Advent 1: It’s time to wake up

Romans 13:8-14

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

I’ve been having a field day on my social media reposting the pictures of Supreme Leader-Elect Trump that he told NBC he didn’t like. It’s narcissistic and petulant behavior to tell a media outlet that there are certain photos of you that you don’t want used, particularly when you have been as high profile as he has. It’s simply the cost of doing business. Anyone who has their picture taken that often is bound to have a dud or two. So, yes, I have been amusing myself to no end, reposting the least flattering pictures of Trump that I can find.

Then this morning I got called out. A friend that I highly respect mentioned that one of the pictures that I posted was ageist and fat shaming. It was a particularly unflattering picture in which Trump looked very jowly. I didn’t intend it as commentary on his age or weight, but as I’m often reminded, intent does not exempt you. My friend reminded me that it is easy to hide behind the guise of fighting fire with fire. It’s easy to lose sight of the man’s dangerous policies and simply attack the man. “When they go low, we go high,” was Michelle Obama’s rallying cry to Mrs. Clinton’s supporters during the campaign. For many, that philosophy went out the window on Nov. 9th.

Politics is a dirty business and were I to only act as a political creature, it would be perfectly fine to use the same dirty tactics of the people that I don’t like. But I am not purely a political creature or even primarily so. My identity is wrapped up first and foremost in my desire to live in the way of Jesus. My primary mandate is love. On occasion I forget that and so, on occasion, I must be shaken awake.

Love, Paul says, is the only thing we owe anyone. Perhaps it is better stated that love is the thing that we owe everyone, even those with whom we serious disagreements. Without recognizing this debt of love, we are likely to fall into the same cycle of name-calling, mudslinging, and dehumanization that has impedes progress. We slip mindlessly into a mode of insult and accusation. We fall asleep and lose our better selves.

But we know what time it is! The signs are all around us. We cannot afford to do business as usual. We can’t let our conduct devolve as the world erodes around us. The time has come for more compassion, not less. More empathy, not less. More understanding, not less. More love, not less. That doesn’t mean that we sink into base sentimentality. Justice is still a requirement of love, but our work for justice must be done in such a way that the dignity of the oppressor is acknowledged alongside the dignity of the oppressed. This is a tall order, one the church has often found itself not up for.

Now is the time to wake from sleep. When we use the language of being “woke”, it is so often about being alert to the injustices around us, but Paul is calling us to be aware to our own response to the world. We cannot fight injustice with injustice. We cannot fight hate with hate. We cannot fight betrayal with betrayal. We can only counter the darkness with love.

Lay aside the work of darkness… put on the armor of light. It’s interesting that Paul refers to light as an armor. It is protection. Protection for our hearts and minds. Protection so that we might not lose our souls while living in the dark world. Love protects us from the corroding influence of hatred in our lives.

Let us live honorably… We know what a decent, honorable life looks like. It’s not legalistic and stuffy. It’s not a burdensome following of rules. It’s a respectful and loving engagement with the people around us, especially those with whom we have disagreements. It’s about living in a way that people who may not respect our ideas can at least respect the ways that we carry ourselves. It’s about dignity. It’s about not dehumanizing ourselves first and foremost, let allowing ourselves to become something less than what we know ourselves to be.

The way we do things is as important as the things we do. It is time for those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ to understand that. Our speech and conduct often lump us in with those that we condemn. The stakes are too high for us to sink to dishonorable means, even if we believe that the ends justify them. We have to let all that we think, say, do and post be guided by an ethic of love. It is what is demanded of us in the dark days ahead…

 

 

 

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Make Thanksgiving Awkward Again!

“So, Uncle Frank, did you vote for Trump?”

“No seriously, did you? And if so, why?”

Yeah, I know, you don’t want to do that. Who wants to have uncomfortable conversations about politics over family meals? My therapist and I joked that there would be an unusual amount of cancellations for family dinner this year. She encouraged me that maybe my trip back and forth across the Pennsylvania turnpike would be easier than I expected.

Look, the odds are good that, if you’re white, you are related to someone who voted for the Supreme Leader-elect. You can bury your head in the sand about it. You can deny that it happened. You can ignore it. But you know what? I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t. In fact, I would take it as a bit of a personal insult if you just let it slide.

See, here’s the thing, one of the reasons the polls were off before the election is that a lot of people who voted for the Supreme Leader simply didn’t own up to it. That’s what you do when you’re doing something that you’re ashamed of. Now, I’m not saying that if you voted for Trump you should be ashamed… wait… that’s exactly what I’m saying. Many people were rightfully embarrassed that they “had” to vote for that man. They voted from party loyalty, some hot button single-issue, for supreme court justices, what have you, but they did it in the shadows. They threw smokescreens and used misdirection.

