Electing for Change
Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 3, 2008
The only time I’ve had someone question my commitment to Jesus (at least to my face) was when I said that I was intentionally not-voting. And, indeed, the most oft-viewed and oft-debated articles on Jesus Manifesto tend to be ones that advocate a non-voting position.
I’ve received dozens (perhaps hundreds) of blog comments, emails, Facebook messages, etc that challenge this position of mine as being “unintelligent” or “moronic” or “lame” or “stupid” or “un-American” or “un-Christian” etc. As far as I can tell, the only one of these adjectives that fit me is the one about being “un-American.”
Unless the election is closer than we think, all of this talk about non-voting will soon be over–at least until the next major election. This post is intended as my final post about this issue for the election season. So take it for what its worth.
Electing Not to Vote
One of the more interesting political books this season is Electing Not to Vote, edited by Ted Lewis from Wipf and Stock. The book includes chapters from a variety of folks (Catholic, Anabaptist, and Pentecostal) exploring the viability of non-voting. As you can imagine, most of the reviews have been negative. Like this recent review from Christianity today:
No, this is primarily a book about feelings—the essayists’ feelings, their strenuous moral wrestling, their evolution to their present stage of enlightenment. I read a lot of books. I can’t remember the last time I read a book as smug as this one.
The whole review continues in this theme. John Wilson, reviewer, never actually engages the ideas. Instead he acts as though it has no intellectual merit and attacks it for being too “emotive.” Interesting. The review is actually reminiscent of a Sojourners review from Lauren Winner who, in an uncharacteristic lack of intellectual honesty, seems to have written a review that doesn’t actually engage the ideas in the book. Instead she dismisses the whole book as advocating a withdrawal from political engagement:
The contributors to this volume see not voting as a compelling act of faithfulness, witness, and politics. But, especially in a world where love of neighbor is tied to citizenship, not voting may be equally seen as a kind of quietism—quietism that a Christian who must be active in the world cannot afford.
If you’re interested in a rather scathing response to Ms. Winner’s review, check out what Halden has to say here.
So far, I’ve only found one positive review from the mainstream sources. William Willamon wrote a generally positive review of the book on Christian Century:
Even more troubling for Christians, voting attenuates the church’s political imagination and deludes us into thinking that we have actually performed some worthy social action when we have pestered church members to get out and vote. If voting is not a definite evil, argue a number of these authors, it is at best the weakest and most ineffective form of Christian political action…
Sadly, this book has robbed me of any theological rationale for my furtive actions in November; I just vote out of habit. It’s what people in my economic bracket do. My church even encourages me in it.
I agree with most of the authors who warn that voting only encourages the functionaries of the modern state to think that the people (who are now the functional equivalent of God) have given them some sort of popular mandate to do as they please to defend the state and its power. For the most part, I found their arguments to be biblically radical and curiously compelling.
Still, despite the wonderfully biblical and theological arguments of the essays in this little book, I confess that I expect to slither secretly into a voting booth in November and cast my ballot.
The most interesting thing for me this election has been the amount of anger I’ve received. People often assume that I’m getting itno people’s faces about this. I am not. Just for the record, almost everyone in my intentional community is voting–including my wife. It isn’t something I get frothy-mouthed over. In fact, it isn’t even something that I’m all that passionate about in the grand scheme of things.
Why do I keep writing about it? Because it raises all sorts of interesting issues. For example, I find it interesting that people often tell me that “if I don’t vote, then I have no right to complain.” This sort of sentiment reveals the myth that voting is the primary, most effective way of bringing about change. Folks almost ALWAYS make a leap in their thinking from non-voting to disengagement. That is why in the Winner article I referenced above, she mistakenly assumes that non-voting is a quietist position.
If someone didn’t know I was a non-voter, they might draw the conclusion that I’m very politically active. After all, protesting against ATK (who makes clusterbombs) is one of my weekly rituals. I also talk about politics a fair amount–often challenging people to rethink what it means to bring change in society. And Missio Dei is increasingly involved in neighborhood political and justice issues. In the future, I see myself taking increasinly proactive positions on poverty, homelessness, war, and immigration. But my primary way of doing this will never (I hope and pray) be voting.
Voting isn’t the most direct or effective way of electing for change.
Sure, but that doesn’t equal non-voting
Some folks tend to be very sympathetic to my political sensibilities. But many of them (like the folks at Missio Dei, my faith community) are still planning to vote. If someone wants to vote as a lesser “weapon” in their arsenal of political engagement, I’m not goint to gripe about it too much. In my mind, voting is an American sacrament that affirms a fallen system that often stands in opposition to the reign of Christ. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is idolatrous or sinful.
Some of my friends have argued that the most socially just way to vote is to vote for third parties. In fact, when my friend Becky Garrison visited, she raised this point several times, suggesting that the Green Party (which has multi-ethnic female runningmates) is much more prophetic choice.
Meanwhile, my economist friend (who also has theological training) dlw advocates a New Kind of Third Party. He argues that local third party movements are a great way for Christian Radicals and Christian Anarchist types to engage the system. In a recent forum discussion on Christarchy, he writes:
This is the sort of decentralization of authority that is feasible in our world and, as a Christian, I believe that the early Christians were political outsiders, not unlike how third parties in a two-party dominated system are outsiders and so that should be our preferred location for political activism as a critical but not central part of our holistic witness to others.
He argues for strategic voting, seeking to create third party places, decentralizing the political system, and finding ways to organize local communities around third parties that resist the dominance of the two party system. If I were to become a voter again, this is the sort of approach I’d take. In fact, it tends to be the way I think about local engagement (see dlw…you have made at least SOME impact in my thinking).
If you’re going to engage the political system through voting, make sure you’re being shrewd as a serpent. Don’t buy into the hype. Be informed. And don’t be deceived–voting is indirect, ineffective, imagination-stealing, and often takes up more of our energy than its worth.
For another interesting take on voting, check out Shane’s thoughts on the God’s Politics blog.Mark Van Steenwyk is the general editor of Jesus Manifesto. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.
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