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.

- - - - - - -

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.

- - - - - - -

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.)

- - - - - - -

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.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

To Vote or Not to Vote, Part VII: A Brotherly Response

My brother Garrett commented on my concluding post to our voting series (I have a sneaking suspicion this blog is Garrett's and my secret way of having overblown and unending theological arguments over long distance):

"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?"

An excellent correction.

Garrett is right to point out that it is our actions, not our intentions, that are right or wrong. Of course, books have been written explicating the extent to which that statement must be nuanced, modified, or enhanced, but the gist is true. If I lie to you intending to save you from some difficulty I envision if the truth were spoken, my good intentions do not mask the fact that I am not telling the truth. If I kill you because you are a burden to society, my intent to alleviate society does not make the action right. (Then, of course, we have arguments that to lie to the Nazis in order to secretly house Anne Frank is justified; and similar, though different, arguments for killing in self-defense or for reasons of justice.)

In this case, we are indeed talking about an action: voting in the Presidential election in one week. There is nothing to nuance about such a concrete action: we may or may not do it, it is ultimately our choice as individuals, and the action is either right or wrong.

On the other hand, as Christians we believe less in being "right" than in being good (having character like God's character), and in being faithful (living up to God's calling in Christ). Thus, not only what we do, but how and why we do it, it enormously important.

What I intended to do in this series, implicitly as much as explicitly, was twofold: 1) make the discussion, even more so than the conclusion, primary; and 2) argue the ethics of voting from a different vantage point than is usually done. I believe the former goal came out more than the latter.

From the different vantage point I was hoping to ask four questions: What are we doing when we vote? What kind of people does voting form us to be? What issues bear on whether Christians can or ought to vote? How should Christians (the church) go about discerning whether to vote?

My ultimate response to whether Christians "ought" or "ought not" to vote is that I can find no definitive answer, scriptural or theological, that points in either direction for American Christians at this point in time. That is, I find great moral ambiguity in the question, and thus cannot prescribe for all Christians "the" answer. I do believe there to be a number of issues with "an" answer, but at this point, I do not see one for the issue of voting.

Therefore, my conclusion in the last post was that I see viable options for Christians on both sides of the debate, but only insofar as the reason is legitimate. Such a claim sounds as if each individual Christian in America must have the time and patience and resources to walk through all of the arguments we laid out. That is certainly not what I mean.

What I mean is this: there are, most certainly, ways to vote that are antithetical to Christian discipleship. For example, voting against Obama because he is black, or against McCain because all Republicans are evil. Less extreme examples would be voting for the candidate most likely to secure long-lasting American power in the world, or against any candidate who would lessen the load of the poor.

Taking the next step, there are also arguments for and against (but especially for), widespread in their popularity, that do not stand up. An example would be the claim that it is a Christian duty to vote. No, actually, it is not. It may be wise for Christians to vote, it may be something from which Christians ought to abstain, but it is not a duty.

Evaluating the best arguments I could summon both ways, I found myself unable to conclude decisively on one side or the other. Thus I left it open for Christian discernment, having ruled out certain arguments and ways of going about it (namely, unquestioningly) I concluded were inappropriate for serious Christian discipleship.

Back to the implicit questions, though. They can be summed up in this single formulation: Residing in a democratic context, what kind of people is the church called to be, and is voting conducive to that communal calling?

My answer is that I simply do not have the wisdom or conviction to plant my feet for the church on either side. Instead, as in so many complex questions of character and context, let the church be the church: wise, messy, communal, Spirit-led, concrete, ragtag, discerning, peaceable, contextual, faithful to its story, and, finally, unburdened by the need to know its members' decisions are always right. God's mercy, as in all things, will prevail.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Catching Up On Books

Seemingly endless homework (oh, the joys of grad school) precludes focusing much time on one book more than others as well as plenty of non-school reading that I'd love to be doing. (I can't seem to fix that sentence.) So, while normally I'd like to be providing adequate, full reviews for the great books I am plowing through, in the circumstances I thought I would do a quick catch-up. I'll run through everything since mid-August, around when school started.

(Key: FS = "for school"; FF = "for fun".)

Cross-Shattered Christ by Stanley Hauerwas (FF) -- A small book of a series of sermons Hauerwas delivered on Christ's last seven words from the cross, complete with an artist's sparse artistic renderings of each word. Trademark Hauerwas, but less academic and more ecclesial (in context, not substance -- I'm not sure if Hauerwas could be more ecclesial).

All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (FF) -- This was Katelin's and my first book to read together, and we're hoping to read through the whole Borter Trilogy together once time affords the opportunity. A story about two young friends in the 1950s who head south into Mexico and find all sorts of trouble awaiting them. I've read No Country For Old Men and plan to read The Road next month. I thought this one was great, but for whatever reason it didn't enthrall me the way No Country did. McCarthy's bare prose is always an asset, but sometimes hard to crack. Don't get me wrong: I'd still recommend it, but I wasn't utterly blown away. (Probably a case of too high expectations.)

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (FF) -- I listened to this one on audiobook, which was a fantastic experience. So much of Chabon's style is theatricality and verbosity, and listening only enhanced those aspects. As my first Chabon novel, he fully won me over. If you don't know, this won the Pulitzer for fiction when it came out, wholly deservingly so. It's a fictional account of the birth of comics in the 30s and 40s, infused with a thousand different winks and nods to what really happened, and spans decades and continents and generations. Funny, engaging, tangible characters, imaginative and sprawling story. The week I finished it I went out and bought a used copy just to read it again.

A Peculiar People by Rodney Clapp (FF) -- A new career goal of mine is to eventually publish a book on Rodney Clapp's publishing company Brazos Press, simply due to the quality of the books they put out and the vision presented in this book. They just need to reissue it with a more appealing cover -- I probably delayed reading this book for months solely due to how unappealing the front is. The inside, however, is a joy. Its subtitle details the content nicely: "Church as culture in a post-Christian society." Clapp has drunk deeply at the wonderful wells of Yoder and Hauerwas, alongside boundary-breaking cross-discipline readings, and the result is superb, while remaining readable for the average churchgoer usually uninterested with theology.

Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson (FF) -- Yes! My favorite book and its recent companion. I wrote briefly about Gilead here, and never got around to reviewing Home. Better that way anyway, because there's no reason to spoil a word. Just buy them and love them, and then help me in petitioning the government to intervene and force Marilynne Robinson to churn out one book per year. This is necessary. (Mike Cope is soon writing about Home on his blog, so I will link there when he does.)

Intimacy and Mission by Luther Smith (FS) -- I read this for my Urban Ministries class with Dr. Luther Smith, the author. The book is an account of five different intentional Christian communities: Koinonia in Americus, Georgia; Sojourners in Washington, D.C.; Church of the Messiah in Detroit; Patchwork in Evansville, Indiana; and Voice of Calvary in Jackson, Mississippi. (I am reporting this by memory, so if I confused cities and groups, forgive me.) Smith draws from interviews and time spent with persons in each community conclusions, reflections, and challenges for both the institutional church and intentional communities. Anyone spurred on by books like Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution to live in intentional community ought to read this book; it also has valuable insights for those in "regular" churches, specifically for how to engage one's neighborhood in transforming presence and service.

Chutes and Ladders by Katherine Newman (FS) -- Also for Urban Ministries, this is a sociologist's exploration of the low-wage labor market through relationships with minority correspondents in Harlem from the early 1990s, through the Clinton years, into the beginning of Bush's time in office (which means, through the "end" of the welfare state). This is a thick book, but supremely helpful in painting a realistic picture of the reality on the ground, over time, for poor minorities born into a place like Harlem. Too many numbers for me, but otherwise an even-handed presentation of the successes and failings of the working poor, and the too-often impossibility of the system.

Rachel and Her Children by Jonathan Kozol (FS) -- If Chutes is the by-the-numbers analysis (even through personal stories), Kozol's account of the plight of the homeless in the late 1980s is the grab-you-by-the-neck, shake-you-around, throw-you-in-the-gutter, plant-your-face-in-the-muck poetic/theological narrative version. Wholly depressing, wholly human, filled to the brim with tears, blood, anger, and courage, Kozol is a prophet crying out in the wilderness. Anyone who reads this blog shares my privilege, and would do well to be shaken out of their malaise by such a prophet. I know I was.

Writing in the Dust by Rowan Williams (FF) -- Brief but powerful reflections on 9/11 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was teaching at a local parish just a few blocks away when the towers were hit. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Political sanity, theological humaneness, hospitable vision from a cousin across the pond.

Ongoing: Theological Introduction to the Old Testament by Walter Brueggemann, David Peterson, Terence Fretheim, Bruce Birch (FS); Introduction to the Hebrew Bible by John Collins (FS); Women's Bible Commentary edited by Carol Newsom (FS) -- I'm in the middle of all of these, and will be finishing them by May of next year (when OT is completed). The first is wonderful and my kind of book by four of the best OT scholars alive; the second has become the bane of my reading existence (I have an upcoming post springboarding off Collins' approach in order to make broader conclusions for the life of the church); and the third is an excellent collection of feminist takes on each book of the Bible, not always for me, but then, that is the point. Learning to listen to historically silenced voices is never a mistake.

In the midst: Beyond Homelessness by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh (FS); Democracy Matters by Cornel West (FF); A Better Hope by Stanley Hauerwas (FF) -- The first is looking to be a profound account of what it means to be homeless in the West in the 21st century: socioeconomic homelessness (people without shelter or stability in daily life) and cultural homelessness (the "postmodern nomad" who knows no place as home). Drawing on favorites of mine like Wendell Berry and Walter Brueggemann, they talk about modern American culture engendering placelessness as a norm, an idea opposed to the homemaking creator God who both provides a place for humans in creation and himself dwells in an emplaced body in first century Palestine. I chose this book for a literature review for Urban Ministries, and it is fantastic.

The second is Cornel West's plea in 2004 for an emboldened and revitalized democracy in American politics. I'm reading it as a kind of similarly-spirited but substantively different Christian account of American democracy than that of Stanley Hauerwas, who has influences me so much in my understanding of the church and the state in America. We will see how West does.

Speaking of Hauerwas, I am about halfway done with A Better Hope, subtitled "Resources for a church confronting capitalism, democracy, and postmodernity." It is exactly that, and, as always, thought-provoking and disagreeably formative. Always a pleasure.

Audiobook: Night by Elie Wiesel (FF) -- I never read Night in high school, so I'm listening to it while shelving in the library. No words of mine need be added to such a work.

Upcoming: Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan (FF); The Road by Cormac McCarthy (FF); Watership Down by Richard Adams (FF); A Community of Character by Stanley Hauerwas (FF); The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry (FF) -- I'd hope to have this read by Thanksgiving, but I'll be lucky to have them done by the end of 2008.

One other book: The Brothers K by David James Duncan, if it weren't so ginormous, would be at the top of my stack right now. Has anyone read this? Should it be number one in spite of its behemoth size? Give me feedback, give me reasons. It's tough to commit to 700 pages in the midst of papers, reports, and midterms. Convince me.

Apart from that, feel free to make any other burning recommendations you have. Christmas is coming and there's nothing quite like a new used book.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Wendell Berry

I decided I will start writing a brief snippet about the poems I post every Sunday. (For any newcomers, every Sunday I post a favorite poem or set of lyrics as well as a poem of my own.)

Today is the second poem I've done from Wendell Berry, who has been one of the biggest influences on my life and my theology over the past year. As a farmer in Kentucky he writes fiction, essays, and poetry, all of which are outstanding. He has a tendency to write things that actually dismantle me physically.

This is one of the most powerful poems I have ever read. The first line of the second-to-last stanza felt like a punch to the gut ... in a positive way. What a charge, what a blessing, what a claim. In a world of escalating and seemingly endless religious violence, I hope it blesses you as well.

- - - - - - -

Now you know the worst

By Wendell Berry

To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin

Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,

for I know that you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know

there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.

But remember:
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine

though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.

You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light. It will be

the light of those who have suffered
for peace. It will be
your light.

- - - - - - -

Sunny Fascism

We breathe as enemies of all,
of life lived whole, of nature round,
of hospitality. Descent
is pettiness, and listening –
if luck prevails – is marked up, down
to wholesale. Retail, though, demands
obedience to forces bent
exactly thus, for comfort’s sake,
success’s sake, for Market’s sake.

