Why I Burned My Ballot

I burned my ballot for many reasons, but first and foremost because I do not believe in punitive justice.

This conviction arises directly from my Christian faith, and is further supported by reason and real-life examples.

Christians across the board would probably agree (at least in theory) that personal revenge is a sin, and that is often how they interpret Christ's teaching to turn the other cheek. However, when Christ spoke of "an eye for an eye", he was referring to the basis for Israel's legal system, and punitive justice systems in general.

The Law, i.e. laws, i.e. the punitive justice system, was not inherently bad in its time and place. It was initiated as one step in the establishment of the Kingdom of God, one location on the journey.

In his book The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Tolstoy speaks of three "conceptions of life":

"The whole historic existence of mankind is nothing else than the gradual transition from the personal, animal conception of life to the social conception of life, and from the social conception of life to the divine conception of life. The whole history of the ancient peoples, lasting through thousands of years and ending with the history of Rome, is the history of the transition from the animal, personal view of life to the social view of life. The whole of history from the time of the Roman Empire and the appearance of Christianity is the history of the transition, through which we are still passing now, from the social view of life to the divine view of life."

Translating his logic into more conventional Christian lingo, he is speaking of the pre-Mosaic era, the era initiated by Moses, and the era initiated by Jesus: Three eras, and three paradigms for justice.

In humans, the desire for justice goes hand-in-hand with the desire for retribution. Before laws and governments, all retribution was personal revenge. Then, legal systems such as the Code of Hammurabi or that of Israel restrained excessive evil by putting reasonable limits on retribution: One eye for one eye, no more.

This system is a huge improvement over unbounded retaliation, but it still has many problems. First of all, it relies on human understanding and conscience to decide what is just. When humans disagree over who is a victim and who is guilty, or what is a fair punishment, echoes of violent retributive justice play out, dragging on for years or even centuries. Second, while the goal is to limit the damage from evil, violent retributive justice often causes further damage. This has been pointed out by many in America today noticing that the war on drugs is more destructive than drugs themselves, or that the war in Afghanistan has resulted in more civilian deaths than the September 11th attacks. It was also pointed out by Gandhi, who noted that "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind."

Finally, Jesus introduced a third paradigm of justice: Active non-retaliation. We all desire a world with less evil and less destruction. (Such was the goal of the legal paradigm.) So, instead of returning evil for evil (creating a net increase in evil), return good for evil. The paradigm is logical - but only if you love others as yourself, valuing their safety, security, and survival as much as your own. Putting this paradigm into practice is automatically evangelistic, because if you practice it on someone who still holds on to the old paradigm (returning good for his evil) you will catch him off guard. He will have expected you to either cower passively, or retaliate actively. You will introduce a small crack in his worldview, or widen a crack if one already exists. The Christian paradigm aims to convert evil people instead of killing them or crippling their capacity to do evil.

So in the pre-Mosaic or personal conception of life, retribution is made at a personal level. In the Mosaic or social conception of life, retribution is made at a societal level, i.e. politically. And finally, in the Christian or divine conception of life, retribution is left to God. As Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' To the contrary, 'if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Thus, our innate human desire for retribution is addressed even in the Christian paradigm for justice.

The progression from personal, to social, to divine conception of life can be observed not only in history, but in individual human development. (Maturation recapitulates history!) Young children seek retribution by hitting or biting. (Personal/animal conception of life.) Eventually they learn to scream for Mom, Dad, or a teacher (or the police) when wronged, trusting that the authority figures will make fair retribution on their behalf. (Social/legal/Mosaic conception of life.) And a small minority of people manage to develop further, into the divine/Christian conception of life, in which they return good for evil and any retribution is left to God, the only fair arbiter.

The Christian paradigm of justice does not work well when mixed with the Mosaic or pre-Mosaic paradigms of justice. "No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved." (Matthew 9:16-17, ESV) The attempt to convert your enemies into friends (and followers of Christ) will not work if you also physically attack them. If you preach grace and forgiveness, then seek the punishment of others, few will take seriously your message of grace and forgiveness. To quote Tony Campolo, "When government and church begin to mix, you got a problem. It's like mixing ice cream with horse manure: You will not ruin the horse manure, but it will ruin the ice cream. I think to mix the church and state is to, in fact, put the church in a compromising position."

