In the last year, I have witnessed the most politically tumultuous time in my young life. The 2016 presidential election will certainly go down as one of the most mercurial elections in American history, but also one of the most ugly, divisive, and painful election cycles in American history. Many on both sides of our political aisle felt deep dissatisfaction with their candidate, and even greater dissatisfaction with the other political candidate. Many on both sides felt that this election was a turning point in American history, one where their vision of America was at stake. And the two weeks since the election have revealed that this ugliness will not end suddenly or quickly. In fact, it has persisted so long that my pastor from my college years, Greg Thompson, has argued that in this election, everyone lost.
Many of you reading this may feel pain. Some of you feel pain because you hold your moral principles, like defending the marginalized, very strongly, and you feel the election repudiated those moral principles. Maybe you are a person of color, and fear what a Trump presidency could mean for you and your family. Maybe you are one of my Mexican-American immigrant neighbors, and you interpret Trump’s election to mean that America will never be a home for you, that your political and cultural ambitions were ignored and rejected by the American people. Many of my neighbors are Mexican American, and are feeling this strongly right now.
But I also recognize that many voted for president-elect Trump. Maybe you did so because even though neither candidate demonstrated moral integrity, he stood up for at least some of your religious and moral convictions, which are scorned by many cultural elites. Or maybe you voted for him because Hillary advocated for things you felt were unwise, or even damaging to our country. Or maybe you feel ignored by the media when it betrayed a thinly-veiled intolerance for people with different political views. I grew up around many white evangelicals who felt this quite strongly.
About two months ago, I re-read one of my favorite books, “Strength to Love,” a collection of Martin Luther King’s essays and sermons. Many know King for his social activism in the civil rights movement, but fewer know that he was, at heart, a theologian, who did his most profound work on the idea that our political life together should be marked by love before anything else. As this election season has raged on, I have felt the tension of being in the middle of these two groups of people who I know and love dearly, and I have seen the truth in both perspectives. Since our election has ended, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the election, but also reflecting more deeply on what it means to show love in politics as a Christian. By this, I don’t mean “what policy views should I hold,” but rather, what does the Christian faith have to say about the posture we should have towards the political life of our nation. What principles do all Christians, regardless of their politics, and regardless of the administration in power, need to practice?
As I have reflected, I have found four practices to be required of me in my faith. I found these practices from reading the responses of other Christians, reflecting on the theology of MLK, and reflecting on scripture. I would invite everyone reading, wherever you fall on the political spectrum, and whatever your faith, to consider if these might be good practices, no matter how hard or counter-cultural they might be.
1) Pray for all our Leaders (Including those you disagree with)
Christians are to be always praying for all things, and praying for political leaders is no different. As the Apostle Paul says, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Now, it is worth saying that prayer for authorities is not a mere blessing on their individual person and lives. Neither is it a way of baptizing all their actions as being a part of God’s will. Our prayers should be for their advisors, their family, the whole institution of government that our leaders represent, that they would bend the arc of their institutions towards peace, prosperity, and justice. We can start with praying that their hearts and souls might be concerned with justice, peace, and prosperity for all our neighbors. When they do good works, we should thank God for them. When necessary, we should ask God to correct their judgment. I also believe we need to lament when our leaders (and our people) make decisions that harm our neighbors and express grief for the ways that this plays itself out in our life together as a nation.
I believe we do this, not just because we believe that prayer changes things (which we do believe as Christians), but also to change our hearts to match God’s agenda and not our own. Prayerful people do not get swayed by the anger or uncritical triumphalism that partisanship often brings. God uses prayer to shape us into the kind of people who love what we pray for. And Christians believe love is the basis of all politics.
But again, Christians do believe that God answers prayer. The past two months, my little church has been reading through the book of Daniel, and one of the key themes is how God’s kingdom reigns supreme over all earthly kingdoms. Every time when it appears that the faithful people in the book of Daniel have been abandoned by God, He intervenes.
Reading MLK, I was reminded of how thoroughly the Civil Rights movement brought prayer into every meeting and every protest they performed. King understood that “to be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing,” and our prayers should not go out the window when we get to politics.
2) Love your Neighbor
“The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But…the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” -MLK
In ancient Greece, life was centered around the “polis,” also known as a city-state. The polis was where ancient Greeks would gather and work alongside one another, living their common life together, and getting along in peace. It was also where their philosophy would be discussed and debated, creating space for the exchange of ideas and convictions, ideas that would shape their common institutions and society. And it is from this vision of the polis, both its earthly definition in actual physical common space, and its ethereal definition in the exchange of ideas, that we get our modern word “politics.”
I love to think of politics through this idealized frame because I think it challenges us in two ways. First, it helps us realize that politics is not just about abstract policies and charismatic figures. Our politics should always be framed as one is also about the way we go about life with our neighbors, who we as Christians are famously called to love as ourselves (Mark 12:31). Especially neighbors who vote differently from us. Do we seek to love these neighbors? Do we seek to serve them? Do we even know them? If the answer is no, how do we expect to create policies and pick politicians that would serve them? We must start with the basics: getting to know our neighbors, listening to them, and seeking their good, before we extrapolate to the larger level of our nation.
Second, as long as we are called to love our neighbor, we cannot fully leave the realm of politics behind. We should all take a look at our polity, and continually be asking ourselves if we are seeking shalom. The Christian tradition holds that the kingdoms of this world (and yes, America is a kingdom of this world) are temporary, they come and go. But in the midst of those short-lived kingdoms, we as Christians are called to build enduring institutions, coalitions, and policies that “seek the peace and prosperity of our city” (Jeremiah 29:7) because after all, God is “renewing all things” (Revelation 21:5).
My friends over at New City Commons write on how we must not compromise this calling:
“Despite all the challenges we face, people from either side of America’s cultural and political divide still can and do work together, eat together, worship together, buy and sell each other’s goods, and watch each other’s kids. Especially in these days, let us do all we can to see these forms of neighborly decency continue.”
3) Practice Charity
I was born in 1992. For every president who has governed since I have been alive, the anger and the rhetoric against the opposition has only gotten stronger. First Bill Clinton, then George Bush, then Barack Obama, have all been roundly spoken about in very negative terms by their political opponents. It grieves me that this kind of rhetoric is all my generation has known. Given how toxic this election was, I fear this trend will only worsen.
Miroslav Volf, a Christian theologian, has written extensively about the need to practice “hermeneutical hospitality.” By this, he means that we must read and listen to the deeply held beliefs of our neighbors, seeking the good, the truth, and the beautiful in their political worldview. Volf does not have any illusions that this will erase all differences with our neighbors. However, he does believe that it may help us understand that they are “companions rather than combatants” in the search for the common good. Volf, whose political views were formed as a Croatian whose family experienced the deep and violent ethnic struggles of the Baltic region in the 1990s, argues that this is the only lasting road to peace. Any other path will lead to violence. We as Christians must see the image of God in our political opponents AND in our opponent’s perspectives.
Martin Luther King saw a similar vision in Christ’s call to “love your enemies.” King didn’t see this love in a sentimental or even emotional way, but primarily as a creative love. King believed that only by loving one’s enemies, and looking for the truth in their perspective, could one truly find opportunities to pursue “goodwill for all men.” But to do this, we must commit to not defeating our opponent ideologically, even when we have the upper hand, but instead to “discover the element of good in your enemy.”
We see this in Daniel, a Jew who had been kidnapped and placed in the Babylonian court, who does his best to study the Babylonian wisdom. This allowed him to be on of the wise Jews in the king’s court: “In every matter of wisdom and understanding…ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom” (Daniel 1:20). Daniel is accorded all kinds of opportunities to speak prophetically to the king, but only because he first demonstrated a willingness to understand the king’s truth.
How do we actually start to change divisiveness into productive dialog? In relational psychology, there is a 3 to 1 principle: for every critical thing we say about someone, we need to say three positive or affirming things. If we don’t maintain this ratio, the relationship can become “toxic.” It strikes me that while I think many of us strive to live out this principle in our personal lives, we do not even begin to try this in the political world, where it is probably more important. We don’t see anything wrong in focusing attention on the worst aspects of our political opponents, and then we are surprised when they bitterly oppose us. To combat this, we must actively be seeking to understand and affirm the good in our ideological opponents. I personally try to do this by actively asking if my personal news sources are diversified across the ideological spectrum. I currently hold subscriptions to the liberal Atlantic, conservative National Review, and centrist Economist. I have found that reading the best of all perspectives ultimately makes me understand the nuances of those who fall all along the political spectrum better. Of course, like all of us, I do have my biases, but I think worth putting forward as an ideal to strive for.
Now that Trump is president, I do believe all believers, even those who opposed him bitterly, should seek to examine his worldview to find common ground. Upon Trump’s election, the liberal Huffington Post declared they would give Trump “a clean slate.” I do believe that we as Christians are compelled to seek the good in what the man stands for. As I personally have reflected on this, I have tried to abide by the 3-1 ratio (and for those wondering, my critique will come in section 4):
- Donald Trump has said that he wants to build our economy in a way that recognizes “the untapped potential in projects and in people all over the world.” He talked about rebuilding infrastructure and creating an environment for economic growth. I can agree and admire wholeheartedly that our country can and should do this. In my neighborhood, I see many children who are bright and smart and who want to succeed academically. This is true in countless communities across America both in inner-cities and rural areas. I know that there are many parts of our economy and our educational system that need reform to maximize the opportunity of kids. We need all politicians and ideologies, left AND right, genuinely invested in this project of reform to maximize opportunity.
