By Andy Kachel
In The City of God, Saint Augustine tells the story of a pirate brought before Alexander the Great to give an account of his misdeeds. The pirate replies, “...I do it with a little ship [and] I am called a robber, and because you do it with a great fleet, you are an emperor.”1 Alexander the Great credits the pirate’s reply as “apt and true.” Augustine uses this example to demonstrate how an emperor of a great kingdom, devoid of justice, is no better than a great robber.
The relationship between the church and the empires of old were never comfortable. Take for example the flogged Christ standing before Pontius Pilate to give an account of his Godhood. Take as another example the imprisoned Peter at the hands of King Herod in Acts 12. In Hebrews 11:15-16, the early church seems almost exhausted by their relationship to their countries of origin: “If [those who lived their lives by faith] had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” The greatest moments of our faith did not take place in ornate palaces or granite staterooms but next to an empty tomb, in prisons, and in hiding. The church’s relationship to empire has never been comfortable because empires emphasize power while Christianity emphasizes justice.
Times have changed to some degree. We no longer have emperors or pirates making a mess of the world (at least not in plenty). For those of us living in the United States and countries with democracies, we share an important stake in the political process. No longer do our leaders rise to power because of some sort of special election, such as a birthright. We no longer have to worry that our next ruler is growing up to be unjust. However, we now have other worries. In the United States in particular, there is great emphasis this election season on which candidate is the most “self-made.” In other words, money goes a long way to buy some candidates their position. Money is a serious deviation away from any democratic process in that it allows a special few to hold the office of president.
While it would be easy for American Christians—longing for a heavenly country—to ignore the whole political drama this year, every Christian has a unique opportunity to participate in electing a just president. It goes without saying: Consider how much more difficult life would be under the rule of an unjust president. How would an unjust leader affect your ministry, raising a family, or your education or career pursuits? This is what is at stake every time America goes to the polls to vote.
What follows are a few points of wisdom to keep in mind when voting for a candidate this election season. In no way do these points suggest voting for one candidate over another. However, they are set out to prompt serious consideration on how you are voting.
“My vote doesn’t matter.” vs. “My vote has a resounding impact on history.”
How will history remember this period in America? Consider how much disdain there is for the past generation that opposed the civil rights movement or women’s suffrage. They are remembered as examples of hate and prejudice. It is more likely than not that those groups did not spend time educating themselves on a woman’s right to vote. Or maybe they were only going along with the crowd—the loudest, most impassioned voices of their day. Even worse, maybe they just stayed home to avoid the whole drama.
Maybe it’s not wise to worry about what future generations “will think of us,” since we cannot assume that they will necessarily be just. However, it would be unwise to not worry about what Christ thinks of us.
Considering that the Bible contains many long genealogies and recorded histories, it would be unwise to assume that God the Father isn’t keeping track of the social change within our country. In Proverbs 15:3 we are told, “The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good.”
By all means vote, but only do so after educating yourself on the issues at hand. While there are many “obvious” issues Christians seem to focus on more so than others, there are just as many issues where our “voices” have not been heard to the same extent: education, gun control, health care, immigration.
“My candidate said they support Christian values.” vs. “This candidate has a good moral character.”
Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, touches on an important shift in American culture almost one hundred years ago. Things have never been the same:
In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of ‘having a good personality’ was not widespread until the twentieth. But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining.2
Are we more in love with candidates' personalities or their plan to bring about a just governance? While candidates might style themselves as Christians, this might only be done to entice voters. Again, a little research goes a long way. Do the candidates you’re voting for give to charity? How do they treat their advisors and even political opponents? To put it simply, “You will know them by their fruits.”
“We get what we deserve.” vs. “God removes kings and establishes kings.”
Kevin Spacey, the actor who plays President Underwood on the political drama House of Cards, recently said of the presidential race in a Vanity Fair interview, “I happen to believe that we get what we deserve.”3 This sentiment is heard every now and again on the radio or in print. As though “what we deserve” is paired with some clear judgment on “what we’ve done.” It is not. The next president will not be purely good or purely evil, but a human who is capable of good or evil. The important thing to remember is that your vote is in many ways an estimate. While it is your responsibility to educate yourself on the candidates and the issues, there is no crystal ball. Rather, the drama you see unfolding before you has been set in place by the same God that Saint Augustine worshiped when he wrote of Alexander the Great speaking with a pirate. It just so happens that at this point in history, you are privileged with the right and ability to vote; a privilege that should not be taken lightly. It may seem small, but as Jesus once said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much…” (Luke 16:10a).
A president is many things: the ruler of the free world, the face we look upon when disaster strikes, a mediator between the many political points of view, and someone whose hair will more than likely turn gray by the time their term is over. We voters have our own responsibility during election season; showing up at the polls on Election Day is only half the battle. We are also charged with educating ourselves on the political issues at hand, choosing candidates based on their character and not their personality, and trusting wholeheartedly that God is leading the whole procession.
1 Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. The City of God. Translated by Marcus Dods (New York: Random House, 2000) 113.
2 Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (New York: Random House, 2013) 21.
3 Tina Nguyen, “Kevin Spacey’s Hot 2016 Take: ‘We Get What We Deserve,’” Vanity Fair, February 23, 2016, http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/02/ kevin-spacey-2016-election.