“Uncle Frank, who are you voting for?”

“Look over there! An otter is riding a giraffe!”

“Where? Uncle Frank? Where did you go?”

I worry that a lot of my friends won’t push their relatives because they want to be polite. They want to play nice for an evening. They want to watch football and listen to Aunt Shirley talk about her swollen ankles. That’s cool.

That’s also privilege.

See, for many of us, the realities that are slowly emerging with the Supreme Leader’s new regime are making clear what we suspected. He’s surrounding himself with white supremacists, homophobes, and climate change deniers who want to cut taxes for the very rich and remove the social safety net for the most vulnerable. And the media is beginning to give him a pass, as if his administration is just the typical changing of the guard. To act like this is business as usual is to betray the fact that your safety is not at risk. You can hide behind the veneer of respectability and pretend that millions aren’t living in fear. That must be nice.

Marginalized people are wearing down. We’re tired of having the conversations with the majority population. Our mental health is at risk. Our physical health is at risk. Turning on the news is triggering. Going on social media is triggering. The world doesn’t feel good right now. And the worst part of it is the feeling of hopelessness that comes from the fact that we can’t operate in the circles where those who don’t understand our fear exist.

This is a challenge to my majority friends: risk the awkward conversation. Risk the discomfort. Risk the hurt feelings. Risk the disapproving glare. Risk it for the sake of the marginalized who don’t have your Uncle Frank’s ear. Risk it for those of us who won’t be invited to Aunt Shirley’s book club. Risk it for your cousin who is afraid of coming out of the closet. Have the conversations about how your minority friends, your Muslim friends, and your LGBT friends are scared, literally scared. Stick your neck out for us, just a little…

Please?

 

 

Reject. Resist. Rebel.

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Early Wednesday morning, when it became clear who was going to win the election, I changed the profile picture on my Facebook page to this image. If you don’t know what it is (and how are you reading my blog without knowing what this image is? Do you know me at all?) it is the symbol of the rebellion and the resistance from Star Wars. It is supposed to represent a phoenix, a creature born in the ashes of the empire. It felt appropriate. It remains my profile picture.

I’ve taken trips through all of the stages of grief since Wednesday. This election felt very personal. I felt and still feel a great sense of betrayal that I’m not sure that I can explain adequately to my white friends even those who voted the same way as I did. Even up to the last minute, I toyed with the idea of voting third party. Ultimately I did not do so for one reason and one reason only: I am not a special snowflake. Voting is about the collective. It’s my small contribution to the community that is this nation. Yes, on paper, Jill Stein’s values line up far closer to mine than did Mrs. Clinton’s but in the end, to risk the lives of my Muslim friends, those at risk of being deported, my LGBTQ friends, and others who look like me was just asking too much. It’s not about me. It’s about us.

The sense of betrayal comes from hearing the defenses of those who voted for Trump while proclaiming loudly “I am not racist! I am not homophobic! “I am not sexist!” Even giving those people the benefit of the doubt, I have to question if they believe that the ends justify the means. At one point in the election, I began writing a blog post in which I stated that my worst fear would be a “successful” Trump presidency. Even if he makes somewhat rational decisions and the country flourishes under his leadership, what has been demonstrated is that it is okay to say anything to win, even if your words incite violence and hatred. When asked this week if he thought any of his rhetoric had gone too far, Mr. Trump bluntly replied “No. I won”. For him, the ends justify the means. I’m here to say that’s not okay. That’s not leadership. Mr. Trump played upon this country’s darkest impulses to fuel his candidacy; it’s arrogance, it’s hatred, it’s selfishness. After two winning campaigns built on hope, the population reverted back to voting our fears.

In the end, Mrs. Clinton’s biggest misstep may have been her “basket of deplorables” comment. It showed a disdain for a part of the country she desperately needed to win over. People began wearing the word “deplorable” as a badge of honor. Sit with that one for a minute, taking pride in being evil. That’s what this election drove us to.

Many will say that Mr. Trump said many things that he won’t actually do as president. While it may be true that he never intended to do some of what he promised or may not have the authority to do other pieces, I have to take the man at his word, because he has shown himself as someone that it is foolish to underestimate. I will not make that mistake again. The world of a President Trump is upon us and if he does even a fraction of the things that he promised than vigilance becomes the order of the day. Already, as he begins to create his transition team and potential cabinet, we see that makings of a regime that is homophobic, anti-science, racist, and firmly in the grasp of monied interests. He has talked about just this week dismantling the department of education, repealing the health care law (in part), deregulating the banks, shrinking the environmental protection agency, and undoing marriage equality. To me, the threat is clear.

