After the Election, Seeking Out the Lost

November 9, 2016
After the Election, Seeking Out the Lost
Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies Matthew Potts. / Photo: Kris Snibbe, Harvard Staff Photographer

Matthew Potts, Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies, wrote the following homily following the results of the 2016 election. Professor Potts is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church and has served several parishes in Massachusetts.

The mainline churches’ appointed gospel this Sunday (Luke 21:5-9) speaks with a bluntness that matches our historical moment. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem and his disciples are marveling at the majesty of the temple, at the size of the stones and the opulence of the adornments. But Jesus isn’t having it. He warns them that all the stones will be thrown down, that division and conflict will come. It’s not a very happy passage; in fact, it’s sometimes called the little apocalypse.

Without overstating the case, I think we are experiencing our own apocalyptic moment today, a moment when the shakiness of our foundations has been troublingly revealed. For years we have boasted about our cherished institutions: our free press, our stable democracy, our public education. There have been cracks in the stones holding up these institutions for some time, of course, anyone could see. But we didn’t expect them to crumble.

Now here we are after this astonishing election. Hate crimes are rising; violent misogyny has become routine; education (or the lack of it) divides citizens as partisans; media organizations can track neither our lies nor our leaks; politicians proudly vow not to govern. Is there any American institution – the Church included – that can honestly regard itself as blameless today? How do we move forward on these crumbling foundations?

One of the most insightful things I have heard about this election was noted by Molly Ball of The Atlantic. She observed that politicians for decades have been in the business of promoting the polite fiction that progress can be equally shared. “Vote for me and everyone wins,” they say.

And so we cast our ballots for various versions of the same big promise: one plan fits all, everybody wins. But this is not, of course, what Mr. Trump has said. For Donald Trump, there are never just winners. There are always losers too. Donald Trump has said what Americans have known to be true through all the long decades of these capacious, shapeless promises: that there are winners and losers in America. That our country leaves many, many people behind. That prosperity can be won or inherited or swindled, but that it is not simply given and never equally shared. The appeal of Mr. Trump’s campaign is that he mocked this hollow promise, he declined to say that everyone could or even should win. On the contrary, he announced exactly who would lose in his America, and he wagered a presidential campaign on suggesting to only some that they could win if he did too. And he has won, of course, though I suspect that the promises he has made to his winning constituency will also prove quite hollow.

Whether the winning promises are big and easy or narrow and mean, it seems we Americans like winners. This is because none of us readily acknowledges failure. Few are fluent in the language of loss. No one speaks easily of death. But if I’ve learned anything in my eight years of ministry, it’s that speaking bluntly of failure and loss and death is crucial when they are exactly the challenges you face. And I think this strange passage from the gospel of Luke may be suggesting as much.

I noted that Jesus has just entered Jerusalem, but there’s more to this story. For chapters and chapters in the gospel, Jesus has been traveling from the site of his original ministry in Galilee towards Jerusalem. And what the reader knows but his disciples have failed to understand is that Jesus is traveling towards a brutal execution at the hands of the authorities there. He is making his way towards death, he is wrestling with the reality of loss. So here they all come into Jerusalem, and the disciples want to gape at all the Temple’s splendor and marvel at the sights. But Jesus insists on drawing their attention back to what is facing him and them (and what will face the Temple too in a few years): ruin and loss and despair. Since their first days together Jesus’ ministry has always been about seeking the lost. And it’s personal for Jesus now too; recall that in the other three gospels it is precisely for speaking so bluntly about the Temple’s destruction that Jesus is brought before the council and tried.

Political campaigns are slick. Media outlets are polished. Universities adorn themselves with ivy and five-star dormitories. Church services can be pretty fancy too. But Michael Brown’s body dead in the street isn’t. And Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach isn’t. And neither are riots in Baltimore or ruins in Detroit or small dying towns that everywhere litter rural America. Twenty-six heroin overdoses in four hours in Huntington, West Virginia is about the ugliest thing you can imagine. Unless you can also imagine two million forgotten Americans behind bars in this country, or nearly thirty million without health insurance, or 400,000 immigrants in detention centers all along our borders. There are lots of losers in America.

Our nation faces massive moral catastrophes which will require real sacrifices and struggles to address. We will overcome them only insofar as we are willing to speak honestly about the extent of our losses, the nature of our struggles, and who we have asked to endure them. I’m a parish priest and scholar of religion; I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions. But if there is anything the Christian churches should be well poised to offer in the wake of this election, it should be our willingness to look directly at loss, to speak frankly about death and despair. Not because we have solutions, not because we are winners or know how to win, but because we insist the losers matter. We worship a man put to death, remember.

This will not be an easy task. After Jesus died, his gobsmacked disciples ran away. They could not accept this failure; they were panicked at this loss. They fled and hid and denied they’d ever known this dead man Jesus. But not everyone fled. A few of the women refused to look away. They took up his wrecked body and they laid it in a tomb, they rested a day, and then they gathered up some spices and they returned to his grave. They revisited the site of his burial to perform the gruesome work of anointing their dead friend, of washing and blessing his tortured body. They had nothing to say. They had no answers to offer. Just a willingness to grieve what they had lost, a courage to face the terror of their anguish. And graced only by this dreadful resolve, they arrived at his tomb. Then something unimaginable happened.