People who identify as Americans entered the July 4 weekend humiliated as almost never before. They had one collective project this year and that was to crush Covid-19, and they failed. Confronted with a crisis, most couldn’t even put on a mask.
America the wounded electorate
Last Wednesday, the U.S. had about 50,000 new positive tests, a record. Other nations are beating the disease while the U.S. infection graph shoots upward as sharply as it did in March. This failure is leading to other problems. A third of Americans show signs of clinical anxiety or depression, according to the Census Bureau. Suspected drug overdose deaths surged by 42 percent in May. Small businesses, colleges and community hubs are collapsing.
Most Americans are not in denial about the last three months of turmoil. According to a Pew survey, 71% are angry about the state of the country right now and 66% are fearful. Only 17% are proud.
Even better than not being in denial, many Americans are reacting to the turmoil in two positive ways. There are unforeseen shifts in attitudes toward race. Roughly 60% of Americans now believe African-Americans and other people of color face a great deal or a lot of discrimination and live under the threat of random police brutality. People have been waiting for a white backlash since the riots, or since the statues started toppling. There isn’t much if any evidence of a backlash. There’s evidence of a fore-lash.
Second, Americans have decided to get rid of Donald Trump and much of the world is breathing a sigh of relief. His mishandling of Covid-19 hurt his re-election chances among seniors. His racist catcalls in a time of racial reckoning have damaged him among all groups. His asinine July 4 celebration of maskless thousands worshiping at a shrine to white supremacy at Mt. Rushmore will, if God answers my prayers, be the last time we witness that.
What’s the core problem with Americans? We’ve been preaching about it for 25 years, now. Damon Linker identified a piece of the problem in his article: “It amounts to a refusal on the part of lots of Americans to think in terms of the social whole — of what’s best for the community, of the common or public good. Each of us thinks we know what’s best for ourselves.” For many people, Linker’s insight amounts to a revelation Covid-19 delivered – even to Jesus followers whose Savior calls them to love as he loves!
You can add a lot more core problems, of course. Just read the Constitution. I’d add autonomy, preoccupation with identity, capitalism as a way of life, acceptance of the fruit of Empire, militarism, economic slavery, and selfishness touted in Congress as a virtue. They all lead to a gnawing sense of inauthenticity – it is so deep people project it on each other all day. In 1970, in a moment like our own (It was wild; I was 16), Irving Kristol wrote, “[People] cannot for long tolerate a sense of spiritual meaninglessness in their individual lives, so they cannot for long accept a society in which power, privilege, and property are not distributed according to some morally meaningful criteria.” David Brooks said last week, “A lot of people look around at the conditions of this country — how Black Americans are treated, how communities are collapsing, how Washington doesn’t work — and none of it makes sense. None of it inspires faith, confidence. In none of it do they feel a part.”
Our thoughts on the upcoming election
Since I became a Christian in the 70’s, I think it is safe to say that at the end of every year of knowing Jesus, the United States has made even less sense. At this point I won’t even call myself an American. None of it inspires faith or confidence. In none of it do I feel a part. I am at home in my alternative society led by Jesus. That mentality was central to the convictions I brought to the recent dialogue we had about the upcoming elections. We were trying to contribute some theology to what people need to think about when they face November. Do we have (or need to have) a definitive view on elections?
I hesitate to sum it up, since it was a rich, generous discussion, even on Zoom. So even though people rarely use my blog to dialogue, maybe they will add some things this time. What I will try to do is bullet some “takeaways” from doing theology. These are my takeaways, if not mostly my thoughts – this is not a report on what everyone said. You heard my point of view, already, and I think it is a New Testament one. Most people were in my ballpark, so I want to follow that theme as a way to help you look at participating in the election with the Americans.
- In 2016, we took communion on election night to remind ourselves that Jesus is our true leader. (We also collected some theology related to that election). We were acting along with the spirit of Dr. King, who says the church is not meant to be the servant of the state or the master of the state… the church is meant to be the conscience of the state.
