This is the text of a thought shared by Christian artist Derek Webb prior to the '08 presidential elections. It is an extended version of his introduction to the song "A Savior on Capitol Hill" and was published in Patrol Magazine in Nov 08. I find his thoughts helpful in a very difficult question of how a citizen of the Kingdom engages the electoral process in a foreign, though democratic, land.
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Part 1: A Brief Statement On Matters Of Conscience
Depending on when you’re reading this, we could be on either side of one of the most evocative elections in our country’s recent history. It shouldn’t really matter, as this writing isn’t necessarily about our current election but rather on living an honest and integrated political life. Even so, there is no time for clever stories or introductions. I’ll cut right to the chase: ultimately our problems will not be solved by the right man (or woman) in the White House. It simply doesn’t work that way. We live in a democracy, a representative form of government, where it’s as much if not more our responsibility to love and take care of our neighbors than our politician’s responsibility. Real and lasting change comes from knowing and loving the folks who live in the houses that sit next to ours rather than saving all of our longing and hope for the voting booth.
Now that’s not to say that we shouldn’t make informed decisions, be involved in the process. Of course we should. I mean, if your conscience allows, you can even vote. But that’s tricky, especially in a two party system (but I definitely don’t have time for that). But in all seriousness, I want to be perfectly clear on this point: it is never advisable, in any decision that you make, to violate your conscience. As it applies to this election, you might have serious moral conflicts with both candidates, and therefore feel as though you must vote in a defensive manner or for the lesser of two evils.
Now let me say before I go any further that that may not be you. And in terms of the body of followers of Jesus, it would likely be sinful if we were all reaching the same conclusions on how to best love our neighbors, so there’s plenty of room for a difference of opinion there. But if that is you, I have a few suggestions:
1. Look through your Bible for a mandate that you must vote.
2. When you don’t find one, listen to that conscience of yours. That’s what it’s there for, to be a guide and a red flag when you’re making difficult and significant decisions.
What I’m not saying: you should not vote.
What I am saying: if your conscience is seriously conflicted over both candidates, you are at liberty to not vote.
Part 2: Some Common Objections
Some would say that not voting is giving your vote over to those who seek to use the governmental process for evil. I would actually argue the opposite. By voting, especially when based on just one or two issues, you’re giving your ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ to that party’s entire platform, which likely goes far beyond the statement you’re trying to make on these few issues. This is certainly more perilous and less nuanced than abstaining altogether. No party can co-opt a vote that isn’t cast.
Others would say, ‘Jesus said to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Therefore we have a biblical obligation to vote.’ And of course Jesus said that. That’s why I pay my taxes and try to drive the speed limit. These are among the laws of the land. But my conscience doesn’t belong to Caesar, therefore I don’t render it unto him. Caesar cannot force me to violate my conscience. Voting is a legal right, like carrying a gun or having an abortion. And I can abstain from doing anything that I have a legal right to if it violates my conscience.
Some say that we’ll never completely agree with the agenda or platform of a politician, that if we wait for a candidate that we line up with 100% we’ll never vote. I completely agree. There are many issues upon which I can disagree with a politician that don’t amount to a crisis of conscience. So there will always be necessary and acceptable compromises to make when engaging in the system of politics, but never when your conscience is on the line.
Which brings my to the last common objection: our forefathers fought and even shed blood so that we would have the right to vote. While there’s obviously nothing in this statement that I would disagree with, there is a context to consider. Even greater than our forefather’s sacrifices are those of our heavenly Father, who also shed blood in order to stir in us an allegiance greater than that of nation. We have an ultimate allegiance to our King and the Kingdom he’s building in and through us that trumps all others.
In the early 1520s Martin Luther famously stood before a general assembly in Germany, at the beginnings of what’s known as the protestant reformation. In his legendary speech Luther risked excommunication and death in order to keep from violating his conscience when he said, “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. I cannot, and I will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”
These matters of conscience are serious and should be considered at great length. I have many friends who have considered the issues of this current election in all their nuances and have chosen to vote for either Obama, McCain, or a 3rd party candidate, and I support them in doing so. Again, we are diverse members of one body in our following of Jesus. It would be suspicious if we all reached identical conclusions to such complex problems. So again, maybe there is no conflict of conscience for you in this election. By all means vote. But if there is, be at liberty not to vote.
Our ultimate hope is not in politicians or powers or governments, but in a day coming when all things will be made right. And our ultimate concern isn’t success but faithfulness. So if you find it necessary to abstain from voting in this election because to do so would be a violation of your conscience, be at liberty to remain faithful and leave the worry of success or outcome to God. He, after all, created governments in the first place.
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As I wrestle through what are to me much more nuanced questions than which party lines up with my opinion on a few issues, I need voices like this. For most of my life the rhetoric that I have heard about a Christian voting was truncated into a few key 'moral' issues like gay marriage, abortion, prayer in schools, etc. What I heard little of, until recently, is a perspective on politics and Christians that takes seriously our primary citizenship and allegiance as well as the heart of God for the poor. The 'Christian vote', at least in popular language, has had nothing to do with policy that assists the poor. Christians have used their power to leverage government in their own favor when it seems that our primary concern should be for the marginalized, the poor, the powerless, and those suffering political, social, and economic injustice.
As votes will be cast today, there are certainly Christians who are convinced that we must vote one way or another. I would simply say that, as a believer in Jesus, you can be Democrat. And you can be Republican. Or neither. Or both. And you can even be a Pacifist! (To few consider that one.) Whether or not we choose today to cast a vote, it is our responsibility as Christians to cast our lot with the poor. I have to stop thinking about which candidate will make life better, easier, more fair, etc. for me and start to consider, regardless of the cost to me, how my voice can be used for those without one.
What have you learned about what it means to have a distinctly Jesus-centered approach to engaging in political processes?
For those of you interested, here is the video for "Savior on Capitol Hill."