Faith and Politics (Including Voting)

Ted Grimsrud

All this talking and thinking about voting (this post is part three: #1—Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?; #2 —More thoughts about voting (or not) for a “warmonger”) has pushed me to think about what I understand politics to be about and what this has to do with my faith convictions. These are some thoughts.

Biblical politics

I find the Bible enormously helpful for thinking about politics. Not that it gives us a blueprint or an explicit political philosophy or even a list of principles for godly politics. Just that it tells a story (a complicated story, with many subplots) that we can share in—a story, ultimately, of people trying to join together to make the world more peaceable in light of their understanding of God’s will for their lives.

In a nutshell, I would define “biblical politics” as people working together for peace. “Peace” I would understand as “biblical shalom”—the wholeness of the community, all people living harmoniously with one another and with the rest of creation. The operative sense of “politics,” then, is people working together in community for the sake of shalom.

The Bible, thus, is intensely political as it tells both of how communities can operate in peaceable ways and of how communities violate shalom (and suffer the consequences). From Genesis’s account of the communal problems that emerge when people turn from shalom to Revelation’s account of a great city of peace (the New Jerusalem) being established on earth, the Bible focuses on politics done (or not) in light of the peaceable will of the creating and sustaining God of the universe.

The state in the Bible

Biblical politics, thus, is not the same as state politics. The state has quite an ambiguous role in the biblical story. The basic plot recounts how God creates a people with the vocation of knowing and embodying God’s shalom in such a way that they would bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). The initial peoplehood is not linked with any particular state. After the trauma of brutalizing slavery in Egypt, God liberates the people, gives them a blueprint for their political life (Torah), and establishes them in the promised land as what eventually becomes a kingdom with boundaries to defend.

However, tellingly, the Hebrew kingdom failed—according to the prophets because it departed from the political mandate of Torah to embody a community of wholeness that genuinely expresses and witnesses to God’s shalom. This failure of the kingdom did not lead to a failure of the promise, however—a crucial point in understanding biblical politics.

The promise continues, embodied in faltering ways by scattered (diasporic) communities centered on Torah and without state power. The various kingdoms within which the communities existed are presented in a variety of ways. None of them are portrayed as direct channels of the promise. In fact, they often stand in opposition to the people of the promise. And yet, the story also includes several intriguing examples of Yahweh-people working within “the corridors of power” to positive effect (such as Joseph, Esther, and Daniel).

As well, occasionally one of the great kingdoms acts in ways that biblical writings view as reflecting God’s will (a negative example being Babylon serving as an agent of God’s judgment against unfaithful Judah; a more positive example being Persia allowing the Hebrew leadership class to return from the Babylonian exile and rebuild the Temple).

The New Testament also reflects this ambiguous portrayal of the state. Decidedly, the state is never presented in a positive way as a channel of the promise. The separation of promise and state continues. And the state is linked with Satan, with tyranny, and with the ancient evils of the Babylonian Empire. Yet we may also discern a certain level of respect for the role that state should play in providing for social order that allows for a relative level of stability that enhances the spread of the gospel.

For the Bible, in the end, the state, it seems, simply exists. It’s often an enemy of the promise. It is, after the destruction of Judah, never a direct channel for the promise. But it can help make the practice of shalom more possible. It can provide for a level of social stability that makes genuine biblical politics more possible. We get hints of the possibility of working for shalom within the structures of the state.

Biblical politics is about spreading shalom. Working within the state can indeed make such spreading more possible even as the state itself may also at times be the enemy of shalom and should never be seen as the direct channel for God’s promise. The loyalty people of faith might give the state should always be seen as contingent—loyalty only to the extent that the state works to further shalom (as defined by the Bible’s sensibility concerning what constitutes genuine peace, not the state’s own self-interested claims).

People-centered (not state-centered, or church-centered)

Biblical politics, thus, are people-centered, not state-centered. The same logic that leads to this conclusion should also lead us to affirm, as well, that biblical politics are not church-centered either. The organized church (defined here in its institutional sense), somewhat like the state, just is. It is also a human structure (a Power, in Paul’s language) that can all too easily become an idol. The church, like the state, should always also only be given contingent loyalty by shalom makers. The church serves shalom when it seeks the well-being of people (inside and outside its boundaries), not when it seeks its own status or even its own survival first or operates as if worship may be separated from shalom work in the wider world.

One of the central political issues that emerges in the biblical story, already in an Old Testament book such as Jonah but especially in the ministries of Jesus and Paul, is the role of community boundaries in furthering the promise. The powerful tension between strict boundary maintenance for the sake of the survival of the faith community, on the one hand, and open engagement with and invitation to those outside the community for the sake of witnessing to God’s shalom, on the other hand, animates many biblical debates and struggles. Jesus’ words emphasize where he stood in relation to this tension: “The Sabbath is for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.” Or, we could certainly add, not “human beings for the state” or “human beings for the organized church.”

