Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Election Cookies & Voting with Humility

After a 13 hour work day yesterday, and staring down a late night again tonight, I took this morning off. I drove to one of my favorite Madison cafés to to read a new-to-me book, What the Dog Saw. The café's name is Manna Café and Bakery, and baked good are its speciality. Everything is wonderful, even the day old bread, which is something both remarkable and blasphemous at a place called Manna.

Unsurprisingly, at every visit to Manna Café and Bakery, as I'm waiting in line for my coffee, one of the delectable pastries will cry out my name from inside the glass enclosure. It was the cheese danish today. I obliged the danish and do not regret it. 

As I paid for my coffee - and danish - I noticed a platter on top of the glass pastry case. The platter was full of red and blue cookies; "election cookies," said a small folded placard on the platter. Dozens of partially broken elephants and asses - what appeared to be shortbread with frosting. 

Yesterday was an election day in Wisconsin. I voted. I do not write about my voting with any moral confidence, which is to say I wore my voting sticker as a form of confession. My scarlet letter. 

I probably do not really mean that I wore the sticker as a form of confession. Still, the moral certitude with which well meaning folks annually chide or cajole others to go and do likewise remains a troubling puzzlement to me. Take, for instance, the common line, "If you don't vote, you can't complain," which strikes me as the pinnacle of logical absurdity on two counts. First, if I want to eat orange penguin cookies, there are none on the plate. If I want a gluten-free cookie, there are no options for me. Coke or Pepsi is a limiting choice for someone who has sworn off soda. In real life, children catch on to the parents' strategy of soliciting desirable behaviors from a preselected subset of choices sometime around age four. Second, though, is the more concerning and implicit assertion that the goal of voting is to be justified in one's later complaining. There is little in the public discourse to convince me that this goal is unintended.

Voting is a right and a part of what makes this country unique, but nowhere else with respect to unique American freedoms do we find the same rhetorical quality of force. Freedom of religion does not mean (in 2016) that I must choose a religion (secularly defined). Neither does freedom of speech prohibit individuals in orders from taking vows of silence. Even the hotly contested right to bear arms is seldom understood to imply moral judgment on those who refuse to do so. Nowhere else is at assumed that the right to an action necessitates understanding that action as normative. If voting is a sin, it is a powerful and socially collusive one.

But then again, I don't think voting is a sin. I do think that a view of voting that sees not voting as sinful has gone the way of idolatry, especially for Christians who must regularly remember God's warning in 1 Samuel that elevation of, in that case, a monarchy could impinge Israel's ability to remember its dependence on God. For the record, I do think there are reliably non-idolatrous ways to vote, and I personally think the greater challenge than abstaining from voting is remaining connected and present to voting process in non-idolatrous, probably necessarily playful, ways that point to a trust in God's reign and rule and which model an expectation of the Spirit's action, which is also an acknowledgment of our incompleteness apart from God. I also believe it is incumbent on any Christian who encourages others to vote to be ready and willing to commend the spiritual practices she/he has in place to prevent voting from becoming spiritually destructive in her/his own life. 

To be sure, Christians should also be ready to speak to the ways the faith that is in them inspires their votes. Indeed, such speech would undoubtedly raise the bar of the present political discourse and also likely help voters make constructive linkages from political ideologies, abstractly held, to concrete practices available to them by which the motivation behind their votes would find physical expression in their lives. My further suspicion is that these conversations will be difficult if we start with "Who is right/wrong?" and more fruitful if the beginning place is "These things about the life of faith lead me to desire these political changes. But what do you see in the Gospel?" 

Even so, an account of faithful execution of the act of voting is never out of place and/or beyond questioning, and Christians rightly include these accounts in conversations involving faith and politics. 


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