Presidential election years seem to bring out a certain darkness in the hearts and minds of those who pay attention to politics. People are disquieted by the uncertainty of the swirling, sometimes rushing, muddy waters of the election.
My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit it’s going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down
I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now
(Mary Gauthier, “Mercy Now”)
In the 21st Century, or so it seems to me, every four years Americans experience a great amount of angst and anxiety about the present and the future. Political parties do a great amount of fear-mongering as the presidential election approaches, feeding the fear, dragging people down, rather than giving them hope. This year seems especially rife and ripe for this descent into despair.
It may be of little cheer, but certainly our country has survived darker and more turbulent times. 1860 comes to mind or 1940.
The Orthodox Church certainly has been confronted with darker times. The rise of communism seemed to spell an endless and unmitigated period of church suffering and shrinking, and hiding in the darkness which overshadowed everything Orthodox.
The world is marked by its ever-changing quality – empires rise and fall. The uncertainty of the world is an ever present feature in the life of millions of people. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh spoke uneasily about the church entering a new age in the 21st Century:
“I have a very clear or rather gloomy feeling that as we enter the third millennium we are entering some obscure and complex and, in a certain sense, unwelcome period. As for devotion to the Church, our faith must certainly retain its integrity, but we must not be afraid of thinking and expressing ourselves openly. Everything will eventually settle into order, but if we keep just endlessly reiterating what has been said long ago, more and more people will drift away from their faith (I mean not so much Russia as the world as a whole), not because everything that was stated before is erroneous, but because the approach and language being used are all wrong. Today’s people and the time they live in are different; today we think differently.
I believe one must become rooted in God and not be afraid of thinking and feeling freely. ‘Freely’ does not imply ‘free thinking’ or contempt for the past and for the tradition. However, God does not need slaves. ‘I no longer call you servants, I call you my friends…’ I think it is extremely important that we think and share our reflections with him. There is so much we could share with him in this new world we live in. It is so good and so important to think openly without trying to conform. Intellectuals with great receptivity must come to the fore by their thinking and writing. The Church, or rather clergymen and some of the conscious churchgoers, are afraid to do something wrong. After all these years when people could not think or speak openly with each other and thereby outgrow, as it were, the nineteenth century, there is much fear, which leads people to be content with mere repetition of what has been adopted by the Church long before and what is known as Church language and Church doctrine. This has to change sooner or later.” (The Wheel 4 | Winter 2016)
The Church unfortunately contracts and becomes entrenched exactly at a moment when opportunity presents itself for moving into a new century, for being renewed by the Spirit. Fear causes the church to hide behind closed doors as the apostles did after the crucifixion of Christ. Jesus, however, came into their midst and commanded them to go out into that world which they so feared and from which they wanted to hide.
So while we Americans face another presidential election and the negativity it will bring, we might consider the words of the newly elected president Franklin Roosevelt at his first inauguration. Spoken in 1933, the problems besetting the nation at that time see very familiar to us today:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
…rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. (Franklin D. Roosevelt, March 4, 1933)
There is hope. We are still here, America survived the mid-20th Century and moved into more prosperous times. The temptations of greed, selfishness and hatred are always there, as they always have been. On a personal level, we can always choose better, no matter how leadership behaves.
Or, maybe we come to realize that in the world, human problems remain rather consistently – things though incredibly troubling and worrisome are not all that different from past times. Democracy is a system which every few years calls for an election – because we are electing fellow citizens to lead us, it will always produce anxiety. It will sometimes produce bad results, and sometimes miraculously, good emerges, nurturing and sustaining us for a life time.