The state, properly understood, exists for the sake of people as does the church. So also with other structures that at times become bases for violent boundary maintenance such as money, the Temple (or other later similar structures), the law (understood in the Pauline sense of “works of the law”), the land, the Eucharist, and so on. Each of these structures may serve human well-being, but they easily acts as ends in themselves (i.e., idols) that underwrite violence and coercion.

The biblical criterion for a truthful approach to politics and faith was elaborated most succinctly by Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and being. And love your neighbor as yourself.” As his story of the Good Samaritan makes clear in Luke 10, Jesus meant “neighbor” to be understood in an extraordinarily expansive sense—not only friends but enemies.

The New Testament understanding of this love command does not simply present love of God and love of neighbor as two distinct parts of one obligation where we could say loving neighbor without loving God is just as bad as loving God without loving neighbor. It is clear that we cannot love God without loving our neighbors. And that when we are loving our neighbors we are in fact loving God. So, while we can think we are loving God while we choose not to love our neighbor (though we would be wrong), simply the act of loving the neighbor is also an act of loving God whether we are conscious of this or not.

As John writes, we have never seen God. But we have seen our neighbors. It is in loving them that we show we love God. And Jesus stated in his parable of the sheep and goats that our showing love to a random neighbor in need is counted as a salvific work. And James emphasizes that faith with works is dead. These all echo the condemnation Amos gave of people in the community who successfully practiced works of piety yet practiced injustice toward vulnerable people in their community.

Love of neighbor, thus, stands as the one truthful expression of love of God. This is the one commitment that can never be an idol. All other commitments are penultimate. Each one (state, church, wealth, family, et al) can become an idol when it does not serve love. Biblical politics are a call to be people-centered above all else.

Working for shalom

How might we think about embodying biblical politics (that is, working for shalom) in our world today? We don’t do well by thinking of rigid obligations or taboos, as if we are trying by our rigor to achieve heaven on earth or trying to assure our own purity as a means of gaining leverage over God or, in more general terms, over the moral universe.

Biblical politics is grounded in an assumption about the merciful character of life. We receive life as a gift. We receive salvation as a gift. Gratitude should be our fundamental orientation in life. And our commitment to working for shalom should always flow out of this gratitude, out of a sense of joy in what life gives us.

This work, I suggest, may be helpfully thought of in terms of a kind of three-legged stool. With such stools, the three legs need not be of identical length to nonetheless work in providing a place to sit. Likewise, I think of these three aspects of shalom work as being of variable size for each of us. However, to stay with the analogy, we do need all three legs for the stool to work. That would be my suggestion concerning my three elements of shalom work as well. They should each be complementary with the anothers.

The first “leg” would be involvement in local, face-to-face constructive work for social well-being. The second “leg” would be involvement in faith communities that seeks to empower people to do shalom work. The third “leg” would be engagement on the level of public policy making, governmental work, and the big picture of social issues.

My task here cannot be to develop an entire strategy for how to engage on these three levels. I’ll just give a few examples.

(1) The local level here in Harrisonburg, Virginia, has included in recent years the creation of a food co-op that now exists alongside a great credit union I belong to (just one among several in the community) and a thriving farmers market. Activists have just recently made tremendous strides in making our town much more bike friendly. The Community Supported Agriculture movement is burgeoning. The New Community Project provides many opportunities for important work in enhancing sustainability in various ways. This list could go on an on.

(2) Faith communities, when at their healthiest, bring people together for worship, encouragement, education, and mutual support to strengthen, guide, and exhort their members to love God and neighbor. As I inferred above, I see faith communities as having mainly a practical function. Participation in them is not a means to salvation and dare not, if the community is to be truthful, be an occasion for undermining the work of shalom by fostering “us vs. them” mentalities and reinforcing hostile social mores.

As with the biblical understanding of the land, so also with the faith community. We do need “land” (as in place, an embodied existence linked inextricably with nature), but no particular spot of land is “holy” or sacred. Possessiveness about land leads to the need to defend geographical boundaries, often with violence. This is not the way the promise works, even if it is inevitably the way of nation-states (another reason why states are not direct channels for the promise). We also need communities, sustained face to face relationships with other people who provide encouragement and critical mass for shalom work. But no community is “holy” or sacred—all communities are more or less truthful depending simply on their practice of shalom.

(3) Engagement on the macro-level, public policy, governmental work, “politics” as often thought of in our society, is of course quite complicated. Such engagement can easily lead to compromising or even ignoring levels #1 and #2. So, it is dangerous for biblical shalom to put too much weight on this level of political activity. However, in the world in which we live this macro-level does have a huge impact on the lives of people. It does seem to be the case that there are positive tasks that enhance human well-being that require macro-level work (such as transportation, educational, and communications systems; plus the need for restraints on unbridled corporate hegemony) as well as negative tasks that states tend to fall into that need to be resisted (especially military activity).

Along with recognizing the importance of what happens on the macro-level, which is a call for shalom workers to engage on this level, I also understand biblical politics to have a sense of perspective on the macro-level that allows for engagement—it’s dangerous but not inherently corrupt or corrupting. The challenge remains the same on this level as on the other two levels—the criterion for discernment as to appropriate engagement is the call to love the neighbor. This call need not and must not ever be compromised—when compromise happens we should assume that an idol has reared its head.

