Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Politics and Purism

Dan Hollander, among others, derides me for my support of Barack Obama as president. Hollander, who is contemptuous of pacifism, nonetheless finds me inconsistent as a pacifist supporting a non-pacifist.  Others who have different forms of pacifism than I do also find me inconsistent here.

Well, I do not want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.  There are no pacifists running for U.S. president and none could get elected in our current climate. (The last pacifist to have a serious shot at the U.S. presidency was William Jennings Bryan, the fundamentalist preacher who was also a champion of the social gospel.  A champion of the poor, he resigned as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson rather than support U.S. entry into WWI. Alas, all that is remembered of Bryan is his unfortunate and ill-informed opposition to evolution.)

Do I wish that my country was at the point that a pacifist, or even a near-pacifist like Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), could get elected president? Absolutely.  And, I wish Obama were closer to a Kucinich position than he is.  But I am certainly going to vote for the person who is MORE oriented toward peace and justice (Obama), rather than the one (McCain) who doesn’t care how long we stay in Iraq and wants a war with Iran, too!

Christians on the Right also make such pragmatic decisions. I know those who do not consider McCain strong enough in his opposition to abortion (because in 2000 he tried to change the GOP platform to allow for exceptions to save the life of the mother or for rape and incest; he is not trying to get those exceptions into the platform this year).  They support him rather than Obama because Obama is openly pro-choice.  Some of these Christians may oppose the war in Iraq, but weight priorities differently than I do.

In politics, as in much else, we have less than pure choices.  But if we understand that our efforts to influence the world in the direction of gospel values takes many avenues–only one of them being electoral politics–then we can vote for the best person available while also pursuing other avenues of change–political and otherwise. [Update: See this article about The Way to a Just Foreign Policy. It outlines the places where Democrats and Republicans seem like they are on different planets and the ways they are both too committed to an imperial U.S.  It also highlights the role of social movements in turning politicians to a post-superpower USA–which is easier if we are electing politicians, like Obama, who already share some of these goals.  Such politicians are easier to push in a progressive direction than one who shares none of these goals, like McCain.0

I support Barack Obama’s candidacy, as I have often stated, not because I always agree with him, but because his values and policies as a whole seem far closer to the values of the gospel than his opponent–as I read Scripture and our context.  (I also thought that was the case vis-a-vis Hillary Clinton in the primaries.  I started out supporting John Edwards because I thought he was stronger than either on those values I give the highest priority.)

I understand if others disagree with me.  And I understand that others may disagree strongly, as I do with support for McCain.  But I do not think I am being inconsistent or compromising my gospel pacifism in supporting Barack Obama.


Jim Wallis likes to say that instead of changing one politician with his/her finger to the wind, we need to change the direction of the wind.  I mostly agree.  But it helps to have politicians who are open to winds from new directions, even if they are not consistent (and which of them ever is).  We can change the wind and make it a hurricane and McCain will keep spitting into it. 

Nor are presidents everything. We also need to have as many progressives elected to as many other offices as possible.  True and lasting change demands good people on the inside of elected office–and MANY MORE good people on the outside pushing for change.

UPDATE II: My critics, especially Jesse Rivers, insist that I am “in the tank” for Obama because I support him “no matter what.” But I do not support him, no matter what.  Should I:

1)Vote for John McCain who wants to continue to war in Iraq and start one in Iran–who is waffling on his opposition to torture, denounces Habeas Corpus for “detainees” in Guantanemo Bay, Cuba, will continue the Bush war on the poor, wants to fight global warming “only through free market means,” etc.?  I will never do that.  I said a year ago that if retiring GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NB), one of only two Republicans in the Senate to oppose invading Iraq in ’02, were to become the Republican nominee on a withdrawal platform, while Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) became the Democratic nominee on a “continue to occupation” platform, I would vote Republican. I stand by that.  But that’s not what happened. I couldn’t vote for McCain’s platform even if Obama were far less progressive than he is.

2) Not vote at all.  This is sometimes a responsible option.  When elections are rigged, for instance,  mass refusal to vote shows the world their illegitimacy and can even lead to a nonviolent revolution.  But in the current context, to not vote is to endorse the status quo and I cannot do that.

