Virtuous Abstinence: Radical withdrawal for the peace of this nation-state

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By Brian R. Gumm

As a Brethren sojourning with Mennonites at EMU in Harrisonburg, Virginia for the last four years, I’ve made many wonderful connections and friendships. As I went through my theological peacebuilding education, these friendships have often been fostered through deep conversations about any number of pressing theological, philosophical, and social issues. And for the past month or two, the persistent topic of conversation has been voting in national elections. One of my main conversation partners has been Ted Grimsrud, theology professor in EMU’s undergraduate Bible & Religion department. Ted has a series of three posts related to this, which I engaged through the comments section and as well as face-to-face conversations at a local pub. In an on-campus event recently I had the opportunity to condense some of my thoughts about a radical Christian stance toward voting in national elections, and I’m happy to share them here for Brethren consideration.

In a 1977 article in Sojourner’s, John Howard Yoder had this to say about the then-current context: “American political culture, a comparatively solid crust of common language and rules of thumb, floats on a moving magma of unresolved debate between two contradictory views of what the state is about.” In this article, entitled “The National Ritual: Biblical realism and the elections,” Yoder goes on to argue that we shouldn’t get ourselves too worked up about this system, or take it too seriously. But nonetheless this weak system is one that we can and perhaps should participate in.  He claims that:

[Voting] is one way, one of the weaker and vaguer ways, to speak truth to power. We may do well to support this channel with our low-key participation, since a regime where it functions is a lesser evil…than one where it does not, but our discharge of this civil duty will be more morally serious if we take it less seriously.

This position of Yoder’s I take to be the basic position taken by Ted in his arguments. And while I’m sympathetic to both, I want to sound a few cautions. I’ll preface these cautions with a quote by Yoder’s one-time colleague at Notre Dame, Alasdair MacIntyre, who made these comments in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election:

When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither. And when that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives.

Power and discourse – that is where I want to sound my cautions. Indeed, it is Alasdair MacIntyre who – along with Stanley Hauerwas and Ludwig Wittgenstein – have helped me begin to see the complexly interwoven nature of language and embodied practices within particular traditions, and how these become hardened, institutionalized, and sedimented into a social imaginary that becomes the very air we breath as we speak and act in our particular contexts. The framers of American political discourse and action, then, wield considerable power in shaping this imaginative world we inhabit.

Conversations about voting are often too simple: Yes or no to voting? If yes, then for whom? If no, why not? But voting cannot be spoken of in isolation from the system in which it is embedded. This week, if we’re talking about voting, we’re of course specifically talking about voting in the national presidential election. And we can’t speak of the national presidential election next week without speaking of the campaign process for that office. And we can’t speak of that campaign process without speaking of the popular media. And we can’t speak of the popular media without speaking about massive corporations and Super PACs. And we can’t speak of corporations and Super PACs without speaking about consumer capitalism and neo-liberal economics, which now rules the roost in this country and, increasingly, the world. All of these are of a piece, they all work together and coalesce to form what political scientist Benedict Anderson calls our “imagined community,” which at this place and time is the United States of America, itself an instance of that recent innovation, the modern nation-state.

Each one of these “hops” up the chain – representative-democratic elections as coercion, campaigning as propagandizing, mass media in the digital age, corporate power as oligarchy, consumerism as structured economic individualism, neo-liberal economics as nihilistic oppression – each of these should be seen as deeply problematic from a radical Christian perspective.

So while I concede that it’s possible to not get our hopes up too high and thus be able to walk into and out of the voting booth with a sober biblical realism, I want to say “Not so fast.” I want Christians to think long and hard about just how far down that rabbit hole goes. And as I look around at American society in general, and the Church of the Brethren in particular, I’m not convinced that we’ve done this kind of analysis and self-reflection. We’ve spent too much time watching or reading capitalistic-ideological “news” media and chattering on Facebook with people who already agree with us. Our imaginative capacities are not adequately constituted for such sober biblical realism that Yoder thinks right and good, and sometimes necessary.