- Donald Trump has indicated he will defend a pro-life ethic. He has said that “Life is the most fundamental right” that humans have, and I wholehearted agree with him. I hope that he will be broadly pro-life, that he would seek policies that would support the protection of innocent life in all forms: the unborn, the elderly or terminally ill who may be pressured to end their lives, and those who suffer due to war and violence.
- One of Trump’s most controversial advisors is Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist in the white house. I personally strongly disagree with many of his beliefs and statements about race in America, but I also acknowledge that he has advocated for a kind of conscious capitalism that I can believe in. He has spoken about how capitalism worked best when “the underpinnings of their [the people’s] beliefs was manifested in the work they did.” Bannon believes that today “people are looked at as commodities” rather than people being the moral reason for economic freedom. I would love to see political strategies to try to create incentives for this kind of capitalism. I am supporting the business owners in my neighborhood who are creating jobs for their underemployed neighbors as a part of their sense of community responsibility. I hope that the administration can seek to support conscious capitalists, in every neighborhood in this country, that all might be included in economic opportunity.
Some will surely read this with skepticism: Will Trump actually seek to do these things? And if he does, will he seek to do them in a way that works? I don’t know the answer. Some will chastise me for being naive. But I do believe that as a Christian, my role is to seek peace and common ground with all. That peace cannot come without also seeking justice of course. We are not to relax our moral convictions. But I do believe that there are many potential places for collaboration in today’s politics that go untapped, simply because we do not listen to one another.
4) Speak Prophetic Truth
One of the biggest threads of scripture is the prophetic dimension of God’s people. From Moses speaking to Pharaoh, to Daniel speaking to Nebuchadnezzar, to Paul speaking to Nero, we constantly see this prophetic witness directed towards those in power. Part of Christian love is that Christians are never allowed to be silent about evil. As Russell Moore puts it, Christians must “maintain a prophetic clarity that is willing to call to repentance everything that is unjust and anti-Christ.” As it was happenign, King described the civil rights movement as a “time [in history] when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” Any American president will do and say things that require Christians to do this, and Trump is no exception.
For example, I live in a majority Mexican-American neighborhood, where many of my neighbors have spent the last few weeks angry and scared of what a Trump presidency will mean for them. Given the callous rhetoric Trump has used when he talks about them, his associations with groups and individuals whose very mission is to maintain white supremacy, and given our country’s history of marginalizing Mexican Americans, his election could mean dire things for them. My friend Claudia, who works with youth at our church, described the feeling this way:
“I feel a deep sadness at the state of this country I was born in. I am a daughter of immigrants, and post-election I have felt grief, confusion, fear, anxiety, and anger. Recently, at my mom’s work, a customer called her manager a “f–king Mexican.” A day later, another customer told an employee (who was Mexican) about his hope for Trump making America great again by marginalizing Mexican Americans. I’m just praying it doesn’t happen to my mom directly, and if it does, that He would give her the wisdom to respond and grace to deal with the feelings. It also makes me wonder: will I be profiled or attacked because of my skin color? People I love are now facing the fear of profiling, attacks, and even deportation. Being in Lincoln Heights I have seen the pain and confusion of many mothers and fathers who are afraid that come January 20th they may be torn from their children. I am left feeling like my people do not matter to America, and I do not matter to America.”
I hope that as president Trump would not do anything to confirm these fears. And my Mexican American neighbors are hardly the only ones who fear Trump right now. As someone called to love my neighbor, I am called to speak up when and if he acts unjustly. My Christian belief implores me to care about the peace and prosperity of my neighbors, especially my neighbors on the margins. Not to do that would compromise the very essence of the Christian ethic of loving my neighbor as myself. I recognize that my political voice may not be heard or be effective, but I am morally obligated to speak up nonetheless. I am preparing to do this not to spite the man, but because I believe that speaking truth to those in power is actually loving. The prophetic voice (when spoken in love and not anger) is a gift to the one who is spoken to because it gives one the opportunity to change.
To my evangelical brothers and sisters who voted for Trump, I invite you to consider this: your voices will be most needed in this arena. Trump became president in spite of historically low approval ratings, and he did so because of the votes of white evangelicals who voted for him. As a part of his coalition, I call on you to consider the responsibility of stewarding your voice, given that your voice will be all the more likely to influence our new president’s perspective. Some Biblical prophets spoke from the margins (Amos, Elijah, Jeremiah). Others spoke from seats of power (Nathan and Isaiah). Now that he is your president, I would call upon you to weigh the moral duties your position carries with it.
My hope is that ultimately that this is a moment in the life of the American church where all of us, whether we are part of the political Left, Right, or Center, can use this as an opportunity to reexamine our assumptions about engaging the political sphere. I hope that while this election has been traumatic, that will produce the kind of dialog that we have needed to have for some time.