Citizenship, Voting, and the Common Good
A political news junkie in 2008, I now find myself tuning out. I am done with the partisanship and vitriol. I am tired of sorting facts from lies. Perhaps I’ll just sit out this election.
After all, I still have enough faith in the American system’s propensity to tilt from the Far Left or Far Right to the center to believe that I will be fine, to know that when the inane mudslinging ends and the dust finally settles, things won’t be as bad for me as the apocalyptic political pundits predict. I am a white Christian, a married man with two healthy, educated sons, and a private business owner. I am a professor and a church member, an immigrant living the American Dream. Things generally work out for people like me.
I like to think I made it all on my own. I confess to an Ayn Rand strand of egoism, to an American rugged individualism that prizes the self, often at the expense of the other. But I’ve come to realize that individualism is a myth. I’ve learned that we can’t make it on our own; we are a people inextricably linked. We all stand on the shoulders of someone who has brought us to our success.
I believe that Americans are a compassionate people—we are a people who put our muscle and our money behind an endless list of charities and nonprofits that seek to transform the world, organizations like Habitat for Humanity, the Peace Corp, and AmericaCorps. And we must continue to release this compassion within ourselves as we confront the erotics of individualism.
I believe we need to take ourselves to task whenever we are seduced by an individualist, protectionist stance that fails to acknowledge the lives of most Americans. When we catch ourselves showing more interest in maintaining our privilege over and against caring for others—and into this lot I would throw most pro-military, pro-marriage, pro-Israel, anti-government, anti-Russia, anti-Iran, and anti–universal health care positions—we are no longer living into the gospel narrative.
And I believe that many of us share a Norman Rockwell nostalgia, an image in our heads of white people taking care of white people, of intact families and bountiful food upon the table. But we also know that in the days of Rockwell, hatred of blacks was rampant, marriages were falling apart, poverty existed, and much like today, wars were being fought, yet our memories tend to embellish toward the good. We also know that immigrants to America have shifted from white Europeans to a veritable United Nations. And to remain truly American, we must continue to offer these new Americans—the ones we do not understand, the strange ones in our midst, the ones of that color, that orientation, that smell, that language, that religion—the same liberties and freedoms that were afforded to the first wave of immigrants that settled and pioneered our country. To deny others is to deny our past.
Most of us have a love/hate relationship with government. We talk a great deal about how big government threatens our freedoms yet we tend to confuse freedom with license. License relies upon a government or an authority to grant permission for an act and then, once permission for that act has been granted, the grantees may disregard personal conscience or responsibility because the governing body has already permitted the act. Freedom, however, is liberation. And with liberation, our conscience is required to be involved. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves; we are not to do what we want but what we recognize as good. Freedom looks out not only for oneself but for one’s sister and brother. The self that narcissistically invests in protecting my rights, my needs, and my life at the expense of the common good is developmentally stunted, whereas to be truly free, to be spiritually free—which in my world means to be truly Christian—is to care about others’ rights and needs as well as my own. In this way, I believe that most Americans default to a narcissism that is anti-freedom, a narcissism that is, indeed, anti-American. Thus, when government seeks to offer freedom to others, despite our claims and demands for a license to do as we please, it actually saves us from our own narcissism.
The late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota understood politics as has having nothing to “do with left, right, or center.” It has to do, he said, “with trying to do right by people.” I do not believe an anti-government stance helps us do right. I believe we need to keep in mind that every successful business is governed in some way—every well-run collective enterprise requires organization—and then we need to ask how our government is doing right by people. This may require us to surrender some of our individual certainties for the greater good. It may require us to look at what’s at stake beyond our particular perspectives. Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourners magazine proclaims that “things (in Washington) change . . . when people believe that more than politics is at stake that human lives, human dignity, and even faith are at stake.”1 So as much as we might like to, we simply cannot sit out this election. Rather, we must look beyond our own rights, theologies, and myopic sentimentalities and cast a vote for the common good.
Jesus, in telling his people to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, is essentially saying, “Pay your damn taxes, and obey the laws of the land.” But that was not enough; he further instructed us to give away a tenth of our income. Government, he knew, had its limitations and once our civil obligations were met, we were called to do more, not less. It was us, not the government that he implored to take care of the widow, the sick, the disenfranchised. Perhaps lurking behind all of our antigovernment and bipartisan rhetoric is a realization that at some level we know we are not doing our jobs, and we find it easier to blame the government than to get off our sorry asses and do the job ourselves.
As we push closer toward the 2012 election, we need to consider where government belongs and where it does not belong. Like Senator Wellstone, I believe that government’s place is to do right by its people, and in our current context, I believe that means limiting government to securing equal access to all for things like health care, education, and safety, and removing limitations around tough intimate moral issues, such as who can marry whom and reproductive rights—these are issues that require the intimacy of a caring supportive community, not that of government, which has neither the knowledge nor the responsibility to tending to our souls.
In considering our dismal health care system where “per-capita spending on health care in the United States is almost two-and-a-half times the average for the thirty-four nations that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).” Yet clinical outcomes here do not match that huge expenditure. On average, citizens of more than two dozen nations may expect to outlive us. Hospital admission rates for US patients with chronic conditions best managed through primary care, such as asthma and diabetes, exceed those of all other OECD nations. And in a comparison with six other advanced nations, including Canada and the United Kingdom, American health care ranked last or next to last in quality, access, equity, and what the report by the Commonwealth Fund called measures of “long, healthy and productive lives.”2
I was pondering this research recently as I sat in the beautiful medical offices of my physician. As I waited for my doctor to tend to my diseases, I was painfully aware that given my privilege, the “wealth” of our health care system had trickled down to me, but not down to those 33 million who do not have that same level of access. As a Christian, my salvation is dependent upon how I treat the poor and the marginalized, and our country should be the frontrunner in ensuring that no one is left behind when caring for their health.
