Friday, October 31, 2008

To Vote or Not to Vote, Part VIII: Epilogue (or: Why If We Were All a Little More Like Wendell Berry, I Wouldn't Mind One Bit)

Chris Wiginton chides me: "Dude, just vote already. What are you a communist?"

What Chris doesn't know is that right now I am like Saturday Night Live: every day my relevance is ticking down to extinction. Who wants to talk about the election, and thus voting, after the fact? I've got to get it all in now!

So, I offer some (truly final) thoughts, less analytical and more pondering. In particular I want to talk about example. After this (monster of a) post, though, we will await Tuesday, then get this voting stuff out of our system. Deal?

(EDIT: See Parts I, Temptation, II, III, IV, Excursus, V, VI, VII.)

First, a handful of immediately recent events and articles offer a fascinating case study of how thoroughly Christians can confuse their language and understanding of discipleship.

This past week James Dobson released a "Letter from 2012 in Obama's America," detailing just how screwed up the next four years will be from a "future" Christian's perspective, if Obama is elected.

The kind of rhetoric on display is filthy. I won't rehash previous diatribes against this very kind of slander, but it is utterly reprehensible. Both Dobson and Obama are confessed, baptized, believing followers of Jesus. They are brothers in Christ. And this is somehow acceptable!

Jim Wallis does a better job than I can do of dismantling this decidedly unChristian act. He calls upon Dobson to apologize, to recognize and accept younger non-conservative Christians for what they are: Christians who happen to disagree with Dobson. Not sharing the political philosophy of James Dobson, and to vote accordingly, does not disqualify one's Christian identity or membership in the church! Nor does it necessarily lead to (what Dobson perceives as) a world utterly at odds with both God and the church's values.

(I would also want to remind Dobson that in accepting the call to follow Jesus, Christians give up the right to rule the world. If America were to become exactly what he prophesies in four years, then it will be what it will be. We are called to follow Jesus as a communal alternative to the world, not to gather as much power as possible in order to make the world look as "churchly" as possible. That does not deny the implementation of justice or the leavening of the gospel -- may all nations and all peoples of the earth learn to love their enemies, serve the poor, have faithful marriages, keep their babies, steward God's creation, care for one another, worship God -- but rather to remind ourselves that the church is not a power-wielding weapon in the hands of God. The church is God's people set apart, a community embodying God's kingdom come in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the suffering savior. The church is not America!)

So, that is one confused Christian option. There is another, ably exhibited by an article written by Zambian activist Lawrence Temfwe, entitled "An International Challenge for Christians to Vote." The bland title does not match the zealous intensity of the article itself.

Temfwe compares not voting to Jonah refusing Yahweh's call to prophesy repentance to Ninevah and instead cowardly jumping on a ship for Tarshish to escape God. This story is near to my heart -- as seen by its thematic centering for this blog, at the top of the right column -- so using this analogy strikes an especially brutal blow. His words: "There is no reason for you to be a citizen of this country if you perform neither civic nor sacred duties." Also: "Voting is required of every Christian because God demands of us to seek the peace and prosperity of our country as well as any other nation we may be living in at any particular time." And finally: "If we don’t vote and we don’t preach repentance to our politicians, we show that we don’t love our country or care for justice, peace, and godly prosperity."

As George Will would say: Well. Quite the claims made there, especially in the context of the conversation we've been having on this blog.

First, let us recognize that Temfwe is speaking from his context in Zambia. I don't know the context there, and one gets the feeling reading his article that there is great Christian malaise vis a vis voting. I understand that he may be coming from a place of great apathy and feels the need to address it as bluntly and forthrightly as possible.

A "however" was planned here, setting up a diatribe against Temfwe's message and tone. However, after reading over what I wrote, my wife shared that I sounded hypocritical, denouncing him while decrying such dismissive language. And you know what? She's right.

But that leaves us seemingly without a leg to stand on. I find Temfwe's article -- particularly his tone, but also his message -- to be inappropriate for Christian discourse. At the same time, I realize that I make claims all the time on this very blog without biblical/theological support each and every time -- that would be nonsensical and unreadable. I can't expect everyone who writes or speaks on serious issues to endlessly qualify their claims. At the same time, I do want to challenge the kind of message Temfwe represents: I don't get the feeling that he thinks there is another way. He may be right, but what kind of language can we use as Christians to allow for others to disagree, without lessening our own convictions? That is, how can we refuse the temptation to systematically disallow others' viewpoints without always saying, "But I could be wrong..."?

I'm not sure, so allow my criticism to be brief: I don't believe Temfwe's claims can be substantiated by Scripture, and his rhetoric seems dismissive of people's very right to be citizens of a country if they have chosen not to vote. I believe it is possible to honor the good intentions of others as well as their identity as citizens even if their voting habits (including choosing not to vote) are different than one's own. Finally, one gets the impression that Temfwe is less arguing for than polemicizing against -- Christians are apathetic or dazed or cynical, and need a call to arms. I understand that. But let us always remember to season our convictions and our language with the salt of hospitality, for some have, to to speak, hosted angelic arguments and not known it.

