Thursday, November 6, 2008

Quakers, Voting and the Seeds of War

I know many people are very excited about the election results, but I have had something weighing on me for the past few weeks that I think I am finally able to express.

Elections seem to me to be another form of battle, perhaps more civilized than trying to kill each other, but there is still the underlying feeling that it is a battle. What does that mean to us as Friends?

In our business meetings, we don't vote. I'm not suggesting that I think that a Quaker business meeting will work in conducting the national affairs of 300 million people, but I think that our emphasis on not voting does reflect an understanding of what voting really is - the majority forcing its will on the minority. That isn't the main reason why we don't vote, of course. Friends have always understood that when we are rightly led by the Spirit, we are brought into unity with the will of God and have a shared understanding of what to do that is beyond even the idea of consensus.

We need to be particularly aware of how we are affected by political battles. We hear Friends speak of how we are opposed to the wars that "those people" are so eager to fight. For some Friends, "those people" are Republicans, or Evangelicals, or Baptists. When we look at others as "those people" we are sowing seeds of war. You can't have a battle until you first have a way to identify friend from foe. How many people in your meeting have bumper stickers like "F the President" or "Republicans for Voldemort" or "W(orst) President"? Those are seeds of war.

Over the past two days I have read various messages about how we should all come together now and support the president. These have almost always been from those whose candidate won, and I found myself thinking the same thing at first. Then I remembered how I felt after the last election, and that I could not just put the result aside and put on a happy "I support the president" face. I also must acknowledge that while the electoral college was roughly a 2-1 margin, the popular vote was about 53% to 46%. So 46% of Americans are going through the same struggle that I did 4 years ago.

The other part of this is my fundamental belief that the Spirit of Christ in every person can change hearts for the better. A hard-fought political victory doesn't usually change the loser's heart, and more often hardens it for the next fight. We need to keep that in mind while campaigning for change in the world. Sure the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned, the powerless need someone to speak up for them, but when we speak, we should be answering the witness of God in the hearts of others that their voices might join ours.


  1. I've been a Obama supporter but I have friends and associates who voted for McCain and have been listening to and reading about how upset they've been. And yes, they do sound a like like I would be sounding if the election had gone the other way. I hope that their fears will be put to rest as they see that Obama is not the monster that Fox News had made him out to be. I do realize though that we might all be disappointed together by other things about our new President, especially if he shows a fondness for war.

    I guess as Christians and Friends we need to remember that despite the democratic trappings, the Presidency is still Caesar's realm and that the most important work is elsewhere.

  2. That was very well said, Mark! I've felt similar things for years, but it's been a long time since I've seen them as clearly as you put them here.

    I've also felt that those who put emotion into an election campaign (no matter whether their candidate wins or loses) are hoping to gain, by human effort, something that, really, only God can give us. It's an easy trap to fall into, but very harmful, since it puts us into a frame of mind where we quarrel passionately about how to move forward.

    On Facebook, shortly before the election, I found myself saying quite truthfully that I care less about who wins the election than I do about our being reconciled and working together.

    Thank you for posting this.

  3. although I vote for the national and state candidates and issues, the ones that matter are those of local import: school board, city council, the like. They are all on the same ballot and need our prayerful consideration.

  4. Although I too am a strong Obama supporter, I still feel called to "Speak Truth to Power." To me this means to support and encourage the new administration's commitment to diplomacy, listening to others, working cooperatively with other nations, having a truly inter-national view rather than a nationalistic view.

    I also strongly support not so much "spread the wealth," but rather a view of "in that you have done it to the least of these..." A view that Obama expressed much better than McCain in several areas including international affairs, health care and economic support.

    However, to accomplish these positive goals (which seem to me to help "take away the occasions for war") there will need to be a commitment to re-allocate funds from making war to making peace. I believe this is what Friends have done in a number of situations and are still called to do in "politics."

  5. Mark,

    I agree that elections can bring out a competitiveness that often leads to hostility or at least incivility. But I also think you are too negative about voting as a process by which people who are not like-minded can make decisions. It's unfair to describe the process as the majority imposing its will on the minority for a couple of reasons. First, there's got to be general agreement on the groundrules before any voting takes place--in the U.S. voting is a continuous tradition going back over 200 years. Secondly, in a democracy majority rule is limited by a system of rights which prescribe the limits of what the majority can decide.

    In my academic life we vote on things in our department all the time. It would be nice if we could decide things by consensus, but that rarely happens because we agree on so little. Sometimes my side wins these votes and sometimes I am outvoted. I don't like some of the decisions reached but the process is far superior to any other that might be tried for this group. I rather like the old quote from Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government ever invented--except for all the others.

  6. Anj, thank you for your faithfulness and your open heart!

    Martin, your comment about Caesar's realm reminded me of the line from Psalm 118 "It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes".

    Marshall, I hope we as a nation do find that spirit of reconciliation!

    Nemo, you make a great point. I think that the local thinking applies to more than just voting, I often feel like Friends are more worried about what is going on halfway around the world than they are about what is going on down the street.

    Tom, I think that beyond the policies that we think might help the nation, we as Friends need to think about what we can do to help bring about a change of heart.

    Richard, I am pretty sure I didn't argue that democracy has no place, but I still maintain that it involves something of an adversarial spirit that I believe is contrary to a Christlike nature. I think we need to be very guarded about throwing ourselves deeply into the political process such that we begin to see those that disagree with us as some kind of enemy. I think it is a bad idea to confuse temporary political change with the lasting change that Christ works upon our hearts.

    With love,

  7. Mark,

    You've said here very well something I also believe and that seems to be a regular theme of my comments on Quaker blogs. I think a succinct way of putting it is that, while war theoretician Carl von Clausewitz' dictum that "war is the extension of politics by other means" is true, the converse is just as true -- "politics is the extension of war by other means." I think Quakers could use a heavy dose of Christian anarchism -- see, e.g., Leo Tolstoy's "The Kingdom of God is Within You."