Escaping the “Anti-Matrix”: Why I Will Not be Voting in this Year’s National Election (Part 3)

Posted: 20 October 2012 in Faith and Life

Warning: Christian theological stuff ahead.  Not for all tastes.

 See Part 1, an “excursion” and Part 2 of this series

(God) through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself… and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ… (St Paul, 2nd Letter to the Corinthian Church, Chapter 5 Revised Standard Version)

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

(Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody” from the Album “Slow Train Coming, 1979)

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands… (“The Pledge of Allegiance”, written by Francis Bellamy in 1892 and adopted by Congress as the pledge in 1942)

On a long train ride across the USA I started reflecting on why I decided to write this series on not voting in this year’s elections.  You know as well as I do that motives are a tricky thing.  As I have taught students in my research methods courses over the years: “Avoid asking ‘why’ if you can.  People usually don’t know why they do the things they do but they will always come up with an answer.”

Despite that counsel, I had to ask myself—really—why did I do this anyway?  Was I just seeking to jerk some chains?  Was it an exasperated reaction to the inanity that this whole political process has become? Was it anger at the bipartisan agreement about the necessity of the wars waged by every single administration that comes along?


“Why” questions are always hard to answer and my reason for taking on this short project is probably wrapped up in all of the above.  But, as the miles rolled by I also discovered that under it all is a motive I will call the “Revealing the Anti-Matrix” motive (aka The “(Re-)Discovering our Shepherd[i]” motive). Allow me to explain.

My overall sense of where I am—and where most of the people I know are—is that we are living in a reality that is manufactured[ii], like the program world in which Neo lived but only suspected was not real.  The difference, of course, is that while Neo was a slave and his manufactured world (the Matrix) made him believe he was free, our manufactured world (the Anti-Matrix) enslaves us while the truth is, we are free.

Our reality tells us that our identity (our relevance) is bound up in the destiny of the nation (and one of two political parties of the nation) of which we are citizens.  Our reality tells us that if we don’t support certain politicians, certain causes, certain positions, bad things will happen.  It tells us that we must act to hold back the forces of evil and that refusing to act is to abdicate responsibility for assuring that the worst does not happen.  It wraps all of this up in a non-ending election cycle in which evil is pitted against good (or, at least, the lesser evil) and our vote is the only way to assure that we hold back the tide of a catastrophe that will depend on the “most important election of our lifetime” (this one, of course)[iii].

This synthetic reality thus binds us to lives of, if not despair, then a persistent anxiety about ills that will befall us if we do not act a certain way.  Downtrodden. Bereft of hope. On a treadmill of manufactured outrage and fear.  We are sheep without a shepherd.

We are confused about where our allegiances lie and not even aware that we are caught up in serving something that only prolongs our enslavement.  Am I being too dramatic?  I am pretty sure I am not. I sit in a “privileged” space in which (I am pretty sure) most Americans of today do not sit: I have dear friends and family who span the spectrum of what might be called “the left” (okay, I acknowledge that these labels are part of the whole enslavement thing but I need a shorthand). I also have dear friends and family who span the spectrum of what might be called “the right.”  When I say “span”, I really mean it (but don’t make me prove it because I will have to name names and it would get ugly).

From this “privileged” place I see something strange: the reality inhabited by both “sides” is strangely similar.  Except for one thing: the evil of one side is the good of the other and vice versa.  When I say evil and good I mean, according to their own words, EVIL and GOOD.  You have to admit, this is a strange vantage point from which to observe our “reality” and it explains why I know that it is not real.

What is even more troubling for me is that followers of Jesus inhabit both realities and no matter what side they are on they are both, notwithstanding their commitment to the Christ, harried, worried, fearful and angry.  Now, I guess you can argue that Jesus’ words are open to lots of interpretation, but I don’t see anywhere where he suggests his followers will have these characteristics.  Indeed, I think there is ample evidence in the teaching he left us that Jesus taught that these things would NOT characterize his followers, but rather they would be characterized as people of hope and love—people who would not worry about tomorrow and not be afraid because they KNOW that Jesus is with them always.

And so when I see my dear friends and family—when I see myself—spending so much time being un-Christ-like in the face of the challenges of our world, I must conclude that we have been mesmerized or blinded by, or in thrall to an “unreality” that has turned us into something we were never intended to be.

My motive in writing is thus about waking me (us) up from our reverie; about escaping this Anti-Matrix; about beginning to live into the reality to which I have been called. I believe that non-participation in the national election process is critical to doing these things (though more than that is certainly needed).

