Election 2012: I’m so bored, can I vote for a candidate to be named later?

“What would Jesus do in the voting booth?”

A well-intended adult Sunday School teacher said that years ago, his final summary point intended to drive home the biblical mandate to vote Republican.  My friend leaned over and quipped, “He’d probably rend the curtain.” (This is an allusion to the Gospel story where the curtain of the Jewish Temple was rent in two at Jesus’ crucifixion, thus signifying the end of the Jewish sacrificial system. I think this was the last time I got in trouble for giggling in church.)

Anyway: Bad question. Good answer.

I am not going to vote–not that you asked (but it’s my blog). Despite how the candidates are demonized as hybrids of Gordon Gekko and Stalin, I’m sure they’re both decent people I could have a beer with. But, once again, our system has given us two–and only two–candidates, neither of whom can grab my attention for more than a few seconds at a time before I flip to The Big Bang Theory. (Oh Sheldon, you’re so delightfully socially inept in your brilliance.)

Forgive the sweeping generalization (an occupational hazard of a cynic), but I believe both candidates are saying what they need to say, doing what they need to do, simply to get elected.

It’s not just that I don’t trust them. I’m bored with them.

Here’s my problem. I am teaching a course this semester at Eastern University on the Old Testament prophets. I wanted to give my undergraduate students a feel for the gutsy, countercultural, imaginary vision of an Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. I tried to think of a contemporary voice they could relate to–a politician, singer, religious figure, somebody. Nothing came up.

So, I went to the old stand-by, Martin Luther King, Jr. I guess he’ll do.

I watched on YouTube his “I Have a Dream” and “I”ve Been to the Mountaintop” speeches, but now I heard them differently than I had in the past. I never really paid that close attention–these speeches were always more background cultural noise from my childhood. But now I was listening to see if this could work in my class, and so I had to listen closely.

I felt held in a tractor beam. I watched again and again.

I was struck this way because for the previous few months I had read through all the prophetic books of the Old Testament and a lot of books on the prophets. One of the books I wound up assigning is Walter Brueggemann’s short but classic  The Prophetic Imagination.

Brueggemann says the prophetic task is to offer a “imagination”–a way of looking at the world–that challenges boldly and fearlessly the world offered to us by the dominant culture.

Prophets are countercultural voices that do much more than simply address specific “issues” that arise, such as what we hear in the current (and all) presidential campaigns: “We need oil, jobs, a stable economy, safer streets, and I am the one to give that to you.”

A prophet sees beyond the rhetoric of change and takes aim at the myth of the dominant culture by voicing an alternate consciousness, one that delegitimizes the empire by exposing its enforced maintenance of an unspoken status quo.

A prophetic voice is not trite and boring but embarrassing and annoying to those in power, because it demands the appearance of an unprecedented social reality that neuters the static triumphalism of politics-as-usual. It is impatient with worn phrases and visionless rhetoric.

Politicians offer bandaids. Prophets call for an organ transplant.

So, with all this floating around in my mind, I listened to King’s speeches more closely. I began to see that what made him so compelling and dangerous is that his style mirrored that of the biblical prophets (which is likely not intentional, but a reflection of the rich history of black preaching that was immersed in biblical imagery.)

King’s words were lyrical and his voice melodic. Likewise, the biblical prophets uttered their charges against the dominant culture through poetic verse, which is more evoking of emotion than narrative. King offered both strong critique of the status quo and a longing vision for a better future. And he did it with with absolute power of conviction and a clear voice that simply makes you stop in your tracks and listen–and watch for what will happen next.

And, as with the prophets, few observers are neutral. You are either drawn to King’s vision of delegitimizing the empire and offering a new social vision, or you are annoyed and angered at his arrogance for speaking against the powerful and not letting things be. As with Jeremiah in the Old Testament, you either want to be a part of the world he envisions or get rid of him.

So, as I listened to these speeches of King, something happened to me that rarely does: I was moved by words coming out of the mouth of a public figure. King voiced an alternate America, and I found myself wanting what he was talking about. King is in a league by himself. Certainly in my lifetime, there has been no more powerful, compelling, moving, energizing voice of change.

