Rock Bottom has a Basement

by Michael Usey; Psalm 69, NRSV

[Portions of this sermon were adapted from an article by Daniel Hunter, “10 Things You Need to Know to Stop a Coup.”]

I want to talk with you about a key moral issue in our country: the possibility of a presidential coup d’etat this fall. We have a Beloved Leader who has openly and repeatedly said this week he might not respect the outcome of our election. (In fact I wish reporters would stop asking him if he’s going to accept the election results. It’s like asking a seven-year-old, “Are you going to sleep now, or are you going to stay up all night?” The questions suggests to him that he has options that he shouldn’t really have.) 

As Christians, we should be ready if he claims victory before votes are counted, or tries to stop counting, or refuses to accept a loss.  Some days I’m confident it will happen. A poll showed over 75% of Democrats think this is possible — and even 30% of Republicans do too. Other days I hope his words are just tough inane talk from a president terrible at planning ahead and one who admires dictators. Still, he is good at the kind of misdirection that can keep us complacent and reactionary — which could lead us to stop doing the crucial groundwork of getting out the vote, protecting the post office, and fighting voter suppression.

I know that what I’m talking about is a political issue as well, but most of the issues confronting us as citizens now are first and foremost moral issues, such as the lack of justice for Breonna Taylor’s murder, the forced sterilizations of immigrant women, the ongoing horror of children and families in cages, the plans for a Supreme Court replacement who opposes LGBTQ and women’s rights and protections, and an out-of-control virus killing thousands of Americans with little national leadership.  Please don’t write to excoriate me for beginning this conversation: we have just 35 days until the election, and as a good Scout, I want us to be somewhat prepared.  You can totally disagree with me–we are all for the most part baptist Christians with authority issues, so I support your right to believe and think what you will, as I’m quite sure you already do.  But I’m trying to help us feel empowered because right now, our future looks bleak.  Sometimes at night I feel like I cannot breathe.

I doubt that we’ll have election results on Nov 4th morning. Election 2020 is shaping up to be most unusual. Mail-in ballots may not be counted until days or weeks after Election Day. Since Democrats are expected to use them more frequently than Republicans, voter tallies are expected to swing towards Democrats post-election night. As a result, a wave of confusion may unfold starting election night. The strange Electoral College creates multiple intervention points. After election night, trumped up claims of fraudulent ballots may cause a wayward attorney general or other government officials to try halting counts or excluding ballots.  

On Dec. 14, the delegates of the Electoral College meet and vote for the state’s outcome. This is typically done without fanfare, but in contested states we might see governors and state legislatures sending in different results — one state reflecting the results from voters, another state claiming “it’s a fraud” and “we know best.” This is worrying in swing states like Pennsylvania, where the governor and state legislature are of different parties. All these issues then get resolved on Jan. 6 by the new Congress. And if the House and Senate don’t agree about the result, then a convoluted process unfolds where the newly seated House — via one state, one-vote — determines the president. Meanwhile, the Senate (by majority) votes for the new vice president. 

During this time we can expect false flags and outlandish claims. Let’s be cautious with news. Don’t simply pass on whatever seems like dramatic examples of wrongdoing — but take the time to check if claims have been verified, already debunked, or from a source you don’t trust. Encourage people in our city to prepare for some uncertain weeks. As election results start coming in, our message needs to come through loud and clear: Count all the votes and honor the result.

And please be plainspoken: let’s call a coup a coup. One reason to use the language of a coup is that people know it’s wrong and a violation of democratic norms — even if they’re not familiar with the exact definition of a coup. Language like “election tampering” or “voter suppression” signal deterioration of the democratic process. But if we get ourselves into a coup situation, we need to help people help our country move into a psychic break.We know it’s a coup if the government:

  • Stops counting votes;
  • Declares someone a winner who didn’t get the most votes; or
  • Allows someone to stay in power who didn’t win the election.

