Comedic Interlude: Protecting Against Election Fever

Photo taken from GQ.com

John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman, from GQ.com

John Oliver is a comedian and satirist. As a stand-up comedian (and former Daily Show correspondent), he specializes in offering an outsider’s perspective on American culture. Meanwhile, his long-running podcast The Bugle features Oliver and his good friend Andy Zaltzman offering their take on British news and world events.

The Bugle is taking the summer off, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still pushing out content so that they can stay on their subscribers’ radars. (I could take a lesson from them, I know.) John and Andy are plumbing their archives for some of their favorite clips from their podcast’s long history.

Since we are all still thinking about the excesses and nefariousness of common political campaign tactics, I wanted to share this short sketch from John and Andy’s coverage of England’s 2006 local elections:

Of course, Christians who decide to vote in local elections are most likely called to be more than just single-issue voters and have resources in the gospel to combat the apathy that sets in as John is inoculated against “Election Fever.” Knowing that God is concerned with the full breadth and depth of human flourishing should energize us as we interact with politics—we’re not just protecting our interests, we’re looking for opportunities to break a little bit of the hope and joy of the kingdom to come into the world around us. Christians don’t need to be tossed about by every new meme politicians use to try to shore up support.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4:14–15)

Take a moment now to pray for God’s help remembering that you have the guarantee of a restored society in the kingdom to come, and for that hope to infect the way you think about politics today.

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Yes, I’m a Fear-Monger

BibleBulletAs often as not, when I talk with Christians about how to engage politics, fear becomes part of the conversation: We talk about the role it plays in political discourse, the biological mechanisms that trigger it and the way Christians are called to respond to it.

Fear is a powerful tool in political communications. If you can trigger the amygdala into a fear response and the listener doesn’t have a deeply embedded neurological bulwark against that fear, it’s easy to get your call-to-action around a listener’s analytical filter, to get them to accept your message quickly and uncritically.

Because getting around their analytical filters is such an assured way to secure a listener’s support, even politicians who truly believe their policies and claims could stand up to careful scrutiny regularly try to make their listeners and readers feel threatened by their opposition.

This isn’t just an abstract theory—I’ve traded on fear this way myself:

During the 2006 election cycle, I was working on a campaign in the midwest, trying to unseat a long-incumbent party. One of our regular volunteers, a semi-retired man in his 50s, came into the office carrying a green helmet with a hole shot in it.

When he told me, “My son just came back from Iraq,” my heart sank, expecting to hear that his son had been injured or killed. But then he went on. “And he and his buddy decided to use his helmet for target practice this weekend. Look at this!”

He was laughing at the novelty of a military-grade object with a hole shot in it. He thought it was funny or ironic and wanted to share. I looked at that helmet and immediately had a litany of questions: What caliber ammunition were they firing? How does that compare to the ammunition the soldiers were likely to encounter in the field where they were stationed? Was this helmet meant to be worn in the field or just around base? Even if a helmet could be rated to stop cold a bullet of this caliber, what would that amount of force do to the soldier’s neck and spinal cord?

As a citizen, I understood that this helmet with a hole in it was meaningless. But as a political communicator, I understood how powerful that image could be.

I had a lot of questions, but the only one I asked was, “Can I keep this for a couple weeks?”

I displayed that helmet in the bullpen/reception area of our office. Whenever a volunteer came in to make phone calls, whenever a canvasser came in to pick up flyers or hand in their daily reports, whenever someone came in to the office looking to learn more about the candidate, they had to see that helmet. And when they asked what it was, I answered, “That’s what the people in charge are giving your sons, your daughters and your friends when they send them into combat.”

Enthusiasm went up. More people committed to volunteering. And when election day came around, we won big. My work helped put a good person in office—he was thoughtful, capable, humble, hard-working and honest. He was the best man for the job and I’m proud to say I worked for him, but some of the techniques I used to generate and maintain enthusiasm were problematic.

As Christians, we are called not to fear the powers and principalities of the world around us. But we only fear the principalities that we trust to have some kind of power over us. The way to resist that fear is not to force yourself to keep a stiff upper lip—it’s to internalize the fact that the apocalyptic power and authority that the principalities of our political system claim really belongs to Jesus. And that comes through the normal means of spiritual growth: Scripture, prayer, meditation and community.

