Why I didn’t care about politics…until I went to Haiti

I hate to admit things like this, but the only thing I remember about either of the last two Presidential elections was that final day when all of the votes were being tallied and my friends and I sat around the TV waiting to hear the official announcement of who had won. That’s all I remember, because, that’s all that I participated in.

I’ve been of voting age for 10 years and was eligible to vote in the last two Presidential elections. But both times I refrained, throwing out cliches like “Vote for Jesus” and acting like I was somehow above all this political nonsense. In reality, I was uninformed about the myriad of issues at stake in these elections, ignorant as to who stood where on what (with the exception of abortion and marriage equality, the two issues that are so painstakingly argued over in American politics that it’s hard not to know who stands where), and too lazy to do the work of learning about the candidates and the issues.

This year, I have been shocked at how engrossed I’ve become in the current Presidential election.  I’ve watched every debate, read article after article from various news sources on each of the candidates, researched historical perspectives on various issues at stake, and am prepared to go and vote next week.  I realized recently that my attentiveness to what is happening on the American political front is largely because of my connection to Haiti.

I’ve had an interest in Haiti ever since I visited for the first time in January 2001. In the last two years following the 2010 earthquake, I’ve had the opportunity to visit Haiti a few more times and have become mildly obsessed with learning all I can about this country, her history and her people. The United States, for ill or for good, has been highly involved in the life of Haitians. At various times we’ve intervened with military and/or political power ¹, we’ve made economic decisions in the name of “aid” which in the end benefitted our own economy while simultaneously crippling the Haitian economy ², and we continue to discriminate against Haitian immigrants more readily than we do any other immigrant population ³.  I have become increasingly consumed in politics as a direct result of learning about American oppression of Haitians and witnessing first hand some of the effects of the vastly inequitable relationship between the two countries.

For me, and probably way more Americans than are given credit to, this election doesn’t boil down to the two social issues of abortion and gay marriage.  This feels especially true as I think through what it means to make a Christian faith-based decision regarding who to vote for.  I am much more interested in how we are working toward a common good for all people, including those abroad.  This means when I hear conversations about economics, I am looking for how we address poverty and not how to keep the middle class comfortable.  When I hear about foreign policy, I am concerned about how we, as Americans, view ourselves as a part of this world and not just look to our own security and self-interests.

I believe that our life in Christ far outweighs any sense of national identity that we are given, but I also believe that life in Christ invites us into action on behalf of our neighbors, to advocate for those in our communities who are most vulnerable.  This means caring for the vulnerable on a personal level, but also fighting against those systems which seek to perpetuate their vulnerability.

And so I am learning about the candidates, learning about the issues, exercising my right to vote, and recognizing that I participate in a system that impacts real people.  My faith has led me, in this season at least, to take the responsibility of voting seriously and to vote according to the values I have: care for the widows, orphans, and strangers, compassion for those on the margins and “the least of these”, active resistance and protest against violence, love for justice which restores and reconciles, and humility in the face of the complexity that we face in our national life.

Mirslov Volf has an excellent series entitled, “Values of a Public Faith” posted here.  I highly recommend it.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_occupation_of_Haiti

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/20/with-cheap-food-imports-h_n_507228.html

[3] Haitian Protection Act of 2009, Cong. Rec., 111th Cong., 1st sess., 2009, H. R. 144., 5