Election campaigns are like revival services.
You can’t have them all the time, since what election campaigns and revival services are about is some evaluation of what’s happened before and what’s possible going forward. They aren’t about perpetual campaigning and reviving.
So both of these periodic events also provide the opportunity to actually make a choice, based on the assessment of the past and future.
Assessment, too, isn’t an end in itself, but serves the purpose of making a decision, against and for something.
And more: Both election campaigns and revival services nudge us to go beyond choosing what we want that is similar and/or different from the past. They provide the occasion both to assess and decide on what might be believable and on what we do actually believe – that is, what is core, central and decisive to who we are as religious and political beings.
The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John has the characteristics of both a political campaign and a religious revival. It combines both realms, the political and the spiritual.
The chapter opens with people coming to Jesus the campaigner and revivalist because of what he’s promising and what he’s doing in terms of health care.
The existing provisions for staying healthy and recovering from illness evidently leave something to be desired.
So the citizenry comes to the campaign and revival stop by the Sea of Galilee to hear and experience what the candidate has to say and do about that subject.
They’re so intrigued that they stay longer than originally planned – so long, in fact, that they get hungry and realize that they haven’t brought anything to eat.
So the candidate is challenged again, and again the candidate/revivalist impresses the crowd by not just feeding the whole bunch to their fill with a meal of bread and fish but having enough leftovers to feed still more.
Next comes the issue of climate change: in the havoc for those who are at sea (literally and figuratively), Jesus manages to bring them safely ashore.
Now the drama shifts to the other side of the water, as the campaign and the revival moves on to new ground. But those who had just experienced healing and feeding and quieting track down the candidate, wanting to hear and experience still more.
The candidate/revivalist’s message also shifts. He tells the crowd that they’re following him because they are making assessments and decisions on matters that only affect them in terms of their immediate physical needs, but that there are deeper, nonphysical, yes, spiritual needs at stake as well.
Not that the realm of the physical – the social, economic and cultural – are unimportant or separate from the spiritual.
He suggests that one must contend with and make decisions about the primal source of those things that are temporal in nature.
Is the source itself temporal, in the sense of being itself exhaustible and perishing? Or is the source itself eternal, in the sense of life-renewing for itself and for that which is its primary concern.
That is the choice one also has to make: either separate the physical from the spiritual, the temporal from the eternal – or include all realms.
Candidate/revivalist Jesus offers himself as the representative of one of the choices those in the crowd can make.
He tells the crowd there by the sea that he re-presents that source, which provides bread that feeds both their physical and spiritual needs – but not only for them but the source that “gives life to the [whole] world.”
(Here he likens himself to Moses as political and religious leader – one who produces both political and spiritual results but whose common source is God.)
“I represent/re-present that distinctive choice you can make now in this time,” Jesus is saying, “about what you, at your core, believe both politically and spiritually.”
The rest of the sixth chapter is an elaboration on that choice that candidate/revivalist Jesus represents/re-presents.
It’s true that political campaigns and revival services come at all of these matters from different directions.
The revivalist starts from the spiritual/eternal side of the continuum and then relates it to the issues of physical/temporal life.
The political campaigner approaches all these matters from the physical/temporal realm but, in the end, has to address the spiritual/eternal one.
Electoral politics, at its best, requires the articulation of not just a candidate’s immediate political objectives but also a political philosophy, and even more, a philosophy of life – which is not unlike a religious stance.
Coming from the other direction, religious revivals demand not just a decision about one’s religious stance and personal piety but also one’s life in the public realm – not unlike a political program that has to do with things like health care, hunger and climate change.
But coming from different sides, each has to end up coming clean on those matters where the other starts. And that means figuring out what is believable and what you actually believe are vitally important for both.
That’s also why, among other things, periodic election campaigns and periodic revival services serve a really useful and critically important purpose.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.