A number of evangelical writers who are opposed to Trump and Hillary find themselves in the situation that one of the two candidates they oppose will become our next president. Knowing that this is the case they remind us and each other that despite everything God is in control and we can be at peace with what happens on Tuesday. A few liberal writers who also have lots of anxiety about this election have asserted the same.
But what if that is not the case? It is an orthodox statement of faith but does it fit with our experience? Or does our anxiety give us clues about what we know to be the case but don’t want to face. Maybe our bodily reactions, like our experience, are giving us clues we should be attentive to?
Our church recently showed the movie, the 13th amendment, a documentary on the move to mass incarcerate millions of Americans. This movement happened in a very short period of time. Throughout American history, the US prison population remained steady than something happened in the 1970s. In 1970 we imprisoned 200,000 folks. By the year 2000 over 2 million were imprisoned.
“Each moment in history is a fleeting time, precious and unique. But some stand out as moments of beginning, in which courses are set that shape decades or centuries. This can be such a moment.”- Richard Nixon
And it did. Decisions were made.
The drug war, the war on crime that by the Reagan years started including mandatory minimums, the massive growth of anti drug units that militarized our police against largely minority communities. Under Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, there was three strikes and you’re out and insanely long sentences. The prison population doubled in his time in office. Under Bush, a militarized police force was used to target immigrant populations.
A series of decisions were made that led us to where we are at. A quote, whose source I have forgotten, says that whatever the situation we are at, everything is at work perfectly to make it so. That is, all the interlocking parts are finely calibrated to produce the situation of mass imprisonment. That was the take away from the film. We’d have to tackle so many areas to undo mass incarceration. It’s time to do it.
But if just a few decades can rob millions of a life chance, if a few decisions over a relatively brief period of time can devastate communities, than our decisions matter. And there is no indication that God will prevent those decisions from being made. Decisions that primarily affect the most marginal of our people. God does not apparently save us or them from our folly. But we all live with the consequences.
Now there is a different religious statement which I can affirm. Despite the election, God is with us and is at work. That is different than God is in control. That says that there is a reality at work trying to save, defend, make for life. Look at the Black Lives Matter movement. Look at a new generation of leadership challenging this movement of mass incarceration. Look at how it has even seeped into our presidential debate.
There is a reality at work challenging injustice. And I understand that reality as divine. But is it in control? No, experience seems to indicate that it is a part of the mix, drawing us to something better but it can be ignored and if history is an indication, it has before. Leaders can be imprisoned, harassed, marginalized. We have an entire presidential campaign in Trump that is based on racial resentment, law and order, an unyielding belief in military and police force.
On Tuesday Trump could be elected president. And how can one say if that happens that in the end “the only thing that matters is God is in control”? For immigrants, for racial minorities, for the poor, for women that will not be their experience. Yes there will be resources for resistance, divine resources even, but the hardness of heart, the role of fear, the burden of America’s original sin of racism is real as well.
Decisions matter. They open up or close of possibilities for God to work with and through. It is in the flow of decisions that God operates in, not creating ex nihilo, but creating with what is. It is in that space of what is that human creativity and responsiveness happens and ends up mattering profoundly.
I’m not saying Hillary is God’s candidate. Resistance is needed whoever wins the White House. I am saying that our decisions matter, affects the least of these and affect the realm that God works in. To be dismissive of the consequences of our decisions, trusting God can fix all and cover up our worst decisions, is to be feckless with our freedom, ignore real harms that happen to others as a result, and denies something of the divine in our self.
Even if the belief that “God is in control” is orthodox, it gives us relief by only denying the truth that we know to be so, that decisions, including what happens on November 8th really matter. We should develop theologies that believe and act if that is so.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma