my political journey

mccain and obama

If you haven’t noticed, 2008 is an election year.

(Some of you just muttered to yourself, “So that’s why they keep showing that toothy guy and old man on the news!”)

A certain excitement surrounds presidential elections.  Much of it is media-induced, as was evident by the earlier-than-ever start to the primary season (summer 2007).  But a lot of it is, I think, a genuine yearning in the hearts of Americans to start fresh, wipe the slate clean, or move in a new direction.  That’s why every candidate in the race is using buzz words like “hope” and “change” and “new direction.”  I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t more than a little caught up in the political fever myself.

But I’ve come to a point where I can no longer attach any of those adjectives — hope, change, etc — in their deepest, truest meanings, to the political process.  Though I am still a deeply political person, I refuse to be political in the way we are told to be political — by voting, by supporting one of two major parties, by pushing for legislation, by seeking to leverage my own power and strength.

It hasn’t always been this way, however.

My parents raised my brother and me to be good Democrats.  We denigrated Reagan economic policy around the house and rooted for Dukakis to defeat George Bush and the Republican machine in 1988.  The 1990s were political glory days around our house … Bubba could do no wrong.  He was a guy to whom my dad, who has spent much of his life in Arkansas’ neighboring Memphis, could relate.  In his smooth, Southern accent, he spoke of compassion and peace and health care for all Americans.  Even Clinton’s legal woes with Watergate and Monica-gate didn’t diminish the big guy’s celebrity around the house.  Heading off to college, I had received more than my fair share of political indoctrination — not in a heavy-handed way, but in the subtle way parents pass along their own ideologies to their kids.  Needless to say, I went off to college in Texas with my mind made up about whom I was going to vote for in the 2000 election.

al gore mask

In fact, when I arrived on campus at my overwhelmingly Republican university, I immediately joined the tiny but faithful College Democrats club.  At the first meeting, I was even selected to serve as the vice president during the 2000-2001 year.  That election year, we would show up for debates against the College Republicans (a veritable machine on campus…), sign folks in town up to vote, attempt to broaden the debate on campus from just two issues dealing with sexuality to issues of justice, the environment, and the economy.  Looking back, this snot-nosed freshman really didn’t know what the heck he thought about much of anything, certainly not enough to deserve the VP position in the college Dems.  I think I was more concerned with being different from my “war-loving, vitriol-spewing, poor people-oppressing, trust fund baby” (my perhaps misguided thoughts at the time) Republican friends.  (you should have seen my Al Gore Halloween costume, though…)

I think we all remember what happened in the 2000 election.

“Projected Winner: Al Gore” … oh, wait.  Hanging chads.  Gore wins the popular vote.  Florida Supreme Court.  Bush wins, weeks later, by a hair.  Gore cries (has he stopped?).

We were all devastated.

Most of our friends were electrified.  A Texas boy had made good and gotten to the White House.  Bush’s supporters at the university that gave him an honorary degree (along with Charlton Heston) could finally say they knew him when…

I developed a much more robust personal political philosophy over the next few years, primarily because I had so much material to work with.  Right out of the gate, George W. Bush’s cowboy attitude just rubbed me the wrong way.  (and as a writer, the Bushisms annoyed the heck out of me!)  Then came 9/11, which I helped cover for the school newspaper of which I was a member, and the political poo hit the fan.  We were staging an all-out retaliation in a country that had little, if anything, to do with what happened to us on that Tuesday morning in New York.  America’s leaders, led by Bush himself, took a page from the Toby Keith school of foreign policy and threatened to “put a boot in the ass” of anyone who crossed us.