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In contrast, a wonderful example for us to consider is Shane Claiborne. On the same website, posted at approximately the same time as Temfwe's, Claiborne has an article up entitled "Voting as Damage Control." In it he seeks to do a better job in 1,000 words than what I have done in 10,000 in this interminable series. And he succeeds.

You really should read the entirety of the article, but I will share a few parts I found helpful. Having recently written a book called Jesus for President, Claiborne seeks to answer (in his own way) the question he is addressed daily: How are you voting? His response is what I have been attempting to articulate over the past two months.

First, he says, Jesus was "too slick" to get attached to any political camp; so should Christians. His entire Jesus for President tour has been about provoking imaginative kingdom responses and discussion, not telling people what to think or do or whom to vote for (as, he says, the Religious Right in America has unfortunately done over the years). He then confesses the difficulty he has, and shares with other Christians, of voting for the Commander-in-Chief of the greatest military in the world; of wanting to write in "Jesus" on one's ballot (and if so, being ready to live lives worthy of such a decision); of imperfect decisions and complex situations so nearly impossible to disentangle.

He offers a healthy suggestion: to listen to the poor and how they plan to vote, and to act accordingly. Similarly, to listen to people of color, largely oppressed for centuries, and to submit to their witness in the voting box would be an act of faithful solidarity.

He concludes by presenting voting as damage control, less voting for "good" than against "bad." More important, though, is taking up the unending cause of prophetically calling upon whomever becomes President -- and his Cabinet, Congress, the judiciary, all political leaders and all people of power and influence in society -- to embrace and embody and enact the upside-down values of God's kingdom come in Christ: love for the enemy, blessing for the poor, welcome for the stranger. On November 5th, Shane Claiborne -- and I, and all others -- will be able to answer, "How did you vote?" but more importantly, the good, hard work of bringing God's kingdom to bear upon the earth as it is in heaven will remain for Christians to take up together for the world.

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So much, yet no mention so far of Wendell Berry, whose name graces the title of this post! Briefly, I want to mention a few names that did not come up in our series proper, yet deserve to be mentioned and stand as worthy critiques of my (admittedly ambiguous) concluding thoughts.

First is Cornel West, about whom I have little to say because I just began his book Democracy Matters. However, I know a bit about him and about his position, so I should mention it. Essentially, he represents the Christian democratic position. I believe he is a Christian as well as a democratic socialist, and one of the most influential and respected African-American intellectuals in the nation. He argues vigorously for the priority and preference of democracy, even in all its messiness, for proper and healthy governance inasmuch as democracy also names the flourishing of open dialogue and free thought jousting healthfully in the public square. I am currently reading him as an alternative to Stanley Hauerwas's take on democratic liberalism, so we will see.

Second, I want to mention Richard John Neuhaus, though I know even less about him. I know that he is a Catholic, that he started his own periodical publication (Religion in the Public Square, I believe), that he has made inroads between evangelicals and Catholics, that he argues powerfully for the necessity of the religious perspective in government, and that he (I think) thus believes democratic participation, at all levels, to be laudible and fitting for Christians in America. I will get to him soon enough.

Third, ACU's very own Wendell Willis. Willis is a New Testament professor who specializes in Paul, and at a forum a few years ago shared that while he has little interest himself in voting, he votes to honor his parents and previous generations who sacrificed a great deal, including their lives, for the right to vote. While I do not think it ends the argument, it is a powerful statement about what it means to remember and honor the dead in submissive gratitude.

Fourth is Jeffrey Stout, professor of religion at Princeton. I believe that Stout is not a Christian, but argues against the positions of Hauerwas, MacIntyre, and Milbank that democracy is itself a tradition coherent enough to sustain both society and societal discourse. Furthermore, he argues for all religious convictions to be profoundly involved and displayed in democratic discourse, rather than relegated to the sidelines or made subservient to national identity. (This is what I understand his position to be; I'm only seeking to mention arguments different from my own, so please forgive me if I'm wrong.)

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Finally, we have the man himself, Mr. Wendell Berry.

Berry is a farmer in Kentucky, born and raised there, and has lived there on his family farm with his wife for more than 40 years now. He is also a writer of fiction, essays, and poetry. He is a Christian, an agrarian, and a pacifist, and, as heir to the tradition of Jefferson, Emerson, and Whitman, a fierce defender and preacher of those things so strived for in that democratic experiment called America: self-sufficiency, neighborliness, community, freedom, good work, family, care of the land. Everything he writes is suffused with such values, so that unsurprisingly -- though paradoxically according to today's understanding -- the man calls himself a patriot.

