Late last week I was waiting at the bus stop for my daughter. The bus stopped on the corner and the neighborhood kids streamed down the steps of the bus and into the afternoon light. One of the students, a young girl who goes to my church, started talking about something that had happened in her family earlier that week–her mother and her grandfather had gotten into a heated argument about the election. She recounted how her mother had discovered that grandpa was going to vote for Trump, and how she lit into him. “I can’t believe my grandpa is that stupid,” she said. “How could he vote for that man?”
Now, I have my own personal politics, but I was stunned. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this young girl speaking this way about her own grandfather, a person she adores, whom I see her snuggle up to in church every week, because she knows that he cares deeply for her. “Come on, now,” I said to her. “Your grandpa isn’t stupid. He just disagrees with your mother. We can’t go around calling everyone who disagrees with us names. We need to find ways to talk to one another.”
The words had barely escaped my lips when another young girl, whom I don’t know as well, started yelling at the top of her lungs, “I hate Hillary! I hate Hillary!” Why? “Because she’s a liar! She lies and lies and lies!”
I have been thinking about this moment at the bus stop ever since. These girls were on my mind as I voted on Tuesday, and as I watched the results come in. As people expressed fear, doubt, joy, and every other emotion on social media, as newspapers have covered the post-election climate, I find myself returning to this moment. Pondering these young ladies in my heart.
I find myself wondering what exactly our children are learning from this election. That people with whom we disagree are losers? Bigots? That people we don’t like are liars? Criminals? Sexual predators? I’m not trying to diminish the harsh realities of this election, but I can’t help but think that our children are paying far more attention to us than we might realize. These two young girls at the bus stop have internalized the polarization of this climate in a way that surprised me. They sounded just like a lot of adults I happen to know and love. People who are struggling to speak compassionately to those with whom they disagree right now.
I recently spent some time in the company of other pastors, resting and reflecting on our call to ministry. One of the pastors told a story about a dark time in his ministry, when he was going through a divorce. He shared that he preached some very angry sermons in those days, and not a lot of grace. And he shared how there was this one church lady named Lois who always dressed in her Sunday best, with her hat cocked just right. And how she always told it to you straight. One day, after one of those angry sermons, she walked right up to this pastor, looked him dead in the eye, and asked him, “Who went and licked the red off your candy?”
I can’t help but think that this country has had its fill of angry sermons this year. For so much of our public discourse has been rooted in anger, in fear, in distrust of those with whom we disagree. We have lost sight of grace, lost sight of the fundamental humanity of our neighbors, and in the process we have created a culture in which there can only be winners and losers. We have made it near impossible for those whose party lost the election to see the light. And that is a tragedy.
I’m not trying to say everything is going to be okay. The truth is that any government is a profoundly human institution. Some of them will be better than others, some will be kinder and more compassionate than others, but all of them fall short of the Kingdom of God. And there is no President, Senator or Congressperson who can live up to the standards set by our Lord and Savior Christ.
But here is some truth that I do think bears remembering: the overwhelming majority of people in this country want to make America a better place for all of us. As a Democrat, that means I must acknowledge that my Republican neighbors are doing what they think is best for all of us, even when I disagree with them (and I often do). I would hope that they believe the same of me.
And as a Christian, I must remember that my identity in Christ is not tied to my political affiliation. My identity in Christ is rooted in something deeper, some far more important than which party is listed on my registration. And when my party fails to live up to its own ideals (because it will), I must be willing to confront those failures in love, too. I must be willing to work to make that system become more just, peaceful, and loving. Because nothing will get better until we demand it.
Finally, I take heart that the Gospel is always calling us forward, out of the various camps that divide us, and into the light of Christ. And today I especially find encouragement in the words of Rev. Steve Holmes, who reminds us that our discipleship requires a different kind of witness to a world that sorely needs hope:
“Do not be afraid to live among people who love the sword, who speak with iron hearts. You have been sent to make gentle this wounded world, to live in peace among those who are afraid, to bear healing to those who are captive to the spirit of pride and violence. Do not despair because of the oppressors, those who judge and despise, who will not listen, who do not know how to join with neighbors. Rejoice, for you have been given to them, to shine light into the darkness of their world. The Holy Spirit sustains you, so that you may dwell as healers among fearful men.
Bear your outrage lightly; do not cling to it. Let it lead you toward compassion, not anger. Pray that you may not be defeated by vengefulness, eaten by the appetite for power, destroyed by the spirit of destructiveness. Anger is not your weapon; it is your enemy.
The spirit of violence seeps into the world. But you radiate Good News, you breathe gentleness into the air that all others breath, you establish trust on the earth. Be broken hearted. And through the cracks let light shine…the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”