Patriotism was also at an all-time high.  One could see flags everywhere, and often they were accompanied by pithy statements like “These Colors Don’t Run” or “Freedom Isn’t Free.”  Even many so-called progressives rallied behind the flag and our president and supported returning the slap that Islamic terrorists had given us.  Through all this flag-waving, though, I kept thinking, “What about the Afghan children?  Are they less precious than our own children?  Is our own ‘homeland security’ more important than Afghanistan’s?”

iraqi child

Then we invaded Iraq.  The rationale never quite squared with me.  Tension had been building for months over supposed WMDs inside Iraq, but to date, none had been found.  Then came Dubya on the TV set during primetime saying we had begun a “shock & awe” attack on Baghdad in an effort to free the Iraqi people from tyrannical Saddam Hussein.  No mention of WMDs.  There was, however, some connection made to what happened to us on 9/11, but I couldn’t (and still can’t) see how any of that rationale adds up.  All I saw was an emboldened empire seeking to expand its reach using military might.  It was way beyond retaliation at this point … this was pre-emptive war.  I saw it then and I see it now. (photo credit: David Leeson, 2003)

The night of the shock & awe campaign, I wrote an editorial for the school newspaper applauding the US for attempting to root out Saddam quickly and without much collateral damage.  A quick in and out procedure.  Five years and 60,000 deaths later…

These events, as well as the ongoing war, kick-started my disillusionment with the tactics of the U.S. Government in foreign policy.  I began to see that the American project doesn’t exactly square with my primary identity as a citizen in God’s kingdom, and that both political parties (not just one, as I’d previously thought) were guilty.  Sure, the parties talk a good game with regard to justice and values, but in the end, the status quo must be maintained.  (which means people around the world and right under our noses are squeezed to the margins or destroyed)  These realizations were further underscored when I began investigating the un-reported intimidation, extortion, dishonesty, and even murder US officials were committing around the world to bolster the wealth and power of the nation. (John Perkins’ memoir, “Confessions of an Economic Hitman,” was especially eye-opening)  This is about when I began referring to America as an Empire.  That’s right, empire — like Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Great Britain. (watch this video if you’re not convinced)

Indeed, the lily-white history of the United States I received in elementary school was, for the first time, in question in my mind. As my eyes were opened to the reality that my fellow countrymen and women were killing my brothers and sisters in Iraq and Afghanistan while the American church stands behind such action — even cheering it on — a new light was shed on how the last 200 years or so have proven to be a slow march toward empire-building for America.  In light of these realities, how could I comply with the political system, as is?  How could I put any hope in a system that, at its very essence, places nation over the Cross?  Furthermore, how could I continue to support candidates and parties that support economic systems that run counter to God’s economics policy of Jubilee?

In the 2004 election, my wife and I placed opposing votes in Texas in order to cancel the other’s out.  This was our first act of political subversion, albeit largely insignificant. It was, however, significant for us personally, setting us on a pathway of deepening our identities as citizens first and foremost in God’s kingdom, not man’s.

For the last four years, my political theory — in light of my theological convictions as a follower of Jesus — has been shaped and formed, and the writings of Yoder, Hauerwas, Wright, Claiborne, and others have impacted me greatly.

Many have traded the political ideologies of the Religious Right (a failed experiment) for more progressive political views, still informed by faith.  Leaders in this movement, which include Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, among others, have correctly called Christians to broaden their view of justice and righteousness from a couple sexual issues to include the environment, poverty, economic disparity, consumerism, and peace.  In many ways, I have these thinkers to thank for sparking the conversation about the problems in the current political system and foci among Christians.  I have come to see, however, that these leaders are still calling for participation in the politics of Empire in order to attain societal justice.  And while the movement claims to be “non-partisan,” anyone with their eyes open can see that it has become the Christian Left.  And because the Left is just as hell-bent as the Right about maintaining and expanding empire, maintaining a consumerist economy, and waging war, I cannot with a clean conscience adhere to this movement. (though I consider many who do my friends)

I just finished Shane Claiborne & Chris Haw’s new book, Jesus For President, which to a great degree spells out where I’ve come politically.  It’s the book I would have liked to have written.

