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Saturday, November 3, 2012

Voting Redemptively

Why does it seem like neither political party or presidential candidate has talked about what they will do to address poverty this election season? Of course, their silence resembles the same lack of substantive discussion by candidates in recent memory. Unfortunately, the media has also miserably failed at raising these issues as well. For instance, there were no real questions at the debates about poverty that I can recall, except for a question about immigration and one other about equal pay for women. Other than that, nothing.

To see where the parties stand on these issues you can look up the platforms of the Republicans and the Democrats, but to be frank, I am not sure what good studying and comparing the platforms of the two major parties would do as Romney has largely ditched his party's platform, as well as his own positions he had taken during the primary season in order to get the nomination. I have been disappointed by the lack of substantive rhetoric of the campaigns regarding poor and marginalized people and for that reason, I will focus here on what has been communicated in the campaigns despite the lack of language. Actions do speak louder than words and that is even more evident during election season.

One thing that stands out to me in every election since Clinton's first run for the presidency in '92 is that the Democrats have largely abandoned much of their language and messaging which once centered on poverty. Instead, they have fully embraced a focus, if not downright obsession, with the middle class. In fact, when accused (wrongly) by Romney of gutting the work requirement for access to welfare for states, President Obama wasted absolutely no time firing back through an ad featuring Obama speaking directly to the camera (an approach used when campaigns want to speak strongest to a specific issue), and accusing the Republicans of lying (which they were).

Interestingly, the strength of his response shows he wanted nothing to do with the Republican accusation of "catering to the poor," and instead, maintained the old Republican line, now adopted by the Democrats, that help for the poor - the group that has born the brunt of the downturn in the economy - should only be given if they "work" for it (furthering the misperception that the poor are lazy). President Obama wanted to make sure everyone knew that he only favored helping the "deserving" poor, a term that resonates politically, but one that does not have any real biblical support (there is no biblical distinction between deserving and undeserving poor).

On the other hand, the Romney/Ryan campaign has not talked about the poor at all, but yet, they have attempted to look compassionate towards poor and marginalized people. In the last days of the election and even in response to specific questions like if he supports equal pay for equal work for women, Romney has tried to muddy the water by telling compassionate stories without speaking to policy specifics. The stories might be touching, but they carry no weight as to what the candidate would actually do - no policy, just a nice hallmark message. The use of smoke and mirrors usually means there is nothing of substance behind the curtains and so voters should not be fooled. Republican efforts to show compassion for the poor have been awkward at best, but in truth, they also reveal a detachment and condescension towards the poor that is stunning. Let's recall just a couple of these actions by Romney and Ryan.

First and perhaps of greatest importance in this election season, we must remember Mr. Romney's remarks at a closed door fundraiser regarding his disdain for the 47% of the electorate, notably his belief that these are people who refuse to take responsibility for their lives. Meaning, these people are mooches. Romney has been roundly excoriated for these remarks and rightly so. A candidate for higher office who writes off 47% of the population and then condemns them with the language he used seems ill-suited to be able to effectively lead them. I can't imagine effectively leading people I had so much disdain for.

But what is so striking to me the more I reflect on this is that Mr. Romney has given tens of millions to charities, much of which has gone to aid the same people he so disparages in his behind-closed-door remarks. I think this nefarious episode is important to note not because of the campaign implications, but rather, to show that simply giving tremendous amounts of money to ministries among the poor does not make a person a saint (though we in the Church love to give them plaques and seats of honor!). Giving money is a good thing, but doing so while remaining detached and unaffected personally by the lives of those who are served is hardly heroic or something to be admired. We in the Church should learn something important in this lesson: giving money does not excuse someone from needing to be in incarnational relationships among the poor as a means of liberation and sanctification.

Unfortunately, for the Republicans, there are more pictures that reveal Republican candidate attitudes towards people experiencing poverty and marginalization. It was several weeks ago that Paul Ryan stopped by for a photoop at a soup kitchen in Youngstown, OH, attempting to show his personal concern for the plight of the poor. The problem was that the ministry wasn't serving people at the time and even the dishes he washed weren't dirty. No matter, the photo op must go on regardless  if the poor or the ministry needed him to serve or not! Obviously, this laughable scene was not about concern for the poor - it was about softening the image of Ryan whose budget he put forward in past Congresses decimates important spending for services for the poor.

What is most disturbing about this whole sordid affair is that when news of the fake photo-op came out and shed a negative light on Ryan, the soup kitchen was besieged by angry calls as well as a loss of donors. Why were folks so angry at the soup kitchen? Perhaps because the soup kitchen wasn't happy to be used as a prop for the dark agenda of a wealthy, powerful politician. They told the truth about what happened and people seemed more eager to punish a ministry serving the poor than shed light a detached, selfish politician. Perhaps some were angry because Ryan's actions touch too close to home - too often our own ministry among the poor is more about projecting an image we'd like others to have of us than it is about actually serving people in need. Ryan just got caught being like us.