I discovered Wendell Berry -- it is difficult for me to call him "Berry," even to remove the "Mr." -- on my honeymoon. I read a bit on the plane ride there, read a few pages through the week, then on the plane ride back ... read without ceasing because I was so enthralled. I felt like my eyes were being opened, and I was seeing the world in an entirely new way. It felt similar to reading Lee Camp's Mere Discipleship in Uganda the summer of 2006, when I was first introduced to the work and influence of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. Behold, everything is new!

I nearly finished the book then, and since have been devouring his work. I will wait to catalogue and share all of that for another day, but suffice it to say that Wendell Berry changed my worldview forever. (My wife may or may not call him my lover. In our first year of marriage! That can't be good.) He may speak from a different vantage point, we may have disagreements, but to read Wendell Berry is to read something for which the only word adequate to describe it is true.

However, as Berry is not ecclesiocentric -- he is more agrarian/community-centric -- I do not necessarily share his perspective fully. For Wendell Berry, democracy names the wonderful, wild, engaging, complex, and worthy form of government, and social interaction, that must and ought to be maintained, supported, and grown by each subsequent generation. Thus, beginning with his farm and local community then moving outward from it, Berry is wholly committed to his place, in all of the various and sundry forms of democratic involvement available. He desires and utilizes all of the freedoms afforded him, and like a good prophet, though he stands in the wilderness decrying the corruptions of the country he loves, there is not a doubt in my mind he would die for it.

So. Obviously, Wendell Berry votes. That is not where I arrived, nor where I find myself at the moment. I would love to have a conversation with him about his understanding of the church and its calling. But!

In the words of a friend, I would be a damn fool to think I know more than Wendell Berry.

The man is in his 70s and has lived, breathed, worked a farm, buried friends, raised children, fought for the environment, fought for civil rights, fought for social justice, been married for close to 50 years, read more books than I can imagine -- has, as the Old Testament would say, lived a good long life -- in this world and in this country to such a profound and honorable extent, that I simply have no ground upon which to stand in the face of his extraordinary example. All of my arguments melt away before a man like him -- and, I might add, before a great many other men and women whose arguments are their lives, whose convictions tell a true story. Right now, after so many words spilled and so much thought expended -- so much serious consideration given to a serious subject -- I want to recognize that, in truth, all of my academic posturing is no match for such models, and rightly so.

That is why, though our arguments and positions on voting are decidedly dissimilar, if no one listened to me, and instead everyone was more like Wendell Berry, I wouldn't mind one bit.


  1. Brad, Tim from God's Politics. Your rebuke is well received for the tone of my post and has come from fellow Sojo staff already. I just read several of your posts and appreciate the thoughtfulness and care with which you are treating the question. I’d appreciate hearing more of your thoughts.

    The underlying premise of my argument comes out of the phenomenological work of Emmanuel Levinas. When asked about the starting point for all philosophy (theology), he broke with his mentors (Heidegger and Husserl) and claimed not ontology but ethics. That the starting point for all of our thought should come from our responsibility to the “other.” (I believe it was Totality and Infinity that gives the best treatment of this.)

    I have applied this idea to voting in a simple, pragmatic way. Could I look at one of the 48 million people who does not have health care in the eye and tell them I am not voting? What about to the black voters in Florida who are all ready experiencing intimidation? I just saw Congressman John Lewis last week at a conference, could I look him in the eye and tell him I wasn’t voting? What would be the reason I would give?

    Could you clarify for me the meaning of your post? Do you mean that it is not a properly Christian vocation to be President or that once one has sworn primary allegiance to their country they could no longer be a Christian because being a Christian necessitates a primary allegiance to Christ?

    You can email me at tking at sojo dot net

    I appreciate your thoughts and consideration.

  2. I read your post, and I could not help but be incredibly disturbed by your characterization of Dobson's words as "slander" of a sort that is "utterly reprehensible." Dobson's article was largely based in factual articulations on policy promises Obama has already made regarding the institution of FOCA, his selection of justices for the Supreme Court, his statements on dealings with Iran, and other policy and legislative proposals that are a matter of public record. Many, in fact, are directly from Obama himself. When we simply hold leaders accountable, even Senator Obama, for the things they have actually promised to do, what is slanderous in that?

    Let us keep in mind that it is not only the poor who are victims in this country. How many of us have forgotten the plight of the full term child, who can be ripped limb from limb within a mother's womb with the legal imprimatur of the law? How many of us have forgotten that it is only because of an Act of Congress banning partial birth abortion, that it is no longer legal for a doctor to stab a fully delivered child (except for the head), in the back of the neck with a pair of scissors before sucking its brain out? How many of us have realized that Obama has pledged to repeal the very act that prevents this?

    A world in which these atrocities do not happen is a world that both Christ, and Dobson, would surely approve of. There are many ways to help the poor, and people believe in different national policies for accomplishing such goals. If the Church is not to be a power wielding weapon in the hands of God, surely it is not our duty to impose our beliefs that others relinquish their money to help the poor. I am sure you would disagree with this statement, but to say otherwise is intellectually inconsistent. I must say, I have enjoyed reading your posts. However, on this point, I believe you are in error.