A Non-Voting Manifesto?
By Tripp York, Visiting Prof. of Religious Studies, Elon University, NC
Note: In this election year many readers will disagree with the author’s conclusions, but to encourage thought and dialogue the article is printed and readers may respond by writing Professor York at firstname.lastname@example.org .
There are few things imagined in this life more dutiful than the so called ‘responsibility’ of every American to vote. Despite the fact that many decide, for whatever reasons, not to vote, the very idea that voting is an indispensable requirement on each individual goes without question.
Let me state at the very beginning that any qualms I may have with voting stem from neither apathy nor indifference. It simply makes little sense to me, given that we are as Aristotle claimed, “political animals,” that anyone would or should be indifferent to voting. Christians (whom I am addressing) should be concerned with the goods that constitute the temporal cities of this time between times, and voting is but one means of attempting to seek those goods. Nevertheless, I often wonder if what has been passed down to us as an unquestioned duty is the only way, or even the best way, to be political?
To be even more specific, is it possible that some form of conscientious objection to voting could be understood as an act of politics that is concerned with the good of the polis? Could it function as a witness to a different order, one not predicated on the enforcement of legislation, laws, and the lording of power over one another? If so, what would be the rationale for such an objection, or at least a hesitation, to the act of voting? What sort witness would this attempt to make? In order to answer these questions I have jotted down eight possible reasons why voting could be problematic for Christians. If nothing else, at least dealing with these possible objections should make us more conscientious voters, if we decide Christian civic responsibility entails voting.
I. Romans 13 demands subordination to the government.
Which government? All governments. Paul (while sitting in jail) demanded that Christians are to be submissive to all powers that be because, despite how fallen they are, they, nevertheless, are ordained by God. Rebellion against such powers is understood as rebellion against God and is, thus, not permitted. It makes little sense, therefore, to perpetuate any order that was founded on explicit disobedience to God. The United States of America only comes into being inasmuch as it rebelled against the God-ordained powers of the English monarchy (the irony of this is rich as the most patriotic of souls love to use this text to demand obedience to every whim of their beloved nation-state without recognizing the hypocrisy that made it possible for it to come into being in the first place). To vote for the maintenance of such an order seems to approve of this act of disobedience against God, or at least renders Paul’s command nonsensical as it can be disobeyed if enough time has elapsed from the inception of the said rebellion/revolution.
II. Jesus requires that his disciples not be like those Gentiles who lord their power over others, even it is for some sort of ‘good’ (Mt 20:25).
Christians are, as Jesus says in Matthew 20:26, not to be power-hungry. Rather they are to be as slaves to one another. Perhaps it would be one thing if the elected officials of this nation were forced to take office; instead these are all individuals who desperately want to be in power and all of whom beg and plead with the common folk for their votes, all to the tune, at least in regards to the last election, of more than $1 billion—$1 billion spent to convince us that we should exalt those who would be like those Gentiles who lord their power over others. If we are forbidden to be like them, why would it be permissible to place them in the kind of posture that Jesus decries?
III. Capitalism, the socio-economic order that underwrites this culture, is predicated on the seven deadly sins.
Without just one of these sins, it would fold and collapse on itself. For instance, if there was no greed this economy would be destroyed. We are taught to never be satisfied, to never have our fill, to never be satiated, to remain in a perpetual state of want, all in the name of the common good. How is this even remotely akin to the kind of desires that should be produced by ecclesial formation? Goods are only good if they are shared goods, at least according to scripture and early Christian history. Sharing goods in this culture would be a sin. An aside: Let it not be lost on us that immediately after September 11, 2001, the President of the U.S. demanded that the people of this commonwealth respond by neither prayer nor patience—rather he told the people that they should respond by . . . shopping! The saddest thing about this ‘command’ is that this was actually a morally legitimate response by the President (as it would have been for any president for that matter). Had people ceased spending money, the economy would have collapsed. Therefore, in such a culture one responds to terrorism via trips to the mall as well as supplying a lot of missiles and the youth of the country. This is our way of life? This is what Christians are willing to both die and kill for? How can we vote for any potential Caesar under this sort of politic?