Stanley Hauerwas has recently likened this age of American life to the Roman circus. The powers have devised a game to keep us distracted and stupid while successfully giving us the impression that in participating in national presidential elections, we are somehow exercising a sacred civic duty. But the radical Christian sees this differently. Yoder hints at this in the same article: “We shall expect more (relative) effect, witness and power-for-change, from the non-electoral modes of presence than from the franchise” (emphasis mine).

So the tactical, radical Christian response at this particular moment of American life may entail abstinence from the process, not only of voting but of being subjected to and participating in the never-ending media circus that consumes our lives, captivates our imaginations, and compromises our witness to the radical call of discipleship in the body of a Lord who washed feet, loved enemies, and carried a cross to his death, commanding those who had ears to hear – to go and do likewise.

A prayer, then: May we no longer be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2) – and let that mind be in us, that was in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:5). Amen.

Brian R. Gumm[Brian R. Gumm – M.Div, MA – is a licensed minister in the Northern Plains District of the Church of the Brethren. After four years in Virginia, he is preparing to return to his home state of Iowa, to the farm town of Toledo, to explore missional church and community peacebuilding opportunities. As a bi-vocational minister, Brian is also the Distance Learning Technology Analyst for Eastern Mennonite University. This post originally appeared on his Restorative Theology blog.]

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  • D Sollenberger

    You can “holier than thou” all you want but when they count the votes you’re still givng the decision making process to people who simply will not stand up for the poor, the meek and those who suffer injustice. That’s poor stewardship of your ability to care for those whose suffering breaks the heart of God. Where does that get you?

    • http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com/ Brian R. Gumm

      Hi D. – Thanks for taking the time to respond. Part of my work in this post is to try to get us to see how captive we Americans are to the idea that the nation-state is our savior. Notice that I’m not explicitly saying “don’t vote, period.” Rather, I’m saying: “Think long and hard about this and the extreme limits and extreme temptations involved.” I go on to say that perhaps….perhaps you won’t vote after such reflection. Or maybe you will.

      The important bit is exhibiting a “gospel realism” about participation in such fallen systems, and how we certainly can stand for the poor, the meek, and those who suffer injustice – by local forms of witness in the global body of Christ.

    • brockcassian

      D.

      Not so sure about “holier than thou”. I hear Brian saying just what he articulates in his response- discern the desire to vote or not vote. I have been struck by just how vitriolic the response from church people gets when even the question is raised if one should vote. I can’t help but hear your comments in that same tone.

      Ironically, our own tradition has said univocally that the discernment of one’s conscience is central to the life of faith. While that has created a number of our problems, it is also one of our strengths. To say, think hard about participating in the electoral process is not to say “Don’t Vote” but rather discern your conscience- and then act.

      I don’t think any one who says they are not voting are ignoring the poor or the oppressed. I think they are struggling to find ways to stand up in ways that last long after the lever is pulled (or screen is touched).

      So to answer your rhetorical question- where does that get you- Easy. Forced to serve the poor, gather funds, serve meals, break the capitalistic cycle by being in relationship with the poor of our neighborhoods. So I say, cool- vote, and then join your sisters and brothers in the neighborhood and amplify that voice whispered in the booth with a full body shout.

      • Scott Holland

        Josh, the Mennonite no-voting movement that Brian is identified with via the EMU/EMS debate is indeed asking individuals to sign a pledge — a pledge like the Republican no-tax pledge! — not to vote in the national election. I would call your attention to letters and materials in the current issue of Mennonite World Review, including the letter from Shari Leidig Holland, my spouse. This is a movement and it is very political.

        • brockcassian

          And there is a group Scott who have chosen another way- http://electiondaycommunion.org/
          Started by a group of Mennonite Pastors. Not quite the binary you are positing.

          • Scott Holland

            Yes, I also know this group but the conversation Brian identified, where he has also posted, has been debating most those in the movement led by my old friend John Stoner and his Eastern PA colleagues. Thus, I also called attention to writing beyond that blog in MWR.

