By Ken Sehested
To my friends who question the value of voting, or have ethical qualms about choosing between the lesser of two evils: Vote, or don’t. Its significance will always lie somewhere between essential and useless. None of us is allowed to assess any action as ultimate—but that’s no license for skepticism or despondence.
Voting is such a small part of our commonwealth duty. I spend more time in grocery store lines every month than in polling stations every year. Elections are but the end result of an advocacy for the common good that starts in each watershed. Imagine a different future, find collaborators, and spend yourself extravagantly.
Renewed public policy requires new public consensus. As Frederick Douglass knew all too well, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Be demanding. Justice often requires the painful work of delegitimizing existing power arrangements before reconstruction can occur.
Ballots have proved a welcomed alternative to bullets. But elections do not a democracy make. They can be bought in a thousand different ways.
The roots which nurture my support for democratic polity include conclusions from philosophical reflection and political theory. But the deepest are theological: democratic governance is an important public means by which we practice nonviolence.
People of equal vision, passion, courage and intelligence will (and do!) disagree on how to get to where we need to be. The body politic needs vigorous, even heated debate, but not demolition derbies and cockfights.
No movement has ever been generated or crushed by an election, but they can be encouraged or restrained. As Einstein said, no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. Work at constructing a new level.
Telling is good. Showing is better. Doing is best. We live our way into new kinds of thinking far more often than we think our way into new kinds of living. Convictions that don’t raise blisters or calluses are good only for talk shows and showrooms.
Think large in small ways; act small in large ways. Be like the trim tab on a large ocean-going vessel, altering inertia just enough to allow the rudder to shift course without breaking.
According to the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy (aka Six Nations), “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” Pay it forward.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” anthropologist Margaret Mead said. “Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
“If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito.” (author unknown)
Ponder the parable of the coalmouse.
“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coalmouse asked a wild dove.
“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.
“In that case I must tell you a marvelous story,” the coalmouse said. “I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow, not heavily, not in a raging blizzard, no, just like in a dream, without any violence. Since I didn’t have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the next snowflake dropped onto the branch—nothing more than nothing, as you say—the branch broke off.”
Having said that the coalmouse ran away.
The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on the matter, thought about the story for awhile and finally said to herself: “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come about in the world.” (“A Tale For All Seasons,” adapted, from The Caribou by Kurt Kauter)
Ken Sehested is curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action.