After my husband announced the results of the 2016 Presidential election to our daughters when they came barreling downstairs the following morning, they thought he was kidding. Like this was some kind of April Fools’ Day joke. “Mommy, tell Daddy to stop and tell the truth!”
When we showed them the headlines, it became:
“I’m going back to bed; wake me up in four years.”
“I’m gonna need a LOT of Cheerios!”
and, “See, I TOLD you they should let kids vote!”
Then, we prayed for President-elect Donald Trump: that his heart would be soft and that he would be a good President.
You probably gleaned two bits of information from this anecdote: First, that our family did not support Donald Trump in this election, and second, that we’re Christians — not just the social, church-on-Christmas-and-Easter type of Christians, but the type who actually believe this stuff.
You’d be right on both counts.
To clarify a bit: While my husband and I were definitely not Trump supporters, neither were we ardent Hilary Clinton enthusiasts. It’s just that our tepidness over Clinton was outweighed by our horror over Trump. (Also, we thought it would be pretty great for our four daughters to see a woman elected President.)
And those four daughters, who range in age from 3 to 8 years old: we allowed them to reach their own conclusions about this election. We live in a small town in Vermont, we do not have a television, the only periodical we receive is our local paper, and we homeschool our two oldest daughters, so they were exposed to remarkably little media hysteria relative to other children in this county. Furthermore, politics are not a major focus of our family’s conversations; because beloved members of our immediate family vote on both sides of the aisle, our rule is “no talking politics at the dinner table.”
Nevertheless, based on the information they did have, our daughters reached the independent conclusion that Donald Trump would not have received their votes for President.
That’s where we were on the morning after the election. So we prayed. We talked. We put one foot in front of the other. I asked the same questions that many were and are asking: How did we get here? and What do we do now?
Because I have to do most of my feeling and thinking while simultaneously feeding, caring for, teaching, and chauffeuring four young children, ideas bounce around in my head quite a bit. But somewhere in between washing the dishes and scrubbing the bathroom sink, I came to the conclusion that these two questions, How did we get here? and What do we do now?, are grounded in the same fundamental issue. That issue is our amnesia: the collective amnesia of our country, which is perhaps the collective amnesia of the human race. We got here because we forgot, and what we can do now is to remember.
I believe the things we have forgotten can be broken into three broad categories:
- We have forgotten the lessons of history.
- We have forgotten the lessons of childhood.
- We have forgotten the lessons of Jesus.
- We have forgotten the lessons of history.
On the morning after the election, I was reminded of some verses from the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, which our pastor had preached on some weeks before. To set the scene, it’s somewhere around the 9th century BC, and the Israelites have just asked Samuel, one of their priestly judges, to choose a king to rule over them:
1 Samuel 8: 10-18 So Samuel told them, delivered God’s warning to the people who were asking him to give them a king. He said, “This is the way the kind of king you’re talking about operates. He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them—chariotry, cavalry, infantry, regimented in battalions and squadrons. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, plowing and harvesting, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots in which he can ride in luxury. He’ll put your daughters to work as beauticians and waitresses and cooks. He’ll conscript your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and hand them over to his special friends. He’ll tax your harvests and vintage to support his extensive bureaucracy. Your prize workers and best animals he’ll take for his own use. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you will cry in desperation because of this king you so much want for yourselves. But don’t expect God to answer.”
19-20 But the people wouldn’t listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We will have a king to rule us! Then we’ll be just like all the other nations. Our king will rule us and lead us and fight our battles.”
21-22 Samuel took in what they said and rehearsed it with God. God told Samuel, “Do what they say. Make them a king.”
So, even as early as 1000 BC, people were looking for human leaders to solve their problems, despite clear warnings that human leaders were more likely to come at a cost than to offer salvation.
My daughters and I have been studying the Middle Ages worldwide as part of our homeschool curriculum, and they’ve picked up on the repeated patterns of history: One or two good and unifying rulers, followed by centuries of corruption, weak rule, and decline. “Oh no! Bad idea!” they exclaim, when they see the fall coming.
Why do we fail to remember this? Why do we never see it coming?
Throughout my forty-one years of life as a United States citizen, every new President has been elected in reaction to the previous administration. Every new President brings the promise of change. And the people who voted for that new President always think: “At last, we’ve found the one who will solve all of our problems!”
And every single time, they are disappointed. Sometimes the disappointment is vague, as when a President is merely ineffectual; sometimes it’s more acute, when Presidents lead our country into choices and conflicts that we’re still struggling to untangle.