Which brings me back to next week’s election. I do not mean to comment on their personal characters, but as candidates, they are their running mates are boring, pandering, gutless, and visionless by comparison to King. Their goal is to get elected, and I do not trust what they say.

When I listen to them I feel manipulated. When I listen to King, I feel convicted and inspired. And King was so captured by his alternate reality that he was willing to risk his life for it. I am not sure how many leaders of my generation that I can describe this way.

Certainly not presidential candidates, past or present.

So, I’m cynical and I don’t want to cast a vote for the status quo, for bandaids over surgery.

Show me a humble, exciting, powerful, courageous, uncompromising, visionary candidate, with a gift for speaking eloquently (or just with good sentence structure) who inspires people, one we are compelled to follow, not someone we flip channels past.

There has to be someone like that out there, someone who is not so beholden to the system that they can’t critique it.

I want someone who is going to stop this slow, tedious, political merry-go-round and give me something to cheer about–not because we agree on “the issues” but because he or she embodies courage and conviction, so much so that getting elected and creating a personal legacy is a distant and repulsive thought.

Maybe watching King on YouTube was a bad idea. Maybe I am spoiled, or burdened by “unrealistic” expectations. That may be true, but perhaps that’s only because our definition of what is and isn’t “realistic”–our definition of “reality”–is part of the problem. We are all captured by the dominant culture. It’s all we know.

I’m not looking for heaven on earth. But I do want a candidate who will blow me away. Maybe that’s asking too much. But by not voting, I am casting my vote for a candidate to be named later and an alternative reality that requires true prophetic imagination to voice. Maybe one day.

 

  • Keith Tyson

    Well put Pete! Truth!
    Thanks!

  • Adam

    I see where you’re going, and while I share your frustration, I’m not sure I share your desire to be blown away or inspired by a politician. It takes a certain amount of sociopathy and narcissism to run for office, because you’re auditioning to be the winner of a contest.

    MLK Jr. wasn’t trying to win an election–he was trying to change the world. Since when do we want our inspiring world-changers to aspire to something as banal and hand-cuffed as politics? Why restrict them with governing–let them go do their thing.

  • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

    In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
    - MLK

    If gay rights are a continuation of King’s prophetic imagination, then a vote for Romney – or not voting – could be seen as a vote against gay rights.

    Just sayin…

  • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton
  • http://musicologyman.blogspot.com musicologyman

    Well, given that Mitt Romney is a Mormon, I don’t think you’ll be having a beer with him … or even coffee!

    You know, you could do what I did in 2004: write in “Stanley Hauerwas.”

    Seriously, though,too much of the church in America is more concerned with acquiring, holding, wielding, and exhibiting political, economic, and social power (becoming kings) rather than speaking truth to power (being prophets). And it’s a problem that afflicts Christians involved in political activism on both the right and the left. (Of course, I’m not saying anything new here.)

  • Amory Ewerdt

    Why don’t you vote third party?

  • Jedidiah Slaboda

    Thanks, Pete, I enjoyed this. I am also un-impressed with the self-centered short term vision our political ‘leaders’ cast–namely elect me and our party because the other guy and his party will make your life worse.

    But MLK would also tell you to stop being so lazy and vote, right? What does it hurt to exercise your right to vote, even for a lousy candidate or a third party candidate? Not voting seems so apathetic in the light of what MLK was ultimately fighting for, civil rights.

  • Tim

    I disagree with this attitude. I understand your path of Christian discipleship and interest in Kingdom work. However, you do have an obligation to this country as well. God I understand has your ultimate fealty, but this country too has cared for you. Provided you with the opportunity to raise a family, live your life, pursue your dreams in relative safety, security, and peace. Provided you with education, safety nets, medical care, etc.

    And this country that did all these things for you was only able to accomplish them because conscientious citizens participated in our political process. Voted. Campaigned. Got involved.

    You owe it to them to pay it back. We all do.

    This isn’t just about your ideals and what would excite you in a perfect world. It is about how we work together and care for each other in a messy, complicated, non-ideal, but very real world. And our decisions, even if that decision is inaction, do collectively impact our neighbors.

