This article covers the Christian Anarchist case for abstaining from voting. Check out part 2 for the case in favor of it.
I’ve been working on a series of articles that explains Christian Anarchism. We’ve seen how three of the genes in the DNA of Empire are power, violence, and a sacred mythology that comes with its own vision of “salvation” or “the good life”; and I’ve argued that the genetics of the Kingdom of God are so radically different that the two can’t be combined. If you haven’t read it yet, now might be a good time to go back to the beginning and read Why I am a Christian Anarchist.
To sum up: Christian Anarchism is a way of doing theology and ethics from the perspective that Empire (in today’s world, the United States) is not only different from the Kingdom of God, but is totally antithetical to it. The two are mutually exclusive. Christian Anarchism is entirely non-violent, but also passionately committed to the political side of Jesus’ mission, his provocative use of the political term euangelion (“gospel” or good news) that set him up as a threat to Rome. It follows the early Church in confessing that there is “no king but Christ,” and that cooperation with Empire fails to fully grasp the heart of the Kingdom. We are citizens of the upside-down Kingdom of Heaven, full stop. Our king was crucified as a threat to both the religious and imperial establishments, and we lose something very significant about our faith when we forget that.
Christian Anarchists (generally) are not too interested in overthrowing the government; they aren’t “anarchists” in that sense. We recognize that Empire always has and always will exist, that any power vacuum will be immediately filled, because we live in a broken and fallen world surrounded by broken people. We can, however, make the choice to live into the Kingdom of God by forsaking and prophetically calling out the coercive, colonizing, brainwashing power plays of Empire in a “conspiracy of love” (Shane Claiborne) that can even creatively pull the pants down on the whole oppressive system - exposing it and proclaiming a better reality.
But the choice to distance ourselves from the corrupt systems of Empire raises a question that all Christian Anarchists are faced with and that many disagree on: Should Christians vote? It’s a tricky one, for sure, and since this year’s election is shaping up to be unbelievably divisive and hostile, it’s a good time for me to reevaluate my answer to that question. Today I’m going to present the case for not voting, and in the next post I will look at the arguments in favor of it.
To vote or not to vote?
Many Christian Anarchists believe that we should totally abstain from voting, because to do so is to participate in the corrupt systems of Empire that oppress, destroy, and colonize our world. Voting is part of the liturgy of Empire, a farce set up to promote a further sense of investment and brainwashing into the system. This has always been my view - in other words, I have never voted. I’ll pause for a minute and let you catch your breath at my great blasphemy.
The fact that I don’t vote shocks and even horrifies many Americans, especially my evangelical friends. I have actually been told that I need to vote because it is my “Christian duty” and my “sacred right.” Obviously when I heard this, it was my turn to be horrified, but then I became even more confident that America needs to hear the political implications of Jesus’ message.
Hopefully now your heart rate is back to normal. I’m going to explain my reasoning as briefly as I can, and then I will spend some time looking at the arguments made by other Christian Anarchists in favor of voting. Before I get started though, I want to stress that a truly Christian Anarchist choice not to vote is an intentional one made from real, carefully considered convictions, not just a lazy way of saying, “I don’t care. F**k the system.” Hopefully that will be clear by the end. You may strongly disagree, but please remember that I have thought this through and wrote an entire 50 page thesis working through my theology and reasons.
An act of prophetic witness
Voting is more than just a “right,” it is a “rite” - a sacred ritual of American identity and an expression of our loyalty to it. Choosing to abstain from voting is another way of opting out of this false liturgy, just like refusing to recite an unholy Pledge of Allegiance or place hands over hearts in reverence and awe during the singing of the National Anthem. Rather than just laziness or resignation, choosing not to vote is exactly that: a choice. It’s choosing to be a political conscientious objector. It’s true, some conscientious objectors might do so as just a cowardly excuse to avoid going to war; but real objectors do so, in spite of the risk, because to do otherwise would betray their deepest values and convictions.
By not voting, we open up space to share our beliefs with others. More than that, we are consistently living out our Kingdom convictions, even if it may cost us. We make a prophetic challenge to Empire - and remember that “prophetic” doesn’t mean predicting the future, but boldly proclaiming the heart of God, even/especially when it is controversial and dangerous. As I wrote in my thesis, “The choice not to vote is not about checking out and withdrawing from culture, but about demonstrating a revelatory witness that names and rejects the idolatry of the State’s hegemonic narrative. It is about being counter-political, and not merely non-political, because Jesus was still profoundly political - it was just a different kind of politics.”
Adin Ballou’s catechism said that voting is “participation in government by force,” which is important since Christian Anarchists reject violence and coercion. Jacques Ellul went deeper and challenged the ideology behind the whole system when he wrote that “to vote is to take part in the organization of the false democracy that has been set up forcefully by the middle class. No matter whether one votes for the left or right, the situation is the same.” This might sound crazy at first, because the American people have made mountains out of molehills as far as the differences between different candidates go; but in the grand scheme of things, the changes to the heart and soul of the American Empire are minimal no matter who is elected.
