Empathy and Charity: How Christians Can Respond to Election 2016

J.D. Greear and Chris Pappalardo || Updated 11:50 a.m., Nov 10, 2016

On Tuesday night, the long road toward Election Day finally ended, as Donald Trump won the office of United States president. Generally, the day after a presidential election, people are left feeling either elated (because their candidate won) or disappointed (because their candidate lost). But this has been a strange year, so the usual post-election emotions aren’t what they’ve been in years past. Clinton voters, we’ve already seen, feel angry and afraid. Many women and minorities are understandably concerned about what this means for their future in our country. And while many Trump voters are certainly excited, I know that the Christians who voted for him aren’t completely thrilled at the prospect of President Trump. They’re more relieved at avoiding President Clinton.

The purpose of this post is not to weigh in on the relative merits or dangers of President Donald Trump. Many people have already pointed out Trump’s significant deficits in the past few months, ourselves among them. This discussion should go forward in the days to come. But for now, I want to consider how Christians should respond to this new reality. Whether you voted for him or not, we need to approach this new season with gospelized lenses.

So what should Christians do in the days and weeks to come? Here are seven brief thoughts:

1. Show empathy for the confused and fearful.

While some Christians voted for Trump because they thought that, given the two options they had to choose from, he was the better of the two, every Christian should be outraged by demeaning comments made toward certain groups in our society, whether we are part of that group or not. And we should stand against injustice and discrimination wherever we see even a hint of it. Christians who voted for Trump must seek to understand (if they don’t already) why many immigrants, women, some minorities, and members of the LGBT community feared a Trump presidency. We must speak out against injustice, bigotry, and demeaning comments as loudly as those directly affected.

This will be a test for those evangelical believers who felt like Trump was the better choice. Will they have the courage to stand boldly against him—and the Republican party—wherever they perceive them pursuing an uncharitable agenda? (Had Clinton won, we would be asking the question in reverse: Would believers who supported her be willing to publicly work for justice in those areas where she falls short?)

I do know that many of our black and Hispanic brothers and sisters are fearful and confused this morning. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ, made in the image of God like us. Ask questions, acknowledge their hurts, and above all, listen. Whatever else this moment calls for, it calls for empathy towards the hurting and afraid.

Conservative evangelicals have to demonstrate that they are fighting for, and truly care about, the empowerment of the disenfranchised. Many conservatives will argue that the best tools for empowering the disenfranchised are found in the conservative, limited government view of economics. If so, they should demonstrate that–that they believe in their economic views not despite their care for the poor, but because of their care for the poor. Furthermore, conservatives (and evangelical conservatives in particular), must demonstrate in this season a willingness to fight against injustice and discrimination wherever they see it–in the judicial system, the workplace, or anywhere else.

2. Show charity for believers who voted the other way by assuming the best about their motives wherever you can.

As we have explained before, mature, gospel-loving, reflective Christians were genuinely consternated about which was the better choice in this election. Some felt that even with all her flaws, Clinton was the better overall choice for the country—usually because of the attitude she displayed toward the poor and disenfranchised. Others thought that, despite his flaws, Trump was the better choice. And many could not vote for either.

At this point, I’m not trying to persuade you one way or the other (I never was). What I want to encourage you here with is this: Don’t assume the worst about those who voted the other way. Don’t assume that fellow believers who voted for Trump did so because they are utterly insensitive to minority struggles or unconcerned about misogyny, xenophobia, or sexual assault. Many voted for Trump despite their disgust at those things, because they thought the things Clinton stood for were at least as dangerous to the country. So as you engage those who voted differently, do so with charity.

In the same way, don’t assume that those who voted for Clinton (or didn’t vote for either) are naïve about the threats to religious liberty or too cowardly to oppose abortion. Many believers were very aware of those things but just couldn’t support a man who displayed the significant character failings of Trump.

When a sibling in Christ votes a different way than you, choose to believe the better narrative about why they might have done so. Be humble and charitable enough to realize that many mature Christians came to different conclusions about what the right posture was, and give them the benefit of the doubt where you can. You don’t have to agree with their conclusions, but in the church we can and must demonstrate a humility, forbearance, and civility usually absent from public discourse.

Jesus told us to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Surely this includes assuming the best about the motives of others and giving them the benefit of the doubt, which we always want others to do for us. We tend, however, to attribute the best motives to our own actions and the worst to those who disagree with us. Can we respect our brothers and sisters who disagreed with our political choices, assuming the best about their intentions? This is another crucial test for believers on both sides right now, one that—based on social media—most seem to be failing.