    • Terry

      Tim, I think you forgot the part about our freedom in the US to choose not to vote. Or, perhaps, our opportunity to protest by not voting as a framing guarantee.

      Among the many things C.S Lewis had right: “A man may have to die for our country: but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.”

    • Anonymous

      I agree with Tim.
      Waiting for Perfect seemed like a good idea to me, too, until I started living and working in a community that eschews political participation for theological reasons

    • Kristen inDallas

      I think you forget that all valid democratic elections must contain (at least) 3 options, yay, nay, and ABSTAIN. This guys, that guy, or none of the above. Consenting to the validity of the question is just as important as answering the question. It is very important for a politician to know, that even when he wins, he only has consent from about 30% (sometimes less) of the population. In countries that have had “democratically elected” tyrants, the world community doesn’t usually step in for a regime change until the people wise up and stop voting altogether. When less than 10% turn up to vote, we generally don’t consider that a valid democracy, and things change. I’m not saying it’s that bad here, but it’s good to remember, and remind our leaders that they have to do more than just beat the other guy, they have to inspire people to come to the polls in the first place.

  • Gail Brown

    I completely agree with this post, except for one point: “But, once again, our system has given us two–and only two–candidates”. I’m sure you are aware that Jill Stein and Gary Johnson are two very strong candidates, amid a sea of other third party candidates. If Jill and/or Gary get 5% of the vote, then their respective parties will get Federal funding for 2016. If you want to make a difference to help topple the oligarchy in power currently, then vote for either of them. Personally, I think Jill Stein is the one you are looking for if MLK is your muse. She’s been arrested twice in the last month for peacefully and respectfully standing up for what’s right.

    • peteenns

      Good point.

  • Tim

    Terry,

    I did not forget freedom. We have the freedom to live as we please. We are not under compulsion to fulfill our ethical obligations, only our legal ones. My point was merely an ethical one relating to civic duty.

  • Patrick Hare

    Ah, but the prophets are rarely in power.

  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com Craig Vick

    Do you think prophets simply fall from the sky? Perhaps the words of an ancient prophet have meaning here: You are the man.

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise

    1) Malala Yousafzai is a modern day prophetess in my book; 2) I read MLK’s “The Strength to Love” over and over and over; 3) I think voting is very important.

  • Huol

    All this cynicism is really off putting Dr. Enns. We live in an imperfect world, but we make the best of what we have. Anyways, even the greatest and most successful political figures of American history were as conniving and duplicitous as any modern day politician is today. Just read any historical biography on Lincoln, FDR, or LBJ. Politics is a nasty business. If you’re looking for a saint in politics, you’re looking in the wrong basket.

    Also, are the faults really with the politicians? You get the government you deserve unfortunately, not the government you want.

    • peteenns

      Now THAT’s cynical.

    • Bryan

      To be more precise, it is the western ‘world’ we live in, namely, the US. The core of our problems here is that we have inherited a capitalistic government that reduces its citizens to nothing more than a consumer. Our massive national debt symbolizes our insatiable greed and poor decision-making. What we need is a prophetic voice who ‘imagines’ outside the box of western politics. The demonizing of socialism always hearkens back to Hitler who, incidentally, rode into government on a socialist agenda and abandoned it in favor of a dictatorship. There is a vast difference between the two. The attempt to conflate Hitler to socialism is a non sequitur. Socialist countries such as Denmark or Sweden continually take the top-spot ranking for happiest country in the world. It seems like either candidate will put a band-aid on the national debt, which is only a symptom of a much greater problem: the governmental structure of the US. We need to learn how to slow down and enjoy life rather than speed-up and continually covet what our neighbor owns. It is our participation in this covetous consumerism that is awful. We need a politician to think outside the box.

      • peteenns

        You’re saying what I’m trying to say.

