Yesterday, for the second consecutive time since I became an eligible voter, I declined to participate in the elections. Two years ago, in the presidential election, I abstained for the first time with much deliberation and thought, turmoil over my reasons for not voting and feeling pressured to vote by others. This time, to be honest, I never really even gave it a second thought. I didn’t once entertain the thought of actually voting, due in part because I’m registered to vote in North Carolina and wouldn’t have known exactly where to begin to change the registration, and in part because I dealt with the majority of my moral dilemmas two years ago and feel pretty comfortable with my reasoning.
I, like others who are not just apathetic but purposefully choose to not vote, have received varying amounts of criticism. I can’t speak for other people, but I will offer my reasons for not voting and why some of the typical persuasive arguments that say I should vote don’t really do much to dissuade me.
I am a Christian who happens to live Babylon, familiarly known as the United States. I’m not American, though technically I am a citizen here. It sounds odd to say, almost choosing to ignore facts. Most people would say I’m American. But if we regard the Scriptures, Philippians tells us that those who confess Jesus as Lord are citizens of heaven. Not merely an ethereal place, heaven is God’s kingdom, and as Jesus prays, it is coming to earth. Those who have made their allegiance to Jesus the king have no other king, emperor, or president (this is the entire pretense of Jesus for President). The Revelation of St. John makes it disturbingly clear that collusion with empire is a recipe for disaster for the believer. The writer makes it clear: “‘Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). We would do well to let Revelation inform our political involvement!
Frankly, I think the strong message of Revelation alone is nearly enough to be as near a prohibition of political involvement as there could be in the New Testament. The rest of the NT sets up the church as an conspiracy to undermine the prevailing kingdoms by subverting their corrupt systems and means; it’s an ongoing embodiment of the now-and-future reality that the world is being put to rights through the mustard seed revolution of Jesus Christ.
But, the church has hopped in bed with empire, and Christians in the U.S. find themselves (at least view themselves) in a very different position than their brothers and sisters 2000 years ago. We live in a society with a democracy that has the potential to do real good through the government (see my post below about how both so-called conservative and liberal divisions of Christianity both use this same argument), real work for God’s kingdom, so the argument goes. Whether it’s saving lost souls or giving health insurance to millions, the government can do God’s will, so we must vote for those who will help God’s will be done most effectively, according to whatever your version of God’s will is. On top of this, still others add, people have died to bring the vote to African Americans (or women), what kind of “privilege” are you flashing by throwing this history and struggle to the side (and the way some folks have dealt with that is to give their vote away to populations that in the past have been denied it)? Voting is a right, a blessing, a privilege!
The above paragraph is a sampling of what people usually say in defense of voting (other things include, “It’s your civic (also known as “civil religious”)duty,”). Hopefully, careful consideration of what I think the Bible has to say to us about participation will at least show that I don’t discard voting glibly or without thought to what I’m doing. If I don’t consider myself American, then it makes sense that I wouldn’t vote, right?
[I will here insert a caveat that I do distinguish between national elections/participation and local politics, specifically politics below state level like Mayor or city council. This is not hypocrisy, but respect for the argument that people make which says that no matter where you place your allegiance, you still live here and are affected by what happens. That I have a driver’s license, I used to have a library card, went to public schools etc. is testimony to that. While I think voting/participating in local elections should be done thoughtfully, it seems to me that they are much closer to communities. I am for local communities and neighborhoods working together, pooling their resources. But, I do not believe in voting for the emperor or his attendants, be they black, white, male or female.]
Yet of all the arguments for voting, often the most convicting and persuasive one (in my eyes, at least) is that specifically in the African American community voting was such a hard-won victory, and came at the cost of many lives, to not vote or even disagree with voting overall, is an insult to that struggle. I have a deep respect for that struggle and that point, and know many other white folks for whom that’s enough for them to keep voting or to give someone else a “second” vote. But I wonder if that argument takes for granted a few things and misses perhaps the deeper meaning behind the black fight for voting rights, at least from a Christian perspective.
First, it seems to me that the underlying meaning in the voting rights campaigns (and indeed all of the Civil Rights movement) was a demand to be looked at simply as human by others. Courageous black folk refused to be treated as less than the creations they were made to be, and in a society where voting was used to further such oppression, organizing folks to vote was saying, “Look me in the eyes.” While there was a strong push for national equality, the battlefield of this quest to be regarded with dignity was in lunchrooms and buses. In my opinion, the Civil Rights marches and nonviolent actions were the epitome of personalism, Peter Maurin’s catchphrase. Each march was specific to the town or area that was affected. So, to reduce the martyrdom of many beautiful souls to having fought merely for voting rights is not honoring of the holistic picture of what was going on. Even if they didn’t see themselves as such, we are able to read the deeper and broader meanings of what they were part of.
Another problem is that today the vote is often a tool to manipulate black folk. The “black vote” is simply another voting bloc that politicians have to appease in order to keep their office. And especially in national elections, appeasement is merely shallow rhetoric. That African Americans can now vote no longer assures that they will be regarded any better than before; they’ve been swept into the masses of people whom the politicians lie to without a second thought. What is it exactly about the vote today that has any real connection to what people really struggled for decades ago? Does voting really help black folks succeed in life in a way that is honoring to an understanding of an upside-down kingdom (or really right side up) that Jesus brings? (Note again the caveat above; I’m speaking mostly of national elections, yes even the one where Obama won)
I am white, it’s true, so I do not have a family history of the importance of voting, but I think this argument ignores the complexities both of what was fought for in the middle of this century and of the reality of life in the U.S. today.
To one final argument for voting: folks who (rightly) are concerned about health care, the poor, and immigration who say that such large-scale things need government control and we should vote to influence them for good. While I certainly won’t say no to the government trying to do some good for people through social services, I recall Jesus giving his disciples the command to clothe the naked, house the stranger, and care for the sick. This has been and always will be the church’s call and when we give it to the government to do (or not to), we shirk our responsibility as Christians and shouldn’t be surprised when it’s an utter failure. It’s an uphill battle, but it is within the church’s grasp to do the good it usually commands the government to do. There are enough Christians to house all the homeless people in the U.S. Christians have certainly got enough resources to pool them better for health care, or to welcome and protect immigrants. The failure is the imagination of the church, not the government.
In the end it comes down to faith, having enough faith to “come out of her” and pour ourselves into the lives of service God makes possible. Matthew 6 assures us that God made enough for all of us, we just need to do a little better at sharing. Certainly Christians ought to be able to begin to do that. If we believe that power, God’s power, is expressed most truly in the weakness of Christ’s death, then should we be worried that God cannot make much of our small efforts? I respect people who choose to vote, but I would hope people can acknowledge that it is the ultimate in weakness to trust to Babylon’s domain that which God has entrusted the Church to do.
I have many other thoughts, but that gets the bulk of them down about why I choose not to vote. I’m curious to hear other opinions–why vote? If you don’t vote, why not?