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The Emergency Brake of History

Sometimes it takes twenty-five years for something you hear to take on its full meaning.

We’re coming to a time when revolutions, instead of being the locomotive that pulls history forward, will be people pulling the emergency brake, locking up the wheels, saying “We’re going too fast.”

This was the statement, uttered by a professor in a doctoral seminar in the early 1990’s. The topic at the time was the wars in the former Yugoslavia—wars between Bosniaks, Serbs, Slovenians, Kosovars and more; wars that brought us the euphemism “ethnic cleansing.”

Based on the conversation in that seminar, I proudly produced one of my first articles for Perspectives. I wrote,
The slaughter in Bosnia is not a return to the days of religious intolerance. A decidedly more modern phenomenon, the Cold War certainly bears some responsibility. Is the problem in the former Yugoslavia too many churches, cathedrals, and mosques, or is it that post-Cold War Europe is awash in weapons? The people in the former Yugoslavia…are engaged in a desperate, often violent, attempt to recover their own traditions and particularities, which our tolerant era had deemed backward, divisive, and superstitious. Far from being a retrogression, Bosnia is more likely the destination of our modern ideas, a tragic preview of coming attractions.

emergency brake 2All of this came to mind, as I tried to process the ruthless and relentless terror of the Islamic State, the ascendancy of Donald Trump in American politics, and the surprising outcome in the Brexit vote. Maybe these events are not crude retrogressions, as they are often depicted. Instead they might be this new sort of revolution, desperate yankings on the emergency brake of history.

Let me be perfectly clear. What follows is in absolutely no way an apologetic for the Islamic State, Donald Trump, or Brexit. I have not the teeny-tiniest trace of a scintilla of a speck of a scrap of sympathy for anything about the Islamic State. My feelings about Donald Trump are about similar. My leanings around the Brexit vote are less intense, but certainly were with the stayers.

After 9/11, those who tried to ask “Why do the terrorists hate us so?” were shouted down. Even to ask the question was seen as too sympathetic. I think that was a mistake. I view the Islamic State extremely negatively. It is what happens when angry young men with machine guns are given absolute power. But I do wonder about the energy and sentiments they are able to tap into. It seems like a wrenching pull on the emergency brake of history. Isn’t it a protest against ever-encroaching Western ways perceived as decadent, aggressive, and corrosive to their ways? Is there any way to take these grievances seriously, while also utterly rejecting and thwarting the Islamic State’s brutal tactics?

Similarly, I am repulsed by Donald Trump. Like many, I believe that threatened white hegemony is the star around which his solar system orbits. But I am curious and concerned about his supporters, especially his original audience. That doesn’t mean I am soft on authoritarians or white supremacists, or that I’m much interested in his Johnny-come-latelies—the reluctant party loyalists and the “I can’t vote for Hillary” crowd. I’m thinking of those for whom the bridge to the twenty-first century wasn’t long enough. Compassionate conservatism only sent their children on a fool’s errand to Iraq. And the promised hope still leaves them despairing.

Trump supportersFor months now my social media feeds have been full of denunciations of Trump, using words like “demagogic,” “xenophobic,” and “hyperbolic.” Does anyone seriously think Trump supporters read them, let alone are swayed by their snobbish tone? I’m trying to be very careful here. In discussing the “white working class,” it is so easy to be patronizing. “Why are they so gullible?” “How do we keep them from being such rubes?” “Don’t they understand their own best interests?” I want to ask if there is any genuine kernel that we should attend to in these people, anything in their resentments and dissatisfaction that might stir us?

On Brexit, we have all heard that it was the elderly, the English, the rural, the uninformed, and those who still like to whistle “Rule Britannia” who voted to leave. But is there anything more to it? Is there anything to be gained by listening to distress about being melded into an amalgam with whom you don’t identify, or feelings of being governed by faceless people far away?

Two larger thoughts. First, are any of these people—alienated Muslims, white working class Americans, or the leavers in the Brexit vote—in any way, “the least of these,” our sisters and brothers? Or have I just stooped to the condescension I warned against? Can we simply write them off as reactionary surds? How do we even begin to talk with them when they seem truly dangerous, strange, and retrogressive?

Second, have progressive Western Christians become so aligned with “civilization” and “progress” that we automatically assume a project like the European Union is God’s cause? I’m not trying to pick especially on the EU. My French in-laws are fond of reminding me that “We had three wars with the Germans in 70 years, but since the EU we’ve had 70 years of peace.” But are we advocates of globalization because it is in accord with Jesus, or simply because that’s what sophisticated twenty-first century people do?

I don’t have answers. And much of what I’ve said here is an odd fit with my usual ways of thinking. But I can’t quite get beyond that image of people pulling on the emergency brake of history.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Lee Collins says:

    Pulling on the emergency brake? Maybe. But how can we slow it down? Are we the rich young ruler who walks away from Jesus’s challenge because we have too much “stuff” to share with those who are needy?
    Very thoughtful post, Steve. I wonder who will read it and rethink their already set-in-stone ideas.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Well put, Dominee.

  • Clyde says:

    Steve, I appreciate your willingness to think and write deeper than the news headlines.

  • Speaking as a Christ-follower who is also a historian, yes, we in as well as out of the church can forget that we are fish who are swimming in fish bowl of water–not just those others who are obviously fish in a fish bowl. Our culture and society have and are shaping us, but in diverse ways–and culture and society are not the gospel and are not God. Remember the apophatic way–God is not this, not that … (See Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Oxford, 1998.)

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    I don’t think I advocate globalization because that is what sophisticated twenty-first century people do. Indeed, I don’t know that I advocate globalization. Unless we as a society are willing to dismantle a significant bit of capitalism–and I can think of all sorts of good, Christian reasons to do so, but I don’t believe the societal will is there–then advocating globalization is a bit like advocating the tide: it doesn’t care whether I advocate or not, it is happening. So, I can work to ride the wave or I can be drowned by it. For the sake of myself and those whom I pastor, I try for the former most of the time.

    The same would be true for many marks of what we call the progress of civilization. The trouble for many of those wishing to pull the brake is that, long ago, they or others whose choices they inherited chose to defy the wave. The wave is simply doing what waves do–and, by the way, presidents can do precious little about this, either. But I now think of Jesus’ parable of the workers hired at various times in the day, all paid the same wage. We, as Christ’s emissaries, have a moral obligation to listen to the folks who aren’t on our path, and we have been failing at that responsibility for the better part of fifty years, at least–the Muslim extremists have complaints that go back at least to the end of World War I, if not sooner. The more we spend time listening and not pretending to have all the answers, the sooner we can get past some of the tendency of the brake-pullers to want, it seems, to destroy everyone with whom they disagree.

    • Dan Knauss says:

      Even the tide can be stopped if you blow away the moon. Globalization and civilization are as brittle as the climate, food and water supply — which in the present scenario is very brittle indeed.

      • James Hart Brumm says:

        I agree. I also don’t believe that the societal construct we have is necessarily the best. I just don’t see the societal will to blow away the moon.

        • Dan Knauss says:

          We actually do not have the societal will to NOT “blow away the moon.” Our present course guarantees an end to the earth’s biosphere as a viable home for higher mammals, let alone billions of humans, some time in the next century. That is the default position. Pursuing the present course to the last fossil fuel reserves coupled with increasing pressures on freshwater and arable land will eliminate not just civilization but most life, first in the southern hemisphere. There’s also the possibility of a massive nuclear exchange as well, which is becoming more rather than less likely simply due to proliferation. In the near future it’s going to be the US versus Russia again for the last oil and gas reserves under the melting arctic ice sheet. Yet ironically a nuclear cataclysm is about the only realistic scenario where some small survivor population’s existence might be maximized. Even with a full stop on man-made carbon inputs, the present warming mechanisms are irreversible.

          In other words, there is no emergency brake, but the closest thing to one might be a death match between nations that leaves one or two small survivors. That is simply how the facts have shaken out at this point in time, viewed without moral and metaphysical filters, which is how states and business empires look at the situation. So I would say YES westerners in general have become so attached to the “necessity” and “inevitability” of their notions of order and history (whether the terms are religious or secular) that they assume any future “shining city” scenarios they imagine — and certainly mere human survival — must be assured. Of course none of this is assured.

  • Jim says:

    Fine observations, and just the right counter-vailing questions, as usual. Keep it up–I’ll be reading you w/ benefit from afar.

  • debmechler says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful “wonderings.” I find myself asking similar questions. And I don’t like what I find myself doing–trashing Trump–and then realizing that this is not loving my ‘enemy.’

