“So, what do you Canadians think of our election campaign?” The question was accompanied by a wry, knowing smile from an earnest young man as we were finishing dinner at a restaurant along the shores of the Susquehanna River during a recent trip to Pennsylvania. As it happened, it was October 7, the very date that the recording of Trump’s lewd comments about women were setting the Internet on fire. And Americans, it seemed, could talk of little else.
I sighed purposefully and did my best to demonstrate what I imagined to be the appropriate combination of pity, learned disdain, and faux superiority. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was probably something like, “Well, you know, we mostly just shake our heads…” My young friend nodded appreciatively and we proceeded into the safe and fruitless terrain of Trump-bashing for the next few minutes.
I’ve thought about this conversation a few times over the last ten days or so. On one level, it wasn’t a particularly noteworthy discussion. To whatever extent I could be described as having political views, they seemed consonant with those of my interlocutor. But the conversation felt like a missed opportunity, in many ways. This feeling has increased since then as I have observed how the antics of Trump and Clinton seem to dominate the time, mental energy, and social media output of many of my friends south and north of the border. And my own.
Here’s what I wish I had said in hindsight.
Well, as a Canadian, I suppose I look at the election spectacle and am thankful that, at least for now, we have been spared the misfortune of the two choices that you Americans are faced with. But our politics and our politicians are hardly perfect either. We don’t have the enormous media machine that you do, with the voracious appetite that requires constant feeding. We don’t tend to tolerate or validate the megalomaniacal personalities that you do in politics. And of course it goes without saying that we’re delighted that our prime minister has way better hair than either of your presidential candidates!
But our politicians are, well, politicians. They’re ruled mostly by self-interest and the desire to gain or retain power. They seem to choose the path of political expedience more frequently than the ethical one. They trade in insults and polarizing language with their political opponents and are mostly incapable of admitting when someone from the wrong political party has a good idea. They’re just like yours, for the most part, except maybe on a smaller and less noisy scale.
But “Canadian” is actually not the primary category in which I think of myself. I am first and foremost a Christian. And if you were to ask me what I, as a Christian think of your election campaign, I would say, “Well, I think that I should think less about it. I think all Christians should think less about it. And I think we should do less speaking and shouting and tweeting and hand-wringing and prognosticating and linking to damming videos and articles and engaging in apocalyptic dooms-daying and social media-branding and identity-politicking and all the rest of it as well. As a Christian, whose primary allegiance is to Jesus Christ and his kingdom, I should have probably have far less to say about the kingdoms of men.”
If my young American friend was foolish enough to ask me to elaborate further on these strange views, I might, with some trepidation, offer this bit of advice to my Christian friends (and to myself!) during these dying days of the American presidential campaign:
- If you’re a Christian who happens to be Canadian, you’re in luck! As far as I can tell, they don’t let Canadians vote in American elections, so you don’t have to worry about it. You can return to posting cat videos on Facebook.
- If you’re a Christian who happens to be American, you do indeed have my sympathy. As virtually every American I spoke with on my trip a few weeks ago said, “We seem to be faced with the prospect of voting for the less awful of two terrible candidates.” I happen to agree. But I’m from Canada, so… See #1 above. Generally speaking, though, as in every election, if we are Christians and if we are convinced that we ought to vote (and it’s worth remembering that not all Christians are thus convinced!), then we simply vote for the candidate who we feel will do the most good (or the least harm, at any rate) toward promoting justice, equality, and peace for all. Just vote, and then go pray for forgiveness.
- Whatever nation happens to appear on our passport, as followers of Jesus we should never be in the business of pinning our hopes on governments to secure our “rights” or implement our preferred policies or legislate our moral convictions. It’s our job, as a church, to embody the values and positions that we are convinced Christ has called us to. And we ought to remember that we follow (and are called to imitate) one who set aside his divine rights, emptied himself and took on the form of a slave (Phil. 2:1-11). If we mean what we say when we claim to follow this king, we should be very careful about looking to political authorities as means of securing influence and privilege and rights for the church. After all, things have rarely gone well for the church’s witness for Christ and his kingdom when it has been determined cozy up to the kingdoms of this world.
- The things that dominate our attention and our discourse and our sharing on social media are a fairly reliable indicator of what, ultimately, motivates us, and where we implicitly pin our hopes. Given the amount that the dog and pony show that is the American presidential race is showing up on my social media feeds and in everyday conversation lately, I can only conclude that there is little that is more important to my Christian friends than this. Politics has usurped eschatology, it seems. This is where our hopes and fears are negotiated these days. The church is useful to the extent that it validates and affirms our political opinions, perhaps. Or it is relegated the harmless sphere of “what I believe about spiritual things on my own time.” In either case, the church has shrunk to far less than what it has been and ought to be in the Christian life.
- It’s worth remembering that Christians have historically survived far worse kings and tyrants than either Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton. Indeed, the church has not only survived terrible and oppressive political leadership, it has thrived and grown (spiritually and numerically). You might even be able to make the case that the church was its most faithful when it had the fewest rights, the least political influence, and was most actively despised and ridiculed. At any rate, whenever we’re tempted to think the end is nigh due to the specter of a Trump or Clinton presidency, we ought to mentally rehearse some of the brutally violent and shockingly immoral political leaders that the church has endured around the world over its two thousand years or so. We’ve seen quite a bit worse than this, if perhaps not in such lurid detail.
- Even if—unimaginably!—things turn out to be as apocalyptically bad as supporters of Trump and/or Clinton are convinced things will be if their opponent is elected, even if the church is dismissed and abused and neglected and loses whatever political influence it had, or even is actively persecuted, our prayer as Christ’s church ought not to be, “Help us get back to where we were!” or “We need to make America Christian again” or “God, give us a better president!” but “Help us to suffer well in imitation of our king. Help us to take our place among the faithful witnesses that preceded us who refused to bow down to lesser kings. Help us to be the church, instead of a vaguely religious political interest group. Help us to show, in word and deed, that we believe what Jesus told us: that we are a city on a hill, that we are salt and light. That this, more than anything else in the world, is what defines us, is who we are, is what we have been called to be and to do.”