These are sensible red lines that people can grasp right away (and which the majority of Americans continue to believe in). People who do power grabs always claim they’re doing it to save democracy or claim they know the “real” election results. So this doesn’t have to look like a military coup with tanks rolling in or one leader ordering the opposition to be arrested.  If any of those three principles are violated, we have to declare loudly and strongly: This is a coup.

Furthermore, remember that coups have been stopped by regular folks.  Coup attempts have happened all over the world, and over half have failed. This is because coups are hard to orchestrate. They are a violation of norms that require quick seizure of multiple levels of institutions with a claim that they are the rightful heir.  Coups tend to fail when government institutions (like elections) are trusted, when there is an active citizenry, and when other nations are ready to become involved.

The role of citizenry is crucial. That’s because during the period right after a coup attempt— when the new government is claiming it is the “real” government — all the institutions have to decide who to listen to. A failed coup in Germany 1920 provides an example. The population felt beaten down by World War I and high unemployment. Right-wing nationalists organized a coup with the help of a few generals to seize government buildings. The deposed government fled, but ordered all citizens to obey them. “No enterprise must work as long as the military dictatorship reigns,” they declared. Widespread nonviolent resistance quickly began. Printers refused to print the new government’s newspapers. Civil servants refused to carry out any orders from the coup. And leaflets calling for an end to the coup were spread by airplane and by hand.

There’s a story of the German coup leader wandering up and down the corridors looking in vain for a secretary to type up his proclamations. The acts of resistance grew and eventually the democratic government (which still had grave problems) was returned to power. The time after a coup are moments for heroism among the general population. It’s how we make democracy real.

Another way to be prepared: Be ready to act quickly — and not alone. Typically power grabs are organized in secret and launched suddenly. (This is the reason why I’m talking to you today about it.)  Most campaigns that defeat coups do so in days: The Soviet Union in 1991 took three days, France in 1961 took four days and Bolivia in 1978 took 16 days. It’s ultra-rare for any country’s leader to publicly admit they might not respect the results of an election, as our Beloved Leader has done. There’s some good news in that — because people who stop coups rarely have the chance to get training, warning or preparation. In that way, we’re already ahead of the game.

A group of D.C. insiders called the Transition Integrity Project ran multiple simulations, as what might happen if Biden wins by a slim margin, or if the Beloved Leader simply declares victory when there’s no clear winner. In every simulation they concluded that a “show of numbers in the streets may be decisive.” Regular people make the difference. To start preparing, I suggest talking to five people who would go into the streets with you — the safest way to take to the streets is with people you know and trust. Talk to people you know in civil service in various roles and about how they could non-comply with coup attempts. Use this time to get yourself ready to act.

So we can focus on widely shared democratic values, not on individuals. In Argentina in 1987, a coup got started when an Air Force major, resenting attempts to democratize the military and bring it under civilian control, organized hundreds of soldiers at his base. While the civilian government tried to quietly negotiate a settlement, people took to the streets. Against the government’s pleading, 500 regular citizens marched to the base with the slogan “Long live democracy! Argentina! Argentina!” They could have spent time attacking the major. Instead, they were appealing to their fellow citizens to choose democracy. 

The Argentine major tried to keep them away with a tank, but the protesters entered the base anyway, and he knew that open firing on nonviolent civilians would cause him to lose more credibility. Soon 400,000 people took to the streets in Buenos Aires to rally in opposition to the coup.This gave strength to the civilian government (which had largely been absent). Civic organizations, the Catholic church, business groups, and labor unions united under a pledge to “support in all ways possible the constitution, the normal development of the institutions of government and democracy as the only viable way of life.” The coup plotters lost their legitimacy and soon surrendered. This approach is different than protesters going in the street with a list of issues or a grievance against a vilified leader. Instead, it’s exalting widely-shared core democratic values. We can use the language of “choosing democracy.”

