Election day falls on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of every even-numbered year. That day happens to be today.* West Virginia has early voting and the polling place happens to be next door to my church, so I took advantage of that a few weeks ago. But I’ve been keeping on top of the political scene in the country: the campaign tactics, the exchanges, the (gotcha!) media, the blustering pundits and blundering surrogates. I’ve at times in the last weeks been both enthused and disgusted, hopeful and resigned. Every sign of progress I see shares the spotlight with the tired old prejudices of the past. I hope with all the fervor of my heart that, no matter the outcome of this election, the United States continues to strive for that “more perfect union,” to which our Constitution sets its lofty heights.
This hope stirs in me a refrain that has been playing in my head for days: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Abraham Lincoln spoke these words on March 4, 1861. The dust of 150 years has made these words no less relevant today. Chorus. Union. Bonds of affection. These are powerful words that tell of a truth, which these years of dust could never obscure: We can do great things when we come together, when we embrace the power of unity. This is Lincoln’s charge to us all. This is the truth which we entrust to our next president. And this is the prayer of Jesus for his disciples and for all of us: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:10-11)
Jesus lived this prayer for unity when he welcomed everyone to come to him, and all those who were thirsty to drink. He lived this prayer when he ignored the racial barriers between Jews and Samaritans. He lived this prayer when, dying on the cross, he created a new family for his mother and his beloved disciple.
But uniting is not enough. Uniting is only the exposition of the story. We must unite for something. We must come together to fulfill those tasks which the better angels of our nature invite us to accomplish. Too often, the ingrained talking points that showcase the worst of partisan bickering shout down these better angels. Just last week, I was sitting at Panera bread and overheard a conversation between two businessmen — the gist of their chat simply rehashed the tired old stereotype that all people on welfare just sit at home watching Oprah. Surely, these two suits would have more political acumen than to recite such a line of attack, I thought. But no. In election years, by some strange alchemical process, saying something enough times makes it true, no matter the veracity of the claim. In the absence of any real hope, any real truth, whoever steps up to the mic to fill the dead air is the ruler of that fifteen second soundbyte.
But our better angels fill in that dead air. When we turn our attention inward, we will find those angels speaking the words of the only Truth out there worth subscribing to, the words of life that God writes on our hearts. These words will never fit into a soundbyte. They will never succumb to the tired old prejudices. They will only urge us to join together to accomplish God’s work on earth. The mystic chords of our better angels’ chorus echo with Jesus’ words: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36, 40)
We can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and shelter the homeless and nurse the sick. We can respond to that image of Christ in the faces of the least of Jesus’ family. Far be this from some misguided philanthropic diversion to the benefit of Oprah’s sweatpanted viewership. We are called, not just as Christians but as human beings, to help those who are suffering, to bring hope to those who are despairing. I ask you: how much better will we be, how much more unified, when today’s least of these are in the position to help tomorrow’s?
This is not the time for a bootstraps mentality. This is not the time to recline in the illusory comfort of self-interest. This is not the time to relapse into a tired old hoarding way. Be touched by the better angels of our nature. Know that this is the time to give. This is the time to tug on your neighbor’s bootstraps. This is the time to enter into the kinectic delight of unity and labor for the kingdom of God on earth.**
* Incidentally, figuring out when Election day falls is similar to figuring out the date for Easter: the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Fun times.
** Here is a list of links to help you get involved:
The ONE Campaign
The United Way
Habitat for Humanity
Episcopal Relief and Development
CNN: Impact Your World