3) Vote for a 3rd party.  IF and WHEN the U.S. gets the electoral reforms (e.g., instant run-off voting; proportional representation and/or the abolition of the Electoral College) that would make other parties viable, instead of “spoilers” that throw the election to the worst possible candidate, this would make sense.  Democrats are too much like Republicans, it is true.  Both are far too controlled by corporate interests, although Obama’s refusal to take lobbying money, and making the Democratic National Committee to abide by the same rule, is a great step in the right direction.  On foreign policy especially, the current Democratic Congress has too often caved in to the Republicans they were elected to STOP.  The Green Party platform, except for its unconditional support for abortion-on-demand, best reflects my values. If and When we get the electoral reforms we need, I will switch my party affiliation to Green–unless the Democrats shape up.  But I can’t vote for a 3rd Party under current conditions.  That would, like not voting, throw the election to McCain as Bush’s third term.

In 2000, disgusted with the way then VP Al Gore ran a campaign too much like his rival, George W. Bush, I voted for Ralph Nader.  In my defense, Bush was leading Gore by 15 points in KY and Bush’s campaign, though awful, was not as bad as his presidency. Nor was Gore as progressive as he became later.  But I feel guilty, because I wonder if my example led many in Florida to vote for Nader and throw the election to Bush. (Leaving aside the illegalities done by the GOP in FL and by the Supreme Court of the U.S.) I keep wondering how much the U.S. invasion of Iraq was partly my fault and the fault of those like me who claimed that there was not enough difference between Gore and Bush to matter.  I WON’T MAKE THAT MISTAKE AGAIN.

If those like Jesse Rivers think any of the above 3 options are more “prophetic” than voting for Obama, who, while not perfect, is the most progressive mainstream candidate the U.S. has had in 30 years, they are welcome to it.  If McCain wins and takes us into Iran, the blood is on their hands, not mine.


June 26, 2008 - Posted by | just peacemaking, U.S. politics


  1. I always have problems with the constitutional role of the president and pacifism. Jacques Ellul in his book Violence makes the point that every autonomous state exists through the exertion or threat of violence. That being the case, how do you reconcile endorsing any candidate to fill the highest role in the executive branch? You are basically turning them over to the powers of this world since their job requires them to act in a way contrary to the Gospel (as an Anabaptist would define it).

    (N.b. please understand that this is not rhetorical, it’s something that I’ve been struggling with for years.)

    Comment by jimgetz | June 27, 2008

  2. I agree completely with jimgetz. I understand why Mr. Westmoreland-White would support Obama as the lesser of two evils. But I think by supporting Obama we end up making matters worse. It will allow the right wing to say to us–look how crazy you are, even Barak Obama supports killing people in Afganastan. Even he is pro-Israel. And he was the most liberal candidate who ever ran and was supported by the secular left wing like moveon and so forth.

    To take another example. Because Obama changed his position on campaign finance reform, the position is now dead. It will never come back because everyone can point out that Obama broke his word when it became in his political interest to do so. The same with the death penalty–which Obama now supports. The same with FISA, which he caved on. The same with gun control–he tells us he now supports the conservative decision. Thge same with abandoing his pastor and his church.

    I have come to the conclusion that it is better to lose on principle than to sign up with hypocrite. I liked Obama but I’m scared he will end up being a disastor for the peace and justice movement. If he keeps selling us out and we keep supporting him it makes us look as unprincipled and partisan as the religious right, which is just a tool of the Republican Party. I don’t want to be a tool of the Democratic party.

    Comment by Beth S. Rogers | June 27, 2008

  3. Jim, I think Ellul too easily accepts a Weberian definition of the State. There have been nonviolent nation-states–even, like Costa Rica, giving up armies. It has to be an evolution of political culture.

    I, personally, could not hold the office of U.S. president because I cannot swear an oath of office–and I think saying that I “affirm” is just semantics. If I were elected and assumed the role of Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, I would never use them.

    Menno Simons wrote to political leaders about their “dangerous offices” that were, nonetheless, given to them by God in Menno’s view. I think in the same way.

