The big news in some parts of the world 2000 years ago was the conjunction of two planets. The news in our world today is the conjunction of multiple primaries and caucuses. For the last week, the scriptural commentators I read have been having a field day comparing our current political process with Herod’s behavior all those years ago. In some cases, Herod has looked pretty good in comparison. I’ll admit that I’ve enjoyed some of their more pointed remarks. For instance, I was struck anew by that old, old joke:
How can you tell if politicians are lying?
Their lips are moving.
As we look at our political process— which seems to get more and more protracted with every election and which has the extra added attraction this year of musical primaries as states jockey for power in the presidential selection process—as we watch all this process, it’s easy to fall into the cynicism and jadedness that can lead us to apathy. It’s easy to begin to believe that there’s no way to ensure that we are led by people of honesty, compassion and good sense. It’s easy to believe that there is no way our individual votes can make a difference in the world.
And—if we fall into that way of thinking, it’s easy to begin to look at the whole world with a jaundiced eye—to begin to believe that everyone we encounter is just looking out for themselves—to begin to mistrust the world around us. If we’re lucky, something happens to pull us back from the edge of that pit—a pit that’s so easy to slide into and so difficult to escape.
Friday was my lucky day. I had just gotten up and was listening to the news on the radio while I made my breakfast. I had just gotten to the point when I couldn’t stand to hear anymore and was headed to the radio to turn it off when the power went out. With a prayer of gratitude that the furnace had been on for a while and the house was almost warm, I began re-thinking my day.
No vacuuming and no laundry. A good excuse for some things is always good news. Not much computer time. Not good news for the day I had planned. What about food? Some gas ranges won’t operate unless the electronic spark is there. More good news—my stove doesn’t care where it gets its fire. So, having settled the immediate questions, I tidied up downstairs, put on my sweats over my jammies and headed upstairs to my office. I spent most of the day clearing files and cleaning my desk and all the piles around it, enjoying the sounds and sights of the storm, giving occasional thanks for my new roof and windows, and having a good day.
Late in the afternoon, I heard an emergency vehicle and had the shocked realization that it was the first time I’d heard a siren all day. A day without sirens is significant in my neighborhood.
The sirens are the occasional background to most of our days, situated as we are near fire stations and between arterials leading to both 280 and 17. I had assumed that traffic signals were not working and imagined, in some subconscious part of my mind, that the absence of lights, in combination with the ferocity of the storm, would lead to more accidents and more emergency traffic than usual. I was surprised to find that wasn’t the case, and I suddenly felt a sense of familiarity that I couldn’t quite place for a few moments.
Then it came to me, and I remembered another day. October 17, 1989. The Loma Prieta quake hit shortly after 5 pm. By the time I headed home from the hospital where I worked, it was close to 10, and I was not thrilled at the idea of driving home to Campbell from downtown San Jose. I knew that the lights were out all over town. I also had heard all kinds of stories about the bad behavior that sometimes happens when a disaster strikes. To put the icing on the cake, my colleagues cautioned me to lock my car doors and to watch out for any danger signs. I was afraid as I set out for home, but the journey was a series of surprises. Never had I experienced so much courtesy on the road. At every crossroad, drivers slowed to watch for other cars and took turns moving through intersections. On every street, I saw people helping each other board up broken windows and do the other kinds of immediate repairs that were necessary that first night. I saw people gathered on porches and street corners, in yards and in driveways, talking with each other telling their stories about where they had been and how the quake had felt and what they needed to do next. I saw people caring about each other; I saw people caring for each other. By the time I got home, I felt confident that we would all make it through whatever it was that the future held for us.
In the weeks that followed, neighborliness was the order of the day. Acts of kindness were the rule, and all of us who lived through that time have stories to tell in witness to the goodness of the people who surround us. That does not mean that all was sweetness and light. That does not mean that no one tried to take advantage of others’ distress. What it does mean, as far as I’m concerned, is that the capacity for and tendency toward goodness is probably prevalent in more people than we sometimes imagine—even in the political arena. It also means that trusting blindly in others’ promises is probably not the kind of wisdom we need as we approach this election year.
The magi who searched for the newborn king sought the advice of a consummate politician. Herod was able to maintain his power under the Roman occupation as a result of his political skill, and it would be reasonable that he would know what was happening in the area. The magi listened to his words and set out as he directed, but they also listened to the wisdom that came to them in their dreams and took another path home. They had the gift of discernment—and they paid attention to it.
In this election year, we are called to pay attention—to pay attention to what is going on around us. We are called to serve as responsible citizens by voting responsibly and knowledgeably. As Christians who are called to be faithful to the promises of our baptismal covenant, being responsible means searching out and supporting the candidates who will help move our world toward justice and peace and will help develop systems that respect and support the dignity of every human being. Our responsibility as faithful people doesn’t end with our own actions. Our responsibility extends to those whom we select to lead us. Just as the magi learned in their dealings with Herod, we may not be able to take the candidates at face value. Voting for someone who claims Christian ethics may not be enough. Voting for someone who will work for justice, peace and the dignity of every human being requires that we pay attention to what they’ve done in the past, because past performance is the most accurate indicator of future behavior.
Finding candidates who are willing and able to work for a better world may not be the easiest work we ever do, but it’s some of the most important work we’ll ever do. I know they’re out there. And I know we have the light of Christ to help us find them.
Thanks be to God.
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