Jesus is not an Essene nor a Herodian

By Timothy King 10-31-2008

If you care about peace, justice, the common good, poor people, the environment, genocide, war, peoples' health, human life or general wellbeing, come hell or high water, you are going to vote on November 4. You might care about all of these things and mark your ballot in a different spot than me. That's fine. There are probably a number of policy points on which we practically disagree. I know my dad and I will vote differently next week, but I do not for a second doubt his sincerity of heart.

Over the course of this election season, I have heard many people declare that they will not vote. Some out of frustration and others out of apathy, but I am deeply disturbed when believers say they will not vote out of Christian conviction.

I could choose not to vote and to disengage if I so desired. It would be easy. I am a white, middle class, college-educated male. I can honestly minimize the effect of government on my life more than most. However, for millions in this country and billions across the world, this choice is not a matter that can be taken so lightly. To be poor, a minority, have children, or to have no family at all would certainly change a lot of that position.

There is a growing contingent of young Christians who have announced their opposition to casting a ballot. The concerns of the state, they say, are not the concerns of Christians but of the world. Christians are called to provide a prophetic alternative that the world can observe. To participate in the institutions of this world, i.e. the "Empire," is to be seduced and corrupted by them. If one has a stake in the Empire, one can't subvert it as Christians are called to do.

If you are looking for enemies, you are sure to find them. If you are looking for allies, they often are found in unlikely places. These systems will always contain flaws, and those that participate in them will necessarily be a part of those flaws. We could take the route of Pontius Pilate -- declare our opposition, wash our hands, and let the world take its course. But we cannot return to the Garden where neither the public sector nor the private existed. We do not yet have the option to live fully in the kingdom that is still to come. We are stuck in the middle -- the now but not yet -- forced to live in this tension while waiting for the day when it is resolved.

The government is not the be all and the end all, nor even the primary concern of the church. But I continue to be startled by a negligent attitude toward our government by a growing number of Christians. It might just be a reaction against a previous generation that will subside as we mature. I hope so.

Jesus could have joined the Essenes, a Jewish community who removed themselves from the messy work of public life and focused on personal piety in an alternative community. But he didn't. Jesus could have joined the Herodians who cozied up to the political leaders of the time at the expense of their integrity. But he didn't. Instead he went to Jerusalem. The seat of power. He used what tools he had to challenge the religious, political, and financial institutions of the time.

Whether we like it or not, our national identity and the status of our earthly citizenship is part of our personal identity. We are never reduced to these identities, but while we sojourn on this earth, they are always part of us. Consequently, to forsake voting and to dismiss political engagement is to neglect a part of your identity, which God can use and transform.

I do not underestimate the Christian imperative to serve as a witness to Christ's radical love and sacrifice. However, when we walk away from opportunities to witness through voting, lobbying, or any form of public engagement, we needlessly marginalize ourselves. We turn the church into a pink mohawk. It displays our angst and rebellion, but does little more than to worry our parents and turn a few heads.

Tim King is special assistant to the CEO for Sojourners.

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