It seems so easy, doesn’t it? Love God. Love your neighbor. The two greatest commandments encapsulate the core of faith and could — if we really were to trust God — transform the world.
Similarly then and with election day looming, voting should be an easy affair: people of faith should vote for the candidates whose policies would most embody a love of God and neighbor.
It seems so easy, but it isn’t if we are honest with ourselves and gracious towards those who disagree with our political persuasions. No single party or candidate has a monopoly on loving God and neighbor. Moreover, people of passionate faith and commitment to the values Jesus commends in Mark 12:28-34 so often can’t even agree on what these seemingly simple commandments mean.
Such disagreements about what it means to love God and neighbor are at the very center of so many of our political debates.
Some Christians will vote for President Obama, arguing that the most loving thing we can do for our neighbor is to build a stronger social net. Some Christians will vote for Mr. Romney, arguing that the most loving thing we can do for our neighbor is let loose the power of the market to create good-paying jobs for all. Some Christians will cast a ballot for Mr. Romney in support of his stance on abortion. Some Christians will cast a ballot for President Obama, noting that the availability and affordability of basic health care is a pro-life position.
All of us, if we are honest, will vote for a flawed candidate.
So, how do we choose? How do we make sense of the political and religious compromises any vote requires? How do we think together about the needs of our neighbors and the love of God when we cast our votes? My hope is that people of faith will struggle deeply with our electoral choices instead of opting for the easy but insufficient choices rigid political ideologies create.
Commandments and Disagreements
The relationships between Jesus and the religious leaders of his time were tense to say the least. Unfortunately, Christian theology has too often villainized Jesus’ opponents in unjust ways. Most of these leaders were people of faith struggling to make sense of God and God’s call in a complicated world. In Mark 12:28-34, a scribe — that is, an expert at preserving and interpreting theology — approached Jesus with an important question. Mark does not make clear if the query is honest or a trick of some kind. However, verse 28 provides a clue that his question might be honest, for the scribe noticed how well Jesus responded to other conflicts.
“What is the first commandment?,” he asked. That is, what is at the root of our theology? What first principle holds our faith together?
The responses Jesus gave were not original to him (see Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18). They tapped into the daily rhythms of his prayer life as a faithful Jew and reached back to the Hebrew scriptures as a source. That is, Jesus’ teaching was not some new, revolutionary notion but a call to return to the core of faith. Similarly today, we don’t need a revolution and a new teaching so much as a reminder of the hinge upon which faith has always turned.
Our relationship to God is always inextricable from our relationships with one another. Notice that a single principle was insufficient for Jesus. It’s not enough to love God and neglect our neighbors, for we cannot love God without loving one another. The reverse is also true. For Jesus, these two commandments are inseparable.
The scribe recognized the wisdom of Jesus’ response and noted that the dual commandments Jesus cited were “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (v. 33). The depth of the scribe’s confession is perhaps lost to many of us. It is as if he were willing to set aside our most important expressions of faith for the sake of our God and our neighbor. As important as the offerings and sacrifices were, they paled in comparison to this first principle. Or, speaking in today’s terms, as important as our church traditions and even our political commitments are, they pale in comparison to Jesus’ unswerving call to love God and neighbor.
How do you vote in love?
Alongside this week’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, Psalm 146 provides a reminder of the tensions people of faith feel as we support mere “mortals” (see verses 3-4) in office. Such leaders are like the rest of us: frail, bent towards error, bound to disappoint. In contrast, verses 5-9 regale God as one who rescues the oppressed, feeds the hungry, cares for those most exposed to the cruelties of this world.
In short, we trust in a God of justice and love. At the same time, we must also necessarily lean on the execution of God’s hopes for the world at the hands of fallible leaders, whether secular or religious. However, God has set a clear political agenda for all who wish to follow a path of holiness. The vulnerable must be protected. The oppressed must be set free. The broken must be made whole.
Far less clear is who we can trust to lead us as we seek God’s hopes for the world. Far less clear is how exactly we join God in making such a world a tangible reality.
Modern presidential campaigns sometimes seem to function like time warps. Everything stops in the midst of the campaign. Have you noticed how very little we have heard about congressional action in the last few months? As we head towards a “fiscal cliff,” we have been distracted by gaffes galore and debate performances. It took a massive storm to draw our eyes away from the campaign trail. Such a time warp too often highlights political and ideological disputes instead of the very really needs of our neighbors.
Next week’s election will resolve one important question. Who will be our president for the next four years? One thing it won’t resolve is a long-standing conundrum.
How do we love God and neighbor?
It is to this seemingly simple but vital question to which people of faith should now--and always--turn. How then do we vote like Christians? We vote with forgiveness, love, and grace in our hearts towards our neighbors but especially those with which to disagree on political questions. We vote without commitment to political ideologies or personalities. We vote without expecting mere mortals to do the work of God. Yet we vote with hope that God will meet us in the messiness of our political lives. We vote with expectation that the reign of God is indeed at hand. In short, we vote like a Christian when we vote for the sake of our neighbors and those the world and politicians are most likely to neglect. In doing so, we love God most deeply.
Rev. Dr. Eric D. Barreto is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He was ordained by Peachtree Baptist Church (CBF) in 2006. After completing a bachelor of arts degree in religion at Oklahoma Baptist University and a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, he earned a doctoral degree in New Testament from Emory University. Barreto's ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.
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