Come November 4, Consider What Did Not Change

At home, we recently watched the staged reprise of “Hartsfield Landing,” an episode of The West Wing, featuring most of the original cast. At the outset of the story, President Joshua Bartlet returned from a peacemaking trip regarding India and Kashmir, bearing rare chessboards as gifts to some of his staff.

Text with Look at the whole board. You are not seeing the whole board over a chess board.While he played chess with several staff, each in a different room, the tiny hamlet of Hartsfield Landing was casting the nation’s first votes in the presidential election. The president’s remarkable intellect was on display. He was beating each of his opponents at chess by thinking many moves ahead—for each game. Simultaneously, he maneuvered a U.S. response to mainland Chinese aggression toward Taiwan and spouted historical minutia about chess in nearly every scene.

No doubt, he is the smartest man in the room (viewers will remember that he is a Nobel Prize winner in economics). His advice to one of his staff before each chess move is so important: “Look at the whole board. You are not seeing the whole board.”

I’ve not opened with this illustration to wax on about contrast with current election realities. It is President Bartlet’s refrain that has my attention. “Look at the whole board. You are not seeing the whole board.”

For many of us who claim a religious or spiritual tradition, we know that there is Someone or Something greater than any nation, greater than any of us, transcending every national boundary and soul-splitting dualism humankind has devised to distinguish—and pit—us against them. Recall the picture taken from space the first time human eyes saw our awesome home as one world.

That world is the whole board.

The election of the president and Congress is arguably the world’s most important election. The singular power of the U.S. to make life better and to wield woe is still profound. This particular election will change a lot, in the nation and in the world, and probably not in ways we anticipate.

But not everything will change.

On November 4, or whenever the nation knows the outcomes of the election, consider all these circumstances worthy of our attention, worthy of our work, worthy of our humility, worthy of our courage—regardless of who wins. (By “our” and “we” I mean people who claim a spiritual or religions tradition.) What do we see if we try to see the whole board?

  • The danger of mistaking my angle on the board as the whole board.
  • The pandemic and all its ramifications.
  • Faith communities needing to remind their members that there is an Ultimate Someone in the universe, and that Someone is not to be confused with any elected or movement leader.
  • The nation polarized into groups, including religious groups, united in their mutual fear and/or hate of other groups.
  • Racism and every other form of dehumanization.
  • The spiritual value of trees, grasslands, waterways, cathedrals, and other holy and thin places.
  • Migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers from Central American countries asking to be treated with justice and compassion on the U.S. southern border. And finding the parents of those 545 children!
  • China decimating the Uighur people.
  • The climate disrupted by human activity, threatening the lives of future generations of nearly every species.
  • Our faith communities aching to gather safely and warmly, even as they are discerning what adapting to the pandemic will mean for the evolution of our lives.
  • The unlivable minimum wage.
  • Unsustainable individualism in American life, with an abundance of freedom from and insufficient freedom for.
  • The beauty of a sunset, and the anticipatory joy of a sunrise.
  • Gross income and wealth inequalities.
  • Oceans dotted by massive floating plastic islands, with bits of plastic and microplastics invading everywhere from the surface to the deepest depths.
  • The conservative orientation of federal and Supreme Court justices.
  • Teachers and frontline workers in deep distress.
  • Individual claims to freedom almost completely eclipsing the value and necessity of equality.
  • The power of gratitude and compassion.
  • People being left behind by globalization.
  • Canyons of disconnection between rural and urban populations.
  • The incomparable pleasure of friendship.
  • The power of humankind to use technology to make life better and to bring all life to an end.
  • The need for the assertion “Black Lives Matter.”
  • The need for affordable, accessible health care for everyone.
  • The human-forming power of being seen, of being “beheld.”
  • The strong backbone and soft hearts necessary to regenerate the nation’s sickened democracy.
  • The shared desires for home, safety, and to belong.
  • Too many guns and weapons of mass murder among the populace.
  • City, county, and state budgets looking for budget cuts to match revenue drops, and vulnerable populations becoming more vulnerable.
  • Our desire to change someone else when the only person we really have the power to change is ourselves.
  • Each of us standing in need of grace and a heart of flesh rather than stone.
  • The badly damaged and uncertain role of the U.S. as a world leader in human rights and promoting democracy.
  • The need to love and be loved, because love is the core of the really real in the universe.
  • The confusion of being the first modern democracy with being the best democracy.
  • White Christian religious nationalists warring for supremacy and minority rule, even as—or because—demographic trends are against them.
  • A new—at once aspirational and honest and inclusive—national story.

I could add more. You could add more.

The list above is but the partial board. Each of these values, concerns, and circumstances will still be here on November 4, waiting on the board for our attention, our discernment, and our next move.

 Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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