“Against stupidity we are defenseless.” German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer could have written this about the 2016 GOP election race.
I’m like most Americans. Religious, white, middle class, and ticked off.
But far from supporting either Trump or Bernie Sanders, after months of feeling outrage and then disbelief, my anger at the American political machine has subsided, and now I find myself looking for hope far outside of Washington—and much closer to home.
Here’s what I mean: the past six months of political campaigning have given me emotional heartburn. The unpleasant reflux came in three phases.
The first emotion was shock. When Trump calls Mexicans who cross the border rapists, enthusiastically endorses torture, hints that Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia was assassinated, and advocates the killing of terrorist’s families, my blood boils. How could Americans be voting for this man to lead the party of Abraham Lincoln? And how could 37 % of evangelicals support him? What on earth is going on here?
Second, moral outrage gave way to disbelief. Twitter battles about Melania Trump and Heidi Cruz grab headlines, Ted Cruz threatens to “make the sand glow” by flattening the Syrian city of Raqqa (innocent families and all), and Ben Carson’s friend supposedly gets a divine vision telling him to endorse Trump. And he does it.
We have entered the Twilight Zone.
Bonhoeffer saw the same inexplicable stupidity overtake so many of his countrymen during Christmas of 1942: “In conversation with him [the stupid person], one virtually feels that one is dealing not all with him as person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him.”
Make America great again. Feel the Bern.
Finally, disbelief gave birth to apathy. The world is going to pot (quite literally here in Colorado), and what can I do about it? News pours into my iPhone, and I’m no longer surprised at anything. Nor do I feel responsible.
And this creeping cynicism is what turned my heartburn into shame. Czech playwright, philosopher and former president Václav Havel (pictured above) once said:
“Whenever I have encountered any kind of deep problem with civilization anywhere in the world — be it the logging of rain forests, ethnic or religious intolerance or the brutal destruction of a cultural landscape that has taken centuries to develop — somewhere at the end of a long chain of events that gave rise to the problem at issue I have always found one and the same cause: a lack of accountability to and responsibility for the world.”
After reading this, I thought, Maybe the problem isn’t our dysfunctional political system. Maybe it’s us.
Working for Good
Several months ago, Pastor Greg Thompson of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia spoke to a small group of leaders in Denver. Speaking at the Taxi Development in the RiNo (River North) district, which overlooks the Mile High city, he said, “Politics does not in fact create culture change, but actually expresses a larger cultural system of which it is a part.”
For Thompson, a civil rights scholar and social theorist, culture isn’t created by government officials. Instead, it flows from “the public,” or a network of institutions in fields like economics, energy, art, medicine, religion and education that form a “social ecology.”
Culture, in other words, is formed by our work.
When I heard this, I felt a release of tension from my neck. So many Americans believe the next president will either save us or doom us. But neither is the case. Politics is downstream from culture. In reality, we create culture everyday.
As much as I respect Franklin Graham, this is why his nationwide tour to “Pray. Vote. Engage.” feels like an empty drum of water. Rod Dreher, columnist at The American Conservative is right: “Voting Republican, and expecting judges to save us, is over. It’s all about culture now.”
And culture change starts when we pull into the office.
For example, Karla Nugent, the Chief Business Development Officer at Weifield Group Electrical Contracting, created an apprentice program that hires would-be electricians from Denver Rescue Mission, the Stout Street Foundation, and other programs for men coming from addiction, incarceration or homelessness.
It’s one thing to gripe about jobs and the economy, as so many Americans do. It’s yet another to take responsibility for the issue and create career-track jobs for the American underclass struggling to keep pace, as did Nugent.
For thousands of Christians, work is the best avenue to obey Jesus’ teaching to “love your neighbor as yourself” and take responsibility for the direction of society.
Robin John, for example, CEO of Omaha-based Eventide Funds, a mutual fund, expresses his faith by only investing in businesses that create genuine value for communities, especially customers and employees. He believes an ethics-based approach is more socially responsible and also more profitable.
Similarly, Josh Mabe, owner of Twenty1Five, a reclaimed wood furniture business, believes he can reflect Jesus own vision of cosmic renewal (Rev. 21:5) through crafting artistic tables and chairs. Mabe says, “The ugly wood I use is a metaphor for our lives. Most of this stuff,” pointing to a knotted board, “is beat up, discarded lumber. But if you see beyond some of those scars, you can make something really beautiful out of it.”
Work isn’t only a paycheck for Mabe. It can also be an act of beauty.
I’m often tempted to fall prey to cynicism when I see the cycle of anger and disillusionment with presidential candidates turn into a blazing cannonball of destructive rhetoric. But people like Nugent, John, and Mabe give me hope.
And hope starts with seeing Monday morning with new eyes.
A Hopeful Exile
Whatever might happen at the Republican convention in July, three things look likely:
1. The exile from the Republican party, especially among millenials, will continue. Today half of all millennials are politically unaffiliated. Blame Trump, Cruz, or Fox News, millions of us now largely share the sentiment of evangelical writer Trevin Wax, “I don’t feel at home in the Republican Party anymore.”
2. New methods of Christian public engagement will continue to surface. From Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” to sociologist James Davison Hunter’s paradigm of “faithful presence,” in post-Christian America, more believers will continue to experiment with new ways to live out their faith in public.
3. We’ll still have to go to work. And when 148 million working adults in America arrive at offices, clinics, schools, stores, and construction sites, they’ll have to make decisions about what is good, true and beautiful. And in so doing, they’ll shape American culture, for better or worse.
I’m not saying that voting doesn’t matter. It matters deeply. But the best way to affect cultural change is through our daily work, not voting.
In an election year like this, it’s tempting to imitate Pontius Pilate, wash our hands of a messy world, and ask, “What stupidity must I endure next?”
But that’s the wrong question.
“The ultimately responsible question,” says Bonhoeffer, “is not how I extricate myself from a situation but how a coming generation is to go on living.”