One of the greatest assets devout Christians (should) have in engaging politics is the fact that the gospel’s promise of the coming kingdom is a reliable shield against the kind of fear-mongering that forms the undercurrent of a lot of political discourse. Thoughtful Christians of good faith can disagree about almost any policy proposal I can think of. But if you find yourself most often experiencing fear or anger when you think about politics, if you find yourself feeling threatened by a political party in exactly the same way your friends outside the faith do, then you may have an exciting opportunity to learn to trust Jesus more deeply right around the corner.

Lead image taken from Australian Light Horse Studies Center.

The Image of God and the Christian Political Story

Jesus commanded his followers to go into all the world—every corner of every culture—and proclaim the good news of his life, death and resurrection. Everywhere we go, Christians are supposed to strive to strive to demonstrate what kind of difference knowing that we are part of Jesus’ story makes for the way we live our lives in the here and now. Jesus called it, “being lamps on a stand or cities on a hill.”

But if Jesus is really king over all the earth, and he really wants us to take him at his word when he says to go into every corner of the world and live like lamps on a stand, then we need to work out what God’s great story can mean for the way we interact with and about politics.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with folks lately about my general principles for approaching politics, whether it’s as a political operative working on a campaign or as a private citizen having a talk at a bar. Over the next couple weeks, I’m going to fire off a few short blog posts introducing those principles, starting with a brief outline of what Genesis 1 means for the way we should talk about our political opponents.

God’s Image

The Christian story starts with God creating the heavens, the earth and everything in it. He took joy in the world as he crafted it, assessing everything he made and calling it “good.”

But when he made humans, things went from good to great. (Or, well, from “good” to “very good.”)

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

The Christians story teaches that everyone carries the image of God. Every person can trace their roots back to the moment just before God elevated his opinion of his own creation. Every person carries a heritage that makes them worthy of respect—even the people with whom we disagree.

To Christians, our political opponents shouldn’t be monsters, demons or craven animals. Our political opponents are image-bearers of God. And in an increasingly polarized political environment, learning to imbue our opponents with divine dignity even as we vehemently disagree with them is potentially one of the biggest ways we can stand in contrast to the world around us.

Does The Gospel Stop At The Water’s Edge?

Last year, I visited an evangelical church deep in the heart of Texas. The sermon was interesting, engaging and literate. The pastor dug deep into a passage in James, drawing out an application that dared his congregation to think about how their church treats the impoverished in their town and how each of them can rethink their relationship to the poor. As a Christian, I liked that his talk plainly took the Bible seriously and would be challenging to everyone in the audience, reminding Christians that they are there because they are broken, not because they are great. As a communicator, I loved that it also would have been perfectly understandable to people with no grounding in the faith.

But when I sat with the pastor briefly after the service, the sermon was far from what I wanted to ask him about. Instead, I wanted to talk about the lengthy prayer that preceded it. In his prayer, the pastor prayed for the congregation. He prayed for their town. He asked for protection for America’s soldiers overseas. He asked for God’s blessing on the work those soldiers were doing. And that was it.

I couldn’t help but wonder why he stopped there, why he didn’t go on to also pray for the communities to which those soldiers are traveling, why he didn’t pray that God’s spirit be poured out even on those we might consider our enemies. When Saul converted and became Paul, God demonstrated his ability to transform and redeem people we don’t WANT to see transformed or redeemed. If we are honestly praying, “Thy kingdom come,” we need to remember that we aren’t the only people God wants to turn into citizens of it.

When Christians discuss international issues, we need to be eager to look beyond tribal concerns. The Bible tells us that one day, the righteous of every nation will be part of the same kingdom. The kings of every state will lay their crowns at Christ’s feet. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are a testament to the fact that God isn’t interested in his blessings stopping at the water’s edge.

I asked the Texan pastor about why he structured his prayer that way, and why he didn’t pray for the citizens of the countries in which the soldiers were being deployed. In return, he spoke winsomely and graciously about expressing gratitude for a country that has facilitated so many blessings in our lives.

And I don’t disagree. But I think Christians need to also model a wider perspective.

The Gospel According to Knope

Leslie Knope's Campaign PosterThe presidential campaigns are just finishing their transition out of a lengthy primary season and into full-on general election mode. However, we are already nearing the end of what has been, for me, the most emotionally consuming election in years: An off-year, off-season race for an open city council seat in Pawnee, Indiana.

I’m referring, of course, to the campaign depicted in this season of Parks and Recreation, one of the funniest and most optimistic shows on TV.

