I had already planned to be in Kuala Lumpur in early March. Even if I hadn’t, I would have made sure that I voted in the coming Malaysian general elections. I had long decided that the salt and light mandate (Matthew 5:13-16) meant that I was to live out kingdom values in every sphere of life. I have always been clear that this involved my participating in the political life of the country.
I have no illusions about the ability of politics to save the nation. The fundamental problem of humankind is sin. And as James Houston, citing Dallas Willard, reminds us, human institutions, “cannot change the human heart. That is why Jesus did not send out his disciples to change governments or even to build churches, but to change hearts.” (Joyful Exiles, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006, p.87) The growing political awareness of Christians in Malaysia should never distract us from our ongoing task of preaching the gospel.
However the Bible does see civil authority as an institution sanctioned by God to govern the people with justice (Romans 13:1-7). Therefore it is incumbent on Christian citizens in a democracy to participate in the choosing of the people that will make up that authority, to help ensure that those who take office will be people who will govern with justice.
Richard Bauckham roots this aspect of our Christian duty in the work of Christ Himself:
Because the Kingdom of God … embraces the whole of human life, and because (Jesus) identified in love with human beings whose lives were affected by political structures and policies, his mission impinged on the political along with other dimensions of life. (The Bible in Politics, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989, p.142)
Few of us may be called to impact the political process directly by joining political parties or by standing for office. But we all can pray (Ephesians 6:10-20; 1 Timothy 2:1-7)). And we can vote.
What criteria should guide our choice of whom to vote for? There is no direct teaching from Scripture but I can think of three criteria that may be helpful — character, competence, and convictions.
My first criterion is character. Does the candidate have a servant heart? Is he or she running for office because he or she genuinely wants to serve the people? Or does the candidate use political power for personal gain? Is this a person of integrity? Does he really care for the welfare of all communities in his constituency? Is she a person of integrity?
My second criterion is competence. Does this person have the ability to do the job he or she is running for? The candidate may be a nice chap but can he or she get the job done? Does the candidate have a proven track record of successful governance at other levels? If the person has been in office for a few terms already, what is his track record?
My third criterion is convictions. What political convictions does a candidate espouse? Often that means taking a long hard look at the manifesto of the party the candidate represents. Carefully study the positions of the various parties — the National Front, DAP, Parti Islam, Parti Keadilan Rakyat etc. Which party/alliance has an approach to governance that is closest to a biblical worldview? Issues that should concern us would be issues like human rights, religious freedom, abuse of power, corruption, justice, servant-leadership, and a concern for the weak and marginalized.
Proverbs 31:1-9 is one of the few passages that seek to give advice to those in political power. Bauckham, in his analysis of the passage, points out that the passage:
…focused on the notion that political power is a responsibility to be exercised for the sake of others, especially those most in need of help and protection, not a privilege to be enjoyed for the king’s own advantage. (Bauckham, p.44)
Of course it is very possible that, after taking a long hard look at all the candidates through the lens of the above three criteria, you find that none really qualify. Does that mean we should not vote? No, I believe there is still something constructive we can do we can vote for the lesser of evils.
Speaking about the American context, but with wisdom applicable to us, James W. Skillen writes:
Obviously the voter must try to select the better of the two candidates as judged by how they will fill the office. The voter’s decision might be little more than a choice for the lesser of evils, but a vote must be cast. (The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, edited by Robert Banks & R. Paul Stevens, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997, p.1091)
I fear that some of us are too idealistic about the choices we have this side of heaven that we easily become cynical. Cynicism breeds apathy and we end up not voting, thereby throwing away an opportunity to be part of godly influence in the world.
Biblical realism means we know that we are in this for the long haul and that our final hope is in the second coming of Jesus Christ. Therefore we are not discouraged by the imperfections of the present situation and continue to do what we can, trusting that the Lord will take the “five loaves and two fishes” of our efforts and use it for His purposes.
Biblical realism also means that I will accept that Christians may end up with different convictions as to how best to serve the Kingdom of Christ in the political sphere. Some believe that the only realistic way to work for change is to keep on chipping away from within the present ruling alliance. Others will feel that the only way to be true to their consciences is to join an opposition party. Frank and honest debate between the groups can and must take place. But both groups need to be charitable to each other as an expression of their common allegiance to the same Lord.
And it is because we believe in the sovereignty of our Lord that we will not be anxious, either before the elections or after. But we want to be faithful to our Lord. Therefore we will pray. And we will vote come March 8.