Here’s an Idea, Don’t Vote: Violence and Representative Democracy

There’s an election today. Have you heard? This will come as a shock to no one who has ever visited this site, but I will not be voting this year. I also didn’t vote four years ago. Or four years before that. Or…you get the drift. As a committed old, tried and true Christian anarchist, I have watched the campaign season very closely, the way I might watch a really interesting football game, or a Spike “world’s most unbelievable car crashes” marathon. Politics–infinitely more than contact sports and traffic accidents–has proves itself again and again to be irredeemably violent. Beyond that basically standard pacifist complaint, however, I would like to offer three reasons why I, as a Christian, am not voting and, wait for it, why I encourage other Christians not to vote either. If you’re not a Christian, you should vote; it’d be a shame if you didn’t. (Not nearly as big a shame as it is that you’re not a Christian, of course.) In any case…

With this final argument, I will most nearly approach the essential quarrel that Christian anarchism has with government generally and representative democracy specifically. To do this, however, requires an examination both of the nature of the state and the moral implications in our republican form of government. Though less concrete and more nuanced than other pleas to avoid participation in the democratic process, it still serves as the most compelling reason to see voting as immoral rather than merely unnecessary, ineffective, or unimportant.

David Lipscomb states succinctly what later theologians have agonized over with regard to man’s original sin: “God would govern and guide man; man would govern the under-creation, and so the whole world would be held under the government of God, man immediately and the under-creation through man. But, man refused to be governed by God…The institution of human government was an act of rebellion and began among those in rebellion against God, with the purpose of superseding the Divine rule with the rule of man.” The term en vogue now to discuss man’s fall is “autonomy,” but the notions are the same. The account of the first sin in Genesis boils down to the belief that humanity knew better than God how to manage its own affairs.

It is not a coincidence that the second sin is murder. Violence follows logically on the heels of rebellion. Eve having usurped the divine prerogative to rule, Cain usurps the divine prerogative to judge. Ignoring the divine approbation showered on Abel, Cain renders his own terminal judgment about his brother and summarily executes him.

It is equally understandable then that civil government should arise both as an attempt to curb the influences of these sins and as their supreme manifestation. On the one hand, civil government exists to give wrest the rights of authority and judgement from the hands of the individual, a transfer of power which is necessary in order for society to function. At the same time, however, civil government exists as the collaborative human expression of that primary impulse toward autonomy. God is no more lawgiver and judge now than in the days after the fall. Instead, humanity set up an alternative lawgiver and judge to stand in the place of God. The state is essentially and inescapably an idol to our own sense of superior self-determination.

It’s a truth so inescapable, God Himself might as well have uttered it:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

Samuel obeys, and in his subsequent warning to the people he points out that the king will be the source of constant oppression for the people. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” Samuel, to say nothing of the LORD, recognizes that human governments will always be tied inexorably to violence. Civil government, simply defined, is the ability–granted or assumed–to coerce others to behave in ways they would not otherwise. People pay their taxes because they fear the IRS, not because they have any confidence in the federal government to invest their money wisely. People drive the speed limit to avoid getting a ticket, not because they are opposed in principle to driving more than 25-mph in a school zone. A government which does not have coercive authority–which is a poor euphemism for violence–to enforce its laws instantly collapses.

But, as we’ve already seen, Christians have no investment in coercing non-Christians to mimic a Christian society. All our efforts to do so have in fact been counterproductive. It shouldn’t surprise anyone. There is no government which can function on the principles of the Sermon on the Mount because civil government unavoidably implies violence. A foreign policy which extols “turn the other cheek” and “resist not evil” invites invasion. Imagine, moreover, a candidate running on the economic platform, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth.” (Never mind that the recent rescue of Wall Street, the banks, and big business has proved the biblical adage “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”) Our judicial system would grind to an immediate halt if it were to embrace “Judge not, that you be not judged”–without moving over to talk about “he who is without sin.” There’s no reason to even discuss the golden rule. The fundamental incompatibility of Christianity and civil government should be obvious merely from a liberal exercise of human reason, but Paul does Christians the service of highlighting the dichotomy in Romans when he tells Christians that they must express love and peace and allow the government to be God’s unwitting agent for vengeance.

Therein lies the special problem for representative democracy. For Paul, it was simple: Christians and governments were discrete ethical units. The same is not true in a representative democracy. It has been a while since most of us took a high school civics course, and, if yours was anything like mine, it was worthless to begin with. Here is the way our government works. Our nation is too large and unwieldy to have a direct democracy, wherein everyone actually exercises a specific voice in the construction of policy. Instead, through voting and other means of political activism, Americans elect a small representative group of people to construct policy on their behalf. For the non-Christian, the process is simple enough: choose whichever candidate is most likely to achieve the political ends most important to you.

Here is the problem for Christians. By choosing to elect a representative, we make ourselves complicit in everything that is done on our behalf. That’s unpleasant to think about and easy to dismiss uncritically, but that is the nature of the American system of government. President Obama has your proxy to act in the executive branch. Maybe you didn’t vote for him, and maybe that means you can sleep better at night know that your spotless Christian hands aren’t stained with the blood of the people he assassinated by remote control. But unless you make a habit of losing, there is someone who is representing you in the American government, and it is necessary then to come to terms with the fact that government by its very nature behaves in ways forbidden to Christians.

War serves a legitimate function in statecraft, as does, arguably, capital punishment. But the Christ who told Peter to sheath his sword and stepped in front of the Jewish firing squad to save an adulteress models a different behavior, an ethical lifestyle that Christians are obligated to follow. Whoever you vote for, whoever is elected is employed only and entirely in the business of violence, that is in the business of coercing people to do what they would not do if given the choice. Whether it is taxes, speed limits, capital punishment, marriage rights, restrictions on abortion, or a war in Iran (because dying in the Middle East is the new American pastime) is irrelevant. Government is in the business of violence, and our government is in the business of doing violence with the consent of and on behalf of the voting public.

There is a solution, of course, for Christians. If to vote means to insinuate yourself ethically if not personally into the vile business of politics, then don’t vote. It’s not a matter of apathy or a recognition of futility. Instead, it is an affirmation that you belong to a different kingdom with a different King. Moreover–unlike America which continues to prove both its ambition and ineptitude on this front–our King will one day have everything put into subjection under his feet, without need of my vote or my campaign contributions. This is not a disengagement with the world. It is a proud boast that, in Christ, we have be granted a different mode of engagement with the world. One in which “when reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat.” Christians reject, loudly and audaciously, the governing assumption the state that order is born out of violence and community out of coercion. By not voting, we concede the work of evil to the working of evildoers and reserve for ourselves the practice of untainted righteousness.

Perhaps more importantly, when Christians refuse to vote, we protect ourselves from the errors of the Israelites. We forget neither that God is our King nor the deeds He has worked on our behalf. We heed the advice of Solomon to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” and sing with the psalmist, “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.” There is a stand to take this election more important than opposition to abortion. There is a gospel to preach truer than economic equality of opportunity. That message begins when Christians extricate themselves from the polls and resume their stance as critics from without, voices in the wilderness crying “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

If the kingdom of heaven really is at hand, why are we so invested in the politics of the kingdoms of this world?

[Reason 1; Reason 2]
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