“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them, 1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy: 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” –John Wesley, October 6, 1774
Some of my United Methodist colleagues have recently rediscovered Wesley’s election-year advice. If they haven’t already, I hope they will soon build a Sunday message around these words. But my unscientific assessment suggests that will happen rarely if at all. “Be sure to vote” is all the political speech many pastors dare in public. Besides, worship calendars in November are already overcrowded with stewardship season, Veterans Day on Sunday this year, Thanksgiving, then a week to breathe before Advent begins. We’re busy, busy, busy. Besides, “voting” isn’t in the lectionary.
Nevertheless, I believe Wesley’s words contain a word from the Lord that needs to be heard–more than echoes of “busy, busy, busy”. So I urge some of my active colleagues to reprioritize beyond “worship as usual”. Yes, sisters and brothers, I hear you: “Easy for you to say from the safety of retirement.” Yes, and even easier since I’ll be out of the country when the election happens. But this word needs to be heard. On Nov. 7, winners and losers will have to figure out how to live together for four more years. Folks with diverse political views will still have to worship and work together. Wesley’s wisdom provides an alternative to the prevailing polarization and winner-take-all attitude.
If I were preaching, I’d ground the message biblically in Romans 13-15. Paul points out that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor…love is the fulfilling of the law.” (13:8-10) In ch. 14 he calls for tolerance among folks with very different strongly held views. “Why do you pass judgment on your neighbor?” (14:10) Being right matters less than making sure we do not cause our neighbor to stumble (14:13). Paul moves on to remind us that building up our neighbor matters more than pleasing ourselves (15:1-2) and challenges everyone to “Welcome one another…just as Christ has welcomed you…” (15:7)
I’d address Wesley’s three points (not my typical preaching MO) from that perspective: “1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:” I identify the “fee or reward” that tempts us today as narrow self-interest. Today’s political propaganda addresses one very basic question: “What’s in it for me?” Rarely do we ask “What’s best for our society as a whole?” “The common good” isn’t commonly considered in our political discourse. Rarely does a candidate or elected politician dare call for sacrifice to help the neediest among us, or to achieve a worthy common goal, e.g. deficit reduction. Jesus urged us to put others’ needs before our own. “The person judged most worthy” sounds to me like the one who would best serve the common good. What if from now on we refuse to settle for endless political pandering to narrow self-interest? What if we demanded that candidates address their vision of “the common good” and how to achieve it?
“2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against:” Earlier Paul wrote, “…There is no one who is righteous, not even one;” (Rom. 3:10). What fun is election season if we can’t bash the other side—especially when they’re so wrong/incompetent/buffoonish/crooked/fill in your own word. Besides, the worse the opponent is, the better my candidate looks. But every poisonous, polarizing half-truth and stereotype we repeat poisons our spirits as well. The other side loses their humanity in our eyes and becomes “them”. Every time we dehumanize another person, we dehumanize ourselves as well. “Why do you pass judgment on your neighbor?” Let us who follow Jesus practice more civil political speech. We can debate policies and positions without demeaning persons. Cosistent Christ-like behavior in this respect is a powerful witness. Our neighbors might find such credible Christianity attractive or at least intriguing.
“And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” It’s hard to get close to someone with a “sharpened” spirit. The razor edges hold us at bay. Most of us won’t risk trying to move closer. Instead, we tend to “sharpen” in response. We claim our position even more strongly whether our candidate won or lost. “Sharpening our spirits” sinks us deeper and deeper into self-defensive self-righteousness. We confirm the other’s ideological [and personal/spiritual] wrongness as we confirm our own (self-) righteousness. Our differences don’t magically dissolve following an election.In fact, lately we seem to take a brief break and then resume hammering each other even harder as if nothing had been decided.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s listen closely to Wesley soon after this intense and often bitter election campaign. Let’s also listen closely to Paul: “Welcome one another…just as Christ has welcomed you.” We could probably use a preacher to lovingly and firmly challenge us in the spirit of Joshua: “Choose this day who you will be.”
As I said earlier, it won’t be me. I’ll be out of the country. I have no invitations to preach after we return. Brother/sister preacher, will you be the one who shares this word? My stuff isn’t copyrighted. I would like to know how you use it and what response you get. Laypersons, will you be the one who encourages your pastor to speak this word we all need to hear? Maybe you can do it together. It doesn’t matter so much who’s in the spotlight. It matters hugely that the word is heard—and embraced—and lived.