This week millions of Americans will participate in midterm elections. Many have already sent in their mail in ballot packages, having carefully checked or shaded in the boxes beside the names and issues that matter to them. My ballot package for mail-in voting, with its pink envelope that screams for attention, is sitting in a bucket by our fireplace full of other scraps of mail, newspaper, and cardboard. It’s our burn bin full of items that we shove under logs in the fireplace when we heat our cabin on cold nights.
That’s right, my ballot, my political voice in the United State’s midterm elections is in the burn bin.
There are a lot of important issues up for consideration in my state: whether or not we should label GMO foods, a representative staunchly against abortion, and another who is calling him a misogynist. These are life and death issues, questions of health and truthfulness. It’s everywhere in my state, on the trains, buses, tvs, billboards, my twitter feed, everywhere. And they are important issues, so let’s keep that straight. My ballot isn’t in the pile to burn because I don’t care, and it isn’t there because I’m uninformed.
It’s in there because I’m a Christian and in following Jesus I’ve discovered I can no longer vote in good conscience.
The last election I voted in was the Obama/McCain fight in 2008. I was living in Seattle at the time, attending a Christian college, and it was a political science student’s dream, I tell ya. It was all that we talked about on my campus, though my roommates and I actually refused to let the discussion enter our apartment. It was too intense, too divisive, too likely to cause rifts among friends, brothers and sisters in Christ.
In Seattle, when Obama was elected, there were fireworks set off. My roommates and I were on a walk and we could see them over the condos and houses that filled the hills of our neighbourhood; people drove past us and shouted for joy, honked their horns and you would have thought a war had ended the world was so happy.
A few weeks before that night I’d seen an image on the bottom of a friend’s email. You may have seen it during that election: in monochromatic colours of red and blue was Obama’s face, and beneath his determined gaze, in bright white letters was the word hope. I emailed my friend and asked her, is that really your definition of hope?
And then an email circulated through some of my college community that quoted Isaiah 2: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” and this passage was used in reference to Obama. This is a messianic prophecy of hope for the world, and we were attributing it to Obama? No matter how well nuanced that argument was, it was still straight up wrong.
And let’s be fair, the other side does this to. I had someone reference Esther in regards to Sarah Palin: as if the GOP were the Israelites about to be slaughtered by a terrible emperor. What? Churches embrace one side of the political aisle and they expect their congregants to see that person as God’s choice.
I watched this happen and I decided I couldn’t be a part of it. Too many times the church, the people of God, the people of the world have placed their hope in a single individual who is human. History is littered with the examples of this, and it never ends well. Such hope will never be fulfilled by a human being, the promises will be reneged upon, policies changed, etc. Scot McKnight talks about this in his book The King Jesus Gospel, pointing out that the story of Israel (which is completed by the story of Jesus) is about how human beings usurp God’s place, we are descendants of usupers (Adam and Eve) and we will always prove to do this in relationships at all levels. We all want to rule, but not as “under-governors” as God had planned, rather we want to rule as gods.
The inability for any human being to fulfill expectations pervades the human story; ultimately it is what leads to our need for a saviour and king who will do on our behalf what we are unable to accomplish. This is why our hope can’t lie in a created person. Our hope belongs in the Triune God, and the redeemer of humanity: Jesus Christ. He alone deserves our loyalty and he alone is the one who can change hearts, cultures, and nations. Obama isn’t hope, neither is the GOP, and America definitely isn’t. Hope is only Emmanuel, God with us.
Another reason I don’t vote is my realization that too many people equate Christian with American. It goes back to the Pilgrims making this a safe place for their religious beliefs that forced them to leave England and Holland. It draws on the idea of Manifest Destiny: that God had given the west to the white Americans as a new sort of Promised Land. But America isn’t the promised land, and we aren’t a nation chosen above all others.
