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When It’s Time to Stare Down the Elephant

I climbed into an open vehicle for a night safari with about 15 other people one evening in Kruger National Park in South Africa.

For the first two hours, we saw nothing except for a glimpse of the uninspiring backside of a hippo. But then we spotted two small elephants close to the road on the right and quickly came to a stop.

Every face was turned as we snapped pictures and felt fortunate to be that close to the animals.

All of the sudden, we heard a blood-curdling screech from the other side. Every head pivoted to see a massive mother elephant emerging from the brush and rushing our vehicle with other elephants close behind her.

We had split the herd as they were crossing the road. Everyone in our vehicle screamed as the car lurched forward and the elephant rolled left to pursue us.

I was in the back seat of the vehicle, helpless and terrified, totally powerless to do anything about our situation.

The huge head of the elephant loomed just a few feet away, barreling toward us like a bull, ears flapping and trunk swinging wildly.

The guide gunned the engine with the elephant in pursuit. Thankfully, as we pulled farther ahead, the animal eventually turned back to her babies. Then the guide did something strange: He stopped the car.

We watched the elephant comfort her babies, occasionally pawing the ground in our direction. We had narrowly escaped, and now the driver was inviting a second brush with danger.

We urged him to move on. He calmly told us that only once in his 25 years of guiding safaris had an elephant struck one of his vehicles, and that with only a glancing brush.

That story represents what many of us in America feel: caught in the middle. We feel powerless, stuck in the back seat with someone else driving, in a direction we don’t want to go.

Anand Giridharadas of The International New York Times said, “If anything unites America in this fractious moment, it is a widespread sentiment that power is somewhere other than where you are.”

In his essay, “Is There Too Much or Too Little Democracy in America?” Michael Lind cites a survey by the RAND Corp. that reports that the single factor that best predicts voter support for Donald Trump among likely Republican voters.

It’s not income, education, race, gender or attitudes toward Muslims or immigrants. The single greatest predictor is agreement with the statement, “people like me don’t have any say.”

Those who feel like their power is threatened or has already been taken choose a range of responses. Some retreat. Some become cynical and bitter.

And some fight back, even though they’re not even sure where to place their anger. They give into the politics of polarization, where there are only winners and losers, enemies and friends.

But perhaps there is a better posture. Like our guide with the elephant, perhaps there’s room to face the climate of hopelessness and powerlessness without giving in or giving up.

How are we to respond to the politics of division and polarization? Here are three suggestions:

1. Christians can seize this moment to embrace a more egalitarian approach to politics and congregational life.

Like Jesus, we need to take seriously those who feel like they have no power as well as those who have historically been kept from the table of decision-making.

Who feels disenfranchised? Why do they feel neglected or unheard? If our churches can’t honor the marginalized, we have little hope to dissuade them from angry and divisive attitudes and responses.

2. Christians can respond by becoming more prayerful.

Prayer has always been the muscular response of the people of God to crisis. We can pray for our neighbors and our country.

If we feel powerless, rather than ranting and pointing fingers, we can pray. In prayer, we discover more power than we thought we had.

3. Christians can become more active.

Tired of divisive politics? Now is the time to gather people together across racial and ideological lines.

Dialogue is good, but a specific kind of talk is necessary. We need to talk about the past. How do others perceive history? Where do others perceive injustice, then and now?

Now is the time for tangible and symbolic acts of service together. The antidote to powerlessness is to get moving and create some powerful inertia in a positive direction that will last long after the screams of a political rally die down.

We don’t have to stay stuck in the back seat, powerless and terrified. We are travelers with Jesus who faced the worst this world could give, stared it down and transformed the world. We have a guide who is not afraid.

Brent McDougal is senior pastor of Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. A version of this article first appeared on Cliff Temple’s blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @BrentMcDougal.