While I normally enjoy my Tuesday spot in the Anxious Bench rotation, it did leave me with the unenviable responsibility of posting on a particularly fractious Election Day. I thought about doing something as apolitical as possible, but ultimately decided I should address the election in some fashion. So after I cast my absentee ballot a couple weeks ago, I sat down to write an open letter to the only person who deserves to receive such an epistle from me: me. I took some inspiration from the name of this blog, the “anxious bench” being the place where 19th century revivalist Charles Finney would encourage people to come up and decide to follow Jesus Christ.
October 25, 2016
(to be opened November 8, 2016)
It’s finally here: the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
You’ve already mailed in your absentee ballot, but read this letter today as a reminder that your work is not done. For today is not just Election Day. It’s also Decision Day.
As your pastor puts it in the book you’re writing together, all Christians must “decide again and again, day after day, whether to trust God’s faithfulness.” Mark frames that decision in this way: either “to rest in the fickle, fleeting powers and inadequate idols of our world” or “to put our hope resolutely in God and live like it.”
This decision making happens constantly, and not usually in public. But in this election season, in full view of a media spotlight that is unrelenting, unforgiving, and not entirely unfair, it’s clear that too many of us who bear the name of Christ have chosen the rest of idolatry over the hope of God. If you’re being honest, you’ll admit that you too have occasionally been less than faithful and instead trusted in your own miniscule power to influence this election.
The spotlight might fade after the votes are counted, the losers (we hope) have conceded, and the country gets on with its business. But if only in the privacy of our hearts, today gives each of us yet another chance to decide “to put one’s faith in God and so to allow hope in the fulfillment of God’s promises to blossom and bear the fruit of love….”
It’s Decision Day: may you live by faith.
Not faith in political candidates, who know how easy it is to manipulate our anxieties and aspirations. Not faith in religious leaders, who are tempted to convert their followers’ trust into the coin of the realm: political power and cultural influence.
No, you must decide again to live by faith in God, “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps 46:1). For so long as “we are taking our stand upon Scripture,” wrote some Christians living through an earlier political crisis, “then let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to the Word of God, in order that God’s people be of one mind upon earth and that we in faith experience what he himself has said: ‘I will never leave you, nor forsake you’ [Deut 31:6, Heb 13:5].”
This faith is not an ideological conviction reshaped and reinforced by images of fear and anger, but a “conviction of things not seen,” an Abraham-like obedience that permits us to sojourn in this world even as we “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:1,16).
So remember that, whatever else it is, November 8, 2016 is the Lord’s day — and much good, most of it unseen by you, will come of it.
It’s Decision Day: may you live in hope.
Given so strong and present a refuge as our God, “we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” (Ps 46:2). Though terrorists attack, though the economy stagnates, though the wrong candidate is elected… we will not fear.
(Today has been rehearsed in your imagination so often, and with so much emotion, that it has started to carry almost apocalyptic weight. So before you let an early return prompt you to unleash another doomsday scenario on your unamused wife, bear in mind what historian Tommy Kidd recently told Baptist Press: “Christians have routinely forecast the ominous consequences of the election of certain candidates throughout American history… The election of those candidates has almost never led to anything as dire as what people predicted.”)
So decide to live in hope. Remember that you, unlike the earliest Christians, have never experienced a “time without Christ… having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). And yet you, like most other white American Protestants, are too easily convinced to abandon hopeful expectation for the dubious relief of nervous nostalgia, to yearn for the restoration of “better times” that were in fact much worse for many of your fellow sisters and brothers in Christ.
For example, the Public Religion Research Institute reported today that 74% of the white evangelicals they surveyed believed that American culture has worsened since 1950, while 62% of their African American counterparts said the opposite. So remember what Russell Moore wrote earlier this year: “White American Christians who respond to cultural tumult with nostalgia are blinding themselves to the injustices faced by their black and brown brothers and sisters in the supposedly idyllic Mayberry of white Christian America. That world was murder, sometimes literally, for minority evangelicals.”
As Moore emphasizes in his most recent book, we are “strangers and exiles” in this world (Heb 11:13, ESV). So not only should you resist the temptation of investing your hope in the past, you should never be entirely comfortable with the present. If “we will not fear… though the earth should change,” then we can experience economic, demographic, cultural, political, and every other kind of upheaval and yet live in hope.
After all, the God of Creation and Resurrection is “making all things new” (Rev 21:5) — including you.
It’s Decision Day: may you live with love.
Precisely because we can “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful,” we should also “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds…” (Heb 10:23-24). For the only faith “that counts is faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). The only hope that makes a difference in this world is the one that inspires love.
So first, decide again to love other Christians, including those who have been driving you crazy all year with their irrational (to you), incomprehensible (by you) political views. Remember that Jesus Christ “is our peace,” the Reconciler who “removed the hostility” between Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:14-16). And while such worldly distinctions have been erased in Christ, never expect that the unity you claim to cherish should ever resemble uniformity. For this “message of peace,” teaches Pope Francis, “is not about a negotiated settlement but rather the conviction that the unity brought by the Spirit can harmonize every diversity.”
Then second, decide again to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jer 29:7, NIV). You must choose again and again to love your neighbors, especially those whom you’re told again and again to consider your enemies. (“For if you love those who love you,” Jesus asked, “what reward do you have?”)
As people of faith and hope, we should not make too much of any single Election Day. But as people of love, we should also resist the temptation to make too little of it: to insist that God is in control (though He is) and wash our hands of a worldly ritual that inevitably leaves us feeling dirty and dissatisfied. Democracy remains our best bad option for human government, and that demands we participate alongside our fellow citizens.
Today’s result will most likely have little immediate effect on people like you, who have a rather comfortable, secure existence. But many other people stand to suffer a great deal should our nation make an unwise choice. The youngest and the oldest, the poor and unemployed, religious, racial, and sexual minorities, those living beyond our borders whose safety and prosperity is directly linked to this country’s foreign policy, and those who came from afar seeking new freedom and opportunity: their lives are far more susceptible than yours to changes in law and public policy.
So while you’ve already cast your vote, take time today to pray for fellow citizens struggling with a choice they might well regard as “the lesser of two evils.” Pray that they will decide with all the fairness and selflessness of which they’re capable, in the hope that that small act of love may make an enormous difference in the life of a neighbor they’ll never meet.
Grace and peace,