More thoughts about voting (or not) for a “warmonger”

Ted Grimsrud

As we draw closer to election day, 2012, I continue to reflect on the voting issue. My October 1, 2012, post asked the question “Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?”  [UPDATE: I posted a third installment on October 28: “Faith and Politics (Including Voting)”] I concluded that though indeed I believe that President Obama’s four years in office have been a time of increasingly distressing militarism, I still will vote for him. I posed this choice not so much as voting for a lesser evil but as voting against a greater evil. That is, I do not understand my vote to be an expression of support for Obama but to be an expression of opposition to the far more distressingly militaristic and destructive-in-many-more-areas policies I would expect from a Romney administration.

The original posts received many thoughtful and perceptive comments. Within the comments section, several other fascinating conversations that went beyond my own contribution emerged. With these responses and numerous conversations with friends and more reading and thinking, I want to take some time to say a bit more—mainly to try to restate and clarify the argument I am trying to develop.

What does “warmonger” mean—and does it apply to Obama?

I came up with the title for my post (“Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?”) mainly to be eye-catching. My intent was not to make the case that Obama actually should called a warmonger so much as to make that case that even if pacifists are unhappy with Obama’s policies related to war (as I most certainly am), voting for him is still a good idea (as far as it goes—I, of course, go on to say that a vote for Obama should be accompanied with a strong commitment to work however possible for peace, including voicing strong criticisms of the pro-war policies). My intended audience with the post was people who are already inclined toward pacifism—so the context is how a pacifist might view Obama and his administration’s policies.

However, I did say that I was “serious” in using the term “warmonger.” So I need to reflect a bit more on this use. The short definition from the Webster’s Online Dictionary seems to fit what I had in mind pretty well: “A person who advocates war or warlike policies.” In my mind, Obama’s escalation of the Afghanistan war, increase in military spending (even though the U.S. already spends about as much on the military as the rest of the world combined), use of drones and other violent activities in places such as Pakistan, warfare against Libya, refusal to hold Bush-era purveyors of lawlessness accountable, continuation of the deterioration of civil liberties in relation to U.S. “security needs,” and the like, clearly qualify him for the description of a person who “advocates warlike policies”—and, of course, as president he is in the position to turn the advocacy into policy (or, just as problematic, to advocate de facto by implementing policies).

I’m a little more uneasy applying the longer definition from Webster’s to Obama: “A warmonger is a pejorative term that is used to describe someone who is anxious to encourage a people or nation to go to war. It is often used to describe militaristic leaders, or mercenaries, commonly with the implication that they either may have selfish motives for encouraging war, or may actually enjoy war. Some may even admit that their selfishness includes the lust for war for personal satisfaction.” This seems a bit strong, certainly insofar as Obama is not, in my mind, a cheerleader for militarism. I am troubled to read of his personal involvement in targeting some drone attacks, but in general he gives the impression of being subdued and seemingly cautious about the military actions, not gung ho (in contrast, to some degree at least, to his immediate predecessor).

So, now in this post I am using the word with quotes (“warmonger”) to indicate a sense that this is a qualified critique. Part of my argument, after all, is that a Romney administration would be even worse. I am sure of that. So it might be good to reserve the use of warmonger in an unqualified sense to a Republican administration.

Still, my bigger point is that I do not advocate voting for Obama because I am sanguine about his military policies. I am totally appalled. I think Obama’s first four years have only accelerated the descent of the United States toward a militaristic hell. So that is why I say I am not voting for a lesser of evils. I am not voting for Obama. I am voting against what I see to be an even greater evil.

Are the Democrats just as bad as the Republicans?

The point I made in my original post was stated clearly in a more recent article by Daniel Ellsberg (“Progressives in swing states vote for Obama”):

An activist colleague recently said to me: “I hear you’re supporting Obama.”

I was startled, and took offense.  “Supporting Obama?  Me?!”

“I lose no opportunity publicly,” I told him angrily, to identify Obama as a tool of Wall Street, a man who’s decriminalized torture and is still complicit in it, a drone assassin, someone who’s launched an unconstitutional war, supports kidnapping and indefinite detention without trial, and has prosecuted more whistleblowers like myself than all previous presidents put together. “Would you call that support?”

