Friday, October 24, 2008

To Vote or Not to Vote, Part VI: Preliminary Conclusions and Reflections

In commenting on the previous post, my brother Garrett said that he was looking forward to the next post "on how to sort all of this out and make a decision."

What a frightening burden for a blog post!

For newcomers, oldtimers, and forgetters, this is the final post (or is it?) to a series exploring the theological grounds for whether American Christians ought to vote in the Presidential election. The first part set the stage; the second listed arguments for Christians voting; the third evaluated those arguments; the fourth listed arguments against Christians voting; the fifth evaluated those arguments. Now we come to preliminary conclusions and reflections.

For the record, I do not come bearing "the" answer for anyone.

What I do have are reflections. As we work together on this issue, let's keep in mind a few things:
1) This ought to be a communal process. While in the end, each of us, as individuals, will make the decision, and will be the only one alone in the booth (or outside of it!), we cannot give into the cultural temptation which tells us that life is atomized, life is autonomous, life is individual. No: we belong to a community that holds us accountable to the way of Jesus. Belonging to such a community -- one in which God's Holy Spirit dwells, guides, forms, and whispers -- involves seeking the wisdom of the community, discussing concrete options, submitting to its authority, and allowing one's sense of atomized individualism to be crucified. So even though ultimately each of us is responsible for decision to vote, this is not merely an individual process.

2) We began with the question of whether Christians ought to vote, not whether they can vote. There are reasons for that framing of the question quite apart from simply making the debate livelier. Essentially, we must recognize that there are daily aspects of our lives which we take for granted that may, in fact, be in need of either transforming or dropping altogether. We don't like the idea that discipleship could be costly (remember Bonhoeffer's polemic against cheap grace), but discipleship involves repentance, and repentance is not some inward feeling of guilt; rather, repentance is embodied turning. Turn from idolatry, from materialism, from militarism, from nationalism, from pornography, from racism, from power, from greed -- and turn to the God of Israel, turn to Jesus, turn to the church, turn to simplicity, turn to fidelity, turn to family, turn to baptism (where there is neither Jew nor Greek), turn to Eucharist (where we remember the crucified Lord), turn to service, turn to peace. So before we ask whether Christians "can" vote -- which implies, again, the individual decision, along with a kind of legalistic "are we allowed to..." mentality -- we must ask whether the rigors of discipleship to Jesus of Nazareth compel us one way or the other.

3) I don't claim postmodernism or pluralism as theological calling cards nearly as much as some friends and teachers, but one of the wonderful lessons to learn from the pluralistic, postmodern context in which we live is that, often, questioning is more important than answering. That is, to have this discussion at all without killing each other is a gospel event. The only reason we can speak peaceably together, holding various viewpoints, is because of Christ. I realize for some such a claim may sound overwrought -- we sometimes think in America that democracy is "the thing" which holds us together -- but remember that we are not so separated from the violence of a world deeply bent in upon itself. Our cities and communities are rampant with violence both inside and outside the home. The peace given to us in Christ, if we truly believe, is not some sort of wish fulfilment where now we feel happy when we once were sad; God's shalom, God's intended wholeness for all of creation, truly did come in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. And that reality is present anytime we choose to be peaceable rather than coercive.

(One more note: I said "questioning" rather than "questions" because it must be an activity, not stale phrases floating through space. This is an event in which we participate together, not black squiggly marks on a page or computer screen which are not read, thought, spoken, argued, discussed, struggled with. This is verbal, not static.)

4) One of the essential objectives of this kind of discussion, which is implicit in the questioning, is that it relatavizes a formerly sacred act. To question voting in America, in some quarters, could be seen as a blasphemous, or traitorous, or unpatriotic, or (at least) unseemly idea. By questioning its validity for Christian practice, we, as the church, state categorically: Democracy is not the sum total of human existence. (That would be God.) Instead, we speak out against the alluring lie that the modern world has "finally" arrived at the end of humanity's long progression through history at "the" answer to all of our problems, and that to question "the" answer is to engage in the lowest form of subterfuge.
In response, we proclaim that God's final and decisive answer to the plight of all of creation (which includes humanity) is the incarnation, ministry, suffering, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and that through his death and resurrection all of creation has been redeemed, the doors of Israel have been flung open to the nations, God's Spirit has descended to dwell in the midst of God's people, and as all of creation waits for the consummation of God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, the church, God's people reconstituted around the Lord Jesus, witnesses to the coming new creation in its life together, in its worship, in its treatment of others. That is God's answer. Because the triune creator God is the Lord of history and of all nations, democracy (as a form of government) is under God's authority and provision, and its pros and cons will be and are used by God for his purposes. But it is not divinely instituted, it is not "the" answer, it is not that to which our allegiance is bound as Christians.

But! I am especially guilty of forgetting that so many of my privileges, freedoms, and assumptions are open to me precisely because I live in a nation which affords me them. I speak freely without fear, I write on an uncensored blog, I attend church without persecution. Those are things to be unequivocally thankful for. I cannot forget it, nor should I. I ought to remember that my ultimate thanks are due God, and that I cannot start to idolatrize my country ... but I should remain thankful, and leave it at that. So let us acknowledge our thanks as well before we go on.

