Choosing to vote

Over the last few years, I’ve been traveling an interesting road regarding my personal perspective on government, power, social change, and how I participate in our society.

To give you a little tour of my story, in high school, I was intrigued by my government and history classes, but mostly as a carbon copy of the political beliefs of my parents. I still remember several epic conversations I had with other students where we spouted our parents’ beliefs in funny ways.

Matt Whitten, me: “Ronald Reagan should be rotting in jail now for the Iran/Contra scandal.”
Jon Roller, Abe Halterman, et al, “Ronald Reagan was Moses escorting the hostages out of bondage to freedom!”

Very few of us had the ability at the time to gain thoughtful distance from our parents’ perspectives. I recall senior year observing my classmate Matt Wade shifting from uncritically conservative to something different as he asked himself bigger questions and was willing to deal with the discomfort of his thoughts.  However, Matt was more the exception than the rule. So those of us with parents who were involved in political thought and action found ourselves participating, if only regurgitating what we heard around the dinner table.

I shifted, then, to college where, in spite of my basic selfishness and hedonism the first several years, I was drawn to the political process. I for a time considered pursuing a track that could prepare me to work for the State Department. I chose to major in International Affairs, which blended political science with economics, geography, foreign language, and history. I voted in that time period, even going out on a disgustingly dreary, rainy day in 2000 to canvass registered Democrats to get out and vote, with the colors from my raincoat leaching onto my pants and making a general mess. College also represented my rejection of the specifics of Christianity in favor of what I believed to be practical need. I remember telling my grandfather that Jesus wasn’t practical and that I believed Saddam Hussein needed to be taken out. The spring of 2002 I publicly debated Susan Lowe on the subject of pre-emptive war in Iraq, and argued the affirmative.

The death of my close friend Alex Naden April 29, 2003 proved to be a transformational moment for me. It provided the motivation for me to recognize the destruction of my self-focus and the devastating answer to the question “Who am I?” (my answer: “I have no idea because I’ve tried so hard to be something others would like and accept). This rekindled a commitment to Jesus in me and launched a journey of great pain and great joy since. I’ve learned to cherish God first, to observe and follow Jesus centrally, and to orient my desire toward those goals. Many of those goals; the needs of the poor, the rights of unborn children, the responsibility of peacemaking, a society of greater equality across the board, etc have deeply impacted my outlook on the American political process. I’ve become a bit of a black sheep since that time period, not fitting into the liberal or conservative camps, and struggling deeply with that. I have observed the political activism of the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority and maintained a visceral disgust at their methods and their goals. I have observed the political activism of the Human Rights Campaign, the National Organization of Women, and Planned Parenthood and gained a visceral sense of disgust with their methods and goals.

I became cynical, but never gave up.  In 2004, I appreciated the humility and struggle of John Kerry (who quoted Lincoln, “We trust, sir, that God is on our side. It is more important to know that we are on God’s side.”) over the religious certainty of George Bush (“I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did). So, even as I faced uncertainty over how my convictions made me uneasy with both candidates, I continued to believe it to be my responsibility to pay attention and to make my voice heard in the ballot box.

Over the last couple of years, I have realized my responsibility far beyond casting my vote. I have begun to write elected representatives, joined with others through groups like Cincinnati Faith and Justice to advocate together for a more just society, and began to practice more consistently with my church family toward our local answers to injustice. Along the way, I have had my eyes opened to see how government plays a vital role in encouraging or destroying life in our communities. I do believe that the “government is best that governs closest,” but I don’t believe in the extremely limited government some of my more conservative friends do. I think many of my friends don’t account for the deep selfishness of our society when they call for charity instead of taxation. I do not believe the church can provide for our society’s needs at the scale that government initiative can provide. And yet I believe the church is to be the focus and answer on the human relationship scale for poverty in the world.

I just had a conversation with a friend from our community over voting. He and many others I know take the same tack in choosing not to vote that I just do not understand. I want to take several of his main points and address them, not to pick on him, but because I hear them all so often. I’ll quote him in full, then address each thought individually. He said,

“I have a couple reasons for not voting. First, there isn’t a candidate that fully stands for what i believe. So its basically choosing the lesser of two evils. Second, lobbyists. Money talks and unfortunately i don’t have enough to influence anyone in power. Third, why are we asking the world to do what the church isn’t willing?”

First, there isn’t a candidate that fully stands for what I believe,
so it’s basically choosing the lesser of two evils.

On first glance, this seems to be a common sense statement. If I don’t feel fully comfortable with any political candidate, why vote? But I have some follow-up questions after that. Do we choose friendships on this basis? Do we choose (and stay) in workplaces on this basis? Do we date and marry persons on this basis? I would suggest not. And if we do, I would wonder if we will ever stop withholding ourselves from relationship based on that question, so that when we find we don’t have persons who “fully stand for what we believe,” we hop to the next, and the next, and the next.  This is a lifetime of shallow relationships and false security.  I just don’t find that to be a healthy approach to any issue in society. Part of the responsibility of adulthood and wise citizenship is caring enough to walk into the complexity of problems and invest energy, time, and resources into making sound decisions along the way. To abstain from making decisions based on the marker of “fully” agreeing is a recipe for relational disaster, as I see it.

Second, lobbyists. Money talks and unfortunately I don’t have enough to influence anyone in power.

Yes, it is true that money talks, and yes, it is true that I don’t have enough to influence anyone in power. Again, these statements ring true on face value. But that statement is based on individual wealth and influence. Even the most powerful corporations (while defined under the law as an individual) aren’t based on the power of one, but of collective action to achieve a purpose. One of the great saving influences in America has been when individuals have gotten sick of the corruption that results from the powerful stomping on them and have left the cynical distance of individualism to band together to create change. One great practical reminder of what these citizens can accomplish is the passing of the Fair Hiring policy here in Cincinnati on August 4th of this year. Another long-term example of this choice is the career of Ralph Nader, who by force of will and evangelizing the call to citizen action, has had a huge impact on American society. In neither example have the involved parties had a ton of money, but chose a path of sustained commitment with one another to work for change.

So, yes, by ourselves as a collection of isolated individuals, we are virtually powerless. But together we become a force for change in our society that ripples out through society in ways we don’t understand. And it starts with caring enough to think about the problems of our society and participate in the political process. Our vote is an integral part of that commitment.

Third, why are we asking the world to do what the church isn’t willing?

As I’ve already hinted at above in my personal story, the church should have a complex relationship with society. In one sense, we are called to withdraw from our societies so we can gain perspective and pay attention to our unique call in the world. The Apostle Peter said it most directly, teaching, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” The church is a nation unto itself called to obey a different ruler, with different priorities, and a different distinctive lifestyle. We are citizens of God’s kingdom first.

But simply because we must prioritize in this way does not make our societies unimportant. The decisions of governmental leaders deeply impact our society, and we are also called into the midst of our societies with the desire to bring hope, healing, and social transformation. So the complex decisions we make in participating in the political process, while no longer the most important thing, are still vital and necessary. Or, as Lauren Winner put it,

(Some) see not voting as a compelling act of faithfulness, witness, and politics. But, especially in a world where love of neighbor is tied to citizenship, not voting may be equally seen as a kind of quietism—quietism that a Christian who must be active in the world cannot afford.

My generation is a generation of cynical beliefs about politics and our society. We carry a “live and let live” attitude with others. We believe we are powerless. And in this system where our personal comfort and security is most important, we are right. But we are called out of cynicism into thoughtful, collaborative action for the common good. We are called to love our neighbor enough to wade into the complexity and pain of the American political process to bring about reforms that benefit everyone.

Please join me in voting tomorrow as a simple statement that  we aren’t willing to quit on one another.

I won’t say this often…

beck

…but I say, “Fair enough, good point Glenn.”

