By Fr. Travis Russell, SJ
October 27, 2020 — Long before Jesus arrived on the scene, Aristotle observed that we are political animals. His reasoning was straightforward: “Nature, which does nothing in vain, has equipped us with speech, which enables us to communicate moral concepts such as justice which are formative of the polis.” He was right. Today’s politics have certainly brought out the animal instinct in me, although of a lower, primal order. Every time I check Twitter or watch cable news, my fight-or-flight response is triggered, and I either shut down or engage. Now the elections. Grrr!
It is a very real possibility that as a nation we will wake up on Nov. 4, 2020, not knowing the election results. It is equally possible that someone will jump the gun and declare victory to cynically delegitimize the results. Or, worse yet, it is possible that someone will not accept the results at all. The storm could last for months, litigation the forecast. All are possibilities, perhaps simultaneous possibilities, and if they come true, any single one of them could capsize our democratic boat.
As a Jesuit, it is a familiar scene, one that I have prayed with many times. Jesus sleeps in the boat while the storm is surging. There is frustration, fueled by the desperate attempt to control, and all the disciples, including me, are panicked. I get the sense we are all peeved at Jesus (or maybe it is me once again projecting). But I can see it in Peter’s face, too. He is totally freaked, and out of the weathered corner of his eye he is staring at Jesus wondering (a) whether he is going to wake up and (b) if he is going do anything. It is not just Peter who is wondering; we all are — and that is frustration. “Teacher, do you not care that we are drowning?”
What happens next is difficult to understand. Jesus is woken by the disciples, “Save us! We are drowning!” How does he respond? After wiping the crust from his eyes, he calms the storm, “Peace! Be still!” and then scolds them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” The disciples, to be sure, handle it better than most. My reaction would have been sarcasm: “Jesus, did you wake up on the wrong side of the boat again?” But they do not succumb to that lowest form of wit. They believe in him, and so call on him to calm the storm.
Like any good story, the storm is more than a storm; it is a metaphor. Pope Francis explained it in his “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world) address, “The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily [lives]. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities.” He continues, “In this storm, the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that (blessed) common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters.”
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but when we wake up on November 4 the storm of the elections will not be over. That is because the storm has less to do with a particular candidate and more to do with what has been exposed: us. We are a deeply divided nation, that is for sure, and we have been that way for a while. We have red states and blue states, and very few purple states — which, by the way, we call battlegrounds. We have the upper-class, the lower-class and the rapidly shrinking middle-class.
As a nation, Aristotle’s ideal of working together for “moral concepts such as justice” seems passé. Instead, mirroring our economy, we are engaged in a winner-take-all, scorched-earth kind of game, where might makes right. If a few innocent people get trampled to death along the way, we say, “Oh well, that is the cost of living in a free society.” In his new encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis criticizes this kind of “cold” and “comfortable indifference,” the “thinking that we are all-powerful, while failing to realize that we are all in the same boat.”
If the past is any indication of the future, I will wake up on November 4 to a storm wondering whether Jesus is going to wake up and if he is going to do anything. I will be like the disciples — panicked, frustrated and desperate for control. My first response will be flight, which means binging on cable news and chocolate, and depending how late things go, a drink … possibly two. But I am praying now — not tomorrow or November 4 — that I will have the faith to call on Jesus to calm the storm. I trust the lesson will be the same: We are all in the same boat. No one is saved alone; we can only be saved together.
Fr. Travis Russell, SJ is the criminal justice policy advisor for the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology. He has worked with Jesuit refugee Service in Malawi, taught at Verbum Dei High School and served as an assistant at L’Arche Seattle.