As even the briefest dip into social media or news outlets will tell you, we have now entered into the final, eventful days of the liturgical season known as “Electiontide.” Okay, so it’s not a liturgical season, and I don’t think anyone but me really calls it that. But our practices around election day—especially when there’s a presidential election—certainly qualify as liturgical. The word “liturgy” has both Greek and Latin origin, where it means “public service” or “the work of the people.” In church life, liturgy is the collected form and structure of rituals that shape our ways of being and understanding. Places of worship are not the only places where we can participate in liturgical practices. Shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants, schools, sporting events, political rallies, and national holidays all invite us into narratives with built-in practices that shape us toward a specific end—whether that end is to form us into shoppers, entertainment consumers, customers, students, fans, or party loyalists.
Twenty-first-century America is by no means the first time and place that has operated like this. This is exactly what Paul was referring to when he wrote to the church in Rome: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). It seems to me that the first and most critical step of this non-conformity is recognizing the forces and practices that seek to conform us. Then we must learn to discern whether these liturgical goals are in conflict with the virtues and values of Christ’s kingdom. These are not easy, one-and-done steps. These are the ongoing practices of renewing our minds in each and every season. But during these last, impassioned days of Electiontide 2020, it feels all the more urgent. So I offer us this twofold question of discernment as we count down to Election Day: What are the practices of the season, and how are they shaping us?
It can be difficult to notice how commonplace routines function as liturgical practices. So think with me, if you will, about the rituals of this season. For most of us, there is a heightened consumption of journalism and/or opinion pieces. We watch debates, and we listen to speeches. Our mailboxes are stuffed with ads both for and against, and our inboxes fill up with alarming subject lines. It is tradition to declare our political allegiance on t-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, yard signs, and social media platforms. For some, there is the work of volunteering at a polling place or for a candidate’s campaign. Still others create or distribute voting guides that rank candidates on specific issues. I’m sure you can identify some other common practices that are unique to this season.
On the surface, all of these practices are aimed at one thing: getting us to vote a certain way. That’s obvious. But the harder work is to discern what these things are doing in us. For that we need to ask probing questions and invite the Holy Spirit to provide insight:
– What is taking shape in me as I consume more and more news?
– How are my perspective, attitude, and emotional state affected as I hear the mud-slinging and name-calling of opposing sides?
– What am I being taught to fear, or to desire?
When we take time with these questions, I think we may start to notice that these rituals have the very real potential of shaping us in ways that are contrary to the transforming way of the kingdom. Instead of being shaped into “love your neighbor,” we are in danger of being shaped into “fear the other.” Rather than embracing the downward mobility of the cross, we are liable to align ourselves with power and control. Without even fully realizing it, we who have been invited into the way of self-sacrifice can even be pulled into the downward spiral of self-interest and protectionism.
When I was a teenager in youth group, I listened to many sermons on the dangers of peer pressure. It was a delicate balance to master as a young adult. We were “in the world but not of the world.” We should be with friends with kids who were not Christian—because how else would anyone know Christ? Yet we needed to be careful that our friends did not lead us away from our own convictions. I remember more than one camp speaker asking, “Are you influencing your friends to move in your direction, or are your friends influencing you to move in their direction?”
I’ve often wondered why these warnings against peer pressure stopped after adolescence because this is the question I would like to pose to us, the church in America: are we influencing our national project of democracy, or is the American democratic process influencing us? Please hear me clearly: voting does matter. We should vote. But how we vote is more than just whose name we choose on the ballot. How we vote is also about how we come to our decision and how we speak to and about people who come to different decisions.
Our greatest desires cannot be granted by any campaign promise, and our greatest fear has already been defeated in Christ Jesus.
To paraphrase other words of Paul’s, we do not vote like those who have no hope. We listen to the news, we watch debates, and we filter through campaign messages as citizens of another kingdom whose King is not dependent on any election. Our greatest desires cannot be granted by any campaign promise, and our greatest fear has already been defeated in Christ Jesus. We are invited to vote but to vote Christianly. The alternative is not really possible. We cannot be Christian Americanly.
Each week I write a practice for our congregation so we can put what we’ve heard in the sermon into practice throughout the week. (I’ve shared many of these in my book, Living the Way of Jesus.) Each year I’ve found the practice for election week to be particularly challenging yet desperately necessary. The way of Jesus is in such stark contrast to the ways our political parties vie for power, belittle their opponents, and silence those on the margins. Living the way of Jesus during “Electiontide,” especially during election week, is just about as transformational and non-conformist as you can get.
For the remainder of this election season, I invite you consider the questions for discerning how the practices of this season are shaping you. And, as you recognize the ways you are being pushed to conform, I invite you to join me in this practice from Living the Way of Jesus (p. 149) for the renewing of our minds during election season. May the Lord work his good, perfect, and pleasing will in us.
Pray for a Competitor
The political rhetoric of our culture is often divisive, dehumanizing, and even violent. We never hear politicians inviting us to love, bless, or pray for their opponents—but Jesus does invite us to that practice. Leading up to and on Election Day, pray for the candidate you are not voting for, and pray also for all those who are voting for that candidate. You are not praying that the candidate will change, or that they will lose. Instead, practice loving them by praying that God shines God’s full goodness, mercy, love, and joy on them. Remember that each of these individuals is dearly loved by God, just as you are. Pray that they would know this truth.