Election day is finally here. It has been years and months and weeks and days of increasing political anxiety, and now election day is here. A recent Harris Poll conducted for the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 68% of Americans are experiencing considerable stress related to election anxiety. While that’s high, I wonder why it’s not 100%. The consequences of this election are not only very significant for us as citizens, but also for living out our values as people of faith. Some have spoken of this election anxiety as being a form of “existential anxiety” because the stakes are so high in whether the pandemic will be brought under control, whether the climate crisis will be addressed adequately for human survival, whether racism and police brutality will be responded to with justice, whether violence will break out into civil conflict, and so much more.
Of course, we are being warned that this anxiety does not end today but may become even more intense as we await election results in the days, maybe even weeks, ahead. There are ominous threats of refusal to accept election results and talk of post-election violence. According to a recent PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) article, 77% of Americans are somewhat or very worried that after the election there will not be a peaceful transition of power, and 86% are somewhat or very worried there will be widespread violent protests across the country. That same research indicates that more than 80% of Americans said it was somewhat or very important for religious leaders to speak out in ways that deescalate anger to prevent violence and to encourage protests to be peaceful. The same number indicate religious leaders should speak out in favor of a peaceful transfer of power.
When facing troubling times, it is helpful to go back to the words of Jesus. And the words that came to mind were the beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:5-9)
It is easy to read the Beatitudes as idealistic imperatives telling us what to do, with blessings given as rewards. In his book Living the Sermon on the Mount, Glen Stasson indicates that it is better to approach them from the prophetic tradition in which the blessings are seen as the joy of participating in what God is doing to bring deliverance and redemption to difficult circumstances. Thus, the beatitudes are more in the indicative mode, describing authentic disciples in community living out the reign of God and in the process, experiencing the joy and blessing of participating in what God is doing.
Several things stand out to me about these words in light of the situation we find ourselves in. First, authentic disciples of Jesus are “pure in heart.” That is, their whole selves are oriented toward God in single-minded devotion to following Jesus’ way. When we move beyond conflicting loyalties to this sole devotion to God alone, we will better be able to know and “see” God, perhaps even seeing how God is working in our world.
Secondly, on the surface there may seem to be a certain kind of tension in these words. On the one hand, disciples are meek. This word can also be translated gentle or nonviolent. They seek to make peace. But on the other hand, they are passionate about justice and merciful toward all. Too often keeping the peace and being meek have been interpreted to mean being passive and silent. In reality, that was not at all the way of Jesus, who took on the injustices of his day, spoke truth to those abusing power, and showed that nonviolence can overcome violence and bring salvation and healing. It is in the midst of a nonviolent movement or community that is working for justice, peace, and mercy that we will find joy in participating with God in co-creating a better world.
During these extraordinary times, the vast majority of Americans think it is important that religious leaders speak out against violence, seek to deescalate anger, and advocate for peaceful protest and peaceful transfer of power. This is something most agree on, even during these polarized times. To me, it sounds like religious leaders are being urged to be authentic followers of Jesus and provide leadership in living the way of God’s reign. We therefore need to consider how can we promote justice, mercy, nonviolence, and peace within our spheres of influence? How might we encourage these things with others who are religious leaders and people of faith in our work and personal conversations?
To be able to do this, we need also to attend to our own political anxiety and find peace within so that we can live peace and facilitate it in others. In the many articles one can find online, mental health professionals have suggestions for dealing with political anxiety. Take good care of yourself – get enough sleep, exercise, and remain connected to social support. Figure out what you have control over in this situation and do it. We can go to the polls and vote, if we haven’t already. We can encourage our friends and family to do likewise. We can research and make plans as to how we respond if the situation starts to deteriorate. We can keep ourselves informed by credible sources as to what is going on, but not obsessively check the online news so that our emotions are controlled by it.
We also need to realize what we cannot control and let go of it, by focusing ourselves on the tasks before us and by finding reasons for gratitude. We can each be very grateful for the work and ministry we have during these difficult economic times. We can be grateful for family, church friends, and work colleagues. When our minds wander into anxiety, we can pull them back to what is positive and hopeful.
Even when reading the news, we can look for the good. I read an article about a neighborhood where one yard was jam packed with Trump signs and on the opposite end of the street was another yard plastered with those of Biden. A community leader knew both households and how committed they were to their perspectives. And yet, one day when he was walking down that street, he noticed that there were two couples gathered around a campfire eating, talking and laughing together. To his shock and surprise, they were from those two politically different households. In the midst of the pandemic, they had found common ground for friendship.
We can also pray, pray constantly, in trust that God is working in the midst of all of this chaos to bring out good. Scripture assures that God is with us. We can be guided by words written by an imprisoned Apostle Paul as he faced an uncertain future.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be make known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:4-8)
During these politically anxious days, may God’s peace guard our hearts and minds so that we may be peaceful and speak out for peace.
Ruth Rosell, Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence