Me, I like voting. Public policy and politics are the conversational river that flows through my marriage, as they flowed through my family of origin. As I write this, I’m reliving a vivid memory of debating the merits of the Joint Strike Fighter procurement process with my mum and brother.
To calm my nerves. On my wedding day.
As you do.
I’m not a member of a political party, but I care about both the process and the outcomes of politics, and I pay attention to it. Even without the promise of a sausage sizzle and a Facebook feed full of cute dogs that people have encountered at their local school hall, I’d be buzzed about Election Day.
This, I realise, is not everyone’s experience of politics.
Voting, on the other hand, is a near-universal experience in my community. It’s compulsory for eligible Australians, and so, every State and Federal election, we turn out. Or at least, we should – at the last Federal election, something like 1.4 million eligible voters failed to hand in a ballot paper. Clearly, they didn’t grow up hearing my mother’s Suffrage LectureTM. In its shortened form, it goes like this:
Are you a wealthy, white, landowning man? No? Well then, people died so that you could vote. The least you can do to honour that is to get out there and DO IT!
Compulsory voting is pretty rare among the world’s democracies. Fewer than a dozen countries enforce it, although a few more technically have it on the books. I’ve been thinking about the interesting position that it puts followers of Jesus in, especially given the intersection with the directive in Colossians 3:23 to work at the things we do, ‘as if to the Lord.’ Voting isn’t exactly work, but it is a thing we do – a thing we’re required to do. There’s a religious exemption, yes – it’s possible to ask a court to declare that you don’t need to vote if the act is not something you can reconcile with your faith. But short of that, what would it mean for our practice of voting if it were something we did, ‘as if to the Lord’?
Here are two things I think it won’t look like:
1. I don’t think voting ‘as if to the Lord’ will mean all Christians vote the same way, and I come to that position through both experience and theology.
First up: faithful followers of Jesus already vote all over the spectrum in Australia. Truly, they do. If that’s not your experience: the Christmas holidays are a good time to visit different churches and meet people from different denominations and cultural backgrounds. Maybe ask them what they think is the most pressing issue in the upcoming State election – and really listen to their answers. There’s no downside to meeting more of your brothers and sisters in Christ. And there’s nothing quite as awesome as the feeling of realising that someone you’ve just met is, at a deep level, family – even if they’re really different to you.
This diversity is true even in my house. One of the reasons the husband and I got together was that we hold many common views on a bunch of political and theological fronts. We were both looking to make a marriage in which we work together to build God’s Kingdom on earth as best we understand it. But for all we agree on, we’ve voted differently in every election we’ve participated in – including the local government one where there were only two candidates. Informed people of shared vision, united in Christ and following Him together, can still disagree on the best way to get to the place to which we’re heading. And that’s ok.
Which brings us to the second thing: God has woven diversity into the world, and into the church. He gave some of us a passionate concern for the welfare of the natural world, and some of us a passionate concern for technological innovation. He set some of us the hope of helping hurting individuals, and some of us the hope of remaking the systems of the world so that marginalised and oppressed people can thrive. Some of us are justice people. Some of us are mercy people. Some of us are eyes. Some of us are hands. Only Jesus has ever held all these things in perfect balance, and He did it by being all for all of them, all of the time. None of the rest of us has the capacity to pull that off. Instead, we live out unity-and-diversity together. We live as the Church.
In the voting booth, the people of a united-and-diverse Church are going to mark out different priorities. And again, that’s ok, because…
2. I don’t think voting ‘as if to the Lord’ will ever mean doing it with cynicism or contempt.
Among all the things it is, a democracy is a series of relationships. Most obviously, it’s a relationship between the voters and the people they choose to represent them in a parliament. But it is also a collection of relationships between voters themselves – between all of us. As I vote, I don’t just express my personal political preferences. I implicitly express my faith in my fellow citizens; in the idea that if we each make a choice, and we aggregate those choices, that between us, we’ll elect a group of people who can legislate and govern well.
This is never a fully realised hope. But it is a hope that is deeply consistent with a Christian worldview. By participating in a democracy, we demonstrate that we recognise the spark of wisdom that is in all people; the capacity to make good choices that are inherent to being made in the image of God. This is especially so in a democracy with compulsory voting.
Cynicism and contempt break these relationships. Cynicism says, ‘I don’t think you’re capable of doing good.’ Contempt says, ‘I don’t think you’re even fully human.’ I can’t imagine saying those things to Jesus about another person. I can’t vote ‘as if to Him’ with those attitudes.
God is sovereign however we arrange our social structures: traditional cultures of tribe and family; absolute monarchy; representative democracy; or totalitarian state. Biblically speaking, there’s nothing necessary or inevitable about democracy – but there is a lot that is precious. Cynicism and contempt eat like acid at the institutions and relationships that hold a democracy together. For Christians, not only are they unhelpful; they can’t be reconciled with the character and priorities of the One we follow.
3. So, what might voting ‘as if to the Lord’ look like?
As if to the One whose whole deal was giving up what was due to him in order to seek the good of others?