Why I Believe Christians Should Vote

By Jim Wallis 10-31-2008

Hey Shane, thanks for weighing in. I appreciate it. I am so thankful for you and everybody who is asking the question of how to be faithful to Jesus at a time like this-and even in response to an election. I agree with much of what you said yesterday on the God's Politics blog and have a few thoughts to offer in response.

We have a lot of common ground: our first commitment and ultimate loyalty is to the kingdom of God and the church as an alternative community of faith in the world; elections always confront us with imperfect choices; how we live on November 3 and 5 is also important; and we agree that our responsibility to speak prophetically to the new administration, whoever wins, is key.

I especially like your advice to consult with poor people themselves and people of color about what they think about this election, and ask them how they would counsel us to vote. Very few people, including Christians, would ever do that; but it makes real biblical sense if we are always supposed to listen more to people at the bottom than those at the top.

And, as you know, I don't endorse candidates, but advise those who ask. One of my greatest influences, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., never endorsed a candidate; rather, he asked them to endorse the agenda of a movement. That's what I try to do too, and Sojourners has been doing that in this election season.

But nobody should have any doubt about whether Dr. King would have wanted people to vote. He literally gave his life for people's civil rights, and for the right to vote in particular. I had the blessing of being with congressman John Lewis last week, the former civil rights leader who, as a young activist, was beaten almost to death on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama -- in a march that led to the passage of the historic Voting Rights in 1965. John had tears in his eyes when he told me about the long early voter lines he's seen in North Carolina and Georgia-lines that reminded him of the first election in South Africa.

I remember that election too and went to South Africa for the inauguration of Nelson Mandela. Another mentor of mine was there-Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu was one of those who taught me that the church's prophetic witness is our first priority, but he was also the master of ceremonies at Mandela's inauguration. But as soon as Mandela was elected, Desmond Tutu became the most prophetic voice in South Africa, holding the new government accountable and challenging them on the questions most important to people of faith -- like use of military weapons and power. We will have that prophetic responsibility too, no matter who wins this election. But Desmond Tutu told an audience in Chicago last week about how important it is to vote in America for this election.

For more than two decades, Sojourners looked almost exactly like the Simple Way does now, and it was, for us, a school for Christian discipleship; and that's why I am so supportive of what you and the monastic movement are doing. We both believe passionately in the church's life as a "political" act, in and of itself, as a radical alternative to the values of the society and the behavior of the principalities and powers. But we also voted in those early Sojourners days and had conversations in our living room with John Howard Yoder about how the two kinds of engagement were vitally connected. In our sincere attempts to offer an alternative style of life, there are some mistakes we can make and, to be honest, self-conscious "radical Christians" like us often have.

One is to say that there is no real difference between electoral choices. While the choices are often imperfect ones, deciding not to vote is still making a choice. Our non-participation is a form of participation that makes us complicit with the outcome. Sometimes there doesn't seem to be a great deal of difference between the candidates, but, even then, it is usually worth the short time it takes to vote for the sake of the differences that are there, especially as the choices impact the poor. But I do want to say that in this election of 2008, I believe the choices between the presidential candidates are more clear and stark than any election in my lifetime. Again, consult with the poor.

Second, you're right to say that role of commander in chief stands in sharp contrast with our Jesus vocation of peacemakers. But again, history has shown that there are real differences between the commanders in chief we have had. Some are more likely to use diplomacy to try and resolve the inevitable conflicts in the world, and others are more likely to go to war. In recent elections, the choices voters have made have clearly led to war and to so many lives being lost. I understand that the commander in chief will always be prepared to defend the American people if they feel that it is necessary, and not "turn the other cheek." But I would prefer a president who sees the use of force as the very last resort and not one of the first courses of action. And those voter choices have enormous impact on the lives of so many people.

Finally, there are biblical roles for both the church and the state, and both are necessary according to scripture, in good Christian theology, and even in the Anabaptist tradition which we are both attracted to (including my living room talks with Yoder). The body of Christ must demonstrate what the kingdom of God looks like and offer a prophetic witness to the state. But churches, by themselves, cannot provide for "the common good" as government is supposed to, in conjunction with many other institutions in society-including the churches.

For example, it was the church that was the first, fastest, and best responder to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I just preached to a church in Ohio where they sent teams 47 times in the last three years! Now that is both service and prophetic witness. But churches can't rebuild levies or provide health care for 48 million people who don't have it. Only government can make sure that happens, and make sure that the many other aspects of the common good are being attended to.

You said that if somebody writes in "Jesus" on the ballot, they better then get busy to help provide health care for those 48 million people. Well, all the monastics and all the other churches in the country simply can't do that. And they won't do that. So our votes and our advocacy are the only way that health care will ever be provided for those 48 million people who don't have it. It is important not to confuse the roles of the church and the state-but that is a longer conversation we should have sometime in the living room.

I'm glad you're not endorsing a candidate either, and nobody should pressure you to do so. But I do think you could call upon your listeners to vote, no matter who they vote for, and then ask them to get busy in showing the nation how Christians are supposed to live and hold whoever wins accountable to the agenda of a movement. You're an important part of that movement Shane, and I am grateful to you for that. Let's pray for what happens to our country on Novemeber 4. It will really make a difference.

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