It can be tempting to think our civic responsibilities as citizens ends with casting a ballot. Given the deluge of information and commentary from news outlets and endless posts on social media (of which I am especially guilty), it is understandable that following election day we are ready for a break. We are exhausted from the hard work of educating ourselves, mulling over the different positions of the candidates, and hashing out our views with others. There might be some fences to mend following heated debate or vitriolic spats. Sure, we will still keep ourselves informed, but we will put politics and the government on the back burner for a while so we can attend to other matters. Besides, our work is done in electing our representatives, right? Now their work begins to go and represent us.
Writing in First Things Richard J. Mouw reminds us voting is only a small piece of democratic engagement. He writes, “A democracy allows for review, protest, public expressions of dissent, and a variety of opportunities to explain the political decisions that we make. Voting is only one ‘moment’— an important one, to be sure—in a broader a pattern of political participation. Reinhold Niebuhr once explained that while he was going to vote for a Liberal Party candidate, if that candidate won the election Niebuhr would immediately begin to criticize him publicly.”
With the low turnouts of eligible voters in the United States, we think getting people to merely vote is a significant win for our republic. But we sell ourselves and our nation short if we think voting, even well-informed voting, is the fulfillment of our civic participation. It is also our duty and privilege to organize ourselves, petition our leaders, and seek to convince others (as civilly as possible) of our views. Once the results are in on November 9, it would be good to write letters to our leaders, expressing what we expect of them. How are they to represent us if they do not know our views? I doubt your Senator is reading your Facebook posts.
Civic engagement doesn’t only include politics or participation in our role with the government. I’ve written before that for Christians, our most basic political practice is prayer, so I won’t go into that here. There are other civic practices that positively shape our communities and our characters. Intentionally sharing space with our neighbors is a significant step.
Community dinners humanize our neighbors. Volunteering at schools not only strengthens young people’s minds, it also enhances the commitment to education as a communal responsibility. Donating to food banks, and bringing our kids along to see, reminds us of the profound simplicity of sharing.
Like millions of other families we took our kids trick-or-treating on Halloween night. We happen to live within walking distance of Poet’s Corner, a popular neighborhood that attracts lots of people from outside the area. I had not been trick-or-treating since I was a kid and I was overwhelmed by the hospitality of the Poet’s Corner residents—a hospitality shared in countless neighborhoods around the country. Families gladly opened their doors to hand out treats bought with their hard-earned money to children in costume.
Considering our propensity to make our homes castles impervious to unwanted visitors or even differing worldviews, where we can have all we need can simply delivered and we rarely have to leave except to drive somewhere, it is no small thing to see people welcoming strangers onto their stoops and freely giving out candy. Each year the homeowners of a whole cul-de-sac in Poet’s Corner shut off car traffic and decorate their yards to make a magical environment for their guests. We can appreciate the effort those neighbors take. We can also imagine the bonds that form as they share the work of making a fun and silly experience for strangers. This sort of thing is to be celebrated. The civic exchange of trick-or-treating can shape us as a community in a positive way if we take the opportunity to reflect. In what ways might we allow the generosity of that event make us more willing to welcome others? How are we going to live the good life we desire? How are we going to take the lead so that our elected officials will be better able to represent us?