This is an excellent time to be the church of Jesus Christ. Not the evangelical political party that votes on single issues, but the church established by a first century Palestinian living under Roman occupation. Jesus spoke more than anything else of the “kingdom of God” and we have, in our liberal zeal, weakened that language. We think it too militaristic and patriarchal to speak of “kingdoms” so we use light and fluffy language like “the kin-dom of God” or “dream of God”. I appreciate the sensibilities there, I really do, but we lose sight of the stakes. Jesus was speaking of an empire to be created in subversion of the existing one. An empire that would use a completely different set of weapons, strategies, and tactics. Jesus was talking about infiltrating the empire the way that yeast infiltrates dough and the way that mustard plants infiltrate fields. Jesus was mounting an insurrection of justice and love. Jesus was plotting a rebellion.

I reject the notion that we have to give into our worst impulses to make political change in this country. I reject the tactics of bullying and intimidation. I reject the maneuver of making others feel small so that I might feel big. I reject the idea that our greatness comes from who we exclude. I reject the notions of scarcity that drive so much of our political discourse. We are a nation of abundance, we only lack the will to share.

I will resist President Trump if he tries to make good on his campaign promises.

If President Trump decides to register all Muslims, I will register as Muslim.

If President Trump reverses marriage equality, I will officiate same sex marriages.

If President Trump enforces stop and frisk laws, I will pull over whenever I see a person of color pulled over by a cop.

If President Trump does nothing about climate change, I will plant trees and gardens everywhere I go.

If President Trump gets Rowe. V Wade overturned, I will help set up clinics where needed abortions can be done safely and without judgment.

If President Trump destroys the department of education, I will find even more ways to get involved not only in my kids’ schools but the most vulnerable schools in my area.

I will rebel.

This song from the incomparable Ms. Lauryn Hill has been in my head all week. The lyrics are:

I find it hard to say, that everything is alright
Don’t look at me that way, like everything is alright
Cuz my own eyes can see, through all your false pretenses
But what you fail to see, is all the consequences
You think our lives are cheap, and easy to be wasted
As history repeats, so foul you can taste it
And while the people sleep, too comfortable to face it
His life so incomplete, and nothing can replace it
And while the people sleep, too comfortable to face it
Your lives so incomplete, and nothing can replace it
Fret not thyself I say, against these laws of man
Cuz like the Bible says, His blood is on their hands
And what I gotta say, and what I gotta say, is rebel
While today is still today, choose well
And what I gotta say, is rebel, it can’t go down this way
Choose well, choose well, choose well…
…choose well, choose well, choose well
And while the people sleep, too comfortable to face it
Your lives are so incomplete, and nothing, and no one, can replace it
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no
And what I gotta say, and what I gotta say
And what I gotta say, and what I gotta say
And what I gotta say, and what I gotta say
And what I gotta say, and what I gotta say
Is rebel… rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel
Rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel
Repent, the day is far too spent, rebel… rebel!
Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up…
Wake up and rebel
We must destroy in order to rebuild
Wake up, you might as well
Oh are you… oh are you satisfied
Oh are you satisfied
Rebel… ohhh rebel
Why don’t you rebel, why don’t you rebel?
Why don’t you rebel?

It was easy to feel despair on Wednesday. It was easy to fear. I was absolutely overwhelmed by emotions. But the work continues and the stakes have never been more clear. I hope for a better world for me and my friends, especially the most vulnerable of them.  I hope for a better world for our planet. I hope for a better world for my kids.

To bring us full circle, I come back to Star Wars. As excited as I was for episode 7 last year, the upcoming Rogue One feels even more like the movie we need. It is the story of the rebel group that steals the plans for the Death Star ultimately leading into the events of the original film. It’s a story of the powerless against the powerful. It is the story of the few against the many and the mighty. It is a story about hope. Because rebellions are built on hope…

 

 

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With Hearts Exposed…

There are many surprisingly vulnerable moments that come along with parenting. Being a parent makes you feel exposed in all kinds of ways. You examine the kind of person that you are and you wonder what it is that young ones are picking up from you. You worry about being able to provide the quality of life you would hope for them. You hope that in the future they won’t judge your decisions too harshly.

