Electing Not to Vote (2008)

Everything that I believe, especially as what I believe pertains to such issues as my participation in the nation-state and nonviolence, takes root in the cross of Jesus and in my discipleship to Jesus. It is only in the context of discipleship to Jesus that anything that I have to say has any hope of coherence. I would further posit that outside the context of the cross of Jesus and discipleship to Jesus, everything I have to say becomes incoherent (92).

The recent election left me wondering why some people might abstain from voting. Having had Ted Lewis’ book Electing Not to Vote a while, I pulled it off the shelf and read. It, I would suggest, is another one of those books that all Christians should read—simply because it can broaden one’s imagination about politics, solidarity, and action.

The book opens with an essay that suggests five reasons why Christians might not vote. They are

  1. “Not voting in the presidential election might be understood as a practical expression of our pacifist convictions.”
  2. “From the perspective of an Anabaptist Christian, differences among the presidential candidates are illusory.”
  3. “The ‘Constantinian logic’ of voting our faith.”
  4. “The individualism and privacy of voting is in sharp tension with our communal faith.”
  5. “Not voting in national elections may have a symbolic and pedagogical value” (4–8).

The second chapter examines the state’s soteriological mythology, which, in democratic states, transfers divine right from kings to “the people” by way of social contract “and consent to state rule so long as it helps save them from a common evil.” Thus, this mythology is “self-interested” instead of interested in the common good (12).

Next, the author of this essay asserts that this myth is not true. Yoder says that America is governed by elites “whose decisions are not submitted to the people for approval” (Yoder qtd. 14). Thus, participating in national elections, according to the essay, “may actually be adverse to democracy and freedom” (14). He shares the example of Vietnam War protestors, who, when the burned draft cards and demonstrated and boycotted, were allowed to vote. The voting age was lowered, and voters were lured away from direct action and into the voting booth. Meanwhile, the war raged on.

Yoder, then, presents us with an alternative: placing “our energies and focus in the local body of Christ” so that it is seen as the political body to which members are bound (18). And the author writes, “If we take this vision of the church seriously, then communication and nonviolence become the primary criteria (rather than ‘responsibility’ and ‘duty’ to take charge of the state) for Christians to participate in any secular decision-making process” (21).

While the previous chapter undermined the myth of state-as-savior, this chapter undermines the myth of voting-as-voice. Written by the wife of the previous chapter, the two share many themes including the observation that voting makes one passive and that voting does not allow for selection on issues but on people making decisions. “A ballot only has room to affirm prepackaged candidates whose vague plans have been publicized via sound bites, by negative campaign ads, in speeches, and in televised debates” (25). Once made passive participants and silenced, voters can only wait until the next election. But the author here suggests a different way of engagement. She points to the civil rights movement in America and suggests that through imaginative, nonviolent action—especially originating in the black church—African Americans ended much of the oppression whites were inflicting. That they eventually got the vote and became a minority segment of the voting population, the author observes, shows that more strides were made through sit-ins and peaceful marches than through voting booths (36). The church, then, is the vehicle for change because it lives the peaceful world God intends while welcoming all to the table.

The next chapter examines Barth’s participation in denouncing Hitler and his refusal to denounce communists in Russia. The crux of the argument based on Barth’s theology hinges on Barth seeing Christ as prophet, priest, and king. While the state, especially in Hitler’s Germany, assumes those roles for itself, Barth says that in all cases Christ is prophet, priest, and king. Hitler was clearly against the gospel and needed to be resisted (see the Barmen Declaration). However, it is not so clear-cut who the bad guy, so to speak, is. Barth’s later refusal to denounce one ideology over another was not a retreat from politics, but a affirmation that Christ is king.

  1. “In light of Christ’s priestly humiliation, he could not lend his voice to the service of the hegemonic claims of one party or the other.”
  2. “Nor, with a view to the new human status revealed in Jesus’ kingly exaltation, could he participate in Western efforts to evade the call to economic justice implicit in socialist doctrine.”
  3. “Finally, because Christ as Prophet was revealed in history, “Barth understood the Christian mission to entail not only proclaiming the Word but also applying it to the concrete political concerns of the day” (48).

Thus for the author of this chapter, abstaining from voting is social engagement. “It is a testimony to a better way of doing politics and a rebuke against a system that has abandoned its high calling” (49).

The next chapter discusses the Anabaptist and Mennonite notion of two kingdoms (not to be confused with Lutheran two kingdoms). For Anabaptists, God’s kingdom always trumps duties owed to the earthly kingdom of the earthly kingdom claims for itself roles that belong to God alone (e.g., savior of the world). Anabaptists also affirm nonviolence in all actions. Voting then can be understood as favoring the earthly kingdom over God’s as well as involvement in violence because “[i]t would associate us with civil powers in a program we could not be part of or carry out—such as the war machine, the police force, retaliating and bringing vengeance” (Hartzler qtd. 53).

Next the author discusses redistricting, which only establishes certain majority powers in three ways:

  1. Causing “a sharp decline in the number of competitive seats in Congress and in the state legislatures”
  2. Creating “an ideological polarization in American politics”
  3. Showing “leaders of both parities, spurred on by this consolidation of their political muscle, have become all the more aggressive in gerrymandering the districts in their states” (57).

All in all, the author of this chapter views participation in voting as serving mammon. Saying that God does not work through the manipulative ways of presidential (or state/local) politics, the author affirms, “I believe that God is watching us most closely when we stand face-to-face with those who disagree, oppose, or resent us. How do we react? With love or with hate? In God’s way or in the world’s way?” (61).

