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The Election and Our Election

Written by Brandon Rhodes : June 5, 2008

electionWith Senator Barack Obama’s Tuesday securing of the Democratic Party nomination, America is scheduled for an important and interesting election season this fall. Senator Obama’s elusive (if also encouraging) calls for change are pitted against Senator John McCain’s pseudo-maverick tom-hawkery.

The media is bursting into a full-force campaign-tracking frenzy, eager to report the latest candidate-related uproar or swing-vote niche, and so has continued zeroing in on young evangelicals as the topic du jour. Reports swirl that conservative Christian stalwarts like James Dobson are frustrated with John McCain, and the younger ‘emerging’ crowd are starry-eyed toward Obama. The media has spun these reports toward the conclusion that the evangelical community is going to significantly shift toward the Democratic ticket this November. While I endorse the accuracy of this analysis, I also feel compelled to report an under-discussed danger lurking behind each of these headlines.

The danger is this: the media is framing Christian identity according to how we vote, and many Christian progressives are just fine with that. Our election in Christ is, to the media, a matter of how we behave on Election Day. But our election is a 365-days-a-year thing. Our election in Christ is, to the candidates, a means toward securing their own election. But our election is God’s means towards our own resurrection. Our election in Christ, to the political machine, centers on a candidate. But our election is centered on King Jesus, whose primary victory was also a cruciform one.

Our election in Jesus Christ is a call and admission and equipping for service into God’s alternative political community, the church. That jive is old hat for many in the Anabaptist traditions and Ellul-ebullient circles, but still feels lost on many in the American church. To them the church is a religious body, a spiritual gathering, a social club, an activist meeting, or a therapy/self-help group. While each of those glance off the broader shape of the church, and some even pierce true, any one of them can exist without placing Jesus as Lord and King. That allegiance, after all, is what makes the church the church. Yet if Jesus is somehow sovereign (as the New Testament insists), then we as his body (politic) must somehow be his alternative community, his peaceable insurgency of the Way. This counter-culture of love and reconciliation, according to Ephesians 3:10, announces God’s wise rule to the gawking powers of the world. When the media says our whole political identity in Christ boils down to a vote for Barack Obama, or John McCain, any vote for any person anywhere, they are denying the church’s foundational identity as those whose primary, enduring allegiance and hope is in the risen and regnant Jesus Christ.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I am excited to see this shift in the voting habits of so many American Christians! That they are now expanding “pro-life” to also be “pro-circle-of-life”, for example, is an immense step in the right direction. I am elated to hear story after story of evangelicals letting their spending, praying, and voting habits be messed up by issues like human rights, fair trade, nonviolent responses to extreme Islam, global warming, Darfur, globalization, mountaintop removal, world and domestic poverty, and sex trafficking. I hope that the next administration and Congress in America does something about all of the above crises. But that’s not where my hope rests. If it is, then I am committing the same failure as the Religious Right. Dobson, Hagee, Falwell, and the rest all behaved as if the primary solution to their moral outrages laid on the other side of the next Election Day. Somehow the hope of their election is about elections. If today’s fledglingly leftward evangelicals begin to put their hope and action and prayer toward Senator Obama in the same ways that the Moral Majority did for Ronald Reagan, then that keeps the American church on shaky ground indeed. They will have left their first hope – the Son of God whose love ate death – for another gospel.

I’m not saying that voting is bad. It can be, but usually it is not. Some would say that we need to stop voting entirely, lest any vote toward someone wielding state power be a vote of confidence in a sovereign other than Jesus. While I admire the seeming nobility of such a position, it seems like too convenient a halfway-house for sidestepping the real gospel possibilities of civic action (consider Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement…). The gospel is imminently political, but never partisan. Donald Miller rightly says that Jesus won’t be any party’s flag: the word for the American church is that no party or candidate will be Jesus’ flag.