    Your question about “ever-encroaching Western ways” reminds me of a conversation with a friend who does a lot of work to help an orphanage that I also support in Mali. His concern for the director’s daughters in an increasing unstable country led him to say that he wishes the girls could come live with us in the U.S. I had to restrain myself from yelling my response: “The US is not the answer to all the world’s problems! Do you really want those girls to come here and probably become materialistic, meanwhile depriving their own country of their education and skills?” But I managed to moderate the tone of my voice for once.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thank you all for entering the conversation. As was probably apparent, I’m not real sure what I think or what to do, so I am grateful for your thoughtful engagements. James Hart Brumm, I especially appreciate your perceptive comments.They caused me to wonder how much do my own questions presume privilege and power? Even then, how to listen to, respect, share with people who seem so different as to be dangerous? Hmmm…

  • Ted Pawlicki says:

    It is important to realize that it is more of an existential crisis than a locomotive with a break. The subtext of locomotive/break metaphor is that there is a single track without choice. The idea of a break automatically frames the discussion as progressive vs. retrogressive. This is not at all what is going on. An existential crisis comes when we realize that there is more than one choice on how to move forward. Which switches we flip on the track determines where we will end up. It is the fear of this power that makes us frame questions in terms of the binary oversimplification.

    It is easy to understand Brexit. It is driven by the desire for self-determination which is a necessary component of freedom. (Once upon a time “independence” had a positive connotation) There has always been and will always be a tension between the desire for local decision making and the economy of scales based on centralized control. As with nearly all political controversy, both sides represent valid perspectives.

    Trump is similarly easy to understand. It is a simple fact that the benefits of free trade and globalization that come through vehicles like NAFTA and TPP flow primarily to Hillary Clinton’s friends in Wall Street investment banks and large multinational corporations. These benefits for the 1% have been purchased at the expense of the hardship for working people who don’t understand the details, but feel the pain. It’s not a matter of a locomotive with a break, these trade deals have choices – they could have been negotiated differently. We could have increased global trade with a different set of priorities – an set of choices on how to move forward, not a choice on whether to move forward or hit the breaks.

    It is also important to remember that while those who identify with Hillary may think of Trump followers as ‘rubes’, the Donald supporters find it hard to fathom how profoundly stupid and willfully blind Hillary’s supporters are to the obvious and blatant decades of corruption surrounding her. The blade of stupidity cuts both ways. An honest attempt to truly respectfully understand your opponent’s point of view can avoid a lot of needless scars.

    Unfortunately for us all IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh is the easiest to understand of all. While we here in the West have only the best of intentions the cold fact remains that liberal Western democracies have been supplying the most unspeakably horrible 3rd world despots with money and weapons in exchange for natural resources since the end of the colonial era. It is not a matter of “angry young men with weapons”. There are plenty of grey heads among terrorists. The Ayatolla who was our enemy was a monster, but our friend the Shaw whom he replaced was also a monster. A drowning man will grasp at a straw.

    Perhaps respect of our opponents is the first step toward loving our enemies. Respect and condescension cannot exist together.

  • Dan Knauss says:

    Dean Detloff’s recent essay “A Reformational Eco-Socialism?” tries to disentangle the reformational tradition from a liberalism that’s locked into capitalism:

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Thanks, Dan! Interesting, good read.

      • Dan Knauss says:

        Yeah there’s a lot going on in there to think about. The question of Kuyper’s liberalism as an anti-liberal — and the ways in which anti-modernist, anti-liberal sentiments are a key part of right-leaning liberalism and Christian social democracy — is an interesting part of that discussion, especially as those positions are on the rise again in Europe. It occurs to me that the right leaning liberal element in Kuyper has a lot to due with his Hegelian view of history, which James Bratt’s biography of K. describes in a fascinating passing remark as a perspective Kuyper could not really think outside or, for at least some substantial portion of his intellectual life. The inexorability of western liberal democracy and capitalism is tied, for Kuyper, to the advance of the gospel and particularly the reformed faith with his characteristically WASPy spin on that. More and less theological versions of this Protestant teleology are a big part of how history and the political order has been conceived in the modern west, by both lead foot accelerationists and heavy brakers. I think Detloff is right, particularly in light of the ecological situation, that this entire framing needs to be rethought.

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