Saturday, 30 November 2013

The War on Advent: Christian Observance as Socio-Economic Rebellion

Well, it’s that time of year again-  one that many Christians dread.

It’s a time, once again, when Christian religious traditions are marginalised and ignored. It’s an annual time of feeling forgotten and disdained, when once again we see one of the most beautiful and meaningful Christian observances all but banished from the public sphere.

Oh, I'm sorry, you think I’m talking about a supposed ‘War on Christmas’? Don’t be daft. Oh, of course I’ve been subjected once again to the annual deluge of nonsense from FOXNews, Family Research Council and the rest of that ridiculous clique of rightist evangelicals who seem to go through the last quarter of the year deaf and blind. If you can get from October to January and think Christmas is in some way being pushed out of the limelight, I seriously think you're delusional. And as someone who has worked in Israel, occupied Palestine, Rwanda and Northern Ireland, I think the 'war' rhetoric used in relation to this supposed slight on the celebration of Christmas is offensive and absurd.

No, I’m of course referring to the ‘War on Advent’. If there’s a Christian tradition in danger of being marginalised, ignored or destroyed altogether, it’s Advent… And it’s the same bunch who moan about a supposed ‘War on Christmas’ that are destroying it. The very fact that they probably don't know what I’m talking about goes a long way toward proving my point.

Advent (from the Latin word adventus, meaning ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’) is the season that precedes Christmas in the Christian liturgical year. It begins on the first Sunday after the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (30 November) and continues until the 24th of December. It serves as a time of preparation and reflection. Advent traditions involve the lighting of candles on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, usually in church but also in the home. Similar to the season of Lent which leads up  to Easter, Advent is also a traditional time of fasting, self-examination, and prayer.

Reflections during Advent often draw on the biblical texts from the long centuries before the birth of Christ. Advent is a time to remember the prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures that tell of the eventual coming of God’s messiah, which Christians believe refer to Jesus. It is a time to reflect on the coming incarnation of Christ in the person of Jesus, the invasion of God into his creation. Ultimately, Advent prepares us for Christmas, the celebration of ‘God with us’.

Advent means a lot to me. It was an important time in our family’s year. I was raised in a Christian tradition that observed the Liturgical Year, a cyclical calendar that takes the Church through the year in a rhythmic series of feasts, fasts, observances, remembrances, holidays and commemorations. The liturgical year took us through the life of Christ, the lives of the saints and the life of the Church.

And Advent was the beginning of the year.

The liturgical calendar is embedded so deeply in my personal spiritual DNA that I can’t imagine celebrating Christmas without marking the four weeks of Advent before it. I pray, I meditate- and I fast. Like Lent, Advent is a time to engage my mind and body in a time of discipline. And part of that discipline is, ironically, not thinking that much about Christmas.

Advent- and the liturgical year of which it is a part- are, for me, an effective inoculation against what 'Christmas' has increasingly become: a corporate, consumerist, end-of-the-fourth-economic-quarter hysteria that begins just after Hallowe’en and goes until a day or two after 25 December.  

I don’t know what to call that 50-odd day season that screams, shrieks and howls the joys of owning, purchasing, having and (just to give it some semblance of moral fibre) ‘giving’. I don’t know what to call it- but it's certainly not ‘Christmas’.

Again, the liturgical calendar is there to- if we wish- keep us in perspective. It reminds us that the 25th of December (‘The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord’ to give it its mouthful of a name) is the
beginning of the season of Christmas, which will continue for twelve days and conclude with the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January. When I was growing up, our church would celebrate Epiphany with a spaghetti supper, after which we’d all help take down the Christmas decorations all over the church, bringing our Christmas festivities to a close for another year.

The point I’m trying to make here is that, if you’re following the Church’s liturgical calendar, you realise how absurd it is for someone in November to go on about Christmas being marginalised because, well, it’s not Christmas… Hell, it’s not even ADVENT yet! Likewise, if you’re  following the Church calendar, there’s nothing particularly odd about wishing someone a merry Christmas on the 4th of January- because it’s still Christmas.

