I resonated with much of a piece from Chris Smith from Relevant Magazine. Relevant is currently in the process of offering a series of Christian perspectives on politics. (Previous posts come from a Christian Libertarian, Christian Republican and a Christian Democrat.) Chris is offering an explanation for his choice not to vote. I’ll give you a taste of his philosophy, and then offer some opinions.
“America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brained nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers.” —Walt Whitman
Whitman’s words ring as true today as they did when he penned them over a century ago. And although my rationale may differ from Whitman’s, I think these words get to the heart of why, for almost two decades, I have chosen not to vote.
Let me begin with the caveat that I don’t condemn people who vote. Rather, I simply believe voting is not the most important political practice of the Church—and I am part of a church community where a few of my brothers and sisters share this conviction.
My opposition to voting is rooted primarily in the narrative of Christ’s incarnation. Jesus was born and lived in a particular time and place; the kingdom He proclaimed did not seek to overthrow the Roman Empire and re-order society from the top down. Instead, He sought to reenergize the grassroots social order of YHWH begun in Ancient Israel, a locally embodied polis that functioned most healthfully without a king. Jesus called 12 disciples, a little community that recalled the 12 tribes of Israel, and they shared life together in a way that proclaimed God’s healing and abundance to the people they encountered.
After Jesus’ ascension, His disciples spread throughout the world planting little communities that embodied Jesus in their own particular places. These churches were, in a very real sense, the incarnation of Jesus in these places and the shape of their life together modeled a politics—a way of being together—that was not rooted in greed, power-grabbing or any form of self-interest. (If you want to know more about politics embodied in church communities, I suggest you read John Howard Yoder’s little book Body Politics.) This basic incarnational story of Christ and the Church is the one in which I and my brothers and sisters at Englewood Christian Church on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis find ourselves.
Our main political task, as a local church community, is to follow the mission of God in the church and thus to embody Jesus faithfully in our place and to work with our neighbors toward the health and flourishing of our neighborhood. Whitman’s assumption that there are more important political realities in our land than our elected officials rings true for me. According to theological narrative I have defined here, churches are the most important of these political realities, but also more important is the open dialogue and collaboration of neighbors as they seek to cultivate their places in such a way that they flourish and can be sustained. To invest ourselves in this political work is a viable alternative to voting, and perhaps more effective in shaping the future of our places.
Over the last decade, I have moved decidedly closer to this perspective, but I have not yet fully endorsed it. I have, however taken the attitude that I will not vote along strict party lines, and I will not vote in any election in which I do not feel that I know enough about the candidates to make an educated vote. This has resulted in skipping mid-term elections at times when I have to admit that I am uneducated. At other times, I have voted in some races, but left others blank. The situation continues to be exacerbated by my growing conviction that Chris is correct that local action and involvement in Christ’s movement through His Church is more essential than any election, local or national. If I have the choice between educating myself about the election or acting locally (even simply ministering to my family), I will always choose to act. This has lead to an increasing disconnect and lack of involvement in much of politics. You will likely find my posts here to be devoid of partisan politics unless my theology leads me to find fault or credit due to one side. I think that the world has seen enough of the Church getting distracted in search of earthly power rather than focusing on spreading the Kingdom in which we really claim our true citizenship.
Thanks, Chris, for you insightful piece, and for further stirring my wrestling with the Spirit as to the appropriate response. I look forward to finding time to talk in person some time when we are out in Indy or your family is back in PA!