IV. While we are on the subject of the seven deadly sins, let’s look at pride.
Outside of the word ‘freedom’—which is by far the most seductive god competing for our allegiance—there simply is no greater form of idolatry than the worship of, freedom. Pride is a term that is uttered again and again by this country’s leaders. For some reason I am reminded by both scripture and tradition that pride is purely representative of the fall of humanity. There is really nothing to be proud about, except as one can boast with St. Paul, our hope in Jesus. Pride has become the very means that Christians have co-opted to this culture, for it is because of pride that we seem to lack the ability or desire to practice repentance, confession, humility and servanthood—all of which are at the heart of Christian discipleship. Voting is, de facto, an exercise in pride. Especially if you find yourself on the winning side.
V. The kingdoms of this world seem to be ruled by Satan.
Once Satan took Jesus to the mountain-top and offered worldly power: “The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’” (Lk 4:5-8). Though the powers may be ordained by God, they are, nevertheless (as with all of creation), in rebellion against God. According to this passage it is Satan leading this rebellion. Satan offers the kingdoms to Jesus because they belong to Satan. He gives them, or at least offers them, to whom Satan pleases. All Jesus had to do in order to rule the world the way most of us imagine it is to be ruled, was to worship Satan. Thus it would appear that all of the kingdoms of the world, though rightly ordained for the maintenance of social harmony, are currently under satanic influence. One way to lead them is to worship Beelzebub, hence, my reluctance to vote for this sort of ruler.
VI. Regardless of which leader wins, that ruler will expect my allegiance.
That is, of course, a problem in and of itself, as Christians are called to serve only one Master. One way this affects Christians is that leaders of empires simply cannot enact the radical kind of peace Christians are to offer their enemies. Rulers, history has shown, must take up arms against their enemies. They must engage in warring, or at least threats of warring, in order to secure certain goods. This is a far cry from the peacemaking and non-violence which Jesus calls from his disciples. Jesus demands that those who would follow him must turn the other cheek, pray for those who persecute us (ever heard a president pray for an enemy—except that they be destroyed?), and refuse to exercise vengeance, which belongs only to God.
Yet any nation-state, not just this one but all of them, demands the exact opposite. The literal imitation of Jesus in non-violence must be rejected in order to exist and survive in the world. I would argue that any order that demands that a Christian not imitate Jesus is a demonic one indeed, a stumbling block for Christ-like discipleship.
VII: The United States may be the greatest Babylon on the planet, but she is still a Babylon.
As William Stringfellow astutely pointed out, if we are to read all nations biblically then we must recognize that they are all Babylons.[i] No nation or culture is the Heavenly Jerusalem or the City of God. They are, therefore, parasitic on the good that is the heavenly city, and the church, as the image of this city on earth, is called to show the state that it is not the heavenly city. This is her task. It is not to buttress the powers that be, but to show them, through her witness that whatever the powers that be are, they are not the church. One way to resist being co-opted by the powers of this world, I imagine, might be to neither vote nor take office.
VIII: Voting is an attempt to elect someone who will enact, legislate. and enforce your political values upon others.
That is the point of voting—to elect someone who will legislate and enforce your convictions. If a candidate promises this, you will support her or him. That is, you expect your candidate to do what you want them to do for the betterment of how you envision the world and how you secure the peace of the city.
This process, in a sense, alleviates the burden of Christians to be the church because now Christians can ask the state require of others our Christian convictions. The church does not need to create an alternative community, does not need to be prophetic, does not need radical discipleship, because Christians now have become the very powers and principalities that Paul claims Jesus has defeated.
By the simple refusal to vote perhaps we can at least see how we have all become seduced by such a power in such a way that we can see how our faith has been compromised and domesticated in the name of something other than the Triune God.
These simple musings are but a few reasons why I am currently hesitant to cast my vote for yet another Caesar.
[i] William Stringfellow, Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 13.