To Vote or Not to Vote (Part One)

“I think Jesus would have a really hard time voting in America today.” — Anonymous [still voted anyway]

Though elections were a week ago, I still want to discuss something I’ve thought about on-and-off for the last 25-30 months. In a way, discussing whether Christians should vote seems pretty anachronistic in this day and age. 50 or 60 years ago, suggesting Christians stay out of politics would probably not have been a very controversial position. Today, post- Christian Coalition and Moral Majority, this seems a little less popular. I still haven’t made my mind up on this issue either: like the anonymous friend quoted above, I have in the past been loathe to vote and yet done it anyway (Obama, Nov. ’08). This time around I’m not going to tell you whether I did or didn’t, and let you figure it out from reading my pro/con arguments below.

Certain presuppositions: I’m starting from the viewpoint of Christian anarchism, or “Christarchy” if you’re Greg Boyd, and I’m not willing to defend this at the moment. What this means, in this particular context, is roughly this: given that Christianity is about non-power, about solidarity with the marginalized, about opposing the principalities of this world; given that the state is impositional, hierarchical, primarily concerned with consolidating power, and is itself one of the chief principalities of this world; therefore, there can be no relation between Christian & state than that, fundamentally, of conflict. So the “standard” anarchist position, whether confrontational (e.g. Ellul) or quietist (e.g. Eller), almost always recommends not voting. Let’s consider this first.

The most generalized argument against voting is that doing so gives credence to a corrupt, ridiculous game that we play out every few years. Elections — and the ever-lengthening electoral process — are both fetishized & ritualized in ways I want no part in; this I wouldn’t dispute even if I did ultimately vote. I am unsure how any Christian can justify the lying, slandering, gossiping, backstabbing, and greedyass money-grubbing that are part and parcel of all elections. Opting out of this mudpit is simply conceding defeat, plain and simple (see: Russ Feingold). The thing is, virtually everyone admits to all this. The baffling thing is that believers see all this and still decide to participate (a similar paradox attends capitalism itself). It’s not just the process; the outcome, regardless, offers even bleaker options. It is absolutely guaranteed that whatever politicos gain/hold power, violence will be a key, if unspoken, plank in the party platform. It’s true that our present options in America are especially bleak, but our sordid past provides all sorts of examples of warmongers & imperialists from every party and affiliation.

Secondly, non-participation holds enormous symbolic weight. This, in two key ways: politically and theologically. In the former, abstention is a public, visible gesture of the church’s separation from the worldly powers — a distinct people set apart. It’s part of the rejection of nationalism and patriotism (“In Christ there is neither…”); we are not a) citizens of this world, let alone b) of this particular country. As aliens in this land, not voting is a key reminder that this world is not our home — don’t get too attached: to its possession, to its games of power, to its leaders, to its ways of relating to each other. Our approach (and this is just a teaser for another whole essay) ought to be that of missionaries: global missions as paradigm for modes of anarchist being. The error is in thinking that because some government has granted us the legal ability to vote that we then should exercise that option (is/ought fallacy). I mentioned the theological symbolism too. The idea, and I take this to be Eller’s chief reason for not voting, is that it’s akin to a spiritual discipline in which we remind ourselves, as a body, that what the world does is really of no concern to us. Ignore them. “Render unto Caesar” is not simply about taxes: render emotionally and intellectually what is Caesar’s. Stop pretending that true religion is in any way whatsoever dependant on who’s in the White House. It simply does not affect our mission: do good, love mercy, walk humbly with our God; care for the widows, outcasts, poor, downtrodden, the least among us. Your focus is all wrong if you think a 35% tax rate will hinder your chances to live out your faith more than a 25% tax rate will.

[Part Two forthcoming]

An Idiotarian Without Imagination

Little Green Footballs named Glenn Beck their Idiotarian-of-the-Year for 2009, which is a fitting, if obvious, selection. It made me wonder about the Idiotarian-of-the-Decade. My nemesis, G. Walker Bush, is perhaps a too-easy candidate. I’ve ultimately decided that such a ignominious award should go to Francis Fukuyama.

Fukuyama is best known for “The End of History,” a 1989 paper based on a lecture that eventually became a full-length book. 20 years after the fact, I’m calling Fukuyama out because the 2000’s saw the clearest implementation of policy based on Fukuyama’s theories, and, simultaneously, the total refutation of these same moronic theories.

