Nov 7, 2008

Thoughts about a recent election

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

It’s an historic day. That’s an understatement, but something that people all over the country, and probably the world, are saying today. Yesterday, Barack Obama was elected the next President of the United States. I’ve had numerous thoughts over the last couple months about both this possibility, and about the state of the country as exhibited by numerous conversations I have had over the last couple months and as exhibited by historical trends.
It’s not just the Barack Obama is black. That’s historic in and of itself. In fact, I feel proud as an American today (something I’ve not been for some time), as we’ve shown ourselves able to reverse course, and even to grow enough to elect a “minority” to the most powerful post in the world. I’m not sure what exactly, but it says something about us. No, it’s not just about him being black. In fact, I get a little disappointed that everyone in the media refers to him as African American. I mean, I guess he is that, as we’ve classically defined it. But, he is so much more.
Barack Obama is America. Now I know that some of my Republican friends just tuned out. Whatever. Anyone who can’t swallow their own preferences enough to hear one person out won’t care what I write anyway. Obama had a black father. He had a white mother. He was born in Hawaii, spent time overseas, got a law degree here in the U.S., and took that law degree to inner city Chicago to work for economic and social change. He is a Christian, with a Muslim father who he hardly knew. He was largely raised by his white grandparents. He’s not African American. He’s just simply American. And, he quite obviously loves his country. White, Black, Christian, child of a single mother, husband, father, lawyer, social worker, son of a Muslim father, college graduate, working in the inner city. That is America.
I’ve heard lots of people say, over the years, that they get so frustrated with the political parties. I hear Christians voice frustration with the Republicans, even though 75% of them still vote for Republicans. I hear moderate people frustrated with the Democratic Party because they largely agree with them, but can’t stand the party’s forays into extreme liberalism. All the while, the political parties, the media, and then the rest of us, put ourselves into boxes.
We identify ourselves in one particular party. Soon, our identification with a party begins to mold our political leanings. We may have had largely independent views at one point, but when we identified ourselves with one party, our views begin to be heavily influenced by our affiliation. Its how a Christian decides to vote for a Republican because the party’s views largely reflect his own, but continues to vote for the party years later despite major changes in its policy or a failure to make good on policy promises. Over the years, said Christian begins to identify being Christian with being Republican and gets his news from Republican sources that further the assumption. Its how a Christian, frustrated with this phenomenon and willing to embrace “the other side” decides to vote Democrat once, and then finds herself voting Democrat every election despite blaring differences, just to spite the stereotype of Republican Christians.
Political parties love doing this to us. They love putting us in boxes. If they can get us to believe we belong in a box, then they can gauge their quantity of support, build high walls around it, shelter us from exterior circumstances, and continue to bend their message to get more people into more boxes. In years past, if you were a fly on the wall at a political speech by a candidate of one party of the other, you’d see an overwhelming majority of white, Christian, older, or wealthier folks at a Republican gathering, while you might see a large majority of minority, morally liberal, students, eco-friendly, less wealthy people at a Democrat gathering.
What struck me most last night, while watching both candidates give their speeches, one a concession, and one a victory, was the demographics in each crowd gathered to hear those speeches. John McCain had a largely older white crowd, who was audibly and understandably disappointed by their candidate’s concession (although the booing at this point was pretty pitiful). At Barack Obama’s speech I saw black people, white people, Asian people, young people, middle aged people, students, and business people. The sheer contrast in the demographics was awe striking.
The numbers are equally interesting. Obama won a majority of women, a majority of people under the age of 30, a majority of minorities, and even a full 25% of evangelical Christians (a staggering stat in its own right). To me, as a Christian, and as an American, that is the most hopeful and awe inspiring part of this victory for Barack Obama. America is shaking off its labels, and crawling out of its boxes, and insisting on something different. And, Christians aren’t afraid to be linked arm in arm with people who don’t necessarily share their viewpoints. They’re choosing to be in the world. And it doesn’t mean they have to be of it.
Here is another striking observation from the two speeches. When one candidate conceded, and spoke about working together, the crowd booed. When the other candidate accepted the nomination, and spoke of working together as a country, as a people, and appealed to voters from both sides to work together, the crowd applauded. While the observation could easily be made that there is a disappointing disparity in the responses there, that is not the point I am trying to present. What actually struck me, was what wasn’t said by the victor.
