Israel’s first king – David (pictured here) – knew something about campaigns. Amazingly enough, so does Jesus.
And in the U.S. today, the debates are on; we’re nearing the final stretch. So it’s time to ask: What (if any) advice could the historical Jesus of Nazareth offer to today’s 2012 U.S. presidential aspirants?
Presidential campaigns these days are becoming a 2-3 year affair – about the same length of time as the public campaign ministry of Jesus starting in Galilee and ending in Jerusalem. Even a quick read of the gospels is enough to make you realize that Jesus was strategic. He knew where he was going and how to get there.
So, what pointers might he offer up to candidates Obama and Romney? Seven items:
1. Keep it simple. Jesus mastered the KISS principle. Consider his most famous campaign speech – the Sermon on the Mount. As recounted by the gospel of Matthew, the first words out of the Jesus’ mouth were “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
In presidential debate #1, Mitt Romney went simple; Obama meandered. Guess who won this first go-around – hands down?
2. Tell stories.Jesus used stories (known as parables) to convey complex ideas in terms to which everyone within earshot could relate. Even if he skipped a lot of detail in the process. The parable of the prodigal son reflects a universal theme and offers a clear message of hope for the future. The moral of the story is that God the father is always on the lookout and ready to accept his wayward children back home, no questions asked. Our presidential aspirants need stories that are real, that resonate, and that offer a hope worth reaching to achieve in the next four years.
3. Stay on message. But be prepared to flex. It appears Jesus had a set of stump speeches which were repeated in town after town, but varied to fit the needs and interests of the local listeners. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount becomes Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Matthew’s Jesus begins by saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke’s Jesus says yet more simply “Blessed are the poor.” Amazing how the meaning can shift so radically with the deletion (or addition) of just a couple of words!
But watch out! Even in Jesus day, differently nuanced messages were remembered. These critical variations in meaning were recorded by the writers of what became the New Testament. In today’s world of email, Facebook and Twitter, differences between what is said in one village versus another are more difficult to hide than ever. Don’t say it if you won’t be prepared to defend those words with the next news cycle.
4. Don’t suffer fools. Jesus certainly wasted little time with on those who aimed to bring him down for reasons of their own personal gain. He went after the religious and social leaders of his day. He was unafraid of using tough language when required, for example, calling out the leaders of his Jewish world as follows: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! … Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?”
But Jesus backed up his ad hominem personal attacks with substance. In this case, he was criticizing the way in which these supposed leaders emphasized trivialities rather than paying attention to “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
Jesus also knew there was a price to pay for going rogue. He knew (or intentionally planned) that these deeply personal insults would lead to his eventual trial and execution. I suspect that neither Obama nor Romney have this in mind as a desired outcome.
5. Go long. It’s football season so most of us know what this means. Perhaps not as dramatic as the “hail Mary” pass, but sell the crowd on a vision for the long term. For Jesus, his kingdom was “not of this world.” The long bomb is the pass play into the kingdom of heaven.
Our candidates are more earthly bound, but the ability to clearly articulate how tomorrow can be better for us and our kids is pivotal to a successful campaign outcome. Four years ago, Mr. Obama sold us on the “audacity of hope.” This time around, the vision is much hazier; there is little willingness to take responsibility for what happened on his watch over the last four years.
For Mr. Romney, we have heard a lot about what he doesn’t like – Obamacare, higher taxes, regulation. Finally, with the first debate we began to get a sense of his vision might be – a nation that can again offer “prosperity that comes through freedom.”
6. Time the peak. Jesus had an incredible (if surprising) gift for timing. He know when and how to pull in a crowd and when and how to escape through a crowd unnoticed. He seemingly timed the climax of his career with a triumphal entry and the praises of the crowd into Jerusalem – only to be put to death a week later. That result could be viewed as disaster except that, for Jesus, death and resurrection were really the point of it all.
With a presidential race that again looks like it might go down to the wire, the trick is not too peak too soon and certainly not to peak too late. To get to the right place at the right time, humility helps. Picture Jesus’ masterful entry on a donkey.
7. Wrap it in love. If there is an Achilles heel for either of our current candidates, this is it. The incumbent stands aloof; the challenger wrote off 47% of the electorate (a stumble for which he is now finally working to make amends).
Look to the example of Jesus. When arrested, Peter showed momentary bravery by slicing off the ear of the of the high priests servant. Jesus healed the ear. When crucified, Jesus prayed that God would “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And after resurrection, to whom did Jesus pay special attention? To Mary Magdalene who had ventured to attend him, to Peter who had betrayed him, to Thomas who doubted him.
Will either of our candidates show this type of caring? Look for the candidate who will be gentle and magnanimous, whether in victory or defeat.
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