Does it make sense in light of Jesus’ person and work to vote with but one issue in mind? Pardon the pun, but are we wise to identify the one issue, challenge or problem and allow it to “trump” all the others?
Among some avowed Jesus-followers it has become common to identify “abortion” as one such issue. If a party or candidate supports the right of certain adults to choose termination of an unborn child, we could never vote for said party or person. The so-called “right to life” trumps all.
Among other avowed Jesus-followers, it has become common to identify care for the poor as the one issue. A party or candidate that does not prioritize care for the poor draws immediate rejection. Care for the poor trumps all.
This year another variation of this one-issue approach has presented itself. Some Jesus’ followers now say, “Anyone but her!” While others say, “Anyone but him!” Defeating the one “trumps” all. Amusingly for some that means defeating Trump trumps all.
In my mind, the question is not so much whether this approach is right. Rather, is it wise and does it align with the kingdom principles of Jesus as fully as we desire? Precisely, the question is not whether some are right in abhorring abortion on demand, or passionately insisting on prioritizing the poor, or a careful and reasoned conclusion that it would be disastrous for so and so to become President. The question, again, is whether voting with just one cause or commitment in view, whatever it may be, is wise and aligns well with the vision of kingdom reality Jesus would bring to our world, not least through people like us. My answer is, “No, it is neither wise nor does it in principle seem to offer the best alignment possibilities.” Here are several reasons.
First, there is the obvious problem of identifying the one issue. Persons of good faith and conscience invariably disagree on this. To exercise our rights and responsibilities as citizens in our country, and to do so as persons under the authority of God as revealed in Jesus, becomes just another demonstration of our divisions and differences when we rally simply and only around just one thing. This happens especially when some of us demonize others, whether by direct attack or by innuendo.
Second, I do not see Jesus responding to his culturally challenging, politically hostile, socially segmented, and religiously structured world in this way. The Roman Empire, for example, advanced a political, cultural and religious agenda that was profoundly idolatrous, brutally violent, and diametrically opposed to the Scriptures. Other Jews took strong stands accordingly. In fact, some of them were one-issue followers of the One True God of Israel. For them the one-issue was non-negotiable and could not be violated, even at the cost of their lives. But this does not seem compatible with Jesus’ way.
Furthermore, Jesus embraced a blend of the one-issues of many of the groups around him. On one hand, Jesus spoke often and openly about God’s kingdom coming, an announcement that everyone “understood” as momentous, threatening, and hopeful. But each group understood this in different ways. To some of the most rigorously faithful people, this suggested violent revolutionary overthrow of one empire for the sake of the one kingdom of God. Thus, Jesus certainly championed the one issue that fueled the hopes of generations. On the other hand, in his public and private teachings Jesus totally disavowed the most salient features of the kingdom all were expecting. He renounced violence and calls for non-resistance and reconciliation as the “face” of kingdom relationships and responses. This drew ridicule from all directions—it was either sheer madness or pathetic weakness.
To take another example, Jesus agreed with the one-issue of absolute fidelity to God and God’s Word—enough to die for it. Then, he redefined what this meant in ways that confused or angered the people who seemed to care the most about the one issue. Faithful to God? Yes, but how was this to be fleshed out? Among other ways, Jesus answered with radical welcome and reception of the most “unworthy” people of his day and then by passionate insistence upon purging the human heart of anger, lust, deceit, and many other demons that were content to feed upon a person’s inner life while that person excelled at outward conformity to “all that God had said.” Jesus’ confusing and angering responses made an unforgettable statement: Movement toward the Right Way (which he embodied) somehow countered a lifetime of personal moral and spiritual transgression; while a lifetime of diligent conformity to “the letter of the law” could be revoked by the faintest spiritual stain on the human heart. In both cases, and in several ways, Jesus advocated for multiple one-issue stances simultaneously. This suggests to me that Jesus-followers are obliged to at least attempt to follow him at this point as well.
Third, one-issue voting may be naïve and superficial in light of the nature of evil and the strategies of the Evil One. If we grant that all the one-issues we might advocate have legitimacy, that in every one we would stand for right against wrong, I would observe that the Evil One does not care and is not stymied if one of the one-issue stands prevails. The Evil One does not care if blocked on one front, so long as he advances on others. Thus, if the grievous wrongs perpetrated against millions of unborn children are blocked or curtailed, there are still the millions of hopelessly impoverished people whose lives will never be more than miserable, the millions of persons who will starve or die for lack of potable water, the millions of others forced into sex-slavery, the prospects of an Ebola outbreak, or a genocide or two. If blocked on one or two fronts, Evil advances on the others. In other words, one-issue voters may assume the one issue is so important that it “trumps” everything else. But they should not imagine they have thwarted the Evil one. They may have forever slammed shut one of a dozen wicked doors, but so long as eleven others are open it’s hard to claim much of a victory. Of course, there is victory in this—perhaps miraculous, but we must allow that it’s not as impressive as we fairly expect if indeed our one-issue is truly the one!
So where does all of this leave us? What are we to do as committed followers of Jesus, as citizens first of his realm, living to share the blessings of that realm with the whole world? I wish I could answer that with anything like the confidence some of us have in declaring what the one-issue is or must be! To begin, however, I think it important to identify and legitimize all of the one-issues that strike us as so important that we could be taempted to focus only on that one. Then, don’t. Rather, wonder prayerfully how we/I could stand with the hurting and vulnerable victims in the circumstances reflected by the one-issues. Then, we might ask, what candidate or party or platform or proposed law or legislation speaks to the conditions of most of the persons behind the issues? What vote or position or strategies can do the most good in response to the great evils at the root of the issues? How could we do the most good in alignment with the kingdom life Jesus offers?
None of us knows enough to feel confident in answering such questions alone. So we need conversation and prayer partners to help us sense what is best. We are not likely ever to get everything and everyone right. So, we need grace for one another from the God of all grace. And, even if all of us were at our very best, our efforts in themselves would not “bring the kingdom.” So, we should relax and trustingly “contribute to” and “work for” the kingdom whose final coming remains our hope at the end of the day.