Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why I am Not Going to Vote: A Theological Perspective

I am entitled to vote in the upcoming U.S. election.  I have voted in previous elections, including the last presidential election in 2008.  But I will not be voting in this election, nor do I foresee myself doing so in any future elections.

When I mention this people, I usually receive a very perplexed look followed by a statement that we as Christians have a duty to make our voices heard through the democratic process, and not to make our voices heard is to relinquish the influence we have to transform society for the good.  Both 'conservative' and 'liberal' friends (I detest labels, hence the scare-quotes) have said something similar to this to me in recent days.

I understand this argument, and am, in some ways, sympathetic to it.  But I simply cannot bring myself to accept it.

My own position is this: For theological reasons, I do not believe that I can, in good conscience, participate in the political system by voting.  And in this blog post, I hope to explain why I have arrived at this position.

(Before I delve into the theology behind my argument, I want to make a few provisos.  First, my specialty is not political theology.  My reading in political theology is relatively limited, and I do not claim in any way to be an 'expert' in the field.  The positions I express are those to which I have arrived primarily on my own, and as such, it is very likely that they will betray a level of theological and political immaturity.  There are undoubtedly ideas I have not considered and arguments with which I am not acquainted.  I am open to becoming acquainted with such ideas and arguments, should you wish to share them with me, just as I hope you are open to my arguments.  Christian political theology is, to my mind, an incredibly complicated and messy enterprise, and as such, I will not pretend that my arguments are definitive or fool-proof.  Second, I speak only for myself here.  My position does not reflect the position of the school at which I teach, nor is it characteristic of the Catholic church's position (though I do think that the Roman Catholic church, as well as many other Christian traditions, are certainly open to the kind of ideas I express here).)

My reasoning about voting has two facets.  One deals with the problem of voting for the office of President in particular.  The other deals with the problem of voting in general.

When it comes to voting for President of the United States, my reason for not voting is relatively straightforward.  I am a pacifist, and have been for some time.  I won't go into how I became a pacifist, but it suffices to say that the New Testament (and particularly the example of Jesus) appears to give no sanction for Christian participation in violence of any kind and the overwhelming witness of the Christian communities that existed prior to Constantine in the fourth century is that they took this prohibition against violence, including state-sanctioned violence, seriously.

The President has many roles, but a primary role of the President is the role of commander-in-chief of the armed forces.  To vote for President is therefore to vote, in essence, for a military general.  As a pacifist, I simply cannot figure out any way in which I can conscientiously participate in the process of choosing a military leader.  This point has been underlined for me in recent months as I've read about President Obama's 'kill-list' and his use of drone strikes.  While a President brings to the office a list of domestic priorities with which I may or may not agree, a substantial portion of the job revolves around the President's role as commander-in-chief.  No matter how much I like a candidate's platform, in the end I cannot turn a blind eye to the reality the President will necessarily participate in violence by virtue of the office.  And I simply do not see a way that I can justify being a co-participant by giving my approval to this facet of the office through voting.

As for voting in general, my thoughts are not nearly as clear to myself.  I am deeply influenced by the assessment of John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian, regarding Jesus' understanding of the dangers of political power and the continued temptation faced by Christians to endeavour to transform society from the 'top-down', a process that necessarily involves Christians having to morph Jesus' example and teachings.  Yoder labelled the Christian temptation for political power as 'Constantinianism' (for obvious reasons), and argued that even after the separation of church and state, the church continues to fall prey to Constantinian tendencies.  What this can mean practically is that Christians devote an inordinate amount of time to the political arena, understood by them to revolve around the halls of legislature, and don't devote nearly enough effort to enacting and participating in communities of love that themselves provide a witness to the kind of society of love toward which we are called by Jesus.  The focus gets placed, therefore, on transforming through power rather than through love, which was precisely the means rejected by Jesus and by the early Christians.

In my view, to vote is to succumb, however mildly, to the temptation to power, the temptation to Constantinianism.  It is to participate in the halls of power where, if we follow the example of Christ, no Christian has any business being.  I've listened to many Christians on both sides of the political spectrum talking about making their voice heard through voting, as if voting was the only political mechanism open to them to make their voice heard.  To be 'political' isn't to be relegated merely to voting.  To be 'political' in a truly Christ-like manner is to manifest to the society around us that things don't have to be the way they are, and we do this actually by being communities of radical love in imitation of the God who exists in an eternal community of selfless love.  I'm not advocating quietism or sectarianism.  Rather, I'm suggesting that the church needs to rethink the way it does politics.

The way I propose of being political is not pragmatic.  But then, Jesus himself was no pragmatist.

I don't know whether I've explained my viewpoint clearly or well.  As I mentioned earlier, this is stuff I am currently working my way through.  I am totally open to critique, challenge, affirmation, denunciation, and particularly, dialogue.

1 comment:

  1. I found your post through a friend (Pam Connolly), and I wanted to take you up on your invitation to critique, challenge, affirm, and dialogue. I'm not ready to denounce.

    I understand that Jesus was no pragmatist, and that we are called to help society understand that things don't have to be the way they are. I think I'm uncomfortable with the claim that no Christian has any business being in a hall of power. How can we be called to exist in those places and call attention to and reroute the power for justice and peace?

    I think the church can rethink the way it does politics while still participating in the governmental structure of the place in which we live. If all Christians decided not to vote, where would the voice of Christians be heard?