To vote or not to vote?

As the federal election campaign grinds on, I am feeling increasingly disillusioned.

More than 7000 people gathered to walk for reconciliation. The walk began at Ecole Secondaire de l'Ile in Gatineau, Quebec, and ended aproximately 5 kilometres away at Marion Dewar Plaza in front of Ottawa City Hall. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

More than 7000 people, including many Mennonites, walk for reconciliation in the closing days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

As an Anabaptist-Mennonite and an MCC worker, I am discouraged that some of the issues that should be front and centre in this campaign are hardly being mentioned. I think of the calls to action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other issues related to the relationship of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.  I think of the needs of people who are truly poor and unable to provide adequately for their families. I think of the changing climate and the many issues related to the devastation of our natural environment.

I am also disgusted by the lies, the attack ads, the bad behaviour and the fear-mongering. Not to mention the ways that the entire parliamentary process itself has been eroded over the past years.

Why bother voting and participating in a system which falls so far short of what it should be?  What is a modern-day Anabaptist to do?

A colleague of mine has said, “Just complaining is irresponsible.”  He says to people like me, “If you think the electoral or political system needs improving, get involved.”  He has done exactly that by serving as a campaign manager for a candidate he supports.  My own father had a similar response back in the early 1980s – he ran for office in two federal elections.  Many others have made similar choices.

What a long way we’ve come since the 16th century!

Anneken Janz, a Dutch Anabaptist, was drowned on charges of sectarianism in 1539. Engraving from Martyrs Mirror; scan from Mennonite Library and Archives.

Anneken Janz, a Dutch Anabaptist, was drowned on charges of sectarianism in 1539. Engraving from Martyrs Mirror; scan from Mennonite Library and Archives.

For my Anabaptist forebears, voting, campaigning or even running for office would have been unthinkable. They knew where they stood when it came to issues of the state – far away! They saw “two kingdoms” – the church and the “world” (including the state). With some exceptions, they believed that the state, while having a God-given purpose to maintain order in society, was out of bounds for followers of Jesus. As people committed to nonresistance, they could not conceive of participating in state institutions and “bearing the sword” on its behalf. In the words of martyred Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler, they saw the state as “outside the perfection of Christ.”

To be sure, the concepts of democracy and universal suffrage were still centuries in the future from those early Anabaptists. So was the idea of the state as a vehicle for the common good.  So we can forgive those Anabaptists for their dualistic and separatist beliefs and attitudes about engaging with the state and the instruments of society. Many states were, after all, killing them!

The separatist stance of the early Anabaptists is no longer possible or even appropriate in our 21st century Canadian context – except perhaps for people like the Old Order Mennonites, who do not vote, but who also do not participate in numerous social programs, such as CPP, medicare and so on. There is integrity to their separateness.

But most of us in the Anabaptist tradition in Canada today are so enmeshed with the systems of the state and of government–indeed, we benefit enormously from those systems!–we left our traditional “two kingdom” theology behind long ago.

So where does that leave us, especially at election time?  If we don’t remove ourselves completely from the entire political process, do we dive in with wholehearted abandon? My response is no.

For me as an Anabaptist-Mennonite, it is important to retain a healthy suspicion of state institutions, including their political and electioneering processes. It is important to remember that no party has a monopoly on truth and no government will usher in the reign of God, even though I personally believe that some candidates come closer to articulating policies that reflect kingdom values. Indeed, where governments and political systems perpetrate systemic evil and egregious injustice, they must be resisted.

At the same time, as an Anabaptist-Mennonite, I believe that during election time, I have a responsibility to bring my faith convictions to the public sphere. I am responsible to use my power and privilege – and my vote! – in service to others. And I am called to take into the polling booth, my commitments about care and compassion for the poor and vulnerable; reconciliation with Indigenous people; the pursuit of justice and peace; care for God’s creation; integrity, honesty and respectfulness in public life.

In his recent address to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis stated:  “Politics . . . is an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interest in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.”

With all due respect to Michael Sattler, the pope’s words help to lift my disillusionment.

So, yes, I will vote.  I hope you will too.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

4 thoughts on “To vote or not to vote?

  1. A wonderfully ‘muddy’ topic. At least in that my Swiss Mennonite roots keep conflicting messages bouncing around in my head.

    I facilitated an education class last Sunday using the MCC election primer. It was a good class and some people were ‘upset’ with some of the statements being made by other participants. Perspectives were being shared openly. I began the class by saying that I grew up in a Menno context where this sort of discussion would never have taken place in church, nor probably yet to any degree. My comment shocked some (audible ‘huhs’) and following the class two individuals asked me the reasoning behind such Mennonite practice. After explaining the poly-phonic nature of early Anabaptists in relationship to the state and the church/state separation view of the ‘Old’ Mennonites, one person said “maybe there is something there to pursue as it doesn’t seem that the current system affects change”

    For the record – I will be voting in this upcoming election, but that ‘old mennonite’ voice still chatters.

  2. Esther, your paragraph beginning “At the same time” is thoughtfully and compellingly expressed. Thank you! My primary question is this: While we need to maintain “healthy suspicion of state institutions,” we need to go beyond cursory disclaimers such as “of course, no political party will inaugurate God’s reign of justice and peace” in order to strengthen the political process, both in governing and in elections. In doing so, we strengthen those institutions and thus prevent the eroding of full democracy along with the focus on politics in benefit primarily of old stock Canadians.

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