Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.Philippians 2:3-4 (NASB)
On election day, Layout Editor came in a grey suit and a fedora, looking straight out of a 1940s newsroom instead of what this was, a Seattle journalism classroom. This was not typical for him, a student whose fashion was most informed by the Seattle grunge movement that began around when he was born. Indeed, I’d never seen him dressed up at all, for any reason, until today, this November Tuesday in 2008. His journalism classmates smiled, some quietly and others much more loudly, and soon the inquiries piled up around him like stacks of school newspapers. Why, we wanted to know, are you so fancy?
“Because this is an important day,” he said, not a hint of a joke in his generally ironic voice. His classmates asked him why he didn’t save the suit for tomorrow, assuming that the candidate that he preferred secured the presidency. “Today we get to vote,” he replied with a shrug, as if this were answer enough. For him, this eighteen-year-old voting in his first presidential election, hopeful for all a possible President Obama could mean to his country, this day was suit-worthy.
For many reasons, I still remember that day, and even more vividly the inauguration that followed it the next January, when I pulled the ancient AV cart into my classroom so that a genuinely multicultural class of ninth graders could cheer as America swore in its first Black president. Those days were hopeful and celebratory in a way that I only recall politics being that one time, in my whole life, but there was another reason. I remember them because they stood in stark contrast to my own behavior as a high school student.
I recently listened to a podcast about the 2000 presidential election, that contested one that hinged on the partial perforations of paper ballots in Florida. A political reporter remembered the electricity of that night early in his career, and laid out the events as they unfolded in the weeks that followed the first tumultuous election night. I listened carefully, taking what warning I was meant to from that strange chapter of our history. But the main thing I kept thinking was “Where was I when all this was happening?”
Of course, I know where I was. I remember that first night, the calling and re-calling of the election, the concession later rescinded. I went to bed not knowing who the president would be and thought that was strange, but in a dry, intellectual sense. I studied that election like a subject in school—I was even taking A.P. United States history from my all-time favorite teacher—but if I was honest I couldn’t find a foothold into how these results would affect me personally. Looking backward into that dim distance, all I can see is a cross-country meet or two, running through the golden, crunchy glory of Lincoln and Lower Woodland Park in the fall.
Even the next presidential election, the one I could actually vote in, made little impression on me. I was in college, and my roommate and I got tired of watching the results long before they were final, so we turned on Schoolhouse Rock, United States Government and fell asleep. And it wasn’t just that I was young, sixteen and then twenty, consumed by the problems and triumphs of my own busy world, though there are plenty of young people who feel that way. Though I wouldn’t have put it into words at the time, my disengagement sprang from a vague sense that, Democrat or Republicans in power, I would probably be fine. The reality of privilege means that I was probably—mostly—right, at least at the time.
But then I became a teacher. At age 21, I jumped feet-first into a pool of young people whose lives had unfolded in dramatically different ways from mine. I learned about DACA in its early days from Mexican and Honduran students, their lives dramatically altered by the possibility of remaining in America without the threat of deportation hanging over them. I heard about the realities of postcolonial Africa from Somali, Sudanese, and Ethiopian students, who told far more layered and nuanced stories than I’d gleaned from the college course I took on the subject. In Germany, I met kids whose situations had changed overnight because of regime changes and civil wars, immigrants who knew firsthand the influence that politics can have on an individual life.
I still hear the conversations that I had with my students at Black Forest Academy, missionary kids who’d moved around the world and learned early when it was necessary to pay attention. We celebrated French President Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine le Pen in 2017, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s later that year, when her party remained in power and Alternativ für Deutschland, the far-right party, gained only a tiny number of seats. These were countries where they weren’t even citizens, where their opinions were just that, but my students knew what I hadn’t at their age: politics matters. It mattered to the Syrian refugees pouring into Germany in 2017; it matters to the Central Americans seeking asylum at our southern border today. Neither group have a voice in the country where they seek refuge, but instead depend entirely on voting citizens to pay attention and use their votes accordingly.
It’s different now, of course. I’m not sixteen, and even if I were I think I could see the direct influence that this particular election could have on my particular life. The prominent issues of 2020 intersect with my own experience in more ways than ever, but honestly that’s still not what I’m voting for. I’m still haunted by the voices of my students, all those years ago, and that first realization that this little piece of paper was a way of participating in something that made the lives of others better and safer, closer to the goodness and safety that I already enjoy.
I know that it’s never simple, that neither American political party perfectly embodies the truth of the Gospel. But the case for caring about all of this, for participating—that feels pretty simple to me. Because we can’t love the neighbors we don’t see, and Jesus already made it clear that our neighbors aren’t the just ones who live next to us. Our neighbors are those who look, think, and worship differently, and an election is just one of many chances that I have to show that I see them, and that their lives matter enough to me to vote attentively, eagerly, loving my neighbor by caring about the politics I used to ignore.