In evaluating arguments for and against Christians voting, there were difficulties on both sides. While I praised the idea of questioning over answering above, and I don't have any "final answer," I also want to critique the popular notion today of "living in the tension" between two polarities. Yes, we live in the midst of conflicting priorities and realities; yes, we must learn to hold both in our mind without one simply kicking the other out; yes, holding them in tension without pronouncing one as ultimate Truth and the other as False is supremely helpful for all people, especially Christians.

However. Sometimes, we just have to make up our minds. It is impossible, unrealistic, foolish, and unChristian to walk around holding every potential polarity in tension in our mind without ever making a decision. I don't mean to caricature the position, but I think it's time the pendulum swing back the other way a bit.

Is Jesus Lord? Yes. Is the church God's people? Yes. Is the Bible our Scripture? Yes. Ought we to serve the poor? Yes.

Was Jesus merely a man? No. Is there nothing after death? No. Should we cheat on our spouses? No. Should we oppress the powerless? No.

Those examples are a bit over the top, but they are truths shared and lived by all Christians (at least I assume so!). But there are also inestimably complex questions to which Christians give various answers:

Should I have an abortion? Should I fight in a war? Should I have so much money? Should I be in this job? Should I attend this church? Should I vote? Should I give this person a ride? Should I pledge allegiance? Should I marry this person? Should I act on these feelings?

To such questions our first response cannot be "Y/N," but rather: Let's talk. And when we talk, as Christians, we talk theologically. We talk scripturally. We do God-talk, Jesus-talk, Spirit-talk. What does it mean to follow Jesus and to get pregnant out of wedlock, or to be conscripted into military service, or to be financially successful, or to live in a democracy, or to consider lifelong marriage? Those are daily, lived realities that the church must not have easy answers to; what we must have, then, is the kind of speech that a) welcomes the asker; b) forms relationship; c) takes the question seriously; d) prays; and e) asks (together in community) how the God revealed in Jesus informs the answer.

And then, as real people living real lives, we make a decision. Good or bad, right or wrong, we make a decision. In prayer we give ourselves to the merciful God who in Christ has forgiven all, and make a decision in the hopeful confidence that the same God who redeems in the cross will redeem all of our imperfect decisions.

"Okay, so, having said all of that," you ask with lessening patience, "where the heck do you actually stand!?"

Good question!

To respond as succinctly as possible (I'll wait for the laughter to die down), here's how I break it down:

Compelling reasons to vote:
  • It is a justifiable good for Christians to participate in an imperfect system by voting, with the hope that such decisions may, in fact, help form society to be more just;
  • No person of racial and socioeconomic privilege can speak from a place of comfort and say "don't vote," and those in oppressive situations call out to all to vote for increased justice;
  • As in all other compromised areas of life, we can and ought to engage our society without putting our hope in a fallen system, and that includes voting.
Compelling reasons not to vote:
  • The violence involved in voting and the Presidency is categorically unacceptable;
  • In voting the church forgets its true calling;
  • Candidates are traditionally Christian, and no Christian can appropriately either campaign (the slandering involved) or be President (the allegiance and violence involved).
I believe that ascribing to any one of these six reasons to vote or not to vote, and acting accordingly, constitutes a faithful act for Christians living in America in 2008.

Let us remember that we are embodied people in a particular context. This conclusion does not describe reasons for or against participating in democratic forms of government in other parts of the world, or anywhere at all at any other point in time. We live in the present, where our feet touch the ground. That is where we live, think, act, and talk together, and while doing this over the internet may make us think we are disembodied, technological trickery is not the axe at the root of soul and body that so many think it is. We are still human beings -- nefesh haya ("living creatures") and imago dei ("made in the image of God"), as Randy Harris would remind us.

So, for example, we are not Germans in the 1930s, or South Africans in the 1990s. It is difficult for me to imagine not voting against Hitler or against apartheid. However, those discussions are for another day, another people, another time. That with which we have to do business is our day, our place, our time.


So, what am I personally going to do?

That is an excellent question, to which I honestly do not have an answer. (Yes, I realize there are 11 days left.) I made sure to register here in Atlanta on time, so that I would have the option when the time came, but right now I just do not know.

My greatest struggle is simple: I do want one of the two candidates to win, as I think the future will look different under each, but I also believe wholeheartedly that neither, as Christians, ought to be running for President.

From here on out I will continue to have discussion with friends, read online and in books, talk with my wife, and pray. And on Tuesday, November 4th, I will step out of my tension and make a decision.

Then, on the morning of Wednesday, November 5th, I will wake up, read who won, think about the next four years, and thank God that he is Lord, that he is good, that he loves his world, and that his generous sovereignty over history and all nations might extend to America in the coming days.


Germane Scripture to guide our thoughts as we leave, and to meditate on, from Psalm 10:16-18; Mark 8:34-35; & Philippians 2:5-11:

Yahweh is King forever and ever;
the nations will perish from his land.
You, Yahweh, hear the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that mere earthly mortals
will never again strike terror.

"Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul?"

Have the same mind in you that was in Jesus the Messiah:

Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave
being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death --
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

1 comment:

  1. Hey man,
    I enjoyed your final observations and comments. However, I'm not sure I agree with your final stance. It seems to me (if I am interpreting you right) that you think as long as people make their decision with the right reason or motive (one of the six you listed), then either act is faithful. That seems to locate the correct Christian action within our motives or reasons for doing something. It seems to me that the action of voting or not voting is the right or wrong thing to do, not the reason behind them. Does that make sense? Did I understand you right?