On the Mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee…

May 31, 2024


On all thirty-four counts.

We had a first in this country yesterday. For the first time in history, a former U.S. President was convicted of a crime. Since this same former president is the Republican nominee for the upcoming presidential election, this means that we will also see the first felon candidate to run for presidential office since Eugene V. Debs ran for president from a prison cell in 1920. The key difference in this moment is that Eugene V. Debs never had a legitimate chance of winning the election—he wound up capturing about three percent of the vote. So, another first—we are now in a moment where there is a very real chance of the first convicted felon being elected President.

One of the most remarkable things about this singular event in U.S. history has been seeing the differences in how various media outlets have reported it, making it as clear as ever that very few national media outlets are unbiased. If you’re on one side of the aisle, for example, this should be a disqualifying event for a presidential candidate, so that now that a conviction has been made, it should end that particular presidential campaign. If you’re on the other side of the aisle, this is a witch hunt, a selective application of the law, being carried out by a District Attorney who has a personal and politically motivated grudge against the former President.

I of course have my own opinions on all this, which I’ll spare you—because that’s not really my job in a piece like this. In fact, as a pastor, what really raises my proverbial “antennas” in moments like this is how fixated people seem to get on potential future outcomes in national politics.

Several issues, here. In the first place, I tend to think our obsession with national politics is a form of abstraction. In other words, our personal lives, and our local communities, can feel small, hard, or insignificant—so we detach from them and attach to something that seems bigger, both to avoid what seems difficult about the personal and the local, and also to (we think) somehow give our lives a grander meaning. That’s not to say that national politics aren’t important. They are—and immensely so. It’s just to say that it’s not truly where most of us live, and our attention to it is vastly disproportionate to its real impact on our lives. I’m also a big believer in the aphorism: “No news is no news.” We don’t yet know how yesterday’s important news will lead to any possible future news, and so there’s no use in catastrophizing about the various potential outcomes. In both cases, all we can really do is deal with what’s in our remit, today, which involves preparation for whatever future may come (which always winds up looking at least a little bit different than what we fear or imagine).

So—what can we do? I think the best way we can prepare for whatever future may come is to build churches capable of forming us as citizens of the alternative reality we call the “kingdom of God.” In other words, the best thing I can do in the face of an uncertain future is help form a people who will live, not according to any of the particular ideologies that currently dominate the idiosyncratic political discourse of our peculiar moment, but who will live according to the ideals of the new future Jesus is inaugurating—no matter what the outcome of an election.

I’ll say something that I hope you already know—neither candidate in the upcoming election has all the answers. And both candidates have serious flaws. Now, please don’t mishear that—this is not an argument for moral equivalency or relevancy. After all, I’m a moral theologian, it’s literally my job to provide a moral framework for, and help determine the moral weight of, our actions. But the reality is, at the end of the day, no matter who wins the election, it will be incumbent upon us as Christians to support them in some things, and challenge them in others. And we can only do that if we resist the temptation to align ourselves in relationship to either candidate—whether in favor of or in opposition to—rather than primarily centering and grounding ourselves in Jesus.

And that’s nowhere as easy as it sounds. For there are countless things forming us at all times—a lot of which we have already internalized—as followers of other leaders, as members of other communities, and as constituents of other “parties.” It takes a lot of work and courage and the support of strong communities in order to disentangle the various things that might align us with realities that pale in comparison to the world Jesus calls us to inhabit.

Which is just to say—we have our work cut out for us. But, unlike national politics—which many of us have very little impact over—this is work we can do. And I hope and pray that all those who read this today will take up this work in earnest in here—by first and foremost forming this community, and being formed ourselves, around the Gospel of Jesus Christ.