Voting for Nero

Emperor Nero

I don’t envy American voters right now. As much as I covet the perks of citizenship, the responsibilities of having to choose a President in this years’ election feel a bit like a bad meal on the show Survivor: a choice between roasted scorpion and BBQ’d slug for dinner… awful, but a girl’s gotta eat.

That the presidency has been so closely tied to identifying as Christian in the past makes things that much more complex. Certainly, at this stage I’m not persuaded that any of the leading candidates for either party have anything close to an authentic faith (not that I think being a Christian is necessary for public office. Character and competence? Yes. Christ-follower? Not necessary. Church and state are separate, after all.)

My heart goes out to Christian voters who are grieving their choices. These are less-than-ideal options, and as someone who will live under the reign of one of these officials, I know that I will also experience the effects of their policies in a tangible way. I’m more than a little concerned about what the future may hold for me as an immigrant, and a tax payer, and as a parent of American citizens.

But I can’t help feeling, too, that while this election spells trouble for the America, maybe it will also be really good for American believers. This election no longer allows us to draw a line in the sand and say “my faith says I should vote this way”, because the issues are so complex. Our faith says we should vote (be an engaged citizen, do our civic duty), but exactly HOW to vote is far more nuanced.

I think (I hope! I pray!) that this political climate could have some really healthy spiritual consequences. I just finished reading Mark Labberton’s short-but-powerful book Called, in which he explores the crisis and calling of Christians in our world today. What does God want from us? Why is our faith often so ineffective? How do we figure out what our priorities are, or should be?

Labberton argues that part of the reason the church is in crisis is that, in America, we have positioned ourselves in the wrong place theologically: we live and teach and pray as if we are living in the Promised Land (A place of blessing! We’ve arrived! We have been faithful and rewarded, and if “my people would just humble themselves and pray” He will pour out His blessing!) Consequently, we expect this country to be one with Christian institutions, Christian laws, and Christian leaders: a whole gamut of Promised Land blessings. I’ve seen more than one article comparing Trump to King Saul, and while the similarities are fascinating, it is also fascinating that the position of President of the USA is being compared to the role of King of God’s Kingdom.

Labberton says (and I agree) that we’re not in the Promised Land. Not yet, anyway. A better way for us to situate ourselves theologically is to see ourselves as believers in exile: we are Daniel in Babylon – honoring God, and serving within a system that is not our own, and seeking to exert godly influence there. We are the exiles, seeking the peace of the city we are in – for we will be here a while yet before we finally make it home to the place He has prepared for us. So settle down: plant a vegetable garden, figure out how to be faithful to God in a land-not-yet-your-own, seek your neighbors’ welfare and trust that here and now is not the end of God’s story.

I found reading Called to be surprisingly comforting. The absence of a godly leader does not mean that God’s plan is thwarted: we are not Israel living under a King. We are Kingdom exiles living under a foreign ruler, and while believers may occupy positions of influence and power in that realm– the fate of God’s promises doesn’t depend on these institutions.

The words of the New Testament are all the more salient to believers in these days when it feels like governments are populated by people like the Emperor Nero was: self-serving politicians with significant mean streaks. Nero famously “fiddled while Rome fell”: his cruelty and indifference to people’s suffering so pointedly demonstrating the moral decrepitude which characterized his reign.

This years’ election lineup looks like a bunch of Nero’s (or Nera’s?) to me. The South African government looks much the same, and it is disheartening sometimes to think that behind them are a long, long line of Nero-wannabes waiting to take their place should the head honcho tumble.

But we know that God’s purposes never depended on godly leaders being at the helm. It was to people under a hostile and indifferent government that the apostles wrote their letters about citizenship: honor the leader. Obey the laws. Pay your taxes. Show love to your neighbor. Pray for peace that you may live a quiet life and get on with what God has called you to do.