    SOMEONE is going to have the dangerous office of U.S. president and, given the current political culture of the U.S., it will be a non-pacifist. So, I will support the candidate who is the least violent of the options and the most open to the practices of just peacemaking.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 27, 2008

  4. Beth, I disagree. Obama never promised to abide by public financing. He’d be a fool to do so. To get REAL public campaign financing (no private monies and free network air time for all candidates), the Republicans have to see that it is just as much in their interest. As long as they could out-raise funds, they would never do it. Since Obama is raking in the money, mostly in small donations and without ANY PAC funding, he will make this point to the GOP and without either being tied to special interests or simply losing to GOP big money.

    I also don’t think Obama has sold out the peace and justice movement and will not be a disaster. Far from it. First, he was always more centrist than some believed. We have to go in with eyes wide open. LBJ did not look like a friend to Civil Rights until a mass movement created the conditions for him to be.

    Obama is the best we can get at this point in history (and far better than Kerry was) and a strong peace and justice movement can make him better, still. We also have to get progressive peace and justice types all through Congress and we have to continue to act independently of the govt. and give it things to imitate.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 27, 2008

  5. Mr. W-W–You have a remarkable ability to dodge the central issue: you have said that those who are willing to use lethal force for any reason “betray the Gospel” As a pacifist you believe the use of lethal force to be evil, wicked, wrong or whatever. But when asked about police forces using lethal force to prevent a great evil, you said that police should use stun guns.

    You were then asked about THAT. Do you belive that the use of violence is in accord with the teachings of Jesus (the Gospel) IF that violence is non-lethal (stun guns)? To put it your words, “do you believe that the use of non-lethal violence is a “betrayal of the Gospel” This really is a rather straight forward question and I fail to see why you hesitate to answer it with a simple yes or no?

    Comment by Dan Hollander | June 28, 2008

  6. I plan to vote for Obama and we sent him a check earlier this spring. His opposition to the Iraqi invasion and occupation, his critique of our political culture, his spiritual formation within a counter-cultural church, and his attempt to move us out of Vietnam-era polemics are all positive factors for me.

    But I have heard nothing from Obama that suggests he will challenge the imperial agenda of the U.S.A., nor its pretensions and sense of entitlement. Indeed, his position on FISA fills me with foreboding in this regard. So his presidency would carry an unusually high risk that the witness of Jesus Christ would be compromised even further within this land.

    So I am a cool supporter of Obama. As for the ethical questions raised by my support of one who will probably function as an imperialist, I have found some help in Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition, and especially in his references to the work of Karl Barth: “Barth refers to true words spoken (or lives lived) outside the church as secular ‘parables of the kingdom’. As in the case of the N. T. parables, Jesus Christ is their ultimate source as well as the criterion a Christian must use to appraise them. . . . There must not, then, be any simple refusal of the secular, for this would be tantamount to denying Christ’s freedom to fashion secular parables as he sees fit; it would involve turning one’s back on a sphere in which God’s Word is being spoken through the words of human beings.”

    Comment by Berry Friesen | June 28, 2008

  7. Well, let;s test all this “refusal of the secular” stuff. I have the same question for Berry that I have for W-W. Do YOU believe that the use of NON-LETHAL violence to be a “betrayal of the Gospel.” I know you fellas “refuse the secular” when it comes to killing people, even to prevent great harm. But do you also “refuse the secular” when the state or police officers etc do NON-LETHAL violence to other people–like when your hypothetical police officers use stun guns.

    Comment by Dan Hollander | June 28, 2008

  8. “I plan to vote for Obama and we sent him a check earlier this spring. His opposition to the Iraqi invasion and occupation, his critique of our political culture, his spiritual formation within a counter-cultural church, and his attempt to move us out of Vietnam-era polemics are all positive factors for me.

    But I have heard nothing from Obama that suggests he will challenge the imperial agenda of the U.S.A”

    Man, you “prophets” can be bought pretty cheaply these days!

    Comment by Jesse Rivers | June 28, 2008

  9. I wonder what it will take for the peace and justice movement to reject Obama. It looks like nothing. W-W seems completely in the tank for Obama.

