This essay originally appeared as “Jesus is Never on the Ballot! So what?!” at the Libertarian Christian Institute and can be found online here.
One summer during college, while working at a Christian youth camp in Texas, my girlfriend at the time (now wife) mailed me a book called The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. I read it within a few days. I couldn’t put it down. Other than the stray family member, the communities in which I grew up were all “conservative,” whatever that word means. And I don’t say that pejoratively. Many causes of the average conservative family are still my own, like the importance of church, family, local community, economic freedom, and hard work. But I bring this up to say that I had never been exposed to Claiborne’s style of left-Christianity. And I don’t use that term negatively either; I am not even sure Shane would use it to describe himself, but I think socially and economically it is the correct term. He turns guns into garden tools, grows his hair long, goes on hundreds of miles long walks for racial justice, and rides around the country in a van fueled by vegetable oil. This was not a kind of person I ever knew from my youth in the conservative culture of the South.
With that being said, despite the many compelling, radical aspects of Shane’s Christianity, his recent call for political participation this November is rather traditional and short-sighted. Shane naively proposes to exchange current political injustice for future injustice. For the Christian, political injustice, no matter who the perpetrator, should be grounds for skepticism when it comes to achieving godly ends through the dubious means of the state. Shane knows not of what he asks.
Shane is right to say in his essay that “Christians still have a hard time knowing how to engage with politics.” We should have a hard time knowing how to engage politically this year because ballot-box activism is not the kind of engagement we should pursue. One thing I admire about Shane is his Jesus-centered Christianity; every social and economic issue he takes up seems to me to be filtered through the simple question of “What would Jesus do?” So I ask Shane, What would Jesus do? Would Jesus vote in November?
As he writes, Jesus is not on the ballot. Trump is, Joe Biden is, the libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen is, and a host of other names that don’t stand a chance if history is any indication. Although Claiborne tells us who he’s voting against, he doesn’t say who he’s voting for (granted, there are restrictions on these kinds of overt political endorsements based on the publication type). It’s entirely possible he has stated such elsewhere and I missed it, but at least based on last week’s article, he makes no such mention. “I will vote against Trump,” he writes, and he encourages readers to “vote for love.” Who represents love? I can only assume that he intends to vote for Joe Biden and his running-mate Kamala Harris. If I’m wrong and this is not his intention, I sincerely apologize. But if he intends to effect actual change, I can’t imagine he will “throw his vote away” on a candidate that he believes has no chance of winning; and if he did plan to vote for, say, Jo Jorgensen and the Libertarian Party, why not just say so? I’ve never known a libertarian to be shy about their political allegiance. So when he says he will “vote love over fear,” what exactly does this mean? Why not just tell readers which candidate most represents “love” to him this November, especially if the stakes are as high as he believes? If our house is on fire would we respond by screaming to those inside what not to do? No, we would be yelling where the closest exit is like someone’s life depends on it. What political exit to safety is Claiborne proposing? He doesn’t say.
What would Jesus do? I don’t think Jesus would vote for Donald Trump, a man with a history of seedy business dealings who once bragged that he can grope women because “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Of course, there are the charges of racism, xenophobia, and the like against our current president, but Christians should also be concerned, if not more concerned, about Trump’s foreign policy. I am not accusing Shane Claiborne of being uninformed when it comes to America’s long history in the Middle East, but in general I rarely see Christians criticizing Trump for continuing the deadly foreign policy of George W. Bush and Barack Obama (and by extension, Joe Biden).
If Christians should love our neighbors as ourselves, how about we demand that the President lift sanctions that keep food and medical supplies out of war torn countries? How about we demand that he stop the unconstitutional spying and the FISA warrants? How about instead of American flags at the front of the church, our pastors call to end the empire and bring the troops home to their families? How about Christians learn just a little bit about economics and history to see that Christian militarism is a death cult and completely antithetical to the peaceful Christ of the New Testament who was slain on a cross?
I bet Shane Claiborne would agree with all of this. So what is my criticism? For one thing, I worry that left-Christianity (again, my term, not his) places too much emphasis on high profile social issues such as race and immigration at the expense of taking the time to educate itself on similarly significant issues. Of course, what Christian wouldn’t agree that black lives matter, and that a racist criminal justice system goes against every biblical concept of justice? So to be sure, I am not saying that in calling attention to those issues, Shane is wrong or that he has to care about my “pet projects.” But if his approach to politics this year is essentially a Christian utilitarianism—as in, which candidate will help the most people—Christians cannot only look at the issues on the news. Which Christians are calling for the complete dismantling of the failed and racist War on Drugs? Which Christians are calling for reduced taxes since we know that taxes inversely affect our ability to freely give away our money? Where are the Christians calling for every single military personnel around the world to be brought home today? Finally, which Christians demand the end of the bureaucracy that tells Christian families when and how high to jump in service of the state?
If I deem these other issues to be more important, on the whole, than whatever Shane means by voting for “love,” then who is to say that any candidate does or does not deserve my vote? What if I thought President Trump actually would end the constant wars? That would be a strong incentive for me to vote for him. Of course, because I don’t think he will end the wars, I won’t be voting for him, or any other candidate in November.
