Two people stepped onto the stage at Hofstra University. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. One of them will likely become the next president of the United Stated of America. Division runs deep in the election. Palpable tension seemed to erupt immediately between the two candidates. How should Christians respond to this level of division?
One particularly acerbic exchange began with Clinton saying, “I have a feeling that by the end of this evening I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.”
Trump responded, “Why not?”
Instead of entering a fruitful dialogue, they hurled criticisms at each other and spouted prepared platitudes. In Acts 15, Peter, Paul and James entered the Jerusalem Conference with different ideas about what is required to be a Christ-follower. After discussing the issue, the three leaders, along with others, arrived at an answer. Too often, politicians foster division, instead of finding solutions. The first presidential debate was no different. Theology rarely transitions smoothly into politics, but God does love the world (John 3:16). Therefore, policies that promote good for the world and the people in it are the most theologically sound.
Admittedly, most people who watched the debate already had preconceived notions of both candidates. Some feel that Trump is a bombastic phony. Others view Clinton as a corrupt part of the political establishment. But whatever one’s preconceived notions, the debate was festooned with interruptions, accusations and one-liners. Other news sources will check each candidate’s claims, calculate who spoke longer, and analyze their effectiveness.
What would a theologian say, after watching these two people speak for 90 minutes? In 1962, Karl Barth visited America and a reporter asked him how he would summarize the thousands of pages he had written. Barth replied, “Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The simple refrain summarized over nine thousand pages of in-depth theology. For Christians watching the political process, Barth’s response to the journalist serves as a refreshing reminder of priorities in a divided season in U.S. history.
My theological response to the first presidential debate is:
First, listen more. Paul Tillich writes, “In order to know what is just in a person-to-person encounter, love listens. It is its first task to listen.” Knowing Christ means knowing the high value the biblical Jesus placed on listening. Neither candidate listened well to the other. Christians can model better listening, especially to those with whom they disagree.
Second, fear not. The Bible, depending on how one counts, has over 300 references to not being afraid. Supporters of each candidate might fear the future if the other candidate wins. Both candidates have created widespread belief that people should be afraid of the other candidate. Yet, God is still God. No matter who wins, God will still be God. Discussing the pros and cons of an issue is more productive when fear does not drown reason.
Third, be the presence of Christ. Each person can look for opportunities to be the presence of Christ, especially during this divided season. Listening, reasoning, loving, sharing, and being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit will triumph if people do not let hatred and division win.
To the candidates, I say: listen more, stop fostering fear, and spread a positive message.