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Reflection on the U.S. elections

Philip Wingeier-Rayo shared this with the Austin Seminary community on Election Day this week.  The Outlook offers it as our Friday commentary this week and looks forward to future conversations about living as a community under the reign of God.

One of the things that they don’t teach you in mission training is that once you leave your country you automatically become an expert on your home country and are expected to know the answers to all the questions that someone might ask. The hardest ones to answer are “why” questions. “Why do Americans stop at ‘Stop signs’ when they are on a deserted highway?” or “Why do actors in American movies meet each other in one scene and wake up together in bed in the next scene?” and “Why do American Christians wear shorts to church?” And the worst thing is that you can’t say “I don’t know,” because they would say “You are from the U.S. and you don’t know?”

Perhaps the worst questions are those that ask us to explain our electoral system —especially super delegates and electoral colleges. So many years later and I still can’t explain this. My high school civics class only got me so far.

On the flip side, I’ve also gained a great deal of perspective on elections in my home country while living abroad through observing elections in other countries. Several years ago I was serving in Cuba and was present for an election that elected officials at various levels, local, provincial and national. Cuba boasts a 90 percent participation rate, but has a one-party system so there’s only one candidate on the ballot for each position.

I was also in Nicaragua when the people voted out the Sandinista party after 11 years of revolutionary rule. After nearly two decades of strikes, protests and armed insurrection to oust the Somoza dictatorship (that ruled for 44 years), the Sandinistas held free and fair elections in (observed by many international observers such as the Carter Center) and lost the elections in 1990 to Violeta Chamorro. The country had tried to build a new society and carried out a national literacy crusade with free education, universal health care and land reform. Leading up to the elections, the polls indicated overwhelming support for the revolutionary government. And even as I went to bed on the night of the election, the exit polls pointed toward a Sandinista victory. But at about 5:00 a.m., my Nicaraguan host family woke me up and called me to the living room to watch Daniel Ortega give an extraordinary concession speech in which he acknowledged the results of the election and pledged to a peaceful transition of power, but said that we would “govern from below.” So, after 10 years of the Contra war in the 1980s (in the context of the Cold War), the people grew weary and voted for the opposition to end the war and the U.S. economic embargo.

There was a very eerie feeling the day after the elections. The capital city of Managua was like a ghost town. Some people felt as though they had betrayed their own ideals. It was like a collective funeral. The people had told the pollsters one thing with their heads and voted another way with their weary bodies.

I had been working with the Base Christian Communities who were very committed to the revolutionary progress. Many of the criticisms of society’s injustices had come from the likes of Father Ernesto Cardenal, who used a liberative hermeneutic to interpret Scripture passages with peasants in a fishing village. The transcripts from these Bible studies have been famously published under the title “The Gospel in Solentiname. After the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, liberation theologian priests began a new three-step methodology to interpret Scripture: “to see, to judge and to act.”

The first step looks as a passage. Isaiah 65 is one example, when Third Isaiah writes in verses 21 and 22:

              They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
                No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.

The priest would ask the home Bible study to interpret this passage in light of the reality they are living: “Who builds houses and doesn’t live in them?” To which the people might reply: “the construction workers, the poor, which is us.” And then the priest might ask: “And who plants vineyards and doesn’t eat the fruit.” To which the people might reply: “the campesinos, the poor, which is us.” So the people believed that God was on the side of the poor and marginalized and developed a “preferential option for the poor.” The third step of the methodology is “to act” and as the peasants went to the streets to protest Latin American liberation theology was born.

Similarly in the United States we have struggled with how to practice our faith in civic life and engage injustice that doesn’t measure up to Christian values. The classic book “Christ and Culture” by H. Richard Niebuhr, that was originally given as lectures at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, offers five typologies that Christianity has historically related to society.

  1. Opposition to culture (Christ against culture).
  2. Agreement between Christ and culture (Christ of culture).
  3. A combination that incorporates insights from both of these two views (Christ above culture).
  4. A dualistic type that sees an ongoing tension between Christ and culture (Christ and culture in paradox),
  5. A conversionist type that portrays Jesus as the converter of culture and society (Christ the transformer of culture).

Niebuhr advocated that Christians should practice this fifth category and follow Jesus’ teachings to transform culture and society.

More recently Niebuhr’s five typologies have come under criticism because they were written from the perspective of Christendom — with inherent privileges for Christianity. Canadian Mennonite theologian, Craig Carter, writes from a post-Christendom perspective and challenges Niebuhr in his book, “Rethinking Christ and Culture.” Carter suggests in his interpretation of Jesus’ life and teaching that Christians are called to be countercultural and create an alternative community (the church) that points to and proclaims the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God.

When we place Christ first and take his proclamation of the coming of the reign of God seriously, we see that the American party system falls short of Jesus’ teaching. By declaring a winner, it means by default that someone has to lose and this promotes division and animosity. American democracy is a relatively new system of government in human history. Of course, Americans will defend it as an improvement over the tyranny of European monarchies. But even John Wesley, who lived through the American Revolution, saw its flaws when he wrote his treatise “A Calm Address to our American Colonies.” Wesley believed that if a fallen people are given the freedom to vote, then they will vote according to their own selfish desires and not for the good of all people. Perhaps there is some truth to that.

Similarly, the great 20th century systematic theologian, Karl Barth, who challenged the rise of National Socialism in Germany, wrote in “Church Dogmatics” that God “is the One who stands above us and also above our highest and deepest feelings, strivings, intuitions, above the products, even the most sublime, of the human spirit.” Barth challenged pride in human accomplishments as his dialectical theology confronted liberal theology.

Returning to the Bible passage from Isaiah 65, verses 17-19 read:

              “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
                  But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
                I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.

This passage lifts our gaze from our current problems to the vision of the prophet for new heavens and a new earth. Even as the Israelites have the hope of rebuilding Jerusalem after the exile, they are pointing toward new heavens and new earth, they acknowledge that this is something that God will create.

When I was working with Base Christian Communities in Nicaragua, even though they were in agreement with the goals of the revolution, they started a movement. It was called La Insurrección Evangélica (The Evangelical Insurrection). Members of the Base Communities made signs and went out in the streets to protest in favor of the Gospel. They were in agreement with the literacy crusade, free education, free health care, agrarian reform – and yet, with this vision for creating a new society, they knew that whatever this government did, it would never equal what God could do. They started an Insurrección Evangélica. They acknowledged, just as Barth, that God “is the One who stands above us.”

So on Election Day, as we collectively exercise our civic duty as a nation and rejoice or bemoan the election results, let us not be satisfied or conformist with the results of the elections. The election results will just show us what we already know: that we are still far away from God’s ultimate vision for creation. No matter who wins or loses, we will still need to “govern from below.” We will still need to engage civically to exercise our faith in the ongoing problems of this country and the world.  And most of all, in spite of our human failings, God hasn’t given up on us. God is inviting people of faith to participate in and point toward Isaiah’s vision of heavens and a new earth.

One of the sacraments of the Christian faith is Holy Communion. The last supper is more than just a remembrance of what Christ did on the cross, it is a foretaste for the reign of God.  The communion table is also metaphor for the Great Banquet. As we partake in the bread and the wine, we are invited into Jesus’ vision of the reign of God.  And when we do partake, we gather around the table with all the saints, past, present and future, where there are no winners and losers — only brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. As we move past the elections to live out our faith I invite you to a foretaste of the reign of God.

photo-on-12-10-15-at-4-37-pmPHILIP WINGEIER-RAYO is associate professor of evangelism, mission and Methodist studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.