Bartleby, Joshua, and the 2016 Elections


This year, the US and the Philippines are both holding presidential elections.

In 10th grade in High School (I think), we read “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” by Herman Melville. We didn’t really understand what this short story meant. I am comforted by the fact that there is no consensus on one single meaning for the story. In it, a scrivener, a copyist named Bartleby, decided to reject doing what is required of him in employment. His response to all requests for labor was “I would prefer not to.” For weeks, perhaps months, after, my friends would find opportunities to say, “I would prefer not to.”

I feel that with the political landscape right now. As a missionary in the Philippines, I cannot vote in Philippine elections. The rest of my family are dual citizens, so they can. But for me, the lack of ability to vote does not bother me— I would prefer not to.

In US elections my feelings are less ambivalent. I voted for years… usually for the candidate of one political party. The electoral system appears to push everything toward a two party system. Each election I have become more dissatisfied with my own party, without finding any charms in the other party. As a moderate conservative (in the American political spectrum…. or possibly a conservative moderate) I had found a home among the Republicans and not the Democrats. I briefly dabbled with the Libertarians but then decided that they were wrong practically… and eventually decided that they were also wrong philosophically. Over time, the Republicans have seemed to become more out of line with my beliefs, while the Democrats remain as far away as ever.

So in recent years I have not voted. In the Presidential elections four years ago, I did not vote. I won’t be this year either. There is no one I could vote for with clear conscience. I know this because it happened before.

Many years ago, former Colonel Oliver North ran for the Senate out of Virginia. He was running against Chuck Robb. I had problems with North. His popularity came from “sticking it to the Democrats” during the Iran-Contra hearings back in the 1980s. He supported Ronald Reagan, making him popular with Conservatives. However, ultimately, he had behaved in a manner that was criminal, and yet appeared to be proud of it. He expressed himself as a man of deep Christian faith, while proud to act in ways that appeared to be disctinctly non-Christian. This concerned me as well. On rare occasions one’s faith may serve as justification for civil disobedience to the law of the land… but it should not justify that which is both illegal and morally odious. In the end, I voted for North because I did not like Chuck Robb. I have felt bad for that for decades later. I determined never again to vote for someone because “the other guy is worse.”

Many of my politically-driven Evangelical friends are unhappy when they hear that I plan not to vote. Some seem to think it is Un-American or Un-Christian. My suspicion, however, is that they have the false belief that if they could convince me to vote, I would vote for “their guy.” Not going to happen. Four years ago, I would not have voted for Obama, but I would not have voted for Romney either. Perhaps I could have wasted my vote on a 3rd party candidate… but not sure I would agree with any of them either. This year I am sickened by the thought that a Clinton may be back in the White House. However, it sickens me even more that Trump might be there. Less disturbing are the other candidates in the Republican side, but I really have problems with candidates who seek to compete with each other regarding who is “more Conservative,” as if one should be proud of being ideologically straight-jacketed, as opposed to maintaining a flexible and negotiating approach to governance driven first by character and wise insight. Disturbing Christian TV talkers and ‘Christian’ University presidents supporting or “blessing” these candidates does nothing to raise these candidates, but rather lowers these personalities, in my estimation.  It happens in the Philippines too. A preacher over here kept running for public office and losing because an American “prophetess” claimed that he would be a President of the Philippines. She added the requisite caveats to ensure that she would not get dubbed a false prophet when it did not come to pass. But Americans probably should keep their weird ideas for their own political system. The Philippines has enough weirdness without importing any more.

I see a different perspective in Joshua Chapter 5.

13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”

People like to prophesy or give God’s blessing on certain candidates. I know a group of ministers including missionaries who poured oil on the mayor’s chair in Baguio City, Philippines, to “ensure” that a pagan never will sit in it. Maybe they should have poured the whole bottle.

Perhaps, we should spend less time trying to figure out the political landscape as to who are THEY and who are WE. We should recognize that God is on God’s side, and our role first of all is to remember that and seek God.

My suspicion is that my friends who think it is Un-American not to vote, would change their mind if they figure out that I will absolutely not vote their way. Voting for a bad candidate simply because they are not part of the other party is bad. In fact, it disempowers as one’s own party learns that it can do whatever it wants because one holds the party unaccountable. Some of my friends are shocked that political candidates they like are now expressing support for Trump. Why is that surprising? That is how politics works… rally around OUR candidate no matter what. Show loyalty to the party at all costs.

But as a Christian I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to show loyalty to any governmental party no matter what. As a missionary, my relationship with government should at best be with a light touch. Some missionaries get into trouble by digging themselves too deep into local politics. (Magellan being the first of many such examples in the Philippines.) Some on the other hand get into trouble by acting as if missions can be done while ignoring politics all together. I have also seen American missionaries who seem to be unable to leave American politics at home but go on and on about it. (I wonder how many Americans would value a Filipino missionary who keeps going on and on about the Marcos and Aquino political dynasties, or the merits of the Bangsamoro deal?)

Ultimately, I think I need to find a way of having a positive influence politically both in the Philippines and in the US. I am pretty sure a positive influence does not come from supporting “the lesser evil.” But I still have not got the manner and level worked out yet. For now, I think I still have to embrace Bartleby’s courageous (and pathetic) cry,

“I would prefer not to.”

Yet this view must be tempered by responding as did Joshua:

“What message does my Lord have for his servant?”


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