Many Americans are suffering from a presidential debate hangover. This is a pounding headache brought on from exposure to constant interruptions, arguments, and mind-melting fact checks. The condition is exacerbated by the physical strain of face-palms and eye-rolls. Many people said the same thing to me, “I turned it off after 30 minutes.” This is nothing new. I am the pastor of a politically diverse church and I have friends across the country and across the theological and political spectrums. I hear a lot of perspectives. My social media feed can give me whiplash. But one thing stands out. This election cycle has been discouraging. Pick your word: disheartening, frustrating, exhausting. It seems particularly so for my Christian sisters and brothers. Many of them will not vote and have tuned out of the national conversations.
They deem the two front runners to be unacceptable and they feel that the only ethical thing to do is to disengage. I have witnessed many Christians wear apathy, anger, or a sense that “no one is good enough for my vote” like badges of honor.
I plead with you: do not disengage. You are on the brink of asking one of the most critical questions a Christian citizen must face: how do I live faithfully as a Christian citizen in an imperfect world?
We need a way out of the trap of political nihilism. We millennials are in a vulnerable spot right now. I can palpably feel the jaded cloud of cynicism descend on our generation and threaten to choke out the hope with which we raced into adulthood. I keep wondering how the Church might respond to this despair. What could the Church’s role be? What guidance can we find in a time like this?
So here is what the Church can do to freshen the air.
Teach: Sin, Love, Stewardship
We do not want to become jaded. But we also don’t want to be naïve. Christians have always lived with a tense relationship between our highest ideals and the reality of government. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton did not create this tension. Politics is always going to be messy in a fallen world. The cultural mandate to create, organize, and build society was never going to be smooth.
One thing our tradition has to offer is that we know the world is imperfect. We are imperfect individuals in an imperfect world. We have had a deep ambivalence about government all the way back to 1 Samuel 8 when God and Samuel reluctantly gave Israel her first king. Christianity’s candid acknowledgement of brokenness might seem only to add to the malaise. But it is a relief. It is a relief to know that our standard has never been perfection. Christians work with what they have. And try to make things better.
But isn’t this just another form of resignation? I admit that realism and cynicism can be dangerously close. But this is not a call to lower our standards or expect the worst. It means being more comfortable with the tension. We are called to stand out as hopeful lighthouses in the storm, not because we are naïve to the storm, but because we persevere within it. We do not give up when the waves and winds blow.
And that is because we are driven by love. The heart of our faithfulness remains the great command to love our neighbor. Often we interpret this as “be kind to others” and we go no further. But that is a very limited faithfulness. We cannot love our neighbors in their fullness if we do not embrace the fullness of society and the fullness of our own citizenship. Love of neighbor means working for public justice. So the Christian does not retreat but steps forward when things appear to grow chaotic. Doesn’t that increase, not decrease our motivation to love our country and society, our neighbors who bear God’s image?
Yet our neighbors are right next to us, too. They are singing a song next to us on Sunday morning. While love of neighbor includes the public sphere, that does not diminish the importance of loving those right around us. Churches must summon the courage to host discussions and mediate conflicts. Love does not throw up its hands when conflict arises, it leans in all the more to bring healing. We expect our country to flourish with civility when we haven’t even learned to talk with our fellow brothers and sisters about politics. Churches are places to train for reconciliation and thoughtful engagement.
This is not the time for the church to run away or retreat to a sanitized sanctum. Another platitude I have heard from Christians looking for a way out of the political foray is, “It doesn’t have eternal significance. So I’m disengaging.” That is a half-truth. Disengaging can be an act of faith – fasting from social media for instance. But usually we disengage from the system out of resignation. Or even fear. We are afraid of conflict or that the world really will fall apart and we can’t bear to watch. The truth is that Christians believe the end of all things is decided by the mercy and grace of God through Jesus Christ. But that doesn’t mean that elections don’t matter because we’re frustrated with them. The steward does not give up on the kingdom simply because the king will one day return. We do not give up the work of justice just because our work is not perfect.
In our stewardship of the public sphere Christians can still remain local, personal, and specific in their engagement, even as they remain deeply dissatisfied. Churches can continue to teach about specific policies and topics. Learn about local elections and laws. Remind us of the holistic work of justice. Electing a president is only a small part of our citizenship. For many of us (I’m guilty, too) it feels like it is all that matters. But long before the presidential debate and long after November 8 we will have work to do. Payday lending. Human trafficking. Schools. Local policing. Racism. Don’t forget the specific, local stuff right in front of you. Your city’s zoning board, for instance, may not be as exciting as a presidential debate. But it may be the most influential justice work you do.
1 Corinthians 15:58 says, “Your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” This concludes the most thorough and beautiful passage on resurrection in all of scripture. We could imagine Paul making a totally different conclusion. Maybe even the opposite. “Don’t worry about it. It’ll all burn and you’ll be safe in heaven one day. It doesn’t end up mattering. You can give up or phone it in from here on out.” Praise God, Paul has a different conclusion. What he says amounts to this: Jesus is alive again. One day you will be, too. What you do matters. Get back to work.
-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI. www.calvaryreformedholland.org