So, what about voting?

I hope I have provided an adequate sense of how I have arrived at my position concerning voting in the presidential election I discussed in my previous two posts (#1—Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?; #2 —More thoughts about voting (or not) for a “warmonger”). I believe it is consistent with my understanding of the relationship between faith and politics to cast a vote in favor of Barack Obama for president.

In the end, I suggest we think about this question about voting in relation to two questions: (1) How do we work for shalom? How do we carry out our human vocation to bless all the families of the earth? (2) How do we vote in the presidential election? These are two separate things. #2 contributes precious little to #1 and must not distract from the core elements of #1.

I don’t think any of the arguments for not voting (or not voting for Obama or Romney even if one lives in a contested state) that people of a peacemaking bent offer that are based on seeing voting as a distraction from what really matters are persuasive. These are two distinct issues, I think. We should indeed see working for shalom in the ways I mentioned in the previous section as our vocation that requires all our best energies. In addition, we take a few minutes to vote in the presidential election.

Our current political system does not give us an option this year (if it ever does) for voting in the presidential election in a way that contributes meaningfully in a positive way to shalom work. Obama is way too inclined toward militarism to be seen as an agent for biblical shalom. A vote meant as a vote for Obama’s actual policies and likely policies is indeed a vote in favor of a great deal of violence, threatened violence, and preparation for violence. But if we keep such a vote in perspective, we should be able nonetheless to see casting it as a valid act for one committed to peacemaking.

The system is not giving us the option to vote for peace in any meaningful way. So, we must think in terms of what the system is giving us. I see two ways to respond: (1) If we are not in a contested state, the system is allowing us to do a tiny act of support for a miniscule movement that indeed does stand for peace, the Green Party. (2) If we are in a contested state, the system is allowing us to do a tiny act of opposition to an option that promises to make things even worse.

If I were to think of, say, any ten specific issues where an Obama victory would result in different policies than a Romney victory, I would imagine that in every single one a Romney victory would lead to more death and suffering than an Obama victory. If we were to rank these policies as (1) good, (2) fair, (3) bad, and (4) terrible in relation to the content of biblical shalom, I would not imagine either candidate would provide any “good” policies. However, Romney would probably provide ten “terrible” policies, whereas Obama would provide likely a handful of “fair” policies and many “bad” policies (and even where he may provide a “terrible” policy—such as the use of drones—almost certainly Romney would be even more “terrible”). Even in relation to abortion, if our criterion for what would be a better policy is which policy would result in fewer abortions of any kind as well as fewer “unsafe” abortions, Obama’s policies would be superior.

So, in terms of biblical politics, I would argue that voting in the presidential election is only of secondary importance. If person committed to such politics were devote their energies to the kind of shalom work mentioned above and not vote, I would not want to argue that they are being irresponsible or unfaithful. However, I really don’t see any reason not to vote nor any reason why voting in any way compromises the commitment to genuine shalom work. And it would add just one tiny bit of resistance to the descent of our country into the abyss of even more intense greed, redemptive violence, and social stratification. For that reason, it seems like something worth doing.

4 thoughts on “Faith and Politics (Including Voting)

  1. Thanks Ted – This is helpful to me right now as I think about what a “theology of the state” might look like. A couple of thoughts/questions. First, I think legs one and three of your stool flow together. That is, local action should lead to public policy advocacy (“witness” in Yoder’s terms). Thus, one’s work on homelessness locally should lead to naming injustices that exist because of policy failures (be they local, regional or national). Of course I think even public policy advocacy should focus on the local. It is in the “nearby” that we learn what faithful witness to the powers looks like. Second, I think I see what you are saying about the “institutional” church but your writing seems to place the church on the same level with the state in terms of its “essentialness” in God’s plan. But isn’t God using the community of Jesus-followers–the church–to bring about the reconciliation of all things? I may be confused about what you are saying here. I do agree that institutional manifestations of the church are fallen and often bent on their own survival to the detriment of God’s reconciling plan.

  2. Thanks Ted. I found this really interesting and helpful. I agree with your take on the state. Like power itself, it can be helpful and hurtful. It is often hurtful because it is “elite captured” – meaning the elite operate the state to further their accumulation of wealth and power. But the state in a true democracy works on behalf of communities and functions more to organize local communities for the common good. I don’t think the state is the only way of organizing this type of participatory governance and so I think we need to explore political options that go beyond the state like regional organizations with shared currency and environmental standards or very local forms of governance like we have here in harrisonburg.

    But one additional thought. You note the temptations to compromise when working with macro-level issues. Indeed. I feel that pressure sometimes. But I also see my community-level friends and colleagues making all kinds of compromises in the everyday choices they make – it is difficult if not impossible to be engaged in the world in a way that causes no one harm. From our cars, cell phones, coffee, clothes, etc… we buy things that are a result of other people’s suffering. So I always want to be careful that we don’t externalize and spend so much time criticizing macro structures rather than looking at our own everyday choices in participating in these structures….

    I am glad that you will vote tomorrow.

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