In the end, the ‘War on Christmas’ crowd doesn’t seem that interested in the Christian observance of Christmas, but in having a bigger profile in the aforementioned 31 October-25 December mayhem. If that’s what they want, fine, but in my opinion, it has very little to do with Christian practice or observance. It is celebrating Christmas where it doesn’t belong- and doesn’t fit. And if indeed that is the Christmas that they want to observe and have more of a presence in, they are welcome to it.

But I don’t think it’s harmless or benign; I think it does real harm to the Christian religion.  

The liturgical year, starting with the reflection and fasting of Advent, with its steady swing from fast to feast, is so out of synch with our culture’s annual observance of the 31 October-25 December orgy of noise and cash, malls and money, gluttony and greed that it effectively constitutes an act of economic and spiritual resistance. It reminds us of how counterculture the Christian religion can be if we want it to be.

The irony is that, if you keep Advent for its four weeks, you’ll draw more attention to the spiritual significance of the season than in loudly griping that the lighting display at the shopping centre filled with writhing throngs of broke consumers wished you ‘happy holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’.

Likewise, if you celebrate Christmas for its full twelve days, filling them with joy, festivity, feasting and generosity while the rest of society crashes into a debt-ridden, over-eaten depression, you will bear witness to something more precious and beautiful than a few extra light bulbs spelling out 'Merry Christmas' on the shopping centre.

Albert Camus wrote, ‘The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.’ 

This is the freedom- and the rebellion- of Advent.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Patriot Game: Looking for Patriotism Beyond Militarism

I work as a substitute teacher in the school district here in Montana. Regardless of your mental nightmares of substitute teachers from childhood, I can assure you that it's a rewarding job. For me, being a ‘sub’ combines the best of all worlds for someone who loves being an educator- I get to work with kids, I get to exercise one of my best talents which is making complex ideas simple to understand, and I’m an exotic, mysterious figure in their lives, which means I don’t have the familiarity that breeds their obvious contempt for the teachers they see every day. They have said things to me like, ‘We like you, Dr. Jon. You’re nice. Our regular teacher hates us. All she does is yell.’ I didn’t mention that they were probably miles better behaved with me than they are with her…

'Subbing', as well as the work I’ve done with a local after-school programme, also allows me some distance to think about the students, what they’re learning and how they learn it. I’m a keen student of Paolo Friere, Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky, all of whom have produced great scholarship that brilliantly critiques how we approach the education process. From them, I’ve come to see the education process as a way to help people learn how to think, not simply how to recall or remember. Thinking leads to critique, and hopefully on toward action and change. Recalling and remembering lead to acceptance of narrative, which can lead to more effective control. If you develop an education system around a list of ‘facts’ and ‘important’ dates, and then make it clear that success or failure is dependent on being able to recall them for an examination, THEN make it clear that any further education or employment is entirely dependent on how well you do on the examinations, you’ll have a fairly decent mechanism for ensuring that your pupils will shy away from criticism, philosophy, or dissent, but gravitate toward keeping out of trouble, paying their taxes and believing what they hear on television.

One morning, I had just gotten into school and was sitting at the absent teacher’s desk when I noticed a paper written by one of the pupils in the class on top of a pile of papers. It was titled, ‘What Patriotism Means to Me’- the very model of the type of assignment that we all remember from elementary school.

It’s certainly not my intention to negatively critique what the boy wrote; nothing he wrote was inappropriate or incorrect. Nor can I fault him personally for what I might have wished he’d included; I don’t expect to find old heads on young shoulders, and expecting nuanced argument and critical insight from a 12 year-old is unfair. But I do believe that what the student wrote might serve to help us critique what our children are tacitly taught by our society and culture- and how we might reflect on how it might be done better.

As I glanced over the paper, the one thing that stood out to me was that the student’s view of patriotism was a bit limited, top-heavy with militarism, war, soldiers and sacrifice.

Patriotism to him, he wrote, was about ‘soldiers fighting for our country in war’ and ‘the people who join the US Army.’ He wrote of war memorials ‘covered in names of the people that died in war… the only sad thing about it is that it has so many names on it.’ ‘Even though lots of people die in the US Army and don’t see their family again’, he wrote, ‘their souls will always be remembered as a hero that sacrificed his or her life for ours.’

