Reflections of a Youth Pastor in a Battleground State
Before the election, I probably emphasized many of the same things others did with their students:
- God’s sovereignty (the outcome of the election wouldn’t catch him by surprise)
- God’s mission (that no matter who would win, God still calls us to proclaim his glory, love, and grace with the world)
- Our responsibility to love everyone as made in the image of God
But now, almost a week later, as our state sits as a representative of the deep divisions of our nation, I find myself consistently highlighting one additional thing: the intensely personal nature of this election. This is the piece my students aren’t hearing from many other venues, memes, and social media pundits. For my students, most of whom are white, suburban, upper-middle class teenagers, it can be difficult to understand how policies can drastically affect someone’s life, to the point that they feel support for a certain political platform is an attack on their very life. I’m thinking especially of people of color, immigrants, rural workers, and small business owners.
I remember conversations I had with people in my church right after the violence and protests following George Floyd’s death this year. Students and parents had watched on national television as places not far from where they lived, played, and worked burned into the night. I hurt for them. But I was also struck that this feeling is what some in our country deal with on a daily basis. As author Steve Garber notes, “ideologies have legs,” that is, ideas and beliefs always have actual practical implications in the real world.
Because of this, I’m cautioning my students about perfunctory statements such as, “Jesus is in control” or “God’s mission doesn’t change,” even as these spiritual realities have been central to our discussions about the election (see above). While completely true, such statements by themselves are often read by what they are not saying instead of what they are. To say “Jesus is in control” easily comes across as “the outcome of the election doesn’t affect me enough to shake my faith or cause me to fear.” Similarly, saying “God’s mission doesn’t change” sounds to many as a statement affirming business as usual, instead of a call for God’s people to return to his unchanging mission.
Precisely because we are a people who believe in God’s sovereign control and unchanging mission, we can’t dismiss the personal pain of others. Regardless of our political leanings, we need to empathize with how our choices can represent fear and sorrow for others, allowing this to color how we discuss issues and advocate for things we care about. If we find ourselves not needing to do this because we are surrounded only by those who agree with us, perhaps we need to be challenged to love neighbors that have become invisible to us.
All of this listening and empathy takes time – time for people to truly grieve the hurt they have experienced over this election. Time for us to express real empathy and compassion. Time to to consider how we may have sinned in our thoughts and actions surrounding political policy and to repent. And time to inspire the trust of our neighbors as they see our good deeds – our real, sacrificial, costly, good deeds – and glorify our Father in heaven, because they are in the service of a true King and not a political ideology.
During this election, I cannot shake thoughts of past students in my life: students who are undocumented, students who have considered abortions, students whose families are likely to lose jobs, students who don’t feel like they belong in this country, students who are not from this country, students who feel forgotten by the culture, students who have gone off to fight in wars… the list goes on and on.
As long as our political dialogue is about ideas only, our students will join the rest of our culture in a hypothetical colosseum, pitting theoretical stereotypes against one another as much for the thrill of it as anything. But when we take the time to put faces on words, to see the body of Christ existing beyond its comfort zone and echo chamber, we can begin the slow, individual work of engaging the broken places of our world with the good news of Jesus.