the lamb

JFP maintains that Jesus was in fact political (it is a common misconception that he wasn’t), but not in the conventional way of the time.  He subverted the Roman Empire with his words and deeds and even the names people ascribed to him, which were all dripping with political irony and meaning.  He continually established and underscored his own kingship (not Caesar’s), and promised that true, sustainable change would occur when people fix their eyes on Jesus and join Jesus in the work of reconciling all things. A thorough and open-minded reading of the Gospels sheds light on this convincingly, I think.  So it’s not a question of whether Jesus-followers are to be political, but how this is done.  (more on this in the days to come)

Furthermore, God knew that too much power in the hands of sin-proned humans was a dangerous thing.  (see the Old Testament for example after example)  Yet the cries of the people — “We want a king!” — prevailed, and God gave them over to their wishes.  (with a not-so-subtle warning, of course)  Today, millions of Christians are yelling, “We want a king!”  Their ideal king may have an (R) or a (D) after his name, may make promises that fit their values to a T, and may in their minds hold the last hopes for a just and righteous society, but in the end, the candidate is an imperfect, frail human.  And I’ve said it before, but I’m convinced that the office of President — or state rep, senator, congressman, mayor, or any political office — shapes the person much more than the person shapes the office.  In the end, Barack Obama and John McCain will be just as interested in Empire-building and war-mongering as any other president who has come along.  The machine simply cannot be stopped.

So this is where I’m at politically.  I want to stand with the poor and marginalized now more than ever, but I don’t believe the voting booth is where I should stand.  I want to see God’s “kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven” now more than ever, but the Empire — with its penchant for war, expansion, wealth-creation, and being first (Jesus told us to be last) — is diametrically opposed to this dream.  God’s peculiar people must continue the work set forth by our brothers and sisters throughout history to affirm that only God can create a new reality, establish justice, and sit on the throne — as King.

Using Jesus For President as a guide, the next few posts will focus on ways the people of God can be more political than ever, while not bowing to the idols of nation or investing in a broken political system.  It can be done, but as Claiborne and Haw (and Brueggemann before them) say repeatedly, it’s going to take an ample dosage of “prophetic imagination.”

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26 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Daniel Gray on June 23, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    I admit, I’m still someone who’s signed on to the Religious Left (RL), because frankly I don’t think the church is up to the challenge (and I have purely non-religious reasons for being a communist as well).

    But I agree, we need more political preaching on conservation, contentment, and humility to combat our over-materialistic, imperialist, war-loving attitude. I think this is a realm Christians can try to lead in.

    I’m currently reading Irresistible Revolution, and will be reading JFP next. I’ll be interested to see if Claiborne has changed his position a little, because I definitely feel like he sends the message in IR that there are systemic issues that have to be dealt with on a societal level and that he does advocate for some level of political activism.

    Anyways, excellent thoughts. Look forward to reading more in the coming days.

    Reply

  2. I read that. It was politically left if you ask me. I prefer “God’s Politics” more.

    Reply

  3. Posted by wallace on June 24, 2008 at 4:49 am

    Steve, I am glad you will be writing about this topic, and look forward to hearing more!

    Reply

  4. Posted by smhjr on June 24, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Daniel – Thanks for being honest! I hold no condemnation for those who choose to be politically active, and (admittedly), I am a little more jazzed about folks working for universal healthcare and third-world debt cancellation than striking down gay marriage or overturning Roe v. Wade. I struggle with the healthcare and debt cancellation issues, specifically, because it would appear that only a systemic change would bring about the justice necessary in each situation. So I’m not sure how I feel about those issues just yet as they relate to my “Christian anarchism…” =)

    Big Mike – You wouldn’t categorize “God’s Politics” as politically left-of-center? It is a mistake to place JFP on a Left-Right political continuum, as it calls us to step out of the foxhole of the Left-Right battle and recognize that political divisions are not reality. The way you and others talk about it would suggest that something is immediately suspect if it suggests a political ideology different from our own. Jesus is reality, not politics.

