Is Neutrality Possible during an Election?

Recently, I have reviewed a number of informal communications from Church media concerning the election. Most of the messages sound the same: do not enflame the passions aroused by the current political turbulence. We are told that it is appropriate to encourage people to vote. It is also good to talk to our children about filling out a ballot and carrying out our civic duty. We should consider the candidates’ positions on Church values while maintaining the freedom to vote by our conscience.

I consider the discouragement from pouring fuel on the flames of passion to be wise. Most people I know suffer from mild-to-severe cases of pandemic fatigue. More than a few are quite tired of the political bickering. It seems like political junkies simply don’t understand, or perhaps don’t respect the fact that most Americans aren’t on fire about the details of this or that politician or party.

That said, no amount of detachment from formal and informal political debate can conceal the fact that Americans are hurting. We all know that many have lost their jobs and have depended on emergency assistance to pay bills. I’m a bit alarmed by the number of homes in my own neighborhood that are suddenly for sale. The local food banks are overwhelmed by demand and continue to appeal for help. The Black community has had enough of unjust violence and living in fear. There seems to be no end to the number of people who are hurting and crying aloud for justice and assistance.

Protests Over Rigged Election in Belarus

One of the appeals for justice is happening quite far from American shores. In Belarus, protesters have gathered daily to demand accountability from the administration of President Lukashenko on his supposed landslide election victory in August. The protesters and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Lukashenko’s election opponent, claim that he rigged the election. Tikhanovskaya fled the country. Lukashenko responded to the protest with violence. Sordid reports of police brutality and inhumane torture come from Minsk. Lukashenko has secured the support of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Americans who associate Putin with election interference are missing the larger story. Putin simply removes his opposition, often by poison. Russia is supporting Belarus by placing Tikhanovskaya on their wanted list.

Democratic Injustice – an International Problem

The story of Belarus is unpleasant and it feels un-American. It would be easy, and quite American, to just ignore it, and write it off as another instance of the abuse of power in a post-Soviet dictatorship. To do so would be the equivalent of muting the voices crying out for assistance and justice in our own midst. These are not national crises, but international. And if we say that it’s impossible for this to happen in America, well, who knew that we would be in month eight of a global pandemic that brings the most powerful empires to their knees?

Christian Response: Prayer and fasting

There is a second lesson coming from Belarus that warrants Christian reflection. Belarus is a multireligious country, with Orthodoxy in a solid majority, followed by a sizable Catholic population. For the most part, the Orthodox Church leaders have responded to the crisis by calling for faithful to remain neutral. The new leader of the Church in Belarus, Metropolitan Veniamin, called upon the faithful to pray and fast without enflaming the passions that are essentially setting the country on fire.

There may be some wisdom in Veniamin’s appeals. It’s not all that different from the messages I’m receiving that encourage me to vote according to my conscience, but ask me to refrain from contributing to the polemical warfare raging here. Veniamin’s message is also consistent with the Russian Church’s social teaching. While the faithful are certainly encouraged to be involved in political life, people should be careful about taking a side. The Orthodox Churches of the post-Soviet world continue to bear the scars of exploitation by the Soviet state. The wounds have healed, but the memory of exploitation is fresh. Taking a side can put the Church and her faithful in the crosshairs of a vengeful regime.

I’m starting to think, though, that the Orthodox need to rethink what it means to be neutral. How can we stand to the side and ignore the cries of those who are beyond the point of no return? Is there a way to demonstrate solidarity with the people without enflaming the passions of the polemics? Or are we wrong about the passions – is this the time for the theologians to get upset, to paraphrase the ever-memorable James Cone?

Speaking within my own Orthodox tradition, I agree with Metropolitan Veniamin’s call for the faithful to pray and fast. This appeal is rooted in the prophets, who called upon God’s holy people to fast during humankind’s most ugly moments. The problem is not that prayer and fasting are tokens of neutrality – it’s that they’re not enough on their own.

Christian Response: Liturgy in the Public Sphere

The current situation evokes the image of God rejecting the liturgical offerings of Israel in the prophets. It is as if the liturgical offerings were a living organism with no heart – the heart would be present only if those who confessed and praised the living God would honor their covenant with God. Care for the widow and the orphan. Welcome the alien and stranger. House the homeless. Feed the hungry.

Some Christians avoid connecting this ministry to the liturgical life of the Church. Even respected theologians bristled at inscribing social justice on Liturgy, to avoid reducing Liturgy to this or that cause or agenda.

In the grammar of the anglophone Orthodox tradition, Liturgy is the enactment of rituals that have been handed down to citizens of God’s kingdom for generations. It is normal to venerate the divine image, to exchange the holy kiss, to offer praise, to confess Chalcedonian Christology, to be still before the awesome judgment seat of Christ.

What is required to extend this normative liturgy to the life of the public sphere? To revere the divine image in the protesters gathered in city centers? To extend the sign of peace to the neighbor whose sign promotes a candidate we dislike? To look up and see the humiliated unemployed who are fed by the food pantry? Is it liturgical to stand in solidarity with the millions who shout out their grievances, even when we cannot sympathize with them? In a time when many of our parish spaces are empty and largely unoccupied, would converting them into temporary shelters, food pantries, and places where children who can’t go to school could be tutored in-person with physical distancing?

It would seem that these acts belong to the field of social justice and cannot be described as liturgical. But in these times when a virus turns all societal norms upside down, perhaps we are learning the real meaning of liturgy anew – to serve and to love those among us who call upon the Just One to enfold us into God’s reign.

I don’t know if my intuition about celebrating liturgy in the public sphere is right. I do know that Christians have a ministry to engage in the public sphere. It begins by coming and standing together with the suffering. The next step is to be christ, an anointed one, in these acts of solidarity. Prayer and fasting is good, and is desperately needed in such times. Showing up for liturgy in the public sphere must accompany it.    

One comment

  1. Well, “neutrality” begs to be defined towards/against something/someone. I suspect most people would typically interpret it to mean vis-a-vis candidates and parties.

    But I believe anarcho-pacifists (Dorothy Day would come to mind; I am not one, just to be clear) would, while refusing to vote, be anything but neutral about the nature of our polity and the contrary witness of the Gospel.

    I just would not like that to be elided in discussions of what neutrality is.

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