This article is the third installment in a series on political campaigns and public justice and originally appeared on Capital Commentary.
“The obvious starting point should be to heed the teaching and example of Jesus who we confess to be the Christ. We should do what he taught his followers to do: serve your neighbors in love, do justice, seek to live at peace with everyone, do not lord it over others but act as servants (Luke 9:23-27, 46-48; 22:24-32).” – James W. Skillen in The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction
Scotland’s recent national referendum witnessed record-setting political participation with 97% of eligible voters registered and 85% voter turnout. This level of participation is unimaginable for most of us in the United States facing the prospect of midterm elections. Predictions of voter turnout are grim. In many contests, commentators are looking at the number of voters registered for the two major parties and are already making pronouncements about whether it is wise for candidate X to adopt a more moderate tone in order to bring out more independent voters, or if that will only alienate candidates from their most-likely-to-participate base, who will then stay home on election day and spoil the narrow margin of victory in a race with a tiny turnout.
These calculations in turn catalyze activity from both sides to bring out more independent and moderately partisan voters to spoil the anticipated margin of victory for the most extreme ideologies, as well as animate mobilization of strong partisan voter bases. All the while, citizens who see themselves as politically homeless or less ideologically extreme consider sitting this one out, on the assumption that their votes don’t really count, or that the election does not matter because it’s not a presidential election year.
What would it be like if midterm election season in the United States was not viewed as a math problem to be solved? What if most citizens didn’t consider midterm elections as the equivalent of a Facebook invitation to an event they don’t want to attend, knowing all the while that if they don’t say “I’m going” or even show up, no one will really notice? What if, instead, even the most local campaigns and elections were seen as one concrete expression of what Skillen mentions -- the opportunity to seek to live at peace with everyone?
In 1 Timothy 2: 1 – 2, the apostle Paul echoes the biblical counsel to live at peace in a passage that provides a lens through which to view political campaigns and election seasons. He says: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”
Note the construction of Paul’s sentence: Paul urges us to present before God “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for everyone” – calling out specifically those in authority regardless of who they are. But the most important element of this sentence comes next and tells us what purpose this serves. As citizens under the authority of elected and appointed government officials, the direction of our prayer and, by implication, our political participation, is focused on our ability as God’s body to live a quiet and peaceable life within political communities.
Seeking peace in this way means that Christians and Christian organizations are to continue to tangibly express concern for the well-being of our neighbors in all the acts of service that are the practical outworking of a quiet and peaceable life. It also means that as citizens we address questions of public justice in ways that show genuine concern for our neighbors, even those with whom we have deep differences. Seeking the peace in election season becomes characterized by voters who participate enthusiastically out of the desire to see their political communities become increasingly conformed to public justice.
This requires real work. We must make the time to ask ourselves questions today that yield a vision of public justice for our time and our political communities. One recent way I’ve seen this question-and-answer conversation work its way into practical reality is at the local level where citizens have engaged deeply in questions about what policies—and, by extension, which candidates—will be best suited to promote public justice for education. This type of engagement always keeps in mind that children’s educational needs and parents’ desires for supporting those needs are diverse. We cannot answer these questions thinking only about our own children or those we know, but about every child and family. In an area where campaign rhetoric has often fallen into well-worn grooves, we should promote policies and support candidates that uphold authentic diversity.
We should not accept a reality where a handful of partisans will determine the terms of peace for everyone, but we do so by opting out of the political questions of our day, however flawed our electoral system currently is. Seeking to live at peace with everyone requires acceptance of authentic diversity and a commitment to actively work for a political community that upholds that authentic diversity, rather than diminish it. Seeking to live at peace with everyone isn’t just about how we talk or how we live lives of service, it is about how and why we participate as citizens in shared political communities guided by the norm of public justice. It is an invitation that demands a response.
- Stephanie Summers is the Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Public Justice