12.26.17

Highlights and Lowlights from 2017

I don’t think I’ve ever successfully published a “top stories” review of a calendar year. I normally miss the window, too undecided or too disinterested to settle on a few stories. But I found myself in a Winston-Salem hotel lobby on Boxing Day with the family still snoozing in the hotel room. So I began working on this list, which is how I discovered the real reason I’ve never done this: it’s hard! Narrowing the list to ten in any year would be difficult; doing so during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency is almost impossible!

But with nothing else to do, here’s my subjective list of “top ten stories” for 2017.

President Donald J. Trump

No “top stories” post for 2017 could be written without reference to President Donald J. Trump. From the size of his inauguration parade in January to his claim to have restored “Merry Christmas” in December, President Trump has simply dominated the headlines—sometimes creating multiple major news stories in the same day! The President gave (gives!) the country a collective case of whiplash with erratic and constant tweeting. His cabinet and appointments—already under-filled—saw major changes and controversy as top-level officials tried to figure out how to work for him. Who can forget “the wall,” “the mother of all bombs,” “Scaramucci,” or “rocket boy”? For much of the year we’ve found ourselves not talking about the issues that confront us as much as the leader that confounds us. I suspect that gives the President as much joy as anything.

To Russia, with Love

The one consistent thing about President Trump is his resolve to never, under any circumstance, in any forum, say anything negative about Russia or Vladimir Putin. Though every national intelligence agency concludes Russia tampered with the 2016 election, President Trump refuses to admit it and reports indicate he flies into a tirade if Russia is mentioned in his presence. While intelligence officials truncate their briefings to the President, 2017 saw the President pass along intelligence secrets to Russian officials during a White House visit. Contrary to all reason and the counsel of his intelligence agencies, the President seems more dedicated to Russia than Barack is to Michelle or Jay-Z to Beyonce.

The Mueller Investigation

I was an X-Files fan. Big time. Nowadays I can’t hear the phrase “the Mueller investigation” without thinking of the dogged focus and downright bizarre nature of agent Fox Mulder’s hunt for extra-terrestrial life. The comparisons are legion. Whether Mulder or Mueller, both are FBI men. Both follow the evidence. Both face opposition determined to keep secrets or deny wrongdoing—Mulder from an FBI hierarchy and Mueller from the oval office. Both treat us to the bizarre.

But Mueller’s investigation is far more serious, already netting confessions, cooperation and indictments from top Trump campaign advisors and White House staff. Who knows what will finally be revealed at the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation. We might find evidence of Russian meddling, illegal and treasonous campaign activity, and perhaps alien aircraft in Area 51. Who knows? But Mr. Mueller’s investigation surely ranks among the top news stories of 2017 and its implications for American democracy cannot be over-stated.

Charlottesville

Certain entertainers reach a point where one name—Jordan, Beyonce, Denzel—conjures all their stardom and charisma. We now live in an era when some city names have similar power. “Ferguson” conjures the death of Mike Brown, community protest, police brutality, and the shooting death of unarmed African Americans.

2017 gave us “Charlottesville”—once mainly associated with the University of Virginia and the “good life” of small college towns. Now, however, Charlottesville pricks the American conscience with thoughts of neo-Nazis marching down those once-quiet streets. “Charlottesville” brings to mind a sin-sick young man twisted with hate plowing his car into peaceful protestors. Heather Heyer, 32, gave her life advocating for a world and community free of hate. Meanwhile, President Trump failed to unequivocally condemn the neo-Nazis or their ideology. With the likes of Steve Bannon in the White House at the time, neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology enjoyed a level of public visibility and acceptance not seen in decades.

The Further Collapse of the “Evangelical” Brand

We ended 2016 stunned that a reported 81 percent of self-described evangelicals voting in the presidential election cast the ballot in favor of Donald J. Trump. For months people debated the meaning of this figure and the meaning of “evangelical” itself. While the debates raged, self-professing evangelicals cozied with the president, remained stubborn in their support of him and his policies, and essentially flipped on the importance of personal morality to public office. The year ended with the country focused on the special Alabama senate race involving Judge Roy Moore, who found himself scandalized by reports of dating girls half his age when he was in his thirties. Evangelicals were expected to overwhelmingly support Moore.

Meanwhile, the year saw a deepening split inside evangelicalism along ethnic lines. Many African Americans expressed uneasiness inside predominantly white congregations and denominations with some choosing either to drop the label “evangelical” and others choosing to leave. To the extent the term continues to be identified with Trump-era GOP loyalty, most African Americans have abandoned it. Time will tell if distancing from the term will result in distancing from the movement itself.