I have often pointed out to our church that one of Jesus’ disciples was “Simon the Zealot.” Zealots were those Jews that thought Judaism should revolt against Rome, driving out all Roman influence. Included with him in that circle of 12 was “Matthew the Tax Collector,” who had worked for Rome collecting taxes. One disciple thought war with Rome was the best course of action; the other thought complicity with Rome was wiser. I’m sure they had some incendiary political discussions by the campfires in the evening. (I’d love to see Jesus’ posture as he listened to them.) But at the end of the day, they found in their love for Jesus a unity greater than the political questions that divided them.

3. Honor and pray for our president.

Regardless of how you voted, we as Christians must be committed to honor, pray for, and respect all of our political leaders. The Apostles Paul, Peter, and even Jesus himself command us to do so (1 Timothy 2:1-4; 1 Peter 2:17; Mark 12:17). You do not have to like your president to seek his good, honor him, and love him well. You need not have cast a ballot for him to recognize him as president and support him. Loving our neighbor applies to our leaders, too. (By the way, this is not a command simply for Republican presidents. This should characterize our attitude toward President Obama as well.)

Honoring your president does not mean sparing criticism where it is warranted. Just the opposite: We honor people by telling them the truth, even when that truth is uncomfortable. We can do so, however, from a posture of honor and respect and with an olive branch in our hands, as Peter commands us (1 Peter 2:17).

The church must continue to be a voice “speaking truth to power,” respectfully calling President Trump to a higher standard. We do not represent our Savior well or love our president well if we ignore sin. We must continue to hold Trump accountable for the ways his public words and deeds are both dangerous and potentially harmful.

We must do more than simply call out Trump’s sin, however. We should pray for him. Trump is not the Enemy, just as Clinton was not. We need to be praying and asking God to give Trump wisdom, so that he may help the cause of justice and righteousness. God puts kings on their thrones, and he tells us that he can turn their hearts like water in the palm of his hand (Proverbs 21:1). He can use any leader, and we should pray that he will use President Trump to further peace and preserve religious liberty in the days to come (1 Timothy 2:1-4; Jeremiah 29:7). The effectual fervent prayers of righteous people have great effect, even in the midst of impossible political circumstances.

4. Be cautious about appointing yourself God’s spokesman.

I’d encourage us to be cautious about declaring definitively God’s intentions in this election. I’ve already seen social media filling up with some declaring Trump as “God’s answer to the prayers of his people,” and others declaring him to be the “judgment of God on America.” A better posture is to encourage Trump where he works for justice and pursues righteousness, and speak against him where he promotes injustice. It is almost never wise to appoint yourself God’s spokesman about contemporary events. (That has led to several devastating chapters in history!) Based on what you see in Scripture, stand with righteousness and against injustice wherever you see it.

5. Don’t abandon politics, even when it’s impossibly messy.

Don’t let the next time you care about politics be the year 2020. Part of the reason we ended up with two candidates that most of the country disliked (and that were unfit for office) is that so few people involved themselves early on. Only 14 percent of registered voters came out for the primaries, with only 9 percent of them casting a ballot for Clinton or Trump. Our turnout for local elections is even more dismal, even though the impact is often more immediate and more influential.

I know the past year has left you wanting to disengage from politics and run away. Don’t do it. As G. K. Chesterton said, when you love something, its goodness is a reason to love it—but it’s “badness” is a reason to love it all the more. It is because we love our country that we should continue to pay attention to politics, even if it becomes increasingly messy. For many of us, God may even want us pursuing politics as a calling.

6. Repent of making politics an idol.

This is always the danger of politics. So at the present moment, you’re liable to think Trump will save us. Or that he will completely destroy everything. But he doesn’t have the power to do either. He may make the United States great, or he may ruin our country, but he can never save and he can never truly destroy. Don’t make the mistake of elevating politics to the throne of your life. If you do, you’ll be utterly crushed when things don’t go your way. It’s fine for you to be disappointed right now. It’s not okay for you to be dismayed.

For many of us, politics has become an idol. It is too important to us. It consumes our emotions and dominates our agenda. We think of it as ultimate power. Yesterday I heard a Republican pundit on Fox News fret about the possibility of Hillary Clinton gaining “ultimate power.” Ultimate power? How absurd. Our president can’t lift a finger without the permission of Almighty God. The powers of the most powerful nations are, as Isaiah says, a drop in the bucket, working according to the overarching purposes of the Almighty God (Isaiah 40:15; Ephesians 1:3-21). As John Piper says, one day America and all its presidents will be an obscure footnote in the annals of history; but Jesus will reign on his throne forever and ever. To adapt a phrase from Martin Luther King, Jr., the arch of history is long, and it tilts toward Jesus.