The way forward between the twin conveniences of electoral hope-banking and a smug evasion of our duty to one another is indeed narrow. It is entirely too tempting to fall off either side: to one side, landing headlong in the idolatrous hope of a mere candidate, and on the other landing waist-deep in avoidance and fear, unwilling in the name of righteousness to have compassion on their brother-man in a way known otherwise to the scribes and Pharisees. Yet our righteousness must exceed that of such Pharisees.

Our hope lies in a bigger politic, an embodied politic. We’ll vote, but that’s not the apex of our political life and essence. Worship and liturgy are our foremost acts of civil disobedience and political allegiance. God exposes the devilry of capitalism, militarism, and racism foremost in our life together: by sharing, by forgiving, and by including.

Our election is about living now according to Jesus’ coming administration, living out the campaign promises of the Beatitudes today. No matter what the media tries to simplify it to, our identity and hope is in Christ Jesus alone. In the light of His kingdom, all other executives are just lame ducks.

Don’t let the media or James Dobson or Jim Wallis tell you that your election is about elections. It includes them, but is far far bigger. The gospel lays claim to those in political office and the church itself. Your election, my election, our election is a matter of allegiance and hope in Jesus, expressed in daily missional lives of worship and loving resistance together.

My hope will continue to be in King Jesus, the one through whom God has dealt with all evils and will one day set the world aright. He is a change we can believe in.

photo by nshepard

Author Bio:: Brandon Rhodes is still wondering how a dispensational seminary gave him a degree while thinking these things, much less what he was doing there in the first place! He lives and worships in the Old Growth Community in Portland, OR.




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    Love the article...but I gotta push back on the notion that non-voting is a sort of sidestepping, smug, evasion of duty.

    If someone is apathetically withdrawing from voting or treating non-voting like an "I wash my hands of this whole thing" sort of moment, then I agree. In fact, people usually assume that my non voting falls into one of these categories.

    I don't no-vote in order to extricate myself from the system. Instead, I choose to let my kingdom vision determine the way in which I am going to engage the system. I could probably write about 5 pages about this, but I've already written about this stuff already...so I'll spare everyone the lecture. :)
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    I'm with Mark. I'm not interested in anathematizing voting, but I too push back at the allegation of irresponsibility against those of us who abstain. I abstain for the "noble" reasons described in the article (and I'm also with Mark that the article is very good!), and resonate with Mark's reasons as well, and I have some of my own:

    The candidates in question are professed Christians, and to vote for either of them would mean supporting them in a decision to exert power that I do not feel I could claim for myself. In particular, this person would be commander-in-chief of the armed forces who will almost certainly have to exert life-and-death power over others. I cannot adjudicate the sincerity of their claims to faith, and it would be disingenuous of me to ask a Christian brother to do something that I consider unavailable to myself, even if they have no qualms about it. To put it with bumper-sticker simplicity, friends don't let friends bomb people.

    Another reason is informed by my faith but not necessarily determined by it: I don't vote because I don't believe in modern democracy and I don't consent to be governed. I agree to be subject, in keeping with my calling as a Christian, but I do not see that as the same thing. I abstain not out of apathy, in but in dissent.
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    BTW -- None of my quibbling about the voting thing should take away from the awesomeness of a turn-of-phrase like "In the light of His kingdom, all other executives are just lame ducks," or "Ellul-ebullient." That's good stuff.
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    Great article.

    I have to side with Mark and Ted about the non-voting thing. If the abstinence is out of apathy then I believe there is a problem. I feel like I care about what happens in the political realm just as much anyone else. But like Mark said, "I choose to let my kingdom vision determine the way in which I am going to engage the system."

    And always remember kids, "friends don't let friends bomb people." I love it.

    in Him,
    >>zack
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    Zack -- Thanks, and I'll ditto Mark's kingdom-as-engagement-rudder idea. Well said indeed.