My friend said, “But on Democracy Now you urged people in swing states to vote for him!  How could you say that?  I don’t live in a swing state, but I will not and could not vote for Obama under any circumstances.”

My answer was: a Romney/Ryan administration would be no better — no different — on any of the serious offenses I just mentioned or anything else, and it would be much worse, even catastrophically worse, on a number of other important issues: attacking Iran, Supreme Court appointments, the economy, women’s reproductive rights, health coverage, safety net, climate change, green energy, the environment.

I told him: “I don’t ‘support Obama.’ I oppose the current Republican Party.  This is not a contest between Barack Obama and a progressive candidate. The voters in a handful or a dozen close-fought swing states are going to determine whether Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are going to wield great political power for four, maybe eight years, or not.”

As Noam Chomsky said recently, “The Republican organization today is extremely dangerous, not just to this country, but to the world. It’s worth expending some effort to prevent their rise to power, without sowing illusions about the Democratic alternatives.”

Following that logic, he’s said to an interviewer what my friend heard me say to Amy Goodman: “If I were a person in a swing state, I’d vote against Romney/Ryan, which means voting for Obama because there is no other choice.”

I think Ellsberg just about nails it for me.

In the comments to my post, a friend argued that voting for a third party candidate in an “uncontested” state (which is most of them, itself a terrible comment on our “democracy”) could be a responsible act. I agree fully. I understand my vote in Virginia to be the most effective step I can take in the election to oppose the Republicans. It could be a way to repudiate and cause damage to the reprehensible politics that have taken over the GOP. It could help to buy a little more time for our society to (unlikely as it may seem) turn away from the kind of militaristic corporatist plutocracy we are becoming that a Republican victory would bring even closer. This is one little thing the system lets me do.

If I were in South Dakota or Oregon or California (all states where I have lived), I would not vote for Obama but for the Green Party candidate Jill Stein. But in Virginia, a third party vote seems less useful than a vote that might play a role in defeating Romney.

Shortly after I wrote my piece, I read an article in Time that strengthened my argument, I thought. The article described the extraordinary investment of millions of dollars that is being made by coal barons to defeat Obama. The article, which is basically an uncritical PR-piece for the coal barons, does point out that the EPA is estimating that new limits on coal-plant toxic emissions implemented in 2011 “will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma every year” (emphasis added). Now, Obama’s environmental policies have been tepid at best. His passivity about climate change is inexcusable. He repeats the oxymoronic fantasy of the possibilities for “clean coal.” But the choice here is about 11,000 premature deaths or not. You can bet the coal barons are spending $10s of millions so that these limits will be overturned immediately.

What really matters with politics?

My friend Robb Davis has been writing a series of highly thoughtful blogposts on why he is not going to vote in the presidential election (part one, excursion, part two—part three is promised soon). Robb’s general perspective is terrific, I think. He is anything but unengaged, anything but passive about social change and resisting the forces of domination in our world, anything but smug about how terrible the system is that he is staying free from by not voting. His conclusions about not voting in the presidential election are thoughtful and stem from his desire to be the most effective and life-enhancing agent for change that he can be. Still, I do not find his conclusions persuasive. This is in large part because I see voting in the presidential election as a small thing (here I agree with Noam Chomsky—it’s worth only a bit of our attention). But it doesn’t hurt us to do it and it may make a tiny contribution.

More specifically, let me mention a couple of Robb’s points. He understands voting to be a way of legitimizing the unhealthy patron/client relationship governmental leaders want with the populace. “By not voting I refuse to give them what they want.” However, in these days of active voter suppression by the Republicans and a general passivity toward that repression that is all too common among Democrats in power, I find it doubtful that voting is actually something people in power want. They seem happier with low turnouts.

Robb develops a sharp critique of Obama’s complicity in the spiral of violence that characterizes American national security practices. And I agree with the critique. Except I don’t believe that the Democrats and Obama are quite as bad as the Republicans (Bush in the recent past and Romney in the future if elected). I don’t find it helpful to equate the two parties with a pox on both your houses. As well, national security issues are not the only issues at stake. And on some of the other issues, Obama is even more clearly less bad (I repeat what I wrote in my original post that I can’t think of anything Obama’s administration has accomplished or stood for that I fully approve of—just as I can’t think of any issue on which a Romney administration would not be worse).

