Confessions of an Alternative Voter

By Ryan Rodrick Beiler 10-31-2008

I'm pretty sure I have more sympathy for Shane and his treatment of what I'll call "alternative voting" (principled non-voters, minor party supporters, write-ins, etc.) than some of my fellow bloggers. Eight years ago-blame me-I voted for Nader. (Granted, it was in D.C.)

I had come of political age during the Clinton years and as a radical pacifist had a pretty monolithic view of government as the evil empire. No amount of appeals to pragmatism would sway me-I was voting on principle, being faithful if not effective. I distinctly recall Clinton himself calling in to Democracy Now (to which I faithfully listened every morning) and scolding Amy Goodman for legitimizing a Nader candidacy. Not only was I not convinced, I was insulted by his arrogance and condescension. Clinton had almost bombed Baghdad, allowed 500,000 Iraqi children to die under the sanctions regime, and had nothing even close to a consistent ethic of life. Bush seemed harmless enough at the time, given his rhetoric of "compassionate conservatism," and I didn't see a compelling alternative in Gore, who didn't even win his home state.

Eight years later, I'm painfully aware of how that election affected the direction of this country and the world. I've also gotten the chance to know lots of good people in government, many of them in the context of my church community. Sometimes we've argued over poverty policy or a just response to terrorism. But I've also been in small group Bible studies and developed close friendships with a military intelligence officer who opposed the Iraq war, and with a cop whose heart breaks both for the suffering he sees in D.C.'s worst neighborhoods and for the broken system that employs him.

The Empire now has faces and names, and while I still believe that these structures are fundamentally fallen, I am grateful for those who participate in them as salt and light. I'm convinced of the need for wise engagement guided by prayerful discernment. But that took time, good role models, and honest soul-searching-loving enemies and making new friends.

So on the issue of voting, because of my own journey, I strongly believe that scolding folks away from alternative voting simply won't work. I experienced such attempts as condescension and talking down to me. Back then, it was my good friend Dwight Ozard (God rest his soul) from Evangelicals for Social Action that was kicking my butt with Jacques Ellul, who if I understand correctly, thinks the church should witness to Empire but shouldn't expect too much from it in the way of Christ-likeness.

Ultimately, I just had to be honest with myself: Was my life such a consistent act of Empire subversion that my alternative in the choice to vote was consistent with my alternatives in all other choices: what to buy, where to live, what to eat, what to wear, how to travel? If so, I couldn't have written this blog post, because the computer I'm using was produced in a rather un-Christ-like way. Here's where Shane's concept of "damage control" comes in. I'm still a pacifist, but I'm not paralyzed by imperfection. I use biodiesel and I dumpster dive -- both imperfect responses to broken systems. But I haven't managed to stop driving. Or eating. I make the best available choice that will have the minimum negative impact-or more positively, the best possible outcome-in this, as in every choice in the now-but-not-yet of God's Reign. We seek the kingdom, but we don't allow worrying over our choices about "all these things" to paralyze us from moving forward (Matthew 6:25-34).

So instead of more lecturing, I invite my alternative- or non-voting friends to honestly and prayerfully consider some more questions, pray, and then vote your conscience on November 4:

  • If we're not electing a Savior, then why would we hold candidates to standards of Christ-likeness that are impossible for a president to demonstrate?
  • Our ultimate allegiance is always to Christ. But if I'm writing-in "Jesus," does he really need my vote, or is he already Lord? Unless, like Caesar, our president makes some claim to divinity, is a secret ballot the right time and place to make this theological statement?
  • Though they didn't get to vote, how can I currently apply biblical examples of God's people engaging with Empire: Joseph, Esther, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago, and their participation and witness to various kingdoms-even the archetypal evil empire of Babylon?
  • And finally, and perhaps most importantly, is my vote all about me and my conscience, or am I considering the common good and loving my neighbor (local, national, global) in my decision? If my life is insulated from the differences in policy between the candidates, what about those whose lives are most vulnerable to even small differences on issues like poverty, health care, and foreign policy?

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web editor for Sojourners.

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