A Pastoral Letter on Political Decisions

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One of Martin Luther’s most famous phrases is the odd one “Sin Boldly”. Of course it is usually used prior to doing something really stupid or clearly sinful. As college kids we often used it on Friday around 4 PM just before heading out for the night. That is one of the more harmless places, but what it is often used for is to justify some action you want to do but know is wrong. One could imagine saying “sin boldly” before lighting a Molotov Cocktail as part of a “protest”. After all, nothing is going to change if we don’t do something in the fierce urgency of now. One could also imagine saying “sin boldly” before starting a rumor about one’s opponent. The problem is that is not really what Luther was talking about. What that phrase captures is our bound and fallen nature. In this world we really don’t make choices between good and evil. If we did, ethics would be easy. Rather most of the time our choices are given to us with little ability to influence them. And, most of the time those choices are both compromised. Ethics is not about good and evil but about bad and less bad. And the reason we argue over it is we often come to different conclusions what is less bad. Sin Boldly as a phrase meant choose less bad to the best of your ability, and more importantly rely ever more on the sufficient grace of Christ. He is the one who in this world turns less bad into good for his people. He is the one who one day will make less bad untrue.

There are multiple biblical stories that I ponder in these regards, but I keep returning to one specific place, Genesis 21:8-21. I’d suggest going and reading the story. It is Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael and Hagar. Sarah, impatient and untrusting of God’s plan, had given Abraham her slave, Hagar, to have a child with. She would fulfill by her efforts what God so clearly wasn’t. That child was Ishmael. And as these things go, you can imagine that Abraham would become attached to the child and to the mother. Sarah, perceiving this had immediately sought to have mother and child banished, and Abraham gives in. But The Angel of the Lord finds Hagar and the baby and restores them to Abraham and Sarah. In another of its great ellipses, the bible doesn’t explain how. Fast forward a few years and Sarah has Isaac. And this time, more insistent, she tells Abraham “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”

The entire scene is caused by the failure, the sin, of not trusting the promise of God – “I will give you an heir”. The entire scene is the full born fruit of that sin. There is no good choice. The choices are cast Hagar and young Ishmael out into the wilderness alone most likely to starve or to die of thirst, hunger and exposure, or keep her and the son and deal with the daily problems of the heir and his mother, and the first born and his mother. The vast majority of our choices are like this one – the fruits of past sin. We might be forgiven for that sin, but in this world we live with its results. And in Abraham’s case it really is binary – choose, you first born or your heir. The bible in its typical understatement says, “the thing was very displeasing to Abraham.” No kidding.

What do we do in such a situation? Such situations often lead to paralysis and breakdown. In attempts to find third ways, we compound sin by avoidance or grumbling. I bet Abraham decided to spend some time with the herds for a couple of days. The camp was probably walking on eggshells. But in this case God comes down to Abraham and tells him, “Whatever Sarah says, do it. And don’t be worried about Ishmael, I will prosper him.” This prospering of Ishmael will be a thorn in the side of Israel forever. Today’s Arabs claim biblical descent as the first born of Abraham. Some of the consequences of sin are long lasting. But God tells Abraham make the choice. Sin boldly, and trust on the grace of God to bring out good. In this case, Joseph’s brothers would sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites who would take Joseph to Egypt where he would eventually save Israel from the famine. A further good would be Ruth, the Moabite, part of Ishmael, who would become a grand-mother of Jesus.

I’m talking these things because I think we have found ourselves with such a choice in November. Whatever the merits of Trumpism, Mr. Trump himself does not appear to be fit for such high office. But likewise the other major party has nominated someone who if her last name wasn’t Clinton and she were not running for President would be in an orange jump suit right now. FBI director Comey found fit to put Martha Stewart in one for much less than exposing the nations secrets for personal whim. None of which gets into the international grift of the Clinton Global Initiative. Due to the sins of the primaries, and the sins of past years, we find ourselves with such a choice – a felon and a man who describes his personal Vietnam as dodging venereal disease in the 1970’s and who has never asked God for forgiveness while proclaiming himself a Christian.

What does a citizen do in such a case? And what can we expect? Ted Cruz said “vote your conscience”. It’s a cute line and he earned it. When someone unleashes conspiracy theories against your dad, I would imagine your conscience would say words I can’t write here. But it begs the question, what is a properly formed conscience in such a case for a citizen, especially for one not directly slandered? One option, which the Amish normally take, is simply not to vote. The citizen does not have to take part. But, if you are like me, this feels like a cop out because I am not Amish. The Amish see politics as necessarily defiling oneself with the world. That has never been the majority report of Christianity which has normally held that God is sovereign in the political kingdom (the kingdom of left) just as much as in the gospel kingdom (the kingdom of the right). When he sits at the right hand of God it is not over some truncated Kingdom. The biggest difference being that the kingdom of the left is exercised through crooked us, while the right is simply the declaration “your sins are forgiven” in the many ways that Christ has instituted that to be said. There are many voices – both former Sander’s supporters and supporters of people like Ted Cruz – that sound very Amish. Voting for either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump would sully their morals. Such a conscience to me seems malformed in a hyper-moral way applied to the wrong place. If you want to see saints, you go out to the desert, you don’t go to where people wear the soft clothes and $5000 suits.

So, what does a citizen do? Sin boldly. Choose which ever candidate seems least bad. And trust in the grace of God to work for his people. That doesn’t mean I don’t think either choice is going to lead to good things immediately. Abraham’s choice lead to 400 years of slavery in Egypt. It was roughly a millennium until Ruth met Boaz. I have a sense of foreboding that long after I am gone, my grand-children will be living with the results of this election, the results of picking two such uniquely unqualified people for such an office. But then the Christian’s call is not to think about preserving one’s holiness because we have none. The Christian’s call is to consecrate the fast and call the solemn assembly. Cry out to the Lord. Who knows, after it is past, he might relent and leave a blessing behind. Our salvation comes not from the Princes we elect for a mere four years, but from Christ who reigns forever, and ever. Amen.