The one thing that gave me greatest pause-  and that I did find problematic- was his belief that patriotism meant ‘to love the army and all the people that were in the wars’.  What he’s describing here is an idea of patriotism as not simply a love or respect for soldiers, but a love for the army itself. I’d argue that when the armed forces become a singular object of patriotic devotion, our society may have walked onto very dangerous ground.

What I started wondering was, if this was what patriotism meant to him, then why exactly?

The answer is probably as simple as this is how patriotism has been described and portrayed to him his whole life.

Most of America’s view of patriotism is framed militarily. Patriotism is tacitly understood to be the willingness to fight and to die- and ultimately to actually fight and die. Rarely- if ever- is any other form of public duty, altruism or other form of civic engagement framed specifically as patriotism.

And pacifism, conscientious objection, reconciliation work, and active war resistance are absolutely never framed as patriotic.

Dwight D. Eisenhower is seen as a patriot for his military service, not for his denunciations at the end of his presidency of what he described as ‘the industrial-military complex’. Dr. Martin Luther King is described as a ‘peacemaker’, but rarely, if ever, as a ‘patriot’. And his peacemaking is invariably seen through the lens of the Civil Rights movement; his call for economic justice and his implacable resistance to the Vietnam war are ignored.

I don’t wish to infer in any way that the service of the armed forces- past or present- is not patriotism. The recent 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address have reminded us of the thousands of men in the ground under the President’s feet as he spoke, men who gave- as he so eloquently framed it- ‘the last full measure of devotion’ to see their nation be more free and more equitable than it was previously. Similarly, we will forever be in the debt of the hundreds of thousands of men who gave their lives to stop the expansion of fascism in the Second World War.

But we cannot allow that debt to be a free credit to see every military action- before them and since- in the same light. Not every soldier is equally a patriot; not every war is equally a noble cause. 
And not every criticism of the military or foreign policy- or the desire to stop supporting it or even actively resisting it- is cowardice or treachery. To think so is to flirt with the fascistic tendencies of the South American ‘National Security’ dictatorships who brutally suppressed freedom and human rights by fetishising God, Fatherland, Military, Hierarchy… and yes, Patriotism.

I believe that we need to re-think the scope of what we think patriotism encompasses. As Christians, we need to take seriously Christ’s exhortation that Peacemakers are ‘blessed’ in the eyes of God. That means noticing that they are not particularly thought of as ‘blessed’ in the eyes of our civic society- and reflecting on why that is so.

How could we redefine patriotism beyond the boundaries of militarism?

I was sitting in an American airport gate waiting for my flight when the flight attendants began calling for passengers to begin boarding. I noticed that ‘uniformed members of our armed forces’ were given the privilege of being seated before the general boarding- a policy of several US air carriers.

I wonder what a world would be like where peacemakers and reconciliation workers were seated before general boarding.

At mass in my parish every week- as is similarly done in other churches all over the country- prayers are said for the safe return of the armed forces personnel who are overseas.

I wish that an equal number of prayers were said- every week- for the many peacemakers throughout the world, either cleaning up after wars or working to keep them from starting.
I’d love for an equal amount of prayers said for war resisters, ploughshares activists and other conscientious objectors.

For every statue of a man holding a gun or a general on a horse in our public parks, I’d like an equal number of statues erected to the memories of people like Jane Addams, Theodore Roszack, Utah Phillips, and Roger Nash Baldwin.

I wish every public memorial to Martin Luther King were inscribed, not only with his many words about human freedom and human rights, but also with his declaration, ‘A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.’

If true patriotism is love of ones country, then it should be the love that is willing to see the value of the sacrifices that many of its citizens make for peace and peacemaking as much as the value of the sacrifice of war.

When I start seeing our schoolchildren describing their patriotism in those terms, I think I’ll be a little happier.

And I believe America would be a lot healthier.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

To Vote or Not to Vote, Part 2: Voting for a Better World (without Voting...)

In my last post, I talked about voting in political elections- what it accomplishes and what it does not. In this post, I’d like to take the next logical step and offer alternatives to voting.