This isn’t just a pattern in United States history; it’s a pattern throughout human history.
But the world is still turning. I’m not denying the atrocities that have resulted from dangerously evil human leadership, both in ancient and recent history. But somehow, still, people have gone on, have had children and planted gardens and found joy in small things, and — for a time, at least — been more cautious about the leaders they choose.
It may be that we’re on the downslope of this particular, tiny moment in history. And nobody wants to be on a downslope. But wherever we are, we’d do well to remember these lessons from history: That, thus far, no human leader has solved all our problems, nor has any human leader ended the world.
- We have forgotten the lessons of childhood.
One of the most instructive and potentially positive lessons from this election year was that it opened many of our eyes to the number and breadth of people in this country who feel threatened and disenfranchised. There are the young, white, non-college-educated males who suffer from a lack of employment, purpose, and opportunity. There are those who feel that our country has gone off the moral rails. There are racial, religious, ethnic, and sexual groups who feel the oppressive hatred of prejudice. This year we were reminded that our country has yet to overcome the evil unleashed by slavery and segregation. The leering specter of sexism reared its ugly head as well.
How we got in this mess is complicated. It’s the human mess that we’ve been dealing with since the beginning of time, but it’s a mess that’s found particularly fertile soil in today’s American culture, with its lust for wealth and power. This culture is perpetuated by a free market capitalism that values only growth, at the expense of our communities, our environment, and our health and happiness. We want more: more money, more stuff, more food, more and bigger houses, more technology. To quote Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, we just keep on “biggering and biggering.”
It strikes me that we could have avoided much of this — or at least failed to be surprised by it — had we simply remembered some of the basic lessons of childhood. These are simple tenets of kind and responsible human behavior that we teach our preschoolers, and I don’t even have to leave Dr. Seuss’s oeuvre to lay them out.
There’s Yertle the Turtle, in which the title character, a turtle king, insists on making a teetering tower of his fellow turtles so that he can be the highest of all. Lesson: If you try to get ahead on the backs of other people, you will topple eventually.
There’s The Lorax, in which unrestrained greed leads to environmental destruction. Lesson: If you try to get ahead on the back of the environment, everything will topple eventually.
There’s The Sneetches, in which segregation leads to a ridiculous race for sameness. Lesson: We should celebrate our differences, not use them as divisive power plays.
And, of course, there’s Horton Hears a Who, which reminds us repeatedly that, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
One possible way forward out of the mess we’ve made is offered in a lesser-known Dr. Seuss poem, called “What was I Scared of?” In this story, the main character continually has frightening run-ins with an ominous “pair of pale green pants with nobody inside them!” Finally, he comes face-to-face with the pants:
“I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked.
I howled. I yowled. I cried,
‘Oh, save me from these pale green pants
With nobody inside!’
“But then a strange thing happened.
Why, those pants began to cry!
Those pants began to tremble.
They were just as scared as I!”
It’s this realization that they share a fear of each other that dissolves that fear and paves the way for a happy ending:
“And, now, we meet quite often,
Those empty pants and I,
And we never shake or tremble.
We both smile
And we say
We can allow this election to increase our fear of each other; to become more divided along party, racial, sexual, economic, educational, and religious lines. Or we can recognize that, if we share nothing else, we share fear. We all fear the loss of dignity, of life, of livelihood, of freedom. We all fear for our children. Maybe, if we can start there and meet face-to-face, the fears we have in common might even begin to dissolve.
- We have forgotten the lessons of Jesus.
And now, a few words for my fellow Christians (although, even if you don’t share my particular set of beliefs, you’re still welcome to listen in!)
Throughout this election cycle, I heard Christians on both sides loudly, passionately endorsing their candidate as the more Chrisitan choice, implying that those who thought otherwise weren’t “real” or “good” Christians.
Whenever I hear or read some version of the question, “How would Jesus vote?” I chuckle a little. Not because we shouldn’t attempt to figure out how to vote in alignment with our spiritual values, but because if we claim to have a lock on whom Jesus might elect, we’re forgetting who Jesus was.
How would Jesus vote? The fact is, Jesus never voted — he never had the chance. Jesus was born into the family of a humble tradesman in a small, backwater town in the far-flung reaches of the Roman Empire. The Israel of Jesus’s time was chafing from a combination of abuse and neglect by Rome, and one of the reasons that people overlooked Jesus as a possible Messiah was because they expected any Messiah worth his salt to overthrow Roman rule.