So, back to voting: The government, which is based on the principle of retaliatory justice, is by definition opposed to Christian values. (It is not significantly opposed to Mosaic values.) Democracy is an improvement over past forms of government, but still exists squarely in the same legal paradigm of justice. By voting, I would be participating in this system, and indicating my approval of it, even as I claim to follow Christ. (Voting is not the only way or the worst way to participate in punitive justice: Calling the police on people, testifying against them in court, sueing, joining the military, holding political office, holding judicial positions, serving on a jury, practicing law, refusing to hire felons - these are all ways we can participate in, and endorse, legalism. And so as Christians, we should do none of them.)

Non-cooperation with evil is not the same as cloistering ourselves from evil. We must engage evil and injustice, but not by wielding evil ourselves. As exemplified by Christ, we should return good for evil. For evidence of the practicability and effectiveness of this, I submit the careers of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, St. Francis of Assisi, and Shane Claiborne. (There are countless other examples less well known.) Our own personal safety and survival is not guaranteed - but neither is it guaranteed when we take up the sword. In fact in any case we are guaranteed to die, and in any case we will leave some kind of mark on the world. If we return evil for evil, we will leave the world a worse place than when we entered.

I seriously considered voting against punitive justice by donating my vote to a felon. But then I realized that while arming the oppressed is the democratic way, it's not the Christian way. After all, the motion of the Kingdom of God is to disarm - to make swords into ploughshares, to make enemies into friends, to make hatred into love. A vote is, in a sense, a weapon: it is a small piece of power we can use to forcefully coerce other people (by proxy) into behaving a certain way. And so, in the spirit of making swords into ploughshares, I burned my ballot and composted the ashes.

I end with Adin Ballou's Catechism of Non-Resistance, as it appears in Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You. (Adin Ballou was an American Universalist/Unitarian minister, abolitionist, and pacifist in the 1800s.)


  1. Whence is the word "non-resistance" derived?
  1. From the command, "Resist not evil." (M. v. 39.)
  1. What does this word express?
  1. It expresses a lofty Christian virtue enjoined on us by Christ.
  1. Ought the word "non-resistance" to be taken in its widest sense--that is to say, as intending that we should not offer any resistance of any kind to evil?
  1. No; it ought to be taken in the exact sense of our Saviour's teaching--that is, not repaying evil for evil. We ought to oppose evil by every righteous means in our power, but not by evil.
  1. What is there to show that Christ enjoined non-resistance in that sense?
  1. It is shown by the words he uttered at the same time. He said: "Ye have heard, it was said of old, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you Resist not evil. But if one smites thee on the right cheek, turn him the other also; and if one will go to law with thee to take thy coat from thee, give him thy cloak also."
  1. Of whom was he speaking in the words, "Ye have heard it was said of old"?
  1. Of the patriarchs and the prophets, contained in the Old Testament, which the Hebrews ordinarily call the Law and the Prophets.
  1. What utterances did Christ refer to in the words, "It was said of old"?
  1. The utterances of Noah, Moses, and the other prophets, in which they admit the right of doing bodily harm to those who inflict harm, so as to punish and prevent evil deeds.
  1. Quote such utterances.
  1. "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed."--GEN. ix. 6.

    "He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death... And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." --Ex. xxi. 12 and 23-25.

    "He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death. And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbor, as he hath done, so shall it be done unto him: breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth."--LEV. xxiv. 17, 19, 20.

    "Then the judges shall make diligent inquisition; and behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother, then shall ye do unto him as he had thought to have done unto his brother... And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."--DEUT. xix. 18, 21.

    Noah, Moses, and the Prophets taught that he who kills, maims, or injures his neighbors does evil. To resist such evil, and to prevent it, the evil doer must be punished with death, or maiming, or some physical injury. Wrong must be opposed by wrong, murder by murder, injury by injury, evil by evil. Thus taught Noah, Moses, and the Prophets. But Christ rejects all this. "I say unto you," is written in the Gospel, "resist not evil," do not oppose injury with injury, but rather bear repeated injury from the evil doer. What was permitted is forbidden. When we understand what kind of resistance they taught, we know exactly what resistance Christ forbade.

