After We Vote

Attending to Hope and Fear in the Sacred Everyday

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November 4, 2008 was a big day for America.  Electing our first African American president, in the country that barely survived its institutionalization of African slavery, was a serious and hopeful symbolic moment for this very young nation we all share.  Regardless of any questions about his policy positions seeing a person of color take the stage on election to help lead the free world was symbolic of the hope of a country that would very soon be the first world power with a majority minority, the first nation of its scale to truly wrestle with a multi-ethnic society.

But that is not why November 4 is important to me.  This is why:

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You see, while millions cheered (and others groaned) at what felt like the beginning of a new day in this grand idea called “America”, I was in a Rose Hospital recovery room with my wife and our hours-old first-born son, Evan.  We watched President Obama’s acceptance speech on the awkwardly small box tv hanging from the ceiling and generally sat in stunned silence at the hope and fear of this tiny person sitting in a plexiglass cradle between us.  What had we done? And what would the world be like for him? And what would we do to make it better?

I will always have this convergent moment of two things which draw out our hopes and fears about the future: elections and our children.  In fact, if you believe the ads, most of the time elections are about our children and whether or not one politician or another will build a world worthy of them.  I have been wanting to write about the election of 2018 for some time, wanting to try and put into focus the ache that these last few weeks have ignited in me, but I have been afraid.

We live in such vitriolic times.  Our Twitterized discourse… where in 280 characters or less we mentally or (in reality) tear up each other’s choices, speak in sound bites, venerate our own point of view.  Whether you are a social media power user or not, you are familiar with this.  We lie in wait for the chance to say that one sentence zinger which will turn the tide of the conversation. We scan through other people’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives as if we are flicking through an infinite scroll on our phones.  Out of a thousand stories and glimpses into people’s lives, we remember and talk about the one where they offended our sensibilities. 

We are Babel-makers here, and all the towers fall eventually, thank God.

The incredibly pettiness of the human heart has risen to the surface of our lives in these days, and I am afraid for myself, afraid for us, afraid for my sons.  But fear is a lousy bedfellow, so finally today, I am sitting down to write.  I am not here to write about politics, except perhaps that I care about it far less than most of you would want me to (and that I used to). I am among those that believe following Jesus will put you at odds with one party some of the time, another party the rest of the time, and people who seek power all of the time.  Elections are primarily about people seeking power, some seek it for good, some seek it out of necessity, but in America our exceptionalism has always been tied to our willingness and ability to accumulate and leverage might—financial, military, diplomatic, and social.  We are Babel-makers here, and as I’ve written at length over the summer: all the towers fall eventually, thank God.

The Most Important Thing

I have seen many incendiary and dangerous phrases passed around in the run-up to this election, but none has disturbed me more than this:

“Voting is the most important thing you can do.”

Let’s get the preliminaries out of the way: voting is important.  It is a down payment on the libertine free agency provided for people in democracies, and it is—in particular for minorities and women—a right which was not easily acquired.  It is on one hand symbolic of the grand idea that we are all equal, and it is simultaneously the primary power of the body politic to move the conversation in our nation’s capital.  The question of “how would Jesus vote” is an inane one, as Jesus lived in oligarchical empire, while our empire is republic, at least.  Those who demand your vote for a person or cause as the sole way to follow Jesus have lost the plot entirely, not just of the New Testament, but of the complex network of complicity, power, deception and manipulation that sits at the heart of political power.  I do not know how Jesus would vote, and neither does anyone else.  Which means, for each of us, going to the polls will require a different ethic, driven by perhaps disparate things. Today, my vote will be less about exercising my own voice, and more about honoring those who have had so little voice, and who have had to fight so mightily to be heard at all.  You may be voting for a different reason, but together, we shall vote.

Once we shed ourselves of the misguided imagination that our vote is the most important thing we do, we realize that we are active players in everything that happens after.

There is another saying that “elections have consequences,” and this is true.  But so do ideas, and courage, and kindness, and conversations, and words, and sex and love and fear and hate.  All the things that matter in life leave a wake of intended and unintended consequences.  This is what it means to be a person with agency.  It is what it means to be human—the things we do matter, not just for the immediate action itself, but for all the following reasons behind it. 

Once we shed ourselves of the misguided imagination that our vote is the most important thing we do, we realize that we are active players in everything that happens after.  We play key roles in how we listen to those who are afraid about who won and those who are glad.  We are transformational agents in our willingness to find commonality with the heart of someone who voted differently than us.  We are stewards of the future when we love our enemies.  And elections are a time for so many enemies.

I want you to think about the last week of your life.  Think about the things which were joy producing, and those which triggered fear, sadness or disgust.  Give your mind freedom to oscillate between those two poles of your emotional map.  The kind action of a friend, the frustrating misbehavior of a child, the chilling text from a coworker, the soothing touch of a spouse, the ugly silence of a person whose approval you desire.  I will argue—vehemently—that the most important experiences of our lives may be touched by political things (the ease by which we have health insurance, how we are treated by people in power) but the meaning of those things are deeply personal. 