The show, starring the gifted comedienne Amy Poehler, typically derives humor from loving critiques of America’s civic process. In its fourth season, most of the cast has rallied around Poehler’s energetic, capable bureaucrat Leslie Knope as she runs against Bobby Newport (guest star Paul Rudd), the genial and dim-witted scion of a beloved local processed food magnate. Contrasting Knope’s scrappy idealism against the calculated cynicism of Newport’s seasoned campaign manager has given Parks and Rec an opportunity to go beyond sending up the civic process to sending up the electoral process, as well. And at times, it has gotten profound.

This week, Knope, Newport and a handful of fringe candidates squared off for a riveting debate. The local news anchors moderating the debate took questions “from Twitter, because apparently that’s a thing that happens now.” One of the fringe candidates patiently passed on any question that didn’t afford him an opportunity to wax enthusiastic about gun proliferation. Another repeatedly asserted his devotion to treating Pawnee’s animals as though they were his own children. (Pawnee has a well-established raccoon problem, and the fact that we didn’t get to see their differing responses to how to handle the infestation at Ramsett Park seems like an obvious missed opportunity.)

Newport, meanwhile, only presented one substantive proposal, and it was the centerpiece of the debate: Newport said that if he lost the election, his father would move their factories (and most of the town’s jobs) to Mexico.

Pawneans are a fickle and excitable people, and this kind of declaration could have easily been the death stroke against Knope’s candidacy. However, she recovered. After processing her shock at the potentially game-changing declaration, she responded passionately and sincerely:

I’m angry that Bobby Newport would hold this town hostage and threaten to leave if you don’t give him what he wants. It’s despicable. [The power] to dictate what a city needs—that power belongs to the people. Bobby Newport and his daddy would like you to believe it belongs to them. I love this town. And when you love something, you don’t threaten it. You don’t punish it. You fight for it. You take care of it. You put it first. As your city councilor, I will make sure that no one takes advantage of Pawnee. … This is my home. You are my family. And I promise you: I’m not going anywhere.

Jesus doesn’t offer much in the way of express political prescriptions in the Bible. When cornered by pharisees and Herodians wielding a politically dangerous question about the Roman head tax, he defies the premise of their question and answers in a way that transcends their paradigm. When questioned by the local governors about his political goals, he has nothing to say that they feel is relevant to them.

But he does offer a prescription for the type of attitude a leader should have, and it looks an awful lot like Leslie Knope’s:

You know that the leaders of the Gentiles are lords over them, and their great men exercise power over them. It is not thus with you; but he who wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, and he who wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; as the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his own life for the redemption of many.

(Matthew 20:25–28, Lattimore translation)

Knope’s closing statement resonated with her audience and the viewers because it speaks to the way we all wish power would work. (It also resonated with her opponents: Newport broke the silence that followed by declaring how great he thought that answer was.) We all hope that those in positions of authority—be it in a household, a workplace, a social circle or a government—are worried about the best interest of those without power.

But power doesn’t work that way. More accurately, we aren’t brave or humble enough to wield power that way. If you need any evidence of that, pay attention to the way you talk about your job, your boss and your teammates. No matter what field you’re in, I’m willing to bet that you’ve rarely thought, “I don’t like the way my boss is running our department. If I were in charge and she were in my place, I’d have SO MANY reasonable discussions in which I listened to and thoroughly considered her opinions about how the department should be run, and I’d give them as much weight as I’d give my own ideas.”

No, most people’s fantasies about how they’d run their workplace, their community or their government are ultimately authoritarian. America’s government is structured to work best when the people in charge are open to debate and fully consider the implications of their decisions on a whole host of under-powered peoples. But the pace of work, the pressure of media scrutiny and the need to raise thousands of dollars every week just to prepare for the next election are powerful forces against that kind of humility taking root in the heart of elected officials.

Christians who work in public service or who hold public office would do well to remember to keep their sights fixed on Jesus, who accomplished great work by taking on the role of servant, even when the people he was serving actively tried to elevate him to master. We should also be willing to encourage leaders in every sphere of life to consider approaching their leadership with a servant mindset.

And while we usually avoid endorsing candidates on this blog, I do want to encourage you to vote for Leslie Knope by tuning in on Thursday nights. The election’s in two weeks.

The Abject Optimism of Good Friday

Photo by Andres Serrano for Richmond Lattimore's New Testament

Photo taken from "The Morgue" by Andres Serrano, as excerpted by Chip Kidd for Richmond Lattimore's translation of The New Testament.

