November 6, 2020
Week of Pentecost 22
Dear ULS Community:
What a week this has been and continues to be!
In our lives, things go on as before: we work and study and teach, and one day follows the next in natural sequence—but at the same time we live in the odd tension that follows a very close and (as yet) imperfectly resolved presidential election. Today that election seems to be coming to its logical—and for many of us—strongly desired conclusion. But considering the players there could still be surprises ahead. This is an uncomfortable uncertainty.
Still, I am confident that the process has been as transparent as it could be, and the outcome will soon be clear. A transition of power in January between one administration and another will (it appears) happen in course, if not quite in the usual ways or with the usual spirit of cooperation. I am relieved by that.
But what remains unsettling is the closeness of the election’s outcome, which I—like many in my orbit—took for granted would be a repudiation of the politics of division and race-baiting we have seen for some time now. That did not happen, at least to the degree I was hoping for. It remains a sign that today’s America is still not safe for a large number of today’s Americans—that our nation is deeply divided between those who value diversity and those who fear it; between those who want government to take a more active role in helping everyone—especially the least of us—and those who want government just to leave them alone.
The illiberal, anti-intellectual, nativist/racist strain in American politics is not new: it has been with us from the start of the Republic, though its tactics and targets have shifted with time. But it has never had a champion with so little restraint or regard for facts or objective truth as in this last election. It has never had multi-millionaires and television networks and syndicated talk radio shows and innumerable blogs and social media outlets to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories with such devastating effect. And it has been reinforced by what seems to me a callous disregard by many for the welfare of their neighbors. That’s what I find hardest to bear—that so many people who consider themselves normal, even “good people,” so many of them claiming the name “Christian,” can be more afraid of losing their sense of comfort and superiority than they are of harming those less well off than themselves. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this—after all, as the old quip goes, the doctrine of original sin is the only one for which there is ample (and endless) empirical evidence—but it is still painful to see this contempt for others expressed so openly and shamelessly in our political life.
I tell myself this shouldn’t hurt so much, but it does. All of us who have ever felt unsafe in their own homes—Native Americans, African Americans, recent immigrants, LGBTQIA+ folk, and other marginalized communities—know what I mean: we have hoped for change and improvement, we have grasped at every legislative action or judicial decision has advanced our lives and safety, and we have rejoiced in incremental change. But we have also been disappointed by the steady, strong undertow of resistance to change—literally, resistance to us and to our lives—that has revealed itself so openly this week in the election results.
We still do not live in a safe country for those who are not white, or middle-class, or Christian, or heterosexual. We just don’t. And unless you have experienced the hate and fear firsthand, it can be difficult to understand how hard it is for many of us to live in a place where our lives don’t matter. But we have no place to go; no home right now but this one. So we live in it as we can, waiting and hoping for a change that seems never fully to come, but can only be glimpsed now and then. We keep looking into a future we can’t yet see, and it feels like forever.
I have been so strengthened by the gospel lessons for these last few Sundays (and the Sunday ahead) that they feel to me like cooling drops of water in a desert. To be reminded of the primacy of truth over lies and illusions on Reformation Sunday was what I needed; to hear again on All Saints Sunday in the Beatitudes a description of a blessedness that overcomes human self-centeredness and brings us closer to Christ was a real gift; and now this Sunday, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins preparing to meet the bridegroom just puts the icing on the cake. It is in this moment that I need most to be reminded to keep my lamp filled, because I need to be prepared for a longer wait than I might expect or desire—a longer wait for better days, for justice for all—and for the Bridegroom to come.
We waited a long time for an election result, the outcome of which will leave everyone unsatisfied and unsettled. And we will need to wait even longer to see a change in our national politics that can overcome the old divisions and prejudices once again laid bare. We wait for progress on responses to a pandemic that is worse right now than it has ever been, and will continue to sicken and kill us in record numbers unless we all take sensible precautions. We wait, even as this piling-up of woes is weighing so heavily on us. We wait, because we know that God wills better than this for God’s children, and we trust that people of good will can find a way through.
We fill our lamps with the oil of hope, and truth, and kindness—and we wait, knowing that the waiting is as much part of the story as the happy ending we hope for. We wait, not idly but actively, trimming our wicks and tending our flames, ready to shine their light in every shaded corner. We hold our lights up to be seen by others—across social distancing, in spite of winds of resistance—so that they create a lighted path into a better future. And we stay awake, ready for whatever comes.
May God bless and keep you in these days!
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary