I received the email below from my mother-in-law, Florence, who attends the Vineyard Church of Columbus, Ohio. I was inspired by this pastor’s perspective on how believers can approach voting with a unique perspective. I especially appreciated his thoughtful example working through the issue of illegal immigration. Voting is not black and white for anyone, regardless of faith, and I’m glad to hear this challenge to think before voting and to use the Bible as a springboard.
Voting as a Resident Alien
Congregational Email – October 2008
In the upcoming election, the question that ought to be on the hearts of all Christian believers is, “How should I approach my voting decision?” About 20 years ago, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon wrote a book provocatively titled, Resident Aliens. Resident Aliens had to do with the way that we Christians understand our fundamental identity and our calling in contemporary America. The idea behind this title, Resident Aliens, came from a quote from the Apostle Paul: “But our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20-21). In other words, our primary identity is not as Ohioans or Americans. We Christians are, first and foremost, citizens of the kingdom of God.
Hauerwas and Willimon argue that we must regain our vision of being a distinct community with a calling to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ. Christians need to be different than people around us and have a distinctive way of looking at issues that affect our society.
Wearing Bible Spectacles
What is the peculiar way that we Christians should look at the issues affecting the upcoming election? John Calvin, the great Protestant Reformer and author of The Institutes of Christian Religion, said that we Christians look at the world through “Bible spectacles.” In other words, everyone looks at life through a set of lenses based upon our culture, our life experiences, our self-interests, etc. Calvin suggested that for the Christian, the Bible serves as the God-given set of lenses profoundly shaping our vision of life.
So what does this mean for the upcoming election?
Inadequate Bases for Voting
There are many inadequate bases upon which the majority of Americans (including Christians) vote. For example:
- Voting by Heritage – My parents always voted Republican or Democrat, therefore, I will vote as they did.
- Voting by Tribe – My tribe (white suburbanites, black city dwellers, evangelicals, Roman Catholics, etc.) always votes a certain way, so I will vote that way.
- Voting by Voter Guides – Virtually all voting guides (including “Christian” ones) are by their selection of the issues designed to push the voter towards a certain candidate.
- Voting by Campaign Advertising – Guess who the campaign advertiser wants you to vote for?
- Voting by Media Interpretation – Do you think that CNN, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, or Michael Moore are wearing Bible spectacles as they interpret issues and candidates?
- Voting by Purely Secular Concerns – Secular concerns may include cost-benefit calculations, security concerns, pandering to fears and prejudices, appeals to self-interests, etc.
Most of these things have nothing to do with looking at life through Biblical lenses.
The Limits of Biblical Thinking
Just because we read the Bible doesn’t mean that we will all arrive at the same conclusion. If we did, we wouldn’t have hundreds and thousands of different denominations. And just because we all read the Bible doesn’t mean we will all share the same political viewpoints. Why is that?
- Because we can’t point to any particular verse in the Bible that plainly tells us to vote Democrat or Republican.
- Because though the Bible is infallible, our interpretation of the Bible is not infallible. And our application of the Bible to contemporary issues is certainly not going to be infallible.
- Because reasonable Christians may differ on the prioritization of items upon which the Bible speaks.
And even when we agree on the specific issues on every Christian’s agenda (poverty, war, abortion, religious freedom, etc.) reasonable Christians may very much disagree on the best way to tackle these issues. In other words, we may agree with each other on the principles, but reasonably differ with each other on how to apply our principles.
Beginning with the Bible
My concern as a Christian pastor is to disciple our church to begin with the Bible in all of our thinking. While we may differ on working out the Bible into such complex issues as voting, I would be overjoyed to discover that members of Vineyard Columbus at least began with the Bible in thinking about voting.
Let me apply this to one real world issue, illegal immigration. Recently the Columbus Dispatch ran a series of articles on illegal immigration. Their secular analysis focused exclusively upon security concerns for Americans, economics (Do immigrants take jobs away from Americans, or simply take jobs that Americans would not take? Are illegal immigrants a burden on the American taxpayer, or do they pay back more in tax money and in unclaimed Social Security than they put in?), and issues of crime (are illegal immigrants more or less dangerous than American citizens?). Arguments for and against these secular concerns were marshaled.
While these issues are not unimportant, I would hope that attenders of Vineyard Columbus would first put on biblical spectacles when approaching the issue of illegal immigration. The biblical Christian would:
- Begin with the conviction that illegal immigrants are persons made in God’s image and are, therefore, worthy of respect and dignity. (Genesis 1:26,28).
- Appreciate the fact that many of our spiritual ancestors were themselves economic refugees. Thus Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob moved from the Promised Land on several occasions in search of food (Genesis 12:10; 26:1; 41:57; 42:6; 43:1-7). The story of Ruth is the story of an immigrant who continually crossed national borders in search of food. Other spiritual ancestors of ours were pushed out of their homeland because of war or persecution (Joseph, Daniel, Moses, David, and the baby Jesus). So immigration because of economics, war, and asylum-seeking is not far from every Christian’s own heritage.
- Specifically apply the Second Commandment to illegal immigrants: “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).
- Care for immigrants since they had a central place in the laws and practices of ancient Israel. Israel was commanded to love immigrants because God loves immigrants. “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigners residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).
- Be hospitable according to New Testament teaching which literally means to “love the stranger” or the alien (Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9). Jesus commanded his followers to welcome people who had no social standing such as the poor, the sick, and the outsider (Luke 14:12-14).
Now none of these Bible passages answer the question about whether we should build a wall covering the whole length of the border between the United States and Mexico, or whether we ought to educate the children of illegal immigrants here in the United States in our public schools. But these biblical considerations, in my mind at least, do shape a Christian’s heart so that we are more inclined to be tolerant, welcoming, and inclusive of immigrants who come to America seeking work or asylum.
My bottom line appeal to you, who read this letter, is this: We Christians must look at issues facing America differently than does the rest of society. We should not be motivated primarily by partisan rhetoric, economic expediency, or ingrained voting preferences. Rather, we Christians are to look at the world through the spectacles that God has provided for us – the lenses of biblical thinking. Our citizenship in heaven ought to be more important to us than any earthly nationality. And on any specific issue, the tack we take ought to correspond with our Lord’s heart revealed in the Bible.
In this election, vote as a resident alien, someone whose loyalty is first and foremost to the kingdom of God.