crosspost: this article originally appeared HERE.
How should I vote in this election?
A more timely and relevant question may not exist for the American Christian today (as in, the day you might be reading this before November 8, 2016). It is the question that author Skye Jethani attempts to resolve in his short eBook, The Voting Booth.
Through allegory, Jethani presents the story of “Christian,” who, while arriving at his polling place on Election Day, finds himself confronted with the problem of not knowing for whom he should vote, or whether he should vote at all. Seeking God’s voice of hope in this context, Christian then finds himself transported to a spiritual realm, wherein he converses with three distinct spirits, who then promote and defend the potential paths that Christian can take as a voter. The first two spirits, and their accompanying paths, are “Exodus” and “Exile,” borrowing from the paths confronted by the nation of Israel and Judah in their political interactions with Egypt and Babylon, and arguably reflected in the American culture at various times prior to today. In short oversimplification, Exodus says that Christian should disengage from the process and flee from the corrupting realm of politics, while Exile says that Christian should enter the fray in order to defend the faith and press for righteousness in his culture. These paths resonate with Christian, but ultimately leave him as confused and dissatisfied as he was when he entered the voting booth. In response, Christian is offered a “third place” path, from the spirit of Incarnation, who challenges Christian to approach the voting booth from a different perspective, rooted in and reflecting the advent of Christ.
In sum, though without explanation (but in recognition of the 1,000 to 1 exchange rate of pictures to words):
For what it is, Jethani’s expression of the potential paths of “Exodus” and “Exile” are effective, and certainly instructive for one who finds himself or herself in one of these competing positions. Undeniably, the temptation to fight or flight is one that is common to those of us with the “dual citizenship” of both Heaven and Earth/God and Caesar/the Kingdom of God and the Republic of the United States of America. Indeed, as Jethani accurately intimates, the calls of either Exodus or Exile have significantly formed and informed important religious and cultural movements throughout recent history. From 16th Century Anabaptism to the 20th Century “Religious Right,” the tension of “two kingdoms” and the competing enticements to either flee for safety and religious purity or battle for protection and civic righteousness have formed alike both holy and unholy foundations of theology and politics for as long as citizens have had some voice in their government.
Therefore, for those who identify with this dichotomy, and who readily find themselves faced with the draw to either Exodus or Exile, Jethani offers clear and valuable insight. Indeed, for those in Christian’s place, the two hours that it takes to read The Voting Booth will particularly be time very well spent.
Where I believe The Voting Booth falls short, however, is unfortunately in this fundamental premise itself: i.e., the suggested limited dichotomy of the perspectives of either Exile or Exodus when approaching the electoral polls. With or without Jethani’s excellent conclusion of a “third place” of Incarnation, this limited approach of Exodus and Exile in many ways fails to provide insight for the many other perspectives that draw a citizen to (or away from) the voting booth. (Indeed, the fact that Christian is at the voting booth when this conversation occurs indicates that at least one path – Exodus – was a philosophical contrivance for the protagonist.)
In this regard, Jethani draws a clear and intentional line of promoting Incarnational voting as a means of engaging and caring solely for our culture; but is the health and future of our “culture” what our electoral process is about? Admittedly, politics and culture are interrelated; but something, in my reading, was missing from this cultural approach and analysis. While Christian, and his confusion and desires, may typify many American believers on their way to the polls this (and any other) November, I wish that there had been more consideration of other paths taken by believers, throughout history and currently, as they engaged and engage their American voting process: concepts of deep responsibility, care for one’s nation outside of culture (indeed, even patriotism), and legitimate (and illegitimate) political authority as they relate both to the voting Christian and to the Christian’s relationship with their God. To that end, the formulation of the Christian protagonist fails, as all allegories must, to capture the depth of the real humans that inhabit the real space of the real world.
Finally, the presented choice of incarnation over either Exodus or Exile does not steer either the protagonist or the reader toward a clear direction in making a voting choice – whether in the present context of choosing between “disgusting” and “despicable” (my independent assessment of the American electorate’s 2016 options), or in any context of the simultaneously simple and yet convoluted issues facing our American nation (and culture). When faced with choosing between “disgusting” and “despicable” in 2016, the call of Exodus certainly has a clarion tone, and the siren of Exile may sing in vivid colors to an individual believer. But in the actual context of American politics (a tapestry of multi-hued grey), nebulous questions of Exodus and Exile do not often find concrete incarnational solutions – or when they do, those solutions are rarely, if ever, universally shared among believers. For as much as we are of one God, one faith, one Lord, and one baptism, we are obviously not of one ideology or perception of how that oneness interacts with our fallen world.
Perhaps this is Jethani’s intent. Perhaps this destination of “more questions” on the journey of inquiry is the only real destination at which we can arrive, particularly when Jesus is not on the ballot (and He clearly is not, and never has been). If that is Jethani’s aim with The Voting Booth, then he succeeds. If, however, Jethani implies that concrete political and cultural answers are available through this approach, then the book fails. (The cynical reader can infuse such hints toward solutions, if so desired, but for what it’s worth, I trust that there is no subterfuge to Jethani’s approach. I do not believe that he is pushing for either political side in American politics, but rather view his approach as an honest intercession on behalf of the Church, and a fair reading of The Voting Booth should avoid such insinuations.)
Thus, intellectually, the journey with Jethani and Christian through The Voting Booth was at times difficult – if only because I would have chosen a different approach (among the many that I believe are possible). But lest this review sound too critical (it takes courage to undertake what Jethani has attempted on this subject, however I might dispute his approach), the final “third place” destination of Incarnation presented by Jethani is one with which my heart has deeply resonated over time, and indeed resonated with as I read his book. And while I do not think that Jethani offers any answers for the American believer looking for guidance either on specific political issues or which candidate to select in this, or any, election, what he does well is attempt to align the reader with the heart of God toward our culture, which indelibly includes our politics (even if those two realms may not be as inextricable as The Voting Booth seems to contemplate).
In this, whether the choice is one between Exodus and Exile, nation and culture, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, or even between “disgusting” and “despicable,” the ideal of imitating the Incarnation of Christ in our conduct toward each other in the voting booth and outside of it is a concept that is both theologically perfect and also worthy of every Christian voter’s contemplation and meditation.
As Jethani’s spirit of Incarnation explains, “The most important thing is not what you decide inside the voting booth, but how you love your neighbors once you leave it.” If this is all that we take from The VotingBooth and this election cycle, then the Gospel of Christ will reign and His Kingdom will be advanced.