  • Nancy Halder

    I wonder if you had ever been a disenfranchised race or gender, you would feel differently? From a female gender perspective, women were wlling to endure violence and imprisonment and harrassment in their effort to secure the vote for women. Silly them. There was no need for them to do that because there have been no perfect, prophetic candidate worthy of their vote. And then to hold up MLK and not even acknowledge the struggles endured by disenfranchised African-Americans to attain the vote, me thinks you may be under the influence of the privileged white, entitled, male guy-thing. (Oddly enough I too am teaching this fall, a Bible study on the book of Amos for which I read Brueggeman’s book, not with the same results however!)

    • peteenns

      Did I say “perfect”? I think you misread and over read my post. Romney and Obama are wholly uninspiring leaders. When I think of inspiring leaders, I think of King. Boy, I wish we had someone today who was that kind of leader and willing to thrown his/her hat in the ring. Securing the vote is not really relevant to my specific point, not are my gender and skin color.

      • Tim

        Pete,

        You seem to think that you deserve an inspiring leader. Somebody worthy of your admiration. And until you get that, you feel fully entitled to sit on the sidelines. Letting others run the country for you.

        Why do you feel you’re owed more than this? Have you rolled up your sleeves and put the blood, sweat, and tears into the system that you expect from others.

        Much of what you enjoy on a day to day basis is the result of the hard work of uninspiring leaders. And the rest of us every-day voters who make this democracy work.

        With Thanksgiving coming up, maybe you should reflect on why your attitude is so, well, unthankful.

        • peteenns

          Tim, replace all the second person singulars with first person plurals, and then you’d be getting a bit closer to what I am saying.

          • Tim

            Replace “you” with “we”?

            That’s a curious suggestion. For one, your post was almost entirely personal. How you feel. What you plan on doing. What sort of leader would rise to such a level to warrant you to go into the polls to vote. There’s a lot of “I” language in that post.

            But let’s go with “we” and see where that takes us.

            We deserve a truly inspirational leader. We deserve more from our government than we put into it. We feel entitled not to participate in our democracy until someone truly exceptional inspires us. We feel entitled to let others do the work of running this country for us. While we enjoy our lives. Due to the fruit of others efforts. In relative peace, safety, and security. We don’t feel the need to be thankful for this. We feel entitled to sit on the sidelines and complain.

            So I think all we’ve accomplished here is to take a negative personal attitude of democratic non-participation and a sense of entitlement, and transform it into a broader prescription for civic disaster. I’m not sure that’s an improvement.

    • Kristen inDallas

      As a woman, I wholeheartedly admire the women who helped enable my right to vote. That doesn’t mean I am disrespecting their struggle if I choose not to vote. Because of them, the fact of my existance is counted in the total of the voting eligible population, and my abstentionism becomes meaningful. Because of them, my opinion matters, no matter what is done with my ballot, including the opinion that neither of these guys is worthy of my allegiance. No matter who I cast it for, or if I don’t cast it at all, my vote IS counted.

  • James

    Your criticism of American politics reminds me of Charles Taylor’s ‘procedural republic’ where the focus is on “individual rights and democratic and legal procedures, rather than on the historical-cultural reference points or the ideas of the good life by which citizens define their own identities.” The perceived advantage is not “endorsing the views of some at the expense of others (but finding) immediate common terrain on which all can gather (irrespective of) gender, race, sexual orientation, et cetera.” Of course, such a neutral ambition doesn’t work well in practise but it seems politicians are forced to try. That may be a reason their speeches aren’t very inspiring or prophetic. Taylor says solutions must be found along the lines of “negotiating a commonly acceptable, even compromised political identity between the different personal or group identities which want to/have to live in the polity.” Again, an uninspiring procedure to some. Still, it seems we’re stuck with some sort of procedural republic where many citizens complain they don’t get what they want no matter what the candidates promise. Now whether or not we should refuse to vote in protest is another problem.

  • Marshall

    Personally, I think we need to spend more effort close to home. Isn’t there somebody in your local political scene that is worth your support? If not …. we’ve got a guy in our church standing for City Councilman. “If you don’t like the news … go make some of your own”. – Scoop Nisker

  • Eric

    I was inspired to listen to King’s speeches after reading this. Now, I, too, am ruined. Thanks Dr. Enns. I needed to be ruined on this topic – shaken from apathy. My question is: What do you think is the next major societal issue that needs to be addressed and changed?

