Election Controversy

Pr. Eugene Brueggemann

When I was a seminarian in the late ‘40s, we still heard a lot about the Election Controversy of the 1870s, a theological/ecclesiastical contretemps which fractured the newly created Synodical Conference. “Election” was shorthand for the doctrine of predestination. Fallout from the controversy poisoned inter-Lutheran relationships for decades. Election controversies do that.

At the same time the newly re-United States were having a real-world election controversy over the contested outcome of the Hayes/Tilden presidential contest. Here we are again in 2020, only this time we are not the ethnic outsiders our predecessors were. We are insiders, experiencing the turmoil of the Trump/Biden election controversy convulsing our nation. The Hayes/Tilden controversy was resolved by a compromise that allowed the post-Confederate leaders to legally suppress the black freedom movement for the better part of a century in return for conceding the election to Hayes. This 2020 election controversy just may be as decisive in defining and shaping our government and society for years to come, especially if there is no universally recognized winner. Whatever happens, it will be prelude to the larger existential threats of climate change and global disorder just over the horizon.

What should we think? How should we judge? What can we do to make a difference?

By “we” I mean the people of God who are called (predestined/elected) to be the salt that preserves the best in society and the yeast that empowers growth in the cause of a culture of peace and justice. Christian institutions from top to bottom will have their say, but it is Christian people interacting with each other and with government at all levels who have the most power to make this a somewhat better world.

Remember: It was the power of Christian witness that overcame the power of pagan Rome. In the Reformation/Renaissance era that power ended the stifling hegemony of the Holy Roman Church and the Holy Roman Empire. The same can be said for the efforts in this country to end slavery, liberate women, and, most recently, address slavery’s lingering after-effects. It was ground-level movements which made the difference, illustrated most recently in our country by black Christian citizens and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis. Whatever right we have to call ourselves a Christian country rests to a considerable degree on witness like theirs and, yes, the many others resisting the breakdown of sexual standards and the consequent rise in abortion.

The not-so-secret power we have is love—love as revealed most clearly and powerfully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and his word; suffering love, which “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Love which does not seek to humiliate and hurt but is an expression of the truth that makes us free, free from hate and fear, from pride and prejudice.

The brief political debate Jesus had with Pontius Pilate about truth is instructive, and for us, normative. Pilate knew the political implications of Jesus’ title, “King of the Jews,” and so did Jesus. The difference is that Jesus insists that “My kingdom is not from this world.” This world is dominated by “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6). Pilate personified those forces. Jesus knew his identity as King and Lord in another kingdom, another forcefield altogether. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to witness to the truth,” the truth of the primacy of the Kingdom of God.

The truth to which Jesus witnessed is that the power behind the authority of the Kingdom of God is God’s love, and that it is this power which overcomes evil and inspires good. He demonstrated this throughout his life of service by his mighty deeds and even mightier words. The institutions of church and state, originally threatened by John the Baptist, combined to destroy him and his movement by nailing him to a cross. Filled with his Spirit, witnesses to his resurrection have continued the movement and have spread it to all nations. As twenty-first-century partners in that movement, we recognize the continuing struggle between the forces of light and darkness in us and in our institutions of church and state, and we pray to redeem the time given to us to work within these systems to make God’s love visible and actionable.

Think of the upcoming election as a “moment of truth,” a time of trial for us who are citizens of both the kingdom of God and the secular state. We should think of ourselves in sacramental terms: We live “in, with and under” secular society. We are the real presence of Jesus in the world under the forms of our own flesh and blood. Each and every member has the identity of a replicated Jesus to a greater or lesser degree. We are equipped by the Spirit to pronounce a pox on evil, even as we announce the pax that God grants to people and communities which provide loving support to neighbors in need.

In an election, Christian citizens are called to witness to the truth with the mind of Christ. In practice, that means our political talk and political action, like voting or running for office, should be centered on the common good as demonstrated by Jesus and taught throughout the Scriptures. We are talking about breaking down the barrier between our faith life and our political life. Don’t you wish the Christians in Germany had done more of that in the ‘30s?

In this election, some of us see that the primary witness to the truth lies in electing a new president to replace a demagogue who believes and promotes the Big Lie that he is a secular savior, one of the greatest men who has ever lived (with the exception perhaps of Jesus), who has made lying and the pursuit of power a way of life to the detriment of American democracy and the cause of racial justice. Others of us see the primary Christian witness to the truth in retaining a flawed president and party who stand for law and order and a return to America’s past, where traditional sexual morality was enforced and abortion was practically non-existent.

Wise observers at home and abroad are calling this one of the most important elections in history. Feelings are running high. In this climate we want to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4) in our families, congregations, and communities. When different Christians hear the Spirit say different things, it speaks to our fallen state and to the complexity of issues. These divided opinions call for “humility and gentleness, for bearing with one another in love,” and they remind us of the directive to “discern the spirits, whether they are of God.”

We can and do disagree about issues and candidates. Some of the issues are adiaphora, a matter of indifference, some are not. The evil spirit of partisanship is working with considerable success to divide us. What unites us is the Holy Spirit, if we only let her. I am reminded of St. Paul’s words to the Romans (14:17) apropos another controversy which threatened to divide the early church: “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink (worldly stuff), but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Jesus is King all right, wearing a crown of thorns for challenging leaders and systems which oppress people then and now. His Spirit is struggling to unite us in witness to the truth which sets us free to serve one another and our world just as he served, with patient, sacrificial love.

“What is truth?” was Pilate’s question to Jesus. Our vote is an answer to that question, a form of truth speaking to power, a witness to the primacy of love in our agenda of seeking the common good in the nation where God has placed us.

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