Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Christians and Politics: The Abstention Option

Amid the arguments swirling around us in the year of Trump, what if Christians simply abstained from politics? What if we stopped arguing, stopped criticizing, stopped sharing social media memes? What if we simply didn't vote? What if we abstained from politics?
Sound appealing?

I'd like to suggest that perhaps there is a right way and a wrong way to go about this.

First, a right way.

I grew up with a deep familiarity and appreciation for a Christian tradition that shunned the American political process entirely. On my mother’s side we come from Amish roots. My great-great-grandfather left the Amish church and started the conservative Mennonite church in which my mom grew up. I have fond memories of the Bible school I attended there each summer as a kid. Cape dresses, head coverings, and a capella singing were the order of the day. We boys could wear jeans to Bible school, but never shorts. And during the breaks in the lessons, we’d all go out to the back of the church and play freeze tag in the dimming light of evening. It was delightful.

When at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, someone might come to the door and suddenly Grandma would be speaking in a language I didn’t understand (it was Pennsylvania Dutch). It is impossible for me to convey the dignity and reserve with which my grandparents carried themselves, especially because they also seemed to be so joyful. Grandpa liked to laugh. Their house was a place of peace. If we were there on a Sunday, we might ask to turn on the computer, but we couldn’t expect that request to be granted. We could expect, instead, good conversation, good food, and the inevitable nap on the couch.

I now think the peace that Grandma and Grandpa radiated was a direct consequence of their theological convictions. For Grandma and Grandpa, running for political office, serving in the military or police force, voting, or employing violence of any kind was just out of the question. They followed someone who said “my kingdom is not of this world,” and “he who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” Amid the rough-and-tumble of politics and power grabs, Grandma and Grandpa were quiet witnesses to a different path: a way of being in the world that did not reach for power, and did not fear those who possessed it, for they too would fade like the grass, while the word of the Lord would endure forever.

I can’t say Grandma and Grandpa were wrong.

Suffice it to say, were they alive today they would not be on Facebook talking about how bad Donald Trump is. But their silence might obscure how radically subversive their posture actually was. In their rejection of state power they resisted the heretical conflation of God and country that has dogged the church since Constantine. Lest you think this is a minor point, try to imagine how the Nazi state would have made war if its churches had been incubators of Christian conscientious objectors instead of German patriots. And so, under different circumstances, Grandma and Grandpa’s abstention from the institutions of the state would have been deeply political.

Maybe we need more of that kind of subversiveness. As millions of Americans thrill to the cry of Make America Great Again, I fear that our churches have created nearly as many patriots as Christians.

One might assume that Grandma and Grandpa were irresponsible for refraining from the political process. Think of all the good Christians could do by exercising their right to vote. Isn't it wrong to discard that influence? Yet look at where we are. Three-quarters of White evangelicals are getting ready to vote for Trump. This is a self-inflicted mockery of Christian faith more thorough than any skeptic or critic ever imagined. The theory was that Christians would influence politics. The reality looks more like being captured by it. Grandma and Grandpa's abstention looks appealing in comparison.

A theologically-rooted rejection of politics involves the humble recognition that power corrupts the church and prevents it from embodying Jesus Christ to the world. A power-seeking church cannot possibly represent the God-man whose earthly life was marked by poverty, sorrow, and homelessness. Instead of standing in solidarity with the poor and needy, such a church becomes obsessed with maintaining its prerogatives. It becomes a client of the state.

In a way, the abstention option is about self-preservation. But this is not the self-preservation of defensive and power-seeking Christians desperately searching for a president to take their side. This is self-preservation with a specific purpose in mind: when the state seeks to mobilize its citizens toward oppression, a mass Christian collective will stand uncowed by the state's power and unmoved by its claims. The church creates spaces where the normal methods of power become inoperative. The weak are protected, the poor are empowered, and the rich humble themselves--or else. In these spaces, repentance and humility count for infinitely more than money, power, education, or class. In these spaces, the state is frustrated in its aims.