That Jesus did not overthrow Rome and had no intention of leading a political revolt is clear, both from history and from his famous exhortation to “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
So, if we’re looking to Jesus for political guidance, we’ll have to stick to how he lived. He hung out with the lowest, most despised, least touchable elements of his culture. Lepers, prostitutes, common fishermen, women, and corrupt officials who did Rome’s dirty work — these were the people Jesus spent the most time with. And he urged others to do the same: To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and love our neighbors (even, especially, when that neighbor was a member of an enemy ethnicity.) Jesus was always direct about telling people to turn from their sin, but he was never not loving and respectful to these marginalized individuals. His harsh words were reserved for the religious leaders of his day.
The only time that Jesus came face-to-face with political power was when he was being dragged around by an angry mob that was demanding his execution on false pretenses. And what did Jesus do when he had the full attention of Herod, of Pontius Pilate? Launch into a theological defense? Urge them to change their policies? Lament the injustice of his treatment?
Nope. Jesus barely spoke to these political leaders. If we look at all four Gospels, we see Jesus making roughly four statements to Pilate in which he essentially confirms his identity, and nothing at all to Herod. By thus refusing to engage with the political powers of his day, Jesus effectively condemned himself to death.
American Christians, are we really following Jesus’s lead? I don’t know; a lot of Christians I see seem to have the idea that our mission should be to make this a Christian Nation, that the country should be run entirely based on a set of cherry-picked Biblical priorities.
Here is how modern America has tended to experience Christians in the political arena: We complain that we’re “under attack” because the country is failing to conform to some (primarily conservative) vision for our nation that we ascribe to God. We want this country’s laws to reflect our religious beliefs. We insist that others should respect our (primarily conservative) moral code so as not to offend our delicate sensibilities. We demand respect from people with other lifestyles and belief systems, without in any way affording them that same respect.
Where this behavior came from, I don’t know, but it sure wasn’t from Jesus. Among his last words to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus wasn’t interested in power or politics. He was in the business of changing hearts, not laws. And, while I can’t say for sure, I have a feeling that Jesus would be puzzled by a two-party political system that seems to force us to prioritize either the rights of unborn babies or the rights of women, minorities, the sick, and the poor – but, apparently, you can’t choose both.
A word about abortion before I close: The Christians I know who supported Trump almost always cite abortion as one of the most important issues influencing their voting. They hoped that a vote for Trump would result in the repeal, or at least the rolling back, of this country’s abortion laws.
I am a huge fan of babies and children, having four myself. I would not characterize myself as a “supporter” of abortion. But I also understand that abortion is never a lighthearted act. The reasons a woman might choose to obtain an abortion are myriad, running the gamut from economic and lifestyle concerns to trauma and health issues. I imagine that women enter the doctor’s office for an abortion as a result of panic, agonizing decision-making, or something in between, and that they feel a mix of relief, sorrow, fear, and anguish. But I cannot imagine that ever in history has a woman received an abortion because she thought it would be something fun to do in her free time.
Do we, as Christians, consider all of these things when we advocate outlawing abortion? Do we consider the women? And, most importantly, do we consider what really causes so many women to end up with unwanted pregnancies?
Blaming promiscuity and moral laxity is too simple. I point my finger at a culture that tells our children in a variety of ways, at ever younger ages, that their worth is determined by their bodies, that affirmation is to be found only in relationships, that loving relationships must necessarily be sexual, and that the purpose of life is to do what makes you feel good. If our country’s culture continues to separate people from community and meaningful work and good affordable healthcare, to separate relationships from anything other than pleasure, and to separate sex from fertility and partnership, is it any wonder that so many of our young women end up with unwanted pregnancies?
It seems to me that Jesus would deal with these heart issues, these root causes of abortion. And he’d do it within the context of relationships, not in the halls of power. American Christians want to make laws, because, frankly, it’s easier. But outlawing abortion treats only the symptoms, not the cause, like offering a Tums to someone who’s dying of starvation.
And I may be wrong, but I doubt that electing a President who has made a career of presiding over beauty pageants, who speaks of women as bodies rather than people, who refers to his own daughter as “smoking hot,” and who attempts to normalize offensive comments as “locker room talk,” will help us make strides towards addressing the root cultural issues underlying abortion.
But here’s the good news: As Christians, we of all people should not be surprised to find that there is great evil, injustice, and darkness in the world. It’s what Jesus said all along. And we’re supposed to be lights in this darkness, remember? Something else to remember: The most repeated phrase in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.”
And those two exhortations — to be brave and be light — are not the exclusive property of Christians. They belong to us all.