For it’s not as if we need a new Messiah to come and fix the mess of a system we’re in. We have a perfect King, already installed on the throne, and one day His Kingdom will be revealed. But for now? We live in exile, and no matter who is in power – NO ONE is stopping us from doing the work we were called to do right now: loving God, loving our neighbor. This post is not saying “our hope is not in politics, so withdraw withdraw withdraw!” This post is saying “our hope is not in politics, so engage engage engage… in the Kingdom work right in front of you.” 

This is what I’m trying to remember as I read all the heartbroken and angry reactions on my social media feed. We are in exile, living in the times of Nero. But Jesus is still on his throne, and he says that Greatness is about service and love to the least of these:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your servant— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:25-28)

If nothing else, maybe this year’s elections will remind the church which leader we’re ultimately putting our confidence in. Come what may, my vote’s on Him.

Let’s Play No-Trumps (some thoughts on how the cards are stacked this election)

Donald-Trump-Card

Perhaps it was because my given name means white breasted that, from a young age, I have been sensitive to name meanings. Perhaps it was my early exposure to the Bible, where names mean something significant about the character of a person that consolidated it (Jabez, or Jesus, or Peter, for example). Whatever the reason, I always thought it a little fishy that Donald Trump’s last name was, in fact, Trump.

I learned how to play bridge in college: a card game with trumps and no trumps, suits and hands, scoring above and below the line, with finessing and tricks, and players rendered vulnerable. According to Wikipedia,

trump is a playing card which is elevated above its normal rank in trick-taking games. Typically an entire suit is nominated as a trump suit – these cards then outrank all cards of plain (non-trump) suits. In other contexts, the term trump card can refer to any sort of action, authority, or policy which automatically prevails over all others.

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the 2016 presidential race, I was entertained. Seriously: the “you’re fired!” guy? Him? With his ridiculous tweets, worthy of Josh Groban spoofing? Yes, he had money, and at first it seemed to me like a game: “let’s see if I can win the Oval Office square on the Monopoly Board, too!”

I thought the obvious ridiculousness of him as a viable candidate would soon become clear, but months are passing, and that’s not happening. I thought we should pay him no mind, and the fuss would go away; just like savvy parents sometimes need to ignore a tantrumming toddler and not reward bad behavior with attention.

Instead, crowds are cheering him on as he makes xenophobic, racist remarks which belie little to no respect for human rights or indeed, any of the values which I think ever made America great in the first place. As one woman shrewdly observed, Trump is what would happen if all the trollish comments on the internet were rolled up into a person. Rather than a measured and wise diplomat one would hope to have wield a position of such great power, he seems to be a bully. a mud-slinger. a flame-thrower.

And, devastatingly, a wildly popular one. The thought of him being the elected leader of the free world  fills me with horror: do people not know that America would be throwing its name under the bus if they elected him? (Not that my own country of birth has done better in recent years: more horrifying than the fact that a man with fraud and rape scandals by the dozen was elected president is the fact the millions of my countrymen voted for him to be there.)

Which brings me back to Trump, and Bridge, the card game. In the bidding rounds before any cards are played, the players signal to their partners with hints about their hands to establish what the “trump suit” will be. If you have a high number of diamonds (inference intended), the game would go so much more favorably if you can signal to your partner and secure diamonds as trumps for that round. You could then have your so-called partner lay down their cards and be the “dummy” for the round while you work the table. The rules are such that a privileged hand can land up taking every single trick, no matter what aces are literally up the others’ sleeves.

But shrewd opponents would work hard to keep the diamond-strong team from declaring diamonds as trumps. Perhaps they could bid for Clubs to be the trumps. Or, better yet, if they rallied their strongest cards, they could settle for a game of No-Trumps: where all the suits are equal, and no one card gets to call the shots over other would-be winners.

Such a game would take finesse, and tactful bidding. If you were playing against a team where one player really did have a stacked hand, you would need team work. Even to lose the round by one or two in a game of no-trumps is better than letting the diamond-heavy Trump take all the tricks.