(My friend Ted Grimsrud—more from him below—challenged me by asking if I was not actually giving too much importance to voting by spending so much time talking about NOT doing it?  This is a fair and important question (and one I appreciate).  If participating in the election process were merely about stepping into a voting booth one time per year I think Ted’s point would be valid.  However, elections have become much more than this.  They have, as argued above, become a process about allegiance building as each party vies for power—arguably for power’s own sake.  I realize I have not demonstrated this conclusively here but I believe the evidence is clear (see note iii) that we are in a never ending process that is punctuated (but not concluded) by the actual act of voting.)

So… how do we escape?  I would like to suggest two ideas that are closely linked.  They will be most comprehensible (I hope) to those who consider themselves followers of Jesus.

Escaping the Anti-Matrix (I): Clarifying Who We Are

Social identity theory has developed as a key sub-discipline within sociology and deals with how people deal with the concept of self, based on their participation in a given social group. While it is clear that all of us are part of several or even many social groups—and thereby self identify in many complex ways—some group memberships are more important to our self-identity than others.  Fundamentally, social identity is critical to answering the question of “Who am I?”

In the Anti-Matrix described above we are asked to choose between two competing identities: Republican or Democrat with the overarching identity of “American” sitting in the background to make sure we choose one of the two—the idea being that because we are American (first) we must choose where we stand in relation to these two sides.  Both parties demand the same choice (a rare area of consensus between the two one might say).

I should make it clear that these are not the only groups within the broader American context that seek allegiance.  Branding is essentially about building allegiance and thus about creating strong identity.  Think for a moment about the ways in which this is true be it concerning the smartphone you use, the University you attend(ed), the store where you buy your clothes, or the local congregation of which you are a member.  Identity creating institutions and products are ubiquitous and each creates its own kind of sub-reality.  We like them because they provide a means to define for the rest of the world who “we are.”

But, fundamentally, who are we?  Two images in the New Testament while not described in detail are intriguing about what they say about our identity and act, in a sense as two sides to the same coin.  They are: our identity as ambassadors and aliens.

Peter wrote to followers of Jesus around the Roman empire:

(Y)ou are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.[iv] (Revised Standard Version of I Peter 2, emphasis added)

The writer to the Hebrews uses the same language and describes our ‘spiritual ancestors’ in Chapter 11 explicitly in terms of their “alien-ness”.

Paul adds a second element to the identity of Christ-follwers in II Corinthians 5 stating that we are ambassadors of reconciliation – ambassadors of Christ (cited at the outset of this post). The verb he uses: presbeuw (to ambassador) means to be ‘elder’ or ‘first in rank’. In Paul’s time, as now, an ambassador was someone who represented the interests of his or her nation abroad. This ambassadorship moves far beyond merely seeking the reconciliation between human and God. This is made clear in how Paul describes God’s ‘reconciliation project’ in Christ in Colossians 1:13–20:

He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; 16 for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him.

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Revised Standard Version, emphasis added)

This identity places the follower of Christ in a critical position of being an ambassador of a sovereign—carrying out the sovereign’s wishes, representing the sovereign’s desires, in the nations of this world in which s/he lives. The Colossians passage indicates that God’s ‘reconciliation project’ is nothing less than the great unwinding of the fall – the restoration of the entire created order into a relationship of peace with God.

French sociologist Jacques Ellul (whom I quoted extensively in an earlier post in this series) provides a useful summary of this dual identity and, in naming the critical reality of the Christian’s solidarity with the world, shows how this identity might provide both a rationale for engaging in advocacy and how we might begin to do it.

The first condition of the Christian is a well known reality, but perhaps not sufficiently understood in its total reality: the Christian belongs to two cities. She is in the world, she has a social life. She is a citizen of a nation, she has a place in a family, she has a job and must work to earn money. She lives her life according to the same rules as other men and women and with them. She is of the same natural state and lives in the same condition. Everything she does in the world she must do seriously, because she is in solidarity with others and cannot neglect the responsibilities of any woman because she is like all the others. BUT, on the other hand, she cannot be totally a part of this world. This world is only ever a provisional ‘tent’ (I Peter 1:13) in which she is an alien and a traveler (Hebrews 11:13). This whole thing is a provisional situation – even if it is extremely important, because she belongs to another city. Her family tree (her identity) is elsewhere and she receives her thoughts from outside. She has another lord… She is an ambassador of this nation on earth, which is to say that she must represent the demands of her lord. She establishes a relationship between the two, BUT she cannot represent or take on the interests of this world: she defends the interests of her lord, like any ambassador who represents and defends the interests of her state. (Ellul, Présence au monde modern 1948: 46, my translation)

I (we) need to wake up to the role to which God calls us in God’s cosmic plan of reconciliation.  Every moment I (we) spend engaged in the unreality game of modern American politics is a moment not spent in living the identity and role as ambassadors of reconciliation.