Don’t let politics dominate your agenda. We in the church have a mission far greater than politics. We are building a kingdom that can never perish, making investments in the souls of people that will last longer than any political kingdom. When we show more concern over politics than evangelism, we have gotten off course.

As our friend Joby Martin says, “If you are more concerned over who won this election than you are lost souls being saved, you are probably a citizen of the wrong kingdom.”

Don’t let politics determine your most binding allegiances. In the church, we have a unity that goes deeper than divisions in politics. The only way to find unity amidst division is to have something that unifies you that is deeper and more significant to you than all that divides you. For us, that “thing” is Jesus and his mission. He died to save sinners in every nation, starting within our families and communities, and our job is to preach his gospel and extend his kingdom irrespective of the political climate of the nation we happen to live in. This nation is not our true home; the United States has never been, and never will be, our primary kingdom. Thus, our unity goes way beyond a theory of taxation or strategy to fix the economy. Disunity happens in the church not because we care about politics too much but because we care about Jesus and his church too little.

7. Rejoice in signs of hope in this politically discouraging time.

Like many, I am gravely concerned about where our society is. But I find a lot to be encouraged by, as well, and it has nothing to do with Trump’s election.

Many evangelicals demonstrated in this election cycle that they are not mere partisan pawns of the Republican Party. Many broke ranks and spoke publicly against Trump’s deficiencies of character and his carelessly heinous statements. Even though they believed in certain principles often associated with the GOP—such as limited government, religious liberty, and a pro-life platform—they found Trump so distasteful in his character and so poor a champion of those very ideals, that they either could not support him or did so with a great deal of reservation. This has to be a good development.

I think this season also allowed many black and white evangelicals to begin some conversations they really need to have . Something about the circus of Trump’s candidacy allowed black evangelicals to explain to their white brothers and sisters what bothers them about latent racism in America in a way they could understand. And because of their inability to get excited about Trump, many white evangelicals were able to explain what it is about the traditional Democratic platform that they find so objectionable without looking like mere Republican shills. This is an encouraging conversation, and needs to continue.

What black, white, and Hispanic evangelicals have in common in Christ is greater than any political perspective that divides them, and in this election cycle, this unity has enabled them to have some of these conversations with the comfort that comes from knowing you are safe with a beloved brother and sister in Christ. We’ve just watched a political season marked by by radical division. We in the church have the unique opportunity to show the world supernatural unity.

I was really encouraged by an article that Rick Warren posted recently, “Why I have hope for America’s Soul.” He lists five things:

1. Faith flourishes in bad times: “People turn to God when everything else has left them empty, disappointed, and betrayed. Inevitably materialism, hedonism, and the worship of self is a dead end … America has had two Great Awakenings and many smaller spiritual revivals in our short history. All of them happened in times of difficulty or rapid cultural change … The most recent revival occurred when tens of thousands of ‘60s hippies became Jesus People in the ’70s, launching thousands of new churches across America.”

2. The Millennial generation is asking the right questions about life. Like Rick Warren, our church is flooded with millennial spiritual seekers—over 40 percent of our attendance each weekend are millienials.

3. America is still filled with tens of millions of God-honoring people.

4. The world, as a whole, is becoming more devout, not more secular. “The recent Pew Research Center study revealed that around the world the ‘unaffiliated’ group will grow by about 100,000,000 people between 2010 and 2050. But the Christian Church will grow by 750,000,000 in the same period— seven times faster — which will actually decrease the percentage of ‘nones’ on the planet. The future of the world is not secularism, but religious pluralism with one out of three people identifying as a follower of Jesus.”

5. God (still) promises to hear humble prayers.

Amen. Let’s be excited about what God is doing in our generation and what it means for the future of our country.

In the days to come, we at The Summit Church plan to keep doing what we’ve always done—preaching the Word, loving our world, and reaching people with the gospel. Because the everyday work of God’s people is always the most important and enduring work there is. When the church trusts God, hearts are changed, walls come tumbling down, and impossible things become possible. The early church, after all, had no budget, no political power, no buildings … and they turned the world upside-down. We have the same power of the Spirit that they did, and I, for one, intend to follow God boldly into his mission.

May God lead our nation to repent and turn to him. But more than that, may he purify and send out his church into the world.