You won’t spend long as an anarchist before someone  asks you the question, ‘Well, what would YOU do?’ Sometimes, the question is justified. Radicals can be great complainers. When you truly believe that a system or organisation is so fundamentally flawed as to be effectively beyond repair- as most anarchists do about the present political system- people rightly want to know what you’d replace it with. Other times, the question is just a snarky way of trying to shut us up or prove once and for all that we’re bereft of any positive, constructive ideas. It becomes annoying when I begin to discern that I’m being asked- in a few concise sentences- to describe how I’d re-order the entire economic, political and social structure of a nation of over 300 million. That just seems a wee bit unfair.

The question, as well as the demand for schematics for how radicals would do things differently, in some ways attempts to make anarchism fit into other political archetypes that it doesn’t really have any interest in fitting into. It is Republicans and Democrats- or Tories and Labour or Fianna Fail and Fine Gael;  the political structures in all our countries- who put together plans for government and are ready to display how their policy would differ from their rival’s. The differences between all of them and the anarchists are that they are all preparing for power; anarchists aren’t interested in gaining power but in diffusing it, spreading it out, letting it grow where it didn’t grow before.

French anarchist and philosopher Jacques Ellul envisioned anarchism not as overthrowing the government but as- as much as is possible, anyway- ignoring it, keeping it in its place and resisting it when it oversteps its bounds. Such a conception sees revolutionary change not as a linear process, but as a parallel one. The revolution is lived outside of the current system as a witness against it and as resistance to it. It is not an apathetic ‘opting out’ but a conscious, radical opting for something else.

American anarchist Ammon Hennacy described the anarchism of the radical Christian as embodied in the person who ‘turns the other cheek, overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and does not need a cop to tell him how to behave…(Such a person) ‘achieves that ideal daily by a One-Man Revolution with which he faces a decadent, confused, and dying world.’

This is the revolution embodied in the person of Jesus, who saw no need to either participate in or to overthrow the Roman imperial system in order to sow the seeds of its eventual destruction: his vision of the Kingdom of God- love, peace, justice and the equality of all. The Kingdom of God was lived out in the midst of empire, oppressive power and violent and marginalising structures. By doing so, the empire and its values are exposed for what they really are- dehumanising, exploitative and violent.

It’s probably worth saying that the empire is never going to benignly allow this to happen. The revolution can be co-opted- as in the process by which Christianity was eventually made an integral part of the empire’s vision of oppressive power and violent and marginalising structures. The vision of the kingdom of love,peace, justice and equality for all has, with depressing regularity, been used to kill, exploit and marginalise. It’s not surprising. Catholic Worker activist Ciaron O’Reilly once described it to me thus: ‘It took them 10 years to ruin hip hip; it took them 20 years to ruin punk. They’ve had 2000 years to ruin Christianity...’

But out on the edges, often out of sight and on the margins, the radical message is always there, changing lives, making a difference and cheerfully undermining the powers that be.

What does that practically look like? What can you be doing on election day- or ANY day- instead of voting? Here’s some of my ideas.They can all be done if you decide to vote or not. But I’d argue that these actions will immediately make a larger and more sustained impact on your life and the lives of those around you than the tick on the ballot sheet.

- Join a food co-op. Co-ops provide yummy, locally-produced, inexpensive food to the community at low cost. And it’s a fun way to meet people!

- Donate blood. 94% of people don’t. And it saves lives.

- If you’re a parent, volunteer at your child’s school. Find out what they’re learning- and how they’re learning it.

- Volunteer at a homeless shelter, food pantry or soup kitchen. As governments continue to slash welfare for the poor in order to provide welfare for the wealthy, these places will need more and more help. You might be very surprised with who you meet...

- Write a letter to a prisoner of conscience. Very few people do and, having spoken to a few people who have served time in prison for their political beliefs, for war resistance or for reasons of conscience, communication and solidarity from the outside world are invaluable to those in the grip of the prison system. They’re inside for us; we’re outside for them.

- Ask your clergyperson if there’s anything you could do in your place of worship that would be a help to them. Then help them off the floor, seat them comfortably, get them a cold drink, and assure them you’re serious.