  1. Then the ancients allowed the resistance of injury by injury?
  1. Yes. But Jesus forbids it. The Christian has in no case the right to put to death his neighbor who has done him evil, or to do him injury in return.
  1. May he kill or maim him in self-defense?
  1. No.
  1. May he go with a complaint to the judge that he who has wronged him may be punished?
  1. No. What he does through others, he is in reality doing himself.
  1. Can he fight in conflict with foreign enemies or disturbers of the peace?
  1. Certainly not. He cannot take any part in war or in preparations for war. He cannot make use of a deadly weapon. He cannot oppose injury to injury, whether he is alone or with others, either in person or through other people.
  1. Can he voluntarily vote or furnish soldiers for the government?
  1. He can do nothing of that kind if he wishes to be faithful to Christ's law.
  1. Can he voluntarily give money to aid a government resting on military force, capital punishment, and violence in general?
  1. No, unless the money is destined for some special object, right in itself, and good both in aim and means.
  1. Can he pay taxes to such a government?
  1. No; he ought not voluntarily to pay taxes, but he ought not to resist the collecting of taxes. A tax is levied by the government, and is exacted independently of the will of the subject. It is impossible to resist it without having recourse to violence of some kind. Since the Christian cannot employ violence, he is obliged to offer his property at once to the loss by violence inflicted on it by the authorities.
  1. Can a Christian give a vote at elections, or take part in government or law business?
  1. No; participation in election, government, or law business is participation in government by force.
  1. Wherein lies the chief significance of the doctrine of non-resistance?
  1. In the fact that it alone allows of the possibility of eradicating evil from one's own heart, and also from one's neighbor's. This doctrine forbids doing that whereby evil has endured for ages and multiplied in the world. He who attacks another and injures him, kindles in the other a feeling of hatred, the root of every evil. To injure another because he has injured us, even with the aim of overcoming evil, is doubling the harm for him and for oneself; it is begetting, or at least setting free and inciting, that evil spirit which we should wish to drive out. Satan can never be driven out by Satan. Error can never be corrected by error, and evil cannot be vanquished by evil.

    True non-resistance is the only real resistance to evil. It is crushing the serpent's head. It destroys and in the end extirpates the evil feeling.

  1. But if that is the true meaning of the rule of non-resistance, can it always put into practice?
  1. It can be put into practice like every virtue enjoined by the law of God. A virtue cannot be practiced in all circumstances without self-sacrifice, privation, suffering, and in extreme cases loss of life itself. But he who esteems life more than fulfilling the will of God is already dead to the only true life. Trying to save his life he loses it. Besides, generally speaking, where non-resistance costs the sacrifice of a single life or of some material welfare, resistance costs a thousand such sacrifices.

    Non-resistance is Salvation; Resistance is Ruin.

    It is incomparably less dangerous to act justly than unjustly, to submit to injuries than to resist them with violence, less dangerous even in one's relations to the present life. If all men refused to resist evil by evil our world would be happy.

  1. But so long as only a few act thus, what will happen to them?
  1. If only one man acted thus, and all the rest agreed to crucify him, would it not be nobler for him to die in the glory of non-resisting love, praying for his enemies, than to live to wear the crown of Caesar stained with the blood of the slain? However, one man, or a thousand men, firmly resolved not to oppose evil by evil are far more free from danger by violence than those who resort to violence, whether among civilized or savage neighbors. The robber, the murderer, and the cheat will leave them in peace, sooner than those who oppose them with arms, and those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword, but those who seek after peace, and behave kindly and harmlessly, forgiving and forgetting injuries, for the most part enjoy peace, or, if they die, they die blessed. In this way, if all kept the ordinance of non-resistance, there would obviously be no evil nor crime. If the majority acted thus they would establish the rule of love and good will even over evil doers, never opposing evil with evil, and never resorting to force. If there were a moderately large minority of such men, they would exercise such a salutary moral influence on society that every cruel punishment would be abolished, and violence and feud would be replaced by peace and love. Even if there were only a small minority of them, they would rarely experience anything worse than the world's contempt, and meantime the world, though unconscious of it, and not grateful for it, would be continually becoming wiser and better for their unseen action on it. And if in the worst case some members of the minority were persecuted to death, in dying for the truth they would have left behind them their doctrine, sanctified by the blood of their martyrdom. Peace, then, to all who seek peace, and may overruling love be the imperishable heritage of every soul who obeys willingly Christ's word, "Resist not evil."