Compassion we reserve in times
of bust, for whom does Market have
in time of need? Without end, home,
or genealogy, alone
and destitute, a beggar with
a bottomless banking account,
and hungry from devouring
democracy, still hungry, mind
not manners, decency, for he
cannot be blamed. In innocence
conceived, our sunny fascism
walks, crawls, rampages here and there,
drawn inescapably by scent
to size, to stamping out the scaled,
the local, human, sane: the earth.

We smile and drink and watch and drift
away, in currents self-made, praised,
and coddled. Babel names the place,
is baby’s babble, scatters wide
the net, destruction leaves behind,
and saunters off to new conquest.

Friday, October 24, 2008

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

I
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.
II

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.
III

"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.

IV

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.

V

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.

Monday, October 20, 2008

To Vote or Not to Vote, Part V: Evaluating Christian Arguments Against

All right, let's get down to business. We're winding down our series on whether Christians ought to vote in the American Presidential election (See Parts I, II, III, IV, and Excursus.) Let's jump right in.

1. The American political system is broken. The parties aren't substantively different, everything is partisan, nothing is uncorrupted, elections are market-driven product advertising wars, and a vote either way only confounds the problem. Christians have better things to do than encouraging a once-great but now defunct form of democratic involvement.

Few disagree with the sentiments voiced here; the question is whether they inherently entail not voting. Apathy is understandable in such a situation, but shouldn't be encouraged. As I see it, a broken system means one of three things: 1) fixable; 2) unfixable; 3) imperfect reality to accept and engage. The system's brokenness in itself does not necessarily lead to option 2, thus this argument does not work.

2. There is no form of political involvement, including voting, in which violence and coercion are not implicated. Insofar as Christians are called to nonviolence, they should reject any and all systems of governance constituted on the maintenance of order through violence. Not only that, but the very form of politicking so pervasive today -- commercials, debates, stump speeches, etc. -- are so undeniably coercive that to involve oneself in them is to choose infection in a fallen, violent, irredeemable system unbeholden to anything properly Christian.

This is one step beyond number 1, though it assumes Christian nonviolence. The idea is less the brokenness of the system than the overwhelming systemic violence implicated in the very acts of campaigning and voting. That may sound like an overwrought claim, but think about the ways in which campaigns engage in violence (covert and overt): threats against foreign nations; threats against certain classes of people; promises to do X or Y (regardless of consequences); squabbles between supporters of each. (Let us pause here to reflect on the potential rioting if Obama does not win in two weeks; this is real!) As for voting, just read about all of the accusations against ACORN in the media; regardless of the merits of the claims, there are undeniably numerous groups on both sides of the aisle who engage in mass propaganda and dishonest voting drives, and what election goes by without whispers of voter fraud or minority disenfranchisement? Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 are concrete examples of places where one side or the other (or both) claims the other illegally tampered with voting.

Having said all of that, once again we find ourselves with the question: are our standards the ideal of a perfect world, or the messy reality of lived life? There are likely smoother and less questionable elections in other nations around the world, but probably not many. Though worthy thoughts to reflect upon (and a situation to improve), this argument likewise does not stand up.

3. Neither party is Christian, and because Christians could only faithfully vote for a candidate wholly representing Christian priorities, voting is not a viable option. We might call this the purist position: if there isn't a candidate who fully represents the church -- or even, who isn't Jesus himself -- and we know that could never be the case, then we ought not to, and indeed know we can never, vote. Supporting evidence may be found in the first century church's use of kyrios (Lord) as a title for Jesus: in the Roman Empire, only Caesar was kyrios (kyrios kaiser); however, the central Christian confession was kyrios iesous: Jesus is Lord alone. Thus, in America, no man or woman is truly President: Jesus alone is truly President.

Although this is not where I end up, and I don't think it ought to be "the" answer to our question, I do see it as a faithful and honorable choice for Christians in America. Shane Claiborne, author of Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President, seems likely to be in this spot. Members of the Anabaptist tradition may also include themselves here, though for other reasons as well. To humbly accept whatever/whomever rules over the state as that which God has appointed, and then to get about the serious business of God's kingdom coming on the earth as it is in heaven through his people the church -- it would be fine by me if Christians adopted such a coherent stance.

However, as it is, I don't find the argument itself compelling, inasmuch as all leaders in all areas of life (including and especially the church!) are imperfect and don't represent pure "Christian" priorities.

4. Neither party is in any substantial way different from the other; what meaning could it have to vote for either? Choosing between Republican and Democrat in 21st century America isn't exactly similar to choosing between apartheid and Mandela. Both owe their corporate sponsors backdoor promises, both are beholden to their rabid bases, both believe in American exceptionalism, both employ war as a means to further American interests, both must compromise any original positive vision. What is the point?

This argument is pervasive as another example of apathy. Its main difference, though, seems to be an openness to a future in which an option exists that is not wholly compromised or equivalent to the other(s). Though the equivalence claim is somewhat true, the parties remain different (an Obama or McCain administration will not look identical!). Furthermore, this argument has nothing to do with being a Christian, merely the difficulty of making a choice in a broken system, which we addressed above -- and to which I believe both sides shout: Just pick (us) already!

5. The Enlightenment experiment of the liberal democratic nation-state has failed; the only proper response for anyone, especially Christians, is protest, and what better way to protest the insanity of the state than by not voting? I have not read Alasdair MacIntyre, but as I understand it, he (and possibly John Milbank) represents something like this position. I won't get into the esoteric details; essentially, the idea is that the roots of what is today assumed to be natural about "the state" are in fact contrary to Christian faith and practice -- for example, being the captain of one's own soul; radical individualism; unfettered capitalism; centralized violence as means of maintaining the dominance of the state; a lack of any communal grounding story; religions being "free" to practice their faiths as long as they are not a threat to the state. As such a state has been wedded with uncritical religious endorsement, Christians must protest such governance through numerous forms, including not voting.

Mark Love has a fantastic post up about his support for Obama in which, for different reasons and in different ways, he outlines similar incongruities between America, as a product of the Enlightenment, and the disciplines, virtues, and worldview of the church. Mark's response is to vote for the candidate he deems more inclined to the church's perspective; this argument's response is to not vote as an act of protest.

One of the hardest choices to assess is that of a non-vote as protest. What does it mean to protest by not doing something? Nonviolence is visible in concrete practices of peace, in nonviolent activism, in suffering for good. Not voting is difficult to discern as an intelligible sign of protest.

