Casting a Weak Ballot

[The following was written by guest blogger, Matthew Morin. May it never be said that I do not offer space, on my own forum, for people to critique me. Or, more importantly, that I am above letting other people help me meet my 'quota' for the month.]

As a rule of thumb, I try not to disagree with people who graciously offer to share their blog space with me. However, I also try not to employ violent speech—and since I have already broken that rule twice (first by using the phrase “rule of thumb” which may have its origins in domestic violence, and second, by knowing this fact as a result of watching The Boondock Saints), I figure it doesn’t matter much if I break the first rule.

In a short essay titled, “A Non-Voting Manifesto,” the Amish Jihadist outlines a number of reasons that Christians are called out of the voting booth and into the tomato garden. A number of his points—like the assertion that the church “is not to buttress the powers that be, but to show them that they are not the church”—are quite right, and deserve our careful consideration. Yet, some of his other claims—such as the statement that “voting is, de facto, an exercise in pride”—seem entirely indefensible. Why must voting be an exercise in pride? Could it not rather be a humble acceptance of our own powerlessness—the mournful acknowledgment of a question whose terms we Christians have not been allowed to dictate?

Indeed, the most widely-read rebaptizing heretic of the past three decades, once suggested as much in a 1976 article titled “The National Ritual.” (Hopefully, this essay will be included in Herald Press’s forthcoming anthology.) Voting, Yoder argues, is no grand exercise in power and autonomy—certainly nothing like Bob Schieffer’s mother would have you believe. Showing significantly more “realism” than the Realists, Yoder reminds us that both dictatorships and democracies rely on mechanisms of control such as “party identities, platforms, campaign promises, (and) appeals to consensus backing” in order to justify their claims to moral rightness. The net effect of this “power process” is to “deepen the dialogue between rulers and ruled.” In sum, “the vote does not mean that we are governing ourselves.”

So what is the act of voting in our day, if not an exercise in self-governance? “It is one way,” Yoder concludes, “one of the weaker and vaguer ways, to speak truth to power.” And since that is the case, “we shall participate gratefully, though with low expectations, in the plebiscite, to the extent that real options, such as real platform integrity or technical competence of major figures, are at stake.”

This is the point on which the entire discussion turns—and regrettably, it is the point that is often ignored by those on the left, those on the right, and that curious blend of left and right known as anarchists. To what degree do the two major candidates differ from one another—to use Yoder’s categories— in terms of platform integrity and technical competence? More importantly, to what degree do the two major candidates differ from one another in terms of militarism and cruelty towards immigrants?

It seems to me that the typical consumer of   political theatre in the United States would do well to acknowledge that the candidates are far more alike than they are different (“I support entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage” of killer drone strikes.) Meanwhile the typical Christian abstainer would do well to acknowledge that there are real, significant differences between the two major candidates.

The question then, is not, “should Christians participate in the vote?”—since there is no such thing as “the vote.” There is only “voting now” and “voting here.” The question then, is one of discernment: Would it be more wise (or less foolish) to witness to the peace of Jesus Christ as votersin this particular moment, or to do so by refusing to vote? And since, as Chris Huebner reminds us, Christians “are always already implicated in some form of violence or another,” how do we decide on this matter without any pretense to purity?

No matter how the scattered communities of Christians decide to answer this question—of course only after long, patient discussion with one another and listening to the Holy Spirit, Yoder’s central point must be kept in mind: “To go to the polls is not” (or need not be) “as the Hutterite and the hippie on one side, and the superpatriot on the other contend, a ritual affirmation of moral solidarity with the system.” Rather for Christians, voting today may be one way to proclaim solidarity with other powerless communities. Or, voting may be one weak way that Christians work—not to rule the crumbling Empire—but to help navigate it towards a more “humane denouement” (in the words of Eugene McCarraher.)

Or, perhaps most likely, voting is the thing that Christians do in order to rest our backs between planting tomatoes and moshing to Strongarm.



