What we’re looking for in this election year or in any year, I believe, is not a leader who will best embody our hopes and aspirations. (Even Jesus tried his best to avoid being that kind of leader. Such leaders always disappoint.) What we’re looking for behind the electoral extravaganza is an experience of the transformed and transforming life, the more and better life, toward which Jesus pointed.
Perhaps one reason why the presidential campaign has fallen into such a preadolescent tantrum is because the hunger people feel for a blessed and abundant life is so little satisfied. Our social fabric is stretched to the breaking point, particularly along racial and class lines. Reports of terrorism have become a daily staple. Fortune magazine reports that the disparity in wealth between American households is greater than at any time since the Great Depression, with the wealthiest 160,000 families owning as much wealth as the poorest 145 million families.1 That ratio means one family owns as much wealth as more than 900 other families.
We don’t need a single elected or anointed leader, nor even a whole congress of them. We need a community of people who are living the fullness of life and offering it as a model for others. For the healing and wholeness of our nation and the world, what’s needed is the engaged presence of people who will assert a different set of values and priorities and who will demonstrate the viability of a different way of living. Will the church be that people? How do we become such a community?
One thing we can do is remember who we are. Peter called us “the ones chosen by God . . . for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for [us]” (1 Pet. 2:9-10 The Message).
Recently members of an adult Sunday school class were discussing the policy positions of the Democrat and Republican presidential candidates. The policies on a few key issues were summarized in three or four lines and laced with a bit of stereotyping. The discussion was about which policies were preferred or seemed more practical and likely to prevail. It was an energetic discussion.
Nowhere in the discussion, however, was there a noticeable attempt to view and evaluate the candidates’ positions through the lens of core Christian values nor even an effort to agree on what those core values might be. The class discussion is ongoing – probably will be until November – and maybe they’ll get around to that eventually. I hope so.
I hope so, because if the church doesn’t bring those values into the public discussion in a time like this, who will do it? It has been widely said since I’ve been in ministry that the church has lost its voice, that we’re no longer effective at telling others of the night-and-day difference God has made for us and offering others a way into that difference. I’m not sure our voice has been lost, but it seems to have been reduced to a hoarse and tentative whisper among all the other voices shouting to be heard.
Public policy, with all of its convoluted and intricate details, is beyond my capacity to understand. People better versed in it than I will have to suggest it and shape it and put it into play. But there is a lens through which we can view it critically. There is a plumb line by which we can judge how square and upright it is, and how likely to endure. There is a screen by which we can separate losers from winners, whether in this year’s race for the presidency or in any decision we have to make in life. And that lens, that plumb line, that discerning screen is the new commandment to love one another (John 13:34).
Of course, it’s not a new commandment at all. It’s a rule of living, a principle of creation, that’s woven into the very first creation story, when God looked out on everything that had been made – everything – and saw that it was very good, when God affirmed the divine value of everything that is (Gen. 1:31). It’s the foundation of the Ten Commandments, and it was reiterated by Jesus when he affirmed God’s two greatest principles of life are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love everyone else as you love yourself (Mark 12:28-31).
That kind of love is not a description of how you feel about anyone; it’s neither eros, or erotic attraction, nor is it philios, or brotherly love. That kind of love is agape, a selfless, self-giving, self-sacrificing love. It’s a love that’s less about feeling and more about attitude or perspective. It’s a love expressed in action, a love that shapes a social and political ethic.
Sometimes I think we should stop using the word “love” for this commandment to Christians, it’s been reduced to such meaningless treacle. A better word for this commandment is “value.” To love someone in the Christian sense is to value that person; to recognize that person as having intrinsic worth in the divine order, an essential role to play in God’s ongoing creation even if I don’t know what that role may be; to recognize that without that person my own life would be essentially diminished and incomplete; and then to act toward that person accordingly.
Love reconciles broken relationships (2 Cor. 5:16-20). Love does not build walls, whether those walls are physical, to protect a border; social, to protect a class system; racial, to protect an ethnic identity; economic, to preserve an unjustly privileged lifestyle at the expense of others; gender or gender-identity discriminatory, to preserve an illusion; political, to demarcate an enclave; or military, to defend that enclave. Love values everyone equally and works to assure the equitable sharing of resources so that everyone has everything necessary for a complete, respected, and fulfilled life.
Now there is a lens, the discerning lens of love, through which we might do pretty well in evaluating these presidential candidates and the policies they advocate. It’s an ethical bias that might inform every decision we make in daily life – What best demonstrates the divine value in which we hold the other person? And if we would commit ourselves to following the command to love, regardless of its high cost, we might indeed see the new creation God has promised.
notes — 1. “Wealth inequality in America: It’s worse than you think,” fortune.com, 31 October 2014.