Listening to Those Who Sacrificed for the Right to Vote

By Jim Wallis 10-28-2008

I read with interest Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's post on voting last week. He asks us to listen to the black churches. Indeed, it would have been good to listen to members of those churches as they waited in early voting lines last week in places like North Carolina-lines that reminded people of the first South African election. I was with John Lewis last week, the now congressman and veteran civil rights leader who was beaten almost to death to secure voting rights for black Americans. John had just been to North Carolina and Georgia, and was almost moved to tears when he saw the long voting lines. Yes, African American Christians are wise enough to know that they will never be voting for a "savior," but they also know that the right to vote was important enough for people to sacrifice their lives, and could certainly make enough difference to take the time to stand in line, as long as it takes, just to vote.

I thought a response to Jonathan's post was also worth reading.

I have a theological bone to pick. Elections are not about choosing a savior or ultimate faith in the nation-state. They are about conferring authority and temporal power to people who will make decisions about whether and how many of our neighbors will die in wars, how many thousands and millions will or won't get access to quality health care, whether disabled people and families at the Urban Ministries shelter get affordable housing, and whether the kids of undocumented immigrants in our neighborhoods get to go to college or not.

I appreciate and agree with the New Monastic attention (insofar as I hear similar emphasis in Shane Claiborne's message as well) to the church's first political responsibility as the exemplary kingdom community, being the change we are called to seek. But I hear a reticence, even resistance at times, to recognize citizen participation in the electoral and governmental arena, and civic engagement in governmental actions and policies between elections, as a valid exercise of love of neighbor, and an arena in which we can either care for or betray our neighbor. This strikes me as dramatically disconnected from the real vision and message of Dr. King.

No one would honestly represent Dr. King as indifferent to whether African-Americans got fair representation in the electoral-governmental process, or to government involvement in ensuring a living income for all Americans, or to the conduct of war by the U.S. government. Dr. King was manifestly passionate about the call of God's people to engage these issues at the polls and between elections as active citizens of this temporal civitas. And while the African-American church, and other churches, know they are not dependent on the justice of the state for their practice of the justice of God, they know very well that God cares about the justice (or injustice) of the state toward God's children. The church's witness to that happens in action around and within governmental politics as well as outside such action in the ways you describe.

Democracy is not the kingdom of God, and political engagement is not about doing whatever is necessary to make society turn out "right." But through democratic action and engagement in social arenas that INCLUDE elections, we can exercise and testify to the love of neighbor. If we see the good needed by our neighbor, or the evil suffered by our neighbor, and a direct impact on that by the exercise of social and political power, we are "walking by on the other side" if we abdicate involvement in the politics of governmental address, including elections.

I appreciate and agree with your attention to the first political responsibility of the church, to be the church and demonstrate God's kingdom. I'd like to hear more affirmation from New Monastics of the second political responsibility, to which King was so tuned, to care for neighbors through advocacy to power.

Thanks for your reflections and ministry, and for speaking at DCIA this week.


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