    Wallace – I’m looking forward to it too!

    Reply

  5. Posted by Daniel Gray on June 24, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    Big Mike — I haven’t read JFP yet, but have read God’s Politics. From what I understand of the authors, I get the idea that Wallis is much more political than Claiborne — possibly because of the life of the authors. Wallis is very politically engaged through Sojourners, while Claiborne seems more focused on being in the streets helping people. I like both, but can you elaborate more on why you think Claiborne/JFP is more political?

    Reply

  6. Posted by thepriesthood on June 24, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    I’m loving JFP. brilliant stuff on uncovering how political the Scriptures really are beginning to end. i’m sharing some of the thoughts there with my students.

    Reply

  7. This is a book I would willingly hand out to random people on the street, just on the off chance someone might read it. Unbelievable.

    And I totally am with you Steve, though I say that immediately confessing that I fell off this wagon when Ron Paul came along. But I went back to meetings, and so I’m good to go now.

    Reply

  8. I am in Mexico at this time, so I must keep it brief. While Shane claims he wants to call out all sides, he criticizes the right pretty much in his political areas of the book. I also think he is not being like Jesus when he intentionally goes out and causes problems and gets arrested every other page in the book. I don’t think Jesus would think that was okay to stir up problems. That’s on the left if you ask me.

    Reply

  9. Posted by smhjr on June 26, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Big Mike – Shane criticizes anyone who attempts to bring about Christian justice using primarily legislative measures. For the last 25 years or so, the primary group that has been doing this is the Religious Right. So there’s a lot of material to work with … I don’t think he’s just throwing pot-shots. In 25 years, we’ll probably have just as much material for the Christian Left.

    Your comment about Shane “not being like Jesus when he intentionally goes out and causes problems and gets arrested every other page in the book” is curious to me …

    I ask you, how is that not like Jesus? Or Jesus’ disciples? Or Paul? Or Stephen? Seems like there are quite a few troublemakers in that bunch…

    Reply

  10. Posted by Steve Sr on June 26, 2008 at 11:47 pm

    I truly understand, but doesn’t there come a time when not participating violates the very rationale for withdrawing from the process?

    Let’s say it’s early November and before you are the two candidates, one of whom will surely become the next POTUS. One candidate is committed to continuing war, opening up new oil drilling fields, maintaining tax cuts for the rich, nominating conservative supreme court judges and otherwise presenting this nation with Bush’s third term.

    The other candidate, with all his flaws and political connections, pledges to end war, hold the line on new oil drilling, create open dialogue with world leaders, give tax cuts to those who need them, etc., etc.

    Don’t we have an obligation to lend our vote so that the first candidate doesn’t become the next occupant of the White House and that the latter will?

    Reply

  11. Posted by smhjr on June 27, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    I guess it’s a matter of principle for me … casting a vote against someone or to choose the lesser of two evils (what I did in 2004) isn’t a good enough reason to vote. Especially when I know that the guy who wins — either one — really doesn’t represent the core of my values as a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

    In other words, choosing which candidate is less abrasive to the anti-imperial Kingdom and voting for him seems like a conflict of interests.

    Reply

  12. That was so one-sided. Obama promises more taxes for everyone, ruining the economy with global warming legislation, give terrorists amnesty, and be Carter’s second term. I don’t like either candidate, but this is exactly what I am talking about. We can’t sit on our asses and rely on the Obamessiah to be the end of poverty, injustice, and war. He is a politician and will continue to make stupid decisions and show that he is no better than anyone else. That and he has NO experience…and he is NOTHING like the past presidents with 0 experience. Why does everyone hang on his every word. I think he’s boring and he can only speak if he has a teleprompter. What a coward. McCain is no better with his cap-and-trade crap. As for conservative judges, that’s a lie…he voted against them.

    Where’s Reagan when we need him?

    Reply

  13. Posted by Steve Sr on June 28, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    Reagan…Oh please! It took Bill Clinton two terms to get us out of the trickle-down rut Reagan got us in to.

