The verb “co-opt” means: to take for one’s own usage.
The word is typically used in the sense of taking something for one’s own usage in a way that is shameful.
For example: Let’s say I am supporting a candidate. I ask my friend Charlie (who is very difficult to convince) to go with me to a rally for the candidate. I explain, “Why don’t you just come with me to see what the person stands for?” The next day, in order to convince another friend to support the candidate, I say, “Hey, even Charlie attended the candidate’s rally.”
That’s co-opting. Taking for one’s own use, and doing it in a way that lacks integrity.
This past week may be the anniversary of the worst of co-opting. The landmark dates we passed in the past seven days have been:
*The death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
*Holocaust Remembrance Day
*The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City
*The date when Jackie Robinson played his first game, breaking the color barrier in Major League baseball
Case No. 1: the Confessing Church.
April 9 was the anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who as a pastor in Germany opposing the Nazis, and paid for his underground activities by imprisonment in a concentration camp for two years, ending in hanging. Bonhoeffer had helped organize German pastors into an opposition group called “The Confessing Church.”
Today, the term “Confessing Church” is used by ministers and congregations who think themselves carrying on the noblest tradition of resistance like Bonhoeffer’s. But the so-called Confessing Church of today isn’t about oppose Naziism. Rather, their cause is: opposing the movement for gays to be allowed to be ordained as ministers, and gays being allowed to marry.
Two big differences with the Confessing Church warrant deeming today’s “Confessing Church” as guilty of co-opting:
For one thing, they are not an endangered minority. The split in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is more like 65% to 35% in terms of presbyteries voting in favor of gay marriage. And for many years, the anti-gay forces made up the majority.
People changed their minds. Presbyteries in Pennsylvania, for example, which historically had voted against gay marriage switched to supporting it.
The same process was begun by Jackie Robinson’s entrance into Major League baseball. Robinson first played in the minor leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ team in Montreal. The manager of the Montreal team was a native of Mississippi. He BEGGED the Dodgers’ General Manager, Branch Rickey, not to let Robinson on the team. How would it look, the manager cried, to my friends and relatives in Mississippi if I’m managing a team with a black on it?
But by season’s end, the manager had changed his mind. On the last day of the season, he shook Jackie Robinson’s hand and said, “You’re a fine player and a gentleman.”
Pastors and church members have had time to change the way they used to think about gays in the church. But even now that the anti-gay people are losing the vote, a split of 65-35 does not signal a besieged minority. Indeed, the congregations opposing equality for gays are far from being persecuted. They have the full freedom to leave the denomination, with no penalties at all. They do not suffer the loss of property. The church buildings belong legally to the denomination, not to the individual congregations. But the Presbyterian Church (USA) has graciously allowed congregations to leave with all of their property.
Interestingly, this “Confessing Church” uses the same arguments against gays that for centuries people were using to prevent equality for women, and earlier, for blacks. The very same books in the Bible are being cited: Genesis, Leviticus and Romans primarily. The very same arguments about “standing by the holy Word of God.” The very same tactics used to prevent women and blacks from being regarded as equal in a church have been used against gays. And yet these very people who are working to persecute a minority see themselves as the persecuted. They call themselves the “Confessing Church,” co-opting the courageous movement from the days of Nazi Germany. The German pastors faced deportation, imprisonment and death. What similar danger is being faced by today’s so-called “Confessing Church”? I’ve heard some pastors and congregants saying they’re being persecuted with rebukes about being prejudiced.
In view of Holocaust Remembrance Day this week, it hardly matches the situation for these pastors and congregants living at ease without persecution or penalty to pose themselves as the equivalent of what pastors and church members faced opposing the Nazi death machine.
Case No. 2: modern-day patriots
Timothy McVeigh called himself Paul Revere. He was warning the nation of danger. His two big issues: a ban on assault weapons, and the standoff in Waco, Texas, whereby federal agents were surrounding a cult compound when it went up in flames. McVeigh believed the inflammatory posts on social media that it was the FBI and the ATF who actually set the compound on fire.
In 1995, one year after the Waco disaster, McVeigh marked the anniversary by parking a rented truck filled with explosive fertilizer in front of the federal building in Oklahoma City. He lit a two-minute fuse in the truck and walked away. By the time the explosives ignited, McVeigh was safely at a distance as the blast tore off the entire front of the Murrah Federal Building, killing children in a ground-floor day-care as well as many people. The death toll amounted to 168. Nearly 700 were injured. Of the 168 deaths, McVeigh’s target — federal employees — numbered 99. Other deaths and injury were by-standers and occupants of nearby buildings. McVeigh admitted disappointment that he only partially destroyed the federal building. He was trying to raze it entirely.
This was genuinely a Weapon of Mass Destruction.
McVeigh posed himself as Paul Revere in discussions with his attorney. That’s as bad as co-opting gets. The original militia in colonial America, the Minute Men, did not seek to kill non-combatants. The Minutemen did not kill randomly.
McVeigh believed the fringe, hysterical posts about the demise of America and the destruction of the Constitution. The people writing these posts are themselves co-opting phrases like “freedom of religion” and “freedom to bear arms” and “freedom from government oppression.”
The posts themselves — as anti-government as they are — are so freely posted, they disprove what they say about America being like Nazi Germany. They are free to blather; all the more, free to take advantage of familiar, noble phrases for narrow, selfish use — free to co-opt.