  • JT Thomas

    We could just get the popcorn, and sit back and watch the entertainment as the whole thing goes to perdition. A la George Carlin.

    • http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com/ Brian R. Gumm

      That’s certainly an appealing proposition, JT! :) In some ways, though, I think that’s what the media has already done, i.e. turned campaigns into entertainment. In that Hauerwas video I linked to above, he says “We elect commercials now.” I think there’s some deep truth to that.

  • Scott Holland

    Brian alerts readers to Professor Ted Grimsrud’s website and blogs on this topic. I have responded there at length about the social and spiritual irresponsibility of this new retreat from voting movement. Check it out. I’m with Sollenberger. Under all the God-talk and righteous rhetoric there is a puritanism, a political pietism, and a peace which destroys many.

    • brockcassian

      Following others, then I must say it is more about whose piety, which self-righteousness. Underneath all the pragmatism is also a civic piety, electoral puritanism. So now is my faith in question if I not cast a vote, or cast a vote for another. Lets just cut to the chase- one’s vote is not based on one’s faith, but on one’s desire to rule.Don’t cloud the voting practice with pious justice talk, it is no better than the God-talk.

      • Scott Holland

        No, one’s vote is about imperfect policies and politics on the long road to just peace and loving the neighbor. If you truly believe voting is about a desire to rule, then don’t vote, but do become better acquainted with what voting this election can do for women’s issues, for LGBTQ rights, for the poor on food stamps, for environmental issues, for the selection of the next Supreme Court Justice, and for intercultural, interracial, cosmopolitan affections. I haven’t questioned your faith, dude, just your politics. Well, maybe your theology, but theology is not faith because we believe beyond belief, without belief.

        • Nate Polzin

          I am really enjoying the discussion here I’ve just been reading. I have been wrestling with some of the same issues Brian raises in this article. I am someone who’s been deeply involved in politics for some time. My undergrad degree is in Political Science, I’ve run for office, worked on campaigns, spoken at town hall meetings, been delegate to state political conventions and even been on the exec. committee of my county’s party. I did all of that because I believed I could make a difference. Reading between the lines of your posts (and several other folks on here, as well) I gather that I was working for the “other” party, with just as much conviction as my Christian brother or sister might for their party. We all want our politics baptized by the Church, but in many ways our politics are splitting the Church. I am in the midst of re-thinking my involvement with secular society through the voting process. Jesus was talking to the Church, the people of God, not to Caesar. Caesar is going to do his thing, raging with the other nations as so on. It’s the Church’s job to care for the poor, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and cast out the demons. In my opinion, too many Christians are waiting on Caesar to do the Church’s work. If I read my history right, mostly bad things happen when the Church controls the State or the State controls the Church.

          • Scott Holland

            Nate, I don’t think we want the church to baptize our politics, only to assist form and inform our vision of being in the world whether we go to the polls as Republicans, Democrats, Independents or supporters of third party candidates.

            Politics is not splitting the church; competing moral visions are and this should be expected in a free, democratic society. After all, there are not real divisions in state churches and totalitarian countries. Remember what happened to members of the Confessing Church in Germany?

            Also remember what happened when the German Church simply allowed Caesar to do his thing, rage with other nations, and lead Jews to the gas chambers.

            You may be baptized into Christ’s Church, but you live in Lincoln’s America. As such, you drive on public roads,drink public water, rely on the public safety forces of police and firefighters. Not only did you receive a good public education but the food on your table and the clothes on your back were not put there by the Church of the Brethren but by your dad’s paycheck as he was supported as a fine teacher educating the children of fellow citizens in Saginaw by public tax dollars.

            The church is not nor should not be our total society. In fact, Jesus came preaching the reign of God in the world, the world, and Christians soon settled for the sacred reservations called churches.

            Until you choose to become a genuine separatist or sectarian and join up with the Amish or Old Order German Baptist Brethren it seems you must accept your responsibilities as a Christian and a citizen. Otherwise, even if you profess to be a Jesus radical, your fellow citizens will likely conclude you are a Jesus slacker and a bad neighbor. After all, to love the neighbor is to accept our mutual responsibilities for the neighbor’s well-being.

