The only way to speak truth to power for much of human history has been in person – face to face with the powerful ones.
Jesus’ ministry demonstrated this reality. His encounters with Pilate and with the Jewish leaders who enabled the Romans to exert their control over Palestine showed how this worked, and the Gospels record what the consequences of that confrontation were.
In the Hebrew Bible, Nathan and the prophets of several ages also had similar experiences.
In 21st-century democracies, we can speak directly, but we also have the opportunity to vote as a means of expressing truth to power.
It is a modern phenomenon, so it may seem a stretch to try to put Jesus into a hypothetical scenario. Nonetheless, I believe it may be instructive to try.
This is not about creating a state church, but about considering how our commitment to follow the teachings of Jesus should guide our political engagement.
While we shouldn’t try to draw a straight line from biblical texts to present-day policies, we can draw principles from the Bible that help form and inform the types of candidates and policies we support through our vote.
Jesus’ method of arriving at such a decision would likely be based on a set of values and observations of how each of the candidates had spoken and lived in the past.
The bottom line is I think if Jesus lived in a democracy, he would vote.
If he would vote, it would seem to follow this means he would prefer that a particular candidate/position be elected and installed as the governing party/principle.
In a democracy, the success of a particular candidate/position depends on how many people hold a similar opinion and vote for them at the proper time – namely, during an election.
The way to ensure the best candidate/position prevails is to try to persuade others of the rightness of your opinion – in other words, to become a partisan.
If so, would Jesus also be a partisan trying to persuade as many as possible to vote as he planned to vote?
This is not the same as saying, “My party right or wrong.” It is not the same as being a Yellow Dog Democrat, one who would vote for a yellow dog rather than a Republican.
Parties come and go and even shift positions over time. For example, the South becoming predominantly Republican after the passage of civil rights legislation. Partisans can morph into differing positions over time as well.
I don’t think Jesus would say the church should permanently identify itself as belonging to one party or suggest one party is the “Christian party.”
In any given election, there may be a recognizable difference between the candidates/positions, and that difference may be of moral significance.
In such a case, can we say that Jesus’ vote for one over the other and his preference that one win the election and be installed as the governing authority was a moral cause?
Richard Rohr says in his book, The Universal Christ, “There is no such thing as nonpolitical Christianity.”
Others have made similar claims and, if that is true, noticing the moral differences among candidates/positions and acting, voting, advocating accordingly would be the right thing to do.
It is possible to conceive of candidates/positions that were different, but not in any morally significant way. Matters of taste or preference could be the deciding factor between them and one could, in good conscience, vote for either one. Jesus might decide not to be a partisan in such a case.
Now that we have democratic systems, we must struggle with how to effect change in the system in which we live.
Voting, and democracy itself, is inevitably a utilitarian process. That means that the right thing to do in a particular circumstance will not be the perfect thing to do.
That raises the issue of whether Jesus would be a utilitarian in certain circumstances.
It seems to me he was quite utilitarian in Mark 2 when he told the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” Principles have their place but do not rule in every circumstance.
Speaking truth to power is a mostly rational process. Voting is only partially rational if rational at all.
Plato, for example, was skeptical that citizens in a democracy would use reason to decide how to vote. How prescient for today.
Using an election to bring about change is an imperfect but meaningful process. It involves using both rational and nonrational means of communication.
Participating in an election can have great moral significance, but the way forward is not always clear. It is not wrong to think Jesus might be right there with us as we advocate and vote.
We must deal with the reality that partisans on both sides might claim to be following Jesus into the fray. How to determine which candidates/positions most truly represent the values of Jesus is an important, but separate, concern.
How can all of us who believe we are following Jesus have conversations across the aisle? Would that make a difference?
It seems we are past trying that at the moment. Perhaps we can try in the future.
Now retired, he served previously as an Emeritus Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina, and as an Associate Professor of Family Medicine at the AnMed Health Family Medicine Residency in Anderson. At the residency, he taught medical ethics, behavioral medicine and communication skills to the physicians in training.