The Elect and the Election
I suppose most of us could agree that this election has taken far too long. After nearly two years of promises and attacks, coupled with endless speculation by media “pundits,” many of us are just plain tired. I would be mortified—but not surprised—if once Tuesday passes, Campaign 2012 begins. As one who is wearied by this election, it’s been doubly hard spending its waning days at Harvard Law School.
Why the exhaustion? I used to be invigorated by politics, and maybe to a certain extent still am. But either something fundamentally in me or in the system has changed. It’s probably both. One of the major factors is the sheer amount of anger and intolerance seen during this election. It wouldn’t be so troubling if such things were coming from the candidates, but it’s coming from the people. Whether it’s angry anti-Obama rallies, equally incendiary anti-McCain protestors, effigies of candidates being hung on a noose, or assassination plots, sheer hatred is spewing out of both ends of this country. Even beyond the “crazies” on both sides, there seems to be an utter lack of respect and unwillingness to grant legitimacy to another’s perspective, especially here at HLS. Just listening to people here and elsewhere, it would seem that either “Obama can do nothing wrong and McCain nothing right” or “Obama would run the country into the ground and McCain would keep it afloat.” In short, the one word that one cannot use to describe feelings and actions between the sides is “love.” You would think the election was between Satan and Jesus.
But that would seem to be the stakes in this election. Liberals are on the verge of hailing, either implicitly or explicitly, Obama as a Messiah and conservatives are just shy of pronouncing him Osama Bin Stalin. While this statement may seem very obvious, let me make it abundantly clear so that it sinks in: as Christians, our Hope does not lie in any of the candidates, it lies solely in Jesus Christ and His Gospel. Obama will not make everything right, McCain will not save us from disaster. As Derek Webb aptly put it in his short and pointed song, “We’ll never have a savior on Capitol Hill.” Sheer dollars and cents should indicate where the candidates priorities lie: during this campaign, McCain has raised $360 million while Obama has raised $640 million. This, of course, adds up to $1 billion, a first in campaign history, anytime, anywhere. This money could have been used to fight global poverty, saving, in a conservative estimate, about 20,000 lives. But both candidates prefer their deaths over foregoing their own TV attack ads. Remember though, it was We, the People, who gave them the money.
Even if neither candidate is perfect, surely we can at least support the better of the two, you might say. The trouble with this is, how do you know who is better? To start, any given issue is so complicated, with pros and cons and unintended consequences that muck up what might seem simple, that the average person could not possibly make an informed decision on more than one or two of issues, much less an entire set. I have a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Policy Studies and I go to Harvard Law School, and I barely have the time or capacity to truly understand more than a few of these issues. How can we expect a working man with a wife and three kids, or a single mother looking for a job, to understand who’s economic policy would better address the current financial crisis? Does anybody even really understand this crisis?
Even if we had the capacity to decide on these issues, to do so would presume we know the facts. I’m sorry, but I also have no idea where we would get those. Certainly listening to the candidates would not be an option: the John McCain of 2000 doesn’t seem to be the same John McCain of 2008, and the Barack Obama campaigning against Hillary Clinton in San Francisco sounds like a drastically different Obama than the one campaigning against McCain in Ohio. Which version of the man will they be when elected? The media, of course, is the alternative. They will keep us informed and the candidates accountable! If you already aren’t laughing at those statements, you should be. If the American public had any trust in the media prior to this campaign cycle, surely it is now completely eroded, with the likes of MSNBC and FOX News being only the prime examples. Taking a look at society today; it seems well described by the prophet Jeremiah:
Let everyone be on guard against his neighbor,
And do not trust any brother;
Because every brother deals craftily,
And every neighbor goes about as a slanderer
Everyone deceives his neighbor
And does not speak the truth,
They have taught their tongue to speak lies…
Your dwelling is in the midst of deceit…” — Jeremiah 9:4-6
If you don’t know anything about the book of Jeremiah, here’s a plot spoiler: it doesn’t end well for this society.
The extremity of this election—the lies, the anger, the fear, the hope, the unrestrained passion—is probably centered on one fact: people think it’s very important. Indeed, the candidates, the media, and the people around me insist that it is. Pat pointed out that Joseph Levenson, a New York Republican leader, announced, “I look upon the coming election as the most important in the history of this country since the Civil War.” He was speaking of that momentous election we all remember, the election of 1924. What a doozie.
There was a time, when I was a bright-eyed Freshman in college, that I thought public policy was extremely important. I don’t want to downplay the global effects of American politics but…in reality, it’s not that important, especially given the limited spectrum of choice we have in this country (Obama and McCain are very similar given the wider world of possible choices).
Let me illustrate. Ask yourself, in the past eight years, who has had a greater impact on your life, George W. Bush or your best friend? For the eight before that, was it your parents or Bill Clinton? You, as an individual, unelected with no political power, can make a bigger difference in a dozen people’s lives than McCain or Obama ever will. Imagine if we, as a society, put the immense amount of passion, thought, and effort we use in politics to impact those within arms reach. If we loved with the relentlessness with which we campaigned. Public policy is really good for building bridges, but it does a really poor job of building societies.
In fact, public policy is a lazy alternative for improving society. It’s much simpler and easier to go out and vote and hope that your candidate does well in the oval office. The hard alternative, the effective alternative, is you going out to change society yourself. Instead of voting for welfare, sell your possessions and give to the poor. Try ministering to the gay community as opposed just voting against them getting married. Practice the peace of love and calmness in your own life instead of protesting against the war in a way that expresses same anger and misunderstanding that is the root of war. Let’s stop trying to substitute the Holy Spirit with public policy. Let’s work actively and passionately to change people’s hearts with love and the Spirit rather than forcing what we think is right with taxes and laws.
I don’t mean to say that attempting to use policy for good is a negative thing—I’m just saying it’s ineffective and lazy. Neither do I mean to say that we shouldn’t be involved in politics—I just know that we should not place our greatest hope in it, and we should never let it become an idol. Politics is idolatry when we vest our hope in it to redeem us, when we let it occupy our time and passions beyond the things of God, and when it becomes a barrier to us spreading the Gospel. I must admit worshiping at the idol of politics at times.
It really hit home this past year when two scandals broke out. The first was when Senator Larry Craig (R) was accused of propositioning another man for sex in an airport restroom. As someone who at the time typically identified as conservative, I was embarrassed by the incident, tried to dismiss it as much as possible, and a little angry at the Senator for bringing such shame on the party. Then, about a year later, I think, two-time presidential candidate Senator John Edwards (D) admitted to having an affair while his wife was undergoing treatment for cancer. I felt almost vindicated, glad for the boost in Republican poll numbers, and jeered along with the late-night TV hosts. Then, all of a sudden, I took a step back. The Gospel calls me to mourn for the pain of the wives and children—indeed of the men themselves—caused by these incidents, but politics had me too caught up in a game of public opinion. Who knows? Maybe both of these men have had intense struggles with sin—as I certainly have—and when they fall and are publicly humiliated, my only reaction is political. There was no compassion. I sickened myself.
When it comes down to it, my allegiance should be to a King and a Kingdom (again, props to Derek Webb). Peter called his fellow brothers “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Peter 2:11). Paul knew where to put his priorities:
“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel….” — 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
I’m sure Paul would have become a Democrat to the Democrats, and a Republican to the Republicans. We should never—never—let political divides impede the Gospel. We should never let our partisan feelings force us to love someone even just a little less than perfect love. If politics causes divisiveness within the Church or divides you from others, pluck it out and cast it to the flames. I would love to renounce politics, but it’s a struggle that I fight that is harder than I thought. But I’m still fighting. As we head to the day where we choose our new leader, let us remember the warning given when Israel decided they needed another leader besides the Lord, and demanded a new king:
But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.”
Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the LORD. The LORD answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.” — 1 Samuel 8:6-21