Perhaps I am creating a false dichotomy.  Perhaps it is possible to be what reality tells us we are AND participate in the unreality of the Anti-Matrix.  That may be true, but I wonder how much time we really spend thinking about, meditating on and discussing what it means to be aliens in this land and ambassadors of Jesus compared to how much time we spend fretting about who will win this or a future election?

Analyze that for yourself and ask which is the more important identity to you: Republican/Democrat or Ambassador of Reconciliation.  If you can convince yourself that you spend more time thinking about and living into the Ambassador identity than you do thinking about and living into the Republican/Democrat identity then we can start talking about whether the balance is right.  I would suspect (and maybe I am the only one who has this problem) that you spend far less time focused on your real identity of Ambassador and far more on the other.  (Hell, I spend more time thinking about and living into my identity as an Apple user—iPhone and Macbook Air—than I do thinking about and living into my identity as an Ambassador of Reconciliation.  I am exaggerating only a little bit).

The point is, we need to make a real effort to focus on our identity as Ambassadors in a world that seeks to encumber us with time consuming identities—including political party identities. Indeed, I would argue that political identities are much more powerful than other “brand” identities (allegiances) because they include matters of health, life, security and freedom.  The claims made by political parties fit within a broader narrative of “the state as savior” and, as such, raise the stakes on our allegiance beyond what any corporation or other institution can achieve.

The “state as savior” narrative is powerful, and at the heart of the Anti-Matrix in which we are enslaved. The good news is that it is an old narrative.  It is one our forbearers in the faith confronted. Their responses have much to teach us.  Let us close these reflections by looking a bit into one of their responses—and ours.

Escaping the Anti-Matrix (II): Seeing and Living Into Reality

The key point here is that we need to see reality as it is, not as a political party or a state (or any other entity) would ask us to see it.  The good news is that we join a long line of followers of Jesus who struggled to see clearly the world in which they lived. We can see this perhaps most clearly in John’s writing to the churches in Asia in that greatly misunderstood narrative known as the Revelation of Jesus Christ.

I will appeal to my friend Ted Grimsrud to break down the 13th and 14th chapters of that tome rather than try to do it myself. These chapters are John’s attempt to strip away the “unreality” of the claims of the Roman empire (about itself and its salvific role in world history) and reveal both what it really is up to (its beastliness) and the truth of God’s reality. Here is Ted.

The visions of Revelation 13 convey just how powerful the beast’s story would be for John’s first-century audience. There’s a triple threat—the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet—that shapes every element of reality. What matters is the power of the sword. John pictures the beast as blasphemous, oppressive, and evil…

However, that’s not how the Romans would have seen him. John’s “beast” was their emperor. The Romans would have seen their great leader as the one who through good wars subdued their enemies and made their great prosperity and global prominence possible (maybe more like how we Americans see the Pax Americana, our regime of global prominence as the world’s one “indispensable nation”?).

John’s point here is to set up his punch line that comes in chapter 14. Yes, the beast and his minions seem overwhelming. Their portrayal of reality seems unassailable. Is it even possible to conceive of a counter-portrayal?

Maybe we could understand the challenge for John’s audience like this. You know from Jesus the truthfulness of the way of peace, of love and compassion. But does that way have any real meaning in this world? Can it stand against the beast’s way? It sure doesn’t seem so.

But then we get to 14:1. “Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion!” Yes, there is a counter-story that does speak to the world that seems so in thrall to the beast. A key to this vision is the next image: “With him were 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.”

Who are these 144,000..? (I)n chapter seven, John hears the number of those sealed by God, 144,000. But then he sees, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Again, the same thing. The 144,000 and the great multitude are one, a vision of complementary attributes.

So, now in chapter 14, we see the 144,000 again. These are not a tiny remnant but a reminder of just how global the Lamb’s followers actually are. John says, throughout the book, that the way of the Lamb stands, victoriously, in resistance to the beast…

It is possible to stand against the beast. You do so not by trying to match the beast’s firepower with your own, but by “following the Lamb.” (Emphasis added)

Elsewhere, writing on the same passage Ted says:

John’s message is disbelieve in Empire. Disbelieve in militarism. Disbelieve in might makes right. Don’t give it consent. Recognize the beastly dimension for what it is and recognize that to affirm that beastly element, to give it a blank check, places people in great spiritual jeopardy.