    But what if Obama changed position on Iraq. Suppose he travels to Iraq, talks with Petraeos comes to the conclusion that the surge has worked and backs off from his promise for a quick withdrawal? Already he is talking about an “honorable” withdrawal, sounding very much like Dick Nixon. I suspect that even then Westmoreland-White and the peace and justice movement will still support Obama.

    It will certainly give credence to those who thing you all have sold out to the democratic party.

    Comment by Jesse Rivers | June 29, 2008

  10. Jesse Rivers,
    In two posts now, you have accused me of surrendering my credentials as a “prophet.” But I never claimed any such credentials.
    You have also claimed that I am “in the tank” for Obama. “In the tank” means that I would support him blindly. Not true. I have highlighted several areas in which I strongly disagree with him and plan on pushing him.

    IF, as you suggest, he came back from Iraq this summer and suddenly had a similar view on Iraq as McCain, I would DENOUNCE IT. I might still vote for him as a lesser of evils, but I would expect him to lose just as John Kerry lost–and for the same reason–not enough of a contrast with Republican warmongers.

    How can I be “in the tank” for Obama or have “sold out to the Democratic Party” while writing posts with titles like “Shame on Obama and Dems?”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 29, 2008

  11. Being in “the tank” for a candidate means that no matter what he does you are still for him. For capital punishment and with Scalia on allowing death penalty for rape–still for him. vote for FISA–still for him. abandon pledge on public funds–still for him. Gun control–he agrees with the conservatives. AND NOW….sell out on Iraq?–still for him.

    You got one thing right, though. you are not a “prophet.” But you are in the tank for Obama. Not “blindly” as you say, but eyes wide open. Which is worse.

    You are as bad as the religious right who always vote Republican. But Jesus is not a republican or a democrat.

    How sad.

    Comment by Jesse Rivers | June 29, 2008

  12. Dan, in response to your question, Jesus always beckons and often confronts but does not coerce. When we use coercion to achieve our ends and self-righteously characterize our tactics as “the way of Jesus,” then we misrepresent the Gospel and may even betray it. But no, I would not insist that every use of coercion is a betrayal of the Gospel.

    Comment by Berry Friesen | June 29, 2008

  13. The problem with the Religious Right is not that they “always vote Republican,” but that they never criticize or put pressure on Republican politicians in the name of Kingdom values. I DO NOT always vote Democratic, although I usually do. But that does not stop me from criticizing or pushing Obama or other Democrats on many areas–and most of those items you list are distortions of what Obama has said, although I think he needs to be pushed further on each of those areas.

    I have written him each time I disagreed with him and I have written letters to newspaper editors denouncing any backtracking he does from progressive stances. I also blog my criticisms–and praise Republicans when they do right (rare as that is nowadays). I have even warned Obama that backtracking on progressive stances could cost him the election (besides being wrong).

    Jesse Rivers, until you can give me a better option for the country than Obama (who also has a chance of getting elected now), then I think you are “in the tank” for McCain and those who want to continue the Iraq occupation and start a war with Iran. You only pretend differently because you oppose the best chance we have for stopping this.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 29, 2008

  14. Berry–

    –I don’t think your response makes any sense. If being faithful to the Gospel requires us to follow Jesus, and “Jesus always beckons and often confronts but does not coerce” then it would seem that to use “coercion” would always be a “betrayal of the Gospel” of Jesus.

    But, of course, that isn’t exactly what I asked W-W and HE continues to dodge the question.

    So, again to W-W:

    I asked whether you believe that non-lethal violence, used by Christian police officers (or anyone else), was a “betrayal of the Gospel.”

    I know what you think of lethal violence (or the threat of lethal violence)–it is always a betrayal of the gospel–now tell me what you think of non-lethal violence.

    (I am happy to recognize that Obama unlike W-W believes in both lethal and non-lethal violence but that W-W will support him as the lesser “betrayer-of-Christ”. Although I truly doubt that an Obama administration will not also “start a war with Iran.” He already has said he will do ANYTHING to protect Israel. Mark me words!)

