There is always a euphoria that accompanies any major electoral success. Since the beginning of American electoral politics, those who win inevitably declare that they have received a mandate from those who voted them into office.
And the 2016 election was no different.
As political pundits dissect what went wrong and what went right over the next several months, and as the euphoria of the first “100 days” or first month of each state’s legislative session blends into a new governing reality, it would be wise for all leaders to reflect on some thoughts of those who have gone before us.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s (1892-1971) The Irony of American History is a good place to begin that focused reflection, specifically for those who have faith commitments that inform their political engagement. Niebuhr published Irony just a few years after the conclusion of the Second World War.
It is a thoughtful counter to a “victor goes the spoils” mentality, and cautions the political leadership of his time against reading too much into their ability to influence future events.
According to Niebuhr, “… [we] lack the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.” The Apostle Paul shared a similar sentiment about two thousand years earlier when he said to the Corinthians, “…now we see in a mirror dimly.”
And just so we don’t miss the point completely, Niebuhr asserts that “all [people] are naturally inclined to obscure the morally ambiguous element in their political cause by investing it with religious sanctity. This is why religion is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm.”
In other words, caution!
And what is the nature of that caution? Well, it’s really about humility and forgiveness, two virtues that must be practiced by any leader in their respective sphere of influence.
Humility is the counter to hubris, which is excessive pride and self-confidence, or what Niebuhr eventually labeled the “Promethean illusion”; that is, the conviction that humans can achieve “goodness” through their own pure motivations.
Humility doesn’t imply a lack of self-assurance or self-confidence; it’s an internal caution reminder that we never fully comprehend the whole picture in any situation.
And forgiveness? By definition, forgiveness is about wiping the slate clean or cancelling a debt. It’s certainly not logical and, yet, it is required if human beings in any relationship are to co-exist.
Together, humility and forgiveness function as the necessary counterbalance to the “Promethean illusion.”
In what may be the most famous of many well-known utterances, Niebuhr summarized his cautionary convictions in the following way (They’re also words that should be mounted on the wall of any office or study.):
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.