Now, let's talk about a wrong way to go about it.

A lot of people don't like politics. They find it confusing or irrelevant. Or the process seems dirty and corrupt. Others believe what's happening at the political level simply isn't very consequential. These attitudes make abstention easy, but not necessarily Christian. Principled, theologically-grounded abstention reckons with the reality that politicians are making life and death decisions that affect our lives. It does not pretend that politics is unimportant. It recognizes that withdrawing from politics does not bestow innocence or absolve responsibility. In the face of these realities, it still chooses to abstain.

But too often, Christians withdraw from politics not because of a well-considered theological ethic, but because of a narrow understanding of Christian responsibilities. Certain strains of white evangelicalism have a long tradition of being reluctant to think about systemic sin and systemic solutions. They hold up individual conversion as a cure-all. They express concern for the individual but too often discount the social forces shaping the individual. Faith becomes personal rather than communal, and piety becomes the measure of obedience. The biblical demands of social justice recede to the background and matters of basic Christian duty are coded as merely political.

As Dr. King said of white Christians during the civil rights movement:
In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
We must be careful not to fall into this trap. As we grapple with the disgraceful and dangerous candidacy of a racist strongman, assuming a posture of irenic detachment is not necessarily a Christian response. Is our position embedded in a broader ethic of concern for others? Or is it a convenient screen for complacency? Is it counterfeit abstention? If we are going to be silent in this dangerous moment, it cannot be because of our own desire to maintain an illusory sense of purity. It cannot be because we think the gospel doesn’t have anything to say about oppression.

We can talk about God’s sovereignty. We can declare that the prospect of a Trump presidency leaves us unimpressed and unafraid. We can reaffirm Christian cliches about how Jesus will still be doing his work regardless of who wins a presidential election. That's all fine. But we cannot be indifferent to the rise of a man who promises to oppress our brothers and sisters made in God’s image.

When those of us who are unlikely to be targets of the demagogue adopt postures of calm neutrality, it doesn't necessarily look like trusting God. It may look more like a lack of love for our neighbors.

As this year began, I was prepared to sit back and observe this election in a spirit of nonpartisan equanimity. See here, for example. But we haven't seen such a radically destructive and anti-christian candidacy before. Donald Trump is unprecedented. He is a threat to our neighbors. He is a threat to the world.

So I choose to engage.

I can't escape the idea that the same Bible that taught Grandma and Grandpa to abstain from politics teaches me to jump in: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” This kind of righteous action has always been political. It always will be. When the Hebrew prophets brought the word of God to the people, they spoke of politics: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”

Oppression is perpetrated through politics. Justice--at least the imperfect version of it we can reach for in this disordered world--is enacted in part through politics. And this, too, is clear: Donald Trump seeks power so that he may oppress.

In the face of this unusually evil candidacy, I want to either have the kind of radicalism my grandparents had, or stand up and forthrightly join the political process to defeat Trump, but I want to avoid the complacency and ambivalence of the moderate middle.

Those of us who speak out cannot do so simply because we like politics and enjoy jumping into the partisan fray. It cannot be because we have been captured by the partisan process and are under the illusion that Hillary Clinton represents Christian ethics. It cannot be because we're in the habit of criticizing Republican candidates. Many of us have cried wolf too many times in past elections, and now that we really do face a historically dangerous candidacy, our words ring hollow because of past hyperbole. Mitt Romney, I'm sorry for every bad thing I ever said about you!

Whatever we do, it must not be for our own interests. Beneath the apparent differences of engaging or disengaging from the political process lies the deeper question of whether our posture is self-focused or other-focused. Perhaps the most pernicious way to be captured by the political process is to vote for our own interests. Of course, this is what is expected of us in a democracy. People voting for their interests is precisely how this system is supposed to work. But why should Christians play by these rules? Why would we want to?

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