Given the chaos and confusion of this election season, it may be helpful to pause briefly and ask ourselves a few clarifying questions, as we go to the polls next Tuesday.
1. What was I expecting–and why?
Wisdom is about understanding what the world is really like. Scripture (and, therefore, not surprisingly, history) shows that rulers are, with a few exceptions, deeply flawed, failing and foolish human beings–which is to say, they are like the rest of us, except they have been given more power and (arguably) more problems. Thus, not without reason does the Psalmist advise:
“Do not put your trust in princes,
in mere mortals, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground.
On that very day their plans come to nothing.”
Does our cynicism about our candidates say more about them or about us? Just what am I expecting and why? In whom should I be trusting? Consider reading Jesus’ conversation with Pilate in John 18.
Along similar lines is a second question:
2. Are candidates on Tuesday’s ballot somehow qualitatively different from their predecessors?
Well, maybe, but quite probably not. Conservatives tend toward nostalgia, while progressives, toward naivety. Tuesday’s (main) presidential candidates may be a more extreme expression, but are they not cut from the same cloth?
And, to the extent that both Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump are more extreme and, hence, more unsatisfactory, I am, frankly, thankful for them for this one reason: perhaps we will, at long last, take a good look at our candidates and stop expecting them (and other politicians) to be the quasi-messianic figures that they usually claim to be.
When will our collective disillusionment, even disgust, sober us to the sirens of social progress via political empowerment? Indeed, when will our scathing critiques at long last turn inward to wonder why we as a culture are not producing better leaders?
3. What is really at stake?
Does our vote really matter? Does it matter who becomes president? Undoubtedly.
But does it matter that much? No, not really. While God of course uses good rulers to do his bidding (so Romans 13), he also slyly uses evil (or incompetent) rulers to (unwittingly) do the same.
Just around the corner is Advent, when we will recount Jesus’ birth narrative, in which a primary theme is–as I express it to my kids–precisely this: God can use bad kings to do good things. (What would prompt Joseph and Mary, being peasants from Nazareth up north, to make the long trek south to Bethlehem, the city prophesied as the messiah’s birthplace, other than an empire-wide, tax-generating census by Caesar Augustus?)
And so the Proverbs plainly say,
“In the LORD’s hand, a king’s heart is a stream that he channels wherever it pleases him.”
And, even more potently, the prophet Isaiah declares to his people in exile:
“Surely the nations . . . are regarded as dust on the scales . . .
He [Yahweh] brings princes to nothing,
he makes the rulers of the earth an inconsequentiality [lit.: emptiness];
No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.”
The early 20th-century Cambridge classicist T. R. Grover once observed, concerning the Roman emperor’s condemnation of the Apostle Paul, that there would come a day when parents would name their dogs “Nero” and their sons “Paul.”
Should all this provoke us to political indifference? Hardly. To confidence and a “relaxed stance” toward politics? Absolutely.
How should you vote? Listen first to those whom you trust. Then listen twice as long, and with humility and charity, to those with whom you disagree.
And then vote your conscience.
After all, if the king’s heart is in God’s hand, our hearts probably are, too. God actually does know what he’s doing, and he routinely draws straight lines with crooked sticks.
4. What should (or can) I do?
National (and even state) elections can make us feel very small. They give the impression that everything important is happening only in our capital’s halls of power. Indeed, the U.S. president is often called “the leader of the free world.”
While living in the U.K., I had a Brit tell me (in all sincerity) that he had been afraid to travel to the States while George W. Bush had been president. Though usually making every effort to be culturally sensitive, I couldn’t help but chuckle (which was wrong). I replied, “I suspect that you may be slightly overestimating a president’s influence–for good or evil.”
In truth, we–especially when united as a local church–can do so much good in our community. So my two-word answer to the question, “What should I do?” is this:
Read less of the national news–which, I think we all know, is so unreliable. It’s not easy to know what is really happening nationally, but we can know what’s happening locally–in our neighborhoods and work places.
And that’s where we can make a difference. A big difference.
One brief, outstanding example of this: a wonderful sister in the Lord has been serving at a local non-profit (called Hogar Mis Primeros Pasos–or ‘My First Steps’ Home) that provides temporary care for little ones (up to age 4) born into high-risk environments. Recently, and brilliantly, she created a Facebook group to let interested parties know what the immediate, concrete needs of the home are: easy to listen, empowered to love.
But not only should we listen to the neighbor in need, we should listen to the neighbor we have nothing in common with–or so we think. If there aren’t persons in our lives whom we dearly love and yet deeply disagree with, we’re part of the problem.
So let’s listen less to the news and more to our neighbor –and, in so doing, learn to love them. It’s the 2nd greatest commandment. It’s local. And it’s “greater”–i.e., weightier, more important–than all the pleas, petitions, or promised policies we’ve heard this past election season.
Among the early Christian literature that came after the New Testament, there is one that stands out from the rest, so much so that the magisterial British scholar J. B. Lightfoot called it “the noblest of early Christian writings.” But it is unique not only in its excellence, but in its addressees: the author writes not to Christians but to non-Christians. And his description of Christian political engagement is moving–and, I think, mobilizing.
It’s called The Epistle to Diognetus. And we’ll give its (anonymous) author the last word:
” . . . Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by their country, language, or custom . . . But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else and have children, but they do not expose [i.e., abandon] their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed, in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to [social] death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything [because they live in community]. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evil-doers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. . . In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world . . . .” – Diogn. 5.1-6.1