    • peteenns

      Greed.

  • George

    Dr Enns,
    I think you’re suffering from a “We need a Messiah” complex. The kind of person whom you seek to enter politics does not simply exist, and NEVER has existed to begin with. Sure you cite MLK, but by the way you write about him, you act like he’s some sort of saint, which any serious student of history would know is not actually the case. King was no doubt essential to the Civil Rights Movement, but it was more importantly the countless forgotten actions of many untold people behind King that led to his historical achievements. The job of reforming our society and nation for the better as a whole is not ultimately the responsibility of the politician or some elusive great figure who has yet to arise; instead it is the duty of every citizen. As a commentator above said, you get the government you deserve, not the government you want.

    I think the recent so called “Arab Spring” is a testament to how actual political reform is done. We see no King like figure there, although I’m sure having one would not hurt their cause.

  • Frank

    My comment has nothing to do with politics, but I was wondering when is Genesis for Normal People coming out in print?

    I’m a Ron Paul fan. I believe he is both true blue and correct in what he has been saying for 30 years.

    • peteenns

      VERY soon, Frank. It is in the final stages, but I think Sandy slowed down some things.

  • rvs

    Rubio’s talk at the RNC was the most inspiring talk of this political season, in my estimation. I especially liked the way he talked about his dad.

  • Josiah

    Unless you’re in a state in which you can vote ‘no confidence’, not voting is equivalent to voting for the winner because your ‘vote’ cannot count.

    To take the cynical perspective, surely you cannot believe that both candidates are equally evil? Having read the old testament prophets you ought to recall that God loves the widow, the fatherless, and the refugee. Surely the plight of the poor and weak must have some influence on your thinking, otherwise you are just another ‘one issue’ voter.

    As a non-American, I cannot escape the reality that your economy exerts a massive pull across the globe. And the ramifications following from your foreign policy can be rather scary; the nomination of a Republican has the tendency to lead to unnecessary bloodshed. That is why when a Republican governs America, the counter-cultural thing to do, everywhere else in the world, is to not hate America.

    Ps. If Romney wins, don’t be surprised when he legalizes polygamy as a peace gesture to muslims.

    • Kristen inDallas

      “Unless you’re in a state in which you can vote ‘no confidence’, not voting is equivalent to voting for the winner because your ‘vote’ cannot count.”

      This is a common misconception. Not voting is the equivalent of voting no confidence. There are two percentages woth looking at in every election. the percentage the winner got out of the total voting. And the percentage of the total VAP/VEP who voted. Not voting has absolutely no impact on the first percentage (unless you live in a shady precinct where they use unlikely voters ballots to rig elections – the reason I like to go in, claim my ballot and leave most of it blank). Not voting does have a significant impact on the second percentage, and in that respect it is counted. You could make a stronger case for people who do vote have there vote being used in supoprt of something they didn’t want. When a whole state is likely to swing completely blue or completely red in the electoral college, people who voted for the other party get represented by votes the other way, while still being counted as “consenting” in the sense of contributing to a higher percentage of voters out of VEP.

  • http://sanctorumcommunio.tumblr.com Luke D

    totally agree!

  • Dan

    A-freakin-mazing post!

    I couldn’t have said it better.

    I needed this after seeing FB friends posting OT covenant verses in support of “Christian America”

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  • Tyler Dobbs

    I’m pretty mad about this post. Seriously, I’m close to physically hurting someone. I mean c’mon… the Big Bang theory. Tisk tisk, I’m disappointed.

  • http://www.CrossroadJunction.com Jim Wright

    I would no more what a prophet assuming the prerogatives of a king (or president), than I would a king (or president) to assume the mantle of a prophet. Yet in God’s providence, we need both.

    Is it possible that you have ignored a valid distinction between those two roles?

    • peteenns

      No, I think I understand the distinction pretty well. I just don’t want a system where candidates have to lie to me to get elected rather than really lay it out there. The rhetoric of both candidates was wearisome.

      I would also add that the king/prophet distinction as God’s providence does not hold for America, since we are not Israel.


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