In fact, Paul and the other apostles are pretty clear that our citizenship is never to be relinquished to an earthly domain. Our king is Jesus. Caesar isn’t Lord, Jesus is. As New Testament scholar Michael Bird wrote in his fantastic book on Paul: “Nero did not throw Christians to the lions because they confessed that ‘Jesus is Lord of my heart.’ It was rather because they confessed that ‘Jesus is Lord of ALL’ (emphasis mine). That holds true today. Perhaps some of this problem today (especially in America) comes from the idea that we can have Jesus as personal Saviour and yet avoid him as Messiah and Lord. But in the words of McKnight, “anyone who can preach the gospel and not make Jesus’ exalted lordship the focal point simply isn’t preaching the apostolic gospel….the gospeling of the apostles in the book of Acts is bold declaration,” a large part of which is that Jesus has come to establish a new world order because he has overcome sin, death, and the disastrous human tendency to usurp God’s place.
As Christians we need to bear this tension of the Kingdom in mind – it is here, but it is also not yet. And so, while I will obey the government put in place over me (so long as it does not ask me to sin – Rom. 13, Jer. 29), that doesn’t mean my identity or ultimate loyalty rests in that government or kingdom. Before being an American I am a Christian. In abstaining from the vote, I acknowledge this for myself: I am not a citizen of this realm or this world but of the world to come.
Finally, the other reason I can’t bring myself to vote is this idea of legislating morality. Can we agree that this isn’t possible? You don’t change someone’s heart or opinion simply by making one thing the only legal option. Women were having abortions before Roe v. Wade. The issue with abortion isn’t about whether the choice is legal. The issue one of the heart and the desperation that drives women to these places. The same goes for drugs, theft, violence. Making something illegal doesn’t end it. What ends the actions is a changed heart, the gospel, the love of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the support of the body of Christ. This isn’t on our ballots. In the mind of the world, it doesn’t even exist as a possibility. We legislate things, we design punishments because of a belief that if people aren’t controlled out of fear we’ll relapse into anarchy. But the truth is, even that doesn’t work. Morality for morality’s sake is worthless. Morality must come from a transformed mind and heart, a relentless pursuit of a holy God, and the acknowledgement that his ways are better than ours even when we don’t understand them. That kind of belief can’t be legislated, and the people who want to try to do so honestly kind of scare me.
Prophets & Priests
As Christians we are called to be both prophets and priests, this was our role in the Garden (Gen. 1&2), and this is our renewed identity in Christ by the power of the crucifixion and resurrection. That calling takes different forms based on the way God has uniquely designed each individual: their gifts, talents, strengths and weaknesses. For me, to be a priest means God has called me to walk alongside those whom the issues on the ballot represent. Instead of working from the top down, I’ve been called to work from the ground up. So I have friends who’ve faced the decision of choosing a life or ending it, I’ve walked with them, mourned and wept with them. I have friends with addictions and court records, I’ve prayed through court hearings and visited them when things don’t go their way. We have worked hard to love and support those people as a priest hears confessions, prays, and guides.
And I believe I have also been called to be a prophet to those who vote. Not because there is something wrong with the vote itself. To engage in politics is a meaningful experience and an expression of desires for how one’s country functions – those are good aims. But we need a prophetic voice of reminder in the midst of these elections, because we must remember that when the election and the nation don’t go the way of God, it’s ok. Instead of being shocked and surprised, we can be at peace. Our hope is not in this nation, our hope is in the One we cannot vote for and in his coming redemption. Christians must hold to this more tightly than our votes and our right to fair elections.
A Note of Disclaimer
I do want to acknowledge that this is an incomplete article. In so little space, we can only scratch the surface of these important issues. This topic deserves greater consideration, nuance, and elaboration. It is only a starting point of the much larger conversation: what are we doing when we vote, how should we think about politics, how do we conceive leadership and view the nation, how do we orient our political engagement as Christians, etc?
I also want to point out that my decision isn’t for all Christians. I have a friend who is in politics because he believes that is the best way to make a difference. That is good, and we need those people. I pray that the work he does is fruitful and that in time he might be able to lead others to the salvation of Christ and his kingdom. But we also need those people who are standing on the sidelines reminding us of where our true loyalty lies, how our faith must be made flesh through our actions, not just our marks on a ballot, and who can remind us that our King is Jesus and our nation is his Kingdom, not America.
 Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan (2011), 149-153.
 Michael Bird, Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,(2008), 88.
 McKinght, 133-134.