Wonder Women, #MeToo and #ChurchToo

January 2017 began with the first ever Women’s March. Women (and men) took to the streets in cities around the country and the world to protest against the rise of misogynistic attitudes and in defense of women’s rights. The year continued with the first full-length action film featuring a woman protagonist and director, Wonder Woman. The march was a harbinger of things to follow as sexual assault scandals spanned the year, leading to the fall of prominent Hollywood producers (Harvey Weinstein), talk show hosts (Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose), hip moguls (Russel Simmons), and elected officials (Al Franken and John Conyers). Wonder Woman hinted at increased empowerment and voice for women. For the first time in modern history, women began to very publicly tell their stories of harassment, abuse and assault. And, it seemed, for the first time, many people believed the women.

Christian women joined the chorus of voices bringing attention to the problem. The #ChurchToo hashtag linked Christian conversations to the #MeToo movement. Both outside and inside the church, there’s a long way to go to make our society safe for girls and women, free from harassment, abuse and assault. But 2017 saw the conversation take a step forward and up. May the Lord grant grace for it to continue in good directions.

The Rise of “State Media”

“Commentary” long ago replaced journalism on most of our favored “news outlets.” The viewer can find programming on the left and the right and one or two stations pretending to moderate positions. Commericalism has cannibalized journalism, making news reporting a thing of the past by giving the consumer the sensationalism and tribalism he/she wants. Perhaps no outlet surpasses Fox News in tribal opinion in 2017. Some have come to regard Fox as essentially state media run by the President and his surrogates. It’s been frequently reported that the President watches Fox constantly and his tirades against “the media” and reporters are well-documented. Most Americans—having never seen anything like this—may be largely unaware that undermining a free press while establishing state media is straight from anti-democratic playbooks. The commitment of some Christians to Fox News and its worldview has also given rise to what some call “Fox Evangelicals.” A partial press is bad for church and state.

When Xenophobia Becomes Immigration Policy

It’s difficult narrowing down international news to one or two “top stories.” So, I’m cheating here. Rather than focus on an individual story or two, it seems to me the big story is the continued rise of nationalist politicians and rhetoric. By “nationalist,” I do not primarily mean the political philosophy that seeks to protect national sovereignty, but that racial variant of the philosophy that trades in bigotry, xenophobia, and fear. Sometimes the two intertwine and it’s difficult (though necessary) to distinguish between the philosophy and misanthrope. States have a right and responsibility to protect their borders and govern immigration.

But for the Christian, such governance must be carried out with the truth and the spirit of the scripture. Christians are sojourners in this world. God’s old covenant chosen people were slaves and were meant to remember their slave/sojourner status as they governed foreigners among them. The Christian virtue and discipline of hospitality literally means love of stranger, not fear. From the campaign promise to build a wall to the so-called “Muslim bans” to the threat to DACA, America seems to have forgotten Lady Liberty’s invitation: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But Christian people must not forget the Lord’s love for all the nations and must dig into the Bible afresh to craft a position less vulnerable to the philosophies of the world and more consistent with the word of the Lord.

Kaepernick, Jamele Hill, #TakeAKnee

Black folks love Colin Kaepernick. That’s because Kap loves black folks enough to not only protest police mistreatment of African Americans but to also invest considerable amounts of his personal wealth into the community. Kap gives back and the community sought to kneel with him when NFL owners and coaches seemed to “black ball” him. As teams took a pass on Kaepernick, many African-American fans took a pass on the NFL. The league’s brand and revenue took a hit.

Along the way, Twitter activists also took up the cause of ESPN analyst Jemele Hill. Hill came under fire from the White House when she tweeted that President Trump “is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists.” ESPN suspended Hill. Black Twitter came to her defense.

With Kap and Hill, we saw the influence social media still wields. However, that influence comes primarily in the form of social pressure rather than tangible results. For example, Kaepernack is still unemployed although a tremendous amount of awareness was generated.

Black Panther Movie

I know the movie is scheduled for release on February 16, 2018. However, Black folks still bereft of an Obama presidency looking to flee the realities of the Trump era look with great anticipation to the unveiling of Wakanda and the election of a superhero king. The trailers are dope and we already love Chadwick Bosemen, who in 2017 has already brought us a real-life hero in Marshall the movie. In a year that featured the unbelievable, I’m ready to believe in Wakanda!

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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