Now, if it is understood as a faithful act regardless of effect or visibility, that is a different issue (one we will address below). However, as far as the argument goes, my honest feelings are twofold: 1) the argument is so academic that it is hard to make relevant for everyday life, and 2) what society on earth, at any point in history, could not be assailed with similar conclusions? Thus, while the argument itself may be true, the injustice of a form of government, inasmuch as all forms of government entail injustice, is not a convincing argument against voting.

6. Apart from all other reasons, any viable Presidential candidate is willing to order violence to settle conflicts; quite simply, this is unacceptable for Christians, and they cannot in good conscience vote for any such candidate. God's peace has come in Jesus Christ, and his Lordship over all the earth entails the submission of all nations (and their leaders) to his peaceful order. Christians simply cannot endorse or install in office someone willing to kill others by their word. Thus, in this and any other election without a realistic pacifist option, Christians ought not to vote.

Hands down, this is one of the very strongest arguments against Christians voting. I encountered it fully in a book review by Lauren Winner in an issue of Sojourners Magazine, and it struck me down with its hard simplicity. For pacifist Christians (who, I realize, make up a tiny minority of the American church) this seems like a dealbreaker. How could we?

Winner responds in a remarkable and creative way, one that does not necessarily dismantle the argument so much as reorient the way we approach the question. She replies that she is sympathetic to such a stance, but that it (like so many other American approches to Christian practice) ultimately gives in to the cultural mindset that "we" (the American voting public) not only control the course of human history, but know the future as well, such that when we vote for candidates A or B, we "know" what we are getting with either. In the face of such a view, Winner clarifies for us that, in fact, we do not know the first thing about what will happen. Electing candidate B over candidate A may, in fact, insure a future devoid of war -- as far as we know. Our arrogance in assuming we know the future for either option exchanges God's sovereignty for our own, and forsakes the Lordship of Christ. We simply do not know, and voting can be one act which holds potential for a more peaceable, albeit unknown, future.

In that wonderful tension I will leave the discussion for you to further wrestle.

7. Voting seduces Christians into the democratic assumption that governmental politics is both the central unifying identity of an otherwise disjointed people and the primary way in which problems are solved; that is, voting subtly entices Christians to forget the power of God and the calling of the church. Like the foreign gods always leading Israel astray, the ability to vote eventually leads Christians to believe that their priority in life, over against faithful discipleship, is the democratic avenues of activism. Moreover, the state takes over the role of church as God's sovereign instrument of justice, order, peace, and change in the world. To the charge that if Christians want to be "realistic" they must engage in the (admittedly compromised) politics of the nation available to them, this argument would say that the church is itself an alternative politics in no need of validation by the world's understanding of what it means to be political.

Stanley Hauerwas has influenced me deeply in this regard, and his book After Christendom exemplifies this position. Because Hauerwas votes, and because the argument (and his work) is less a cry to refuse voting/participation so much as a call to renewed faithfulness and identity, I don't think this will be the winner.

However, it is an altogether necessary reminder for the church in America to remember what God has called it to be. The United States of America is not God's people, nor his instrument of justice in the world, nor his means of salvation, nor even especially prized or favored or better than any other nation on the planet or in history. America's democratic form of government, and the subsequent expectation of involvement through voting and activism and public service, has proven a mighty seduction to Christians of all stripes and colors, and we forget our true calling and identity when we assume that the "we" of America is more determinative than the "we" of the church. So let us remember with Hauerwas that the church is alone God's people -- the church as the transnational body of Christ, which knows neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male and female.

8. Top-down influence through power is not how God has called the church to be in the world; insofar as voting is the exemplification of such top-down influence, Christians cannot participate in it. Many of these arguments have similar themes and may seem equivalent, but this one in particular is indeed separate. It is not concerned to say that X or Y issue is primary, or that voting has this or that effect, or that Christians can't per se be in office. Rather, government policy is simply not the way modeled by Jesus, and Christians ought to act accordingly. Christians must accept the New Testament teaching that, while ordained by God to maintain order, the state is pagan; it is not the means through which God is redeeming the world. Thus, regardless of the context in which Christians find themselves -- monarchy, dictatorship, communist, capitalist, democracy -- their vocation is clear and binding: be the church. The state will be the state, but its policies and its doings and its leaders are not the business of the church. (Sidenote: Stanley Hauerwas does vote -- "bad habits are hard to break" -- but his influence as a whole is present throughout most of this post, and especially in this and the previous argument.)

I associated number 3 above with the Anabaptist tradition, but I think its members would also subscribe to 8-10 as well. As I state at the end, echoes of Hauerwas resound here. This is probably not too dissimilar from number 7 (how I wanted to make 10 full arguments!). It is different, particularly in its reminder about power and the ways in which the church leavens society, but it probably speaks more to the role of Christians in government than the role of Christians in voting in government.

The operative word remains: remember. The church must remember that its work -- and God's -- will not have either failed or been accomplished on Wednesday, November 5th. That is in fact the day when the church can move on from the chaos of an election in which so many fall prey to the lie that the state will provide salvation, and go about its God-given business of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and so on. Those things no administration has the power to solve.

9. Due to the unacceptably low standards to which any legitimate (=electable) Presidential candidate must stoop in order to bash the opponent and win, no Christians can win modeling faithful Christian life; thus Christians cannot vote for any self-professing Christian. Few would argue that Presidential elections do not debase themselves in immoral, compromised, potentially corrupt, un-Christian practices that harm the name of Jesus in the process. Just look at the current race: all four candidates (President and VP) are confessing Christians who are murdering one another in a public forum. Can we even imagine the letter Paul would write to such a situation, especially one in which Christians accept this as reality? "Why not rather be wronged?" This is the reality: two Christian men, John McCain and Barack Obama, are vilifying each other, and have been for months, in order to become the most powerful man in the entire world, in order to lead the most powerful nation in the world, with plans each deems manifestly different from the other's; and Christians will be so divided in their votes for each Christian that, for the most part, they will be unable to peaceably discuss their differences of opinion with one another, to the extent that their local churches will largely be comprised of people who support one man or the other. At any time, in any place, this is an acceptable situation for the church?

(It really is absurd how each question gets longer and longer; it's actually just a plot to make my posts seem more substantial than they really are.)

