I delivered these remarks on Saturday, September 25, 2004 before the St. Louis Association of the United Church of Christ as part of a forum called “Living in Fear in an Election Year.” The other presenters were The Rev. Katy Hawker and The Rev. Dr. Enoch H. Oglesby.
Living in Fear in an Election Year
Let me first offer a few words of self-introduction: I am a seminarian in-care of the Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ. My work background includes 17 years of serving churches, ecumenical groups and non-profit organizations that address social justice issues. Besides attending seminary – and being a husband and a father of 11 week old twin girls – I publish a website that reflects on the intersection of faith and politics.
There are plenty of reasons to be fearful in these times – and also some reasons, I believe, to feel hopeful. Who you are, where you grew up, how you read the Bible (if you are Christian), and how you feel about the role of government are but a few factors that help determine what if anything we might be afraid of.
Most of us still operate in the shadow of September 11th and the very real fear of terrorism. The national debate now underway as part of the lead-up to the November elections is not a debate as to whether or not we should fight terrorism: it a more a question of how we fight terrorism. Do we fight this war by unilaterally invading other nations or do we fight terrorism by reflecting on the causes? Do we simply drop bombs or do we focus our attention on fighting world-wide poverty and by promoting efforts to increase dialog between cultures and religions?
Often people of faith cannot come to consensus on these questions, but I agree with the statement adopted by the National Council of Churches in their document Christian Principles In An Election Year:
War is contrary to the will of God. While the use of violent force may, at times, be a necessity of last resort, Christ pronounces his blessing on the peacemakers. We look for political leaders who will make peace with justice a top priority and who will actively seek nonviolent solutions to conflict.
Fear of war and fear of terrorism are driving the debate this election year but there are other very real fears that we are all facing.
Poverty is growing in America. Our environment is in decline. More people are without health care than ever before. Schools are in jeopardy. While I have endorsed one candidate in the race for president (I’ll leave it up to you all to guess which one) it has to be said that neither major political party has fundamentally addressed any of these concerns.
Sadly, some political and religious leaders, in an effort to divert our attention from these real and pressing problems, have used this election to further divide our people by creating bogymen to blame our problems on. Let me offer two examples:
Shortly after 9/11 the Congress passed and the president signed legislation that created the Patriot Act. This legislation greatly expanded the powers of the federal government to carry out surveillance on citizens and even to incarcerate citizens without full legal protections for the accused. Secret courts now hear evidence in “national security” matters. This intrusion into American democracy, passed with nearly unanimous approval of both democrats and republicans, could only have happened in an atmosphere of fear.
It is fear that drives the debate over gay rights in our country. Gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, and transgendered people have been blamed for everything from the attacks of 9/11 to a decline in family values. The Republican National Committee even sent out a mailer to West Virginia voters last week that claimed that if Democrats were elected in November they would ban the Bible and grant special rights to gay men. The RNC has defended their advertising by offering the rational that Biblical passages on homosexuality could be declared hate speech and thus the Bible would be outlawed. You might not be able to find a more pure example of playing on fear.
It is my contention that the political world lacks the capacity for dealing with these issues in any real way. All of these crises we face are more spiritual in nature than political. How we treat God’s creation – and that means the environment, human creation, and everything else – is a test of how we view our relationship with God. We are called to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).
Too many of our churches ignore this calling as a primary test of the Christian faith. We tend to view our pastoral care duties in individualist terms. As an example, if a parishioner is ill and without health care we tend to offer emotional support, often we’ll arrange meals, and sometimes even take up a collection to help with financial needs. All of that is necessary. Yet we need to spend as much time – even more – questioning why the richest nation on earth is the only industrialized nation on earth without universal health care. In a time of so much uncertainly, anxiety, and fear we need to respond to the root causes.
During the spring I talked William Sloane Coffin for an interview that was published on my web site. Coffin, as most of you will know, has been for decades - in his positions as Yale chaplain and later at Riverside Church in New York - one of the foremost American Christian advocates for peace and justice. I asked him after all these years and after all the battles he has fought how he could remain hopeful. This is what he told me:
I think that hope reflects the state of our soul rather than the circumstances that surround our lives. So hope is not the equivalent of optimism. Its opposite is not pessimism but despair. So I’m always hopeful. Hope is about keeping the faith despite the evidence so that the evidence has a chance of changing.
As I wrote in my book Credo:
Hope criticizes what is, hopelessness rationalizes it. Hope resists, hopelessness adapts.
There are 38 days until the election. My suggestion is this:
Let us use that short time to offer a vision of hope that is rooted deeply in our faith. Let us challenge the voters and the candidates to put the homeless, the sick, our children, the elderly, and the environment at the top of their list of concerns as they prepare to make important decisions in November.
And let us recognize that no matter who wins the election the difficult issues will still be there. So let us make sure we are there to criticize what still is and to resist that which diminishes our relationship with God.