By: Caleb Bobo
In every election regardless of the year or location, someone will claim that the upcoming vote is of the utmost importance. Men and women, advocacy organizations and political action committees, will spend a large amount of money to convince their audience that they cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. While motivations may differ, the message is always the same; you must get to the polls.
Getting voters to turn out receives so much attention in the campaign-world because in the United States voting is not easy. Those wanting to vote must be proactive in deciding when and how they will get to the ballot box. Should you go before or after work? Is the polling place close enough to your job that voting over the lunch hour is an option? What if you are required to travel on Election Day? What if you are deployed? What happens if public transit is running late and you no longer have the time to wait in line? And unfortunately, getting to the polls is only half the battle. Under the banner of “election integrity,” state legislatures across the U.S. have instituted new requirements that make accessing a ballot more difficult, especially for the poor, the elderly and people of color.
Even if one is able to get to the polls and has supplied the necessary documentation to vote, they must still wrestle with the options listed before them. Today, politicians are much more partisan, and within America’s two-party system, options are scarce. Ballot initiatives about things like taxation, bond issues, and local improvement projects are never clear-cut and often have good arguments on both sides. So when there is no perfect choice, how should you vote? Should you choose the lesser of two evils? Should you vote based on who or what has been endorsed by your preferred political party?
None of the aforementioned questions come with an easy answer leading to confusion and anguish. Often times, doing one’s civic duty goes from a patriotic form of participation, to work. And in a time when jobs and family obligations take up a supermajority of a person’s life, few have the time, much less energy, for more work, especially within an institution as messy as contemporary American politics.
But work within messy systems is an idea that I think the Bible would endorse. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does not call on His people to be passive, but to move, to act and to live on behalf of His will, even during times of bondage, slavery, and displacement.
Around 600 BC, the prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to the people of Israel who had recently been exiled to Babylon. Instead of telling Israel to retreat, Jeremiah called on the men and women of God to act. He said to build homes, plant gardens, marry and start families. And then the prophet says, “…do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the City where I have sent you into exile…for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:6-7 ESV). God, through Jeremiah, is saying “seek” or go after, the good of where you live even when it is hard, even when you are only there temporarily, even when you do not like those in charge, because when your City is strong, so will be the people of God.
The New King James Version, the New International Version and the English Standard Version of the Bible all use the word “seek” in verse 7, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “to search for” or “to try and find.” To some, that may sound a bit passive. But in place of the word “seek,” the New Living Translation uses the word “work” [“…work for the peace and prosperity of the City where I have sent you into exile…” ~Jeremiah 29:7 NLT]. In other words, God is not calling for passivity. Instead, He is telling Israel, and ultimately us, to work.
Today, seeking the welfare of one’s city can and should take many forms. For some, it may look like volunteering in a youth mentorship program. For others, it could mean donating to the local soup kitchen or homeless shelter. It may also include teaching financial literacy classes in the local prison, participating in civic conversations about racial/economic injustice or many other things. It is critical that the work takes multiple forms because the word “welfare” used in modern English translations of the Bible comes from the holistic, Hebrew word “shalom.” Shalom means completeness, flourishing, happiness and safety. It takes intentionality, relationship, love, and compassion. Above all else, it takes work.
I would submit that voting should be an integral part of shalom-seeking. Getting to the polls, meeting the necessary requirements to obtain a ballot and wrestling through the candidates/issues takes a lot of effort. The decisions made at the polls control how we will educate our children, care for the elderly, create networks of transportation and much, much more. In other words, the work displayed at the polls ultimately determines how communities seek their welfare. Each and every time those decisions are made, no matter if it is for a city’s planning commission or the Presidency, the people of God ought to participate, for in our community’s welfare will we too find our own.
Caleb Bobo holds a Master of Public Administration from Saint Louis University and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science & African/African-American Studies from the University of Kansas.