Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, November 14, 2004
by Susan Ives
My favorite election story doesn’t involve paper trails, lines in Ohio or even the inequities of the Electoral College. It’s an African tale, told by Barbara Kinsolver in her 1998 novel “The Poisonwood Bible.”
The book is about a family of missionaries serving in the Congo in 1960, the year the country won independence from Belgium and held its first election. In each village they set up clay pots. Next to each pot lay the candidates’ symbols: a knife, matches, a cooking pot. The village men voted by throwing a pebble in a pot.
A few months later a village elder, Tata Ndu, announces that the people are going to hold another election right then, during the church service.
“Church is not the place to vote anyone in or out of public office,” the missionary protests.
“Church is the place for it,” Tata Ndu responds. “We are making a vote for Jesus Christ in the office of personal God, Kilanga village.”
The clay voting bowls are quickly set up in front of the altar: one for Jesus, the other against. “This is blasphemy!” the missionary shouts.
Tata Ndu interrupts. “White men have brought us many programs to improve our thinking. The program of Jesus and the program of elections. You say these things are good. You cannot now say they are not good.”
“In America we honor both these traditions. But we make our decisions about them in different houses,” the missionary replies.
Tata Ndu explains the village decision-making process. “Since the time of our mankulu we have made our laws without the help from white men. Our way was to share a fire until it burned down. To speak to each other until every person was satisfied.
“White men tell us: Vote, Bantu! They tell us: you do not all have to agree. If two men vote yes and one says no, the matter is finished. Even a child can tell how that will end. It takes three stones in the fire to hold up the pot. Take away one, leave the other two, and what? The pot will spill into the fire.
“Jesus is a white man, so he will understand the laws of the majority,” Tata Ndu concludes.
Jesus lost, 11-56.
There are many lessons in these six pages. First, faith decisions are not made in the same way as political decisions.
We sometimes forget that. A few weeks ago I heard a young man speak at UTSA. He was articulate and engaged in politics, but what he said was disturbing.
I am a Christian and have faith in God, he said. I haven’t seen God, I may not always understand his works, but I have faith in an unseen and unknowable God.
I also have faith in President Bush, he continued. I’ve never met him and he may not reveal to me everything that he is doing, but I have faith that he is carrying out God’s work.
Others have told me the same thing: When they cast their vote for Bush they were putting their pebble into the Jesus pot. Faith in God is a leap into the unknown and the unknowable, and so it should be.
But blind faith has no place in government and politics; they are based on reason and transparency. We need to remember what the missionary said: We make our decisions in different houses, in different ways.
The second lesson is that there are many ways to make public decisions. As we export democracy to other countries we must be respectful of traditions that may be surprisingly more inclusive than a majority-rules democratic system.
Finally, we need to remember that without three stones holding up the pot, the pot will tip over.
The president has been sending mixed messages about his second term. He has said that he will reach out across the aisle. But he has also said, “I earned capital in the campaign — political capital — and now I intend to spend it.” Will he be president of all the people or just those who voted for him?
The election was not the end. It is just the beginning of a long night sitting around the fire until every voice is heard.