If a coup starts, it’s our moment to convince people not to freeze or not just to go along. Imagine that at your job a corrupt boss gets fired and a new one is brought in. Instead of leaving, your old boss says, “I’m still in charge. Do what I say.” A bunch of your co-workers say, “We only take orders from the old boss.” At that point, doubt arises. That doubt is how coups succeed. Enough people freeze. Even when only a few people go along with the coup and act as though that’s normal, people may reluctantly accept it as inevitable.  In all the research on preventing coups, there’s one common theme: People stop doing what the coup plotters tell them to do.

In Germany, from military commanders to secretaries, they refused to obey the orders of the coup. In Mali they called a nationwide strike. In Sudan, protesters shut down government-supported radio stations and occupied airport runways. In Venezuela all shops closed.

This is different from mass marches at the capital or street protests shutting down intersections. It’s not about protest but about getting people to reassert core values like showing up at elected officials’ offices to get them to agree to honor election results. And it’s not about single points of actions like marches in D.C. — but instead actions like mass strikes from youth and students refusing to go to work or school until all votes are counted.  Coups are not a time to just watch and wait until “someone else” figures it out. No matter who you are, you can be a part of choosing democracy.

Another way to prepare is to get people into the mindset of taking action so they don’t freeze. The classic formulation of this is the “if-this-then-that” model designed by the Pledge of Resistance. In that model people prepare themselves for an action by saying “If it comes to this bad thing, then I’ll act.” In that spirit, the bipartisan group Choose Democracy has created a pledge:

  1. We will vote.
  2. We will refuse to accept election results until all the votes are counted.
  3. We will nonviolently take to the streets if a coup is attempted.
  4. If we need to, we will shut down this country to protect the integrity of the democratic process.

As Christians we must commit to actions that represent rule of law, stability and nonviolence.  Stopping a coup is dependent on the size of mobilizations and winning over the center. It is a fight for legitimacy. Which voice is legitimate? Some people will have already made up their minds. The aim, then, is convincing those who are uncertain — which may be a more surprising number than you expect.  To swing them to our side, that uncertain center has to be convinced that “we” represent stability and “the coup plotters” represent hostility to the democratic norms of elections and voting.

Historically, whichever side resorts to violence the most tends to lose. In a moment of uncertainty, people pick the side that promises maximum stability, respects democratic norms and appears to be the safer bet. It’s a contest of who can be the most legitimate. Mass resistance to a coup wins by using walk-outs and strikes, refusing orders, and shutting down civil society until the rightful democratically-elected leader is installed. For mass movements to succeed against coups, they should refuse to do violence to the other side.

And of course we as North Carolinians know full well that a coup can happen in the USA.  It may be hard to imagine that a coup could happen in this country. But whenever there is an order to stop counting votes, it is a coup.

Even by the strictest definition of coups, there has been a militarized coup in the NC. In 1898 after reconstruction in Wilmington, seeing the rise of a prosperous and successful black population, white racists organized a coup. They gave rallying cries like, “We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes, even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.” Despite a terror campaign before the election, Black turnout was high and black candidates were voted in. Black power was met with white supremacist violence, with white squads killing up to 300 people, including newly elected officials. Over 3,000 POC fled this extreme violence, and Jim Crow began in earnest in NC.

We center in calm, not in fear, because God is with us and hears our anger, even blesses our anger to get stuff done.  It’s scary to believe we’re having to talk about a federal coup in the US. And we know that fearful people are less likely to make good decisions. Let’s aim for calm and avoid hyperbole. Be a reliable source by double-checking rumors and spreading high-quality facts. Sure, read social media, but spend some time, you know, doing real things that ground you: in prayer, in worship, in nature, in  study, in deep reading, in exercise. Breathe deeply. Remember how you handle fear. Play out scenarios, but don’t become obsessed by them. We’re doing this to prepare, just in case— because the best way to stop a coup is to deter it.

We need a healthy way to get out our angst and aggression without slamming the people around us. This is why God gave the imprecatory Psalms. Imprecatory Psalms are a sub-genre of Lament Psalms, or songs of complaint, which make up the largest part of the Psalter collection. Lament Psalms focus on the psalmist’s personal troubles caused by his or her own actions, a complaint against the actions of others, or express the psalmist’s frustration with God. 

