Some time ago, Ben Myers, a systematics professor at United Theological College in Sydney, Australia, summarized the Bible, book by book, using Twitter. He did an admirable job of capturing the themes of First and Second Kings:
1 Kings: So, you really want a monarchy huh? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
2 Kings: I told you so.
Read together, the message of those two books could be understood as an endorsement of theocracy (i.e., the direct rule of God). But they are much better read – as they have been by most Jews and Christians – as a salutary warning against relying on human rulers for things that they can’t provide.
The climate of the current campaign for President of the United States would suggest that we have forgotten that lesson – yet again.
The rhetoric that the candidates use and the promises that they make are outsized and overreaching. The scope of the promises that voters are exacting from the candidates defy reason, and the heat of the exchanges between voters is marked by the kind of vitriol that would suggest we stand on the precipice of domestic and international apocalypse. It is often said that our politics have become our religion. If so, it is a virulent form of religion, where fire and brimstone preaching, coercion, threats of violence and the specter of hellfire and damnation have once again found a home.
It can’t be denied that we face enormous challenges, nor can it be denied that the choice of the next President will shape the immediate future to some degree. But the nature of this year’s presidential campaign suggests that we also have a spiritual problem and like a lingering virus finds new energy every four years.
We have slipped, unthinkingly, into the notion that the choice of a President can vanquish poverty and racism, heal the oceans, protect us from all harm, eliminate hatred, right all wrongs, guarantee equal outcomes for every man, woman and child – the list is endless. Presidents have never been able to work these miracles. They never will. And – if they attempt it – they will result to sweeping, authoritarian behavior. That they and we imagine it is impossible is evident in the outsized importance attributed to those elections and in the increasing degree which Presidents resort to executive orders.
As we measure what the candidates and as we debate the issues, it is worth remembering certain spiritual truths:
One: This world will never be what it should be.
We can and should work to improve it. We can and should nurture structures that make for growing well-being. But the perfection of human society is beyond us, all of us, including our leaders. That is the assumption that lies behind both the Old and the New Testament. The Kingdom has come, but it is not here in its fullness and only God can bring that fullness into being.
Two: You and I have responsibilities and those responsibilities cannot be discharged by electing “the right person” to do our work for us.
The President of the United States is not our pater or mater familias, and we are not his or her children. The President is a peer, chosen for a brief interval, to provide a sharply circumscribed set of responsibilities. He or she cannot absolve us of the obligation to shoulder own share of work in this world, whether it is caring for our own families or for our neighbors.
Three: You and I will be hurt. We will struggle and we will experience losses.
We do not live in a world that is insulated from loss. To expect to be insulated from that loss by our leaders is infantilizing and a distraction from the soul work that all of us need to do. Biblical shalom, or peace is not the absence of conflict. It is about a life centered in God, whatever the circumstances might be.
Four: As such, life requires courage, endurance, and faithfulness from all of us.
Whatever we decide about the role and scope of government, you and I will need to volunteer our own, unprompted contribution to the well being of the world. We share in the behavior that contributes to this world’s pain. We share in the behavior that makes for life and liberation.
Five: The locus of God’s saving work in the world is the church – the body of Christ – not the body politic.
The place where the values of God’s Kingdom are embraced and lived out is in the church. The church is, therefore, not just God’s instrument of salvation, it is our spiritual destiny, where – by virtue of our baptism – we journey into God in Christ. It is there that we are transformed, not just individually, but as a community. It is there that God’s will holds sway. It is there that God’s healing intention is given lived expression. To think otherwise completely misunderstands the message of the New Testament and infantilizes the church. By all means vote. But don’t suppose that in doing so you have done what God has called you to do and become.
Six: In the end, we are dependent upon the goodness of God.
Our horizons should not be fixed by the length of our own lives, by the lives of our children, or the lives of our grandchildren. The life that is marked by hope and boundless charity is a life that is dedicated to the purposes of God. The freedom to give ourselves to that work, even when our efforts are frustrated or incomplete, arises out of the conviction that we are not engaged in endeavors of our own making. They are the outworking of God’s love for the world.
So, let’s stop, listen, deliberate.
But remember, the choice we make will not deliver us from all harm and meet all of our needs – let alone the ones that only God can meet. And the next inauguration will not usher in heaven on earth:
Because the world is broken…
Because there is a God and you are not…
Because our Presidents are not our parents, and we are not their infant children…
Because you were brought into this world to discover what might be a faithful and courageous response to the will of God…
And on the first day after the votes are collected and the celebrations begin, the spiritual challenge will remain the same.
This article is a somewhat revised version of one posted on December 9, 2015: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/whatgodwantsforyourlife/2015/12/5-spiritual-truths-that-wont-change-with-the-election-of-a-new-president/