We shake our heads as we must acknowledge that the unthinkable has happened. This November U.S. citizens will choose between two of the most unpopular candidates in the nation’s electoral history. Some claim that the levels of opposition mean that the winner will be the one un-liked the least. If this is not true literally, it must be close.
What this means, among other things, is that come November 9 a majority of people will be disappointed. Indeed, among those whose choice “won” there will be a sense that the real victory is that the other one lost. Recently I framed our situation like this:
Is this the best we can do? Are we seriously placing hope in these candidates? These parties? These processes? It was most likely never proper to do so, regardless of the particulars, but certainly now the foolishness and perilous nature of our times make this clear.
And, isn’t it proper to acknowledge our role in creating and feeding the foolishness and danger? If we’re the light! If we’re the salt? Woe to us! Woe to our world!
I want to raise the question for our electoral consideration two months prior to Election Day: Does character really matter? I am reflecting on this question in light of the extraordinary set of choices, or non-choices, before us, as well as the real possibility of our complicity in the current electoral moment, in order to do something like the Apostle Paul did when he wrote to the Ephesian church about marriage in Ephesians 5.
He is talking about marriage and in particular how wives and husbands should relate to each other. He offers his instructions … because you belong to Jesus and his people (see Eph. 5:18-33). But then toward the end of his teaching he says, in v. 32, this is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church. Even so, however, (v. 33) each of you must love … and wives must … . In other words, Paul says, “I’m really talking about what it means to belong to Jesus and Jesus’ people. That’s the real point in everything! Though what I say practically about marriage is valid and necessary also.”
Similarly, now, I want to say some things about politics and religion, and their interconnections, but the real subject is what does it mean to belong to Jesus and his people. I think what I say about the political situation is valid and merits serious consideration, although I might be wrong about the political stuff. Better put, I probably am wrong on some things, and right on other things, but I am very sure that I am spot-on where it most counts. I am talking about Jesus our Messiah and being the church. So, here is the question: Does character really matter?
I am not talking perfection here. No one is perfect, and everyone is of questionable character naturally and needs the forgiveness and transformation of life that only God’s grace provides. The question is, rather, does the heart, the inner life, of a leader or would-be leader matter? Should this count in our electoral choices?
If you believe that, in his heart, Donald Trump is arrogant, bigoted, insensitive, volatile, hateful—should that matter? If you believe that in her heart Hillary Clinton is dishonest, secretive, untrustworthy, and liable to say anything to get her way, should that matter? Of course, I would expect most every serious Christian to say, “Yes!” At least in theory.
But when Bill Clinton was running for President, and then became president, the fact that he was a “womanizer,” and then adulterer, serially so, was decried. Many Christians said he was not fit. Yet other Christians and non-Christians contended that it didn’t really matter at all, or not as much as other factors such as the man’s ideas, gifts, and leadership ability. Now today, some Christians say that Donald Trumps’ womanizing, divorcing, demeaning of women, building and profiting over strip joints and more doesn’t really matter, or doesn’t matter as much as other factors such as his ideas, accomplishments and the like. So, it seems we agree that character matters, but we are willing to make exceptions and even to condone things that are clearly reprehensible under some circumstances. Some of the very people who thought the world was coming to an end when Bill Clinton was president, are now supporting a man whose track record seems just as questionable.
When the Watergate tapes were released (for those old enough to recall) most conservative Christians were shocked by two things: The President used vile and profane language routinely, and he obviously was involved in criminal activity, lied about it, and sought to cover it up. It is interesting that many Christians who decry Hillary Clinton for her deceptions seem not to condemn Richard Nixon with anywhere near the passion as they do her. And many others who would judge Nixon to be the very worst in history, seem willing to give Hillary Clinton a pass now even if the worst alleged about her be true.
So, yes, by all means, character matters—all agree on this. Character matters … unless it doesn’t or is inconvenient or something else.
Serious followers of Jesus will want to know, “What does Jesus says about this?” Well a lot. Let me highlight just a few things. When Jesus did not participate in the ceremonial washings to assure ritual purity he took a lot of grief from those who were concerned about purity and integrity, (see Mark 7 for one account). Without going into details, Jesus’ main point in responding is that the human heart is the issue. He explains (see 7:14-15), nothing outside makes us unclean, but what comes out of us—from our heart defiles us. When they did not understand he elaborated, (see 7:18-23): what comes into us—what we eat or ingest—does not go into our hearts but just our bellies and then out again. But from the heart comes whatever is unclean, poison and toxic, and thus proves damaging to self, others, and world. In particular, from the human heart come evil intentions, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly,” (7:21-22).
