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Voting in Hope

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Important decisions will be made tomorrow as Americans go to the polls. Not ultimate decisions, perhaps, but important, life-changing decisions nonetheless.

2012-11-05-hopeandfear.jpgFour years ago, Barack Obama campaigned on Hope. Many of us got drawn into that narrative, believing that the decision before us was of ultimate importance. We were voting, not for Barack Obama or John McCain, but for Hope, with a capital "H." Hope took the image of the iconic Shepard Fairey artwork that found itself on car bumpers and in the windows of homes and stores.

As a Christian pastor, I traffic in hope everyday. In fact, when people ask me why I'm a Christian in the face of all the obstacles I always return to one thing: hope. The Christian narrative, the person of Jesus, and Jesus' teaching about the future -- what he called the Kingdom of God -- is based in hope. My favorite Christian theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, grounds his entire theological project in hope. I have chosen to stake my life on the promise of God's future, as Moltmann writes,

God is not somewhere in the Beyond, but he is coming and as the coming One he is present. He promises a new world of all-embracing life, of righteousness and truth, and with this promise he constantly calls this world into question -- not because to the eye of hope it is as nothing, but because to the eye of hope it is not yet what it has the prospect of being. When the world and the human nature bound up with it are called in question in this way, then they become 'historic', for they are staked upon, and submitted to the crisis of, the promised future. Where the new begins, the old becomes manifest. Where the new is promised, the old becomes transient and surpassable. Where the new is hoped for and expected, the old can be left behind. Thus 'history' arises in the light of its end, in the things which happen because of, and become perceptible through, the promise that lights up the way ahead. Eschatology does not disappear in the quicksands of history, but it keeps history moving by its criticism and hope; it is itself something like a sort of quicksand of history from afar (Moltmann, "Theology of Hope," 164-165).

President Barack Obama often speaks with this eschatological tone in his voice. In 2008 he campaigned on hope and those who were his strongest supporters believed him. We believed in hope -- that a better future was ahead of us and that we could call into question our present circumstances because we had hope.

As it turns out, the president is not God; he is not able to decide the way all of history unfolds. We should be grateful, as well as chastened, by this truth. Many expected a miracle worker. What they got was a visionary leader and a limited human being.

Four years later President Obama has shifted the tone, if not the focus, of his campaign, from Hope to Forward. "Forward" is both consistent with his message of Hope but also appropriately chastened by four years of hard reality. We collectively aim for the future with all our strength but today we take one step forward. That is what every agent of change has always done. Hope is on the horizon; today I must keep moving forward.

I have one of those iconic Shepard Fairey HOPE stickers somewhere -- probably in my sock drawer or closet. I didn't put it on my car four years ago. While I was a vocal supporter of Barack Obama's candidacy I wasn't able to go all the way to HOPE. For me, hope is not found in America or the president, whoever he (and hopefully soon, she) is. My hope is in God. This hope transcends the movements of nation-states and economies, though biblical hope is never disconnected from or unrelated to those realities. I just felt it was claiming too much for our soon-to-be President to proclaim that his candidacy represented HOPE in that "capital H" sense.

Today may are disillusioned. I, too, have been disappointed with the president on many issues. I have the privilege of interacting with young adults, both in my congregation and in the university where I'm an adjunct professor. In conversation after conversation, many of them express deep cynicism about politics. I also know clergy and theologians who feel that the church diminishes herself by engaging in public life. This is not about churches publicly supporting individual candidates. We unequivocally believe that this would compromise the church's role. We do disagree, however, about whether the church should engage in political processes by encouraging our members to vote, weighing in on public debates and so forth. "Obama is not our hope," I can hear them say. "God is our hope." While I agree that politics -- Obama or anyone else -- cannot offer us HOPE, it can open the way toward hope, which points toward HOPE.

I am also quick to remind anyone who will listen that politics is about more that electing politicians. There are important decisions being made tomorrow all across the country in down ballot initiatives. Four states will decide about marriage quality -- Washington, Minnesota, Maryland and Maine. Ballot initiatives in California, such as Proposition 30, endorsed by clergy leaders from across the state, will decide whether the wealthiest Californians will contribute a bit more so that the State can continue to provide quality education to our children or whether we will suffer more debilitating budget cuts.

Tomorrow's decisions matter tremendously. They even represent a decision between hope and fear. The president doesn't need to be the Messiah in order to be an important leader with the potential to move America toward it's better self. America doesn't need to be, as Governor Mitt Romney declared in his closing statement of the final debate, "the hope of the earth," in order to be a very important place where the decisions we make have life and death consequences both here and around the world.

Some candidates represent equality of opportunity for all Americans, while others represent fear of the other -- immigrants, women, blacks, gays and lesbians. I don't even recognize the America some Americans and candidates stand for. The racism that infects America continues to show it's ugly head in anti-immigrant and anti-gay statements and policies and in images like the repulsive take on Fairey's image of Obama with a noose around his neck and the word ROPE emblazoned at the bottom.

All of these things and more remind me that the ballot we each cast tomorrow is extremely important. We can vote for hope without having to believe that our vote represents HOPE. President Obama cannot solve every problem facing the world, but if we listen to our better selves, we can take a step forward.