Today’s post is a combination opinion piece and excerpt from my journal. You’ll find the brief excerpts in the captions on the pictures.
Well, it’s done. Today we mailed our absentee ballots from London for the US general election. It took longer than it should have for us to figure out how to meet the Tennessee online and snail mail requirements for receiving and sending our ballots. But thanks to a kind election official in the Washington County Court House, we succeeded. Our votes have been cast, our consciences cleared.
I know what your question is: Who did you vote for?
You’re not alone. Wherever we have traveled (Mexico, France, England, Scotland, Ireland so far), as soon as our accents betray us as Americans our new acquaintances—on a bus, on the train, in a shop, on the street—skip all the usual ice-breaking pleasantries and demand, “What do you think of Trump?” Then they unload. My favorite was the woman in the Snap store in Dublin where I went to have the ballot applications printed, who asked, “Who are you voting for? If you are voting for Trump I won’t do this for you.” Of all the conversations we’ve had since leaving the States, only three persons have not been anti-Trump, and even they were not pro-Trump but were lamenting the difficult choice because they didn’t like either candidate—like many of our friends back home.
They were right, of course. This is a very difficult choice. Both candidates are flawed. Neither party platform has everything we want—but that has been true in every presidential election. I’ve often groused that it didn’t matter whether my candidate won or lost, sooner or later I would be disappointed. That’s the downside of a two-party system in which each party has to try to appeal to so many different voters on so many issues. In order to be satisfied on your one or two burning passions you have to accept several others that are repugnant to you.
All this we all know. In spite of our frustration, though, Joy and I take the privilege of voting pretty seriously. We didn’t feel we could simply opt out. We have read a little history; we know something of the dangers of totalitarianism (Nazism, Fascism, Communism, etc.), are afraid of anarchy, and give thanks regularly that we live in a democracy, though at times—like Election Year 2016—it can scare you.
What has disturbed us this year is that with so much at stake—gun control, abortion, civil rights for all Americans, a recovering but still creaky economy, job security, seats on the Supreme Court, immigration reform, international relations (I can keep going, but you get my point)—instead of substantively discussing them our political leaders have created a media circus, and the world is scoffing. It has been no fun watching the candidates or their surrogates sling their mud from as low in the gutter as they could dig it up.
I have been squirming through it all, in large measure because for a lifetime as a pastor I did my best to remain publicly neutral in elections, knowing that if I took to the pulpit to endorse one candidate or another I could split my congregation. My job as the leader was to protect the unity of the body by insuring that every member, regardless of political affiliation or opinion, was treated with respect. Frankly, that’s not as easy as it sounds, and it’s getting harder. Even in church civil discourse can quickly become uncivil. Every large group, not just church, harbors polarizing personalities, control freaks, disturbers of the peace and dividers of the body. One lesson every leader has to learn is that you can’t unify an organization (or nation) by promoting yourself at the expense of others or by taking a stand without regard to how it affects those who disagree with you. That means, of course, that you can’t take criticism personally, either; you can’t give tit for tat, insult for insult. You can’t threaten to get even. Your job is to absorb the pain.
Two nights ago I viewed again Stephen Spielberg’s instructive film, Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, my favorite leadership book. Lincoln made his mistakes (he, too, had flaws), but he owned up to them. Historians shake their heads over how much abuse he took without retaliating, how much grace he extended to his enemies, and how in his Second Inaugural he could speak “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right…” His goal was “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
The man who killed him believed passionately in the cause of the South and couldn’t stand it that his side lost. So Lincoln must die. (We have heard echoes of this rhetoric this year, I’m afraid.)
Lincoln’s stance toward his enemies comes very close to the essence of the Gospel. The world still marvels that Jesus didn’t threaten to get even with his enemies. He didn’t turn to power plays to accomplish his goals. His harshest words were for those who mistreated the powerless. He didn’t kill. He chose to be killed instead. The Apostle Paul called Jesus “our peace” because he “has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility….He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.” You see, this love stuff preachers talk about has political consequences. Love unites, hate divides, even in the body politic.
So what is a pastor to do? Which candidate offers the better possibility of leading us to peace: international peace, domestic peace, peace among the very diverse people groups in the United States (white, black, Asian, Native American, Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, gay, transgendered, male, female, privileged, underprivileged, Mexican-Americans, Cuba-Americans and other hyphenated Americans)? Neither candidate can guarantee peace; both should try. As president either candidate would have huge obstacles to overcome (some of their own making). A real leader accepts responsibility for his or her mistakes–sometimes for the mistakes of others. It’s cowardly to blame everybody else.
One of the candidates has a lifetime record of public service while the other boasts about how rich he made himself, as if that’s a qualification for leading a country. One has excelled in polarizing us, appealing to our suspicions and fears and hatreds, bringing out our worst traits.
OK, I’ve just answered the question. We voted for Mrs. Clinton.
I said above that in all my years as a pastor I tried to remain neutral. If I were the pastor of a church this year, I’m afraid I’d have had to speak out. The task of the church, as the prophets said of old, is to care for widows and orphans, the strangers in our midst, the marginalized and powerless. The rich and powerful can take care of themselves. In this increasingly hostile and complicated world, the poor and powerless simply can’t compete. The playing field is not even. I’d have had to say something about this. I have some preacher friends who have done so and got themselves in trouble.
I may be also. You may now want to unsubscribe to this blog. That’s OK. We’re going to love you anyway. Joy and I have been schooled in a religious tradition that taught this slogan: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” This slogan is not a bad one for politics, either. We don’t consider fair and respectful treatment of our fellow citizens a non-essential, and some of them have been treated very badly lately. But if you will tolerate what you think is our misjudgment in this vote, we’ll tolerate yours. We’d like to believe we can still love one another. We’d also like to believe we can learn to love others who are different, even quite different, from ourselves.
Jesus taught his disciples to love one another, and his message was so threatening he was killed for his effort. An American president expressed love for those on his side and those on the other side. He was killed also. It’s risky politics, this thing called love. But not as risky as the alternative.