When I first began to write this argument, it wasn't one that personally affected me, but after finishing and re-reading it, I found myself overcome with sadness. The final question is sincerely from my heart: How can this ever be acceptable for God's people? Last Thursday night the candidates attended the same event and light-heartedly roasted one another and themselves, and it was a slight blip on an otherwise malicious, ugly, regrettable couple of months.

Again, we have to retrain ourselves to think differently: when Sarah Palin, a confessing Christian, incites a crowd with the line that Barack Obama, Palin's brother in Christ (as a fellow confessing Christian), is "palling around with terrorists," whom does she think she is talking about? A real terrorist? An evil man? Just a political opponent? A good man with whom she happens to disagree?

Any one of those options is not good enough for that kind of rhetoric, if we are to be followers of Jesus. If we really believe the gospel, and Palin and Obama both claim to be believers, then this kind of conduct is categorically unacceptable. What would happen if their respective churches were to discipline them as a community for treating a brother or sister in Christ as an enemy? ("Enemy" being my only option here, though Christians are called especially to love their enemies. Even worse!) That kind of situation is utterly unimaginable in an American context precisely because we have so succumbed to the cultural "fact" that Presidential opponents slander each other. If they "happen" to be Christians, then I guess it's just "politics as usual."

No! No, no, no. Christians cannot simply do "politics as usual." If "politics as usual" entails unfaithfulness to God's calling in Christ -- which, by the way, is a decidedly unusual politics -- then there is only one option: noninvolvement. Allow me to repeat: any job description in which unfaithfulness is a requisite for involvement, Christians simply cannot participate. I see no other available option.

I will leave for you to decide the implications for voting.

10. In discipleship to Jesus of Nazareth -- suffering savior, Messiah of Israel, and crucified Lord of the earth -- every Christian is called to allegiance to God's kingdom alone as well as to pacifism; because the office of the Presidency in America demands swearing an oath of allegiance to the nation -- specifically to defend the Constitution, a document utterly unrelated to Christian faith or practice -- which entails the role of military Commander-in-Chief, it is inappropriate for any Christian, as a follower of Jesus, to run for or accept the Presidency: thus, no Christian ought to vote for a Christian running for the American Presidency. This is a complicated argument built on a worldview and biblical readings difficult and contentious for Christians in America. I don't know where John Howard Yoder stood on the actual issue of voting, but I am taking the substance of this argument directly from what I have learned from him (particularly in Discipleship as Political Responsibility, which is fleshed out more broadly in The Christian Witness to the State). The very fact that it is hard to imagine two American Christians in disagreement discussing this argument without coming to blows is itself a blow to the witness of the church in America in our time. Can this position be something other than heresy? Can we as Christians discuss it without accusing one another of motivations we cannot know? Can we raise the problem without being condemned? I believe the answer can be, is, and must be an emphatic yes. We will attempt to do just that in the final two posts of this series.

I needn't elaborate much on this final argument. It should be obvious from the length, detail, and passion with which I wrote it that this is smack dab where I currently reside, where I have been wrestling for some time now. I have yet to come across a person or argument that dissuades me; honestly, I haven't seen or heard much at all that even directly addresses the issue. It seems so simple, but I realize why it remains unaddressed: the appropriateness of a Christian serving as President is not a question on almost anyone's mind in America. Should it be? I think so. Will it be anytime soon? I haven't a clue.

My only comment is that, historically, in situations where humanity could not imagine another way -- in our case, a non-Christian running for President, much less that being the norm -- God has always managed to surprise. And we cannot be a people devoid of the prophetic imagination that enables us to see a world totally new, a world recreated by God's wonderful imagination, yet for now unseen. That is the vision God grants in his Son and by his Spirit, and that is the vision we must seek, foster, and practice in order to be Christ's transforming body in the world.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Sufjan Stevens

Vito's Ordination Song

by Sufjan Stevens

I always knew you
In your mother's arms

I have called your name:

I've an idea
Placed in your mind
To be a better man

I've made a crown
For you
Put it in your room

And when the bridegroom comes
There will be noise
There will be glad
And a perfect bed

And when you write a poem
I know the words
I know the sounds
Before you write it down

When you wear your clothes
I wear them too
I wear your shoes
And your jacket too

I always knew you
In your mother's arms

I have called you son:

I've made amends
Between father and son
Or if you haven't one

Rest in my arms
Sleep in my bed
There's a design
To what I did and said

Rest in my arms
Sleep in my bed
There's a design
To what I did and said

- - - - - - -

Tohu Va Vohu

Out of traffic like swarming insects
I ask you to call me, for you are silent
Non-idol of a world of intangibility
Cars are guns are people losing it
Cars are ships speeding between islands
The sea is black and blasphemous
A concrete abominable to the land and to God
The sea feeds fisticuffs and insanity
The highway sprouts yellow stability
The highway gives order found nowhere else
The air is toxic enemy, ready-made replaceable
There are teeth over the rail -- grass, and life
There is wilderness growing untamed there
The clouds will be reigned in soon enough
One day when fruition equals human achievement
One day when maturity means perpetual adolescence
The vagrants are enemy combatants, collateral damage
The dirty don't know what's best, they are expendable
Our transports soon will sport smart bombs and GPS
They will be machines of war and perfect
They will insure our never being late
They will guarantee no randomness or gift
They will be our slaves, and we will have evolved
The chip will guide and we will drink
Ourselves to a death kept at bay
Indefinitely by clever drugs and by fear
In this way war will be eternal, and we too

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Voting Excursus: On Christian Convictions and Gracious Disagreement

A brief note as we wind down, over the next week, our series on whether or not Christians ought to vote. (I say "we." Who is we? Make yourselves known, readers!) I realized in writing the last post how exasperatingly partisan such a discussion is. I as the writer can present any argument I choose, in the precise way that I choose -- as if I don't already have a dog in the fight! And some of the propositions and arguments presented are such doggedly divisive issues that I wanted a peaceable disclaimer before we continue.

Christians cannot hate each other. Yet through words or actions, Christians often do hate each other. In a society as polarized as any in the world, Christians must be a people who model peaceable conflict. I am speaking on a macro level, but, as Wendell Berry would remind us, big problems will never be solved by big solutions; big solutions are usually the cause of big problems. The only answer can be local: you and I, on the ground, living as neighbors of the same community, working out the hard mundane realities of daily life through the small works of mercy that make such life possible and good.

