On Not Voting

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?

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7 comments

  1. luke · November 3, 2010

    brian,

    i agree with a lot of your thoughts here. i intentionally chose to abstain this year again for many of the reasons you listed, and others as well.

    i struggle with the idea of “government.” i too believe i am living in a modern day babylon, but not necessarily because of its ruling body. it’s because of the lifestyle and values of the majority of its citizens that creates the culture of babylon. rome may be the better example, specifically because of the allegiance and worship people were expected to give the emperor. so for the early christians to come out of babylon (rome in revelation), it was to deny a false god. certainly “america” and patriotism and civil religion can become a false god for many, but that does not happen through voting or mere participation in the political system.

    laws play a role in the moral temperature of a country, but perhaps primarily on a superficial level. voting to implement a law because its morality better aligns with your view of the bible (for say gay marriage or abortion) may perhaps be more in line with the teachings of Jesus. but the civic law does not truly change behavior (drugs are illegal), and it most certainly does not change hearts–which is what Jesus seems to care much more about.

    still though, i read (or watch “amazing grace”) about william wilberforce and his battles to end the system of the political injustice of slavery in england, long before it was done away with in the states. or about the quakers whose protest against slavery started much of the momentum toward the emancipation, and i wonder if this thing we call government, this system and body of ideas, made up of real people, is not in all occasions to be cast aside. but that’s different from voting for a few political candidates and expecting it to bring about greater good.

    on an entirely different level, i am also thoroughly discouraged and disgusted by our polarized two-party system in america. it is not really a true democracy because as many as 49% of the population really don’t have any voice (and more counting those who don’t vote). their vote is disregarded in the loss of the election. and the sad thing is that people don’t realize that it doesn’t have to look like that. i am much more in favor of a parliamentary system where the percentage of vote received by a particular party is then given representation in the senate. it keeps the emphasis on actual party platforms rather than the cult of personality, and it creates accountability within the parties. it has it’s problems as well, but i would be more likely to vote in that system where there would probably be a candidate/party that more wholly reflects my own views. but that sort of monumental change in system isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and i feel that my energies are much better invested elsewhere where i believe real change can be affected in people’s lives through the holy spirit and the kingdom of God.

    well there are a few thoughts. thanks for the post–i really appreciated it. peace brother.

    luke

  2. brianjgorman · November 4, 2010

    Thanks for your thoughts, Luke! I agree–Revelation’s critique of Babylon is rooted in its culture, so certainly there are other ways in which we need to come out of her. Non-participation has a broad spectrum of applications, but certainly the very political nature of the gospels and Paul’s writing suggests (and I didn’t make this more explicit in my post) that there is something fundamentally at odds between the kingdoms of this world and Christ, which I would say is especially the violence and coercion used.

    I think we can applaud governments for doing something good when it happens. They can serve a purpose, and Christians can invite government to follow the church’s (good) example. But I think the U.S. is in a slightly different position from many other countries–I see it truly as an empire–and therefore its very existence is oppressive to others. Christians must subvert.

    The Wilburforce example is interesting for many reasons; both conservatives and liberals like to cite him as their political hero in order to exclaim why government can be used for good. Certainly we want governments to stop slave trades. But it is entirely possible to speak out and nonviolently act without holding political office (MLK for instance).
    Again, I think it has come down to a failure of imagination by Christians. We receive not because we ask not. I hope for my “no” to voting to mean a “yes” towards working hard at making the God’s dream come alive now.

    Great to hear from you, Luke! hope you’re well!

  3. eric bjorlin · November 4, 2010

    For me, you don’t make a great enough case to NOT vote for those larger elections, especially after you give in to the smaller community voting piece. In the end, government is just a tool to enact things, and no, America is not Heaven, but we’re living IN the U.S. nonetheless. The government is there whether I vote or not, having a huge impact on me and the people around me. Yes, Christians need to step up take action in more communal ways on issues like hunger and homelessness, but to fail to recognize the power of government (for better or worse) is detrimental to the large cause of the Christian restoring Shalom. It’s there, and it’s either going to work for or against me/us, so voting is a way I can attempt to make it work better for me/us (or at least make it operate less against me/us) and I feel inclined to do so.

    Does my voting then validate the government? That would be the point that could possibly be made, but until there begins a movement for anarchy or the reduction of consolidated power of a small few over 300 million people into the kind of sizes you mention (towns, who collectively choose to work together is equals), if I don’t speak up (a little bit) by voting, the evil can only grow a little bit more in the world, and I’m missing out on one way I can help Restore Shalom (as your blog title aptly puts it).

    Voting and stopping is horrible, but as part of a larger engagement I feel called to as a Christian, I still find its importance, no matter the scale of the election.

  4. brianjgorman · November 4, 2010

    Hey Eric,
    I’m not necessarily trying to convince other people not to vote. Like I said, I respect the various reasons why people DO choose to vote, but I’ve chosen not to and here are some of the reasons why. Most people assume that voting is a given or even a mandatory duty for every Christian. I don’t think that’s so, nor do I particularly believe that voting does too much to stop any amount of evil (look who’s financing the campaigns and who are the biggest lobby groups…). In the end, voting or not voting is a small act, and merely that. Too many Christians regard voting as so essential that to not is a grave sin.We should have good reasons why or why not, but I’m not sure convincing others to agree with me is a project I’d ever have the energy for :).

    Hope you’re well!

    Peace,
    Brian

  5. Ric Booth · November 4, 2010

    Hey Brian,

    Very well articulated. I too, have abstained for many of the same reasons. I would go a few steps further on a few points. Regarding “about health care, the poor, and immigration ” I would claim that our, well intentioned and predominately Christian ancestors began a process of delegating the local Church’s responsibilities to the state. I would not advocate reversing any of these state-sponsored programs, but I do advocate making them unnecessary.

    And it is beyond strange that the same country that began with “We the people…” and “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” must also have constitutional amendments that basically add black folk to the category of “people.” This is the real, hard fought battle (that continues even today). Constitutionally, the right to vote existed from the very beginning of the country… but only for people.

    Being recognized as people was (and continues to be) the major battle. Voting is a visible barometer reading in this long battle. Voting rights did not guarantee person-hood status in all communities. However, person-hood status does guarantee voting rights (without the 15th amendment).

    To me, this argument is out-of-focus. The battle was not for equal rights, the battle IS for equality. The former is an easy check mark. The latter is targeting all of our souls. This is so not a voting issue.

    BTW, I love this statement: “But, the church has hopped in bed with empire…”

  6. Ethan · November 7, 2010

    Brian,

    I can completely respect a well-reasoned rationale for not voting. In my mind, it comes down to a decision based on cost-benefit. Voting costs me very little time and effort. I don’t expect a lot out of it, but now for instance I definitely do think that even with all their (many) faults, at least Democrats are pushing for healthcare that really does make a real difference in a lot of peoples’ lives. The Republicans are vowing to reverse it however possible, using their power over purse strings in the House. It just seems ridiculous to me that they keep talking about how they are for the middle class but don’t want to help the lower and middle class people who need health care, and who so often lie about taxes and balancing the budget.

    Politics is surely fallen and cannot reach the depth of the gospel, but there are times when one side is even further in darkness than the other and it is important to at least point to that. I think a lot of the problems you have discussed earlier about Christianity as a whole (i.e. Christians needing to be re-evangelized) are definitely related to the spirituality or lack thereof that is reflected in our politics and voting.

  7. David Alexander · November 20, 2010

    Hello Brian,
    I disagreed with a lot of what you said but as always you said some fine things. I certainly agree with following statement: “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.” That was well said.

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