The Imprecatory Psalms, like Psalm 69, not only focus on a chief complaint, but also invoke curses against enemies. Imprecatory Psalms are angry, raw and  uncomfortable for nice, well-behaved Christians to read in church. These Psalms shock us with their words of hate, making us want to tear them out of the canon altogether. As Eugene Peterson explains, “The Psalms in Hebrew are earthy and rough. They are not genteel. They are not the prayers of nice people, couched in cultured language.” In the Imprecatory Psalms, we are meeting people of faith at their lowest moments in life. Reality has dragged them kicking and screaming across the rocky ground and thrown them into the pit all alone. “It’s just you and me, now God,” they shout at the sky. “And here’s how I feel about it.”

Psalm 69 gives us an example of how to express the raw, messy truth of our feelings to God. Its spiritual usefulness was not lost on early Christians, as it is the most quoted Psalm in the NT.  Here, we hear the words of psalmist, praying desperately to God, asking for help. After pleading for salvation, the writer then goes into a tirade of curses, asking God to bring punishment to these bad people.  Here is the part that church folk like to skip over: Let their table be a trap for them, a snare for their allies. Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually. (69:22-23) These are harsh  images for our eyes. Yet, they are there for us to look at and use in worship. What might Psalm 69 teach us about prayer? 

First, we know that God doesn’t answer our demands. In this case, we can be glad. God did not wipe out all of Israel’s enemies in the end. No one’s loins were continually trembling (some of you might be disappointed by no loins trembling). God proved not to be a God that gives into our angry whims. God is not moved into violent retribution because of our violated feelings. 

And secondly, we learn that God has a good place for our anger. We no longer have to bottle it up until we explode. Nor do we need to unleash on those around us. We can take all of our feelings, even our hate, to God. The more we practice being honest before God in prayer, the more we might realize that God will take this chaotic energy of pain, fear, and rage, and transform it into a useful antidote to heal ourselves and our world. Katy Stenta writes, “Whenever there is anger in a system, be it a church or a school or the government, it means there is energy, and when named and processed, that energy can be used for change.” 

Bernice King tells of when her father, MLK, Jr. was in high school. He had just won an oratorical contest and was riding on the bus with his teacher. When two white passengers got on the bus, the bus driver ordered King and his teacher to give up their seats. King wanted to defiantly remain seated, but his teacher told him they needed to follow the law. They ended up standing in the aisle on the bus for the entire 90-minute trip back to Atlanta. 

Years later, King confessed that it was the angriest he had ever felt his entire life. King’s daughter said that from that event her father “came dangerously close to hating all white people.” But when King went to college and seminary, he learned how to channel his anger into positive forms of protest. Clarence Jones, a speechwriter for King, explains: “From Dr. King’s standpoint, anger is part of a process that includes rage, forgiveness, redemption, and love. If you only have anger, it will paralyze you. You cannot do anything constructive.” Anger has a distinct purpose. Anger reveals where there is injustice. Anger points to our deeper pain of loss and sadness. Anger calls attention to all that is wrong in our world. But we can’t stay there in that anger. We can’t stay in that miserable pit slamming the next person that disappoints us.

I know this is a heavy topic–the prospect of a presidential coup, but this is only helpful to speak about a coup BEFORE it happens.  The president himself brought it up this past week more than once.  I’m asking each one of us to cry out to God this week, in our own words or those of Ps 69.  Cry out to God this week in anger and anguish.  Beg God for justice.  Ask God for help now–there are way too many things wrong with our community and our country right now.  In Exodus 3, God says to Moses, “I’ve taken a good, long look at the affliction of my people … I’ve heard their cries for deliverance …; I know all about their pain. And now I have come down to help them.”  We are not enslaved in a foreign land, nor are we the chosen people, but God hears our pain if we cry out in anger, rage, and despair.  Where are you God?  We need you.  That is exactly a prayer of faith.  Will you join me in praying in this manner this week?  And let’s pray that all my talk about a coup is the most unnecessary sermon ever.