    My prolonged pot-shots at the no-vote crowd is perhaps because I have most interacted with it via a couple house-churches that are very non-missional, very disengaged. "Our mission is to be the church," is the common line I've heard. They're often hesitant to say that we are God's people blessed-to-be-a-blessing, kingdom folks who advocate for, incarnate with, and befriend the last, lost, and least. "Our mission is not to transform the neighborhood." -- granted, but our mission of "being the church" will itself invariably through relationships and neighborliness wind up transforming the neighborhood.

    My point, and here I'm shooting from the hip, is that if you're not going to vote (which is fine) then you'd better also be engaging your neighborhood positively ("seek the shalom of the city" is how Jeremiah might say it). When I hear the no-vote argument from disengaged people who have built up theological walls around not just voting, but all engagement, then my patience begins to wear thin indeed. We're not saved to become Essenes, for heaven's sake.

    OK, that's my two (rather grumpy, sorry) cents. :)

    Pax Christo,
    Brandon
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    Right on, bro. I think I'm with ya there.

    Some of what you were saying (esp. "but our mission of 'being the church' will itself invariably through relationships and neighborliness wind up transforming the neighborhood.") reminded of something one of my pastors once told me. As a Christian wherever we go, things should get better. I think that what "better" means may be up for debate, but I think the general gist is the same.

    in love,
    >>zack
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    Brandon, great article. There are some really heavy sentences in here that should make us all stop, think, and maybe even pray. I love the way you used "election" language (and in my Arminianism, I'm glad you didn't go too far into the definition--"election" is a word my camp likes to bypass) :) .

    I'd agree with my non-voting brothers below me here. I got a little self-righteous when you called me a Pharisee...oh wait, maybe that's the problem. You nailed me. But, even though I disagree with some of those "prolonged pot-shots," I'm glad you wrote this article and that we could get it up on JM because our readers have already heard long arguments from the non-voting crowd. Mark, myself, and a few others have already written that viewpoint to death. So thanks for being willing to represent a more middle ground and give a lot more people a platform to shake their heads with.
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    The lumping of Jim Wallis with James Dobson or with people who "tell you that your election is about elections" is absolutely absurd. I know it's really popular (and maybe even somewhat warranted) to speak of the rise of the "Christian Left" or whatever you might call it (the Constantianism of the Left), but I'm kind of tired of seeing Jim Wallis thrown in there as though he isn't theologically "sophisticated", or takes Election Day more seriously than God's election of the world in Christ. That is patently false and just plain condescending.
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    There are certainly differences between Dobson and Wallis. But there are certain similarities.

    For the record, it is much more popular to embrace the rise of the Christian Left than it is to decry it, unless (of course) you are on the religious right. None of the folks who frequent here fall into that category.

    I find it very tellign that you find it condescending for someone to find similaries between Wallis and that horrible Dobson fellow. After all, Wallis is sophisticated and that Dobson isn't.

    Doesn't that show that you're condescending towards the religious right? I would never argue that Dobson isn't theologically sophisticated. My issue with him isn't that Dobson is stupid. It is that I disagree with his understanding of theology and politics.

    I have no doubt I agree with Wallis on many more issues than Dobson. But his mistake is akin to the mistake of Dobson: aligning with political power to achieve Kingdom goals. That is an honest critique. Not a condescending one.
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    Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and some other well-known, well-respected Christian leaders are also, whether they want to be or not, becoming poster-children for the rise of a left-leaning, politically active evangelical population.

    I personally don't see much difference between, say, Campolo and Colson. I respect both men, and believe them both to be dedicated, intent Christ followers. But as Mark was describing, we disagree on the mechanics.

    There is a wonderful debate between Chuck Colson, Greg Boyd and Shane Claiborne, and the results were hilarious. In theory they were pretty much all on the same page, but the practice was incredibly divergent.

    The point being made here is that the evangelical left's practice is much more akin to Colson than Claiborne, even if it's political ideas are the other way around.

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