By all accounts, William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist, was a faithful man.
He settled on his convictions about slavery early, eventually purified them of all half-measures such as gradualism or colonization, and then stuck to them through much persecution and threat. Garrison published his first issue of The Liberator on January 1, 1931 and didn’t miss a deadline for 35 years. He stopped publishing on December 29, 1865 only after “The object for which the Liberator was commenced—the extermination of chattel slavery—[had] been gloriously consummated.”
However, William Lloyd Garrison is unlikely to be considered a faithful voter. With the exception of 1848, Garrison refused to cast a ballot, and encouraged others to boycott the ballot box as well.
The Naaman’s Voters Guide, when it first appeared before the 2016 election, attempted to address the dilemma of HOW does one vote when one has no good choices. The answer is found in the question itself: instead of focusing on the dilemma of “for whom” to vote, you can explore other more life-giving ways of “how” to vote—in other words, “in what manner” to vote, or with what attitude, perspective, understanding, or spirit. And so the Guide advised you to vote freely, peacefully, quickly, worshipfully, and dolefully and hopefully. In these 2018 midterm elections, we are still voting with no good choices. Oh sure, one can conclude (as the intended audience for this series has ostensibly done) that Laura Kelly is a better choice for Kansas Governor than Kris Kobach. One might conclude that O’Rourke is a better choice than Cruz in Texas, Scholten over King in Iowa, and Democrats over Republicans everywhere in order to protect the Mueller investigation, provide checks and balances that are lacking on Trump, and to generally give the Republicans a “time out” to consider their souls. What we don’t have, however, is a good choice that will fix the system. The 2018 midterm election is an exercise in damage control. I agree that we must do everything we can to staunch the bleeding, but for however much you might get excited about the record number of women (256) who are running for House and Senate seats, the proto-fascist autocrats still control the valve on an open artery, and America’s unrepentant heart is feverishly gushing to a racist, sexist, and xenophobic beat. Sure, I hope you vote for a different person in 2018, but as we contemplate life in an “illiberal democracy”, we must train ourselves up in how to vote differently.
There is certainly a time component to faithfulness. God’s faithfulness “continues through all generations” (Psalm 100:5) and it “endures forever” (Psalm 117:2) but it is also “new every morning” (Lam. 3:23). We might say that it knows both chronos and kairos time. God’s faithfulness extends chronologically throughout all time--we will never out live it--but it is also there for us in the moment we need it, in the kairosmoment, in the moment of opportunity. For example, in I Corinthians 10:13, we are reassured that in the crisis of temptation, “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.”
When we think of “voting faithfully,” we think primarily of chronos time. We honor the old geezer who proclaims, “I haven’t missed a primary or general election since 1956,” never mind if he voted for a scoundrel every single time. This is similar to what we mean by a “faithful church attender.” She hasn’t missed a Sunday since the “Great Ice Storm of ’72”. Never mind whether she slept through every sermon, mouthed the words of every hymn, and couldn’t look across the pew without rehearsing old grudges—the lady was a faithful church attender. But what does kairos faithfulness look like when someone enters a church service and opens his or her Bible? What might kairos faithfulness look like when you step into the voting booth? It is possible, if we choose to perceive things differently, that William Lloyd Garrison may have been one of the most faithful voters America has ever known.
“When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself” (Heb. 6:13). The essence of God’s faithfulness is that he is true to himself. There are certainly many promises and covenants which God faithfully upholds, but every one of his promises emerged from who he is. God does what he says, because he is who he is, always, through all generations, and also each morning, in each moment. The faithful voter, regardless of whomever’s name might be printed on the ballot, always casts a ballot for his or her own self first. The faithful voter is true to himself or herself.
William Lloyd Garrison was true to his principles and convictions. He knew that he bore a greater loyalty to God than to Man. When Man contradicted God, as Senator Henry Clay did, Garrison remained true to God. Henry Clay of Kentucky was the only politician that Garrison ever seemed to believe in, but when it was revealed that Clay too was a slaveholder, Garrison never recovered. Additionally, Garrison knew that he bore a greater loyalty to the Declaration of Independence than to the US Constitution. When the Constitution with its protection of slavery contradicted the founding principle that “all men were created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain alienable rights,” Garrison remained true to Jefferson’s words.
In an era of illiberal democracy and encroaching fascism, it will be more important than ever to enter the voting booth having figured out who you are, rather than trying to figure out “how your vote is going to help make this work” or “whether your vote will lead to victory.” For example, I was talking to an old friend who told me that in the Kansas primaries he voted for Kris Kobach over and against “a perfectly suitable Brownback Republican” (my words), namely the sitting governor Jeff Colyer. His explanation was: “Because Kobach has a better chance of winning against the Democrat in the general election.” My friend was trying to understand and game the system. I wanted to ask him how “true to himself” a vote for Kobach was? Maybe he was being true to himself. Maybe he didn’t know. Maybe he thought of the Kansas primary as just a primary and missed what could have been a kairos opportunity for the spiritual discipline of examen.
