(I am thankful to have a guest post by a new friend, Samantha Lioi. Things like Justice, Peace, and Community, are not just ideals to hold for her, but are integral parts of her life. I thought it would be helpful to have a countering perspective to the model I presented earlier, for which I have not completely sold myself on nonetheless. I’m thankful for my sister’s radical and anti-imperial witness in the midst of complacent and comfortable approach to politics. Enjoy! – Drew)
“Love does not enter into competition, and therefore it cannot be defeated.” Karl Barth
The acts of love we must undertake as disciples of Jesus, the risen Christ, are much riskier than voting. Using our voices—our real-time, audible voices—and standing with our bodies in the way of injustice (for ex., standing with someone at an immigration hearing, sitting with a family whose son was arrested on false charges, walking with a community whose right to exist is threatened by neighbors or armed corporations) is much different from thinking of voting as voice. If we consider our vote to carry our voice, we must consider whether voting functions this way for members of society whose voices are routinely set aside or completely unheard.
I’m grateful for the written voice of my friend Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, whose family immigrated to New York City when she was in grade school and who is a naturalized citizen of the United States. In explaining her choice as a black woman not to vote, she questions this idea of voting-as-voice, and points to what I find to be a compelling trend from the Civil Rights era. “Between 1955 an 1977, acts of civil disobedience decreased, and the number of black registered voters and elected officials increased. In this period, legislation favorable to blacks also decreased, and economic positions of black people deteriorated.” It may be that direct action involving physical risk is much more effective in moving lawmakers toward justice than electing a representative we believe will enact justice or attempting to direct current lawmakers through our votes.
It is important for Christians to ask the practical question, “What actions and collaborations with God and others will contribute to increased well-being for the weakest, most at-risk members of our society?” It is equally important for us to realize this is a question about how we use our power, and when Christians think of power, we should think of the upside-down, unreasonable power of the cross and resurrection. We are easily seduced by our belief in our ability to make things happen. I do not want to dismiss effectiveness; however, I do want to remind us that the cross did not appear anything close to effective as a way of bringing deliverance to the Jewish people. It was, quite obviously to all onlookers at the time, a defeat—a shameful, final defeat, the kind from which people turn away their faces. I know you know this. But we are human and we forget. This is the Gospel we proclaim; this shameful, strange, violent death and the equally shocking rising of Jesus is, for his followers, the undeniable picture of our God, the God who dies in human flesh and the God who breathes life in places of death. And voting for President of the United States of America, a participation in choosing who will have the highest seat of power in our government, does not immediately appear relevant to the cross and resurrection of Jesus. It is often a way of claiming power over those with whom we are at odds (including other Christians), and it is a turning over of our power to someone more influential, to someone higher up. Jesus surrendered his power only to the One who sent him, and drew his healing power from this One, and we are to imitate this way of living.
I have heard some say they fear that if we don’t vote, we who are most privileged (and I include myself in that category—in terms of racialized identity, education and access to financial resources) will disengage, because more often than not, our lives are not significantly affected by changes in the Oval Office. But apathy and complacency among those most comfortable is a constant problem in every society, and as I observe our behaviors, voting does not address this problem. We privileged one’s vote and feel we have done our duty. Having voted for a man we believe will best support the nation’s common good, we can then disengage from the day-to-day struggles and lives of people who lack the social, financial, and cultural padding we enjoy. If we take time at all to struggle with the questions around voting, perhaps we will choose to act, showing up in the flesh to work for widespread well-being.
Still, I admit it is sometimes true that getting certain people into office helps the immediate cause of vulnerable people. And I have deep respect for those who choose to vote because their daily, direct work with vulnerable people makes it impossible for them to imagine not voting—especially when those vulnerable people—because of legal status or other barriers—have no possibility of voting themselves. In cases like this, I understand that voting feels like the action with the most integrity, and there is a sense of acting on behalf of specific people, friends, with faces and stories one knows like one’s own. At the same time, let us also admit that this situation and this amount of thoughtful deliberation is not descriptive of most U.S. Christians or their reasons for voting.
Whether we choose to vote or not, as the people of God we do not arrange our lives around the timetables of elections but around God’s year-round actions of reconciling love, remembered in the story of the Divine taking on flesh, growing up as an ordinary child, teaching, healing, dying, rising, and sending the Holy Spirit. Nor do the decisions of elected officials limit the boundless plenty of the Creator, from whose open hand the desires of every living thing are satisfied. Whenever and wherever the needs of God’s creatures are not filled, it is ours to partner with this ever-creating God to see that the plenty is justly shared. This partnership is not dependent on voting or upon any other human institution, including church institutions.
The acts of love we must undertake are much more costly than voting. Let us encourage one another in the risky, full-bodied love of the Risen One.
5 thoughts on “How to Follow Jesus and Love Our Neighbors Without Voting (Guest Post by Samantha E. Lioi)”
My child has a pre-existing medical condition. Voting for Obama in 2008 was a very good use of my power, since I cannot personally provide medical care to my child.
Spending a 1/2 hour to vote today is also a pretty good use of my time and power, to deny Romney the chance to take that away from my child when she turns 18.
I don’t doubt that you love Jesus, but when you encourage people not to vote, you encourage them to deny medical care for my child. Unless you are personally a doctor who provides medical care to those without health insurance, and can promise to help all 5 million children with pre-existing conditions, it seems to me that your decision not to vote is really is about the privilege of holding lofty, unrealistic ideals rather than any practical solutions to the problems of poverty and access to medical care.
Hey Sighing Mom,
Thanks for your thoughts and response. It’s stories like this why I ultimately differ slightly with Samantha on voting, because there are some practical implications that are connected to voting.
However, I don’t want you to miss the significance of what she is calling for. She is calling for the church to be involved in working for justice and peace 365 days of the year and not just one day every four years. There are legitimate ways that Christians can leverage their voice and power to help those like your child and others who are socially vulnerable in other ways. Samantha is not just sitting around writing about ideals, she is actively involved in working for peace and justice in society and her local community. Also note that she said that she has a “deep respect” for people who vote for reasons like you just communicated.
Things however, are much more complicated in elections than just one issue like health care. Innocent children have been killed by unarmed drones authorized by our president. It would be unfair to summarize the vote as whether you personally want innocent children killed or not, and likewise I don’t think we can say the election is only about healthcare. But, your point is taken, that that is an issue that is on the table this year and could affect millions of families and especially it will affect your child. As I read it, the post was not meant to shame anyone, but intended to provoke the Church to be faithful in following Jesus and loving our neighbors 24/7 in risky and costly ways. I hope you hear the heart of it.
Am I wrong to summarize the argument here as: “Maybe if Christians didn’t vote, they’d be more likely to help the poor?” Or, “If I vote, then I am less likely to help the poor?” I don’t see the logic there. Voting takes very little time and energy. Yes, Christians need to be more engaged in Jesus work. But not voting as a response to that is like saying we should encourage abstinence by refusing immunizations. You’ll probably still be fine by refusing immunization, but if enough people opt out, it’s bad for everyone. And mostly, it’s still not going to help much with abstinence.
Yes, there are many things Obama has done that are quite the opposite of what Jesus would do. But that’s letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. There may be no difference in drone strikes, but there is a difference in the odds of going to war with Iran depending on who is elected. There was a difference between going to war in Iraq and not going to war in Iraq. There is a difference between Medicare and a voucher system. Sometimes we have to choose the least bad path, when there aren’t any perfect paths available. And it’s great to want to trailblaze a new, perfect, path, but that doesn’t help people who are already hungry on the road, especially when you can spend 15 minutes helping them, or at least not hurting them further, with a simple vote.
We live in two worlds that we strive to integrate–the secular and the religious. Samantha speaks from a profound and sensitive religious perspective. But she also lives in a secular world that is supposed to guarantee her safety, civil rights, safe roads and clean water, a healthy environment, protection from corporate and financial predators, unsafe foods, worthy Supreme Court judges… Voting is a secular ritual that has ethical implications and consequences. It is an obligation of our living in a secular society. It is the first step after which we continue to work, day after day, to implement our highest values in the community in which we live. Like any ritual, it contains the danger that we substitute the ritual for what it stands for. Our secular obligation is to vote. Our religious obligation is to follow up on that vote by the way we live.