            Ah, Nate, do you note how strongly I accent the notion of responsibility? Just watch, some critic will likely blog expressing dismay that “Holland sound too much like a Republican!”

            It’s good to hear from you…

          • brockcassian

            Couldn’t disagree more Scott… There is no way anyone could call you a Republican and keep a straight face!
            But seriously, is the decision not to vote a sectarian move? I don’t read Nate’s post as arguing for Amish like withdraw, but a nuanced questioning of the totalizing rhetoric of the partisan politic. Again, the forced choices of Red or Blue, and Vote or No Vote are a false dichotomy. There are varying degrees of partisan participation. Seriously, even Paul traveled the Roman roads and exploited his citizenship and didn’t bow to Caesar.

          • Scott Holland

            Your’re right, Josh! That is, about my movement in the Democratic party. But look, I could exit any involvement in the Democratic politics and Nate could step away from his active Republican affiliation in Michigan and we would still disagree about some theological and moral issues. It is cultural and theological hermeneutics more generally and not Blue or Red party affiliation which leads us to disagree on LGBTQ questions, for example.

            In fact, in my work with the Human Rights Campaign I’ve met and worked with several smart Log Cabin Republicans — gay Republicans.

            But who is bowing to Caesar? In fact here is where some of the quarrel rests. I know it’s trendy for radical Christians to glibly call the United States “the Empire” and build theological analogies from this politic. But in the Miller’s Analogy Test if a student so freely equated either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama with Caesar without nuance she would flatly fail the test. Mitt would not crucify me nor would Barack crucify Nate.

            In the Village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, where I do most of my theological writing, I visit with diverse members of the Old Order German Baptist Brethren at our local Farmer’s Markets.

            They do not closely follow Red or Blue party politics yet their entire denomination recently split into the Old Conference and New Conference divisions. It was an ugly division that split families and neighbors apart. The issues in dispute were around questions of how the church enters this blessed broken world. “Can we conduct our business on computers?” “Can we freely read the literature from the Zondervan Family Bookstore?” “Can we be missional and reach out to outsiders like the worldly Brethren do?” These were all fighting questions.

            If all members of the Church of the Brethren vowed to take a sabbatical from national party politics there would still fierce fights at Annual Conference.

            What some of us find so offensive in the current Mennonite inspired voting boycott movement is that the “Anabaptist White Boyz” leading this charge are themselves so naive about politics, power, gender, sex and race. What is really playing out in their pledge is something like this. Don’t follow Caesar and his partisan politics but instead embrace MY understanding of the unity of the church and what it means to be the church in the world. No thanks. This movement has been very clarifying for many of us. Now, long after the elections, we wouldn’t walk across the street to hear one of these petite, partisan preachers hold forth. Unity indeed!

          • brockcassian

            This is helpful, and nuanced. I appreciate the push back on Empire. I will say, though that I was responding from my phone and glip theopoetics got the best of clarity. there. I really was really only talking about Paul and citizenship in Rome. I realize that the analogy was not stated but easily implied.

            You are right that the US is not Rome, and not an empire in the first century sense. Yet, at the same time, neither is it the pinnacle of human governance. While the effect has been great here in the US regarding practicing of religion, economic growth, and a peaceful existence that outshines most other states of history- there is a dark side. Militarism and economic oppression- proxy wars in Africa, SE Asia and now in the Middle East have sent the conflict off of North America at the huge expense of other nations. What is more, as Hardt and Negri point out in Empire- we aren’t talking about a political empire of Caesar but Bank Barrons and international commerce. Even our beautiful democracy, fallen as it is, is in the pocket of commerce. Some corporations have a GDP greater than most nations on earth and they level that power like a Roman Phalanx. Look at Greece- economics will now trump democracy in this new Empire.