So, back to my key point. I am not voting in favor of Obama. I am voting against something clearly worse. To vote, though, is not the most important expression of political responsibility a citizen can take—especially in this especially depressing election season. It’s not even close to the top of the list. It’s just one small act. But one that is still worthwhile and meaningful in this small way. However, for a pacifist to vote for a “warmonger” should be a step that is taken with a concomitant commitment actively to resist the “warmongering” however one can. And, even more importantly, actively to create peaceable alternatives and countercultures that might be harbingers of a new political order that genuinely places the highest priority on human and creational well-being.

See PART III: Faith and Politics (Including Voting)

23 thoughts on “More thoughts about voting (or not) for a “warmonger”

  1. I’m wondering if the focus is being put too strongly on Obama himself. My point is that the Democratic Party as a whole is a pro-war party. And the people Obama has surrounded himself with are pro-war people. Take, for example, Hillary Clinton who voted for the U.S. attack on Iraq. She has never apologized for that. Most Democratic Senators did vote for this U.S. attack and most have never given it a second thought. President Clinton was enthusiastic about interventionism; everywhere except Rwanda where it might have actually been justified. Are there any members of the Obama administration who are not pro-war and pro-interventionist? I’m not aware of them and if they do exist they have been sidelined into irrelevance.

    Historically the Democratic Party is a War Party. This goes back to Wilson and his egregious participation in W.W. I. Wilson is greatly admired by the Democratic Party, particularly its progressive wing. Given the Wilsonian precedent, and the Democratic Party heritage overall, I have difficulty coming to the same conclusion you do regarding who to vote for. Myself, I’m voting for a 3rd party.

    And just to round out this comment: it was Eisenhower, a Republican, who got us out of Korea. And it was Nixon, a Republican, who got us out of Vietnam (yes, he could have done it sooner, but he did do it). Are there similar historica precedents in the history of the Democratic Party?

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    Thy Friend Jim

    1. Thanks, Jim, for your good thoughts. I think your points are good challenges to what I am arguing for.

      Just a couple of quick points. I don’t mean to focus on Obama. Actually, I think I am focusing more on Romney, really, in that I am voting against him and his party (not for Obama). I agree that the Democratic Party has historically been a war party. In fact I am writing a book that is quite critical of St. Franklin Roosevelt himself precisely on these grounds. But not all the Democrats are warmongers. I think if somehow our political system moves away from militarism it will be because of some Democrats.

      Precisely my point is that the Republican Party has radically changed and it is no longer possible to have any influence in the GOP without being an extreme warmonger. I voted happily for Mark Hatfield for the Senate several times—as good a peace politician as I can think of in my lifetime. But there simply is not room for a Hatfield in the Republican Party now. Imagine if a Republican Senator had opposed Bush’s wars with the same vehemence as Hatfield opposed Nixon’s policies in Vietnam (and, though I put much of the evils of our war on the Vietnamese on Kennedy and Johnson, I cannot give Nixon any credit for that war ending).

      I of course support and respect your decision to vote for a third party candidate. As I said, if I lived in a non-contested state, I would too.

  2. I think the Daniel Ellsberg piece offers an important and impure apologetic for voting against the Romney/Ryan ticket.

    On more thoughts about voting or not voting, I have had some clarifying exchanges with those in the contra-voting Mennonite and Neo-Anabaptist movement since my last exchanges on this blog. As I’ve listened, it seems the agenda is to punish Obama and to keep one’s own conscience clean for we must admit that the personal conscience of the average Anabaptist is wildly utoptan and quite sectarian. But is the politics of just peace in a blessed broken world really about this? I was cheered by the recent reflection by Steve Kriss in MWR. Kriss suggests that voting might have to do not with voting one’s own conscience as much as standing in public solidarity with the silenced voices of others for an imperfect common good beyond one’s virtuous self-interests.

    Last week in S. Ohio I heard a coal miner say he would vote for Romney no matter what his environmentalist neighbors said because he “was making big money” and “this was his job” and Romney would best serve his self-interests. He felt good.