Protesting the Great Divide
The Continental Divide, or the Great Divide, is the series of mountain ranges that runs down the Western part of North America and separates it altitude-wise. Water always flows downhill, so anything west of the divide runs to the Pacific Ocean and anything east of it flows to the Atlantic. Imagine you’re a little raindrop for a second. Depending on which side of the mountain you land on, you will eventually end up in one of two places - and they are nearly 3,000 miles apart. Okay, I know I’m not exactly being totally scientific, but you get the general idea.
I can’t think of a better metaphor to describe the political climate in the United States today. As I explored in Enemies make the best friends, we love our black-and-white (or red-and-blue) thinking, because it provides us with an easy way to scapegoat the “other” and build a false sense of community around our own in-group. Because there are primarily only two options - today they are Republican and Democrat, but who knows what they will be in a few decades - then there is a whole system of catchphrases, hot topics, and identity markers to help us pick a side.
Be attentive to your blood pressure when you’re scrolling social media. It’s usually a very good indicator of where your real allegiances and views lie.
Most of those who say, “I’m not a Republican or a Democrat. I just vote for the best candidate,” still have a very strong bias in one direction or the other. They say these words because it makes them feel better and because the words should be true and they are the “right” thing to say to prove you are not a mindless sheep. But unless you have a very strong will or you are part of a very minority party outside the fold, even landing close to the center of the Great Divide will still eventually bring you all the way to the ocean. We can pretend that we aren’t on one side or the other; but for many of us, our blood pressure still rises when we see a Facebook post attacking the side that we claim we aren’t on.
Be attentive to your blood pressure when you’re scrolling social media. It’s usually a very good indicator of where your real allegiances and views lie. The fact that political positions go beyond logical and rational arguments into the deep, emotional, even physical core of our being - the emotional reactions from our amygdala and even high stress from our adrenal glands - is just another example of how important it is to challenge the whole system that sets them up as idols.
By choosing to abstain from voting, we reject the entire black-and-white, us-versus-them mentality; and it’s the mentality itself that is the real enemy here. Nothing is more destructive to people - or to the Church’s witness, by the way - than the kind of polarization that’s all around us today. The Church must proclaim a better way, and it seems very difficult to do so once we’ve placed ourselves firmly on one side or the other.
The Constantinian crisis
For most evangelicals, voting is intimately tied up with faith. We are told to “vote our values,” to elect candidates who will best carry out a “Christian agenda” for the nation. This is exactly the kind of Constantinian thinking that Christian Anarchists oppose so strongly.
About three hundred years after Jesus’ death, Emperor Constantine had a vision of the cross above a battlefield with the (in)famous so-called prophecy: In hoc signo vinces. “In this sign, you will conquer.” After a victory and consolidation of power, he made the cross his symbol and Christ the “Lord” of the Empire. Many theologians and historians have celebrated this “Christianization” of the Roman Empire as a great victory in Church history; and many American evangelicals continue to use Constantinian logic today (as has the majority of the Western Church for the past 1700 years, until very recently).
However, Christian Anarchists (and many other theologians and historians) argue exactly the opposite: Constantine’s “conversion” of Empire was indeed a turning point for the Church, but it was a profoundly negative one with many centuries of fallout. Although this is an extreme oversimplification, since whole libraries have been written on this topic, the general idea is that within a very short time, the Early Church moved away from being a marginalized and (sometimes) persecuted, but always prophetic counter-cultural voice as they began gaining privilege and power within the imperial system. They drifted from proclaiming the Kingdom of God as an alternate social reality to the Roman Empire and began the long process of making the two more compatible partners. As one example among many, violence and military service went from being almost universally condemned by early Christians to being accepted and, eventually, even praised as the Church found loopholes such as “just war” theology.
Abstaining from voting is another way of protesting this toxic theological and ideological system. American evangelical culture is intensely steeped in the idea of voting Christian values and promoting a “Christian” agenda of one form or another in the government. I’m willing to admit that if this weren’t the case and we weren’t living in the world’s most powerful Empire, then voting probably wouldn’t be as much of an issue for me. Taking part in local decisions and policies in a small nation seems okay, but we must consider our context.
When we participate in Presidential elections, we are voting first and foremost for the Commander in Chief (we often forget this is his main role!) of the largest military-industrial complex the world has ever seen. And when we vote, we do so as citizens of an Empire where the evangelical political lobby and Religious Right have massive influence and proclaim an entire belief system about the integrated nature of faith and politics. To vote with them is to join the Constantinian Club, but even to vote opposite them can actually be nothing more than playing for a different team in the same game with the same rules.
Perhaps if you’re able to completely separate your political views from your understanding of the Kingdom it might be different. As Greg Boyd says, voting isn’t just a small part of what we do for the Kingdom - it isn’t a Kingdom action whatsoever. Maybe truly recognizing this changes things. I’ll consider this and many other arguments in favor of voting as a Christian Anarchist next week, but I’m not entirely sold yet. Still, it’s important for me to reconsider it all in an election year that promises to be filled with even more vitriol than any of us expected.