The more that the US electoral system gets rigged—in tangible and intangible ways—the less your vote will have any chance to accomplish anything at all, let alone success, progress, or reform. Wendell Berry—a Kentuckian that Garrison could maybe have believed in again—has fought his entire life against the coal companies that are destroying the landscapes and communities of his beautiful home. Berry says, “Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success, namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.” Elections inevitably invoke promises of gaining the whole world. It’s not worth it if we lose our own souls.
Faithfulness also means being true to God. And so to “vote faithfully” is to vote in a manner that is true to God. There were plenty enough arguments from Trump voters in 2016 that that is exactly what they were trying to do, and plenty enough incredulous outrage that Hilary voters might also be trying to do the same. All these arguments were based on the false assumption that we had any chance in Hell of figuring it out and “getting it right.” (Elisha never explains to Naaman how best to maneuver himself when in the Temple of Rimmon. He simply says, “Go in peace.” ) We thought that we had to take all the data at hand—filtering it through years of Bible training—and arrive at a faithful decision. We forgot that God is ready to be faithful to us in the kairos moment itself. We can ask him, “For whom should I vote?” We can ask him whether we should vote in this cycle or not? Plenty of other voices, pesky eavesdroppers on your inquiry, will pipe up and say: “Of course, you should vote—and here’s why—and of course you should vote for so-and-so—and here’s why?” Learn to quiet those voices; learn to listen to God.
As long-term veterans of life in Varanasi, India, my wife and I were often quizzed by new arrivals and visitors. Invariably, they wanted to know how to respond when encountering one of the city’s many beggars. Usually, the new arrival had his or her mind already made up. Some would tell us, “According to the Bible, we should ALWAYS give to the poor and needy.” Others would say, “I’ve heard rumors that the money just gets shuttled to the Mafia; one should never give.” Some settled it according to prioritization: they were called to preach, not to give material gifts. Others developed schemes and strategies of giving food not money, or escorting the beggar to some social service. Here’s the answer that my wife and I gave them: “Err on the side of generosity. You don’t want to appear before with Jesus with the boast, ‘I’ve never once allowed myself to get ripped off.’ But more importantly—if you want to remain here long term with any degree of sanity—learn to listen to the Holy Spirit in the moment. Ask him if you should give to that particular beggar at this particular time.” The younger visitors looked at us with what we took to be wonder at our great wisdom, but I suspect it was rather fear in their eyes. “The Holy Spirit? He’s never spoken to me, and I’m not sure, given my track record, that he would deign to do so. And would he speak to me outside a Sunday morning, without my Bible open, without someone like James Dobson exegeting Scripture for me?”
We don’t know much about Garrison’s spiritual life. Certainly he repudiated contemporary church life. I recall reading that he was very faithful with his nightly family Bible reading. But did Garrison ever stop and pray, “Lord, should I vote this year?” I don’t know. As befitting an essayist, Garrison spent a lot of time reasoning out his course of action, even employing Scripture. You can read one such example here, as Garrison responds to a Letter to the Editor in 1856:
It follows logically, and as a matter of sound morality, that if ‘the American government [constitutionally] upholds the great crime of slavery,’ voting under it is wrong; and it is wrong for this among other reasons – knowing the pro-slavery compromises contained in the Constitution – we refuse to touch the ballot, stained as it is with the blood of four millions of slaves.”
And later he answers a common objection that we might hear in 2018: “But, ‘shall we leave government to be conducted wholly by men not troubled with a conscience?’ This is only to ask, ‘shall we leave the dead to bury their dead?’”
Nonetheless there seems to be an element of “calling” to Garrison’s boycott of the ballot box, and this allows us to view Garrison as attempting to be true to God in the moment. For example, he did switch things up and vote in 1848. He was immediately accused of hypocrisy by doctrinaire abolitionists, but Garrison apparently saw something in Amasa Walker, a pacifist and Free Soiler, or in their friendship as co-founders of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, that made him respond differently in that particular moment. And when other abolitionists cornered him about voting, Garrison spoke in terms of strategy: he was called to devote his energies to form people’s consciences. He didn’t think that abolitionists needed to be voters, but he did think that every voter needed to be an abolitionist.
Once more, I beg not to be misapprehended. I have always expected, I still expect, to see abolition at the ballot-box, renovating the political action of the country—dispelling the sorcery influences of party—breaking asunder the fetters of political servitude—stirring up the torpid consciences of voters—substituting anti-slavery for pro-slavery representatives in every legislative assembly—modifying and rescinding all laws solely by a change in the moral vision of the people—not by attempting to prove that it is the duty of every abolitionist to be a voter, but that it is the duty of every voter to be an abolitionist.
“It has never been a difficult matter to induce men to go to the ballot-box,” Garrison explained, “but the grand difficulty ever has been, and still is, to persuade them to carry a good conscience thither, and act as free moral agents, not as tools of party.”
Vote faithfully in 2018 by being true to yourself and true to God in the kairosmoment. If you have never taken the time to identify and list out your principles, take this opportunity to do so, even on paper. If you don’t know your own mind, or are curious about the fears and doubts which keep you from being true to your best self, then consider meeting with a spiritual director. (My wife Robynn is launching her website this very week and taking on new clients.) If you don’t know how to listen to the Holy Spirit, learn through practice. If you want a good head start, I recommend Dallas Willard’s book Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God.
Next edition of the Naaman’s Voter’s Guide for 2018: Vote Resiliently