But what if we as a nation decide not to take on the care of those 33 million people? What if we cast our vote to be taxed less as part of an illusion that providing loopholes for the wealthy will narrow the gap between the 99 percent and the 1 percent? Then, we the wealthy, especially those of us in the church, will need to reposition ourselves within our society. The 1 percent will need to belly up to the human bar and contribute more—perhaps joining in the spirit of lower-end income people who give 30 percent more than middle- and upper-income people.3
We the church will need to suspend, or least put into perspective, our bickering over the moral issue of the day, over the issues that fill the pews and create us-versus-them dynamics but that do not do right by people. We must not be about such small things. Rather, we must ask ourselves to fill those empty weekday spaces with homeless shelters and wellness centers, to transform our buildings into places of sanctuary for those in our society who will never have it all. And so, with this already/not-yet tension in mind, I will vote for universal health care. This will be my feeble way of responding to Christ’s call to us to care for the sick, the poor, the needy.
As we consider how we might respond to these serious issues that face our nation, we will also need to reflect upon our stewardship of power and of money. One of the most serious things we humans need to contend with is our greed. Power and money is our Achilles’ heel. Once we have a little taste of power or a little bit of money, we can’t help but want more. And the more we get, the less someone else has. As the “47 percent” is being knocked around in this campaign, we need to know that two-thirds of those Americans who fall in the 47 percent are seniors and low-income families with children, that they live in three of our poorest states, that 60 percent of them still pay payroll taxes, federal and excise taxes, and state and property taxes. We need to know that the 47 percent were joined by 1,400 millionaires who did not pay taxes because of various credits afforded to them by their itemized returns.4 Economics baffle most of us, but rather than taking the poor to task and supporting an ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots—a sure consequence of deregulation and no taxation—we need to be voices for fair taxation and regulation.
As the fresh Arab Spring turns to stultifying heat, as fires burn in embassies and people are killed, and as our suspicions about Islam potentiate, I worry that we will be seized by fear. And when we fear we do terrible things. At this moment, I am taking my cues from slain Ambassador K. Christopher Stevens who, in spite of the many odds against him, lived and loved among the Libyan people, fought for their freedom, believed that there was more good than evil, and risked his life toward peace. He seemed to live without fear. The Christian message is a tough one—we know that perfect love casts out fear and avoids retaliation; to love extremist is a challenge, but vengeance is not ours, for the good Lord knew we would not steward it well. So during this challenging, fearful time, we must be cautious in hating before loving, and we must pray to God that our imaginations will be filled with images and solutions for peace and reconciliation and not retaliation. My hunch is that Chris Stevens is praying like hell that we will not turn violence into more violence.
In an America that prides itself on its Judeo-Christian values, I am always stunned at our pro-military stance. It is one thing to be a country that is well equipped to defend itself and to be a strong presence in the world, but to glorify the slaughter of others—that gives me shudders and makes me weep. If Jesus was clear about anything, it was about how we should treat our neighbor, our brother, and our sister, including the stranger who we do not know, the person we do not understand, and the terrorist who terrifies us. So when we speak of an enhanced military presence, what is our purpose? Does the defense of our borders legitimate our pursuit of more wars that destroy peoples and cultures in other parts of the world?
America is obsessed with politics. We use it to define us, to separate us, to offend and defend. We must return government to its proper place, not as part of our identity formation but as a means of assisting us in developing our greater character of accomplishing good in this world. We were not founded on materialism—that is not the American way. Lofty though it may seem, at one time our national identity was characterized by compassion and generosity, not greed and isolation. Poet Emma Lazarus said it something like this:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.5
Or perhaps as it’s simply stated in an earlier document: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31 NIV).
What does it mean to be a citizen of this great nation? It means embracing a vision of nation that is not preoccupied with my rights, my pocketbook, and my safety. To be a citizen is to care for the greater good and not just my good. Yes, it is very American to be strong enough to pull oneself up by the bootstraps, but it is also very American to look down again and help another person do the same. I believe that being a good citizen means voting for and supporting those programs and initiatives, those laws and governances, that make us all better in character and that engage us in the great American dream of liberty and justice for all.
1. Wellstone, quoted in “Behold the Dreamer Cometh,” Sojourners, September-October 2012, 41, http://sojo.net/magazine/2012/09/behold-dreamer-cometh; and Wallis, “How to Change Politics,” Sojourners, September-October 2012, 41, http://sojo.net/magazine/2012/09/how-change-politics.
2. Michael Crow, Denis Cortese, and Leland Hartwell, “Let’s Collapse Twenty-seven US Health Institutes into Three,” Bloomberg, June 5, 2011, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-06-06/let-s-collapse-27-u-s-health-institutes-into-3-michael-crow.html.
3. John Stossel and Kristina Kendall, “Who Gives and Who Doesn’t,” ABC News, November 28, 2006, http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=2682730&page=1.
4. “The Math on Romney’s Tax Claim Doesn’t Tell Whole Story,” Seattle Times. September 19, 2012, http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2019193783_notax19.html?prmid=4939.
5. Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Colossus.
Roy Barsness, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist and Professor at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. His primary interest is in the intersection of psychoanalytic thought and theology. He is particularly interested in how both disciplines address not only personal growth/salvation, but calls forth and assists the person towards the common good.