I won’t vote because the two leading candidates are so far from the Christianity that I, or Shane, know, that I don’t think they deserve my vote, my support, and certainly not my stamp of approval. If I am right in guessing that Shane plans to vote for Joe Biden, shouldn’t we again ask What would Jesus do? Would Jesus vote for a candidate that supported the racist, groundless War in Iraq, a war that has killed thousands of American servicemen and even more Iraqi civilians? Would Jesus vote for the man who signed the 1994 Crime Bill and previously said that he wanted to be tougher than Nixon on crime? “Lock the S.O.B.s up” is the way Biden phrased it at the time. He even bragged in 1993 that “every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress . . . has had the name of the Democratic senator from the State of Delaware: Joe Biden.” Biden has been in office since 1973. If he was going to fight for racial, social, and economic justice, then locking people up was a strange way to do it.
Or would Jesus vote for Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, who has a track record of aggressive prosecutions, including seeking the death penalty, and harsh sentences for non-violent drug offenders? It’s not unlikely that she would either become president during a Biden administration, or use the office as a springboard to the presidency, so it is not without cause that she should be factored into one’s vote. In a presidential debate in June of 2019, Senator Harris accused Joe Biden of being against Civil Rights-era busing, and when asked about this later by Stephen Colbert, she laughed it off saying, “It was a debate.” It’s hard to imagine that voting for a former tough-on-crime Democrat like Joe Biden, and a former city prosecutor and Attorney General in Kamala Harris, who made a career out of putting people in prison, is “voting for love.”
Shane writes that “opting out [of voting] also has consequences,” and that not voting comes from a place of privilege. But isn’t the real privileged position the voter who naively thinks that his or her vote will bring about justice? Has history taught us nothing? We don’t know what a Biden/Harris presidency would look like, but we certainly know what their past looks like. Privilege is not having to learn history and economics because we think our vote is enough. Privilege is taking candidates at their word instead of their record. Privilege is voting for two people who have done more harm to minorities in America that most politicians could do in a lifetime. Claiborne himself said in March that “…Joe Biden’s historic support for the death penalty, mass incarceration and excessive punishment is deeply troubling….” But, confirming my suspicion that Claiborne plans to vote for Biden, he said in the same place that “…there is much work for [Biden] to do to repair the harm of past policies and convince people he is the best equipped to lead in this regard.” So Biden’s current rhetoric, at a time now when it is extremely unpopular to be “tough on crime,” is supposed to erase a career of harm to the very people Claiborne is trying to help? There’s nothing more privileged than the bliss of ignorance.
Shane says he will vote against Trump “because I have pledged my ultimate allegiance to Christ.” This is a non-sequitur. Allegiance to Christ means we cannot pledge allegiance to anything or anyone else. He says that Jesus isn’t on the ballot, but most of the people who are on the ballot are so far from Christ that to vote for them is no different than the Isrealites of old who wanted a king to be like all the other nations.
Shane says that “We need to use every tool in our toolbox,” including the vote. But the vote is not a tool, it’s an indiscriminate bomb: voters throw it and walk away, only to watch it explode every four years. How did Trump get into office? The vote. How will the next president get into office? The vote. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar can’t be, as Shane rightly points out. But perhaps he has no idea of the infinitely great power the American president holds— power that Caesar could only have dreamed of. I commend Shane for turning weapons into pruning hooks, since this is bringing heaven to earth. But the state is backed by weapons! The state is the epitome of aggression since it claims an exclusive right to legal violence. Why doesn’t Shane want to turn the state’s guns into garden tools? Voting for anyone perpetuates the reliance and so-called legitimacy of the state. Claiborne writes, “I want to look back and say I did everything I could to stand against fear, and racism and violence.” If he opposes violence, which I know he sincerely does, why would he encourage others to vote for any president, when he knows that that office is, historically, the most blatant instigator and purveyor of violence? It is ignorance to think this will change even when Trump is out of office. Between literal wars and wars on inanimate objects, America has almost never not been at war. Would we elect a fox to protect the henhouse?
Why would Christians get in the political mud like pigs this November and play the game of the “lesser of two evils”? If they’re both evil, why would we vote for them? Christ constantly proposed third ways— alternatives to the prevailing either/or dichotomies of his day. Christians should take the same approach to politics. Not voting this year, or voting for someone other than Trump or Biden, is a vote: it is a vote of no confidence. We should not have confidence in Trump or Biden’s pasts, and we have no basis to be confident about their political futures. Instead, Christians can stay home. They can feed the hungry. They can look out for the widows and orphans in their distress. We should seek social justice through peaceful means, and not call on the state, who is always backed by guns and cages, to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Shane wrote a book called Jesus for President. But, as he says, Jesus won’t be on any ballots this November. So Christians can vote for Trump, or for Biden, or they can vote for someone else who probably won’t win. Or, they can not vote. If I am wrong in assuming that Shane Claiborne plans to vote for Joe Biden, then I apologize for the mischaracterization, and he is certainly welcome to correct me. He says to vote for “the poor . . . for immigrants . . . for families separated at our border and for kids in cages . . . for those without health care,” and others. In short, he is voting for “love.” Who is love? Trump isn’t love. Biden isn’t love. Harris isn’t love. The state, with the American president at its head, is the epitome of force, which is the opposite of the Christ who said that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword,” and who calls us to be peacemakers.
So if you believe in love, find a third way this November.