    This weekend I’m in Western PA and the push from natural gas workers, ‘frackers,” is for Romney/Ryan because they will further de-regulate fracking and “you can make $60,000 to $90,000 a year without a high school diploma and this is damn good for us!” They feel good, damn good. “No fracking way!” answer those who care about the common weal.

    In like manner punishing Obama and protecting a pacifist conscience, our most virtuous self-interest, by refusing to vote might really be punishing our friends and neighbors if Romney and Ryan and their staff march into the White House. And if these righteous non-voters bring their clean consciences to church and join the national Election Eve Mennonite Communion they might in the political balance of the cosmos be drinking some death and damnation, not to themselves, but to their neighbors.

    1. “Political balance of the cosmos?” – Those are some weighty metaphysical claims you’re tossing around, Scott. I thought you were a deconstructionist – aren’t you past metaphysics? 😉

      I don’t see my not voting as a way to keep my conscience clean, punish Obama (whom I voted for in ’08), or be sectarian – or my participation in Election Day Communion as a “spiritualized cop-out,” as I’ve seen it described elsewhere.

      No, I think I’m looking at things pretty realistically when I feel I have no reason to believe that voting will substantively improve the conditions of “the least of these.” Not when crony capitalism has hijacked the political process to the point where it doesn’t matter who’s in office, everyone but the 1% is getting screwed.

      I’d rather take the politics of Jesus seriously by carving out radical ecclesia and public-facing radical democracy and community peacebuilding on the ground of the nearby – not the abstract-ideological and capitalistic black hole that’s become of Washington D.C.

      1. Brian, how does voting against Romney in any way detract from your “carving out radical ecclesia…”?

      2. I don’t think it does, necessarily, Ted; but it might detract from the “radical democracy” part of my sentence. Putting too much faith/trust/expectation in the electoral process (esp. at a national level) seems to be too easy a path to divorcing yourself from more concrete forms of civic engagement.

        To put a finer point on it: I think it’s entirely possible and necessary to be (neo-)Anabaptist and both realistic (not utopian) and civically engaged (not sectarian). Like deconstructionists are so over metaphysics, I’m so over Niebuhr.

  3. Let me repeat my question, Brian. How does voting detract from “radical democracy”? (I can’t imagine Cornel West or Rom Coles not voting in this election) Are you implying voting at all requires “putting too much faith/trust/expectation in the electoral process” at the national level? How would voting require in any sense a lessening of “more concrete forms of civic engagement”? Shouldn’t they be complimentary—part of a single commitment to civic engagement?

    I don’t share Scott’s apparent assumption about the necessary presence of a drive for purity that fuels the non-voting stance. But I am not sure yet what else it could be.

    1. Thanks for dragging it out of me, Ted. 🙂 I almost put some of this in my last comment, but here goes…

      You might say that my not voting has a somewhat Marxist impulse, which I hinted at above. Check out this NYT op-ed piece that says some things better than I could:

      Big money has worked its way into the political process to the extent that it may be irredeemable (and I mean that non-theologically, but we could give theological readings of the situation). Scott likes to talk about Whitman’s America. Whitman’s America was Jefferson’s America, and quite simply that ship has sailed, never to return. The agrarian-democratic vision of Jefferson has been supplanted by the plutocratic vision of neoliberal economics and its seepage into the American political imaginary. That’s one…

      Two is the media, which I mentioned in our pub discussion the other week. This has a Marxist bent, too. Read this piece that documents the invention of political consulting (from the marketing industry) in the 1950s and its now ubiquity:

      Campaigning has, since the advent of television, been predicated on the assumption that the masses are idiots that don’t know what’s good for the common good, and that campaigns will do anything and everything they can do to keep them out of the work of politics. Politicians are a certain kind of professional now, far removed from their constituency. In the digital age, campaigns are now endless. Through the endless gaze of the lens, the “like,” and the tweet – politicians are capable only of ideological soundbyte rhetoric, even within the chambers.

      Meanwhile, “(a)s of October 20, 2012, 946 groups organized as Super PACs have reported total receipts of $497,541,400 and total independent expenditures of $410,448,545 in the 2012 cycle.” (Source: Half a billion dollars, most of that money going to advertising or other more aggressive forms of campaigning.

