Informal Musings
Over Coffee

James Rissler

James has served as pastor to Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship since October of 2006 and was ordained in May of 2010. In what seems like a prior life, he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from the University of Notre Dame. So he can be called Rev. Dr. James Rissler, but that sounds ostentatious. The only people who call him that are public officials responding to letters advocating for greater justice for all, which he signs with those titles, hoping they’ll be impressed :-) James is married to Christina, and they have two boys, Andrew and Peter.

James emphasizes the love of God and the importance of loving relationships with God and with all persons. He believes that relationships take precedence over doctrine, and that, almost always, people can find common ground that is wider and deeper than our theological differences. His enduring optimism is grounded in God's creation of us in God's image, a creation that God called very good.

Donald Trump and Speaking the Truth in Love

“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Ephesians 4:15

I’m a bit of a political junkie. I’m sure I’m not as bad as some, but I confess that I spend more time than is probably healthy (especially in this election season) watching or listening to or reading about politics. I read the Washington Post each morning on my Kindle Fire. I listen to CNN on satellite radio as I drive. I turn on CNN as I make dinner. I watch the Sunday morning news shows when I can. Christina doesn’t understand why I watch pundits “yelling at each other” and I’m not sure that I do either. But I do.

False Claims, Sarcasm, or Brilliant Hyperbole?

Last week, I was listening to CNN talk about Donald Trump’s claim that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were the “founders of ISIS.” And for just a moment, I wondered if Trump was being particularly clever. Because as I listened to multiple anchors talk with multiple panels of pundits, I noticed a recurring pattern to the conversations. The anchor would ask how Trump could possibly mean that Obama and Clinton had founded ISIS. The Trump supporter would respond to that particular claim in a variety of ways, but would always include that it was clear that by withdrawing troops from Iraq, Obama and Clinton had created the conditions in which ISIS thrived. And then the anchor would readily grant that Obama and Clinton had significantly contributed to the emergence and strengthening of ISIS, but press the question of how Trump could seem to be saying that they had literally founded ISIS.

After 36 hours, Trump agreed he had been using sarcasm, and pundits continued to talk about why he hadn’t said so 24 hours before that. But I found myself wondering whether Trump was being clever in his use of hyperbole. Had he succeeded with his imprecise over-the-top claim that Obama and Clinton had founded ISIS in getting lots of us to grant the underlying claim that they had at the very least caused ISIS to be much more threatening now than they were six or eight years ago? And if so, was a similar dynamic playing out in other hyperbolic claims he has made that were literally false but suggestive of claims that might be true?

And then I decided not to be worried. Because deep down, I believe that we frail human creatures are created by God for love and relationship. And so I’m going to continue to be my optimistic self, continue to trust that we humans are slowly making progress in the arc of history toward justice, and that Trump is not going to win this election.

What We Say vs. How We Say It

I’ve noticed many times that my presence with people who are mourning or struggling or celebrating is much more important than what I say. Most people want to know that you care before they want you to help solve their problems. Trump may be onto something in realizing that how we say things is often more important than what exactly we say. But ultimately, I trust that using that recognition to play on fear, rather than to encourage love, will fail. In words that you can find on lots of Hillary Clinton campaign paraphernalia, “Love Trumps Hate.”

Earlier this spring, Hillary started talking about “love and kindness” on the campaign trail. My ears perked up. Would she call us to our better natures, our best selves? Would she campaign publicly on the theme she has said encapsulates her aspirations as a person and politician? (Buzzfeed 1/25/16) Sadly, I haven’t heard as much of this lately. Love is still there in “Love Trumps Hate,” but it’s there to score political points in contrast to Trump. The central message has become not love, but rather, not Trump.

How are we, as Christians, called to engage this election? I pastor a progressive Mennonite congregation. If I had to guess, I would guess that most AMF folks will vote for Hillary, a few might not vote, a couple may vote for Jill Stein, but no one will vote for Trump. When my congregants talk about Trump, I sometimes think I hear confusion and fear as people wonder how anyone could vote for him. I sometimes think I hear disdain, even loathing. And I wonder if we fail to grow into Christ when we allow ourselves to feel that way.

Ephesians 4:15 has been important to me as I have pastored. “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” The truth is important. As a pastor, I sometimes feel called to gently confront people with truths that I might otherwise be tempted not to name, to have uncomfortable conversations in the service of deeper relationships with God and with each other. Whether the person with whom I am talking can recognize my love for them in those conversations makes a big difference to whether and how the truths I share are heard.

Worthwhile Work for All?

The truth is important. I want to be clear that I believe that Trump would be unpredictably dangerous as our president. Too many of the things he says are false and hateful. But if that’s all we can see, if we reduce Trump to a red face spewing invective under a mane of combover hair, how much better are we doing? Are we falsely caricaturing a person, and are our thoughts directed toward him any less dismissive or hateful than those for which we condemn him?

It is also true by many accounts that Trump is fiercely loyal, that he cares about success without concern for the gender of those who contribute to it, that he declaims against intolerance directed toward LGBTQ persons. I had to work a bit to think of what I might say about Trump that is positive, but isn’t that work, for all persons, worthwhile?

My optimism doesn’t extend to thinking that our political discourse in the next twelve weeks will be particularly edifying. Its concern for truth, much less love, may often be tenuous. But I believe that we as Christians are called to do better. I believe that we are called not only to speak the truth, but to always do so in a way that lovingly engages those to whom and about whom we speak it. We are called to care whether the truth we speak can be heard, and so to look and listen for the shared human goodness with which we are all created, the common ground that allow us to recognize and hear one another.

In this election season, let us remember that our ultimate allegiance is to Christ, who is our head. Let us grow into Christ by speaking the truth in love. Let us inject more love and kindness into our discourse, political and otherwise.


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