Friends, don’t let Trump keep playing. Speak up. Please.

 

Immigration: the unforgivable sin?

When I share the story of how brutal the path to citizenship is for us, people are often shocked.

We are not what people have in mind when they think of ‘immigrants.’  We are white. We speak English. We have graduate level degrees. And yet even for us, as documented workers, it sometimes seems nearly impossible that we will be able to gain permanent residency. The path is so much narrower and steeper than people realize, so we speak up.

I speak up because I would love legal residency to be more easily within our reach. As a mom, it would give me so much peace of mind to know we could continue to build a life in the U.S. with our children. But mostly, I speak up because I can. As a legal immigrant, I have a first-hand perspective on just how harsh the current legislation can be, and I also have the freedom to speak about it without fear of being deported.

And so I speak and write in favor of equitable and reasonable immigration reform. I believe it is the right thing to do ethically, and it is the wise thing to do socially and economically. However, whenever I raise the issue I am met with this response: “We’re not objecting to you — because you got here legally and have obeyed all the laws. We are objecting to all the law-breakers who are here illegally: if they disrespected the law, they should not be rewarded for it!”

I am never quite sure how to respond.(Read the rest over at Sojourners….)

Farewell Madiba

On February 1st, 1990 I slid into my seat in English class and saw something which was to mark the beginning of my political consciousness. With the sharp tip of their compass, someone had etched their pointed remark into the wooden desk: “FREE MANDELA – 2 FEB ’90”

I went home and asked my Mom about it. She filled me in: remember that time when there were election posters and we asked her who she voted for and she said she had spoiled her vote? Well, that was why. And remember how we went to a private school so there would be kids of all races in our class, and sometimes we had bomb drills and learned about hand grenades because our multi-racial school was often threatened? Well, that was why. There was a resistance to the Way Things Were, she explained, and Nelson Mandela was the head of that resistance. He had been in jail for 27 years, and there were rumors that his release was imminent.

Things were changing. The writing was on the desk, after all.

The following day I watched goggle-eyed and newly-born as FW de Klerk announced that Mandela was to be released. 9 days later we watched again as he walked out of prison: with wonder, joy and a little apprehension as to what that would mean.

And so it came about that we witnessed the change of South Africa from Apartheid into the New South Africa, with Madiba (as we came to call him) at the helm. We celebrated the first free and fair elections 4 years later, in my first year at university. I had the privilege of taking Constitutional Law during the very year that the interim Constitution, and the new Final constitution, were being hammered out. I celebrated when Mandela appeared at the Rugby World Cup (the first hosted in South Africa after years of sanctions), wearing Pienaar’s No 6 jersey – a symbol of peace and oneness to white South Africans if ever there was one.

Through it all, Madiba’s dignified, peace-making, authoritative, conciliatory voice set the tone. There was no one in whose hands and under whose leadership South Africa could have have fared better. I loved him.

NelsonMandelaPortrait

Even after he stepped down from power, his influence was still felt. What would Madiba do? What would he say? Eyes continued to look to him for a measured and wise response as bewildering things happened in South African politics. As the years have gone by he has become older. frailer. And increasingly the Future Without Mandela has loomed before us.

Today Madiba lies on his death bed. Soon he will take his last breath and close his eyes to this life, only to open them and meet God. I do not know where he stands with God or what he has believed about Jesus, but this much I do know:

In 1 Timothy 2 we are told to pray for all those in authority, so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, says Paul. I take it to mean that we are to pray for stable and just governors, under whose leadership quiet and fruitful living can take place.

In these last hours of Madiba’s life on this earth, I am thankful that he was just that kind of leader: one who led in such a way that South Africa was peaceful and quiet in a time when it could have been tumultuous and bloody. This was good, and pleased God our Savior.

Good bye, Tata, and thank you.

Update: After several months in a coma, Nelson Mandela passed away on December 5th, 2013, my 37th birthday. He will be deeply grieved and forever loved.