by Nabil Habibi
After terrible years that have brought on economic downfall, the Beirut explosion, and increasing national instability, the Lebanese parliamentary elections this Sunday are of massive importance. Will there be a renewal of trust for traditional ruling parties that have led Lebanon into this malaise? Will opposition movements and individuals manage to win seats? What will happen to the country after the elections when the excitement of democratic involvement wears off? It’s hard to tell in a country that teeters between expectation of upheaval and disillusionment in the corrupt systems. And this has a lot of Christians thinking about how to approach these elections (or any elections) faithfully.
Last Thursday I was on a weekly morning Christian radio show to answer theological and biblical questions. The host asked me about the Christian duty to participate in the elections. I chose my words carefully (as I do now for this blog). My response was the following: I will personally vote in the elections. I will vote for secular opposition movements in hope for justice and change. But, and it is a big “but,” there is NO biblical or theological mandate for Christians to take part in national elections.
The radio host pushed back. Doubtless she was surprised by my answer. She must have expected that, given my history of political activism, I would go on a long and enthusiastic ramble about the duty of good Christian citizens to vote for change. We grew up in the same Lebanese Evangelical circles where the prevailing view, by far, is that a Christian is to be a good citizen, and part of being a good citizen is voting in elections.
Let me be very clear. I think the current ruling regime has behaved in a criminal fashion against the people of this country, Lebanese,refugees, and other foreigners alike. I strongly believe they should be voted out of power. However, I realize that this is not the mandate for Christians; there is a rich biblical and historical tradition compelling Christians to opt out of voting or participating in the messiness of political life of their countries of residence. Though I don’t adhere to this position I certainly validate it.
Our scriptures consistently affirm that we belong to a new Kingdom, one that transcends political borders and divisions. Our citizenship is in heaven. Indeed, certain parts of the New Testament tradition even call for us to accept current rulers and pray for them as we seek to enact change through faithful witness and living to the gospel rather than direct political engagement (1 Peter 2:13-17 is a case in point).
That is not by any means the only reaction to empire. I have argued before on this platform that the New Testament offers a spectrum of reactions to the public sphere. And choosing to abstain from engagement with political life is a political stance in itself! It is a viable biblical stand to take. We are not being faithful to our scriptures if we tell our congregations that our biblical duty is to vote.
Our biblical duty is clearly to be faithful to the gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ. God has started the new creation in Christ. God is doing something new in this world, uniting heaven and earth to himself in Christ. We join in this marvelous divine plan as a church. We seek justice, love mercy, and live in service as a feet-washing community to each other and the world.
How we do that can vary among individuals, faith communities, and situations. I choose to seek justice through voting. You might choose to seek justice through acts of mercy in the local community. The two are not mutually exclusive nor does one hold privilege over the other. The key to it all is faithfulness to the gospel. Do my actions, and our actions, further the reach of the Kingdom? Do they glorify God? We have to wrestle with these questions as a community and individual travelers on the road of faith.
I want to add here that beyond the general theological complexities of the matter, different democratic/electoral systems bring different sets of theological questions. Hence, it’s not only a matter of varying theological positions but also varying systems (and political moments) that we must discern when choosing actions (or inactions). I may be compelled to vote in one time or place but then refrain from a voting at another time. Theology in practice always demands degrees of fluidity, and it’s good to regularly evaluate our theological positions and “vote for change” when inspired to do so.
Does your conscience convict you to not vote? That’s fine. There is a rich Christian tradition which across the ages has chosen to retreat from engaging with/in corrupt political systems and to practice church in humility and mercy to all parties. Parts of the Anabaptist tradition is a case in point. (Read a contemporary blog defending this view here). Does your conscience compel you to vote? Wonderful! There is a rich Christian tradition which across the ages has chosen to engage in local politics to fight for the marginalized and the oppressed. I mention the famous example of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) who headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for 20 years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
How then shall we approach the important Lebanese elections as a faith community?
Let us know before, during, and after the elections that Jesus is Lord.
Let us take care that our political philosophies, whether leading us towards direct engagement or conscious disengagement, be biased towards the poor, the refugee, and the oppressed, and not biased towards power or money or the accumulation of gains in a corrupted system.
Let us be wary of dressing our political decisions with biblical and theological certainties. A faithful Christian can vote. A faithful Christian can also abstain from voting. Our biblical and theological tradition is a big house with room for both.
But in all places and times, a faithful follower of the way of Christ chooses justice and mercy. It’s the truth that guides us on election day and every day.
Lord, have mercy over Lebanon and its people – Lebanese, refugees, and foreign workers.
Lord, strengthen your church so that in all that we say and do, we be the hands and feet of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit according to the perfect love of the Father in this broken and tired world.
Lord, have mercy.
Nabil Habibi is a lecturer in New Testament Studies at ABTS, and is a political activist with Lebanese secular opposition movements.