Big events in 1989 inspired small ideas in Fukuyama’s head. As you recall, these were the times when the Berlin Wall fell, when the USSR broke up, when the Cold War ostensibly ended. For Fukuyama, these events represented the total triumph of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Politically speaking, mankind was now at the end of our ideological evolution having successfully reached our “final form of government.” Like all good Modernists, Fukuyama craved a “homogenous state” characterized by “easy access to VCRs and stereos.” It’s very revealing that he considers consumerism to be a hallmark of an advanced society, and not, for example, easy access to healthcare or employment.

Fukuyama is not as well-known in the mainstream as, say, Milton Friedman (or Thomas Friedman for that matter), but he had a profound influence on neo-conservative ideology. If we are literally living at the end of history, if everything from here on out are merely trifling footnotes, what do we make of those who are resisting this history? How do we handle the “various provinces of human civilization” who need to be “brought up to the level of its most advanced outposts?” You wouldn’t be far off if you guessed perpetual war to secure perpetual peace in order that free economies might ineluctably spread to every corner of the globe. In Fukuyama’s old-fashioned metanarrative, those with the wrong ideology are literally backward-looking people, old-fashioned savages stuck in another age. You can justify all sorts of brutal behavior in the name of Progress. Hence the reason, in part, that nuking the shit out of the Japanese was legitimate: for Fukuyama, the nukes literally bombed ideology (not simply, or even primarily, people) so as to permanently erase fascist ideology from their culture. (more…)

World Film Festival of Bangkok

The 7th annual World Film Festival of Bangkok kicked off a week ago, but for a variety of reasons I’ve only managed to see three movies so far, including two today. The three films have also delivered three odd coincidences, which I’ll detail as we go along. As usual, I’ll use (perhaps with slight editing) the film synopses that the festival organizers wrote themselves.

Home / (trailer)

Country: Switzerland
Director: Ursula Meier
Length: 98 mins.
Rating: A-

Synopsis:
“A family’s peaceful existence is threatened when a busy highway is opened only meters away from their isolated house in the middle of nowhere. Refusing to move, Marthe, Michel and their three children find innovative ways to adapt to their new environment. They continue their happy-go-lucky routine despite the daily stress of hundreds of noisy speeding cars. But suspicions about the highway’s unknown long-term dangers cause family tension.”

I’m not sure that synopsis quite captures what a nightmarish film this ends up as. As you might imagine, the bucolic environment is utterly shattered by the sudden intrusion of overwhelming noise pollution. Home essentially chronicles one close-knit family’s descent into insanity as they attempt to cope with, then block out, the deafening highway roar. The breakdowns are varied, but with the inexorable march of automobiles comes each individual’s inexorable march toward madness. Viewers are also taken along this ride, since the noise pollution from the highway contaminates the theater as well (albeit to a lesser extent). Meier does an excellent job transitioning between each of the film’s three sections (normal/loud/quiet, respectively), aided by great cinematography – including two memorable tracking shots. In its depiction of communal isolation, Home reminded me a lot of Dogtooth, also a quiet horror flick. In psychology there’s a concept known as “group polarization” that highlights the radicalizing effects of a group (both peculiar families in these cases). Crazy-pushes-crazy until (as in both films) something finally snaps, creating unpleasant scenarios but fantastic movie-going experiences.

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The Least of These: Buenos Aires (Pt. 1)

It won’t take long visiting Buenos Aires to discover that not everyone’s living large in this “Paris of the South,” even if you’re comfortably sequestered in a posh condo in Palermo or a swanky hotel in Puerto Madero. Argentina’s unemployment rate is currently lower than that of the United States, but this country’s own painful Great Depression still haunts a place that is now mercifully on the rebound. Less than eight years ago the employment rate was up to 25%, with nearly 2/3rds of the population living below the poverty line. Like too many other developing countries, their economic bust was the result of free-market reforms perpetrated, in part, by the monetary gangsters at the IMF.

As we close out this decade, the reminders of those horrid depression years are still everywhere, but never more obviously than at 8 or 9pm every night, on every street, all across Buenos Aires. This is when the cartoneros come out: they’re recyclers, using Argentine ingenuity to manage the budget crunch by sorting the day’s trash and selling it to factories on the outskirts of the capital. Most of them travel to the city centers via El Cartonero, a special train that transports the cartoneros, their carts, and that night’s haul. The train is one of many rights the increasingly-organized group have won for themselves, but it’s still not a luxury. The trip is obviously crowded, dirty, and smelly, with no lights and no seats. It leaves early evening and returns to the city edges in the early morning, when the cartoneros unload and sell off their collection of bottles and cardboard. A good night’s work can bring in AR$15, or about US$4, a day. This is roughly equivalent to the salary of a public elementary school teacher, but is barely enough for a meal of empanadas from a downtown confiteria.
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Anarcho-Bokononism

