The Privilege of Detachment

As this dramatic season of political contests culminates in today's election, there are those who will predicate their privilege by choosing to abstain from voting. I am unimpressed.
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Unless you live in New Jersey or New York City, where power and transportation remain severely disrupted and whole neighborhoods have become islands of ruin, life around the U.S. East Coast is returning to normal. There are still those without electricity throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions, to be sure, but many of us are getting back to our routines. We've once again tuned out the suspenseful entertainment of weather maps. Our stockpiled flashlight batteries have been stored away until we need them in December to bring Christmas toys to life.

Of course, staring for hours at The Weather Channel was never meant to be a long-term activity; it's logical and useful that we should return to our daily productivity when possible. Yet the extent to which we are able to move on from Sandy immediately implicates the privilege of doing so, even if only by virtue of geography -- and not only the privilege to move on from Sandy, but also to distract and detach ourselves from the needs of our devastated neighbors, both in the U.S. and internationally. Those of us already resuming life post-Sandy are privileged now to be able to choose how much attention we give to those still searching for traces of their lives in the flood waters and coastal sands.

It is not only in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that such privilege is revealed. As this dramatic season of political contests culminates in today's election, there are those who will predicate their privilege by choosing to abstain from voting. Whether in protest against the corruption of the electoral system (a la Nick Rynerson's article on Patheos), or in apathy and cynicism over the value of a single voice, many citizens will opt to detach themselves from the election by declining to vote.

I take particular issue with Rynerson's scriptural and theological defense of his political disengagement. Developing his argument for detachment, Rynerson overviews Christianity's stark mood swings in its relationship with political power, from Paul to Constantine, from Anabaptists to American Evangelicals. He notes Scripture passages that have been used to encourage Christians to alternately invest in or disconnect themselves from the process of civic government, and rightly distinguishes between the freedoms ensured (I would add -- or not) by American democracy and the freedoms endowed by Jesus Christ.

Ultimately Rynerson claims that politics distract Christians from the business of being the Body of Christ, and not just politics, but the political games and value wars that characterize our current political environment. We need to repent of choosing sides, he argues, and it's a fair point (although I can't agree with his desire for a political system that is "rebuilt with a Christian base that is a true representative of Jesus"; that's a bogus aspiration for the Kingdom of God, in my opinion).

Despite the breadth of his scriptural and historical argument, however, Rynerson's article glaringly fails to identify a fundamental justification for his political detachment: that he can. That he can opt out of voting and still live his life after the elections more-or-less as he lives life now, regardless of which candidates win their offices. That he can choose to abstain from voting for a variety of neatly plotted biblical, theological and ecclesial reasons, without great concern for the election's impact on his well-being.

In other words, that he has the privilege of saying, "I want to, and I can, so I will!"

Like so many other straight white able-bodied well-educated men, Rynerson does not see or account for his privilege while he makes exegetical work of the Christian's participation in modern American politics. He fails to recognize the economic, gender and racial privileges that he is invoking in his detachment from Tuesday's election.

I am unimpressed, at best, by such a display of Christian faith that implicitly touts its privilege by disengaging from a political process that -- while enormously corrupt and too obedient to corporations -- nevertheless directly impacts the least of these for whom Christians are called to care: the sick and the poor, the widow and the foreigner, the discouraged and the outcast. Those living in poverty or close to its edge cannot afford not to vote on Tuesday. Women can't afford not to vote on Tuesday. Persons of color, constantly challenged on identity and legal status, can't afford not to vote on Tuesday.

Rynerson, it appears, can afford not to vote on Tuesday. His article may be interesting and provocative in its call for Christians to leave their idolization of the American democracy -- but no matter his biblical reasoning and defense, ultimately such civic detachment reflects privileged life circumstances more than insightful theology.

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