      Ted, when we last talked you said that voting “only takes you 30 seconds,” and I just don’t think that’s true given the circumstances I’ve described above. This money game is cleverly designed to keep us distracted and stupid while giving us the impression that we’re doing our “civic duty.” We’re not doing our civic duty – we’re sneering on Facebook about “binders full of women” to people who already agree with us. The capitalistic “eventism” of the debates has been fascinating to watch. (I didn’t watch them, except through the status updates of others on F’book.)

      Since you mentioned Cornel West, here’s an article where he’s saying some of these things – and yes, he’s voting, it’s for Obama, and he’s going to continue to be a vocal critic of Obama should he be re-elected:

      Lastly, here’s a great video from Stanley Hauerwas on why elections are the new Roman Circus, because I know how much you and Scott love Hauerwas:

      Again I’ll point out that all I’ve said here is not theological. How sectarian am I for quoting the New York Times and the New Yorker? Doesn’t seem to get much more cosmopolitan than that. (This is a stupidly long response; I hope you find it addresses your questions…)

      1. Thanks for your thoughts, Brian (and your brief comment below). We definitely need some more pub time before you leave town!

        While I find myself in great sympathy with most of what you say here (I hope you have noticed the severity of my critique of many of the problems you mention in many of my writings, developed most extensively in my book-to-be on World War II’s moral legacy).

        However, to be frank, I don’t see how your “long response…addresses [my] questions” at all (including your brief comment below).

        These are the core questions:

        (1) How does voting (for president?) itself detract from the practice of “radical democracy” or “civic engagement” that you (and I) value greatly? You seem to imply that voting and such engagement are in tension rather than being complementary. But that doesn’t make sense to me—as I say in what I’ve written up to now, I suggest that we should see our act of voting in this election as accepting a vocation in fact to intensify our engagement. (This is precisely what I understand Cornell West, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Rebecca Solnit, and others I admire to advocate). My challenge to you is to address this question. It seems to me that you should have to show that such a tension does in fact exist to make your case.

        (2) Do you or do you not agree that a Romney administration would be notably worse than an Obama administrative in relation to “the least of these” that you evoke? I think we can at least compare the Obama years to the Bush years to approximate an answer to this question—though I suggest that a Romney administration would be demonstrably more anti-“the least of these” than even Bush’s was.

        (3) If you sincerely think that a Romney administration would not be worse than Obama’s you needn’t respond to this question. But if you agree with me that it likely would be worse, why not take the “30 seconds” to add one tiny grain of sand of weight to influencing the election away from that outcome?

  4. One other thought, Brian. You write: “I have no reason to believe that voting will substantively improve the conditions of ‘the least of these.'” If you think that a Romney administration would not be decidedly worse for “the least of these” than Obama, I have to question whether you are paying attention.

    I’d suggest, again, that rather than thinking in terms of “improving” or not, we are more accurate to think in terms of degrees of devastation. If we can contribute (just a tiny bit) to making things less devastating shouldn’t we? What would it cost you to do this?

      1. A good and helpful exchange, Brian and Ted. I have little to add to this exchange.

        However, a couple of responses to you, Brian. First, I’m using ‘the political balance of the universe” as a poetics not a metaphysics and thus as an embodied, material, pragmatic reality. I do live in Whitman’s America and not merely in Mack’s or Menno’s church.

        As I write this Sunday morning I’m listening to an NPR program and report on the Romney/Ryan plan to de-fund Planned Parenthood for women’s health services. The report further reflects on the huge chasm between Romney and Obama on womens rights and concerns. Brian, since like many Neo-Anabaptists you point to the church, the ecclesial community, as the engine of transformation and social good will your church continue to fund Planned Parenthood under a Romeny cut? Or will your church continue succesful programs for poor children at risk for violence, depression and suicide in my Pittsburgh neighborhood that will be at risk for funding under a Romney/Ryan administration? Are not these issues also Just Peace issues?

        Since you and I share preacher’s papers in the same church, the Church of the Brethren, I think it is fair to bring a real phenomenological slice of church life to the attention of readers of this blog. At the 2011 Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren in Grand Rapids we witnessed the ugly conservative backlash against women, and against queers, IN THE CHURCH.

