This evening, many Americans will be watching the first of the so-called “Presidential Debates”. The media build-up to these events will only be exceeded by the mind-numbing analysis legions of political pundits will provide in the aftermath of these made-for-prime-time productions. There will be lots of speculation (and plenty of polling) about “who won” when the thing is done. And then, in a few days, we will go through the exercise again.
I haven’t read all of the particulars about the formats that will be used. I am quite sure, though, that the behind the scenes negotiations regarding structure and ground rules has been intense. I suspect each candidate’s camp has worked hard to manage the framework of the debates in order to showcase their candidate’s perceived strengths while exploiting the other candidate’s perceived weaknesses. Both sides will likely settle for a defensive debate stance, in which they will play the event so as “not to lose”.
I don’t know what exactly will happen. Yet, I am fairly certain of one thing I will not hear. At no point during the evening’s proceedings will either candidate say to (or about) the other, “I agree with Mr.___’s understanding of this particular issue and I could see how we could work together towards a solution beginning with his proposal.” This isn’t my cynicism speaking as much as it’s my understanding of the way things are in the rock ’em, sock ’em zero-sum game of partisan politics currently being played out in the U.S. No one expects the other side to budge, and indeed, neither candidate can budge. To budge from their well-fortified positions is to risk both the loss of enthusiasm on the part of the partisan faithful and to be perceived as weak by those voters who remain undecided. Any reasonable person can understand why all of this unreasonableness is necessary on the part of the candidates. The focus is on winning the election and you don’t win by risking reasonableness.
Of course this is precisely what makes the politics of the Gospel so disconcerting. Our Good News is that it is in losing all that we find everything worth having (not exactly a ringing endorsement for unbridled capitalism funded by tax cuts or government-supported “job creation” programs funded by tax hikes). Followers of Jesus (regardless of their voting proclivities), follow a leader who said things like, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Let the greatest among you be a servant of all. The ones who lose their life for my sake will find it. Take up your cross and follow me.”
These well-worn Jesus sound bites are a part of the Muzak of a comfortable liturgy. We can doze through them. None of us get offended when we hear them anymore (if we ever did). We expect Jesus to say such things. Thankfully, through years of religious practice, we have been well-inoculated against the risk that we would actually be infected by the outlandishness of the claims Jesus makes on us who name him as Savior and Lord. We have been schooled in our mostly middle class congregations to understand these things “metaphorically”. It’s only when we are asked to take these sayings outside of the safety of the liturgy, and start attempting to live like we mean the stuff Jesus said we get squeamish or defensive or angry.
The candidates this evening will go at each other in an attempt to win a few million votes. Jesus doesn’t want our vote. He wants something much more frightening. He wants our lives. And he’s pretty unreasonable about it.