Jesus insists that character matters, big time! What is in the heart will flow out. Elsewhere, he illustrates by citing good trees (internally healthy and whole) that cannot help but produce good fruit, and bad trees that produce rotten fruit (Luke 6:43-45 ). You cannot separate one part of a person from the other parts, as we commonly assume and do: Private vs. public; inside and outside. Who we are affects if not entirely determines what we do. We are driven by what’s inside. Out of the heart flow thoughts, feelings, acts, words, responses. The worst that plagues our world is incubated in human hearts. Then it flows from human hearts.
In Jesus’ sermon of the Mount, Jesus says you’re not OK if all you’ve done is lust in your heart, but haven’t had sex. No, you are an adulterer or sexual sinner before you ever commit a sinful act sexually. Jesus says you are not OK if you keep from actually striking, assaulting or killing someone. No, you’re OK only when you do not want to, when no anger hides in your heart. Character matters because who we really are flows from our hearts. What is in our hearts, will lead to acts, will express itself in words, deeds, responses. If you look at me externally you cannot know what’s in my heart. But watch what I do, listen to what I say, see how I respond under pressure, do this over time and you will see my heart and know what’s really there and what I am truly about.
Coming back now to this question: in 2016 Presidential election, does character matter? Yes, it matters. If you see someone speaking and acting in ways that are not good over time—it’s not AN ACCIDENT you are seeing. It is a revelation of who he or she is. The fruit tells much, if not all. Character matters: if you believe that he or she is dishonest, untrustworthy, disrespectful of others, self-centered or absorbed, ethno-centered, tribal, hateful, biased—whatever, it matters because out of such a heart will flow decisions and actions that are not good and are destructive.
Which means, in the current presidential election, we have a problem. On both sides of the aisle we have a problem. In a sense, our choices and the way people think about them put us in a no win situation. Whoever is elected will have serious heart issues and will have potential to bring great woe to our nation and the world. This has always been true to some degree, but seems especially and painfully true now.
Thus, whoever is elected will have roughly half the population very upset, angry, and who knows what might happen as a result. No matter who is elected, it will likely lead to some of the same basic problems and potential disasters.
How does this help us? Well, we must vote with our eyes and heart wide open. We do our best to make the best choices we can, or make a choice that isn’t a choice as much as a protest of the choices we have. We do our best.
But whatever we do, however we vote, we cast our ballots as followers of Jesus with full trust in Jesus and in Jesus’ kingdom. We cast our ballots as persons fulfilling a calling and pursuing a mission in this world, from within the middle of this conflicted and maddening set of dynamics. And, character matters. Not just the character of candidates and supporters. But our character too! Our character matters!
Whoever we vote for, whoever is elected, whether we “win” or not, we will have multiple problems. If our choice wins, we have a problem because our choice will have serious heart issues that we must pray over, pray and speak against, and seek to counter-act. We who are church will have this as part of our mission.
If our choice loses, we have a problem that we will perhaps feel more. Because the one we didn’t want has become president. But we must not lose heart over this. Our prayers and constructive responses of mission and ministry will be needed all the more. Because character matters, our character. Will we be part of the problem or the solution? For those who agree with us, yes, but also for those who do not, will be part of the solution? Will we be able to witness to what is good, true, right and holy with beauty and power?
You see, I’m really talking about the Lord Jesus Christ and the church. Character matters. Who humans are meant to be and how can be seen in Jesus. How we are meant to be and act and respond is on display in the life of Jesus. Will the world, the U.S., the people who disagree with us, the people we think are wrong, will they see an alternate way in us? In how we speak, what we say, what we do, and how we do it?
The most important issues are not just the obvious political ones. We must consider our identity and mission as followers of Jesus, who are church. Will this be a season when the name of Jesus and our Triune God are seen to be great again? Will we be a people among whom others can be safe, truly safe, because we are gentle, humble, loving, hospitable? Will the world see us as the ones who truly show how to be together, to be one, though we are quite different from each other, in a way that can be good for all?
Character matters deeply. We should vote and respond as if that were all important, as if especially our own character as persons and churches were all important.