For me, there has been an additional way that parenting has made me feel vulnerable that has surprised me these last few years. As my kids get older, I have begun to introduce them to the things that I love; books, music, and especially movies. Sharing those things you treasure with the people that you treasure feels like giving a piece of yourself away. You watch them to see how they are reacting to this thing that has brought your life so much pleasure and you hope that they find the joy in it that you have. I remember the elation of watching Star Wars with Thomas for the first time… and the twinge of disappointment as he was sound asleep before the attack on the Death Star began. It’s silly, but in that moment, I felt a little rejected. His love of The Force Awakens has softened the blow considerably!

I had another such moment a couple of weekends ago as we all huddled on the couch and watched E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. E.T. is my first love, the first film I have even the vaguest memory of seeing in the theater. It is timeless to me. Things I appreciated about it as a kid have only been enhanced by the aspects I enjoy as an adult. It is a beautiful story of friendship, family, love, and loss. It’s funny, suspenseful, touching, and the music is among John Williams’ finest work, which is saying a lot. The reception from the kids was lukewarm. The dark tone of the opening scared them a bit, but as the movie went on, they got more into it, asking questions every couple minutes or so. I’ll admit, that at some point I got so lost in the film myself that I stopped monitoring the kids’ responses.

I noticed something watching the film this last time, something I’ve seen before but that hit me in a new way. In the opening of the film, you see several of the alien species roaming through the forest, apparently on some sort of expedition to study our planet’s plant life. As danger comes and they have fear of being discovered, a cavity in their torsos lights up. They use that light to communicate with each other. As the film goes on we see that light again on E.T. and realize that the light is exposing his heart. E.T. is from a species that literally connects heart to heart. Unable to communicate the way he would with another of his species, E.T. forms some sort of psychic bond with Elliot. Elliot feels what he E.T. feels. They share both emotional and physical experiences, even drunkenness (which was fun to explain to the kids). And when E.T.’s health begins to decline, Elliot’s does as well. Elliot, a child of divorce who is becoming increasingly cynical in his young age, begins to feel. He literally suffers with E.T., the very definition of compassion.

et-heart

Yes, it’s corny as hell to draw an illustration from a movie that is nearly as old as I am, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Look, this election season has been hard. It feels like it has brought out the worst in us. Our fears, anxieties, biases, prejudices, and insecurities have all been laid bare. I know that many have misgivings about the future and some worry that regardless of the result, there are just some things that cannot be unsaid. It feels like we may not be able to heal from this. The temptation then is to protect ourselves, retreat into our echo chambers, put our armor on, and harden to the world around us. The temptation is to grow cold and cynical. The challenge for us is to resist these temptations and to live into a love that makes us compassionate. We need to live with our hearts exposed.

There is a quote by Kurt Vonnegut that I love:

Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.

I believe this election cycle was the natural result of a world that has made us harden. We’ve closed our hearts to people of other races. We’ve closed our hearts to immigrants and are attempting to close our borders. We’ve closed our hearts to women. We’ve closed our hearts to the poor. We’ve closed our hearts to the point of thinking that we always need to be armed against our fellow citizens.  The result was a candidate seemingly lacking in empathy, who reflected a notion that the only way to be in this world is tough and crass. A candidate who reflects a sense of insecurity and instability that says we can talk loud and take what we want to hide the fact that we feel small and scared.

The revolution we need in our nation is not a political one. We need a revolution of the heart. We need to be willing to be exposed and vulnerable, even when life has beaten us down. C.S. Lewis said “to love is to be vulnerable” and we need far more love in our world. We need more people who are willing to take on the suffering of others. We need more bleeding hearts. We need more dreamers and wide-eyed optimists to push against the ongoing tide of cynicism because make no mistake, this election was the natural result of a cynical electorate. We need to expose our vulnerabilities and communicate heart to heart.

I will go out to vote in a few hours. It seems naive to write such fluffy sentiment when so much is seemingly at stake. I actually have a great deal of peace about the results of the election. I am worried about the world of November 9th. I am worried about repeating our mistakes. I am worried that a political system that neatly divides us in to constituency groups will continue to harden us against an “opposition” that is actually our neighbor. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia of having watched a childhood favorite movie and getting to do so with my babies, but I want to be soft. I want to be pliable. I want to wear my heart on my sleeve. I want to be a passionate lover of the world knowing full well that I may have my heart broken. I want to suffer with those who hurt and grieve with those who mourn. I want the good that I do to come from a place of deep connection with people, not some sense of obligation. I want to risk connection with people and put my fears aside.

I want to be like E.T. an live with my heart exposed. And I hope I will find others who want to do so that we might live life connecting heart to heart.

