Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Preacher Explains Who Not to Vote For in (Every) Election

            I’m going to tell my readers something you probably didn’t know about me. Forty years ago, in 1975, while taking a year off college, I got on my bike and rode it over to city hall, where I took out nomination papers to run as an independent candidate in that year’s provincial election. I was just nineteen and I was upset. You see none of the parties were willing to support choice in education. I thought I’d run on that one issue, because at that time I believed that Ontario should support private parochial schools, as in British Columbia and Alberta, and as John Tory would in his ill-fated run for Ontario’s premiership a few years ago.

            In any case, back in 1975, I never filled those nomination papers out. I was too busy earning money for college and playing baseball with my friends to get the 100 or so signatures I needed. But since I was a resident of Premier Bill Davis’s riding, in Brampton, Ontario, the press kept an eye on such things. So, the day after I took the nomination papers home, local papers reported it. Next, my phone started ringing—mostly friends, former teachers, and members of my church. I found I liked the attention. I didn’t have a campaign staff, didn’t have money, and didn’t have a prayer running against Bill Davis. But, a bit narcissistically, I basked in the limelight anyway.

The Prime Ministerial Candidates.
            That wasn’t the end of my political dabbling. In 2003, when I was a magazine editor in West Michigan, I wrote an article musing about a possible run for the United States Congress. I was pretty well known in my district because of the magazine. I could have been a credible candidate for the Democratic Party. A couple of people emailed me to say it would be a great idea. Again, I liked that. But the party establishment didn’t bite, and it is just as well, because Republicans had been elected out of that congressional district for about 100 years anyway.

            Now, looking back on those two times I dipped my toe in political waters, with the perspective of many years and hopefully, by now, a little wisdom, I can admit that one of the things that motivated me to even think about running for office—at least a little—was the glare of publicity. I enjoyed my fifteen minutes—or less—of being the centre of attention.

            Now, I can’t speak for politicians in general. Perhaps it isn’t ambition, or ego, or fame that motivates most politicians. Perhaps the politicians we love best are motivated by ideals, by a deep and abiding concern for the common good, and by a desire to serve rather than be served. Some undoubtedly are.

            But what I really hope--and this is the main point I want to make--is that the same holds true for us, the voters. Do we decide our vote on the basis of “me, myself, and I?” Do we vote on the basis of our needs, our wants, and our ambitions—or do we choose to vote on some other, more idealistic basis?

            I find it interesting that almost all the media attention, almost all party promises, almost all campaign ads are about what I will get out of this election—more security, maybe; a job, or day care, or cheaper tuition, or a faster commute, or income splitting, or whatever.

            This trend of focussing campaigns on the voters’ narrowest interests really came into focus during the 1980 Presidential campaign that pitted Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan famously asked the electorate, “are you better off now than four years ago?” But it is much the same here. In fact, this past August the Toronto Star asked voters that exact question in a front-page poll.

            People seem to take it for granted that most politicians run for selfish reasons, and that most people vote for selfish reasons. But ultimately, I think a politics rooted in “me, myself, and I” first is going to leave a lot of important issues in the dust--especially for people who want to mirror Jesus' priorities.

            There is a recent trilogy of books and movies that are actually a parable about the “me first,” and “am I better off than four years ago,” style of politics. It’s called The Hunger Games. The movies starred everyone’s favourite Oscar stumbler, Jennifer Lawrence.

            The novels are not high literature, and the movies, though fun, are not classics. Both made a lot of money. The author, Suzanne Collins, pictures a North American country called Panem divided into twelve zones. One zone, the Capital, is home to a society much like ours. It is rich. Its citizens luxuriate in the latest trends, and especially coming up with new and bizarre fashions. The population of the capital is preoccupied with violent stadium games—Ultimate Fighting to the death. And they love gorging on the best food, parties, beautiful homes, and 7-24 entertainment.

            In contrast to Capital, the rest of the districts in Panem exist to support the Capital’s health and wealth. The districts mine minerals and manufacture, grow crops and provide human fodder for capital. And they are sinkholes of poverty. Until, finally, Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Katniss, leads—not always willingly—the districts in an open revolt against the capital.

            The books and movies are an allegory.  Hunger Games is about how the few with power on earth tend to live for themselves, and how the many pay the price.
The Hunger Games says that when inequality and lack of fairness gets out of hand, whether within or between countries; when the accident of birth matters more than character or heart or hard work; when my games, pastimes, and entertainment mean more than the welfare of all—in such situations, there will eventually be hell to pay.

            In Psalm 85 the Psalmist—who is a refugee, in Babylon, because the Babylonians have destroyed Israel and sent its people to live in other parts of the empire—the Psalmist is dreaming of a new and better Israel. In his vision, he says that a perfect Israel—a perfect nation—would be a place where “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, where righteousness and peace will kiss each other”  (v. 10). An more colloquial  translation might put it that the best society is one where “justice and shalom embrace.”

            What would that look like? Well, in scripture, justice is always measured by how the alien—the foreigner, the refugee—how the alien within our gates or city is treated; by how the orphan and the widow—traditionally the poorest people in Israel—were cared for. And shalom was not only international peace, but a national culture where all debts were supposed to be forgiven every fifty years; where prosperity was not limited to a few; where the rich were required to leave enough in the fields after harvest to feed the poor.  In ancient Israel, justice and shalom embracing was a world where no one had to look out over his or her shoulder in fear, because everyone else was looking over their shoulder, for your best interests.

            Of course, as a parable, The Hunger Games is full of exaggeration to make its point. And unlike the world of Panem, we are also a democracy. And what it is going to take for us to steer clear of environmental apocalypse, even more minorities in jail than there are now, reconciliation between First Nations and the rest of us, between racial minorities and the rest of us; what it is going to take to avoid more terrorism and more military missions; what it is going to take beat climate change and beat poverty and homelessness . . . what it is going to take is citizens like us voting for the embrace of justice and shalom rather than just voting for the party that we think will leave us, personally, better off in four or five years.

            Look, I won’t want to tell anyone how to vote. God knows, all the parties think that it’s your pocket book that is most important to you. But we collectively have an ancient vision rooted in Psalm 85. When you vote, do so in the best interests of the neighbour that we are called by Jesus to love, rather than merely for your private interests. Don't Vote for yourself, but for your neighbor. It’s a radical idea at the root of almost every political ideology out there, from Marxism to Conservatism—and yet it is the one idea we hear far too little about in this election campaign. 

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