This is the counter-narrative that can lead us into reality.  The world appears to be one thing (as Ted says “unassailably” so), but the truth for the followers of Jesus is totally other.  The image of the lamb given by John is designed to shake his hearers out of false reality (their very own anti-Matrix) to encourage them to begin to live into the truth of the lamb and the lamb’s victory over the beast. We need the message John delivered all those years ago because the claims of our modern-day beasts are powerful, compelling and visible.  But we need to open our eyes. This is hard work but work to do because, like Neo in that other Matrix, our eyes will hurt because we have never used them for this work before. What I mean is, we need to train our eyes to see.  We need formative practices that enable us to “practice” seeing reality again (or for the first time).

If we fail to open these unused eyes our claimed allegiance to the lamb will be proven false and we, along with the whole earth will end up following the beast and worshipping the dragon and the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” (Revelation 13)

To “disbelieve” the narrative of the Empire is to place the Empire in its proper place. To disbelieve it is to ignore its pretensions. Vernard Eller develops this idea in discussing “anarchy”[v].  He says:

“Anarchy” (“unarkyness”)… is simply the state of being unimpressed with, disinterested in, skeptical of, nonchalant toward, and uninfluenced by the highfalutin claims of any and all arkys. (Vernard Eller, Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy over the Powers, 1999)

And this is what I would like us to do.  I want us to stop being impressed with the claims of either party or our nation’s leaders.  I want us to see the truth that there is a reign that stands in opposition to their claims: a reign of peace and reconciliation.  I want us to become terrestrial anarchists even while we awake to the fact that we are cosmic monarchists.

I realize this last point may make some people uncomfortable.  Being a monarchist is so 19th century.  It is so patriarchal. So… undemocratic.  All I can say to this discomfort is that I am talking about a kingdom that is so unlike any earthly one that to call it a “kingdom” seems like a category error (and I use the term only because Jesus did—indeed he said that his whole raison d’être was to announce the coming of God’s kingdom).

So let us remind ourselves of some characteristics of this kingdom into which we are called to live (which we are called to see).  It is a kingdom in which the sovereign washes the feet of his “subjects.” It is a kingdom in which the subjects are actually called “friends” of the sovereign.  It is a kingdom that sheds no blood and uses no coercion.  A kingdom in which words of truth reveal the death dealing lies of its opponents. A kingdom characterized by healing, liberation, community, truth telling and reconciled relationships with others and with the physical world in which we live.

My plea is that we remain grounded in the work of this kingdom in this time and in whatever place in which we find ourselves and stop wasting time pursuing the arkies that seek our allegiance.

[i] From Matthew’s Gospel account of Jesus: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” If you consider the surrounding text to be in some sort of chronological order with this assessment you will note that Jesus observed this after having spent a considerable amount of time healing people and dealing with their general brokenness.  In other words, his compassion was not some kind of theoretical construct but grounded in the realness of a broken world.

[ii] Manufactured is the correct word.  We all saw how our “leaders” manufactured a world of fear out of 9/11 (references to “mushroom clouds” as you may recall).  Perhaps we are less aware of how the entire electoral process is also manufactured—propagandized if you will.  See for an example of the complicity of both sides to create the illusion of vigorous debate while assuring that no such thing will happen.  Do I need to provide more example? How about the illusion that “history” began on 9/11?  How about the illusion that the “war on drugs” would solve the problem of addiction and violence? How about the illusion that our unemployment issues are caused by “illegal aliens” even as our economic policies encourage offshoring that drive jobs to the lowest global bidders? How about the illusion that the US stands for justice in the world while history shows its support for the likes of Savimbi, Mobutu, the Saudi royal family, Saddam Hussein (at turns), the Shah of Iran, the Pinochet regime, Hosni Mubarak and various death squads in Central America throughout the 80s?  These, I would argue, are all about the “manufactured reality” in which we all live.

[iii] Now you may object that I am making national elections the critical element of this manufactured reality even as they are only a part of our lives.  Others (here and here for example) have written about the “permanent campaign” and I think there is evidence that more and more of our national debate is conditioned by how it will position the individual politician and her/his party to win the next election.  In this sense national campaigns are critical to creating the reality in which we live.  Decisions (or, more frequently it seems the lack of decisions) that affect our lives are made based on the calculus of how it will positions individuals and parties to do in the next election.