    Reply

  14. Posted by Daniel Gray on June 28, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    I can’t help but think your assumptions about Obama are a little over the top. I’m a political junky, and I have never heard the comparison to Carter — to the electoral outlook that year, but not as a person. Obama gets compared to JFK. If you think Obama is stilted, then you didn’t see McCain’s awful speech a few weeks ago. At least Obama has the potential to instill a since of social action within people (his years as a community organizer), unlike most politicians.

    And I’ll 2nd Steve on Reagan. Reagan financially destroyed the country by sending us back into massive government debt.

    Reply

  15. Posted by Kyle on June 30, 2008 at 4:02 am

    I can’t help but hear the assumption from some that any elected president will bring about the type of radical change needed in the broken & evil political system. It isn’t an Obama or McCain issue, with all due respect. It’s a Kingdom of God v Empire of America issue.

    I spent this weekend at a conference listening to actively political Christians (some working for senators currently on both sides of the aisle) consistently say the system is broken yet say we must continue to work in it.

    We must have the courage to sacrifice a system that is based on power plays and under the table money handouts (both attested at the conference as the way deals are done in Congress) and recognize what God was trying to tell Israel, and what Jesus was trying to tell his followers. There truly is no way other than His that will ever work properly, or that we should aspire to hold.

    Reply

  16. Posted by smhjr on June 30, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Amen, Kyle. =)

    Reply

  17. BJ made the economy worse. Maybe read some facts. I’m out.

    Reply

  18. Read Dallas Willard’s “The Great Omission” and find out if Jesus was truly what Claiborne claims.

    Reply

  19. Oh, and that you immediately denigrate Reagan tells me that this book and those who so wholeheartedly agree with it are liberal politically. That says it all.

    Reply

  20. Posted by smhjr on July 1, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    BML – Who are you talking to? And what’s this connection between denigrating Reagan and JFP? As far as I can tell, no one who’s “denigrated” Reagan here has even read that book.

    You’ve been a part of this blog community for a few years now, but your rhetoric on this blog over the last few days demonstrates just what’s wrong with American politics: The demonizing of the “enemy,” the unwillingness to hear out new perspectives, the brash tones. Why is it so hard to hear a different point of view and dialog with it respectfully?

    These little “drive-by” pot-shots have got to stop, dude…

    Reply

  21. Posted by miller on July 1, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    hey man, i think we have to vote.

    but we should write in somebody…

    anybody!

    we have to let them know we won’t accept their choices.

    peace

    Reply

  22. Kyle,

    I like what you said about “sacrific[ing the] system” and I agree with it – it’s the how that gets me. I believe in being politically active, in that very broad sense of participating in the determination of the rules by which we all live together; right now, I’m trying to get a handle on whether I think I can do this in our current political system or in some way that is counter to or a protest of it. Because the current (broken) system does have some pretty direct effects on how we can and do live, I don’t think we can completely disengage with it … but figuring out how we engage by not only talking about but also living out an alternative system is what really interests me.

    BTW, it’s also really hard! 🙂 I know some people may be good at doing this in isolation, but I feel like if we all want to try this, we need to have a big enough community that supports our counter-cultural operation, especially when you start talking laws and economics.

    Reply

  23. 1 There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under heaven:

    2 a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,

    3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,

    4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,

    5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

    6 a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,

    7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,

    8 a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

    Reply

  24. […] – RELATED: see Steve Holt Jr.’s series of posts on Christian Politics (Part 1, 2, 3, and […]

    Reply

  25. Posted by miller on July 4, 2008 at 2:08 pm

    how ’bout a time to move on???

    Reply

  26. Posted by Kyle on July 8, 2008 at 2:08 am

    Brandy,

    I think you’re completely right! We need to embrace our communities because we cannot handle this kind of change on our own. Thanks for exposing this side of the pie I had left out.

    Kyle

    Reply

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