The Donkey, The Elephant and The Lamb

It was Harvey Cox, a professor I studied with long ago in Boston, who said it most succinctly: “not to decide is to decide.” Sometimes, however, the choices don’t seem to be all that choice when it comes to elections.

Both of the current leading candidates for president, for instance, have ideas that are worth considering and they certainly have displayed high energy levels that could put folks half of their ages to shame. But both also seem to be dragging along with them a cartload of baggage that could potentially far overshadow whatever good they might be able to do.

So like millions of other folks, I find myself wondering just exactly how we got here. For as I suggested in a sermon a few weeks ago, it feels a little like when Samuel went to find a new king and Jesse brought seven of his sons before him for tryouts.

After looking over the boys carefully–and receiving a reminder from the Lord that it’s not what is visible that counts, but what is in the heart–Samuel finally said to Jesse, “Is that all of your boys?”

Or, in short, what Samuel wanted to know was what many today might also wish to ask, namely “Is there anyone else out there from which to choose?” For sometimes just picking the least offensive of our choices doesn’t negate the fact that the lesser of two evils is still evil.

And so when it comes to this election some will simply sit it out, I suspect. But I’m not so certain that is a faithful response either. For if we are indeed the salt of the earth as Jesus told us, surely we’ve been summoned to sprinkle out our seasoning on society rather than simply stay safely ensconced in a salt dome somewhere on the sidelines.

One of my new friends, Susan Henry-Crowe, who ably leads our denominational Board of Church and Society, recently noted that the word suffrage means the right to vote but, she added, it has a secondary definition as well: suffrage is also a series of short intercessory prayers and petitions. In that sense, thus, voting is not simply a civic responsibility but it can even be an act of prayer and faith.

It may not be an easy decision for many of us. For in truth, there is no perfect candidate for president this year, but then there never has been. The good news, however, is that God has a great track record of using imperfect vessels for His purposes and He can even make Pennsylvania Avenue the Road to Damascus if He chooses.

Likewise, because we’ve not been called to be followers of either the donkey or the elephant, but of the Lamb Himself, on November 9, no matter who has been elected, He will still be our King.

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14 Responses to The Donkey, The Elephant and The Lamb

  1. “A series of short intercessory prayers and petitions” may be the secondary definition of the word “suffrage” in dictionaries today, but it is actually the much older and truer meaning, predating the American-created association with voting by centuries. However, I can’t help feeling you are balancing on a rather thin and precarious edge in your linking of the two definitions. Though it be the stuff of countless sermons and blog entries, assuming that variant meanings of words can be combined to form a handy and satisfying composite is not always warranted. In this particular case, it feels a bit close to civil religion for my taste (though apparently not for yours, which is why I am merely offering a personal response–not declaring you “wrong,” as so many commenters in the areas of religion, politics, religious politics, and political religion seem wont to do these days).

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not speaking out against prayer in general, or even the specific practice of praying while heading to the polls, but the linking of prayer and politics always presents us with an insoluble dilemma, illustrated in this parable:

    A Democrat and a Republican walk into a polling place at the same time. Both pray for God’s guidance in casting their votes for the candidate God wants in the White House. Both vote for the candidate they believe God wants. After all the votes are counted, one candidate is declared the winner. Which voter’s prayer was heard and answered?

    It reminds me of our Civil War, in which both sides firmly believed God was on ttheir side and prayed fervently for victory. And it raises two additional, closely related questions: Does God have a preference in such matters? And if so, does God’s preference always prevail? Theologically, a desire to affirm God’s sovereignty would lead us to answer “yes” to both questions, but if we do so, we must abandon our belief in the gift of human Free Will.

    As I said, for me at least, this present a dilemma, which I try to resolve by coupling God’s unending loving concern for us with a self-imposed self-limitation on direct intervention in human affairs. If you’re interested, this is the foundational premise of my much-ignored bid for heresiarch status, my book, God Explains It All.

    • Brandye says:

      While you make some very good points, I think you are looking at Chap’s point in the wrong light. Voting is an act of faith, in that the voter is placing faith in the hands of one or another candidate. And, as you pointed out, God gives us free will. We may pray for guidance, but just as the student prays for guidance before a test, God isn’t actually taking the test and does not ultimately cast the vote. Voting is a serious matter. I think that is what Chap wants us to know. As awful as our options sometimes are, we still need to make an informed decision.

    • Keith–Always good to hear from an old friend, and I appreciate your philological perspectives. Dr. Henry-Crowe’s point, however, is not to try and conflate the two understandings of the word “suffrage” but simply to suggest that the lesser-used understanding of the word may indeed be worth considering in this season. Likewise, I believe that your inference that I lean toward civil religion is a bit misplaced. As you might recall, my doctoral work at Rice focused on the First Amendment and American voluntarism, and I would classify myself as a fairly strict separationist when it comes to church and state. What shouldn’t be separated, however, is faith and our involvement in public life which includes the responsibility of voting. I’ve never asked God to make my candidate win and, in point of fact, it appears that I’ve seldom voted for the winning candidate from either party over the years. I do believe, however, that if God could use Nebuchadnezzar that He can probably use whoever ends up in the leadership of our country, and so that is what I pray for. In that respect, I think of the Congressional chaplain who was once asked if his job was indeed to pray for the members of Congress. He responded that actually he looks at the members of Congress sometimes and prays for the country! Thanks for the interesting conversational banter. Chappell

      • Chap,

        I am well aware of the subject of your doctoral work, but that does not preclude the possibility of your occasionally slipping and articulating a bit o’ civil religion (anymore than mine renders me immune to misreading biblical reference in Charlotte Brontë or other Victorian fiction), especially in your pastoral role, wherein I’m sure you find no end of parishioners who happily bow down before the altar of Uncle Sam. My example of the Civil War and my parable of the polling place were meant to apply to them–not to you–because I assume they are the ones you are addressing in this blog. And many of them DO ask God to make their candidate win. And those who do are quite likely to hear in your words a confirmation of the virtual inseparability of their Christianity and their nationalism.