Yesterday was Good Friday, the annual commemoration of the worst day of Jesus’ disciples’ lives. Some of them had spent years living with him as itinerant street preachers. Others stayed where they were but radically altered the way they lived their lives, stunting their careers and straining their personal relationships because they believed that Jesus was going to drive the Romans out of Israel and they wanted to be there when he did.

Just a few days earlier, they had given Jesus a royal welcome to Jerusalem in anticipation of his instituting a new monarchy on the eve of the Passover feast. Instead, in the early morning, he was arrested, and his closest friends scattered like roaches. They denied even knowing him, and were so afraid of joining him that they took on the humiliation of running away nakedin a time and culture in which even running in your finest clothing was cause for shame. Most of the ones who stayed to watch his unfair trial and subsequent execution stayed hidden in the crowd.

The reason we know how cowardly, short-sighted and self-interested Jesus’ closest friends were when the going got tough, though, is because they weren’t afraid to say so after his resurrection. Peter, the earliest senior officer of the new Christian church, made no secret about the fact that he denied even knowing Jesus. The only story about his life that James, Jesus’ younger brother, told was about being rebuked and turned away by his older brother for presuming that he would get any attention from him at all. Saul, one of Christianity’s earliest ambassadors to other cultures, made sure people knew he started his career waiting on the people who persecuted and executed Jesus’ followers.

They were wrong about what they expected from Jesus, what they thought of themselves and the way they thought God would work in the world. Why were they willing to admit that? Because they saw the resurrected Jesus. After his resurrection, they understood that he didn’t go through the suffering of good Friday because of them—he went through it for them.

The resurrection had left Jesus’ friends and Christianity’s best early ambassadors so assured of God’s acceptance of them that they could admit their most heinous wrongs—even wrongs they had done to Jesus himself. Even after the resurrection, Peter’s confidence in God’s love was such that he could openly admit when he was wrong about whether Gentiles had to live like Jews to be part of the Christian community.

There are going to be times when we fail to live the lives we should be living. There are going to be times when facts we are sure of turn out to be incorrect. The more personally we understand Good Friday, the more willing we are going to be to concede to the truth. Let’s let Holy Week be a reminder to us to be honest with ourselves, and not feel threatened when the truth isn’t what we wish it to be.

Taking A Lesson From Palm Sunday

Why did the crowd bring palm leaves to Jesus' triumphal entry?

Waving palm leaves today should remind us not just of Jesus' victory, but also of our own penchant for short-sightedness and mis-understanding.

Today is Palm Sunday, so millions of American Christians are going to leave church carrying dried palm leaves folded into small crosses. At my church, we will start the worship service with a crowd of children waving palms in the air while reciting a psalm about how good God is.

Palm Sunday commemorates an event known as The Triumphal Entry: Jesus was heading to Jerusalem for the Passover feast (and to his execution). He had been teaching and performing miracles for just a few short years, yet there were people in every village and city around Jerusalem that recognized him as the messiah, and a crowd of them had gathered at the city gate to welcome him. They didn’t have a red carpet to roll out for him, so as he approached on a donkey, they carpeted the street leading into the city gate with leaves from nearby palm trees and even their own shirts, coats and robes—quite a sacrifice, since many of them likely had only one set of clothes.

Their enthusiasm is understandable, because they knew enough to expect that when Jesus got to Jerusalem, something big was going to happen. They knew that the messiah was supposed to usher in a new kingdom, and they expected that Jesus was going to raise a rebellion against Rome that week and start a new Israelite monarchy.

Of course, something bigger happened that week than most of them expected. Jesus was executed and resurrected, and extended the invitation into his coming kingdom not just to Jews but to the occupying Romans and to gentiles as well. The crowd who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem was expecting a military coup, because that was their only frame of reference for how the world around them could be changed. Rather than becoming a competing power, though, Jesus showed the world that there is a transcendent power. His life testifies to the fact that that power is dedicated to renewal, not domination.

Until the heavens and earth are divinely renewed, Jesus’ followers are supposed to live their lives in ways that give the world around us a taste of what that future kingdom will be like. We should be as eager and enthusiastic about that privilege as the Israelites who laid their only shirts in the dirt to be walked on by a donkey. But we also need to remember that we aren’t yet made perfect. Despite the beautiful, compelling vision the Bible has for healing and flourishing in our world, we’re still just as prone to short-sightedness and mis-understanding as the crowd who welcomed Jesus to his final Passover.