February arrives (or, at least, has the option of arriving) with soft blossoms barely peeking out and the caress of warmer breezes…a month of Valentines, but also of Presidents, which got me to thinking; to what extent are we supposed to love our elected leadership? I have thought about this before, of course; written and preached and agonized over it before. But this year I have a lot more company in the thinking and agonizing categories.
A compelling, controversial topic, eh? Jesus and Paul both weighed in on the issue in their day; both held to the view that leaders were leaders by God’s design, and we should support them however we could. Paul, especially, was sensitive to the growing unrest in his Roman- occupied land, and realized that these ‘original Republicans’ would be quick to shift blame in time of conflict, and Nero proved him right. The decades and centuries following Paul’s death were grisly ones for Christians, minority, persecuted, thrown to the lions (and worse) kind of folk. How difficult it must have been for them to hear, and maybe even obey, the scriptural word about loving support of leadership.
Much has changed in the intervening years, but much has remained the same, too. American Christians are still the minority – not so tiny as in Roman times, but a minority voice nevertheless. We carry the bitter taste of having once been the only game in town, and now are sorting out what it means to live in a secular society run amok. Our former President Bush professed his United Methodist Christianity openly and frequently, but his style of being a Christian in the world (who would Jesus bomb?) left many of us appalled and angry. How could we love and support him? Should we? Where were we to stand? And then, eight years of President Obama’s leadership, and we never did learn much about his faith. We can draw some conclusions from his choices and behavior and proclamations on various issues, of course, but it would be hard to love him or hate him if faith was the only variable, we just didn’t have enough evidence. And now we have begun with President Trump, who referenced God quite a lot in his inaugural address, and who seems to be championing policies that some Christians find invigorating and others find abhorrent. This ‘loving the leadership’ stuff is really hard!
I have found it to be equally true with people and animals that we all get snarly and dangerous when we are cornered. Which is, frankly, the main reason I try to stay as near the middle of the road in my preaching as I can, because a sermon is not a dialogue, and folks can feel cornered when strong opinion thunders down from the lofty heights of the pulpit. But I will venture this: if we want ethical, compassionate behavior from one another, we must extend the same, model it, make it the norm. President Trump comes to us from the world of big business, where ethics and compassion are often not even on the table. And while it may be a pipe dream to make compassion and kindness the standard of behavior in Washington, we all have different expectations of a business tycoon than we do of the leader of the free world. Charity begins at home, right? And so, a scripturally rooted response to our current political climate must include charity for those who lead on our behalf; easy for some of us, achingly painful for others. Perhaps February, with its pairing of Valentines and President’s Day, needs to be a time for more prayer, more thoughtfulness, more effort to understand. A time for tolerant love, not for bashing and character assassination. Perhaps the Church can create the space for our president to actually hear the voice of Jesus calling over the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air. To do that, though, we will need to embody his teaching ourselves, turning cheeks, loving those who persecute us, and offering hope in place of hate.
Lent begins soon enough, with its eternal emphasis on metanoia – change of mind and heart. The English word in play here is repentance. And real metanoia will lead us, not to just grit our teeth and tough it out, but to actually create a space for Love to do its healing and transformative work. Because it is possible, you know, to have both Valentine’s Day and President’s Day be about caring, supportive relationship. We have done it before. And we can aspire to it again.