Rituals serve to reduce social tensions, deepen group loyalty and legitimize a group’s goals and leaders. This is as true within secular contexts as it is within religious ones. When we go through the ritual of voting next week, this is what is supposed to happen.
But when one has serious misgivings about a group’s goals, participating in a group’s ritual gets tricky. Does the ritual offer a way to register meaningful dissent? If not, it may be better not to participate.
For example, the US nation-state is committed to world control via economic and military domination. How does an anti-imperialist participate in the national voting ritual without contributing to the legitimization of the imperial agenda?
My point isn’t that it’s impossible, just that it’s difficult.
The problem goes yet deeper. The entire presidential campaign spectacle is a powerful influence in our lives, occupying our attention, conversation and thought. We end up making a big emotional investment in deciding who to vote for and a further investment in cheering those persons on. These investments inevitably shape our feelings and attitudes long after an election is over, including the opinions we hold of friends, co-workers and neighbors who vote for other candidates.
All of this raises serious concerns among a growing number of Christian congregations. Though these congregations may not often speak about the Bible’s bias against empire, most regularly repeat the slogan of the first century church, “Jesus is Lord.” Because Caesar claimed the title of “Lord,” that early Christian declaration was as much a political statement as a religious one. Most congregations today know this—or at least their pastors do.
So how do American Christians live through a campaign season and the voting ritual without loosening their loyalty to Jesus as the foremost authority in their lives?
Election Day Communion is a practice meant to help us. As stated by Mark Schloneger, one of the pastors who initiated and promotes its observance on election day, “The practice of communion (Eucharist) is an inherently political act. It is both a pledge of allegiance to Jesus and a declaration of independence from all other powers making claims on our bodies, minds and souls.”
Mennonite World Review reports that “churches across the country from almost every Christian denomination will be participating” in Election Day Communion. The ritual enables people to get out of their “political silos” and “celebrates the unity that is still possible.”
How effective is it in accomplishing these goals?
I participated in the observance of Election Day Communion in 2012. My experience was mixed.
First, on the positive side, I was glad to spend the evening with people of various political persuasions rather than only people who voted like me. It felt good and I appreciated the public call to claim our unity in Messiah Jesus and to confess how divided we are along partisan lines.
Furthermore, on an evening where the capturing of coercive power was celebrated across the land, I needed to hear again of the subversive power of self-giving love as embodied by Jesus of Nazareth on an imperial cross.
On the negative side, I experienced the observance as a stand-alone event, without any broader teaching that deconstructed and neutered the allure of partisan politics. Are we serious about our unity in Messiah Jesus, I wondered? Or are we using a religious ritual to paper-over our differences?
Furthermore, in the observance in which I participated, there was no call to repentance that went beyond our confession of harsh partisanship. I wanted the ritual to acknowledge how this group we are part of—the US nation-state—has become a scourge to so many. When we quarrel over which party should rule the US, it is alarmingly like quarreling over who should rule a drug cartel.
This year, I intend to again participate in an observance of Election Day Communion. It will be a way to open my heart to the radical and life-changing way of Jesus.
Here is a website to help you identify whether this opportunity is available near your place of residence.
By way of further preparation, I encourage you to read Chris Floyd’s recent essay, “Barrel Bomb: The Cataclysmic Close of Campaign 2016.” It too will help you get ready for the unsettling yet renewing experience of “proclaiming the Lord’s death” (1 Corinthians 11:26) on election day.