Skipping chapter 6 for the moment, I move on to chapter 7, written by a Pentecostal Christian, who dives right in. “If voting is inherently violent and coercive, then there is no question that it is not an option for us to use, since Christians are not supposed to coerce or force people to follow our understanding of God’s will” (81). Drawing on Pentecostal tradition (as well as the image of a chessboard, where the bishops are cozy to the royals), he concludes, “I propose that the church be a humble, prophetic, transnational, nonviolent, and Spirit-empowered ethnos who lives and speaks God’s counterintuitive will and way while being on the chessboard but not of the chessboard” (89). This because “[i]f God has a body, we are it” (89).

The next chapter discusses the “folly of not voting.” By narrating his families history in Indonesia and his experience during the Carter administration (i.e., Carter, a Christian, didn’t let his Christianity effect his policy), the author concluded “that the American political system, by its very design, was bigger than any one president. Even if Jesus Christ himself were president, he would still have to wrestle his programs through a divided Congress. . . . [He] also came to realize that what [he] was looking for was not a better political system, but rather a Redeemer” (93).

Thus, he proposed a new way for the church (that is really an old way based on the tradition of Micah). First, the church maintains its identity as the Body of Christ with a certain “disregard for the dominant society” (i.e., without regard for success in society). Next, the church relates to the dominant society  through its identity as Body of Christ—with “steadfast love, right relationships, and humility” (94). Which is to say that Jesus is lord and caesar is not. This, as the opening quote reflects, is only coherent if we take the cross of Jesus and discipleship to him seriously.

The question then becomes one of allegiance; in whom do we place our trust and hope. And for the author of this chapter, “In light of the reality of the age of the kingdom of God, to participate in the processes of the powers of the present age is quite simply incoherent” (100).

Earlier, I skipped chapter 6 because it is written from the Catholic perspective and of special importance to me. I was interested to hear a Catholic theologian argue against voting in light of over-the-top encouragement for it at my parish. For the author, the argument not to vote “begins with the claim that humans are inherently social—meaning that they are inextricably interdependent and thus have positive obligations toward one another that extend beyond the idea of tolerance” (62–63).

Beyond the idea of tolerance.

The notion of self-interested contract then stands in sharp contrast to the idea that we are all linked beyond the idea of tolerance.

First, he nuances Gaudium et Spes, saying that its use of “faithful citizen” to describe duty to act politically “makes it seem as if the conscientious decision not to vote is an act of bad faith” (64). However, “[i]n Catholic teaching, few specific duties are absolute, including voting” (64). The basis for this is the fact that there is a distinction between the city of God and the human city, the eternal law and human law.

He then takes the examples of George W. Bush and John Kerry (who is a Catholic), showing that each of them have policies—both foreign and domestic—that are against the teaching of the gospel. So the author writes

I decided, after much careful deliberation, not to vote in the 2004 presidential election. [Not because] there are no important differences between the candidates. My calculus is a different one: is the distance between Catholic teaching and the candidate nearest to it greater than the distance between the candidates? The candidate closest to Catholic teaching will vary depending on the issue, but almost without exception the gap between the two candidates is less than the distance of either candidate from Catholic teaching (77).

After a quick aside to note that the Electoral College is undemocratic, he asks the question, “what remains of civic obligation” if that civic obligation is not limited (or subsumed) in the act of voting? He answers by advocating solidarity. Namely, solidarity toward the common good.

So he says that there is still an obligation to discern and vote when conscionable in elections at lower levels of government. Additionally, all must contribute to the common good in “nonelectoral ways” (79–80).

Critiquing the “over-the-top encouragement” that I witnessed at my parish, the author writes, “Teach the [Christian] tradition well; then the idea of a “Catholic vote” might mean something more than a demographic that has to be watched by presidential hopefuls” (80).

Ted Lewis then concludes the book with a chapter on “the presidentialdom” of God. Starting with the claim that “[g]ood citizenship involves duties. And we fulfill these duties not for our own sake but for the sake of our nation” (101), Lewis asserts that “[v]oting for political leaders, whether we think about it or not, establishes bonds between people and government in similar ways that religion establishes bonds between people and deities” (103). Is that then problematic.

Lewis says yes. As Jesus’ conversation with Pilate shows, Jesus’s kingdom operates differently. Power does not get leveraged but rather there is trust, even unto death. Thus, Lewis claims that in light of the various refusals Jesus and his disciples make in their own political context, “if voting had been part of the conventional landscape of his day, Jesus and his followers would have not participated in it” (107). This is because Jesus and his disciples represent a new sort of politics, one based on truthfulness and trust and love and hope. The means caesar employs to arrive at an end cannot necessary be the same means employed by the new community of Jesus because in that community means and ends must be in sync with each other.

The trust aspect means that we need not worry about outcomes. God is in control, and, as Sister Julian recently told us, all shall be well. Jesus loved and trusted to the point of death refusing to get involved in the power plays of caesar’s governing style. We must do the same, according to Lewis. In the end, “[a]t a minimum, we will be misunderstood by the majority. . . . [I]f we have the courage to testify to God’s newness through this nonaction, it will be our belief in the power of agape love that leads us to refrain from participating in the conventional forms of power management. This trust in the power of agape love would, to be sure, reflect the nature of our true citizenship” (115).

A solemn calling to be sure.

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