- Take an elderly neighbor shopping. Ask them if there’s anything you can do to help them around the house or the garden. Then help them off the floor, seat them comfortably, get them a cold drink, and assure them you’re serious.

- Go down to your local community centre and ask the coordinator if there’s any way you could productively donate your time. Then help them off the floor… Alright, you get the idea. But seriously, by subverting the idea of labour capital- the capitalist notion that human value is measured in how much labour can be gotten out of a person for the smallest amount of pay- volunteering your time for the common good is one of the most revolutionary of actions.  

- If you’re a small business owner, do something to promote your business. Commit to running your business ethically and equitably. Re-invest your profits into the local community.

- Look around your town or local area and figure out who is being marginalised or exploited and do your best to figure out why. Go meet them. Listen to what they have to say. Speak and act with them and on their behalf.   

- Play with a child. Volunteer at a children’s playgroup, nursery school or kindergarten.

- Plant a tree.

- Recycle, recycle, recycle. Earth depends on it.

- Join a Community garden, or simply plant a garden. Share your produce.

- Attend a meeting of your local town or city council or your local school board. Ask questions.

- Attend a meeting of your local Policing Partnership Board. Ask questions- LOTS of questions.

- Educate yourself. Buy a book that explores a serious issue and delve in. If you can, buy it from a local, independent bookseller. Having worked for an independent bookseller in the age of huge corporate booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon, I can assure you that you have NO idea how pleased they’ll be to see you.

- Again, educate yourself. Sign up for a further-learning course or, if you have the time, the desire and the ability, do a degree. Use what you learn to help your local community.

- Join a public action group dedicated to an issue about which you care passionately. If there isn’t one, start one.

- Attend public demonstrations and protests. The powers-that-be either want us atomised and disorganised, sitting home feeling like a difference cannot be made, or co-opted into the political structures that they control. Taking to the streets lets more and more people see that people care about what they care about- and encourages them to get involved. And it’s a good way to meet people and find out what’s happening.   

- Head out to the shop and buy some fairly-traded coffee or tea. Make yourself a cup, sit back and enjoy. I mean, voters are going to accuse you of being lazy anyway…

Some will inevitably look at this list and think, ‘That’s IT!? That’s all? That all just seems like, well, common sense and good neighbourliness...’ They might feel disappointed that there is not more barricade storming, hoisting of flags over commandeered buildings or delivering speeches over seized airwaves. They are like the rich young official in the Gospel of St. Mark 10, who came to Jesus seeking the key to perfection and, when it was given to him- divest yourself  of the desire to acquire and own property, give what you have to the poor, find yourself in your underprivileged neighbours, follow the way of Jesus-   the biblical text says he ‘went away sad’. Many people drift away from the radical revolution in the same manner. When they realize that the radical Gospel revolution is about daily, ongoing empowerment and community-building- finding Jesus in each other, finding ourselves in each other, being Jesus for each other, viewing each other as one body, one community one people- they go away sad. It’s just not chic enough, edgy enough, glamourous enough… you know, RADICAL enough…

But we shouldn’t  allow ourselves to be seduced by the notion that social transformation is only to be found in the the spectacular and the monumental. At bottom, anarchism and radical Christianity are about empowering people, bringing people closer together, building community… and resisting those things that are tearing our communities apart- war, brutality, poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, disillusionment. It’s no accident that when a society starts drifting toward authoritarianism, the first thing to go is free association, free assembly and free movement. They just don’t want us in each other’s lives.

Who knows? You might get so involved in changing the world, election day might just come and go without you noticing it.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

To Vote or Not To Vote: Looking At Russell Brand with a Theological Lens

Comedian and actor Russell Brand made quite a stir recently for an interview he gave to Jeremy Paxman in which Brand explained his reasons for not voting and his impassioned hopes for political revolution. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a link:

The interview created an enormous amount of opinion, both for and against. One of Brand’s most vociferous critics was another British actor/comedian, Robert Webb, who accused Brand of political ‘timidity’ for not voting and for calling on other people not to vote. Webb suggested that he should better educate himself by reading ‘some fucking Orwell’.