    Comment by Dan Hollander | June 30, 2008

  15. Dan, for me the important aspect of this is the witness of Jesus Christ. When we use our power to dominate others for the explicit purpose of exploiting their resources, we are simply walking in the way of sinners. When we pretend to wear the mantle of Jesus Christ and yet do the same thing, then we are betrayers of the Gospel. Sinners are a dime a dozen, you and me included. Betrayers are a bit more rare, although within a santimonious empire such as ours, there are many.

    Comment by Berry Friesen | June 30, 2008

  16. Berry, fine. Should I conclude from this that you think it is legitimate for Christians to serve as police officers and to carry firearms. And if a Christian police officer used it, not to “dominate others” or for the purpose of “exploiting their resources,” but to prevent a great harm done to an innocent citizen. Would it then be OK?

    Still waiting to hear from W-W on this!

    Comment by Dan Hollander | June 30, 2008

  17. You accuse McCain of waffling on torture. That is a lie. McCain has always opposed torture and I defy you to prove otherwise. You are deliberately distorting McCain’s position for partisan purposes. Shame on you.

    Comment by TeddyB | July 1, 2008

  18. Yes, Dan, it could be legitimate. Next one would need to consider important details related to the oath of office, the chain of command, and the rules of engagement. Are those arrangements permissable for one whose primary allegiance is to Jesus Christ and whose primary earthly accountability is to a group of other Christ-followers who stand outside the policing structure of authority?

    Comment by Berry Friesen | July 1, 2008

  19. TeddyB,
    I wish you were right, but you aren’t. McCain was strong against torture, including waterboarding, before the primaries and in the early the GOP debates. I praised him for it on this blog and elsewhere. But once he secured the nomination, he backed off. He opposed the bill that would forbid waterboarding and hold the CIA to the norms of interrogation demanded by the Army Field Manual–itself based on the Geneva Conventions and international law. McCain voted against this in the Senate, saying that the CIA needed fewer restrictions in interrogation! Then, when the bill passed in the Senate anyway, McCain urged Bush to veto it (which he did).

    This is why I say that McCain has waffled on torture. This has been widely reported in the press–and McCain’s waffling has been repeated in interviews–but you are not the first to accuse me of misrepresenting him. In fact, I wrote to his campaign for clarification–urging him to stick with his original strong opposition to all torture. He did not reply. But he has since refused to sign a statement of principles from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (which Obama and Clinton signed–as did Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney and Libertarian Bob Barr).

    I can only conclude that McCain is hoping to shore up his support with the GOP Rightwing base by watering down his previously strong stance against torture. This suspicion is strengthened by McCain’s opposition to the Supreme Court’s (correct) upholding of 8 centuries of Anglo-American common law in restoring Habeas Corpus rights to Gitmo detainees.

    McCain may still claim to be anti-torture, but he now seems to have the looser definition of torture that is employed by BushCo than previously. I call that waffling.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 1, 2008

  20. I’ve researched this and I can’t find any support for you saying that McCain supports torture. Or that he supports waterboarding. Just because he believes the CIA should have fewer restrictions on interrogations does not mean he is for waterboarding and torture. A lot of good people believe that the CIA should have fewer restrictions on interrogations but do not believe in waterboarding or torture.

    Comment by Dave J | July 1, 2008

  21. Dave, the bill in question was designed to stop waterboarding (which we once called “the water torture”) and other “torture light” techniques at Gitmo. It was also designed to stop the outsourcing of torture to other countries by “extraordinary rendition” (i.e., kidnapping suspects and secretly flying them either to secret U.S. prisons outside the country or to prisons in countries that practice torture openly).

    It is true that McCain has never said, “I now think waterboarding is okay for the CIA,” but he voted against a law designed to stop them from doing it. (The CIA admitted to having done this and other torture in Congressional hearings.) Saying that the CIA should have “fewer restrictions” in interrogations than allowed in international law when they’ve admitted to torturing people, is to wink at torture. Further, as I said, McCain has refused to commit himself to a declaration of principles against torture.

