I try to avoid talking about the election, for a number of reasons. And I will avoid offering an endorsement of any candidate here. This disclaimer is being offered because I do want to talk about the election, particularly a hot topic making the headlines of many newspapers this morning: the American notion of a “peaceful transition of power.”
This is, of course, being discussed in response to things said by the Republican presidential nominee, Mr. Donald J. Trump. In the lead up to the final presidential debate, Mr. Trump made several statements to the effect that the current election was being “rigged” against him and, at the debate itself, refused to give clear indication that he would accept the results of the election should he not be voted into office as president of the United States of America.
Twitter, during and after the debate, was full of incredulity that a US presidential nominee would not respect the well-established notion of peaceful acceptance of an election outcome. Some, even, called the very idea “sedition.”
I’m not here to weigh too heavily on those matters. Rather, I am here to discuss how this all fits into what was read in the Daily Office today.
The Wisdom of Ben Sira—a book commonly known as either Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (can we please settle on one?)—is an apocryphal/deuterocanonical book written in similar manner to the book of Proverbs. In chapter 10, verse 4 (the verse quoted at the head of this piece) reads similarly to what Solomon wrote in his hallowed collection of sayings:
“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever He will” (Proverbs 21:1).
However, Ben Sira adds the note that God will “raise up the right leader for the time.” This notion speaks directly to our current news cycle.
In the Baptist church I grew up in, this was one of the many verses used by the “Calvinist” faction to defend their particular understandings of God’s sovereignty—their view being that there really is no such thing as “free will,” that God has laid out precisely everything that is going to happen. Now, I counter that God’s sovereignty means that God, rather than laying out everything, instead knows everything. But further elucidating this goes a tad beyond the scope of this little blog post.
In short, there are those who will say that God already has this figured out. And this is true. Because the sovereignty of God means that nothing is outside of God’s consideration or knowledge. God is present no matter what.
Now, there are those who are clearly asserting that God’s choice is Mr. Trump and that we insult God is we choose otherwise. There certainly are those who feel similarly about Mrs. Hilary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. But, again, what Ben Sira reveals is that God raises up the right leader for the time.
There is a complication for us. The Bible was written in the contexts of monarchy and empire, not democracy. At least, not the sort of democratic government enshrined in the United States constitution. In the world of the Bible governors and kings were not decided by the people. The citizenry had very little say over who their rulers were. And so, in some ways, the wise words of Ben Sira are meant to demonstrate, and even perhaps offer comfort, to people by saying that God had sway even over the rulers of the earth. In other words, God is the one who has say over who rules the people and it is our duty to trust that God knows what God is doing.
How we interpret this passage in a democratic society, however, is a bit of a challenge. How do we say that God chooses the governing bodies when we clearly have set up a system designed to demonstrably grant those choices to the citizenry?
On one hand, we might pray that God sway the hearts of the voters toward what God wants. This, however, puts a major wrinkle in various views of God’s sovereignty—if we can choose something other than what God wants, then God is not sovereign, we are. Thus it is heresy.
Further, such a heretical notion grants room to seditionist behavior. Because it would allow me the space to say that the people chose against God and, therefore, because God’s law is a law higher than that of Caesar, I am obligated to use all of my means to undo that decision.
However, by adding in the line about the “right leader for the time,” we are given a very serious condition. We can only know that a leader is a leader “for the time” until “the time” has passed. We don’t know the future. And so, by the very nature of what Ben Sira is revealing to us, we are not free to act with sedition. We are, rather, obligated toward humility, to accept that the leader we have is the one that God has chosen. Because we don’t know “the time” until we look at it in retrospect.
This is part of the reason that Mr. George W. Bush, and his father before him, have had their presidencies revisited and reconsidered in a more positive light. As we’ve learned more about “the time” we’ve seen that, in some cases, they were the right leaders for the right times. This is not to say that they were perfect by any means (no one is). Rather, it is to say that the qualities that made them who they are were qualities needed in those particular times and places.
In the end, what this means for us in our current time, is that we as American Christians are to accept whoever is elected the president of the United States. On Sunday, November 13 (coincidentally, when we are celebrating the Feast of Saint Andrew, our patron), in the year of our Lord 2016, we will do as we’ve long done in the Episcopal Church. We will pray for “Barack, our President” and either Donald or Hillary, “our President-elect.”
Because, by then, the people will have spoken. And more importantly, as Ben Sira reminds us, God will have spoken. And then we’ll need to see what “the time” brings our way.