Elected: A Sermon for the Day of the U.S. Presidential Election

Stanley Hauerwas

Article first appeared in ABC Religion & Ethics.

Jesus just does not seem to “get it.” We should not be surprised, for he often did not seem to understand what should or should not be said if he wanted to have followers.

He just did not get how there are better and worse ways to say certain things that need to be said – things that should be said carefully. As we have been reminded of late, “words matter.” Jesus should have tried to find a less direct way to say what he feared might happen to the Temple.

Speaking directly, however, seems to have been a habit Jesus could not break. For example, Jesus surely over stated his case when he suggested that we must hate father and mother, wife and children if we are to follow him. Hating brothers and sisters may be closer to the mark (Luke 14: 25-28), but even that seems an exaggeration.

But the real howler is his claim that the Temple will end in ruins. You just do not make those kinds of claims if you want to be elected messiah. At least, you do not make those kinds of claims about the Temple around the people of Israel. He surely must have known how to say what needed to be said so what is said could be heard.

That Jesus spoke so directly is an indication that he was not trying to create a democratic coalition. He held the ancient offices of Israel. He was prophet, priest, and king. Those positions were not bestowed on him by an election. Moreover, how his life reconfigured each of those offices is a story in itself.

Even as he taught as one with authority, he did not act as if his authority depended on a majority vote. Rather his authority seemed to come directly from who he was – that is, he was the messiah who is truth itself and thus the One who speaks the truth. The truth is the Temple will be destroyed, and Jesus can speak that truth because he speaks of his own destruction. Jesus is the priest who is at once the altar and the sacrifice. In troubling his listeners, Jesus doesn’t attempt to persuade but rather trusts that the Spirit will reveal, without ambiguity, to those who have ears to hear that he is the messiah, the One who will be raised again in glory.

In our epistle reading for the day, we come across yet another striking example of someone who lacked political savvy. Saul was knocked off his horse in an encounter with the risen Christ. As a result, Saul becomes Paul and assumes the title “apostle.” As far as we know, Paul was not elected by anyone other than God to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Yet he assumes he has authority to tell the Thessalonians what to do. So he issues a command. To be sure, it is a command “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” but it is still a command made by Paul. Paul does not lead by suggesting, “I think you would find this a good idea.” He says: I command you to stay away from those who live in idleness. Those living in idleness may assume that there is no need to work because they think they heard me say that all things are coming to an end, but they are mistaken about what I am about and they thereby should be avoided. Paul even has the audacity to say, “imitate me.”

Accordingly, Paul does not think that he must say what the Thessalonians want to hear. Majority vote will not determine what the church should or will be. Nor will a poll be taken to determine what the general will might be. Paul has no use for those who will not work. Idleness is surely the breeding ground of the lie and the lie makes violence inevitable. The lie leads to violence because people who have nothing better to do than to do nothing turn out to be a people who spend their lives making other people miserable because they are about one thing: avoiding boredom. Thus Paul exercises his authority, but his authority is the authority of an apostle.

I have called attention to the kind of authority Jesus and Paul enact as a way to suggest that there may be some tension between the political order that is the church and that form of social and political organization called democracy. I need not tell you this is the day Americans elect their president and a host of other offices. We will be told this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels, and the people asked for Barabbas.

Voting is often said to be the institution that makes democracies democratic. I think, however, that is a deep mistake. It is often overlooked but there is a coercive aspect to all elections. After an election 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do.

I do not mean to underestimate the work elections might do to make our lives less subject to violence, but elections are not ends in themselves. In classical democratic theory, elections are only the means to make a people have the kind of exchanges necessary for the articulation of the goods we have in common. I think I can honestly report that the campaign climaxing in election today does not seem to fit that description.

It is tempting to blame Donald Trump for that result, but I think the problem goes deeper than Trump. The problem, quite simply, is us; a sobering but true realization. We get the people we deserve running for office. What made Trump stand out is that he seemed to speak something other than bureaucratic speech. But you know you are in trouble when the kind of speech that is the speech of television sitcoms is identified as plain speech.

We did not elect Jesus to be President. We did not elect Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity. We did not elect him messiah or saviour. We did not vote on whether there should or should not be a people gathered to worship Jesus. We thought our leadership could even be determined by lot. We did not vote to legitimate what we now call “the Bible.”

There were times and there will continue to be times Christians take votes, but often it takes centuries for what was determined by a vote to be received by the whole church. Elections are no substitute for argument. Thus the observation often made by non-Christians that Christians must surely love one another, because how else could we explain their willingness to engage one another in argument?

Truth matters. We are to be people of truth. The truth that makes us Christians means we are a people who are not destined to be celebrated in any social order, whether it calls itself democratic or not. Do not misunderstand! I am not suggesting that there are not better and worse forms of social and political organization. We do not live in a night when all cows are grey. But it is also the case that Christians are a people that believe what we believe is true. Such a people cannot help from time to time coming into conflict with those regimes organized on the assumption that there is no truth other than what “the people” say is the truth.

Jesus tells his followers that we will be arrested and persecuted because of his name. This should be received as good news because Jesus tells us we will therefore have the opportunity to testify. To testify is to tell the truth before a world that often does not believe it possible to say what is true. Jesus assures us that we will be given the words and the wisdom to say at the appropriate time what is true. And this, thank God, is the truth: Jesus is Lord.

Lord is not a democratic title; it is a truthful designation for the one we worship. We have the authority to testify to the truth that is Jesus because that Jesus is Lord is not some general truth that can be known without witnesses.

That what is true is known by witnesses to Jesus cannot help but be a deep and profound challenge to the status quo. It is a challenge because the status quo is based on the assumption that whatever is true must be available to anyone. Christians are not anyone. We are Jesus people who Jesus says will be hated and some of us will even be put to death. But if Jesus is who he says he is, what choice do we have? After all we did not elect Jesus. He elected us.

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