Congregational unity or the decision to vote?by Daniel Hertzler
To vote or not to vote. That is a question. For many, it is considered a responsibility. If a democracy is to function, candidates need to be elected. There are periodic campaigns to "get out the vote."
On the other hand, for some Christians voting is seen to imply too much. In Third Way Allegiance, Tripp York writes, "One way to resist the powers that be, I imagine, is by neither voting nor taking office."
Others have noticed how political loyalties can divide churches. Ervin Stutzman mentioned this is a sermon to the Mennonite Church USA convention in Pittsburgh in July 2011. He suggested that if political opinions are dividing the church, we had better "get off the bus."
With an eye on this issue, Conrad Mast observed the toxic nature of today's politics and urged Scottdale (Pa.) Mennonite Church to "move forward in faith. Don't rub each other's noses."
I have voted regularly, sometimes without great hope and quite often, as I was to find, for losers. I have felt more conviction to vote for school board candidates and for township supervisors than for county commissioners or judges I don't really know.
In presidential elections, the issues are so highlighted and debated that it seems there must be a difference. I'm quite convinced that there have been national elections when a better candidate lost and that history would have been better with the other one. Yet we have survived thus far as we trust that by the grace of God we may continue.
In the article on "Voting" in Mennonite Encyclopedia, H.S. Bender wrote, "American Mennonites themselves have generally exercised their right to suffrage, including even very conservative groups like the Old Order Amish."
Bender was not basing this opinion on a careful survey although he did observe some who were concerned that to support a person in office identified too closely with what the official later did.
Bender had not talked to my father who abstained from voting with a clear conviction. I never heard where he learned this and cannot remember any discussion of voting in our local congregation. Some Mennonites on the school board must have been elected.
However, on one occasion a candidate visited our home to ask for his vote. He replied with tongue in cheek, "You are a Democrat and I am a Republican."
His view on the issue was probably based on a position developed out of responses to the Civil War. These are described by James O. Lehman and Stephen Nolt in Mennonites and Amish in the American Civil War.
They show that Mennonites in Eastern Pennsylvania had political friends and were able to negotiate abstentions from conscription for men of draft age.
Mennonites voted regularly to keep their friends in office.
"Ohio and Indiana Mennonites lacked the political clout and connections of those in Eastern Pennsylvania," write Lehman and Nolt. From the Midwest came leadership which proposed that Mennonites should be wary of political activity.
Among those who pointed the way were John F. Funk, editor of Herald of Truth, and Bishop John Brenneman from Western Ohio. Originally inclined to support the Union cause, Funk gained conviction against war.
He wrote a tract entitled "Warfare: It's Evils, Our Duty" and printed 1,000 copies. He also published a longer piece by Bishop Brenneman, who challenged participation in the political system.
"Politics was an 'inconsistency,'" he wrote and anyone who professes and then votes "acts in opposition to the non-resistant principles of their profession."
"Therefore, be separate," Brenneman concluded. "Run not with others … let us not be entangled with the trifles and follies of this presidential world." This perspective would seem to account for my father's position.
At the end of their book, Lehman and Nolt observe, "A two-kingdom people in a world of multiple identities, Mennonites and Amish faced the challenges of faithfulness and relevance, and formulated divergent responses to that tension."
This tension is better informed if we recognize that the United States operates like an empire. It is not the simple, little democracy praised in:
My country 'tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty.
If we recognize the signs of empire we are better able to devise an appropriate response.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has suggested a strategy. He says that, like the Jews in the Babylonian and Persian empires, the churches "must live agilely in the midst of the deeply problematic power of the U.S. empire."
He observes, however, that U. S. Christians "are accustomed to read the Bible with the United States cast in the role of God's chosen people and carrier of God's will for the world, an exceptionalism that pervades our public discourse."
He proposes rather that Christians should view the United States as an empire, going back as far as the Monroe Doctrine and that today "'national interest' has evolved into 'domination.'"
The Apostle Paul perceived that there were power issues in Corinth and in Chapter 1 he was seeking to offer a model to promote congregational unity. But the example he cited was broadly political: Jesus, the Messiah, died at the behest of an empire.
Paul asserted that the Son of God dying on a cross without fighting back showed the way God works in the world. In support of this he cited two, or maybe even three, Old Testament texts (Isaiah 29:14, Jeremiah 9: 24, and Richard B. Hays suggests 1 Samuel 2:10 in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible).
But, as Paul acknowledged, this made no sense to Greeks and was offensive to Jews, who expected that "The Messiah should be a man of power, manifesting supernatural proofs of God's favor. Greeks, quite reasonably, looked for wisdom, reasonable accounts of the order of things presented in a logically compelling and aesthetically pleasing manner" (Richard B. Hays, 1 Corinthians, 31).
For us Mennonites, who are not famous for congregational unity, this is an important message for congregational politics. Can we generalize from it to inform our place in the empire? Can it help us to "live agilely" as Brueggemann puts it?
The late John Howard Yoder thought long and hard about the issues which emerge when Christians attempt to live faithfully in the political order. He insisted that we should not try to control history, but to live righteous lives and let history to God.
For the Nations, a book published in 1997, the year he died, contains a speech he made to a church group in South Africa in 1979. He contrasted "The Spirit of God and the Politics of Men." Drawing on the Servant texts in Isaiah 42 and 43, he highlighted a dozen contrasts, including the following:
"In the politics of rebellious men, all history is a zero sum game. Pillage is as good as cooperation as long as you get what you need.
"In the Spirit of God, on the other hand, we hope, we communicate, we invent, we are free to improve the rules of the game so that you can win without my losing."
This is about as far from the current political battles in the United States as it is possible to move.
It seems obvious as a model for congregational politics. Beyond this it provides a grid for use when we perceive partisanship has gone to seed. In the end to vote or not to vote may not be the ultimate question although Tripp York's observation is appropriate.
More important is congregational unity. Whether or not all in the congregation agree on the candidates or the issues (and they probably will not) they can agree in the spirit of 1 Timothy 1:2 to pray for "all who are in high positions."
Daniel Hertzler is a member of Scottdale (Pa.) Mennonite Church and instructor for Unit 2 "The Biblical Story" in Pastoral Studies Distance Education, a college level correspondence course from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.
Photo by David Hiebert.
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