We’re being marched toward 1984.” (article linked)

And to think that Glenn Beck could express a thought that’s balanced between left and right.  I applaud thee, Mr. Beck, I applaud thee.

*update*  I would add, as a short commentary on Beck’s little article, that the big problem is not the typical conservative “government,” but rather the marriage of government and big business.  Beck mentions big business earlier in the article and spends his most foreboding rhetoric on the government.  If I were writing an article like this for the sake of raising awareness, I’d flip the order to focus on big business.  It is they who are the ones lining the pockets of government officials and writing the legislation that Congressman slap their name on, by and large.

A hello, a comment, and more to come…

I’m back from Haiti.  There will be plenty of reflecting on that in the coming weeks; small-scale and large-scale.  But not yet. It’s good to be back, as well as a big culture shock and jolting transition back into the flow of our society. Being up in the mountains of Haiti with a people whose electricity only comes from a missions-organization-donated generator does that.

Here’s a classic quote from Dick Cheney today commenting on “terrorism,” a great re-entry into American society for me;

“These are evil people. And we’re not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.”

Now you tell me if those are wise words or immoral words; short-sighted or long-sighted.  If you’re a Christian, filter these comments through a Biblical perspective rather than a America-centered perspective and comment on their value. And if you find them deeply troubling, as I do, please tell me how George W, a supposedly “born-again” Christian, could make this man his right-hand advisor.

Americans, hold your government accountable…

In light of Tony Benn’s insight in the previous post, I was pleased to find an update from Congressman Dennis Kucinich on my Facebook profile this afternoon that showed both his courage and a call to the thinking, involved American public to hold our government accountable.

One of the most important needs for a democratic society to exist and thrive is transparency in the governmental process. Those who have been given the responsibility of leading must lead with integrity, wisdom, and accountability. When the lives of persons are at stake with possible military action, then leaders must especially be truthful.

I am sad to say that George W. Bush is not this type of leader. And I am even further saddened to suggest that in the buildup to the Iraq War, he used propaganda techniques, misdirection, and perception-spin to convince the American people that they should get behind a military invasion of the country. This has resulted in over 4,000 deaths of American personnel, tens of thousands of American personnel injured (physically and mentally), tens of thousands (if not more) Iraqi deaths (most civilians, including women and children), Iraqi society in deeper turmoil; and worst, a growth in numbers of al-Qaeda as hatreds have been inflamed by deaths in families.

In Bill Clinton’s presidency, he was impeached by the House of Representatives because he lied about sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. They called this “high crimes and misdemeanors.” George W. Bush and his administration lied about Iraq, al-Qaeda, and their motives for invading, resulting in untold human devastation. If lying about a sexual relationship is a “high crime” (highly debatable), and the costs of Bush’s action have made Clinton’s look like a geriatric bridge club, then certainly Bush is guilty, and must be held accountable.

Not only am I disgusted at Bush’s leadership, but even further disgusted at my fellow Christians who give this man a blank check because he’s “born-again.” By my estimation, he’s one of the most corrupt, big-business-bought-off, immoral presidents in recent memory.

Thankfully, there’s at least one Representative that has had the guts to be a leader in this area; Dennis Kucinich. And he’s gaining a wider hearing with his colleagues on Capital Hill. The following is a message I got from Kucinich a bit ago. I signed the petition. I would suggest you join me as well. Make our government accountable.

Last week, Congressman Dennis Kucinich delivered a petition bearing more than 100,000 names to the Speaker of the House urging that impeachment proceedings begin into the conduct of President Bush. 

With new disclosures that the Administration tried to “cook the books at the CIA” by creating a phony, forged link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, “We cannot step back and let this President escape accountability.”

If you have already signed the impeachment petition at http://kucinich.us, thank you. If you haven’t, please do. And, in the next few weeks, please ask just one more person to sign so we can let the members of Congress hear our collective demand that they meet their obligation to uphold the Constitution.”