            That said, my take on non-participation is not naive. In fact it acknowledges just how much our language and perspective are shaped by the Red Blue rhetoric. Sure, as people embedded in culture we will still fight the enculturation fights- and that is a good thing. That is the work of translating the gospel into a new time and place. What i reject however, is that Mitt and Barak- Axelrod and Rove, Fox and MSn get to define the terms of the conversation. It is about the totalizing rhetoric of the partisan politic that I am stepping away from. Not the realities of sex, gender, wealth, and privilege. We can pay attention to that, and justice, peace making, caring for life without saying it like they do in Washington.This is where I think your earlier comments about anthropology and cosmology are important. Lets have those debates on theological grounds. That seems to me to be the “fights” worth having.

            As for the good ol’ boys of Anabaptism, I agree. Their rhetoric of “come believe like me” is exactly the same as campaigning. Which is why, my decision to not vote in this election was not a position of advocacy but one of discernment. Each of us has to make that call and I am fine if you do. But I would ask simply that challenging the holiness of the American Democratic experiment not be dismissed out of hand as naive. Many of the issues we all are passionate about I think stem from the hegemony of American exceptionalism.

          • Scott Holland

            Good response, Josh. More after the AAR. I’m in Chicago in theological meetings at the McCormick Center and in smaller venues doing theological table talk Lutheran style.

          • scott holland

            Someone sent me a personal email wondering if the Lutheran reference was meant to be some kind of cryptic slam against a Brethren theology of church and state. No, no, of course not. It simply means that theologians gather beyond the formal lecture halls around tables for discussion with Luther’s exact words before them: “I eat like a Bohemian, I drink like a German, thank God, Amen.”

          • Nate

            Hi Scott and Josh – I am very sorry I lost my way back to this link for some months – but I am glad I found it again because I really do appreciate this conversation. I continue to chew on the implications, for my own life and ministry, of backing away from active political engagement in the secular realm.
            Scott, I am baptized into Christ’s Church and I do live in Lincoln’s America, and I, like Paul, appreciate the benefits that come along with being a citizen of the US. I have no problem paying my taxes, honoring those in authority and praying for our leaders – all things we’re instructed to do by the New Testament.
            What I am reacting against is the divisive posts, for example, on my Facebook feed, where well-meaning Christians, out of deep conviction, speak out for conservative or liberal issues they want forced on the rest of society because of what they believe Jesus wants.
            That really forms the basis of my question: To what extent should a Christian use secular means (campaigning, voting, political associations) to impose “Christian” values on a secular society.
            On instance of this, for me, is around the subject of gay marriage. As a Christian who believes that homosexuality is one of the forms of broken-ness and bondage that Jesus died to set us free from, does it follow then that I must use whatever political power I have to enact laws which bind others to behave by my viewpoint. What if the separation of Church and State means that in the Church and through the Church, I advocate for the Gospel truths and share Christ’s message of freedom and deliverance with my neighbors and anyone who will listen, but I don’t try to get Caesar to make anyone who hasn’t freely chosen to follow Christ submit to Christian principles and morals?
            That is just one example out of many where I see blurry lines between our political and religious life. Right now, gun control is the issue of the day on my Facebook feed and in other discussions.
            It was not the Confessing Church that stopped Hitler’s Germany. The Confessing Church witnessed truth to power, and were willing to suffer Caesar’s wrath for it. The state church went along with Caesar, to their shame. I am not saying that the Church should not speak out at all. I just think that maybe we need to be more judicious about when and on what topics we do speak out.

          • Scott Holland

            Nate, It was good to see you at the Bethany board meeting and farewell banquet for President Johansen. Thanks for alerting me to your recent post reentering our earlier conversation on voting. I’m in agreement with most of what you have written. I would call your attention and other readers’ attention to an article I published in a 2008 issue of Brethren Life and Thought. The article is playfully titled, “How Would Jesus Vote?”

            In the piece, Nate, I think you will see that I am just as uneasy as you are about the temptation of liberals and conservatives alike to claim they have the Jesus vote. You will find in the article a different model for Christian involvement in political life.

            While I think it is appropriate for Christians or Muslims or Jews to state as a preamble to politics their church’s, mosque’s or temple’s theology on a given issue, the movement into a pluralistic, democratic, public square demands deliberations beyond confessional theology into the necessary compromises and middle axioms of political life.

