By the time many read these words the United States of America will have innagurated its 45th President, Donald J. Trump.
In a democratic republic like the United States we take much pride in the peaceful transition of powers and nothing symbolizes this more than the inauguration of a new president. Through this event, full as it is with pageantry, patriotism, and political theatre, we Americans demonstrate our commitment to country over partisan politics. We ceremonially pledge allegiance to the flag over and above the Republican’s elephant or the Democrat’s donkey.
Though I respect the ideal and certainly understand the inauguration’s importance to our political process I must be honest in saying I have strong misgivings about the state of our country as we transition into new leadership. In fact, more than a few times I’ve found myself praying the words of the late Reinhold Niebuhr, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
This is the reality of the politically engaged person of faith in a country such as ours. Try as we might to deny it, we live in a divided America that sees the world in drastically different ways and sometimes it appears as though not even the higher order of faith can overcome this divide. Despite all of our Christian preaching, teaching, hymn singing, conferences and mission work we still occupy a country that views itself largely through the lens of black, white, and brown. Blue states and red states. Gay and straight. Rich, middle class and poor. Urban and rural. Male and Female. Conservative and liberal. Evangelical and progressive.
And what’s worse is we allow these divisions to define how we represent (or perhaps misrepresent) Christ and practice our professed faith. So what then do we say to these things? What can we say to a divided nation? What meaningful words can be spoken to a divided Christianity?
The Prophetic Isaiah and the Conflicted Hope of Israel
Similar was the situation in the eighth century during the time of the prophet Isaiah. The nation of Israel was in a time of looming war and destruction, darkness and gloom (Isaiah chapter 8). As a result, the people were divided and uncertain about the future and searching for answers. This was the period of time somewhere around the end of the reign of King Ahaz when the Isaiah prophesied that the coming of a new messiah or divine leader was near.
According to Isaiah 9 verses 1-2, the policies of the previous leadership had led the nation into being annexed and having significant portions of its provinces carved out, but the birth of a new political era was coming that would reverse this situation according to the portends of Isaiah. In verses 2-9, the Hebraic text gives a vivid picture of how the coming divine leader would lead the nation into a time of military might, harvest and abundance and widespread justice and righteousness. These words gave hope to many in the Hebrew nation who believed the next king would bring about a time of social peace and prosperity.
But not everyone saw this as a time of celebration. For those skeptical of the incoming monarchy and its policies they saw this as a time to resist, for they hoped that the prophet’s words spoke of a time still yet to come. As seen in verse 18 of chapter 9, the nation eventually descended into a social breakdown and the kingdom turned into chaos as a result of bad deals made by proceeding ruling dynasties. This situation created many different visions of what the nation needed and what God might be doing among them. But through it all their nation never completely lost hope in God, even though the hope they had was a conflicted hope.
I think this biblical passage is very telling and instructive to where we are right now. Just as there were those who heard the words of the prophet and were excited about the coming of a new king and a new political era, there were others who were skeptical and believed that the prophet was speaking of a time still to come. One group saw hope in their present king and how he served their political aspirations while another group saw hope in the new era that might come much later as a result of their collective resistance.
Finding a Prophetic Hope for Today
As an African American minister rooted in the prophetic, truth-telling, and justice seeking tradition of the church, I am beyond concerned about the incoming Presidential administration. In my opinion, thus far President Trump has displayed very little regard for the values of equality, social justice and care for the poor and disenfranchised that my tradition holds dear. Instead what I’ve seen from President Trump since he began his campaign is a steady rhetorical stream of speech filled with authoritarianism, hyper nationalism, bigotry, misogyny and plutocracy. My enthusiasm about the Trump presidency is admittedly non-existent.
But I recognize there are those who feel quite differently than I do. Many of whom are individuals who profess a commitment, like myself, to the ideals of that 1st century Jew named Jesus. I am quite certain that as I am seeking God to give me peace in the midst of my existential angst, there are others equally as sincere who are joyfully thanking their God for the coming of this new political era.
The prophetic hope to which our Christian faith calls us looks very different to me than it does to those who have eagerly awaited the Trump presidency. As people of faith, we are called to be people who hold on to hopewhether this be for us a season of lament or a season of rejoicing. For those like myself this hope will be in words of collective resistance and images of a time to come when things will not be as they are now. For others more joyfully about the present political order they will find hope in words of affirmation and anticipation about the prosperity and positive change they see on the horizon in our country.
But whatever the hope we hold, be it rooted in resistance or anticipation, we must fiercely hold to it because that is the only thing that will keep us from being irreparably torn asunder by cynicism, despair, and hate.
Bible Study Questions:
1) During this time of polarization and division in politics and religion in what ways have you sought to build relationship and communication with people who think differently from you?
2) By what process of discernment do you identify your positions and the hopes on which they are based? How can understanding our hopes open our hearts and minds to understanding others with whom we disagree?
3) What are the best resources for the sustaining of hope among Christians with vastly different social views?
4) In what ways do prophetic biblical texts like Isaiah inform your faith journey during heated political times?
Books for Consideration:
The Third Reconstruction by William Barber & Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove
The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann
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