Another sad example from the Republican candidates occurred this past week when Romney chose to slightly change his campaign rally in Kettering, OH to a storm relief event following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. It has since been reported that the canned food asked for by the campaign to give to people affected by the hurricane - something the Red Cross has specifically NOT asked for - was actually bought by the campaign so that people could have something in their hands to bring forward and give to Romney as he accepted the food and shook peoples' hands in front of the cameras. Once again those in need are decoration for someone else's hidden agenda.

What these sad but comical events show is the fact that it is politically advantageous to show concern for the poor, but politically detrimental to adopt policies which actually benefit the poor or to even be able to connect with the poor in some real way. These are three prime examples of how the poor are little more than props for a campaign that does not seem to know how to talk about the poor at all, and certainly does not know how to relate to the needs of the poor.

Though there was a certain level of consternation aimed at the Romney campaign for how botched these efforts were, what is surprising to me is how the Obama campaign has not capitalized more than it has on these miscues. You see, except for a few mentions here and there, the Obama campaign isn't talking about the poor either, at least not substantively, though they have been helped by the President appearing as Comforter-in-Chief following Sandy. But everything in terms of messaging is focused on the middle class. In fact, in their efforts to contrast with the top-down, trickle-down wrong-headed approach by the Republicans their contrast isn't all that much contrasting. Democrats claim that instead of a top-down approach, they begin with the middle-class and build out. Why not go for the full contrast and begin with the poor? Simple, the poor are not an organized voting block.

It should be pointed out in a discussion of important symbolism during this campaign, that the Democrats did something unheard of in past national conventions. The Democrats featured a DREAM Act student - an undocumented immigrant - as a speaker at their convention in Charlotte. This was a huge step forward to humanize immigrants and their struggle, and it should be applauded. However, at the same time, when seen against the backdrop of the raids and deportations of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants during the first few years of the Obama administration - something amounting to a reign of terror for immigrant communities - this symbolism fails in comparison to the real damage done by President Obama's administration. Policies really do speak much louder than words.

Now, it must be said, even as I attempt to critique both sides for a lack of focus and specificity on the needs of the poor, these are not two campaigns whose policies will have the same impact on poor and marginalized people. Republican policies will certainly have a much more devastating impact on poor people by far, which is why they have tried harder to muddy the water and prevent us from looking closely at what they would actually do. I am not being partisan, I am being truthful. Yet, it is tiring to hear from both sides of so much concern for the middle-class and almost no mention of the poor and what can be done to ease the suffering of folks who have paid more than their fair share of misery these past few years.

Thus, this brings me to my suggestion. I want to urge you to consider something as you decide to cast your vote. I want to suggest that the role of the voter whose faith is in Christ, who seeks to follow the biblical Jesus who so incarnated himself among the poor to the extent that he claims that for those who serve the poor, who welcome the poor, who count the poor as our sisters and our brothers, that we are doing the same to him; that in approaching this election this year we use our vote for redemptive ends.

As a middle class, white, evangelical (mostly), southern male voter, I am first and foremost a citizen of God's Kingdom. And that supersedes any allegiance to any nation on this earth and certainly any political party. Therefore, as a simple measure of my stewardship, I must cast my ballot for the candidates whose policies - not just their rhetoric or their PR stunts - actually substantively benefit the poor. As a white, middle-class, evangelical (mostly) southern male voter, I have all I need and even more so. I don't need tax cuts and I don't need politicians claiming they look out for me. Sorry, I don't see anyone coming after me so I am not sure I need someone to protect me.

I am tired of so much money and so many focus groups and public relations firms trying to find out what I need. So let me save them the money and effort - as a follower of the biblical Jesus, I want to see honesty and integrity in candidates who pursue and seek to implement policies which will best reflect the values of God's Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is present when the poor are lifted up, the affluent are given opportunity to share, and the marginalized brought in. The values associated with God's Kingdom are not military triumphalism or national security or personal prosperity. The values are instead justice for those too often ignored, inclusion for those too often cast aside, protection for those who are vulnerable and courage to hold accountable those who benefit from injustice.

Unless those of us who are middle-class and take seriously our calling to follow the biblical Jesus use our vote redemptively for the sake of those who are impoverished in this country and throughout the world, and vote for candidates who commit to implement these Kingdom values as their policies, we cannot piously shake our heads at the continued suffering of others. We cannot pray for the needs of others and continue to use our vote - our political resource - for our own indulgence. We have the power November 6 to vote not for our own interests, but rather, for the interests of those who have no lobbying firms advocating for their wellbeing. We have the responsibility and even the opportunity to vote redemptively and to thus engage in our own liberation.

And November 6 can be just the beginning. We can go farther once we vote redemptively. In fact, for our vote to have lasting impact we must continue to advocate for policies that reflect the justice and righteousness of God's Kingdom and do so from a position - like Jesus - of incarnation and intimacy among the poor. Voting redemptively, engaging politically as a means of our missional calling, is a vital part of following the biblical Jesus. It is one crucial way that we can begin to change the world.