        Again, I am only offering an observation from a particular perspective (one that, as you’ve seen in the past [it was crabs, wasn’t it?], is often quite different from your own, but hopefully not therefore to be lightly dismissed as lacking in merit), not arguing that I am right and you wrong, nor indulging in mere interesting banter. I consider words powerful and believe those who wield words should do so with constant humility and openness to feedback, perhaps especially of the type that challenges our assumptions that our words have been heard as we intended.

        Here’s a thought about Nebuchadnezzar. What if he had acted differently? What if he had changed his mind and not invaded Judah? Unless you believe that God would have compelled Nebuchadnezzar to act in a certain way, against his will, history would have turned out differently. Maybe the Temple wouldn’t have been destroyed and the people wouldn’t have experienced exile. Therefore, I don’t subscribe to the idea that God will be “in control of” whatever comes out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, anymore than God is in control of what comes out of 6623 Cypress Point Drive.

        That’s why I think we must always place an asterisk of some kind when we say God “used” or “uses” someone in a certain way. We humans act in countless ways that are utterly at odds with God’s purposes and hopes for us (I avoid words like “plan” because they imply a degree of determinism I find unacceptable), and for reasons above our pay grade, God allows this to happen.

  2. smcknight says:

    This Homily by a Catholic Priest makes the decision a more clear, for me at least. It was shared with me from a very good friend and I thought it was worth sharing with you.


  3. Doreen Grieve says:

    Mr, Jenkins, I think delving into subtle, theological postulates of implied political-religious voting blocs erodes the actual message that we should see and participate in steering this county based on our values. Your response actually assumed limited mentality on the part of most voters. When we pray for guidance for who to vote for, we are not praying for one to win, we are asking for help! And always, always God makes good come out of bad, especially when we pray and ask for his help. Don’t you think God hear the prayers of all during the Civil War and gave us the answer that follows his intentions for us? If you do not see that the fabric of good does prevail, in spite of the sins of free will, or the pain and suffering we do endure, you predestine us to no hope and we are indeed all lost. God can do more than we can possibly imagine, even with broken vessels, even with the evils of free will in our leaders. God does explain this very well in His book, to even non-theologians.

    • Ms. Grieve, I didn’t think I was being particularly subtle, but to the extent that my comments were theological, they were directed toward Dr. Temple (to whom I was “speaking,” though knowing I would be “overheard” by other readers of the blog), suggesting a possible misreading of his original post.

      You say that my comments “actually assumed limited mentality on the part of most voters.” Let me respond to that in two ways. To begin with, I said “many,” not “most,” so please don’t misrepresent my words. Second, and more to the point, have you met the American public? Have you read what people write in comment threads on countless news and political websites? Have you listened to what many of our elected leaders have plainly stated about their views on God’s role in the upcoming election?

      Further, I see our free will as a wonderful gift of God’s grace, the very essence of what makes us human and the evidence of our being created in God’s image–not as something sinful. Yes, we make bad choices and misuse the gift, but that doesn’t make free will itself sinful. Indeed, my belief regarding the freedom God has given us makes me one of the most hopeful persons I know, leading me to affirm that no one is lost. You are welcome to disagree, of course, but please don’t lecture or preach to me.

      BTW, my reference to my book (which you mocked in your comment in a rather mean-spirited way) was also directed to Dr. Temple, a long-time friend, to remind him that, IF he was interested in reading more about my thoughts on the subject, he could find it in GEIA.

  4. Kathe Behrend says:

    Comforting words for those of us who are pretty stressed regarding the climate that evolved.

  5. Pam Stelzig says:

    Words of wisdom, hope and a gentle reminder that He has us and always will!
    Thank you Chap!

  6. Gene Steel says:

    Thanks for this. I receive something similar the other day and it gave me some comfort as this one has.

  7. Doreen Grieve says:

    Thank you for your clarifications Mr. Jenkins. We are blessed to share in deep admiration and respect for Chapp. We are also blessed to live in a time and age where we can even discuss such things. I heard an interesting statement in Africa, many years ago, at the West African Theological Seminary in Lagos as we were discussing the dire state of their country. A biblical scholar answering my questions said that,”Democracy without Christian values is mob rule.” Very profound, very scary.

  8. Chap, in my small way, I shared your post with my Bible art journaling viewers on Periscope. Thanks for offering our journaling prompt for the evening.

  9. Cindy Dalmolin says:

    I was doing some research on Emergence Christianity and was reading Phyllis Tckle when Harvey Cox’ name popped up. Ever since then his name keeps popping up – even in Tutu’s book on forgiveness. And here! I did not know you went to school with him! Very cool!

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