This post is part of the October Synchroblog on Voting, Or Not. Scroll to the bottom for links to other participating blogs.
The only power the state really has is the power of coercion, the power of violence. Certain kinds of emergencies make this fact obvious. Walk down the street waving a gun and pointing it at people, and you’re going to get shot. You might get a warning to drop the gun and lay down on the ground first. (Do it down my street, and you won’t have to wait for a cop to get here, but that’s another post. For today, assume there was a police officer on the corner.) We will rightly applaud the officer for preventing a mass shooting.
We would not applaud the same officer if he shot you for jaywalking, or failing to pay your property taxes. Why not?
Because those things are not emergencies. There are other measures the officer can take. You’ll get a ticket for jaywalking. You’ll get a lien on your property for failing to pay taxes. You would have to make very poor decisions to turn either of those incidents into a shooting. In non-emergency situations, you will have many opportunities to resolve your interaction with the government without violence, and that is a measure of how well-constructed our system is. But if you refuse to comply at every turn, eventually people with badges and guns will resolve the situation by force. (Which is why you say that you have to pay that parking ticket. You know in your bones that it will just get worse for you if you don’t.)
Knowing that violence is the only real power a government can wield, the American founders constructed our system with an exquisite system of checks and balances to keep that violence in check. Far more often than not, it works. And because it works so well, Americans often forget that government power is always backed by violence. And therefore, we lose sight of the link between voting and violence.
Voting decides where, when, and how governmental violence will take place. If we ask who decided to levy the property tax or make jaywalking illegal, the answer is “We did.” It will always come back to a vote, either directly (a ballot measure that created the property tax) or indirectly (we elected the city council that created the jaywalking ordinance.) If we ask who decided to shoot the madman running down the street waving a gun, the answer is, “We did.” We elected the city council; they hired the chief of police; he hired the officer that pulled the trigger, in accordance with laws we passed and policies our representatives put in place.
By the way, if we ask who turned Social Security into a destined-to-bankrupt pyramid scheme…same answer. Sorry. It always comes back to us.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t ask for that kind of responsibility. There was no application process. I was born into it, like some kind of ancient prince. In other words, the power of the vote was given to me by Providence, and like other providential circumstances, I am accountable to God for my stewardship of it.
In Romans 13, the governmental authority is called God’s servant, appointed by Him. Its purpose, Paul says, is to do good and be a terror to evildoers. Mind you, this was written under the Roman emperors–and one of them was shortly going to pervert his responsibility so thoroughly that he would cut off Paul’s head for the imaginary crime of being a Christian. If even Nero is appointed by God, then how much more is it true of you?
The authority that exists, Paul says, is ordained by God. Your voting authority is ordained by God. You have it, whether you want it or not. What will you do?
There are times when it is right to abstain. We do not think well of a police officer who responds with gun drawn to a pair of 5-year-olds arguing over a toy. He’s supposed to sit that one out. But neither do we think well of the police officer who fails to respond to a bank robbery in process. “I let them sort it out among themselves,” he says to the review board. “It looked pretty messy, and I didn’t want to get involved.” The review board will fire him for failing to do his duty, and rightly so.
You can fail in your duty also. You need a reason to cast a vote, certainly. But you also need a reason to abstain. “Meh” is not a reason; it’s a dereliction of your duty. There are many times when abstaining is leaving the bank in the hands of the robbers.
The vote is in your hands, and God put it there. Voting is a messy, complicated business. But the election is happening. You have a say in it. What will you do?
Here is the list of other writers and authors who contributed to this month’s Synchroblog. Go read them all to see what others think about voting in the elections.