I don’t think it’ll be a huge shock to anyone to know that I think Brand is amazing in this video. His arguments and his delivery are incredible. It reminded me of Jon Stewart’s appearance on the CNN show Crossfire in October 2004, when he made hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala- as well as the entire format of the show- look hapless and tired. Stewart’s point- that head-to-head political argument shows (like Crossfire) were not simply benign but actually damaging to public debate- was scathing. This has interesting correlations with Brand’s criticism’s of Paxman and Newsnight. I also think it’s prescient that the Crossfire hosts- particularly Carlson- had the same reaction to Stewart that Paxman had to Brand: they discounted his argument because he was a comedian and an entertainer. But Stewart kept pressing his point, insisting that the show made little or no substantive contribution to a healthy democracy or an informed electorate. CNN cancelled Crossfire three months later.

Beyond mentioning my enjoyment and agreement, I’d like to comment on the issues Brand raised from two standpoints- as an anarchist and as a theologian.

Those who reap the most benefits of the political system as it is currently run- politicians, political operatives, the media machine- have a natural interest in maintaining it and insisting that it’s the only way to get anything done. I think that’s why they get so defensive when anyone raises the idea that the electoral system is actually quite dysfunctional and there might be myriad of ways of getting things done. And that’s what Brand seems to be saying- that voting isn’t doing nearly as much good as those with a vested interest in perpetuating it want us to believe.

In that sense, I think it would be false to believe that Brand doesn’t
want to vote; he does. He just wants it to matter more than he believes it does at present. 

In this, he mirrors an anarchist critique. The notion that anarchists are opposed to voting is actually an oversimplification. It’s more accurate to say that anarchists are opposed to electoral politics and representative assemblies, a small but important distinction. Anarchists have no problem with voting- anyone who has attended an anarchist gathering will know this. Actually, they often vote more than other political organisations, where the talking is done at the beginning, a vote is taken and the debate then ends. For anarchists, voting tends to be the precursor to more discussion and persuasion. Anarchists place more value on building consensus than on gaining a majority; they tend to value people’s beliefs more than a plan or a platform- or even progress. This is often frustrating and infuriating to people who hold to other political methods, who tend to want to vote and go immediately with the will of the majority, with the minority expected to get with the programme.

This is why anarchists oppose representative assemblies, the main method of organising democracies for well over a century. They do not see this method as empowering, but the opposite; surrendering power and influence to an individual to go to the assembly and then to perhaps vote, not as their electorate wanted but in ways that might simply be politically practical or expedient- or just what they think is best, regardless of what the electorate think. Anyone who’s ever opposed a military action and watched helplessly as their elected representative voted for it anyway, or laments the huge corporate influence over government regulations knows what I’m talking about. It’s certainly what Brand is talking about

This goes some way toward identifying Brand’s target. As I see it, it was the democratic system as it is presently constituted. His criticism takes practical form in refusal to participate in something so egregiously rigged against the people and issues for which he cares most. 

And it was for this that he has received so much vitriol. Voting is seen in most mature democracies as the main contribution- along with taxation- that a citizen can make. To not vote is seen as absurd and apathetic. This is often taken to the extreme of declaring that if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about the government in any way.

The main question, as I see it, does not begin or end with whether or not one should vote. Rather, I think the first question should be framed as, ‘How do we empower people to help build a stable and healthy democracy?’ When we start the conversation there, voting is given its proper place- not an end in itself but a means to an end. We then are free to ask, ‘What does voting accomplish?’; ‘What effect does my vote have?’

This is the starting point, in my opinion, of an empowered populace. But it also opens up potentially difficult and uncomfortable truths. We might need to broaden our questioning into whether or not voting- in certain contexts- is largely an empty gesture… or might actually make things worse.

The nature of democratic governance and global social structures have changed so fundamentally since the advent of voting as we understand it as to be almost-completely unrecognisable. Most of the true influence and power that there is in the world is now held by individuals, groups and organisations that are nearly or totally unaccountable to any electorate. They function regardless of who wins or loses this or that election, and the policies which are made by this or that government are largely irrelevant to them.

Thus, It’s not- as some anarchists and apathetic cynics argue- that voting does nothing; but it does do increasingly little. It’s not that every political party is the same as all the others; it’s that political parties have less and less influence on so many of the issues that affect their constituents- and humanity in general.