[iv] While it is true that Peter wrote to those who understood themselves as political exiles the context here indicates that he was applying the concept of “alien-ness” to their identity as “priests” and a “chosen people.”

[v] For Eller, a Church of the Brethren theologian, “anarchy” is “unarkiness”—not “against” powers but rather non participation with them.  Now Eller may take this too far and suggest a kind of detachment from engagement in political processes. I would disagree with him on this but feel that his definition is helpful to my thinking.

  1. johnkstoner says:

    Thanks for challenging us to remember our identity and do the most important thing that flows from it. Your discussion of kingdom (near the end) and why it is (still) a usable term as redefined by Jesus is compelling. We need to internalize and memorize the elements of this redefinition. We need to use a political term like “kingdom” because it is political, and the human struggle is inevitably political–i.e. involving public, communal issues and choices in which competing definitions of power struggle for ascendancy.

  2. Lisa Schirch says:

    As you know dear friend- I disagree with your decision.

    To be an Ambassador of Reconciliation means to recognize the choices that are in front of each each day to choose between things that are more or less harmful. We choose what kind of coffee we drink – or we choose not to drink coffee at all since it doesn’t grow in North America. We choose what kind of phone to use – or not to use one at all since ALL of them rely on minerals obtained from exploited people in central Africa and most are made by people paid unfair wages in China. We choose to use bikes as much as possible – or we choose not to leave our homes, since virtually all forms of transportation have a carbon cost.

    We compromise in all aspects of our lives to make choices that are the lesser evil. I have spent most of the last 4 years challenging Obama’s foreign policy and criticizing the Democrats. I do not feel beholden to the Democratic Party in any way.

    But for me choosing to be Ambassador of Reconciliation means that I do not try to keep myself “pure” – since there is no purity in this world. SHall I point out the compromises you make in your life that are not pure? Of course not. We each have things we choose.

    For me, an election is the most important responsibility I have as an Ambassador of Reconciliation. People around the world will suffer if I would take the luxury of trying to keep myself pure by not voting for someone (Obama) who still relies far too often on the fantasy of firepower and violence but whose policies are far more moral than those people currently opposing him.

    I think ultimately I hear you condemning Obama for his faults and compromises. But I for one, would never want to be in government or have the responsibility of figuring out what to do with Syria or how to control the US military industrial complex. It is a luxury to criticize someone from afar while we go on living our relatively comfortable lives with dilemmas of far lesser weight.

    Didn’t Jesus tell us not to look at the log in our neighbor’s eye but the speck of dust in our own? Or not to criticize until we have walked a mile in our neighbor’s shoes?

    Throwing criticisms at Obama seems really cheap when we have so many issues in our own lives that we are compromising on.

    I have to follow my conscience – which is not beholden to the Democratic party in any way – I have to vote. I have to think of the people around the world that want me to vote and to whom i will be accountable.

  3. robbdavis says:

    Hey Lisa – Thanks for reading this and for the thoughtful reply. If you read all four posts (I assume you did) you know that my decision is not about purity. Like you, I am aware of the choices I make each day and the compromises they represent. Rather than about trying to be pure my decision is a rather messy (and ultimately ineffective in human terms) protest. It is a protest against a system that uses people, against a system that claims a form of “lordship.” For me, an Ambassador of Reconciliation can voice a protest against the policies and practices of the nation in which s/he lives. One role of any ambassador is to voice opposition to the policies and practices of the countries to which they are sent.

    Further, what I have written is not a criticism of President Obama. It is an indictment against the system of which he is a part. I do not know the President personally but I believe that if I had the chance to meet him I would need to approach him in love and concern for his wellbeing because he is a human. But he is part of a monstrous system (borrowing an idea from Noam Chomsky). This is NOT about Obama (or Bush or Romney, or…), it is about a system that I have helped to create and which, at some point, I must stand back from and evaluate. Please re-read what I have written. I have cast zero aspersions at President Obama the man. I have not depersonalized him. This it not gratuitous criticism of the man but–like you have done–questioning the policies of the Executive of which he is a part.

    We can disagree about elections being “the most important responsibility I have as an Ambassador of Reconciliation.” To me our ambassadorship is worked out in the day-to-day acts in our communities and the places to which we are sent. Elections have very little to do with what we actually do in the day to day (though I acknowledge that decisions made at the “macro” level will affect what happens in my nearby).

    I said at the outset of these posts that what I am doing is protesting against a system. I too am following my conscience and, because I realize this is an issue, I am NOT trying to achieve some level of purity.

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