            For example, for a church to denounce drone warfare as a political statement offered to the United States government because of Jesus is not any more compelling to most citizens than a church denouncing public funding for birth control because of Jesus.

            Jesus had nothing to say about artificial birth control or drones. He would be as baffled by both a box of birth control pills and the presence of a drone flying over Palestine.

            Public and political statements by persons of faith about both drones and birth control are of course appropriate but they demand translation into the public discourses of constitutional law, democratic politics and policy statements for the common good of a pluralistic society.

  • Frank Ramirez

    Regarding Virtuous Abstincence. An excellent post. Well written, thoughtful. But I’m not sure I agree with all of it.
    Hmmm. I’m tempted to compare two parallel tracks in Brethren history. The earliest Brethren did not have a peace position. They simply believed in nonresistence. You go ahead and get killed. I’m not getting involved. They remained unstained from the world. We now believe in getting involved. Active peacemaking is dangerous, involves making compromises (those scarred by the Goshen Decision cooperated with government and military authorities in setting up the CPS system), is imperfect, changes lives, makes little, no, or a great difference, depending on your perspective, and at least involves doing something, in the words of Samuel Beckett, leaving a stain upon the silence. In the same way, the earliest Brethren in Colonial America and the United States did not vote. They remained unstained with the world. They let the Quakers vote, but otherwise stayed out of politics. Voting is an imperfect process. It means getting stained by electoral politics which does involve Super Pacs, commercials, money, frustrations — but also allows one to make a difference. I do not buy the argument that there is no difference between the two political parties. Both are imperfect, but one has a callous disregard for the poor, the disabled, the marginalized, those chewed up by their military excursions, believes in torture, and for all the talk about the unborn seems to have no regard for people once they are actually born. I have not missed an opportunity to vote since I became eligable. I have not always liked the choices. I have voted for individuals in both major parties, and occasionally for a third party. I encourage people to vote. Anyway, a very good discussion. Thanks Brian, for a very thoughtful post, and to all you responded so thoughtfully.

    Oh, and double hmmmm. If abstinence is virtue, someone should have told John Howard Yoder. Neh? I threw away my copy of Politics of Jesus a long time ago.

    • Scott Holland

      Good post, Frank. Disturbing but true is your claim that the early Brethren didn’t have “a peace position” but practiced and preached nonresistance. Offline some have asked what I mean by “a peace that destroys many.” Well, readers, read Frank’s post above for a piece of the definition.

      In this context, we must admit that the formation of “a Brethren peace position” was a progressive or liberal culturally and politically engaged “innovation” in Dunker theology. My friend Carl Bowman noted critically that my Banquet Address for the 300th Anniversary I presented for the big Believers Church Conference in Winnipeg accents the “Brethren” themes of Noncreedalism, No Force in Religion, and Service for Peace & Justice — but that these themes and practices were later innovations and developments in Brethren life and thought and were not explicitly present in the early years of the German Baptist Brethren movement. Right! No quarrel here. The Brethren were not only living in Mack’s church but in Whitman’s America, in Lincoln’s America, and thus they worked out their theology accordingly as members of both church and society. Those interested in this can see the back issue of BL&T, Vol 53, No 3, Summer 2009. pp. 31-39.

  • Dana Cassell

    Thanks for sharing this one, Brian! I was with a group of Brethren-ish young adults in DC last week, and our conversation landed on (surprise!) politics and elections and the virtues of voting. It’s a timely topic, I guess. ;)

    I like the discussion about whether or not to vote infinitely more than the tired, dull, repetitive, scripted, cash-infused conversation about which candidate over which. I’d take this over that any day. But I will say that in our conversation the other week, I realized that a lot of my disgust and disdain toward the electoral process does come from a deep desire to just be rid of all the nastiness. I’d rather stay completely out of it than begin to search for something of virtue buried there. And that reluctance to engage feels a bit too sectarian even for my ecclesially oriented tastes…