 

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Guest post: Should Christians Vote: Two Pastors Walk into a Debate

A couple of friends who are Presbyterian ministers had a conversation about whether or not we should vote as citizens of the kingdom of God. They wrote out their conversation and asked if I would post it on my blog. I was happy to do so. To be clear, I’m not taking sides on this one, but both Ben and Jeff make compelling arguments about where our responsibilities lie as both citizens and believers. I’m sure they’ll be following the comments so please chime in. 

By Ben Beres and Jeffrey A. Schooley

Introductory Note: Ben and Jeff are friends who agree on so much: the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the relative mastery of Urban Meyer and the Ohio State University Buckeyes in college football, the supremacy of the Cleveland baseball, how amazing spicy garlic chicken wings are, and why Kent State University (where they met) is holy ground. Yet, as much as they agree and are brothers, they disagree deeply about what Christian engagement in politics looks like. What follows is a loving disagreement in conversation form. Our hope is that this conversation extends into a greater conversation amongst many brothers and sisters in Christ.

JAS: Ben, I’m not going to vote in this November’s election and I don’t think you should either. And to be very clear, it’s not because of the candidates, but because I’m not convinced that voting is a particularly Christian thing to do. But I know that you’re planning to vote and have even been preaching a sermon series at your church about this sort of topic, so wrestle me to your position on this matter.

BB: Gladly, sir!  Fair warning:  I did pin a guy in high school in less time than it took to read this sentence.  Gravity and brute strength will likely be less help here though.  Why don’t you kick us off?  Why isn’t voting an exercise of Christian faith?

JAS: What I meant by “not a particularly Christian thing to do” is that there is no law, rule, mandate, or paradigm in scripture that in anyway encourages a social practice called voting. It does not seem – in any way – to be connected to Jesus’ Lordship or the Kingdom of God. And, of course, historically there have been millions upon millions upon millions of Christians who exercised their discipleship without democracy. So, yeah, I don’t think voting is all that important.

BB:  See, I disagree already.  Theologically, I see the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:28 at play in so much of lives, pushing us beyond what has been given into diverse means of utilizing and shepherding all things.  There weren’t beer or cheeseburgers in the Garden, yet both can be done well, even to the glory of God.  From the start, we’ve been given the authority to be stewards over the created order, done faithfully and best when we check our will by his Sovereign will.  Also, 1 Samuel 8 recounts the Lord honoring the people’s choice to have a human king over the sovereign one they had.  Though it was (obviously) a grievous error, there’s at least precedent for the will of the people to be used in leadership and policy selection.  For a more faithful example, Acts records the casting of (bal)lots to select Judas’ replacement.  The Apostles trusted the Spirit to work through their choices then too.  Could modern democratic process be a redeemed aspect of that same honoring of human agency?  I think so.  Is it essential to a faithful expression of Christian faith?  No, of course not.  As you say, millions and millions of Christians today and saints in the Church Triumphant have never pulled a lever or picked off a hanging chad and still find full and satisfying discipleships.  But as a particular gift given to the peoples of republics, Christians among them, we have a chance to exercise our creational stewardship over policy and politics by casting ballots.  As an exercise of a gift we’ve been particularly given, sure, it’s not critical to our faith, but it’s by no means out of bounds for the people of God.  

JAS: You’re right, I only explained why voting isn’t mandatory; I didn’t explain why you shouldn’t vote. I’m troubled that democracy is not morally neutral. I know that our American version of it does not presume to legislate religion and has a strict separation between church and state, but I think there’s decent enough evidence that politics is a type of pagan religion. Anecdotally, it certainly elicits a comparable sort of fervor amongst its most strident practitioners. In fact, I fully expect to be yelled at – actually yelled at – by someone just because I challenged the golden calf of voting. Beyond that, though, the offices that we elect men and women to are bigger than these people. The offices force conformation.

BB: Give me an example of that last part about conformation, because I’m not sure I see it.

JAS: Tim Kaine, the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket, said during the VP debate that even though he doesn’t personally agree with capital punishment and even though his Catholic faith tradition doesn’t condone capital punishment, when he was governor of Virginia, he discharged the duties of his office, which included overseeing the execution of inmates by the state. And what he said is just keeping in line with a line of political reasoning that has been in place since John F. Kennedy – as a candidate in 1960 – assured the American public that his own Catholic faith would not interfere with his being president. Ben, I think you’d agree with me that – as pastors – our greatest hope is that our people’s Christian faith regularly interfere with their lives. But it has now become a political virtue to boast about how one’s personal faith (and by “personal,” I suspect they always mean “private”) won’t impact their work. If this is really true – and I have no reason to doubt that it is – then I’m not entirely sure why it’s important to even try to get to know the character of any candidate include his/her religious identity. All of that character and religion isn’t big enough to overcome the weight of the office they are pursuing. As such, I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear someone tell me with great fervor that we must have a Christian in the Oval Office. Putting a Christian in Hell doesn’t magically transform that place to Heaven.

