Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Voting: Ritual or Responsibility? - A response

[Note: The following text was presented at an on-campus event at EMU today, "Voting: Ritual or Responsibility?" I was one of three main presenters, along with EMU professors, Ted Grimsrud and Jayne Seminare Docherty. Ted and I have had significant conversations over the past weeks, online and at the pub, and Jayne is one of my former professors at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding/CJP. The discussion was facilitated by Jonathan Swartz and Matthew Bucher, both dual-degree students like I was, in the Seminary and CJP. Thanks to everyone involved at the event, and I welcome more conversation below in the comments! - Also, check out Ted's three posts on this topic, where I also have some comments posted.]

In a 1977 article in Sojourner’s, John Howard Yoder had this to say about the then-current context: “American political culture, a comparatively solid crust of common language and rules of thumb, floats on a moving magma of unresolved debate between two contradictory views of what the state is about.” In this article, entitled “The National Ritual: Biblical realism and the elections,” Yoder goes on to argue that we shouldn’t get ourselves too worked up about this system, or take it too seriously. But nonetheless this weak system is one that we can and perhaps should participate in.  I quote:
[Voting] is one way, one of the weaker and vaguer ways, to speak truth to power. We may do well to support this channel with our low-key participation, since a regime where it functions is a lesser evil…than one where it does not, but our discharge of this civil duty will be more morally serious if we take it less seriously.
This position of Yoder’s I take to be the basic position taken by Ted in his arguments, both here and on his blog. And I’m sympathetic to both, and don’t necessarily disagree. But I want to sound a few cautions.

I’ll start with a quote by Yoder’s one-time colleague at Notre Dame, Alasdair MacIntyre, who made these comments in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. I quote:
When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither. And when that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives.

Power and discourse – that is where I want to sound my cautions. Indeed, it is Alasdair MacIntyre who – along with Stanley Hauerwas and Ludwig Wittgenstein – have helped me to begin seeing the complexly interwoven nature of language and embodied practices within particular traditions, and how these become hardened, institutionalized, and sedimented into a social imaginary (using Charles Taylor’s language) that becomes the very air we breath as we speak and act in our particular contexts. The framers of American political discourse and action, then, wield considerable power in shaping this imaginative world we inhabit.

I’ll start with the title of this discussion today: “Voting: Ritual or Responsibility?” We can’t speak of voting in the abstract, so we’re specifically talking about voting in the national presidential election next week. And we can’t speak of the national presidential election next week without speaking of the campaign process for that office. And we can’t speak of that campaign process without speaking of the popular media. And we can’t speak of the popular media without speaking about massive corporations and Super PACs. And we can’t speak of corporations and Super PACs without speaking about consumer capitalism and neo-liberal economics, which now rules the roost in this country and, increasingly, the world. All of these are of a piece, they all work together and coalesce to form what political scientist Benedict Anderson calls our “imagined community,” which at this place and time is the United States of America, itself an instance of that recent innovation, the nation-state.

Each one of these “hops” up the chain – representative-democratic elections as coercion, campaigning as propagandizing, mass media in the digital age, corporate power as oligarchy, consumerism as structured economic individualism, neo-liberal economics as nihilistic oppression – each of these should be seen as deeply problematic from a radical Christian perspective.

So while I agree with Ted and Yoder that it’s possible to not get our hopes up too high and thus be able to walk into and out of the voting booth with a sober biblical realism, I want to say “Not so fast.” I want Christians to think long and hard about just how far down that rabbit hole goes. And as I look around at American society in general, and the EMU/Harrisonburg Mennonite micro-society in particular, I’m not convinced that we’ve done this kind of analysis and self-reflection. We’ve spent too much time on the Huffington Post and Facebook – just as our more rural, less educated conservative sisters and brothers have spent too much time on Fox News (and also Facebook). Our imaginative capacities are not adequately constituted for such sober biblical realism that Ted, Yoder, and I think right and good, and sometimes necessary.

Stanley Hauerwas has recently likened this age of American life to the Roman circus. The powers have devised a game to keep us distracted and stupid while successfully giving us the impression that in participating in national presidential elections, we are somehow exercising a sacred civic duty. But the radical Christian sees this differently. Yoder hints at this in the same article: “We shall expect more (relative) effect, witness and power-for-change, from the non-electoral modes of presence than from the franchise” (emphasis mine).

So the tactical, radical Christian response at this particular moment of American life may entail abstinence from the process, not only of voting but of being subjected to and participating in the never-ending media circus that consumes our lives, captivates our imaginations, and compromises our witness to the radical call of discipleship in the body of a Lord who washed feet, loved enemies, and carried a cross to his death, commanding those who had ears to hear - to go and do likewise.

I'll close with this prayer: May we no longer be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2) – and let that mind be in us, that was in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:5). Amen.

Debts of gratitude in addition to those above:

  • Robb Davis and Ric Hudgens for their thoughtful reflections on their respective blogs and through other channels.
  • Jonathan David McRay for our recent conversations about these things. I was actually "pinch-hitting" for him at this talk, as he and his wife were stuck in Texas because of the big storm here on the east coast. The radical perspectives that McRay brings - including Wendell Berry and David Graeber - have been extremely fruitful in my own theopolitical & practical musings as I leave the university and return to the rural Iowa landscape that raised me.
  • John Nugent for sending me his recent writings on nationalism, including this great first post in a series on nationalism at his Walk and Word blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment