The 2020 elections are fraught with both peril and promise.
Will we reelect a government that fosters division or one that seeks to develop a more perfect union? As Christians, our ultimate loyalty is not to any single government, but that does not mean we should not seek the welfare of the nation in which we find ourselves.
How we seek that nation’s welfare needs to be more discerning than the report cards that some Christian leaders have sometimes prepared.
Such documents usually recommend one candidate over another based on the candidate’s voting record on a single issue, such as abortion or same-sex marriage.
Instead, we need to exercise a Christian practical wisdom. What is that?
In order to answer that question, we first need to understand what practical wisdom is. Classically, it is the virtue that unites good thinking with rightly directed desires so that we act in ways that promote human flourishing.
Practical wisdom reflects on three questions: What is going on in these specific circumstances? Who are we – what are our highest and best convictions – what is the vision of the good we seek to reach? What should we do in order to get as close to that vision as we can under present circumstances?
Second, we need to understand what makes practical wisdom Christian – and that means we need to think about what constitutes flourishing, that vision of the good that drives us.
For Aristotle, it was a life of reflection in a well-ordered polis. For Judaism, it is shalom, peace, the harmonious interaction of the entire cosmos. As Christians, we should take our cues from what Jesus says about the kingdom or rule of God.
We can learn much about that rule from the synoptic Gospels, which describe the rule of God as the center of Jesus’ ministry.
In the synoptics, we learn God’s rule is “at hand.” We therefore catch glimpses of it here and there, now and then.
One place we find hints of that rule comes in the miracles Jesus performs. They suggest that God’s rule will be characterized by freedom from the powers of sickness, evil, death and the destructive side of nature.
When Jesus says to feed the hungry and clothe the naked is to feed and clothe him, we see God’s rule gives priority to those who are most vulnerable in society.
When Jesus reminds us that God cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, we see God’s rule extends beyond human interests to include all of creation.
When Jesus associates with “sinners,” we see God’s rule does away with markers that divide.
When God mercifully sends rain on both just and unjust, we learn of God’s graciousness to everyone, even the enemy.
When Jesus condemns religious leaders, we see God judges those who distort the good that human institutions were meant to serve.
Such a vision of God’s rule should therefore govern a Christian practical wisdom as we approach these elections.
We should vote for justice for the weakest and most vulnerable in society.
We should vote for mercy, not vindictiveness.
We should vote for all of creation, not just human well-being.
While a Christian practical wisdom disposes us to vote for persons and policies that approximate these trajectories, it remembers that each candidate is human, not the Messiah.
It remembers the rule of God is not the same as a functioning democracy (or any other polity).
It remembers there are legitimate debates to be had over how best to operationalize justice and mercy given our present situation.
But a Christian practical wisdom will discern carefully the course of action that best approximates the rule of God, however imperfectly, given the hand we have been dealt.
Finally, a Christian practical wisdom will act in trust that God is capable of writing straight with the crooked lines of humanity.
Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series. Part one is available here.
Professor of religion in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He is the author of Wisdom Calls: The Moral Story of the Hebrew Bible and Faithful Innovation: The Rule of God and a Christian Practical Wisdom.