It is commonly held that the conceding candidate offers congratulations to the victor, and for the victor to have a rallying thank you speech. It is also common for both candidates to make the election results about themselves. “I lost.” “I won.” What I heard from Barack Obama’s speech was decidedly different. In fact, the speech was almost not about him at all. It was an appeal to ideals of America, a statement of hope, a call to sacrifice, a thanks to voters, and a call to unity.
What is particularly striking about these circumstances is apparent when you compare them to what circumstances we normally see. When one party wins the Presidency, and the majority rule in the Legislative branch of government, we usually hear a “now down to business”, or “now we can do what we’ve wanted to for some time” type of rhetoric from the winning side. The subtle inference, of course, is that the losing side has been holding back real progress in the country, and that the country’s election of the new party is evidence of a mandate to go the completely opposite direction.
That is not what I heard this time. The undertone of the speech given by Barack Obama seemed to be that we all got here together, and we will all get out of it together; Democrats and Republicans, woman and man, liberal, moderate, or conservative, young and old. There wasn’t a high and mighty proclamation of the justice that was served by the election results. There was an appeal to hope, to come together as Americans, and to work together, arm in arm, in sacrifice and in blessing, to achieve the betterment of the country whose ideals have largely influenced who each of us is, sometimes despite our admittance or wishes.
Time will tell whose policies turn out to be right or wrong. I suspect that much like economics, there will never really be a clear picture of whose policies are the right ones, as each minute policy shift creates an almost uncapturable ripple effect on every other aspect of the topic. Maybe the American experiment with healthcare reform will go well and work out in favor of many millions of Americans and become an example for countries around the world. Maybe it will fail miserably. Time will tell. But, one thing remains: we will all live with it together.
If the country decides to give something a shot, we might as well all work together to the highest degree possible to achieve success in our endeavors. Rather than dig in our heels, and refuse to see something succeed because it’s not what we want, we need to work for the success of all Americans. When some of those who were not in favor of the war in Iraq were called upon to support the troops that were fighting it, many stepped up. Some Democrats worked hard to get funding for equipment for the troops, despite their complete abhorrence for the war. Christians who voted for George Bush, and saw him elected, routinely reminded those of us who didn’t vote for him, and didn’t agree with his policies, to pray for him because he was the leader that God saw fit to put over us.
Now, their reminder is for themselves. Republican Christians will have to remember to pray, with hope, for the new leader of the United States, who they may not have voted for and may not agree with. Now, Republicans who are present for Democratic plans to end the war in Iraq will have to stand up and assist the Democrats with leaving in a responsible manner. That is the least we can expect from them, just as they expected it from their counterparts when the results were different. But, there is more. This isn’t just a matter of tables turning for one side or the other.
If we merely expect the losing side to work with winning party in the ways they expected to be worked with when they were the victors, we’ll make no progress. This is the least we can expect from either side. The winning party must also respect the country, not just those citizens who voted for them. Does that mean that they are going to pass only legislation that Republicans agree with too? No; of course not. Nothing would ever get done. But, it does mean that Democrats don’t just pass irresponsible laws because they can.
Cooperation, and this appeal to hope, means much more than just working together, though. Realistically, it means that we reach for a fundamental change in attitude, in belief. It means that we seek not just what’s best for us, but what is best for everyone in this country. It means that we begin to think outside ourselves. It means, not just that we cooperate with one another, but that we think of each other before being asked to. It means we prefer one another. It means that we exercise the kind of care and concern for one another that 1 Corinthians 13 calls us to. Yes, it means that we apply a biblical call to our everyday lives, and not just between our Christian brethren.
This means something particularly poignant for Christians. It means that Christians cease to be afraid to be Americans as well as Christians. You can’t love people from afar, when you are completely removed. It means that Christians embrace a unique opportunity that looks nothing like what they thought it would. Instead of campaigning for moral change via political policies, Christians can take the lead in a society wide change of attitude and behavior. Christians can lead out with 1 Corinthians 13 love, at the governmental level, at a societal level, and at a personal level. It means that Christians cease to be afraid to be their brother’s keeper by loving them instead of by watching over them. I dare say, Christians will see much more of the moral reformation they’ve been hoping for in this country if this campaign is a success. Can Christians be the first ones to put down their political differences enough to achieve real societal changes? Or will fear of a shady line cause us to stay holed up in our moral fortresses?