BB:  No doubt.  And yet, we still see politicians, again here in America, scrambling to prove their Christian bonafides because they know that nationally a majority still self-identify as Christian.  We know that claiming faith isn’t the same as having it, and that many who would say that don’t darken the doors of churches each week or actively attempt the live their discipleship in the day-to-day, but that’s a different conversation.  Personally, I think it’s a question of integrity; what holds primacy in my thoughts, speech, and action.  I agree that there’s a serious disconnect when someone says (or just lives) that their faith is compartmentalized as a mere facet of their life.  But my main objection to your statement is that anything is morally neutral.  If I’m given a knife, it has no moral standing.  If I use it chop vegetables for a salad, I’ve used it well.  If I use it to stab someone, I’ve used it poorly.  Certainly systems have more moving parts than a kitchen knife, and granted, positions come with expectations, but I think that one, committed to honoring God and loving neighbor through his or her work could find means of challenging and changing those expectations, to make their work a holy vocation, instead of a faith vacation.  

JAS: Maybe the heart of my concern is – in the words of Stanley Hauerwas in A Community of Character – that “Christian enthusiasm for the political involvement offered by our secular polity has made us forget the church’s more profound political task. In the interest of securing more equitable forms of justice possible in our society, Christians have failed to challenge the moral presuppositions of our polity and society.” And this “presupposition” is “the liberal assumption that a just polity is possible without the people being just.” He then goes on to talk about what it takes to develop virtuous people and finds politics completely wanting in this task. I think the best example of politics’ failure to make people more virtuous can be seen precisely in how little democracy asks of us. Even if you research every issue, every candidate, and vote in every election, you can generally be disconnected from politics except for a once a year or so. I think the best way to judge the quality of any ideology/organization is to investigate the habits, practices, and disciplines it requires of you. By this standard, the Boys Scouts and Alcoholics Anonymous are pretty good ideology/organization because they are pretty all-consuming. The Church is greater still because it consumes every bit of you – sins and all – and seeks Christ’s transformation in our lives. The Church moves us ever forward to completing the greatest ethical demand on our lives, which is to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. Politics, by comparison, asks you to be entertained by the circus and then push a few buttons. In exchange, you get a sticker. It’s rather pathetic when viewed as such and I think Christians have greater ambitions for the lives of our neighbors than to see them become mere button-pushing, sticker-wearing, democratic followers.

BB:  I absolutely agree!  I’d say that this is because the average Christian has just as much responsibility to be an engaged and informed citizen as they would if they were a Boy Scout or AA participant.  Does it require work?  Sure.  Active participation?  Absolutely!  I do think you’re onto something with the sticker.  I want to believe that it began as a means of encouraging participation, a form of healthy social accountability, but you can’t thinkingly watch a political ad and notice how engineered their language is to say what soundbite they want you to take-away and what they’re not saying.  Advertising so misleading belies the infantilization of the process that people in power want to encourage.  Both major parties would be glad to either have you sipping their Kool-Aid or become so angry at the actions of their opponents that you vote for one to spite the other.  A recent Fox News poll reported that only 39% of respondents had actual enthusiasm for their candidate.  57% said they planned to vote out of “fear the other candidate wins.”  57%!  We Christians have the good news to share, the powerful message of the God whose perfect love casts out fear.  I have no hope for legislating justice, but I have an abundance of hope for the transformative word that we don’t have to be afraid.  This political season provides us with not only a chance to rightly steward our rule in the Image of God through voting, but to be salt and light in the lives of our fearful friends and neighbors (our given mission field) and model for them hope that isn’t pinned to a fallen person in a fallen office, but a resolute assurance that our God can and does use all things for his glory and purposes.  Even voting.  

Have I convinced you yet?

JAS: You could convince me, except that politics have winners and losers. At the end of the day, I agree wholeheartedly with your call for Christians to be salt and light. I just still cannot see how voting achieves that goal. Our liberal friends and neighbors are terrified of most conservative rule; our conservative friends and neighbors loath the prospects of further liberal polity. At the end of the day, about 47-percent of people are going to be deeply disappointed. If Christians have encouraged their friends and neighbors to participate in this process as a good, holy act of stewardship – per your Genesis 1 reference – then Christians are responsible for the losing 47-percent. We have to explain that, “well, your hope was never really in your candidate winning; it was always in Jesus.” At that point, they would have every right to look at us and ask why we encouraged them to vote in the first place.

