September 28, 2016

Ministry After November 8

“Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

- For an Election, Book of Common Prayer p.822

Election Day is Tuesday, November 8. Our Episcopal Church has done a fine job to remind us of the awesome privilege and responsibility of voting. The resources available online, the Election Engagment Toolkit from Episcopal Public Policy Network, as well as the prayers in the Prayer Book itself, including the collect quoted above, have been useful tools in my own prayer life as I get ready.

For the most part, however, I’ve heard, if I can call it that, an uneasy silence. Occasionally, someone in my community will speak up about a particular candidate or issue, but more often than not there’s not much additional dialogue. Perhaps the easiest thing to say goes something like “Well, they’re both terrible, and I don’t like either of them,” even though national polls seem to suggest that in spite of that statement, and the ease of making it, the speaker probably does have his/her mind made up, and it’s not moving from that preconceived place. Just the other day at our monthly pub theology, for instance, my ministry colleague led a discussion about the ethical ‘goods’ contained in both the Republican and Democratic party platforms, and she encouraged us to understand that certain ‘goods’ often compete with one another. It was one of the most thoughtful and prayerful gatherings of Christians talking about politics I had attended in a long, long time – and yet some in attendance were uncomfortable; frankly, they said, they didn’t want anyone telling them what to think!

There’s a lot of anxiety and anger, fear and frustration bottled up in our nation right now. To the degree that it’s impacting my local community – and mostly, as I said, it’s pushed dangerously below the surface – it’s not at all helping us to think about, let alone pray for the common good.

Tuesday, Nov. 8 will be here soon, and one person will become our next President. What I’m praying for, right now, is the wisdom to face well the days after Election Day. Not only will my congregation still gather for corporate worship, fellowship, service, and formation, we will still need to face headlong deep rifts and suspicions in our common, national life. Racial strife will still be an issue on Nov. 9 and following, especially the need to the confront systemic sins which block true reconciliation. We will need to find a way to do this together, collectively.

I believe one of the ways to prepare for Nov. 9 and following is to make sure we have in place right now a robust theology of our shared, national, indeed communal life, that is, a shared understanding of how we offer to God our hopes and hurts in spite of not fully knowing where all of this is going. Politics has gained our attention, and perhaps rightly so. But the battle between two major American political parties is also a well-scripted game of particular directions and specific proposals. Christianity and Christian-language – called theology – is not always so precise about the things of this world and, in fact, when it works well it opens one up to ‘mystery,’ mostly because it’s aiming as its primary focus on the ways of God.

I would like to share with you a theological resource that’s helping me and my ministry these days. I recently turned to a volume of Reinhold Neibuhr’s which has long sat on my shelf. The Irony of American History is a book-length collection of two lectures he gave. But because he doesn’t actually get around to talking about “irony” until the last few chapters, he narrows his thesis in the Preface:

…We frequently speak of “tragic” aspects of contemporary history; and also call attention to a “pathetic” element in our present historical situation. My effort to distinguish “ironic” elements in our history from tragic and pathetic ones, does not imply the denial of tragic and pathetic aspects in our contemporary experience. It does rest upon the conviction that the ironic elements are more revealing. The three elements might be distinguished as follows: (a) ...Suffering caused by purely natural evil is the clearest instance of the purely pathetic. (b) The tragic element in a human situation is constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choices. … (c) Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitious. …If virtue become vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits – in all such cases the situation is ironic. The ironic situation is distinguished from a pathetic one by the fact that the person involved in it bears some responsibility for it. It is differentiated from tragedy by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than to a conscious resolution. (Preface, The Irony of American History)

Setting aside for a moment the particular platforms and plans of the candidates, I would suggest that someone who votes for a candidate other than the one for whom I will cast my vote is not, somehow, sick or deranged or, dare I say, evil. A lot of our choices and much of the brokenness of this world is not likely caused by setting out to do harm, as Neibuhr says, but rather an “unconscious weakness,” not a “conscious resolution.” There is in this world still brokenness and sin, pain and despair, anger and anxiety, but I wonder if we can also put in a place right now a theology of our shared, national, indeed communal life – an understanding that some things are, as Neibuhr says, “ironic,” not tragic or pathetic – and a way of speaking that doesn’t point fingers or arrive readily at preconceived conclusions regarding right and wrong. Can we, instead, put in place right now a language that builds up the common good, a way of understanding and speaking we will certainly need to have once again on Nov. 9 and following?

Resources for congregations related to Churches, Public Policy, and Elections from ECF Vital Practices.

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