Ok, there’s no such thing as anarcho-Bokononism. But Bokononism, the fictional true religion created by Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle, does have some interesting similarities with Christian anarchism. Perhaps the most obvious is the Bokononist repudiation of granfalloons, or false communities. A “textbook example” of a granfalloon (or false karass) is the association of Hoosiers, or people who feel that hailing from Indiana somehow bonds them in some meaningful way. Writ larger, there’s strong anti-nationalism here for “any nation, anytime, anywhere” is also a granfalloon. I think Christianity at its best can work as a true karass, but we ignore this when, say, we bomb fellow Iraqi Christians because of our misplaced trust in the granfalloon known as America.

There’s also some explicit Bokononist verses that I find very interesting. The first is from an unspecified chapter of The Books of Bokonon: “The words were a paraphrase of the suggestion by Jesus: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.”

Bokonon’s paraphrase was this:
“Pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar doesn’t have the slightest idea of what’s really going on.”

Which seems to me a great anarchist rendering of Matthew 22:21. I’m also pretty partial to this “calypso” which is apocryphally attributed to Bokonon but doesn’t appear in The Books of Bokonon:

So I said good-bye to government,
And I have my reason:
That a really good religion
Is a form of treason.

Today’s Kierkegaardian either/or for you: Legitimize the state, dilute our religion, and taste power… or oppose the state, keep our religion, and become marginalized.

Terrorism & Justice

If just one caucasian Christian kills others because of radical ideology, it’s called “murder.”

If just one caucasian anti-Semite kills others because of radical ideology, it’s called “murder.”

If just one black Muslim kills others because of radical ideology, it’s called “terrorism.”

But if many Muslims kill others because of radical ideology, it’s called “an act of war.”

Institutional, systemic bias is bound to influence public opinion and policy. And if you repeatedly frame the news in certain ways, you should not be surprised when your audience takes your cues and makes them explicit (reap what you sow, etc.)

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Books Read in 2008

I tried to read a book/week again, which seems very reasonable, but fell short once again. I’m about halfway through a dozen other books, which I’ll probably just finish & count for ’09. Under each category, they’re listed in the order I read them. Incidentally, the first book I read in 2008 was The Audacity of Hope by Mister Obama. (more…)

An Open Letter to Christian Troops

An Open Letter to Christian US Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan: Who and Whose are you? An ex-Army elite powerfully describes why our culture of violence and revenge is diametrically opposed to the radical message of Jesus.

Loving the enemy neutralizes the category of enemy.Unfortunately, even with phalanxes of chaplains ready to distort and press the message of Christ into the business of war, this means that you are now part of an organization that has no reason to exist without an enemy. The ethic of the military is inscribed in the infantry phrase, “close with The Enemy and destroy him.” The ethic of Christ is inscribed in neighbor-love — love of anyone who is near, and enemy-love — the unmaking of the category of “enemy.” These two perspectives — military doctrine and the ethic of Christ — cannot be reconciled.

Christ told you to “love your enemies.” Break the cycle of enemy-making.

Yet the armed forces are based, at their very core, on the existence of an enemy to destroy. The very doctrine that governs your organization, your technology, and your methods, cannot exist without The Enemy. To accomplish that, the armed forces must do two things: they must devalue the lives of all who are not members of the nation, and they must set up an idol to supplant God.

This was written by Stan Goff and originally posted here — I’ve used the other link because it’s easier to read. Beyond the big picture, Goff and I seem to also share similar views of what demonic forces are — ie, structures of injustice. This view sees the satanic more as systems that perpetuate anti-Christ thought/behavior, and less as wily little ne’er-do-wells that are invisibly hopping around between us and magically prodding us toward sin. He’s also right to diagnose and critique a larger zeitgeist, since the problem is the entire politics of revenge of which the military is only one (albeit major) outworking.

Creature Fear

Here’s what some of our spiritual forefathers believed:

We do not acknowledge allegiance to any human government. We recognize but one King and Lawgiver, one Judge and Ruler of mankind. Our country is the world, our countrymen are all mankind. We love the land of our nativity only as we love all other lands. The interests and rights of American citizens are not dearer to us than those of the whole human race. Hence we can allow no appeal to patriotism to revenge any national insult or injury…

Excerpt from the “Declaration of Sentiments Adopted by Peace Convention” (Boston, 1838).

Something to keep in mind as we close out the Olympics and approach 9/11/08.