One other aspect of voting bothers me and that is the assumption within democracy that each person votes for their own self-interest. I have no idea how a Christian can simultaneously hold that God is first in their life and their neighbor a very close second, leaving themselves as necessarily third… and then turn around and participate in an activity founded upon the presumption of self-interest. When you and I work with the children in our church, we actively teach them to share, think of others first, be kind, and the like. Democratic polity takes all of that work and turns it on its head. Now, I think you’re going to make the case that Christians can vote without buying into self-interest, so go ahead and make that case (‘cause you know I’ve got a rebuttal just slow cooking on the back burner!)

BB: Well, of course there are winners and losers.  This isn’t consensus-building; it’s voting.  We’re asking people to choose the option they prefer with a majority choosing (ideally) what’s in the best interest of the nation.  And I’m not saying that voting itself will make us salt and light; voting is an opportunity for us to be the salt and light we are graciously being made.  Voting is just the vehicle for our witness in this way.  Standing in my garage doesn’t make me a mechanic.  Going to church doesn’t make me a Christian.  Casting a ballot doesn’t make me a participant in a pagan ritual.  Paul didn’t walk amongst the shrines of Athens because he thought he might find holy and faithful worship already happening there; he went to show them a better way, to be a signpost, directing people to the one worthy of their worship.  I wouldn’t use this apologetic to convince my non-Christian neighbors.  That would be a different conversation.  But I think it’s central to how and why we as Christ followers do.  

That leads straight to your other concern: self-interest.  I would certainly agree that the game is set up so that players choose what’s in their own interest.  But I don’t think we have to play by the rules of the game.  Certainly we follow the process and obey polling place laws, but when that little curtain closes behind me, every choice marked on the paper or punched into the computer is an exercise of my own stewardship, which as you note, doesn’t hold me or my desires as the most important consideration.  Romans 12:2 tells us to not be conformed to world, but to transformed by the renewing of our mind.  I think that’s so important, a lynchpin to this whole notion of faithful Christian voting.  We can’t discern the will of God without being transformed.  That requires humility on our part, and an acknowledgement that we don’t always know best.  How can I discern what’s best to vote for?  How to choose what is “good, acceptable, [even] perfect” in his sight for my community?  You don’t start with a political affiliation.  You start with your community, seeing clearly what it is and what it isn’t.  You consider the issues.  You don’t ask “Do I want a methadone clinic in my neighborhood?” but “Do my neighbors need a methadone clinic?”  If they do and you won’t vote for it, you better have solid reasoning, ideas of how you better serve your neighbors without it.  It could be that another clinic isn’t needed, but a support group for addicts and their families is.  Fine; do that.  But what we can’t do, as Christians, is ignore the needs of the hurting, the broken, the lonely, the depressed, because they make us uncomfortable or lower our property values.  If we have concern for the Lord and our neighbors over ourselves, that takes the sting out of “winning and losing,” because we’ve truly ceased playing around.  That’s how we vote in the system, but not of it.  

JAS: I’m glad you ended with systems language because this is at the heart of my concern. Systems – we are learning more and more – are not so easily dismantled, especially when we use the practices and disciplines of the system. If over 100 years of women’s suffrage, over 50 years of African-American civil rights, and over 30 years of LGBT advocacy has taught us anything it’s that sexism, racism, and heteronormativity cannot be legislated away. Systems are insidious. They work best when they make us think we’re making gains, taking meaningful strides, and moving to a more just society, and all the while the social ills are just getting more and more deeply entrenched. Your use of the methadone example is quite pertinent. That a methadone clinic is needed is a result of addiction. But addiction, itself, is a result of genetic predisposition, mental health, the erosion of community, pharmaceutical companies, legal drug classifications, and police enforcement. An addict’s life is caught up in the swirling eddy of all these systems of power, but the local referendum is on whether or not there is a clinic in a neighborhood. See how little and meaningless it all is? It doesn’t do anything about the over-prescribing of opioid narcotics, the legal classification of drugs, the mandatory sentencing of drug offenders, and the corporations that financially benefit from prisons full of people and who lobby legislators for stricter enforcement so as to fill their private prisons. Those who still love and trust the system will now pipe up and say, “Of course, we’re working on that too,” without realizing that their tail-chasing is just another aspect of how the system stays in power. So long as the system can get you to play its game, the system is winning. It’s goal isn’t to actually win the game, but to keep you playing long enough that you lose focus on everything else. It wants your hope, your trust, your love. And when wars come, it will demand your sacrifice too.

