My mother drove me to the polls the first election after my 18th birthday. She was as proud as she had been on the day I took my first steps or learned to read. I was crossing another major milestone. I cast my vote that day, but after that I didn’t vote again for over seven years.
I was disillusioned with the whole political process. From my perspective, living on campus at my private Christian college, I couldn’t see any impact of politics on our daily lives.
And besides, if I truly believed that Jesus was Lord and King, then did it matter if I cast a vote for a politician?
Politics felt like a waste of time, and a divisive one at that.
I moved to Milwaukee when I was 22, and after living in the city for a couple years, I started to question my indictment of politics. The policies being enacted in the state capitol and in the nation’s capital were absolutely affecting the daily lives of my neighbors and I in huge ways, for better or worse.
When budget decisions were made, my neighborhood was usually pretty low on the list of communities invested in.
When we did crack the list, the specific investment was often misguided at best, leaving us with beautifully renovated storefronts along one of the main arteries through my neighborhood that, even a decade later, have scarcely ever been inhabited by the businesses the city hoped to attract.
When the Affordable Health Care Act passed, more people in my neighborhood had access to some form of health insurance and my own coverage became more comprehensive. I began to see that politics, and my involvement in them, did matter in day-to-day life.
Increasingly, I became vocal about my perspectives on the policies coming out of the state and federal legislatures. I went to meetings with local representatives about immigration reform and joined in protests when policy decisions were handed down that would harm people in my
Sometimes people from back in my hometown would push back, “why are you talking about politics? This is a distraction from the Gospel.” They encouraged me to pray for my elected officials, rather than criticize them.
But prayer and prophetic critique are not mutually exclusive, and when we insist that they are, we diminish the scope and impact of our prayer.
Marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel commented that he was praying with his feet. In a similar vein, Frederick Douglass, a formerly enslaved man, noted he prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer till he started praying with his legs. Our prayers for those in authority need not necessarily be prayers of blessing, nor are they only to be uttered in the privacy of our own homes.
When we fall into thinking that politics is a purely private affair, we miss the invitation to see the Kingdom of God as a reality that reorganizes our systems and power structures so that no one person, race, or class amasses more and more for themselves to the detriment and oppression of others.
When politics is purely private, it becomes a trinket we can tuck inside our heart next to Jesus, a Magic Eight Ball we can consult for pre-determined answers in the ballot box rather than a rubric for assessing how we might engage the world around us in ways faithful to the way of Christ…
…During the summer of 2018 I brought my six-year-old daughter to a protest of the enforcement of family separation policies outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office. While the headlines of the crisis at the southern border had driven me to take action, the organizers of the local protest were Latinx clergy who had been protesting for months—long before national news began to take notice.
They called their protest the “Jericho Walk” and took time to march around the ICE office seven times each week while praying. Like the Israelites so many years ago, these pastors and priests were trusting that God could make the walls of unjust policies and prison cells come tumbling down as well.
Like Heschel and Douglass, we prayed with our feet and our legs that day. I carried a banner protesting family separation, and my daughter picked wildflowers along the sidewalks outside of ICE. The adult protestors called out the vile and broken systems endemic to society, and the children gathered up beauty and reminded us to notice the butterflies.
Politics, at its most basic level, is simply how we organize people and resources. If I assume that life in my community is organized well because all the people who are just like me appear to be flourishing, without regard for people who are not like me are impacted, then I risk only tending to the wildflowers and butterflies while others around me are suffering.
Conversely, if I only see the suffering and anger and harm of a system organized explicitly to benefit some, to the detriment of others, then I risk missing the beauty of God’s grace at work, peeking up like daisies through concrete. Prayer for the authorities, and political engagement broadly, always include both.
There are many ways Christians can engage faithfully with politics. I believed that voting in local, state and federal elections is one way of faithfully engaging. Some Christians choose to abstain from voting as a reflection of their conviction that no politician is ultimately our savior.
While there is merit to this belief, choosing to abstain from voting is a choice afforded mainly to those whose privilege within the system insulates them from being negatively affected by changes in policy.
However, if you do not feel comfortable voting out of your own conscience and discernment through research, conversation and prayer, then I’d recommend that you speak with someone you know who does not have voting rights—an undocumented immigrant or someone who has been charged with a felony—and vote for the candidates they recommend.
Regardless of whether you vote or not, calling or writing to your elected officials is a great way to stay involved in the political process. While federal legislation tends to grab our newsfeeds and headlines most of the time, it is easiest to have a large impact on a local level—as Rev. Barber has done in organizing Moral Mondays in the state of North Carolina.
Subscribe to your local newspaper, or make it a point to read a copy of it online or in the library, and look for policies and legislation being enacted locally that you would like to impact; then call, write, or request meetings with your officials to make your voice heard.