Matthew Morin works as a strength and fitness trainer in Milwaukee, WI. He insists that you don’t really understand kenosis until you’ve spent ten minutes with a kettlebell. 

Matthew Morin :
  • Matt Schmidt

    Tripp, thanks for letting my good friend guest blog. Although I don’t know you, I’m glad I have this avenue to hear your thoughts (as well as Anarcrow)! Thanks for doing stuff!

    • theamishjihadist

      Hey Matt,

      Yup, Mr. Morin is welcome to blog here anytime. And glad to have you on-board. I’ll do my best to keep you informed and entertained. Or, at least, mildly amused.

      Thanks for the ‘Anarcrow’ love! We’re just starting to publish stories (pages and strips), so more on that in the coming months. Now, as a prize for joining us here at The Amish Jihadist, you should treat yourself to a copy of ‘The Devil Wears Nada’. Sold anywhere crappy books are sold.

  • Andy J. Funk

    I’ve heard so much talk about voting, and even in churches some major decisions which need careful discernment and perhaps long periods of time to sit with hard issues, have so often been reduced to a vote. This has always left me frustrated and wondering whether we have set up systems in which the powerful, the ignorant, the narrow-minded, the rich, and arrogant are made rulers over us….might still makes right, and it appears that one “dictator” simply gets replaced by another “dictator”, often a worse one. I wonder what might happen if consensus building was sought after instead of quick movement into “progress”. I differentiate the two practices as one (voting) trending toward polarization (winner/loser, us/them), and the other (consensus approach) as building unity, even through disagreement. Voting does seem to be an act of pride, in that citizens are convinced that they have the power to move and shape history into the direction it should go. It also further implicates us in the chosen candidates engagement in violent coercive power, and I’m not sure I need more guilt by association…I do a fine job on my own, why consciously add more to the rubble? ;)

    • theamishjihadist

      You may be on to something there, Andy. And in response to Matt’s criticism of my comment on voting as an act of pride, perhaps I should have said that voting does not, by necessity, have to be an act of pride, only that, via much observation, pride seems to be a strong component behind the act of voting. In that regard, as you suggest, maybe voting is even a species of Constantiniasm.

      All I want to know is, Can’t we all just “Let go and let God”?

      (I wish other people were as funny as me.)

    • Matt Morin

      Hey Funkmaster Flex, I appreciate your emphasis on consensus building. My local coffee shop is worker-owned and makes all decisions by consensus ( Of course, when the church does it, the process of consensus-building is animated by the Spirit. When Brewing Grounds achieves consensus, it is due to a *slightly* less powerful agent known as caffeine.

      One question though: you closed by cautioning against “consciously adding more to the rubble.” Do you think abstaining from voting today does not fit this description? If so, is that because you aren’t conscious, or because you don’t think you are adding to rubble? If the former, I can’t help much; if the latter, I will caution you against pride…

  • Matt Schmidt

    “thumbsticks – for family correction: warranted lawful!”

    • Matt Morin

      Bike-trips- even in November: warranted appropriate for this weekend!

  • Jordan Daniel Wood

    I did like this article and York’s original article very much. While I am sympathetic with Yoder’s 1976 article, I think, paradoxically, York’s article may be more in the spirit of Yoder’s overall thought than Morin’s simple revival of Yoder’s original piece. It may very well be
    that a Christian assessment of voting will support Yoder’s contention: voting is not a duty, but a relatively unimportant possibility for truth-speaking. But what must come first is a serious raising of the question of whether or not Christians can vote if voting _is_ what many think it is – a wielding of power by the people. If it is, then Christians _cannot_ participate (for the reasons York cites and more). If it is not (Yoder/Morin perspective), then let us realize that the only reason we _can_ vote and be theologically consistent as well as morally faithful is because voting isn’t really what it’s supposed to be. For Christians it is not non-participation that stands in need of justification, but participation in the vote. This is the reason why I think Yoder’s “justification” looks the way it does – it justifies voting by arguing that “voting” (i.e. democratically wielded power) doesn’t exist.