        Two gifted women were on the ballot for the office of moderator of the denomination. The conservatives were politically organized and in a shocking move, a conservative man associated with the Brethren Revival Fellowship, which opposes women in leadership and most progressive civic values, was nominated from the floor and HE WON the denominational stolen election.

        More sobering yet, there was also a credible death threat issued against a strong lesbian lay leader in the denomination (one of my former students). The Grand Rapids police had to come to this Historic Peace Church annual gathering to both investigate the death threat and provide security, because when church ideology is elevated above human security and well-being people get killed.

        Can you seriously continue to point to the church, the real church, not the paper church of theory, as a viable alternative to the gritty but graced political life in the public sphere to secure human rights, goods and services for citizens in a pluralistic, democratic society? Even as there is sin in society there is sin in the church. Even as there is grace in the church there is grace in the world.

      2. “In a footnote near the end of Stanley Hauerwas’s response to Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition, Hauerwas reports that when he finished reading the book in manuscript form he ‘called Jeff asking where I could possibly find his democracy materially instantiated. He replied I could find his democracy instantiated in the same place you could find my account of the church.’

        “I take it as interesting that these two could have this conversation, and that both could laugh knowingly. In the conversation, each presses the other for concreteness, albeit at different locations. “Show me the body!” they say to one another. It is interesting because each is otherwise known, indeed, seems to want to be known, for his championing of the concrete and particular.” –Charles Pinches, “Stout, Hauerwas, and the Body of America”

        “I honor Walt Whitman’s marvelous exuberant vision of a ‘new world,’ particularly as brought forward in his poetry and the essay ‘Democratic Vistas’ . . . [But i]n ‘Democratic Vistas’ we miss the presence of people of color, of Native Americans, of wilderness, or even the plain landscape . . . Whitman is unexcelled in his attribution of a kind of divinity to ordinary (white) men and women [but] the respect and authenticity he gives to human beings is not extended to nonhuman creatures . . . he assumed a kind of melting-pot future in which the other races and ethnic groups would eventually become one with the liberal Protestant metaphysic that lurks behind his dream . . . The actual ideology of Whitman’s projected future did not truly respect variety, nor could it know that different cultures would stubbornly remain, if they chose, different . . .

        “. . . I love his life, his character, and his poetry. But it troubles me that the years during which Whitman wrote ‘Democratic Vistas’ (1868-70) were years of defeat and misery for Native Americans, and were the very years when the commercial destruction of the North American bison herd was fully under way . . . It was not a time of variety and freedom for the native, or for nature.

        “There is a further vision beginning to take hold in North America now, which owes something to Whitman but which goes forward and backward in time. The Native Americans of 1992 [or 2012], for one thing, are not about to accept merely being ‘embraced’ by the ongoing obtuseness of even the most liberal Euro-Americans . . . The bioregional movement also calls for ‘natural nations’ on Turtle Island (North America). This ecological/poetical exercise starts with an analysis of how the political boundaries of the American states—those between Canada and Mexico—can obscure the biological and cultural realities of the landscape . . . Rather than trying to build a new world, some of us celebrate the possibility of membership in the ancient world of Turtle Island.” –Gary Snyder, “Walt Whitman’s Old ‘New World’”

  5. Scott, your recounting of the CoB moderator election is not accurate. The man elected maybe evangelical in outlook, but is not connected to the BRF and is not an opponent of women in leadership. That statement is not accurate and that narrative is not completely true. Have you even talked with him or discussed his theology or vision for the church? What is more, progressives in the church have equally maneuvered politically and nominated from the floor as well. Do we have as a church in serious need of capable women leaders….yes. And at the same time the CoB is not beholden to a bunch of conservative hacks any more than it is to liberal whacks. It is comprised of many people, all shaped by church politics and practice as well as their local culture.

    This is precisely the problem with the partisan imagination which emerges from the election year circus. Instead of imagining a new way of being in the world. we can only envision a red/blue divide in our church- and that is true of conservatives and progressives.