    In my book, this means that he has waffled on his previously strong opposition to torture. It’s like Bush saying, “the United States doesn’t torture” but then redefining torture so that previously unacceptable practices are allowed.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 1, 2008

  22. W-W is simply wrong on this. He is deliberately distorting McCain’s record for purely partisan reasons. Notice the distortion. Notice W-W’s turn of phrase. He says “It is true that McCain has never said, “I now think waterboarding is okay for the CIA,” but he voted against a law designed to stop them from doing it.

    But McCain HAS repeatedly and publicly opposed waterboarding, which everyone agrees only happened on 4 occasions and stopped in 2003. W-W simply deceptively infers that because McCain thinks some interrogation techniques that are not torture should be permitted, that he is really in favor of torture.

    You can disagree with McCain without sliming him as a defender of torture.

    Comment by Dan Hollander | July 3, 2008

  23. Dan Hollander is simply wrong on this on all counts:

    1)I am NOT distorting, deliberately or otherwise, McCain’s record. When he was CONSISTENT on his opposition to torture, the ONLY GOP presidential candidate who took such a stand, I praised him repeatedly. If he returns to that consistency (e.g., by signing the NRCAT’s Declaration of Principles against torture), I will again praise this aspect of his policies. If Obama goes wobbly on this, I will denounce him.

    2) NOT everyone agrees that waterboarding only happened 4 times and stopped. That is the CLAIM of the CIA in Congressional hearings. It is also the CLAIM of Atty. Gen. Mukasey. And they both refused to say that it would never happen again, only that it “is no longer policy.” By opposing the the law that would have outlawed this and other cruel and degrading techniques, McCain effectively gives the CIA the option of resuming these kinds of interrogations (if they have stopped) or of outsourcing this to other nations by “extraordinary rendition,” WHATEVER his intentions.

    3)In his opposition to this bill, McCain said that the CIA ought not to be held to the same standards of interrogation that the Army is, but he specifically refused to say what methods they should be allowed.

    4)Hollander says that McCain favors “some interrogation techniques that are not torture.” Really? Which ones? Defecating on the Qu’ran? All night nudity? Sleep deprivation? Extremes of heat and cold? Forcing “detainees” to urinate and defecate on themselves? In front of women? Nude bondage? Threats from dogs? Smearing “detainees” with substances that one says are women’s menses or pork or other substances that Islamic law would say would make them unclean?

    All of these things have been used at Gitmo and in Abu Ghraib. Most are not physical torture such as bamboo shoots under finger nails, but most would be classified as psychological torture and that was also forbidden in U.S. and international law. McCain’s previous stand was that he opposed all “cruel, degrading, and inhumane treatment” of prisoners–which is the phrasing used in international law and in the Army field manual. By backing off from that, he opens the way to torture or torture light.

    That doesn’t make him a “defender of torture,” but it DOES make him guilty of “waffling” on this issue, which is the claim I made and stand by. There is no distortion here, except McCain’s.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 3, 2008

  24. hmm–let’s see. Is using a stun gun a form of torture? Yep, abslutely. If so, then Westmoreland White, is guilty of advocating torture: right here on this website. Sounds like a “betrayal of the gospel” to me. REPENT! Announce to the world that you have been a coward on the use of stun guns. Take the plank out of your own eye and then, perhaps. you can start to work on the sliver in Sen. McCain’s eye.

    Comment by Dan Hollander | July 3, 2008

  25. I didn’t “ADVOCATE” use of stun guns. I said the development and equipment of police with nonlethal weapons was preferable to that of lethal weapons, like firearms.

    I am still investigating particular nonlethal weapons. There have been troubling incidents of such here in Louisville, especially use of TASERS on a crowd that was NOT rioting and which may have resulted in the death of one man who had an epileptic seizure. The investigation is ongoing.

    I have made no commitments to any particular weapons or nonlethal methods of capture by police. But torture is generally done on people ALREADY in capture. It is here that I accuse Sen. McCain, who was previously bold, of waffling.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 3, 2008

  26. […] (Michael Westmoreland-White posted about this topic a while back at Levellers.) […]

    Pingback by The “Right” War? « Return Good for Evil | August 14, 2008

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