In the Booth Not of the Booth
By Adam Smith
September 9, 2008
Politics is a sticky business. Every four years, the American public is given rhetoric from both sides of the spectrum, each painting an idealistic view of a hopeful future, an America that represents the light of the world. Each party claims that their platform has a monopoly on attaining this goal. This year’s presidential election, in particular, has deeply divided Americans. For those seeking to embody Christ, the choice can be especially difficult. On one side of the equation is a candidate who seems to offer hope for peace and ease for poverty, yet supports abortion rights. On the other is a candidate who champions the rights of the unborn, yet seeks to continue the war in Iraq. Can a Christian truly throw unflagging support behind either candidate?
It’s not just the candidates that can give Christians pause. Indeed, the entire political process has become so polarized and vitriolic that some have begun to question its very foundation. Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, authors of Jesus for President, were so disturbed by the way they saw Christians drawing political battle lines that they embarked on a cross-country tour to tell people about a different vision for political engagement.
“It started around the last election,” Claiborne says. “To vote or not to vote—that was the question. How do we engage the political conversation? We wanted to think deeply and theologically about it as Christians—how to engage or disengage, or appropriately engage. There was an inherent—and I think, healthy—suspicion about putting all of our hope in one day, or one vote, or one candidate or party.”
Haw agrees. “We’re trying to help people think as Christians, and that takes a rugged revisitation of the whole biblical story,” he says. “To be able to think as a Christian requires to have Christian historical memory and imagination.”The conclusion that Haw and Claiborne came to was that the very nature of the political system was in opposition to the picture Jesus painted of God’s Kingdom.
With this in mind, is it appropriate for a Christian to not vote? Haw and Claiborne feel it can be, in some situations. “I think theological grounds can be made for that, on grounds of coercion, or what it means to call Jesus our Lord. Where your vote goes is kind of where your wish or hope is going,” he says.
The very nature of the campaign process, Haw believes, should give Christians pause. “The current state of voting involves a very serious hurdle that Christians must see as a red flag, which is the whole question of coercion,” he says. “You have this idea of a tug of war going on publicly. Many people don’t seem to step back and realize that it’s a tug of war that one side is going to win. It appears very hard for me as a Christian, with the precepts of Jesus and the way He views His enemies and friends, to jump in on one side of the tug of war and then be happy if you’ve pulled your tug of war in one direction and say, ‘We’re glad we beat you other guys.’ I think Christians should be very unsatisfied with the whole nature of coercion. In some ways, there is a latent violence that sits under the voting mechanism.”
Moreover, Haw believes that our faith in the government’s power to effect change may be misplaced. He holds that global markets, rather than elected offices, truly hold the balance of political power. “I think Christians need to be making some economic connections, too, about what the whole sphere of political change means today,” he says. “In the mid-20th century, something started changing within the U.S. economy and the military and the whole sphere of global economics that started totally moving in this direction of global capital being more powerful than any government. That has not been noticed by most folks. We still think we’re controlling the government by our vote. It turns out the marketplace is really tantamount to all the things going on in the government. Eisenhower, when he gave his last speech upon leaving office, said that the military-industrial complex has utterly taken over. It should be shocking and chilling for Christians—or any person, for that matter—to hear his message basically saying, ‘We’ve lost control.’”
Claiborne and Haw are very clear that they would not unequivocally encourage Christians to abstain from voting, merely to prayerfully consider the best course of action for them and to follow their conviction. “We’re very careful not to say, ‘Don’t vote,’” Claiborne says. “Think very critically. Pray. Study Scripture. Whatever you do, do it with fear and trembling, with our neighbors in mind, with the poor in mind, with kids in Iraq in mind.”
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