    I am not voting, neither out of idealogical purity nor out of an apathetic perspective on this current election. My commitment to not vote arises out of my experiences with jury duty and the expectations of so called citizenship. After those experiences I realized I was complicit in a Lacanian ironic stance. I was standing in criticism of a failed system all the while participating in that same system without noticing how I was complicit in its very problems at the same time. I continued to vote while trying to say that the system itself was failed and could not live into the radical kingdom visions of peace, grace, and transformation.

    Not taking part in the election is, for me, a way of saying I refuse the totalizing imagination of the partisan system and refuse to get sucked into assuming that standing for the poor and oppressed is equal to a casting ballot for one candidate over the other. In this case, Obama has an equally Empire based view of the economy as does Romney. Obama has not supported homeowners underwater in ways that subvert the very banking system that caused the problem. How is it Just to shovel truck loads of money to banks that already oppress the homeowner and continue to hold liens against properties that have no real value? Efficiency and capital will always trump the imagination of our elected officials to the point that no real change happens on the ground. To state that one’s vote for a failed candidate (regardless of party or position) is to “side with the oppressed and marginalized” is simply laughable.

    My argument against voting is neither ideological nor naive. Rather, I have to disengage from the partisan “politi-tainment” circus so that I can free my imagination to see how the church can be a real community of support and just peace making that points its finger of condemnation at the failed form of democracy and capitalism that we call America.


    1. Thanks Josh, for pushing this point. You are correct that the CoB moderator is not himself in principle opposed to the leadership of women in the church even though many of his enthusiastic supporters are. However, let me parse the politics.

      We had two gifted women vetted, affirmed and placed on the ballot for moderator of the denomination. A carefully planned conservative political coup, driven by different conservative blocks in the denomination the largest of which was the Brethren Revival Fellowship, nominated an evangelical man from the floor and he won, displacing both women. The brother could have protested that two qualified women had already been affirmed, nominated and were on the ballot. Instead, he boldly accepted the nomination and vote and declared it “a call.” Does this sound like a man who celebrates the calling and leadership of women in the church?

      Many left Grand Rapids cursing or weeping and expressing various emotions — shock, dismay, confusion, sadness or anger — at “the politics of the Brotherhood.” You ask if i have ever spoken with this man about the church and theology. Yes, we know one another, however, we have not had a conversation after Grand Rapids. Why? You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

  6. Thanks, Jonathan, for the Whitman commentaries. It is true that the historical Whitman is almost as difficult to find as the historical Jesus. It is also true that Whitman, like Lincoln, was slower in his prosaic politics than in his poetics to truly see the deep democracy of America singing. It is likewise the case that he found necessary supplements to his political thought in Emerson and freom Emerson’s friends such as Margaret Fuller and Moncure Daniel Conway.

    My only serious quarrel with any of the points made in these critical comments is that Whitman embraced “a Protestant metaphysic.” My God! Leaves of Grass subverts this American Puritan or even Quaker metaphysics (even thought Walt learned his rhetorical rhythm from Friends preacher Elias Hicks) and offers instead a spirituality without religion, churchly rites or clerical authorities in a poetics of the body electric and cosmic consciousness via communion with this sensuous living world. I’ll send you a piece I’ve presented from Bluffton to Leuven entitled, “Entering Whitman’s America: A Theopoetics of Public Life,” after I complete it for publication by January.

    1. Thanks for the reply, Scott. Ah yes, the wild goose chase for historical figures. Socio-literary readings (like Richard Horsley’s and Ched Myers’) are far more interesting. I’m no Whitman expert, so you may indeed be right that Snyder is off about the metaphysics; as a Buddhist he may be lumping a lot of Christian metaphysics together. However, I think the implicit critique of American multiculturalism is very prescient, and I also think he’s taking a broad view of socio-historical influences. Perhaps its etymological semantics, but even as one ruined by theopoetics, I’m at times skeptical of “spiritual not religious” formulations. In fact, I get a kick out of telling some people that I’m “religious but not spiritual.”

      An important connection between the quotes I posted is that they refuse to conflate the body of America, or better Turtle Island, with the political body of the United States, and they both refuse the dichotomy of ‘utopian’ withdrawal and ‘nihilistic’ realpolitik. The title of your piece sounds very intriguing.

