“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:34-35
True confessions: this US election is making me want to hunker down with “my people” more than ever before.
I’m serious. I’d like to get all the people who agree with me into a room to watch our favourite news channel and opine about why the candidate we prefer is the only sensible choice for a Christian voter, and why any Christian who votes for the other guy just needs to go and get saved already. Or read their Bible. Or do some research. Or use their brain, grow a conscience, stop being selfish. The list goes on.
At some point in this 1,355-day-long US election campaign, I lost my willingness to assume the best of people and give them the benefit of the doubt. I stopped asking questions and started assuming motives.
Now, I don’t really want to talk about how “othering” people dehumanises them. I just want to be right and be with other people who are also right, so that we can all affirm each other’s rightness, and just enjoy the feeling of being so damn right.
I bet I’m not the only Christian who is finding the temptation to retreat into tribalism a difficult temptation to navigate.
I’m exaggerating, of course. But I’m hoping that by dragging the unredeemed parts of my heart out into the light, I’m embarking on the kind of “careful exploration” that is talked about in Galatians chapter 6.
If I’m honest, I think it’s all because the US election feels a bit scary and I am anxious.
There are real implications for all our lives – even those of us who don’t live in America. Decisions that affect our common earth will flow out of this election. Relationships between countries will affect our national security. The culture of polarisation and misinformation that we’re experiencing in our global, digital world may well go up a notch. And that’s before we even talk about COVID. Is it any wonder that many of us are feeling a little destabilised?
So I think my feelings of wanting to hunker down with a gang of people who agree with me is a pretty normal feeling – a natural antidote to this unsettled world. And I bet I’m not the only Christian who is finding the temptation to retreat into tribalism a difficult temptation to navigate.
The problem is, of course, that our tribes will always fracture into smaller factions and we find ourselves “belonging” with fewer and fewer people. Always.
Even in an election – which is essentially a zero-sum game – the fracturing is evident. And add a controversial incumbent president like Donald Trump, and the cracks show up everywhere.
Let’s just take conservative, evangelical, Republican-party-supporting Christians in the US – a specific group that forms a large part of President Trump’s supporter base. Actually, let’s just look at a handful of leaders in this group.
Then there’s Southern Baptist Albert Mohler, who is voting Trump this time – because of his pro-life policies – though he didn’t last election. And theologian Wayne Gudrem, who says Trump is “egotistical, bombastic and brash” but he’s voting for him because of the potential for policies to be passed that conservative Christians want.
Then we have John Piper, who created controversy (and sparked responses from Gudrem and Mohler) when he revealed that he couldn’t vote for Trump because his bad character would permeate his governance – regardless of his policies – so he wouldn’t be voting for either candidate.
Not to mention 2016 Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, who is voting for Democrat Joe Biden because Trump’s so incapable of working across the aisle with Democrats that he simply cannot do the work of governing a country. Plus John Huffman – the former board chair of Christianity Today magazine and lifelong Republican who was former pastor to President Richard Nixon – who will vote for a Democrat for the first time in this election.
What are we to do when destabilised and anxious, longing for the comfort of community and compelled by our convictions?
That’s just the conservative, evangelical, Republican Christian leaders.
So what are we to do when destabilised and anxious, longing for the comfort of community and compelled by our convictions about what is right and wrong?
The truth is that God doesn’t really do gangs – or cliques, tribes or whatever your preferred term to describe it all is. Instead, he does family.
Unlike gangs, in God’s family, everyone is welcome. Whether you are a prodigal, a johnny-come-lately, a social outcast, someone with a dodgy history, a questionable career, or someone who’s been caught right in the middle of getting stuff wrong and the morality police are lining up to chuck stones at you – you’re still welcome.
Furthermore, it’s a family whose distinguishing characteristic is supposed to be our love for others. Non-Christians are supposed to be able to recognise us as Jesus-followers because of the love we show to others (John 13.35).
The love. That’s literally supposed to be what distinguishes me from someone who doesn’t follow Jesus. My love for others is supposed to make people think “she loves others … I wonder if it’s because she is a Christian … Maybe Jesus is someone I should find out more about.”
Australian Bible historian Dr Meredith Lake said something along these lines when she gave the Anglican Deaconess Ministries Public Lecture in 2018.
“There is a sense of anxiety and defensive and self-righteousness that sometimes can characterise the way Christians intervene in public conversation,” says Lake.
“As a Christian, I wonder how do you love your neighbour if you think your neighbour’s a monster. Or if you think your neighbour is flat-out wrong and has nothing intelligent or sensible to say. The defensiveness that people often get stuck with becomes a barrier to genuine neighbourliness.”
I don’t want to be the kind of person who labels others “right” or “wrong”.
When asked whether she thinks it’s possible to transcend cultural and religious differences in our public discourse, Lake said this:
“As far as Christians are concerned – and I think this is true of broader citizenship too – if we can become the kind of people who are at least marked by more humility, by an openness to grace, a willingness to hear even hard stories about ourselves, to regard one another as fully human as each other, to imagine a future in which we share, not where one side necessarily triumphs over the other, if we can foster that kind of imagination and that kind of posture, then I definitely have hope.”
The truth is, I don’t want to be the kind of person who labels others “right” or “wrong”. I don’t actually like those kind of people. I’m just finding it hard right now because I feel anxious about the US election.
I want to have strong convictions, sure – and that’s probably how I ended up here in the first place – but I want those convictions to form me into a person who builds bridges, makes peace and extends grace and love.
But to achieve any of that, I am going to have to resist the temptation to retreat into tribalism and self-righteousness. I’m going to have to be, well, loving.
Difficult as it may be, I’m simply going to have to keep being a Christian – even in the midst of a US election.