- Participating in politics is not as easy as being for or against. We have a responsibility for others that does not allow us to “wash our hands” like Pilate. We should suffer, not hunker down in an ideology and give up wrestling. We cannot make a law and give up the messiness of grace. We must not moralize instead of accepting the winding road everyone is on toward their destiny.
- Politics is an endless, inconclusive, mostly redundant process. The church is a big tent. Put those facts together and it makes sense to have provisional opinions and flexible actions. We have people in the church who feel the fear Trump elicits. We have people in the church calling out people for not being true believers in their liberation movement. Everyone should be invited into the safety of God’s love so they can check their own motivation and be in dialogue even about an election. Our videos on how to discern might be a good place keep pondering these things.
- We should not feel a great burden about being integrous in relation to a corrupt system. It would be nice if we lived by a rule and whatever candidate we offered looked like Jesus so we could give an actual alternative. (This would be a “rule” as a “way,” not a standard or authority). National elections tend to rob us of our awareness of local connections – the media undermines our conversation as a church and with our neighbors. Maybe we should make sure to prompt all our cells to have some real dialogue so they are not dominated by the media powers.
- We have misgivings about appearing “partisan” but also about abandoning duty to speak plainly about matters of consequence. We are committed to the truth even to the point where we would hope to be willing to die for it if necessary. But we don’t want to steamroll people who are also trying to figure things out the best they can — sometimes in good faith, sometimes not.
- When we guide each other about voting, we want the guidance generated up, not down. We don’t need a guide distributed by the “authorities;” we all need to actively discern the spirits together. We would more likely come up with something like a Yelp review of candidates. The Poor People’s Campaign might be a good example of a group who has a way to assess what’s important.
- It is a privilege to vote. What about voter suppression? We could help solve the issues of voting. Maybe a compassion team could organize for this. We spent some time admiring how we let teams form to do what inspires them. We should pray for our compassion teams so their attempts to lead and inspire us actually work as part of the body, not just their interest group.
- Why do we participate in elections? Do we do it to get power or to influence the powers? One person said, “If I got the power I might be just as screwed up!” We would like people who help us influence to do it with prophetic imagination — imagine newness. (Here is Bruggerman on On Being). We want to breed a new way of thinking in line with our alternative way of life. Kendra Brooks is a nice local example of coming up with another way.
- Love is always central. If what we do will feel polarizing, we need to be loving in our presentation and follow up with people who feel injured. Try to win the right to be heard. We should try to know what people think or might think and let them know we acknowledge that and care — we will listen, not just talk. We don’t want to lose people to Jesus by seeming “too political.” We should honor their process if they are not where we think Jesus is going yet.
- The book Exclusion and Embrace could help people relate across boundaries. An embrace does not dissolve the individual; it is an object in itself. The embrace is where goodness happens. We should be obsessed with getting to the hearts of people. That’s our tier one. Until we get there, we may need to change some behaviors on tier two. People get killed by corrupt government. The train might run over them and we might need to lay on the tracks, embracing the experience of the victimized.
- Solzhenitzyn’s advice for living under dictatorship was “Just never say anything that isn’t true.” As we think about our involvement in politics, it is helpful to distinguish between influence and integrity as two possible ways we can act morally. They are both ways to think about “doing good.” Influence is about the use of power. It is the coinage of the democratic political process: organizing yourself into a bloc in order to increase your power and leverage that power in order to bring about the (ostensibly good) outcome that you want. Integrity measures our actions not by what is accomplished but only by what is good or true — speak the truth because it is the truth, not because it is going to influence a political process. The distinction between the two is a matter of the soul. We can learn to have integrity — even unto death — or we can learn to have influence. If our integrity influences, that is great, but we don’t count on that. The disorder we feel when talking about politics is because we have gotten sucked into a way of seeing the world that is informed by power and influence rather than integrity.