      1. Jonathan, Some things about Whitman many don’t know is that he truly believed his Leaves of Grass would prevent the Civil War because of the spiritual poetics of interconnection: what is good in me is good in you as we share atomic, cosmic, natural life. An international movement emerged hoping to form a new religion around Walt which he resisted. I also tell the story of a friend he and Emerson shared in common who proposed a nonviolent solution to end slavery and prevent the Civil War. Both were forced by the tragic turns of the real history of both the political body and the larger cultural body of America to make poetic compromises with their utopian styles of engagement. Otherwise, it would have been necessary to embrace a flat realpoltic or to live in denial in the bad fictions of stubborn ideologies as too many theological preachers and politicians must do. You know, Lederach and others with former and current links to peace studies and conflict transformation at EMU have in recent years turned to the arts as way to imagine and re-imagine peacebuilding. There is much promise in combining your theopoetics and peacebuilding.

  7. I certainly agree, Scott, that art and peacebuilding fuse well (though it does depend on how we’re defining peacebuilding . . .), but to me compromising in light of “real history” is not the same thing as conceding to realpolitik. Poetic compromises are often necessary, but I want to also prevent deconstruction from delivering an easy escape valve from considering the ways in which poetics and politics can actually can together. After Paris ’68, too many post-modernists gave up deconstructing political structures and resigned themselves to taking apart linguistic structures. I try to steer clear of the naturalist fallacy (“ought because is”) which plagues mainstream political thought.

    I first read parts of Leaves of Grass in my undergrad American Literature and was struck by the potency: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Long live the poets who actually demand the impossible.

  8. Jonathan, Yes! I teach a peace studies course for Bethany/Earlham simply called “1968.” Not only did post-modernists in Paris, Berlin and New York turn from actual politics to deconstructing linguistic texts, they also began to inhabit linguistic texts and equate that habitation with ‘politics” in the same way too many Neo-Anabaptists and old Anabaptists alike pretend to be political radicals or Marxists simply because they carry this edgy paper-theory in their heads to righteously separate themselves from their hopelessly middle class American neighbors.

    Some of us are remembering George McGovern at his passing. He was the peace candidate in 1972 against Nixon and against Vietnam. Even in 1972, when I was eighteen and encouraging other anabaptist types to vote for the Senator, there was an anti-voting movement in the church. Many were unhappy with McGovern because he was a flyer in WWII and he felt that war, unlike Vietman, was a tragic necessity. The peace Christians couldn’t see the moral and political discontinuity between McGovern and Nixon because because of their Jesus Radicalism and Fictive Church, which even then seemed to me like a kind of theocratic or Christocratic longing within their purist and pious politics. Many don’t know that McGovern has headed for pastoral ministry and was a student at Garrett Seminary. He concluded he could do more for God’s shalom and political peace by studying history and politics than by doing theology. He took his PhD in history at Northwestern, became a history professor and then went into politics.

    1. Sounds like a good class, although I don’t want to equate ‘politics’ with ‘policies,’ or with with the competitive procedural system of checks and balances. A “Jesus radicalism” wouldn’t make that mistake, nor would it prop up the fictive church as the answer to all our problems. I haven’t read much neo-Anabaptism (or old school Anabaptism), but I see the Radical Orthodox crew making this move: almost none of their exemplar churches are actually real places. On the other side, more often than not the perfect liberal state democracies praised by the mainstream don’t exist either, which was Pinches’ critique of Hauerwas and Stout in that quote above.

      “. . . when voting in parliamentary elections one might feel obliged to make a ‘realistic’ choice; in an insurrectionary situation, on the other hand, suddenly anything seems possible . . . Voting booths, television screens, office cubicles, hospitals, the ritual that surrounds them – one might say these are the very machinery of alienation . . . Insurrectionary moments are moments when this bureaucratic apparatus is neutralized. Doing so always seems to have the effect of throwing horizons of possibility wide open . . . This would explain why revolutionary moments always seem to be followed by an outpouring of social, artistic, and intellectual creativity.” -David Graeber, noting that two months before the Paris Commune or Spanish Civil War, people voted in a moderate social democratic government, but then they suddenly risked their lives for the ultra-radicals who barely got a vote. In ’68, people supported the student-worker uprising but then shortly after voted for a right-wing government.

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