This coming Sunday evening, Patriot Prayer, a political group/movement, will hold a rally at a gun shop in Washougal, just down the road from Camas Friends Church, the Quaker meeting I pastor. They will also gather in my childhood hometown (Woodland) the day before. The rallies and rhetoric of Patriot Prayer frequently incite violence and facilitate speech and signage that is degrading to people of color and women, among others.
My enthusiasm for this rally is exceptionally low.
The leadership of Patriot Prayer (whose founder grew up in Camas and was also a recent Senate candidate) is carefully and conveniently ambiguous as to whether they sincerely promote violence or the goals of white nationalists. Patriot Prayer does enjoy provoking Antifa, an anti-fascist group that confronts hateful ideologies with direct action. Patriot prayer sees Antifa (and really anyone on the political left, as best as I can tell) as a threat to the so-called “American way” and seemingly understands itself as a necessary counterweight to “bring balance to the force.”
As a pastor in the vicinity of this rally, I feel nudged to express some of my concerns, in hopes that I can offer some clarity and possibly, redirection.
The expressed bedrock of the Patriot Prayer movement seems to be free speech and the non-interference of government, especially in regard to gun access and ownership. While free speech is a nice-sounding idea—one that folks from various locales on the political spectrum might support in the abstract—the zealous extolling of free speech is at risk of two moral dangers.
One, “free speech” can be given too much moral weight, overshadowing greater moral obligations than the right to promote one’s ideas with minimal legal constraints.
Two, “free speech” can be a facade used to make space for the emergence of ideologies that one does not want to be seen as promoting but that one does not necessarily oppose.
Patriot Prayer succumbs to both dangers and the outcome is…troubling.
It is a rather atomized and unrealistic view of personal responsibility that would suggest that the leaders of Patriot Prayer are not culpable for any violence or hate-speech taking place at or because of their rallies, either by those who identify with Patriot Prayer or the groups who associate with them. The apparent public distancing by Patriot Prayer’s leadership from these more violent and explicitly hate-filled manifestations of a similar kind of angst rings hollow, sounding more like a move of organizational self-preservation than a legitimate condemnation.
Let’s say I slam on the breaks in my car because I realize I am about to miss my exit. My inattention and subsequent reaction cause the driver behind me to, in a moment of quick, instinctive action, swerve to avoid me and in so doing slam into the side of another car already occupying the exit lane. No matter what fault I might find in the driver behind me, it would take a high degree of narcissism and self-deception for me to sincerely believe I had no responsibility for this accident.
While it is natural to assign blame and responsibility to individual persons, this is often a somewhat oversimplified move, a mental and/or legal convenience that may overlook the reality that humans are interconnected. We are webbed. We are co-responsible. We are adept at pretending we are not these things, shunning responsibility for others, forgetting who is harmed by a tax cut that benefits me personally, or by a bar of chocolate whose origin story is somewhat sinister, or by a convenient-for-me plastic container that may prove to be a part of a decidedly inconvenient-for-all problem.
“Free speech.” It sounds nice and noble. It has the word “free” in it, after all! I would guess you think freedom is a good thing and do not desire for yourself the opposites of freedom—bondage, enslavement, imprisonment, etc. I am for free speech. But I am for it because it is a generally helpful principle, not because it is a sacred rule.
And that’s the problem at work: when our ethics becomes a question of “what’s the rule?” or perhaps, more honestly, “what things that make me feel good am I technically allowed to do?” rather than an ethic that asks “What should I do? What ought I to do? What’s the truly good thing to do—good for me but also good for the whole?” A self-preserving, self-interested ethic is a shallow ethic whose barrenness we mask often by appealing to sacred documents (i.e., the Bible, the U.S. Constitution) to legitimize that which maintains our current, familiar way of life.
The constitution of the United States was written not by any of us but by some men of European descent 230 years ago, men to whose experience many of us today might not really relate but whose vision for our nation has the persistent power of historical momentum. Does this constitution suggest rights like “free speech” and “gun ownership”? Yes! These things are constitutional! But that doesn’t mean they are unfailingly good. You could speak freely or have easy access to guns. But should you?
As a follower of Christ, and particularly a Quaker, my morality is shaped not by a set of rules or entitlements. My morality is shaped by my experience of a God of Love who calls me to become ever more caring, compassionate, and cognizant of my responsibility for the well-being of others. The driving questions behind my ethics are questions like “what kind of person should I be becoming?” and “how can I participate in an affirming, uplifting, need-meeting way in the lives of others?” and “what does a world undergirded by Love look like and how do we grow into that world?”
In my ethics, God guides us away from the entitled attitude of toxic masculinity. God guides us away from speech that demeans persons based on nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, color, or religion. God guides us away from the culture of fear at which our guns may hint. A fear that transcends our wish to arm ourselves and extends to other domains of our common life, indicated, for example, by the paranoia and scapegoating that has led to a legitimate movement toward building not just a wall in our hearts but a literal, conspicuous structure, a national monument to our anxiety.
When “free speech” protects people and gives otherwise silenced individuals a voice, it is fabulous. When it becomes a license to bully, persecute, and dehumanize, I wonder if it has lost its way.
For all its claims to be about “spreading love,” the spirit of Patriot Prayer is quite antithetical to love, in my opinion. At least, antithetical to the kind of love that has been the focal point of my research.
And so I pray. For Patriot Prayer. For all of us.
I pray that we’d practice the discipline of self-limiting and be more compassionately discerning about when the exercise of our rights threatens the common good. And not the white man’s common good, but the good of all, including women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ folks, indigenous people, and children.
I pray that we’d “speak freely” not simply to assert our will or express our wishes but also as a way of courageously opening ourselves up to learning from the real, lived experiences of others who can, upon hearing us, help us grow into a more loving way of being in the world. That we’d especially listen to those we are hurting or have hurt. So that we might, possibly, stop hurting them.
I pray that Christians in the U.S. would more fully embrace the agenda of Jesus by bringing “good news to the poor” and proclaiming “release to the captives” and “recovery of sight to the blind” and letting “the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). By feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and caring for the sick, among other ways of prioritizing “the least of these”—those most vulnerable, forgotten, or harmed in our world (Matt 25:25, 45).
I pray that we’d recognize that while the middle ground can feel safe and even enlightened, as though we are above ideological squabbles, it is sometimes unkind to be neutral. I pray that we would recognize those instances when living “in the tension” is not appropriate and instead have the courage to choose, erring on the side of protecting others’ safety rather than protecting our self-interests. Even if choosing upsets someone. It will upset someone.
I pray that those members and affiliates of Patriot Prayer who feel oppressed or under attack—by their world, their government, the Left, their local newspaper, whomever—would find healthy ways to express their anger while also seeing the humanity of those oppressed by their movement, and that the seeing would break their hearts.
I pray for peace. But not “peace” in the sense of all sides and parties calling a truce, but a peace where those with a hateful message lay down their weapons. A peace where bodies are not harmed, spirits are not crushed, and identities are not disparaged. A peace where resources and privileges are not hoarded but shared. A peace that says “you are welcome here but your hatred is not, and so we will carefully and collaboratively work to draw that hatred out of you as poison is drawn from a wound.”
The peace of not being afraid.
The peace of letting go.