Thus, I am not asking for "the" church in America -- millions of racially and socioeconomically diverse people belonging to innumerable denominations -- to "just get along." I am asking that in our conversations with friends and enemies alike, day to day, and in "virtual" conversations such as on this blog, we be gracious to one another. I have mentioned hospitality before; hospitality is not merely casseroles at church (though it certainly is that!). It is providing and maintaining and endlessly generating the space for people who are different and who disagree to be in relationship with one another. And that is a primary calling for the church today.

So when we talk about something as contentious as voting, or politics, or violence, or patriotism, let's remember that calling. The world has never been anything other than pluralistic; we've merely not noticed or named it until recently. Israel lived in a land of other gods, and the church arose in the great empire of Rome. God's people are called in the midst of their context and are expected to have deeply rooted convictions with which neighbors will disagree. Not only that, but we have been given in Scripture a witness to the ways in which God's people ought to go about disagreement "in the family." Some of the names we have been given for such disagreement are confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace. We confess our sins to God and to one another; as God has forgiven us in Christ, so in Christ we forgive one another; as we have been reconciled to God through Christ, so we have been reconciled to one another through Christ; just as God, in his great love, has shown his grace to us in Christ, so we are gracious to one another. This is how God calls his people to act: as I am gracious, so you are to be gracious; as I forgive, you forgive.

Therefore we remember that it is okay to disagree. How could we not! A conflict-free marriage would be disastrous -- are these people, or robots? Or even between humans and God -- the relationship offered between Israel and Yahweh in the Old Testament is one of disputation, disagreement, wrestling, not impersonal piety or mindlessness. Read the Psalms! God seems able to handle the worst that we have to offer, even to invite it, because he wants all of us.

So in community we learn to practice dispute divorced from hostility. That is, we learn to forgive. We learn not to question others' motives or character. We learn to see others as human beings, made in the image of God, persons for whom Christ died. We learn to allow their arguments and convictions to be worthwhile, honorable, respectable. We learn to love them for all of their beliefs, good or bad or naive or overwrought. We learn to be in relationship without needing down-the-line agreement.

We learn to be hospitable.

Even so, we learn to listen with an open mind without abandoning our own deep convictions. I am a pacifist, my neighbor a just warrior; can we be friends? brothers? fellow Christians? Can we sit in the same pew together, pray together, live together? Can we discuss politics and war and church and the Bible without killing each other? That may sound like hyperbole, but it is the historical record of the church. We kill each other for such disagreements, and lesser ones.

So in a world where religious violence, on all levels, threatens order and peace, can we be God's peaceable people? In small ways, in local ways, on the ground and with our neighbors, can we disagree on serious matters with grace? Can we speak, and listen, and be in relationship, without forfeiting our convictions?

That is my question, my call, and my request for us as we continue.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

To Vote or Not to Vote, Part IV: Christian Arguments Against

We have summited, and now we begin the downward slope, in our series on whether American Christians ought to vote in the upcoming (or any other) Presidential election. Part I laid out the problem with a number of links representing multiple positions. Part II put forward ten arguments in favor of Christians voting, and Part III evaluated the quality of those arguments. This post will present arguments against, Part V will evaluate those arguments, and Part VI will offer preliminary conclusions, reflections, and principles. Let's begin the opposing case.

(Reminder: I am doing my best to present each of these arguments, as with the last batch, as honestly and forcefully as possible. If some of the language is strong, or seems overwrought, or even insulting, remember that these are not necessarily my views. I am trying to present arguments against Christians voting that I know of by word of mouth or reading, just as I did for Christians voting. In the next post I will take apart plenty of these formulations as well. That is, don't get riled up just yet.)

1. The American political system is broken. The parties aren't substantively different, everything is partisan, nothing is uncorrupted, elections are market-driven product advertising wars, and a vote either way only confounds the problem. Christians have better things to do than encouraging a once-great but now defunct form of democratic involvement.

2. There is no form of political involvement, including voting, in which violence and coercion are not implicated. Insofar as Christians are called to nonviolence, they should reject any and all systems of governance constituted on the maintenance of order through violence. Not only that, but the very form of politicking so pervasive today -- commercials, debates, stump speeches, etc. -- are so undeniably coercive that to involve oneself in them is to choose infection in a fallen, violent, irredeemable system unbeholden to anything properly Christian.

3. Neither party is Christian, and because Christians could only faithfully vote for a candidate wholly representing Christian priorities, voting is not a viable option. We might call this the purist position: if there isn't a candidate who fully represents the church -- or even, who isn't Jesus himself -- and we know that could never be the case, then we ought not to, and indeed know we can never, vote. Supporting evidence may be found in the first century church's use of kyrios (Lord) as a title for Jesus: in the Roman Empire, only Caesar was kyrios (kyrios kaiser); however, the central Christian confession was kyrios iesous: Jesus is Lord alone. Thus, in America, no man or woman is truly President: Jesus alone is truly President.

4. Neither party is in any substantial way different from the other; what meaning could it have to vote for either? Choosing between Republican and Democrat in 21st century America isn't exactly similar to choosing between apartheid and Mandela. Both owe their corporate sponsors backdoor promises, both are beholden to their rabid bases, both believe in American exceptionalism, both employ war as a means to further American interests, both must compromise any original positive vision. What is the point?

5. The Enlightenment experiment of the liberal democratic nation-state has failed; the only proper response for anyone, especially Christians, is protest, and what better way to protest the insanity of the state than by not voting? I have not read Alasdair MacIntyre, but as I understand it, he (and possibly John Milbank) represents something like this position. I won't get into the esoteric details; essentially, the idea is that the roots of what is today assumed to be natural about "the state" are in fact contrary to Christian faith and practice -- for example, being the captain of one's own soul; radical individualism; unfettered capitalism; centralized violence as means of maintaining the dominance of the state; a lack of any communal grounding story; religions being "free" to practice their faiths as long as they are not a threat to the state. As such a state has been wedded with uncritical religious endorsement, Christians must protest such governance through numerous forms, including not voting.

