Ten days ago, Mennonite-turned-Catholic theologian Gerald Schlabach posted words of caution on the topic of not voting to Facebook:
I get why some of my Catholic friends say they can’t vote for either candidate, given that neither party comes close to representing Catholic social teaching. And I get why some of my Mennonite and Christian anarchist friends say they can’t vote at all, given the way that both parties collude comfortably with the violence of the empire. BUT before you decide not to vote at all, or do a write-in, first imagine yourself looking Congressman John Lewis in they [sic] eye and explaining your decision. A man of great dignity and courage, he was beaten, and others died, struggling for the vote. So vote or don’t vote however and for whomever your conscience dictates. But first have that imaginary talk with Lewis to make sure it’s conscience and not just a desire to feel good about yourself.
This comment was followed by a shot of a poster image for the Democratic National Convention:
I appreciate these words of caution. No doubt too many non-voters take that route out of self-righteousness, smug complacency, or other less-than-optimal orientations to the democratic political process in our land. Nevertheless, over the last few days, as I’ve thought about the way Gerald frames the challenge, I’ve come to the conclusion that the framing reflects a mistake about the realities of pre- and post-civil-rights-era voting.
Prior to the courageous and successful battle to extend the franchise to certain classes of Americans, conscientious non-participation in the voting process was not an option because conscientious participation was not an option, at least for a whole class of adult Americans. At that time, not being able to vote was in no way an exercise of power, however weak or marginal, by the excluded; rather, it reflected the exercise of power against them. It is in this context that we must understand the quote from Congressman Lewis—gaining the right to vote meant (in principal) that the democratically accountable powers of our land had to hear, engage, and respond to the newly empowered sections of American society that had been hitherto ignored, or more accurately, actively oppressed.
But winning the fight changes the very meaning of not voting for the previously excluded class of voters. Before, not voting was not a way of participating in the political process—it was the very definition of being excluded from participation. After, not voting represents one avenue of conscientious participation. In other words, the civil rights struggle not only won the right to vote, it also created the conditions of possibility for not voting to be a meaningful way of participating in the political process. For after the civil rights struggle, not voting can reflect a certain kind of empowerment—the freedom and ability to say “No!” to the political parties seeking to parlay votes into power.
Obviously (I hope!), to say that not voting “can” reflect empowerment is not to say that it does. It could also reflect a whole host of vices—indifference, sloth, selfishness, cluelessness, and so forth. My only point is that it’s probably a mistake to frame the choice in the way that Gerald has. If we really want to honor the triumphs of the civil rights movement, we shouldn’t put the burden of proof on those who would conscientiously not vote; doing so is one way of participating meaningfully in the political process, a way opened up to a previously excluded class of citizens by the civil rights movement. The burden of proof should fall across the board—on voters and non-voters who are only glibly or tangentially or unreflectively involved in the process. They are the ones who need challenging. There are surely many non-voters in this class, though I doubt the folks Gerald was addressing in his Facebook comment are among them. And for what it’s worth, I’m still not sure I’m not going to vote. I voted for Obama in 2008.
I read a piece online last week by Marc Ambinder, “Romney’s Theory of Provocative Weakness,” that made a case for seeing Romney’s criticism of the Obama administration’s “apologetic” response to the attack on the embassy in Libya as a reflection of his view that “humility is provocative, and power is a natural extension of the order of this world.” If Ambinder is correct about Romney’s views—and much that has come out of Romney’s mouth in the last week seems to confirm Ambinder’s reading—I, as a theologian, find in these views much to detest (and, if I give in to temptation, mock). However, I also think the theory unwittingly gets something profoundly right—weakness is provocative; it has the ability to provoke the strong; indeed, weakness has the ability to—is indeed so powerful that it can—undo putatively strong men by revealing to the watching world how incredibly weak they actually are. The great irony of Romney invoking a theory like this is that he does so on the heels of the George W. Bush administration—the definitive wielder of proud American power, which gave us not one but two globe-trotting spectacles of the weakness of proud power. I hope to have more to say on this next week. In the meantime, I wish Romney (and also the “weak,” drone-reliant, bin-Laden-assassinating President Obama) would spend some more pondering 1 Corinthians 1:18–25 (NRSV):
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.