By Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
November 3, 2016
One is hard-pressed to remember a campaign and an election that is as contentious as this year’s races for the President and Congress. Furthermore, the lines of race, ethnicity, economics, and religion are also being stretched by our two-party electoral system as well as by the media’s move from being objective journalists to becoming platforms for editorialising for the Left or the Right. The dour mood of our country’s citizens can be best summed up with a line someone recently shared from comedian, Jay Leno. Leno quips, “If God wanted us to vote, He’d given us a candidate.”
So what are people of faith, and from my perspective in the Christian tradition, to do when the world and our political and cultural landscape seem so swirly? How are we to approach the ballot boxes on November 8th? I’m proposing a schema of three movements for Christians (or believers of any faith tradition, for that matter) to follow as we come to Election Day 2016.
Movement One: Pray. I do not mean that we are to pray for our candidate to win or that the FBI bring charges on those running; I am suggesting we pray what Jesus of Nazareth taught his followers which is simply this: God, Thy will be done.
Praying helps us remember Who ultimately is in charge of the swirly mess we are living in, not that God caused the mess per se but rather God is above, below, to the right and to the left of the mess. God did not cause the mess the world is in today; people do when they express power, injustice and oppression over others through greed and hubris. For Christians, we call this ‘sin.’ It is a good word the Church has obfuscated over the centuries but sin simply describes humanity’s penchant for striking out narcissistically, either individually or communally, against God and/or our neighbour. No matter how people try, we just cannot seem to escape the notion that Frank Sinatra had the true gospel message when he sang, “I’ll do it my way.”
Prayer reminds us that our way usually crashes Mom’s car because we act carelessly without any sense of moral grounding about how my reckless, drunken behaviour impacts someone else. Prayer is that reminder that we are connected to the great Other and as well as to one another. It forces us to pause, be still and consciously and spiritually reflect on what any given prayer’s outcome needs to be. I cannot trust my own neighbours to pick up after their dog’s special gifts left in my yard so the only One to pray to is the One Who Created both me and my neighbour (along with his delightful gift-giving dog).
As I look to God, I lift up the colourful candidates we have provided for ourselves. Contrary to popular belief, both Presidential candidates have been fashioned in the Imago Dei, the image of God, and as such both need to be prayed for as well as for God’s will and desires for our election’s outcome. Thy will be done – not FOX or CNN nor Donald or Hillary’s will but Thy will, God’s will be done.
The second movement: Do your theological homework. When Jesus began his ministry, he began by going to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and the worship attendant gave him a scroll to read. Jesus was very precise in his looking for the right text to read to those folks who had nurtured him in his Jewish faith. He read to them portions from Isaiah the Prophet where God promises to come and bring winsome good news to the poor, to proclaim release for those held in captivity, to bring sight to those who are blind and to proclaim a Jubilee year of God’s favour upon the people. Jesus then had the audacity to tell his hometown folk, “This is what God has sent me to do.” Jesus’ message did not go over too well with the people he grew up going to synagogue with all those years; they responded by summarily attacking him with the intent to toss him off a cliff on the edge of town. Yes, doing homework can be risky business.
Jesus did his homework. He knew what God dreamed for the people even though the people were content with the status quo. Jesus quoted the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah who originally wrote his words to those taken into exile by the Babylonians; Isaiah’s words were directed to the outcast ones and how God was going to repatriate them to their home in Palestine. Jesus spoke to his neighbours who were held captive by the Roman laws and culture. Jesus knew from his own Bible study and corporate worship that God’s dream was and is always for “the little guy” and the underdog; Yahweh is the consummate Cub’s fan! Jesus took Isaiah’s words he had learned from his study in the community and applied them to the situation and conditions he and his neighbours lived in.
Before anyone goes to the polls to vote, the key for us is to do our homework. I propose two lenses to look through in order to complete this assignment. The first lens to peer through is the lens of the ethics of God. That means we look at issues, our candidates, our causes and our culture through the ultimate ethic of God, which for Judeo-Christian individuals is the ethic of love. It is our love for God but also for our joining into and participating in God’s love for all people and for our natural world. The Christian Scriptures speak of three types of love. One is erotic love (self-fulfillment). A second is a filial love for one’s brother and sister or kinsfolk. The third type of love expressed is the problematic kind that most people shy away from and that is agape love. Agape love is not expressed through the loins (eros) or through social pleasantries (filial) but is expressed through willful and intentional expressions of inconvenient acts and words of grace to those people or entities we find hard to love or much less even like. If God can love you and me for all the pain we cause God and to others and the creation, then God’s ethic of love is for us to intentionally, willfully and inconveniently share that love towards “those refugees,” “those Republicans,” “those Democrats,” “those Gays,” “those Presbyterians” or “those Muslims!” Holding the issues we are passionate about in front of the lens and scrutinised through God’s primary character and ethic is both liberating and daunting. It is liberating because we see and relate to God and others in new exciting ways; it is daunting because we may have to put aside some of our long held self-righteous assumptions.
The second lens we are to scrutinise our choices by is through our gazing through the lens of the greater, social good. We live in a very self-absorbed narcissistic world of immediate personal gratification and insufferable entitlement; we love to be the subject of our own media by way of our trusty selfie-stick. Any vote we cast, any decision we make, will begin to be made with the notion of “What will he/she/it do for me?” Taking thought of one’s needs is important and is not to be debated. The problem is that is where the thoughts generally stop. The key for good citizenship is not only what is good for Me but what is good and best for the collective Us/US? Our citizenry has sold out to Robert Bellah et al.’s notion of rugged utilitarian individualism; in other words, it is all about me and what will help me to get ahead whether or not it is at the expense of others or the Other.
Casting a ballot means looking at local, national and international implications of who or what I choose. I may like So-and-so as a candidate but will So-and-so be the best one to navigate my/our community and nation on a statewide or global scale? We need to remember as a citizenry that we live in a community with others. My decisions not only affect me but also affect my cousin Laura in Jersey as well.
The Election of 2016 is an election whereby Americans need to be doing their homework by scrutinising issues and candidates through the lens of God’s ethic of love and through the lens of the larger, social good. This leads to the third movement of the schema towards making a thoughtful electoral decision which is to do something.
The Third Movement: Act. Participate. Do something other than grouse about the country’s pitiful plight, the stagnant economy, and how ‘Murica is not like she used to be. Gandhi said it beautifully when he pleaded with his Indian brothers and sisters under British rule, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
It is remarkable that we live in a participatory republic with democratic ideals but the majority of US citizens will not vote. We live in a time where we denounce groups like Black Lives Matter on social media but ignore the deeper issue of making the effort to sit down and sit with an African American or other people of color and talk about the challenges. It is easy to say all cops are racist but are we in the community sitting down with local law enforcement in order to build relationships and discuss mutual concerns? Democracy is not a consumer enterprise. Democracy is not just for me “to consume and enjoy” but is designed for all of us; as such, each one of us has to participate in the process. Democracy is turning blow-hard rhetoric into finite acts reconciliation with others for the greater good of the nation.
It is not enough to pillory Hillary or Donald.
It is not enough to blame the New York Times and CNN on one hand and the Wall Street Journal and FOX News on the other.
It is not enough to think how outcomes will simply affect me.
Biblically, a Prophet is one who is both a future-teller about what will happen in the time to come but a Prophet is also a Truth-teller about the state of what actually is in any particular context. Pogo is an old cartoon character who once prophetically declared, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Our task at the polls to determine if Pogo is a future-teller or a truth teller.
Damnit. He might just be both.