Voting as Love of Neighbor

The following is adapted from the Rector’s Letter in the November/December Evangelist which came out today, November 2nd, 2020.

By The Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson

A few weeks ago, helping my mom with her move, I found myself elbow deep in a box of memorabilia, when out slipped the prayer card from my grandfather’s funeral. Printed near the top, right next to a picture of his smiling face, was his date of death – October 6, 2018 – exactly two years ago to the day that I stood holding that card. A rush of memories, both happy and sad, welled up in me. Some will say there is no such thing as a coincidence, and I decided to accept the card as a holy reminder to remember Grandpa J.

As is often the case, grief connects to more grief, and memories lead to more memories. I found myself, the rest of that day, pulled deep into a long stream of story and memory, not just of him, but of others I had loved and lost, my maternal grandfather, a beloved uncle, my own father, of good times and bad. As you might imagine, it was overwhelming, and good, and rich, and challenging, and at the end I was exhausted.

Exhaustion seems to be a theme lately. Experts have been telling us for most of the pandemic that exhaustion was coming, particularly around the 6 month mark, that grief would become part of our regular lived experience, that we might be overwhelmed and unable to deploy our usual coping strategies – as those are meant for shorter durations of hardship. This pandemic is a prolonged season of loss, and we are tired. It would be bad enough to have to suffer ambiguous losses like the change in school as we know it, the loss of physical contact with so many loved ones, friends, church family and more, the loss of ordinary things like restaurants and movie theaters, and so much else that has had to go away since March.

Ambiguous though these losses are, they were necessary sacrifices for the greater good. But, not all loss has been ambiguous or necessary. I speak of the loss of trust in our elected leaders, of the loss of hope that civility and honesty and reasoned judgement might shape the decisions and actions of those who hold the highest office in our land. The loss of now over 231,000 lives – mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, co-workers, fellow citizens – cuts me to the core. 

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Again, there may be no such thing as coincidence. Election Day falls directly after the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, the days when we celebrate and honor the saints of the church AND all those faithful departed, who from their journeys rest. At Saint John’s we will mark All Souls with a short liturgy streamed from the church (check our eNews for details). We will offer prayers for all those who have died or are remembered from Saint John’s in the past year, and we will toll the bells of the church 220 times, once for each thousand people whose lives were taken this year by Covid-19. We will mark these losses and we will remember. But, we will also let their memory galvanize us to action. One of the reasons we celebrate both All Saints and All Souls is to remember to emulate the lives of the saints and to set as examples those faithful individuals who though not canonized, nevertheless lived faithfully, following the way of Jesus, and making his love known. We remember the dead and their lives and stories propel us into action. 

One way we can take action, bringing the love of Jesus into the world, is to vote our values on Election Day. Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael Curry reminded us a few weeks back in a sermon to the House of Bishops, using the words of the late Representative John Lewis “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent that you have in a democratic society”.

Curry continues,

“Partisan neutrality is not the same as moral neutrality. It was not in the first century and it is not today. The royal law of love is the fulfillment of the law and the will of God. It is the ultimate standard, norm and guide for following the way of Jesus in any society, in any time. With grace to aid and conscience to guide, each of us must discern and decide what love of neighbor looks like in our lives, in our actions, in our personal relationships and in our social and public witness. What did Jesus do?”

Of course, voting is not the only action we can take. One of my wise mentors, the former bishop of Georgia, the Right Reverend Scott Benhase wrote recently that for him, voting is “damage control”. He asks,

“Which candidate will do less harm to poor and marginalized people? I call that the “Matthew 25 lens.” Which candidate will lessen the burden on the “least of these” to which Jesus refers? I’ve never found a candidate for any office that completely fulfills that call (thus my vote is constantly in damage control mode), so I’m always hoping whoever I vote for will hurt poor people less than the other candidate. At least in this upcoming presidential election, I don’t even need to hesitate in choosing.” 

We vote with the lives of those 231,000 in our hearts. We vote for the 545 children who have been separated and not reunited with their families at our border. We vote with love for our gay and straight neighbor, with love for our black, brown, and white neighbor, our indigenous neighbor, our immigrant neighbor. 

And what do we do if our candidates lose – the ones that Bishop Benhase, or you, or I believe do the least damage to the cause of Jesus’ way of love? The life of faith, following the examples of the faithful departed and shaped by the witness of the saints, requires a love that exceeds the polling booth. The way of love is an everyday undertaking that never pauses or rests. We will continue to follow the way, standing with the hurting, placing our bodies between the vulnerable and harm, and raising our words to speak up for those whose voices are erased and drowned out by callous indifference and the politics of greed. At the end of the day we know that voting alone cannot heal all that is broken, cannot fix all that needs mending – white supremacy, toxic masculinity, environmental destruction, greed, indifference, – these will require what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature, the deep and long work of people of all faiths, and no faith at all. And, for those of us who follow Jesus, it will require a radical commitment to his way of love. As Curry says,

“I am a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, because I believe he has shown us that better way. I believe that the way of unselfish sacrificial love can show us the way of repentance, the way to repair the breach. The way of reconciliation that ultimately can lead us to the beloved community, but it’s not easy. And this is long distance work. There are no quick fixes because the wounds are so deep, but we need not feel enslaved by fate. We are not people of fate. We are people of faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Nothing can defeat God or stop God’s cause of love. The way will not be easy, but we can do this.”

To this I can only say, Amen and Amen!

I’ll see you at the polls and in worship.

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