6. Apart from all other reasons, any viable Presidential candidate is willing to order violence to settle conflicts; quite simply, this is unacceptable for Christians, and they cannot in good conscience vote for any such candidate. God's peace has come in Jesus Christ, and his Lordship over all the earth entails the submission of all nations (and their leaders) to his peaceful order. Christians simply cannot endorse or install in office someone willing to kill others by their word. Thus, in this and any other election without a realistic pacifist option, Christians ought not to vote.

7. Voting seduces Christians into the democratic assumption that governmental politics is both the central unifying identity of an otherwise disjointed people and the primary way in which problems are solved; that is, voting subtly entices Christians to forget the power of God and the calling of the church. Like the foreign gods always leading Israel astray, the ability to vote eventually leads Christians to believe that their priority in life, over against faithful discipleship, is the democratic avenues of activism. Moreover, the state takes over the role of church as God's sovereign instrument of justice, order, peace, and change in the world. To the charge that if Christians want to be "realistic" they must engage in the (admittedly compromised) politics of the nation available to them, this argument would say that the church is itself an alternative politics in no need of validation by the world's understanding of what it means to be political.

8. Top-down influence through power is not how God has called the church to be in the world; insofar as voting is the exemplification of such top-down influence, Christians cannot participate in it. Many of these arguments have similar themes and may seem equivalent, but this one in particular is indeed separate. It is not concerned to say that X or Y issue is primary, or that voting has this or that effect, or that Christians can't per se be in office. Rather, government policy is simply not the way modeled by Jesus, and Christians ought to act accordingly. Christians must accept the New Testament teaching that, while ordained by God to maintain order, the state is pagan; it is not the means through which God is redeeming the world. Thus, regardless of the context in which Christians find themselves -- monarchy, dictatorship, communist, capitalist, democracy -- their vocation is clear and binding: be the church. The state will be the state, but its policies and its doings and its leaders are not the business of the church. (Sidenote: Stanley Hauerwas does vote -- "bad habits are hard to break" -- but his influence as a whole is present throughout most of this post, and especially in this and the previous argument.)

9. Due to the unacceptably low standards to which any legitimate (=electable) Presidential candidate must stoop in order to bash the opponent and win, no Christians can win modeling faithful Christian life; thus Christians cannot vote for any self-professing Christian. Few would argue that Presidential elections do not debase themselves in immoral, compromised, potentially corrupt, un-Christian practices that harm the name of Jesus in the process. Just look at the current race: all four candidates (President and VP) are confessing Christians who are murdering one another in a public forum. Can we even imagine the letter Paul would write to such a situation, especially one in which Christians accept this as reality? "Why not rather be wronged?" This is the reality: two Christian men, John McCain and Barack Obama, are vilifying each other, and have been for months, in order to become the most powerful man in the entire world, in order to lead the most powerful nation in the world, with plans each deems manifestly different from the other's; and Christians will be so divided in their votes for each Christian that, for the most part, they will be unable to peaceably discuss their differences of opinion with one another, to the extent that their local churches will largely be comprised of people who support one man or the other. At any time, in any place, this is an acceptable situation for the church?

10. In discipleship to Jesus of Nazareth -- suffering savior, Messiah of Israel, and crucified Lord of the earth -- every Christian is called to allegiance to God's kingdom alone as well as to pacifism; because the office of the Presidency in America demands swearing an oath of allegiance to the nation -- specifically to defend the Constitution, a document utterly unrelated to Christian faith or practice -- which entails the role of military Commander-in-Chief, it is inappropriate for any Christian, as a follower of Jesus, to run for or accept the Presidency: thus, no Christian ought to vote for a Christian running for the American Presidency. This is a complicated argument built on a worldview and biblical readings difficult and contentious for Christians in America. I don't know where John Howard Yoder stood on the actual issue of voting, but I am taking the substance of this argument directly from what I have learned from him (particularly in Discipleship as Political Responsibility, which is fleshed out more broadly in The Christian Witness to the State). The very fact that it is hard to imagine two American Christians in disagreement discussing this argument without coming to blows is itself a blow to the witness of the church in America in our time. Can this position be something other than heresy? Can we as Christians discuss it without accusing one another of motivations we cannot know? Can we raise the problem without being condemned? I believe the answer can be, is, and must be an emphatic yes. We will attempt to do just that in the final two posts of this series.

Monday, October 13, 2008

And Now For Some Fun: Predictions for the Upcoming 2008-2009 NBA Season

The best time of the year begins at the end of April (annually coinciding almost to the day on my wife's birthday): the NBA Playoffs. The second best happens at the end of October (just before Halloween): the beginning of the NBA season. That time is upon us, and in the midst of a bitterly divisive election, a burgeoning economic crisis, the reality of war, the prevalance of poverty, suffering and sickness, the daily grind of making ends meet -- sometimes the best balm, albeit temporary, is the welcome joy that attends unabashed, communal superfluity.

Like basketball.

America's greatest love at the moment is football, professional and college alike. America's pasttime is baseball, and the Major League playoffs are alive and peaking at this point. Even basketball fans seem to abide by an understood creed called the "Only College Basketball Is Worth Watching, If At All, Because The Pros Are Selfish Jerks Who Don't Play Team Ball" Rule.

Well, I am, along with Bill Simmons, my wife and immediate family, and about 16 other people in America, an unashamed and full-fledged NBA fan. I love the NBA and always have. I will save my arguments for its superiority over against college ball for another day. Suffice it to say, Late October through mid-June is, in my house, one thing and one thing only: basketball season.

I'm not just a general fan; I have a team. Their esteemed name is the San Antonio Spurs. I am biased beyond belief, but it is hard not to be when your team is the envy of every other major professional sports organization in the nation. Four titles in nine years, looking to make that five in ten this season, once and for all establishing the Duncan Era as one of the great dynasties of NBA history.

Which leads me to the upcoming 2008-2009 season. Opening night is Tuesday, October 28th (although the Spurs' first game is the following night), and I thought I would give my predictions for the season. Sports predictions are akin to best-of lists: worthless expositories of unknowable, unprovable, utterly personal qualifications of the best, worst, and in between. And I love it!

So here we go. Feel free to offer your (assumedly less detailed) predictions ih the comments. Go Spurs Go!

