Monday, August 1, 2016

Lesser Of Two Evils?

During this election season, even more than usual, I keep hearing the term "lesser of two evils." This is typically the response to voting for a candidate that someone is not too thrilled about but are choosing anyway or their solution to my argument for not voting for either of the two major party candidates (as if there aren't two other candidates and political parties). Certainly novelist and essayist George Orwell thought so when he penned, "Politics is the choice between the lesser of two evils." But I began to wonder where did that term even come from? And is it a biblical attitude to take?

To begin with, the term "lesser of two evils" was originally from a Greek proverb. The philosopher Aristotle wrote, "For the lesser evil is reckoned a good in comparison with the greater evil, since the lesser evil is rather to be chosen than the greater..."  But the phrase "lesser of two evils"did not really come in to the  English speech until 1374 when Chaucer, best known for his Canterbury Tales, used it in Troilus and Cressida, "Of harmes two, the lesse is for to cheses." (No, I did not misspell any of that quote, that's just the Olde English Chaucer wrote in).

In Latin, the phrase was "De duobus  malis, minus est semper eligendum" or  "Of two evils, the lesser is always to be chosen." This is was embraced by 15th century Dutch theologian Thomas à Kempis who advised that when one is in a less than ideal situation to choose the least of the bad alternatives. " 
Spanish Jesuit  Baltasar Gracián would strongly disagree with him on this, writing, "Never open the door to a lesser evil, for other and greater ones invariably will slink in after it." Renowned pastor Charles Spurgeon also warned, "Of two evils, choose neither."

German-born political American theorist Hannah Arendt would side with the latter. She escaped the holocaust and her works deal heavily with authoritarianism and totalitarianism. She wrote, "Politically, the weakness of the argument has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget quickly that they choose evil."Certainly Arendt understood this issue more deeply having escaped from Nazi Germany, where many in her home country turned a blind eye to what was happening to the Jews. 

It is clear that many philosophers and theologians have debated this issue over the centuries and have come to no agreement. Nor do voters come election time. (Alexander Hamilton once lamented about having to vote for either Thomas Jefferson or John Adams for president).

Now I am not necessarily labeling either major party candidate as "evil," but they are both morally problematic. As I have written, I don't believe in a perfect candidate that I will agree with 100% (after all, even in his day, Jesus avoided being on any political ballot). As a side note, Francis Chan once preached a sermon entitled "If Jesus were the pastor of your church , you probably wouldn't go there" and that made me think "If Jesus were the President of your country, you probably wouldn't want to live there." Don't believe me, read the Sermon on the Mount as his "agenda" or "platform." With the Beatitudes, he took the Ten Commandments and amped them up to the nth power. Many biblical scholars even think that is what began to turn Judas against Christ because he began to see that the vision Jesus had for the world was not aligned with Judas' perception of what a Messianic leader was supposed to be. Jesus would always be hitting us too close to home in the areas we'd prefer he left alone. He was never interested in what was practical but in what was being obedient. 

Now I have voted for candidates that I didn't agree with on every issue many times, but what should I do when I don't agree with either on a majority of the issues and have serious questions about their character and judgment?  When I have either written or spoken about this issue, I find many dismiss me as unrealistic or an impractical idealist. But what is wrong with having ideals and wanting my political leaders to have them? Why aren't more Christians pushing for our leaders to have moral excellence and consistency of character? We don't and are surprised by what types of leaders we get year after year. 

Should we view our duty as citizens given the right to vote for elected officials in terms of choosing the lesser of two evils? Just because we are disaffected by the choices given to us by our political system, does that not mean we should look beyond the two parties? Or, at the very least, to hold our parties more accountable?

Certainly if we, as Christians, do not speak up then we will keep running up against this problem each and every time we have an election. We have found ourselves accepting candidates with problems in terms of character, principles and values. But the question I have is: Why have we become pragmatic and not stood up for our ideals and held politicians accountable? Why are we not more zealous in our convictions?

The prophets did not accept the lesser of two evils but railed against the evil they saw in their kings. They demanded righteousness in their leaders and called them out when they were not leading according to the Lord's commands. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently put it, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

So why are we, as followers of Christ, silent?

Why are we not stepping out in the boldness that he has called us to?

The book of Acts is full of believers praying and stepping out in boldness to the astonishment of their culture and, because of their boldness in the Spirit, lives were changed. When was the last time someone looked at us and were amazed by our boldness?

