Up until now, we have been covering the 2019 Alberta election pretty well exclusively. Why? Because it’s happening right now. It will continue to dominate our posts over the next month, but I thought it would be good to pause and mix in some religion with our politics. That’s always fun.
One of the subjects that often comes up when idiots like me try to mix the two scariest subjects to grace family gatherings is whether or not it is a sin to not vote. The argument goes like this: Jesus tells us to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. In Canada, voting is not a right, it is a duty. Therefore, when we don’t vote, we aren’t “rendering unto Caesar” and we are violating a command. I guess it’s case closed. Not voting is sinful. Except, maybe it isn’t. In fact, maybe it’s actually a sin to vote. Confused yet? Well I can’t promise that by the end of this I’ll have convinced you one way or the other, but hopefully you’ll appreciate the arguments on both sides and come to an informed decision for yourself.
So, let’s pick this apart piece by piece.
First of all, is voting a right or a duty? In what will no doubt become a trend throughout this post, the answer is not so cut and dry. There is no doubt that you absolutely have a right to not vote. At least for now. But just because there are no penalties for not voting doesn’t mean that it isn’t a responsibility our country asks of us. Canada’s constitution refers to voting as a right. Even in case law, while voting has a privileged and almost sacred place, there is no mention of it being a duty of citizens.
On the other hand, “participation in the democratic process” is mentioned in many places as one of the responsibilities of citizens. We could parse the exact definition of what “participation” in the democratic process is, but certainly it’s not limited to voting. Informing oneself, assisting in barrier removal for others, volunteering for campaigns and administration all would count. And all could be done without voting. And yet casting a ballot is still what comes to mind for most people when we think of participating in democracy.
In the end, a case can be made that voting is both a right and a duty. Maybe we can carve out some middle ground for it. But that seems like a cop out. Each person must decide for themselves how participation in our process unfolds for them. The only thing beyond debate is that remaining ignorant and apathetic toward the democratic process is certainly wrong.
OK. So now that we’ve gummed up the question about whether voting is a right or duty, let’s tackle what exactly Jesus meant when he said, “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” Spoiler alert: This is not a black and white issue either.
Some context. In the three gospels (referred to as the synoptics) where Jesus is recorded as saying this, He was responding to people trying to trap Him. If He answered that His people should pay taxes to the oppressive Rome, then He would anger His people. If He said not to pay, then He was breaking Roman law. But instead He asked them whose face was on the coin. When they replied Caesar, He basically said, “then give it back to him.” They thought He would say that His followers didn’t need to follow earthly leaders’ demands. But His response is more than simply a way to placate everyone.
People have interpreted it differently over the years, but it basically boils down to this: God is not interested in earthly treasures, but earthly leaders are. So, give the earthly leaders the things they demand (so long as it doesn’t violate God’s commands) and save your soul and your personal sacrifice for God.
So, what are we to take away from this? Well, for many people this passage is the justification they use for complete separation of church and state. What’s Caesar’s is Caesar’s and what’s God’s is God’s. And ne’er the two shall intersect. But even if we set aside the oversimplification of this argument, it ignores all the myriad of places where God involves Himself in the politics of humankind. So, are we to assume then that God wants this to be a one directional involvement? Of course not. Our faith should be as much a part of our politics as our politics reflect our faith.
His point is actually that God has no interest in our money (which should not be confused with His interest in how we use our money). His full answer is, “Well, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And while you are at it, give everything that belongs to God back to God”. That sounds more like Jesus. He does this over and over. He gets asked a question and He answers with something seemingly off topic. He never actually directly answers the question. Seminary professors the world over would flunk their students for giving the same response.
But what Jesus is actually doing by not answering the question is telling everyone that it’s the wrong question to be asking in the first place. He pivots to a much larger point. There’s a sermon in what that larger point is, but I’ll save that for another time so we can return to the issue at hand.
“Rendering unto Caesar” is not a black and white thing. It’s not as simple as “do your patriotic duty”. So even if voting is a duty, where are we commanded to follow all of our assigned earthly responsibilities?
The last part of this is what exactly the nature of sin is. Again, this is an internet blog that spends as much time researching Buzzfeed quizzes as posting content so we’re not going to be able to be exhaustive here. But suffice it to say that I strongly believe that sin is a state we find ourselves in far more than it is the actions we find ourselves doing. That is not to say actions cannot and are not sinful. But motivation and where our heart is matters. Likewise, worshiping and bringing honour to God is a state we intentionally enter and – with His help – remain.
And this brings us full circle. Is it a sin to not vote? Well, depending on the state we are in when we choose not to (either intentionally or not), then the actual act of not voting can potentially be an act of worship if we believe that is what will bring God the most honour. Practically though, particularly in 21st century Canada, I fail to see any scenario where that would be true.
I will speak for myself here. For me, is failure to vote sinful? Probably not. On the other hand, the act of voting is a very religious experience for me. I hold it as a spiritual practise that I am blessed by God to partake in because of the freedom I have to live in this wonderful country. When my wife and I cast our ballots, we bring our daughters with us and talk about what God would want to see from our votes. Just like we do when we receive communion or observe baptisms. In all of this it is the WHY that matters more than the act.
My vote has the ability to make countless lives better. My vote has the ability to bring honour to God and His church. My vote has the ability to help the poor and the widows and the aliens. My vote has the ability to preserve the dignity of human life that was created in the image of God. My vote has the ability to make life easier for my single mother sister and my mixed-race niece. And my vote has the ability to reverse all of the above. My vote will aid in making the world a better or worse place for my daughters and for the countless other children who will inherit it. You better believe that God cares about that.
Regardless of what you believe about the nature of sin and how it affects your vote, there is no getting around the fact that God cares about your vote deeply. So approach it accordingly.