Western Conference
1. Los Angeles Lakers (58-24)
2. New Orleans Hornets (56-26)
3. Houston Rockets (54-28)
4. Utah Jazz (50-32)
5. San Antonio Spurs (52-30)
6. Portland Trailblazers (48-34)
7. Phoenix Suns (46-36)
8. Dallas Mavericks (44-38)

9. Denver Nuggets (42-40)
10. Minnesota Timberwolves (34-48)
11. Golden State Warriors (32-50)
12. Los Angeles Clippers (32-50)
13. Memphis Grizzlies (30-52)
14. Sacramento Kings (26-56)
15. OKC Clay Bennett’s Loot (20-62)

Eastern Conference
1. Boston Celtics (60-22)
2. Detroit Pistons (56-26)
3. Cleveland Cavaliers (52-30)
4. Orlando Magic (48-34)
5. Philadelphia 76ers (50-32)
6. Toronto Raptors (48-34)
7. Washington Wizards (40-32)
8. Miami Heat (40-32)

9. New York Knicks (38-44)
10. Chicago Bulls (34-48)
11. Milwaukee Bucks (34-48)
12. Atlanta Hawks (32-50)
13. Indiana Pacers (30-52)
14. Charlotte Bobcats (22-60)
15. New Jersey Nets (20-62)

Western Conference First Round
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Dallas Mavericks (8) in 5 games
New Orleans Hornets (2) over Phoenix Suns (7) in 6 games
Houston Rockets (3) over Portland Trailblazers (6) in 6 games
San Antonio Spurs (5) over Utah Jazz (4) in 6 games

Eastern Conference First Round
Boston Celtics (1) over Miami Heat (8) in 6 games
Detroit Pistons (2) over Washington Wizards (7) in 5 games
Cleveland Cavaliers (3) over Toronto Raptors (6) in 7 games
Philadelphia 76ers (5) over Orlando Magic (4) in 5 games

Western Conference Semifinals
San Antonio Spurs (5) over Los Angeles Lakers (1) in 7 games
Houston Rockets (3) over New Orleans Hornets (2) in 7 games

Eastern Conference Semifinals
Boston Celtics (1) over Philadelphia 76ers (5) in 7 games
Cleveland Cavaliers (3) over Detroit Pistons (2) in 6 games

Western Conference Finals
San Antonio Spurs (5) over Houston Rockets (3) in 6 games

Eastern Conference Finals
Cleveland Cavaliers (3) over Boston Celtics (1) in 7 games

NBA Finals
San Antonio Spurs (5) over Cleveland Cavaliers (3) in 6 games

- - - - - - -

Anticipatory notes in explanation:
  • Yes, I picked the Spurs; yes, they are my team; yes, I actually think this is supremely likely.
  • Yes, I picked the Cavs over the Celtics; yes, I realize this would make for a supremely boring Finals re-match; yes, I actually think this is likely.
  • Yes, I don't name the new Oklahoma City team; scroll to about a third of the way down and read the question from Jack from Seattle, then Bill Simmons' response. My terminology will be similar.
  • Yes, the records aren't reflected in the numbering; those orders are not by record but by playoff seeding, which is strange and nuanced and not worth detailing here for anyone who doesn't know already.
  • Yes, I'm not taking the Lakers seriously enough; this summer's Finals simply did not inspire confidence in their future: Phil Jackson's aging aloofness; Lamar Odom's disappearance in big moments; the team's "chemistry" falling apart the deeper they went in the playoffs; Pau Gasol's growing claim on the title Mr. McWeakerson; and, of course, the incorrigible selfishness of one Kobe Bryant. Now, by adding a young player who, a year ago, had great potential, currently coming off more than eight months of injury rehabilitation, playing the same spot as the beloved trade steal from last year who gained immediate and lasting chemistry with Kobe ... yeah, I'm not sold on their pending dynasty.
  • Yes, I don't take the Suns or Mavs seriously; each are on the downslope. The only X factors are Amare and Dirk, respectively; those two guys are monsters who can change any game. However, they are also known to friends and enemies alike as choke artists. I'll keep hedging my bets on the other guys.
  • Yes, I have the Heat and Knicks at spots 8 and 9 in the East; compared to the unparalleled weakness of the rest of the East, I think it highly likely that a healthy Wade, reinvigorated Marion, new star rookie, and new young coach will carry the Heat to the playoffs; and that Mr. Mike D'Antoni is fully capable of empowering a young team full of talent (however much created by one Isiah Thomas) to winning games. Maybe I'll be dead wrong, but have you seen the other team in the East?
  • Yes, I think the Warrios and Clippers will be vying for the Better With/out Baron Award, ending in a tie. That is possibly my favorite prediction.
  • Yes, all of my wins and losses are mathematically correct; I may or may not have used a complicated, made-up spreadsheet to figure it out. For comparisons, see (Professor) John Hollinger's unprecedented-for-their-level-of-detail, team-by-team predictions.
  • Yes, again, I did choose the Spurs; reasons, you ask? I've got 10: 1) Tim Duncan, hungry and healthy and angry from losing; 2) Tony Parker, coming off an odd year, ready to improve, and likely with a quality backup; 3) Manu Ginobili, while injured through December, will finally have the rest needed to get back to 100%, and a 100% Manu is one of the top five best players in the league; 4) the whole team, fired up from losing in another potential repeat year to a team they should've beat; 5) a host of young, athletic guards ready to shoot and defend their way to dependable backup spots (e.g., George Hill, Roger Mason, Salim Stoudemire, Malik Hairston, Devin Green, Desmon Farmar); 6) a respectable group of young bigs ready for tutelage from Tim Duncan and Kurt Thomas (e.g., Ian Mahinmi, James Gist, Anthony Tolliver, Darryl Watkins); 7) Bruce Bowen's ongoing apprenticeship of Ime Udoka; 8) it's an odd year, stupid!; 9) experience in a conference of athletically inexperienced or experienced unclutch teams; and 10) hands down the best coach in the league, Mr. Gregg Popovich. In Pop we trust.
  • (One more reason? Here you go: Over the past six seasons, if you were to pick the Spurs each year, you would have been on the money 50% of the time. Pretty nice odds, right? Well, each even year in which they lost, it was flukish: 2004 was the Derek Fisher Miracle; 2006 was the Dirk And One; 2008 was the Ginobili Injury. In each year the Spurs were not only the superior team, but would likely have gone on to beat the next opponent (certainly the Pistons and Heat, possibly the Celtics). All that to say, if I were a betting man, my money would not be in great jeopardy with these odds.)