    But I’m afraid that this tact, while empirically interesting, is not theologically sufficient. Yoder assumes a certain theological critique of power-wielding and then makes an empirical/sociological/political point about the vote. In this way Yoder, as the author noted, seems here more “realist” than even his familiar nemesis (Niebuhr). But such a focus on the empirical status of the vote does not really change the discussion, does not raise the fundamental question of power-wielding the Church needs to face. Put differently, the 1976-Yoder/Morin approach tends to focus on what “the vote” _is_ rather than question Christian participation in what the vote is supposed to be. But it is only the latter that has any hope of fundamentally changing the discussion at hand. To be sure, Yoder’s work as a whole is nothing but a witness to this question, and so in the _spirit_ of Yoder rather than the 1976 _letter_ of Yoder, I think that a decision not to vote is imperative as an attempt to prophetically raise the question that a merely empirical argument fails to unearth. This is in fact the primary reason I will be abstaining from this year’s vote, and probably in many more to come.

    • theamishjihadist

      So, Jordan, what you’re saying, if I’m hearing you correctly, is . . . I’m winning.

      • Jordan Daniel Wood

        No sir, what I’m saying is: you’ve already won.

        • theamishjihadist

          Jordan, I like you. Will you please hang around more often?

          • Jordan Daniel Wood

            Why not?! Of course you will have to bear with the awkward, “notice me” attitude that more professionally sensible people call “networking.” J/K

        • Matt Morin

          Is this an okay time to ask where the category “winning” (like the famously-lampooned category “best”) fits in with the discussion on power-critiques that you want us to have?

          • theamishjihadist

            Matt, I knew, as soon I as wrote it, that you were going to say this (not because you’re predictable, but because you have been trained so well).

            I like to think that in matters like this (i.e., in terms of voting), I am merely winning at losing. And since we are all losers, well, this does not bode as well for me as one might imagine.

          • Matt Morin

            There’s nothing wrong with winning at losing; it’s like being King of the Lemurs. (I like to move it, move it.) I think that persuasion through dialogue is a responsible use of power, but a use of power nonetheless.

    • Matt Morin

      I’m tempted to ignore this, since you failed to engage my central point– which was that everyone should listen to Strongarm. However, you totally redeemed yourself by using the phrase “Yoder/Morin perspective” multiple times. You wouldn’t mind accusing me of that more often, would you?

      I understand that you wanted me to write on what “Christian participation in the vote is supposed to be.” However, I explicitly rejected that question with the claim that there is no such thing as “the vote.” There is no metaphysical _something_ called “vote” that floats through time, unchanged and unchanging, tempting Christians towards unfaithfulness. There is only, roughly, an action that today we call voting.

      So if you mean that you wanted me to write about what “Christian participation in the vote today is supposed to be”, then I believe that I did– or at least, I wrote about what it might be. I stated, for example, that “voting today may be one way to proclaim solidarity with other powerless communities.” If that is irresponsible, unfaithful, or unwise to you, then it seems to me that you should state why.

      If you insist that such questions are unimportant or secondary, then you are either clinging to the wrong belief that there is a “the vote” (incidentally, that is exactly what the Caesars would have you believe.) Or, perhaps more likely, you are simply being an uncharitable dialogue partner by refusing to engage with what I’ve written. My teacher Stanley once expressed his… umm… displeasure… with such reviews insofar as he thought they amounted to “critiquing the book that wasn’t written.”

      Thanks for the discussion!

      • Jordan Daniel Wood


        Thanks for your response. I too am enjoying the discussion, even though it’s doubtful that a “discussion” is truly taking place if I am being, as you indicated, an “uncharitable dialogue partner.” But in the logic of your last remark, let me seek to further our discussion with a few clarifications.