You make a one-in-several-million difference when you vote.

You make a one-on-one difference when you live with purpose.

These are not two ideas opposed to each other, but two ideas of very different scale.  We are led to believe by those with power and those who wish to accumulate power that the most important thing about you is whose power you stand behind, and the symbolic gesture for this is the vote.

But the most important part of your power is you.  It is the power you have to live awake to your fears, surrendered of your demands, open to your neighbors, loving of your enemies.  Your ability to delegate your power to people in capitals is such a miniscule portion of all that you are capable of, and when we pass around statements like “voting is the most important thing you can do,” we don’t elevate voting, we denigrate you.

YOU.  YOU. YOU.

Waking Up

I am literally pounding the keys as I write this.  This is your life, your world, your family, your church, your belief, your hope, your love, your fear, and it is acted out in REAL TIME 365 days a year, every year, (even an extra day every four years).  And it is made by the millions of choices we make every day, not just the ones we make on a Tuesday in November. Waking up is the most important thing you can do.  What are we waking up to? Let me make a few suggestions in your post-election fog:

  1. Wake up to your most fragile hopes: Give yourself permission to think about and talk about the non-profit you want to start, the party you want to throw, the neighborhood you want to build, the family you want to lead, the church you want to transform, the business you want to grow, the team you want to invest in.  Sprint right past those ephemeral and unreliable dreams about money and power and security and dig your heart deep into the fragile ones, the ones that seem impossible because they are too good to be true.

  2. Wake up to your most fragile fears: We cannot let fear drive us away from our hopes, but we also cannot ignore it.  Burying fear deep only gives it the soil nutrients it needs to grow wider and stronger.  Bring out those fears into the sun.  Talk to someone about them, disempower them with fresh oxygen of the open air and the cleansing beauty of light. We are whole beings, light and dark, and the fear within us wants us to continue to polarize our own hearts in order to polarize the world.  Some of the darkest political events of the past two years have been created by men and women who refuse to feel fear.  JFK was wrong, we have nothing fear in fear itself, we only need to look at it, welcome it to the table of our feast of hope, and say, “Hello Fear, you are welcome to stay, but you don’t get to be in charge.”

  3. Wake up to your most fragile neighbors: This is, of course, the way of Jesus in action.  When we are awake to hope and fear and the fullness of our personhood comes to play, we begin to see the fullness of the people around us.  We start to see those for whom our systems, political, familial, business and otherwise, are ill-tempered.  They are pushed to the margins, carrying an excise weight of cost in order to support to the oversized weight of benefits laid out for others.  They are vulnerable to the world in unique ways and would benefit from an ally.  They are your children, your neighbors, your employees, your team members, the person sitting down the pew.  Learn, by way of accepting the fullness of God’s love for you, to see the love of God lit up in other people.

  4. Wake up to the fragility of your enemies: Post-elections are such rabid times.  The winners go mad with power and the losers go mad with blame and vitriol.  Deception floats to the surface as promises to “work together” rise, and the machinations of institutional power start to shift.  People you know, people you like, people you hate are going to say stuff.  I don’t need to predict what stuff, you know what I’m talking about. You’re going to say stuff. It’s going to get icy.  The bitter world we’ve built together where hate justifies hate will not dissipate after the voting box.  It will only dissipate when we love our enemies. 

Do everything you can to see past the defenses and the opinions (which are one of our defenses) to find the person behind them all.  A person whose vulnerabilities are stretched thin across the political landscape every two years and manipulated into the hands of powerful few. A person like you.  You may not have the courage or the skills to engage them in conversation, or to ask why they believe what they believe (though this would do wonders if you have the chance), but at the very least, we can slow our roll over each other.  We can hold our tongues.  We can avoid the quip back. We can de-Twitterize.

Here is what I believe: All of this can seem small. 

“What good can it do for me to hope?”

“What difference does it make for me to attend to my fears?”

“How can holding my tongue one time on Facebook make that big of a deal?”

Consider this: we were willing to believe that a check box on a ballot among millions of other checked boxes on one election day among thousands could change the world.  Is it really that big of a jump to believe that your one act of kindness toward yourself or someone else is a much bigger thing?


As a forum for helping us all wake up to ourselves and each other, my friend Sharon Hersh and I are doing something a little different. We will be having LIVE conversations about hard topics on Facebook. No script, no go-to message. Just helping each other see each other, and hopfully giving all you permission to do the same. Make sure you follow www.facebook.com/thirtysixwords for all the updates. First one goes live Thursday, November 8, at 7:30pm MT/8:30 pm CT.

Nick Richtsmeier3 Comments