I realize at this point in the conversation that people quit reading (but why? You’ve come this far; you’re so close to the end!) because they think I’m advocating revolution. I’m not. What I’ve learned about systems is that systems which are forged in injustice can only ever produce injustice. You can no sooner squeeze justice out of injustice as you can get apple juice out of a cow patty. Worse yet, all systems are forged in injustice. So revolution, which will inevitably abound with a cornucopia of injustices, is not my plan. My plan is for the church to stand back and practice a Christian discipleship that is always and forever a contrasting model to whatever systems are in place. Justice is still a real thing, but any justice that can’t find its origins in the cross of Jesus Christ is probably just a mirage of justice fed to us by a liberal democratic system bent on keeping us spinning in circles by promising us the world and delivering on nothing.

In the end, Jesus has given us what we need. It comes as gift, as grace. He’s in control of history, so we can take our hands off the (voting booth) levers. Injustice truly abounds when we ignore the gift and try to take control of history. Its why what you call “stewardship” above looks more like a need for control. Ironically, it is the very moment we try to take control away from Jesus that we come under the control of all those insidious systems. So, no, I still can’t advocate voting because the world doesn’t need my vote – or any Christian’s vote. What the world needs is to have itself broken systems revealed to it by the contrasting model of the Church. Being the Church is the most loving thing Christians can do for the world. It’s not an abandonment of the world, but an embracing of the world on God’s terms.

BB:  I can understand and appreciate that response.  It’s not a new one for the Church and has deep faithful roots in the monastic tradition.  It’s easy to point at Christian hermits, or even groups like the modern Amish, and think they’ve lost it because they choose to disengage rather than compromise, but I respect that they choose to stand apart in prayer and witness to the world.  It’s commendable.  

That said, I have a hard time squaring that with how Jesus lived.  No part of his public ministry reads as disengaged.  In fact, the opposite it true.  He engaged beyond social norms and mores.  He called out tax collectors, even while he paid taxes.  He touched the untouchables.  He gave words of forgiveness to the powerless, trapped in cycles of shame.  He shouldered a political system’s most gruesome punishment and emerged from a hole a new man.  Nothing about that models standing apart for us.  

Cynicism about systems can be tempting.  They are forged with injustice because much of the work of forging is entrusting to men and women, too many of whom look to hold to their own power and levy the system their way, whether it’s a local chieftain who gets to sleep with each new bride, a king who levies “tributes,” or a new system “of the people, by the people, and for the people” that only gives voting rights to property owners and allows people to be property.  But I think it’s a mistake to confuse change that is slower than we like for evidence of no growth.  Systems are forged with injustice deep in their bones.  The Church isn’t exempt from that either; she has a sordid past all her own.  But there is also something redeemable about systems because they bear the mark, the fingerprints, of people who were created in the image of God.  I read the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds as a lesson in world history.  A Garden planted with everything good.  Injustice, hate, envy, and pride are scattered liberally within, but rather than tear up the lot, or pretend that some can grow unaffected, the Master says to let it all grow; it can be separated at harvest.  As good wheat, the Church and people in her will struggle for resources, struggle to bear fruit, even get frustrated with our weedy neighbors who are clearly spoiling our land.  Yet our call is to keep growing, to thrive as best we can, and bear witness to the work of Him who planted us.  I see voting as metaphorically spreading out our roots, retaking – inch by dirty inch – the life and place that was given to us so that the weeds are stymied and our neighbors have more access to water, nutrition, soil, and, well maybe I’ve stretched the image far enough.  My point, Jeff, is that we live in a fallen world, a reality of which we are too painfully aware.  But Jesus promises to make all things new, and since “nations” are explicitly mention in Revelation as making offerings to the Lord, and leaves of the Tree of Life bringing them healing, I’m inclined to think that his redemption extends to even governments and broken systems.  If that is the case, then voting is not just one means of our participation in the redemption of even them, but part of our ministry to a world in need.  If I can throw a little Hauerwas back at you: “Hope is the greatest virtue of pilgrims, patience is the second.”  Let us be people of hope!

I do think, my brother, we’ve prattled on extensively.  I’m interested to hear what you, gentle reader, think.  Have either of us made a solid case?  Are you more or less inclined to go vote?  If so or not, will you share why?