I realize full well a large concern of Christians to which such a challenge is issued. If we don’t draw a political line in the sand with moral issues, we will soon be inundated with legal immorality. Gay married couples will be as numerous as straight ones. Abortions will be occurring in every doctor’s clinic. The F-word will be heard numerous times throughout our kids favorite shows. The list goes on an on. I’ll admit, this is an inherent risk.
There are a few other points of note here, however. First, regardless of whether we choose to love people beyond our political leanings or not, the immoralities listed above are still an inherent risk. The abortion issue has seen virtually no change in the last 34 years despite a slew of Republican presidents and an ever increasing polarity on the issue. The truth is, Christians wrestle with immorality as much as the non-Christian. In fact, it seems to be a self-preservationist mentality that sees us take such firm stances on issues that we wrestle with and that threaten our Christian health. It is our classic fault that we would sooner be given a firm right or wrong on everything, rather than to have to work out a conclusion ourselves because it creates struggle within us. It’s why we misunderstand Jesus so often. It’s how Christians can hold signs that say “God hates fags.”
Secondly, we (Christians) don’t win in the end; not from a governmental or legislative point of view. Regardless of whether we stand firm for legislation about abortion, gay marriage, or any other so called “moral” issues or not, a time will come when we will be rejected. A time will come when we are driven into caves. Then, it won’t matter what legislative success we saw, what political victories we achieved. All that will matter is how many people we loved into the Kingdom. Time will be on the final leg of it’s journey. The proverbial clock will be ticking down on humanity as we know it. Then, the only question that remains will be how many of those people that God desired would come to a first-hand knowledge of himself did we lead to him by our loving self-sacrifice.
Self-sacrifice; I guess that is the attitude that I think we need. We need to shift from an attitude of self-preservation to one of self-sacrifice, in our actions, in our beliefs, and in our politics. We need to come together with the rest of America and work for the success of those things that benefit as many Americans as possible. Does it benefit Americans to have health care? Let’s work for that. Does it benefit Americans to be able to eat and drink to stay alive, or to have shelter? Let’s work for that. Let’s work for things, not that preserve our right to moral superiority, but to love other Americans even to the point of sacrificing our own personal agendas. We can always draw the line at working actively against our moral principles, but we also have to be realistic. A vote for a Democrat is not a vote for abortion, although it also may not be a vote against abortion. This is a grey area that we will all have to figure out for ourselves.
I don’t pretend to know what exactly this looks like. And, I’ll be the first to admit that actually walking this out is way less attractive (from a comfort level or energy exhausted perspective) than talking about it is. But, I still firmly believe that we have a great opportunity here. I think I called it unique earlier. I don’t mean unique in the sense that this is the first time we have had this opportunity. Actually, I think the opportunity has always been there, and we’ve taken advantage of it as a whole at different times in history. But, it’s been a long time since the opportunity was this clear, on this wide a scale. We still have a great opportunity, and the timing and scale of the opportunity is unique.
About a month ago, I had a long conversation (debate?) with some other Christians on Facebook about the abortion issue and how I could vote for Obama given my Christian faith. I am unwavering in my understanding of my ability to feel unconflicted about my support for Obama, and my sincere hope that abortion would be eliminated. That conversation had a profound effect on me, not just because it really helped me sharpen my understanding of my own position. I felt supremely burdened, in a way I never had, about the abortion issue.
I felt like it really wasn’t enough for me to take a stance (even if it was largely in deference to my Christian brethren), particularly since that was part of my argument against the classic position on abortion by Christians. I felt burdened in my heart to actually affect some positive change on the abortion issue through service. I scoured the internet for organizations that I could check out in the Twin Cities area, where I live, and was surprised to not find anything. I was a little discouraged, and I’m still not completely certain there isn’t some group out there, and that I simply wasn’t able to find their website. It left the issue filed into the “unsolved mysteries” folder in my brain and I put it aside.
I’m at the same point here. It is time to put up and apply these biblical principles I hold so dear. It’s time to step up and love my neighbors. It’s time to take care of the widows, the orphans, or whoever God puts in my path. It’s time to do it hands on. Anybody got any ideas? We’re starting with our neighbors…

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