The different sides of George W. Bush, and the call to wisdom…

I opened up Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope today because I was reminded of a very insightful observation he made in his chapter “Values” in the book. It is focused on George W. Bush, and helps to provide some understanding, I think, of George Bush the man vs. George Bush the leader. So here are the words of Obama;

“As I munched on hors d’oeuvres and engaged in small talk with a handful of House members, I recalled my previous two encounters with the President, the first a brief congratulatory call after the election, the second a small White House breakfast with me and the other incoming senators. Both times I had found the President to be a likable man, shrewd and disciplined but with the same straightforward manner that had helped him win two elections; you could easily imagine him owning the local car dealership down the street, coaching Little League, and grilling in his backyard- the kind of guy who would make for good company so long as the conversation revolved around sports and the kids.

There had been a brief moment during the breakfast meeting, though, after the backslapping and the small talk and when all of us were seated, with Vice President Cheney eating his eggs Benedict impassively and Karl Rove at the far end of the table discreetly checking his Blackberry, that I witnessed a different side of the man. The President had begun to discuss his second-term agenda, mostly a reiteration of his campaign talking points- the importance of staying the course in Iraq and renewing the Patriot Act, the need to reform Social Security and overhaul the tax system, his determination to get an up-or-down vote on his judicial appointees- when suddenly it felt as if somebody in the back room had flipped a switch. The President’s eyes became fixed; his voice took on the agitated, rapid tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption; his easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty. As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring, and appreciated the Founders’ wisdom in designing a system to keep power in check.” (45-46)

I don’t quote Obama here because of some hidden agenda or to enhance the already ridiculous partisan conservative vs. liberal divide. Instead, I find Obama’s observation wise and reasonable, as I have carried a significant discomfort for years now in observing the leadership of George Bush. I simple have not been able to figure the man out, especially as he has assumed that “almost messianic certainty” on issues and situations and has essentially called anyone who dared to disagree with his position unpatriotic and dead wrong. There’s something very dangerous about that kind of approach, especially the unwillingness to welcome the accountability of others.

All of us need to surround ourselves with folks who will keep us honest; who will encourage us when they believe we are making good decisions and will challenge us when they believe we are being unwise and self-centered. We are limited in our understanding as people, and we need to welcome criticism and accountability as we seek to lead in various ways. We certainly should not crumble under that accountability to lose the contribution of our distinctive voice (otherwise we will simply become a mishmash of others’ perspectives and hopelessly confused), but we were not created to be alone. I guess what I’m saying is that we are called to cultivate wisdom; to walk the tough line in this case between our perspectives and the perspectives of others around us. This is not easy, but that’s part of the definition of wisdom.

I just happen to think George W. Bush is not a man who seeks wisdom; he surrounds himself with like-minded persons who either rubber-stamp his perspective or continue to whisper their shared belief on reality consistently in ways that make him averse to hearing anything different. That’s not the trait of a leader, but of a despot, and therefore makes Obama’s words that much more important, “As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring.”

What caused me to think deeper about this issue was seeing Scott McClellan (former press secretary for Bush) appearing on the Daily Show and giving the reasons behind why he wrote his scathingly honest insider book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.” His deepest reason was not to undermine the credibility of Bush (though his account certainly does so), but to expose the terrible blend of partisan politics that resides in the Capital today of conservative vs. liberal sniping and close-mindedness and outright hatred. McClellan cared enough at how Bush was contributing to this us vs. them mentality (through labelling those who disagreed with him unpatriotic) that he was willing to rise above personal and party loyalty to present another way that seeks to ultimately shape a different kind of approach in Washington, and because Washington is influential in shaping political discussions across the land, a way that will hold the potential for a deeper political conversation in America. I think that’s a worthy goal. It’s a tough row to hoe, but it’s definitely the kind of leadership America needs. I see some of that same vision in Obama’s Audacity of Hope. Does that mean I’ll vote for him? Not necessarily. But it certainly contributes to my thought as I consider my vote this upcoming fall.