        1) My intention was not exactly to disagree with the Yoder/Morin perspective (that’s a freebee), but merely to point out what I perceive are its weaknesses in regards to what the Church needs to hear about voting today. So ironically, I see my more “metaphysical” emphasis as more attentive to the concrete circumstances of the Church today than the Yoder/Morin one. Let me explain.

        2) Your emphasis is, as you’ve stated, not on “the vote” in itself (because you think it meaningless, perhaps in the Wittgenstenian sense of “meaningless”), but on something we call voting. Not on a being, but an action. If you don’t like the idea of “the vote” having a sense other than the historical-political one it signifies in certain instances, then perhaps I would say that I am talking about “the-vote-as-act-of-power.” But I must say that the general aversion to metaphysics in both Yoder and Hauerwas (both of whom I am deeply indebted), which seems to guide your exclusive emphasis on the concrete act of voting, is quite unnecessary and certainly does not mean that we cannot speak in general, even metaphysical (or just theological) terms about things. Surely we would not say that just because “power” is only exercised in particular, concrete acts that we cannot speak of Christ’s (and the early Church’s) renunciation of political power. In fact it seems to me that Yoder is working with this assumption even in his short 1976 article – that Christian participation in power-wielding is inherently problematic. So even if the Yoder/Morin perspective (I’m trying as hard as I can) wants to jump to the “concrete” act of voting and disparage any talk about “the vote” as such, this same perspective seems to retain an a priori assumption against Christians participating in something called “power.” I’m alright with that, as I do not see the point in choosing either the concrete act of voting or its potential (indeed intended) mode of being. They are both relevant. The first is pragmatically/empirically important, while the latter is metaphysically/theologically important.

        3) Not only do I see these two levels as non-antagonistic in their coexistence, but positively crucial in their identification. And for this quite concrete reason: the Church in America needs to hear a prophetic critique of what voting is “supposed to be” – whether or not you think that exists – more than it needs to hear a socio-political analysis of how the act of voting is generally insignificant. It needs to hear theology, to perceive the Word of God, and not just another empirical assessment of the political significance of voting, a “you won’t make a difference” as opposed to a “every vote makes a difference” mantra we hear from all sides. It needs to be reminded of what you and Yoder assume, not just what you conclude.

        4) This is because whether you like it or not, most Christians – on the Right and Left – _do_ think that the vote _is_ something, namely, a direct participation in the wielding of political power, the gleaming jewel in the crown of a real democracy (from Greek: demos = people; krate = power). It is this conception of voting that must first be confronted and critiqued by the theology that flows from Christ’s Cross. If afterwards we look at the concrete reality of voting and decide that this or that act of voting is _not actually_ what people say it is, then we can perhaps faithfully participate in voting with sober and realistic expectations. But we can never forget _why_ can do this – because in _this_ instance, “to vote” is not really “the vote.” The Church in America today, it seems to me, has all but lost this sense of a fundamental, Cross-Resurrection initiated renunciation of political power-wielding, and so a mere “in reality, it’s not that important” does not yet address the fundamental assumption perilously courted in the Church today. Now the rest of Yoder’s work _does_ seem to do this, and thus my overall point that York’s article is in fact more in the spirit of Yoder than the Yoder/Morin perspective on the act of voting in America today.

        I hope this elucidates my perspective better, and that I have taken the time to read what you in fact have written.

        Paix du Christ

  • DP

    I do have sympathy with Yoder’s position…Never thought I’d read an article here and be MORE likely to vote afterward. It is fascinating to me how much everyone is encouraged to vote. (Which you deal with eloquently in the next post.) You can’t turn around without hearing someone say: Make sure you get out and vote! It makes me wonder: Have the powers and principalities (give me a break) conditioned us to think voting is the only (or at least the best) way to exercise political power? And have they done this intentionally, knowing that it actually strips people of their real power, which is the ability to live life intentionally, in ways that reflect our deepest convictions?

    But even if this is so, I suppose one could not make the case NOT to vote from this argument, this only gets me as far as Yoder. Which I guess is not a bad place to be.