Statue of St. Francis
in the corner of the churchyard
Episcopal Church of the Advent
On the day after Ben Carson endorsed Donald Trump for President
It is not surprising to see the continued descent of rhetoric and behavior in the on-going 2016 US Presidential Primaries. We would be naive to expect the struggle for power in our country not to devolve into some of the worst aspects of our national character. This is what happens when we are willing to sacrifice who we could best be in order to get what we want.
Nor is it surprising to see how vital a role religion, specifically Christianity, plays in this devolution. We would be naive not to know that the political history of the United States is deeply indebted to European Christianity, and especially white US American Protestantism. Christianity in the United States has a complex and deeply stained legacy: Christian leaders and believers have overtly supported the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the disenfranchisement of women, poor people, and people of color through generations of discrimination, segregation, and mass incarceration, and the prosecution of perpetual war in order to advance global economic power. As did our European predecessors, we have used our religion to build an empire of violence and wealth on earth, rather than the kingdom of heaven. In a terribly consistent revelation of our religious nature, we have ferociously preached individual salvation while systematically destroying our life together as a people, exploiting whole communities of human beings different than ourselves for the sake of personal economic gain. Deep inside ourselves, we know what we have done is wrong, that we have built our lives on the destruction of others, and that we need forgiveness for it.
And by no means is this limited to one political party.
And by no means is this the only possibility for political and economic life. Politics and economics are necessary ways that we as social, communal people relate to one another. But everything rests on how we choose to relate to one another, on how we choose to do politics and economics. What matters is what we choose.
And by no means is this the only function of religion in our national history. Brave people have found in their faith the vision and strength to resist and transform this pattern of destruction, brave people of every theological and political stripe. Spiritual leaders have stepped forward at every moment along the way, often from the very communities being exploited, to show us a better way. And we have sometimes listened, and sometimes taken the better way. Sometimes we have chosen who we could best be over what we wanted. Sometimes we have even allowed God to transform what we want to align with who we can best be. But not often, and not enough.
But it can happen. We can choose.
It is not surprising, but it is heartbreaking, to witness the manifestation of these old patterns in the Presidential Primaries this Lent. Lent is the season before Easter, a time when Christians are asked to confront their mortality and repent of their sins. For forty days, we are asked to fast in order to allow God to transform the desires within us that so often lead us astray, in order for us to live more in the image of God, as we are created to do.
The forty days of Lent imitate the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:1-13). During a time of prayer and reflection, before entering into his ministry of healing and preaching to care for people and to help them connect in a new way with God–before entering into his own highly social, highly political, highly contentious career of public service–Jesus was tempted by the Great Seducer, the Devil. And the seductions were not new ones. Particularly in a time of political domination by the Roman Empire, the temptations offered him were predictable: temptations to (1) economic power, (2) political power, and (3) spiritual power–all offered for the sake of his selfish, personal gain. The Devil offered Jesus the opportunity to have all he could want of this world, if he would do one thing: choose to follow him, the Devil, the Seducer, instead of God. Choose the empire of this world, instead of the banquet table of the kingdom of God. Choose yourself over everyone else. Choose yourself over God.
Just do this, just choose seduction, and you can have it all.
Instead Jesus chose God.
It is heartbreaking to see this seduction happening today. It is not new, and it is not isolated to only one candidate. It is an old pattern. But it is vividly manifest today.
During the season of Lent, in 2016, millions of Christians are choosing the temptation to economic, political, and selfish spiritual power. We are willing to condone overt violence–emotional, verbal, and physical violence–for the sake of promises that our desires will be fulfilled. This is choosing what we want, not who we can best be.
The thing I have found about this seduction to have my desires fulfilled, however, is that the seduction is real, but the promises usually aren’t.
This is the way seducers operate. They utilize a very effective pattern of exciting promises, bullying, “peace-making”, and threat:
- First, a seducer promises excitement. This is going to be fun. You are really going to love this.
- Second, just as the fun is starting, the seducer lashes out at us–verbally, emotionally, spiritually, physically. This was supposed to be fun. But suddenly we’ve been hurt by the very person promising the fun. And somehow they even seem to have enjoyed hurting us. The seducer is letting us know that fun happens only one way: their way. Sometimes that means we will get hurt, but don’t worry: it really is still a lot of fun.
- Third, the seducer reassures us that everything is okay again. We are all great friends now. It’s time to come back together again and have some more fun.
- Fourth, even though the fun starts up again, it’s not as fun as the first time. Because a part of us is watching over our shoulder for when we will get hurt again. Because it is unpredictable but certain: we will get hurt again. Because we are not in charge. This is not our Party.
This is what narcissistic, abusive bullying looks like. And it has one purpose: to exploit others for the gain of the seducer. Because this really has nothing to do with us having fun at all. We are there for the seducer to get what they want. What we want, in the end, is not what the seducer cares about at all.
As Luke 4 shows us, this isn’t new. It isn’t at all new to US politics or Presidential races. And even this spring, during the 2016 US Presidential Primaries, during the season of Lent, it isn’t exclusive to one candidate. But some are better at seduction than others.
And it is heartbreaking to see so many of us falling for it, during the very season when, like Jesus, we are meant to be fasting, praying, repenting of where seduction misled us in the past, and asking God to transform our desires into who we can best be–into the image of God praying for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven–not following the Seducer’s promises to fulfill what we want to get while the getting is good.
The good news is, Jesus said no to the Seducer. And we can too.
The even better news is, even when we have said yes to the Seducer, we can turn around and say no now. We always have that choice. But the longer we wait, the more destruction we allow to happen. Just look at our history. History doesn’t go away, but it also doesn’t entirely determine the future. Transformation is possible, but we must choose it.
The best news is that there is another party, one much more fun than the Seducer’s. And everyone is welcome there. Everyone, including us, even when we have already chosen self-gain and seduction instead of who we can best be. Even the Seducer is welcome. And if he chooses to join us, he will sit at the table with all the rest of us, and share everything with everyone, along with all the rest of us.
Because we can all be changed.
But we must choose it.