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How “Not Voting” Could Help Subvert American Racism: A Response to Anthony Smith’s post on Emergent Village

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I want to respond to a post over at Emergent Village by Anthony Smith that I can only assume was directed at a previous post of mine on “Not Voting as an Act of Christian Discernment.” Anthony’s post was entitled “Not Voting As Violence”.
First, thanks to Anthony for the post. I have read and admired his work (over here) for a long while. My friend Brian McLaren picked up on Anthony’s post over at his blog and added some good thoughts. The conversation in the comments on these two posts has been outstanding. I consider myself blessed to be brought into a conversation like this with Anthony.

Second, I think it is fair to say that if you’re not black you just cannot know how to speak to the black situation in America. I also think it is fair to say that if you’re not black, you cannot even know what your words might mean in a context you’ve never inhabited, whose history you cannot speak out of. I agree with Anthony’s basic sentiment “why I get suspicious when white men tell me not to vote.” That is why, despite teaching at a seminary where the student body is 40% African American, I try to avoid speaking directly into African American political ecclesial situations. When I do, I try to speak humbly upon request and offer it in service to Christ. Of course when I wrote the post, that Anthony referred to, I was not speaking specifically to the black church. I was not a white guy telling African Americans not to vote (in fact I wasn’t telling anyone not to vote, just discern it. In fact, I ended up myself discerning to vote for Obama!). I was speaking to the church at large and more specifically to the emerging church (which is way too white male) of which I consider myself a part (as long as they’ll have me). Nonetheless, I believe all races are part of the one race: the people of God in his church, and so it is fair of Anthony to infer that a white man is telling him not to vote because indeed he is also a part of the emerging church I was hoping to speak to.

But this gets right to the heart of the matter for me. For it appears that in Anthony’s post, race and participation in the American political process (or “conversation” as Anthony referred to it) has become the pre-eminent domain that polices this conversation about “not voting.” I name here a.) race and b.) the American political process as one domain on purpose. For I believe that the American political process makes it impossible to not speak of race. They are intertwined. The American process by its nature divides us by any number of means in order to separate, make appeals to and win a particular constituency’s vote over another. In the same way the American democratic (dare I say voting) process divides us into races. In this respect then I might even say “voting is a racist act.” It can perpetuate racism. I contend that the very philosophical underpinnings of liberal democracy, founded upon the Enlightenment, underwrite racism. In other words, the terms set down for us in democracy, including autonomous individual rights and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” divide us into “rights” categories and life ideals that encode the cultural mores of white supremacy. I don’t have space here to unpack this last statement, but I offer Cornel West’s and J. Kameron Carter’s exposition of it. What all this means is that as long as we allow the American political process (i.e. democracy and capitalism) to set the terms for how we speak about justice, we are indeed forced to be divided by race.

I don’t believe however, that Anthony is wrong to speak from this place of racial location because in a very real sense “this is all we have.” This is all we have precisely because we do not have an alternative counter politic to this situation. The tragic situation that exists in the American nation state is that the church is not sufficient enough of a Christian politic so as to make “race,” and the divisions it speaks into being, impossible. This is why I believe there will be times when “not voting” will be a much more subversive political act than voting. It will in effect create a counter political location for the exposing of race as an encoding into our very politics of America.

Of course, the very sad reality is that not only is race still a problem in America, it remains encoded in the very politic that has become the Christian church in America. One of the reasons why the church and America look so much alike on this matter of race is again because they are both built on the same foundation: individual autonomy, self assurance, rationalism, personal faith (not public) and what Milbank calls the “ontology of violence.” Structurally all of these premises of liberal democracy and capitalism sound “race neutral” to us white folks, but have in recent times been shown to encode a white supremacy. This sad political situation means that sometimes we have to make a choice, whether to continue hoping the Nation State will change its own foundations or whether to call the church to be faithful to hers. Since I take United States of America not to be built on the premises of Christ and the reconciliation he has won in the cross and the resurrection (indeed I believe the so-called “Christian Nation” to be an ideological object that in fact is used to keep us from the true work on justice as his people in the world), sometimes we will need to engage in acts of subversive withdrawal in order that we might indeed call the church back to faithfulness as well as show the nation another better way. This means there will be times we have to discern whether “not-voting” is a better course of action as opposed to encouraging the State that it is on the right path by voting. And likewise, “not voting” as a subversive political act of withdrawal, may be the best means to counter the indemic racism in our society.

I don’t know that any of this should come as a surprise to the black church. And I do not desire to “tell the black church anything about their heritage.” I can only ask questions. Is there not already a tradition of withdrawal type activism in the black church/political communities that withdraw from other things just as precious as voting? Indeed as a commentator said at Brian’s blog last week: “the civil rights movement was a movement organized and implemented outside of the electoral system.” Did not the civil rights movement germinate from the black church using subversive non violent means to subvert the existing System? Since then, has there not been a history of economic boycotts by several African American civil rights leaders? Just this week one of the great black church leaders of Chicago’s south side is withdrawing the children from the pubic schools after years of getting nowhere on school funding for the south side. The opportunity for an education (long denied African-Americans) has to be at least as precious as voting to African-Americans. Yet I think Meeks is finally getting something done here for justice on this issue of school funding after many attempts. Could “not voting” be the same kind of tool, maybe not now, but some day?

The symbolic victory of electing an African-American to the presidency is huge for all of us. I believe wholeheartedly that Barack Obama is an unusual, brilliant, and most importantly good man. (I vehemently disagree with him on abortion yet I still prefer his politics to the Republican alternative). For every black man and woman, there is unquestioned meaning and importance here that I would never want to diminish. For me, there is also a great sense of relief that the Bush administration’s policies are coming to an end. I have resisted pres. Bush’s policies from day one. Yet I fear we face a not too dissimilar fate, we who put our hopes in this political process one more time. I think Christians should be discerning it. I thank Anthony Smith, Brian McLaren, and emergent village for starting this conversation. I join the other voices who urge Emergent Village to put together a conference on political theology because this issue is so important for our future as the church and justice in America. I know Tony Jones has already been thinking about this. I look forward to the continuing discussion.

In an upcoming post, I hope to blog on the potential ways Barack Obama could be used as a “sublime object of ideology” (a tool for the further entrenching of) for the ongoing corporatist powers of the American System and what if anything he or we could do about it.

In the meantime I am open to any rants, public rebukes or helpful conversation on the comments that follow this blog post. Blessings!

BTW, for further reflection on the “not voting” stance, I offer the picture above from the most recent Focus on The Family magazine. Any thoughts?

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