Elections 2004 and Theology of the Cross


[1] My observations of this political season leave me in despair.  My thesis here is drawn from my observations-truth is not any longer either the goal or expectation in American politics.   What I am pointing to here is a general public perception that we are unable to expect public discourse and public leaders to be truthful.  Our task as citizens is, therefore, to choose the candidate who we perceive to be least untruthful, or worse, to be untruthful in ways we like.

[2] In what follows, I offer one example among many that support my thesis.  On September 18, the New York Times ran a cover article reporting results from a NYT/CBS poll.  In response to the question about his truthfulness in his statements about his service in the Texas Air National Guard, 71% think George W. Bush is either hiding something or mostly lying.  In response to a parallel question about his truthfulness about his service in Vietnam, 62% think John F. Kerry is either hiding something or mostly lying.  It is simply a fact that George Bush served in an out-of-combat position in the National Guard and John Kerry served a tour of duty in Vietnam, including some combat situations.  Yet, these basic biographies have been turned into campaign battlegrounds.  On the one hand, groups such as MoveOn.Org have raised questions about how George Bush got into the National Guard and about the quality of his service during those years.  On the other hand, groups such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have raised questions about validity of John Kerry's multiple combat medals.  

[3] So what has our faith tradition to offer such despairing circumstances?  As a beginning, I'd urge them to reflect on that 'thin tradition' least familiar to cultural Christianity: the theology of the cross.  I encourage reading Douglas John Hall's work, especially his recent The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Fortress, 2003).  Short of that, one might simply meditate on Martin Luther's aphoristic lines from the Heidelberg Disputation (1518):

That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things that have actually happened (Romans 1:20).

He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil.  A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

[4] On the surface, this would mean what Lutheran pastor and magazine editor E. E. Ryden called "plain speech."  Don't twist or spin truth, repeating falsehoods until they 'seem' true.  Seek to offer, with straightforward humility, what you think you know to be true at this time, and let the chips fall where they may.  But going a bit deeper, the theology of the cross would ask the United States and especially those who aspire to lead it, a strong dose of humility as to the alignment of God's purposes and our own.  The temptation of the theology of glory is the temptation of presenting divine revelation as clear, simple, and on our side.  Abraham Lincoln's oft-quoted words from the Second Inaugural are more nearly the words of a theologian of the cross: " Both sides read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.  The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has his own purposes."  Indeed.

© October 2004
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 4, Issue 10