"The Call of Isaiah" by Marc Chagall

Should we not be like the prophets and stand up to address the failures in justice and moral law, especially in relationship to our public leaders? Should we not expect more than arrogant boasting, haughty pride, and campaign lies that they tell only to get elected? Those in higher office should be held to a higher standard. Our principal focus should be on more than just their economic or military policies. As the prophet Isaiah said, we need to "seek justice, correct oppression" and he called out rulers as those who "loves a bribe and runs after gifts." Isaiah did not capitulate on what was right nor did he dodge the issues of his day by having a private faith separate from a public life. The same with the prominent abolitionist of his day William Lord Garrison who stood up boldly and stated, "I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice . . . I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - and I will be heard."  How often do we sound like that?

Too often we look at such figures, especially from the Bible, as being greater than ourselves, as being almost like super heroes and that we cannot attain their spiritual heights. But scripture corrects us on this matter. In Acts it tells us that, "Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, perceived that they were uneducated. common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus" (4:13). Peter and John were "uneducated, common men." In the book of James, I love how it refers to the prophet Elijah. When we think of Elijah, we think of a bold man of faith who called down fire, but James reminds us, "Elijah was a human being, just as we are" (5:17). There was nothing special about him. He, like so many of the saints, are not meant to be put on spiritual pedestals. The only difference between them and us is obedience and boldness.

In his book The Prophets, Abraham Heschel wrote:

Indeed, the sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice - cheating in business, exploitation of the poor - is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.


Because they saw not as the world or society or culture sees. The prophets only saw in terms of the justice and righteousness of God. Most people, even believers, would call such a viewpoint as "fundamentalist" or "radical" or just plain unrealistic and crazy. They would dismiss such outspoken men of God, even when it's the Son of God who is calling for such things.

Like the prophets, we need to be calling for the righteous men and women of this land to step up and run for office (the Bible offers examples in Joseph and Daniel). There should not be a continual and consistent settling for the "lesser of two evils" when we vote. We need to call for. ". . . justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream." Biblically, justice and righteousness are inextricably linked together. Both come from the Hebrew word "tzedek," which is also one of the attributes of God. That's why Deuteronomy 16:20 tells us, "Tzedeke, tzedek, tirdof" (Justice, justice you shall pursue).  But are we?  Or are we compromising ourselves by not striving for "on earth as it is in heaven." Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "There are things for which an uncompromising stand is worthwhile." Are the character of the leaders of our land not one of them?

I love how Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of Anacostia River Church, put it:

We don't need to settle for the lesser of two evils. Not only is that to in fact settle for evil but also to subvert the very idea of a righteous public square. Oh, I know we can't expect unbelievers to act like Christians. But we can no longer expect Christians to act like Christians and to live for something beyond this election? Can we no longer as Christians hold out hope for more thorough-going righteousness in our leaders? I do. I'm tired of playing the game that elects a man with the expectation that he'll break his word within days or weeks of taking office then accept that there's nothing we can do about it except to vote differently next time.

When I read his words, I wanted to shout, "AMEN!" and holler "Comrade!"

I wanted more people to think and act this way when it comes to voting and our elections.

We cannot hold our elected officials accountable if we are not holding ourselves accountable for electing them in the first place.  I approach voting as not only my right as an American citizen and view it seriously and with much prayer and spiritual consideration. When I look at a candidate, I vote for the one closest to the values that are espoused in the Bible. I agree with Dr. Cornel West that:

The country is in deep trouble. We've forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances, we will be stepping out on nothing and just hoping to land on something. But that's the struggle.

That's faith.

It's what I struggle with not only during election season, but daily. There will be many who view this as extreme and will disagree with me. Many will dismiss what I write as pie-in-the-sky. "That may have been all right for Old Testament times, but we live in a modern age." We tend to vote with the narrow view of "what's best for America" instead of what is right by God. We need to ask ourselves if we are more swayed by scripture than we are by political talk radio or cable news? Do we listen to Christ more than our political ideologues? Which is more accurate? Which has an eternal view instead of a momentary one?

Now I am coming at this issue not as a Democrat nor as a Republican. I am a registered independent because neither party accurately reflects what I believe. Both reflect greed and the power of special interest groups. Both are in dire need of reform. So when I write, I am not aligning myself for one party over the other. I'm tired of the rhetoric of both. I'm tired of a broken system that pits party against party in place of what's best for our nation. I'm sick of political leaders who seem timid in standing up courageously for convictions and compassion. I need more than soundbites or 140 character Tweets.  There must be a spiritual and intellectual depth to our leaders. We need to stop looking at our leaders like Samuel did when he was inspecting Jesse's sons to find the one who would become the next king of Israel.  And God corrected him. "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as a man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1st Samuel 16:7). We must look at our candidates beyond the surface of their promises to the depths of their character and we must hold them truly accountable for it. When we do, we won't have to go into our elections holding our noses, and choosing the lesser of two evils.

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