This time last year, I was an American living in the United Kingdom, watching from the outside as the American public cast ballots for a new president. Living in another country provided a unique perspective from which to view both the unfolding of that election and another culture’s reception and interpretation of those events. In fact, the election and that culture’s reaction to it was so striking that it became a central topic to a Southampton District seminar that I was co-directing a week after the election. That seminar, planned months before, was organized to address how the church might faithfully and effectively engage with the larger culture. Quickly, it became apparent to both John Ogden—my fellow seminar convener—and me that we needed to retool part of our conversation to take into account that culture’s obsession with the election that was increasingly framed within the language and narrative of the faith. Through this narrative framing, something seismic was happening and that activity had created a crack that we hoped to walk through. As an outgrowth of the conversations from that day, the participants in the seminar asked me to write a summary.
A year on, I am revisiting the events from the election, that day’s seminar, and the piece I wrote, reflecting, again, on how a people of faith might faithfully respond. I share a portion of that reflection piece below, prompting our own considerations on a possible way forward that requires our direct, positive action.
Here is that piece:
Rosa sat so Martin could walk,
Martin walked so Obama could run,
Obama ran so our children can fly!
This viral text message began circulating, first, around the United States and, then, around the whole world the morning following Barack Obama’s election as the 44th president of the United States. The text message captures a sentiment, an emotion, a hope defining Obama’s election. His election has taken on mythic qualities. Images of long lines of young and old, rich and poor, black and white, the frequent voter and the first-time balloter were everywhere. Something different had taken place. Whether conservative or liberal, American or not, we all can recognize the significance of that vote. Obama’s election tapped into something deeply felt, patiently yearned for, thought lost yet waiting to be found.
On one day, it was as if an entire society awoke from a forty-year slumber to be reminded that freedom is not just a dream to be hoped for but a life to be lived. Such a life does not happen by accident but through intentional, direct action. Sometimes that action is in the form of dramatic stands taken despite the threat of social discomfort, familial rejection, police dogs, and assassin’s bullets. Sometimes that action is a very visible, public spectacle.
Yet, with this election, we were reminded that sometimes that action is less dramatic, less public. It might seem to be less profound. It takes place with a door knocked, a phone call made, a conversation had, an email sent. It takes place in the solitude of a voting booth. It begins with one pen marking a ballot, one finger on a touch screen, one hand on a lever. . . .
. . . Obama’s election marks forty years since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice fell silent, reminding us that dreams of liberation do not always come right away. But, for the church, we shouldn’t be surprised by this story. We have heard it one before.
When Moses went to confront the Pharaoh to demand God’s people’s liberation, liberation did not come easily. It took plagues. It took persuasion. It took determination. It took time. Then, after a change of heart, Pharaoh consented and let God’s people go. Yet, after Moses secured the liberation of God’s people from the bonds of slavery in Egypt, he realized that while their bodies were free their souls were not ready. They might be walking towards the Promised Land but their hearts remained captive to the land of the past not equipped for the promised future. It would take time. So Israel marched.
They marched from forty years: forty years of prayer, forty years of preparation, forty years of wandering, forty years of waiting, waiting for their moment and the next generation to lead them into the Promised Land.
Along came Joshua. Joshua offered a new hope. The hope was not just the future hope of a liberation that might come one day but the promise of liberation delivered, today. Sand became salvation as wilderness became water—the waters of the Jordan River. By wading through the Jordan, Israel moved from the shadow of their past into the dawn of a new day, a present future. In those waters, Israel washed away the old, making way for the new.
Forty years had passed. Forty years used to make a people ready for liberation.
With this U.S. election, the church finds itself in an interesting position. For the first time in years, people are publicly expressing transcendent exaltation. They are speaking about the real, tangible call for hope’s manifestation in identifiable ways. Average, non-churched people are speaking our language; they are speaking the church’s language. They are crying not just for the possibility of new hope but the material signs of it. That is where we come in.
If the church is anything, we are the purveyors of a story of hope, a hope in the liberation that comes through the life and death of Jesus Christ. This hope is not just some ethereal, dreamy, distant state. It is a real, physical, difference-making story. It is the story of a God that is not satisfied with the status quo, a God who is not happy with how things have been, a God who demands a radical change in our politics, in our economies, in our families, in societies, in us. It is the story about liberation of the heart, soul, and body. It is the story of liberation demanding in real-time for the real world that “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Our story—the Christ story—is a story about a world-changing, people-liberating, hope-incarnating God. It is the story that just might be the very story for which the world has been waiting and needing to hear. It is the story we are all ready to hear.
The events of this November’s election in the U.S. are a concrete reminder that people are not interested in uncertain timeframes of possible future promises but in present arrivals at the shores of change. Such change will not happen by accident, neither will the church’s poignant narrative of liberation be heard if it is not offered and intentionally woven together with cries from the waving fabric of humanity ready for change.
What appropriate, timely viral text message might the church have to offer in response to Obama’s election and the world’s hopeful cries? This one might do.
Moses spoke to the power of Pharaoh.
Martin spoke to the Powers that Be.
Joshua led from wandering to winning.
Barack leads from winning to wondering.
Wondering: What does the Promise expect of me?
A year later, what have we learned; what have we done; what must we do faithfully to fulfill our calling, our position, and our promise? I ask, again, what does the Promise expect of me? What does the Promise of liberation and transformation expect from each of us, from our communities, our college, our country, our world? What must we do? More importantly, who must we be?
What we must be is a community that acts together.
Regardless of our political affiliations, ideologies, or leanings, we all can agree that our dreams are more potent when transferred from imaginings to actions and that our actions are more efficacious when our individual efforts unite in communal works. One common work we might share that offers positive, direct change is Operation Christmas Child. This program provides children in developing countries with necessity items and toys. Our campus regularly participates in this program. Starting today and ending at our November 18 chapel service, the Dorcus service organization and the Inter-religious Council encourage everyone to work together on filling as many of these boxes-of-hope. Collecting boxes for children might not be as dramatic as healthcare reform, curbing climate change, or pursuing world peace, but, for the child who receives the gift, the transfer of hope from possibility to reality is more dramatic and tangible—in that moment—than any grand gesture. For him or her, it is world-changing event. Over the next few weeks, let us share in this incarnation of hope, fulfilling in a small way part of what the Promise expects of us all.