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‘We have trouble just knowing how to think about ISIS, let alone finding where to look for answers” is how a friend expressed a commonly-felt dilemma in a recent conversation. Without missing a beat she added, “And while I’m at it — there’s this Donald Trump as a possible presidential contender.” 

Before I could say anything she went on to suggest, “Why don’t you write something?”

I took her invitation not as a compliment but as a dare, offered more in desperation than in confidence that I — or anybody — could write definitively on two hot topics, both of them as daunting as they are confounding.

There is one thing I am game to try, however, not as solver of ISIS and Trump problems but as one with something to say about how to think about these matters, which all of us need to think about.

First, the Trump business:

What I offer here grew out of a pastoral visit to a man very much down on his luck, a white, middle-age, middle-class, out-of-work, angry, frustrated, suicidal man who responded to my pastoral words with, “There’s only one guy out there who can talk to me about the fix I’m in and it’s not you, Pastor Lueking; it’s Donald Trump.”

That all but ended that pastoral conversation until the next time, but it did provide a way to think about a larger group of white, middle-class, angry, frustrated, hemmed-in Americans who are experiencing something new. It’s what journalists Fareed Zakaria, E.J. Dionne, and others describe as a great power shift occurring in America. To get a glimpse of it, look carefully at the media pictures of Trump supporters. They are uniformly white and though they might look ecstatic with The Donald, there’s a seething undertow of anger, anxiety, and bewilderment underneath. 

The death rate in this embattled group has spiked due to suicide, alcoholism, and overdosing on prescription and illegal drugs. They are fellow Americans suffering from failed expectations. Unlike black Americans, this group has no history of slavery and segregation to steel them for coping with their plight in the shift of power. They’re unlike Hispanic fellow Americans who also have learned to navigate the rancid waters of racism. 

In large numbers, working-class, blue-collar whites, haven’t yet learned to see themselves as no longer secure in their once-secure identity as the backbone that built America. The reasons why are complex — but not to Trump whose bombast oversimplifies harsh realities with narcissism on steroids. He will fade but the conditions he’s exploiting won’t.

I saw hints of this deeper problem in the disillusioned man I’ve described. He provides a way of thinking about why Trump’s so slick in manipulating the Republicans. It’s more than one political party that needs to pay attention here. Every American must. 

And I need to understand what’s underneath one man’s simmering rage as I stay with him in doing what I’m called to do.

About ISIS and how to think about it:

Along with many others, I too try to keep up with the consequences of our nation’s invasion of Iraq after 9/11, the military adventurism in Afghanistan, the massive flight of refugees from Syrian civil war, the opaque doings of Iran’s leaders, and other factors that have combined to arouse the militant segment of Islam we’ve come to know as ISIS with its unspeakable atrocities.

What all this has spawned closer home is a creeping Islamophobia, felt by so many Muslim Americans. To be sure, ISIS is undoubtedly busy instigating terrorist cells within our own land as well as spreading mayhem abroad. I’m thinking, however, of Muslim neighbors down the street or in the workplace who abhor ISIS no less than the rest of us do but must bear its stigma more directly.

Here’s a clue as to how to think and what to do. It comes from a surprising conversation in a nearby hospital shortly before Christmas.

One of our parishioners, a neurosurgeon, was scrubbing up with another neurosurgeon, a Muslim from Cairo, for an operation to remove a brain tumor. Interestingly enough, their conversation subject was the story found both in the Bible (Genesis 21-25) and in the Qur’an that tells of the half-brothers, Isaac and Ishmael, both sons of Abraham, Ishmael via Hagar, Isaac via Sarah. 

The two doctors were well enough versed in their respective sacred texts to recognize the implications of that great story for deepened Christian/Muslim/Jewish relationships today. Through Isaac, the covenantal promise God gave Abraham is carried forward, as Christians believe, to Jesus the Messiah. Jews honor it as perpetually foundational for Judaism. Through Ishmael, a central figure in Islam, which came 24 centuries later, God also promised a future as the father of many nations. 

The truth the scrubbed-up surgeons hit upon is this: God chose Isaac but did not reject Ishmael. Both the Bible and the Qur’an affirm this paradox that does not make Christianity, Judaism, and Islam identical but elevates the relationship of Christians, Jews, and Muslims to new levels of mutual reverence and respect. 

In that spirit, the Muslim and Christian partner neurosurgeons concluded their impromptu Isaac-Ishmael conversation with a beautiful statement: “This makes us cousins, doesn’t it?” One said it with tears in his eyes as a sign of what it meant to him as an American who is Muslim.

Ultimately, ISIS will become a bad memory. Meanwhile, it is for us to discover, cherish and apply the deep mysteries of God in the everyday places where Christians, Muslims, and Jews live and work. 

Much is promised when we do. 

Much is at stake when we don’t. 

Rev. F. Dean Lueking is pastor emeritus of Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest.

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