that “new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution [of marriage]. Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.” This may seem obvious to us who do not trust the government to deal in truth, but it is a rather breathtaking assertion. The dissenters reply, “The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent. The majority expressly disclaims judicial ‘caution’ and omits even a pretense of humility, openly relying on its desire to remake society according to its own ‘new insight’ into the ‘nature of injustice.’”

Fragile psychological ships spring leaks in such seas

What would you say is the opposite of “fragile”?

If you immediately thought: “solid,” “robust,” or even “unbreakable” that seems about right.

But economist, philosopher and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a different response.  He says that which is “fragile” is “damaged by stress.” If you have an anxious attachment, for example, you might be more likely to spring a psychological leak under the pressure of criticism.  But if you navigate through stress with some confidence rather than being sunk by it, you can succeed in gaining an earned secure attachment. The opposite of fragile is not something that is invulnerable to stress but something that grows stronger under it or finds new ways through it.  Maybe the person who can grow under criticism becomes “antifragile.”


The church is remarkably antifragile

The first church, as we can see in Acts, was amazingly antifragile. Consider the stress it endured.  First, Jesus is betrayed by Judas and abandoned by his disciples.  He dies the ignominious death of a common criminal and is buried in a borrowed tomb.  At that point, the disciples and budding Church appear ready to collapse.  But the resurrection turns them around and at Pentecost the Spirit empowers them. However, it isn’t long before the Church once again appears fragile.  Peter and John, the church’s leaders, are arrested. Dishonesty breaks the communal sharing that had emerged. More arrests and threats happen. The Greek-speaking converts complain that they are being slighted by the Hebrew-speaking leaders. One of the first deacons, Stephen, is martyred. A Jewish leader name Saul breathes “threats and murder against them.” And that is only about a third of the way through the book!

Nassim Taleb

Despite all that stress the church didn’t just endure; it prospered.  That’s because it was, as Taleb would say, “antifragile.” The pressure on it served as a catalyst for spiritual and numerical growth.  That doesn’t mean that every follower of Christ or every congregation grew stronger because of the stress, but, somehow, the Church as a whole did.

Even though I know Acts rather well and know Circle of Hope very well, I often wake up and pray the Breton prayer. We feel fragile. Even though we have met our extravagant goals for nineteen years and are meeting  this year’s even-more-extravagant goals, I am still amazed that the waves of the huge forces stirring up the waters of the world don’t sink us. Right when I think we are going to break up, something amazing often happens to calm my fears. Last week it was Adam getting pulled from the river and many of us pulled into prayer and wonder as a result. Someone discovered the last vestiges of their Buddhism. A surprisingly positive response came from someone at the About Circle of Hope dinner. Jerome told his wild story about being led by God.

At the same time, it is also true that a person sent some hate mail (not kidding, it happens). And, of course, the culture in general is not too fond of the church in general these days. In reaction to constant boat-shaking and the challenges of sailing, some people have tried to make being a Christian more acceptable by embracing the latest standards and “insights” of the latest laws. This avoids stress by being little different than an attractive new pub — but a pub, however communal-like, is not the church. Others have taken another tack.  They withdraw (at least figuratively) into a “spiritual” enclave, avoiding stress by avoiding interaction that might create it.  While the first reaction might, for a while, appeal and the second, for a while, appear strong, they are ultimately fragile, susceptible to the whims of the culture in the first case and to any event or idea that might disrupt their unity in the second.

An antifragile church (and person), on the other hand, understands that pressures are necessary for growth.  Rather than hide from them, the antifragile church embraces them and, by God’s grace, becomes stronger in the process. We’ve done this and say we intend to do it, but how are you doing today? How are we doing? Do you have any examples of what makes us so antifragile? Or maybe you think I am being too optimistic about our ability to ride that next wave on the horizon.