As to Robert Webb’s criticism of Brand- intimating that to fail to vote is to risk totalitarianism- he does himself no favours in referencing Orwell. He’s obviously thinking of ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, whereas I’d encourage him to pick up ‘Homage to Catalonia’ or ‘Coming Up for Air’, which might shed more light on the point Brand is making. Simply, voting, as it is presently practiced, has done nothing to halt the spread of newer and much more insidious, but no less destructive, forms of tyranny- completely unaccountable corporations, banks, investment institutions, covert military bodies and intelligence agencies.

Put bluntly, the NSA will keep spying on you no matter how you vote;

the US military will continue to drone strike any country or individual it sees fit- regardless of international law- no matter how you vote;

publicly-owned assets and industries will be sold off to profit-making corporations, no matter how you vote;

the banks and the investment firms will pay their executives enormous bonuses, regardless of performance, ethics or morality, no matter how you vote;

illegal settlements will continue to be built in the occupied West Bank, emboldening the most intransigent and theocratic elements in Israeli society, no matter how you vote;

Shell will continue to bully and harass the people of Erris, Co. Mayo- with the full cooperation of the Gardai and the government- no matter how you vote;

the US military will continue to use Shannon Airport on Co. Clare- a civilian airport in a neutral country- to ferry troops and equipment to any number of locations around the globe no matter how you vote.

the concentration camp- I’m sorry, but there is no other term for it- at Guantanamo Bay will be kept open and the policy of illegal detention without trial will be kept in place no matter how you vote;

America will continue to expand its already-enormous national prison complex no matter how you vote;

British Aerospace, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin will still receive huge government subsidies to build and sell weapons around the globe no matter how you vote;

None of these issues is in any way affected by how anyone votes in any way. Indeed, the government would never allow them to be placed anywhere near public decision-making. As the spray paint on the walls so often says, ‘If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal.’

Which brings me to my theological reflection on voting:

When thinking about voting through this lens, I’m always reminded of articles, blog posts and internet commentary that casts voting as a spiritual- as well as a civic- duty. American Christians in particular are very keen to have public and political influence, so voting scores very highly in their estimations.

I’ve often noticed, especially around election time, that this commitment to getting out the vote often takes the form of asking questions like ‘How should Christians vote?’ I’ve even seen the question asked as ‘How would Jesus vote?’ The answers proffered, from both the right and the left, are given as self-evident. From the left we are told that Jesus cared about justice and equality; he fed the hungry, clothed the naked and gave health care away for free. So a vote for a leftist or progressive is the obvious choice. From the right, we are reminded that Jesus was a strong ruler who valued human life above all else. He cared about Israel. And he cared about justice, so the only recourse is to choose a candidate who is pro-life, pro-Israel and in favour of the death penalty.

I’m probably not the only radical  Christian who is dismayed that the question is rarely stated as ‘Should Christians vote?’, at least in the mainstream discourse. But for the sake of this argument, I’m intrigued that the articles from right and left that seek to answer ‘how would Jesus vote?’ tend to overlook one important point:

Jesus didn’t vote. It wasn’t a statement on his part; he simply was never given the option to vote. Jesus was a poor man in a small country who lived out his life without ever having a say in the great issues of his day. He never lobbied the powers that be in Rome, never wrote to the emperor, and never traveled to Rome. He lived without any of the benefits of pluralism or democracy and his one encounter with political power was when it executed him.

And yet this extraordinary man, with only his message of the love of God for humanity, his vision of a kingdom of love, justice and righteousness, and his own ability to give love and care to whoever needed it, managed to start a revolution that changed the world. The incarnation of the Son of God in the human person of Jesus is- perhaps- the ultimate form of direct action.   

My Christian faith leads me to interpret the person of Jesus as our example of what can be achieved, regardless of power, prestige, influence… or voting. By saying what Jesus said- and to whom- as well as doing what Jesus did- and for whom he did it- we can work for the same radical, revolutionary social change that I believe is at the heart of Jesus’s vision of God and his justice.

It sure beats voting…