Elisabeth T. Harder graduated from Bethel College in 2000, and now works as a program assistant for MCC in the former Soviet Union, based in Zaporozhye, Ukraine.
Professor John D. Roth's paper has given me a welcome opportunity to reflect again on the question of U.S. Mennonite witness to the state and society. This topic was of great interest to me while studying at Bethel College and then practicing it for two years in the MCC Washington Office. My current environment, among the Evangelical Christian-Baptist churches in Ukraine and Russia, whose history and theology shares much in common with Russian Mennonites, offers an entirely different perspective on the matter. My comments here stem from recent experiences most definitely they are observations rather than a definitive analysis!
I deeply appreciate Roth's concern for closing and preventing the wounds of political partisanship among U.S. Mennonites. Indeed, our faith binds us together. How have we consented to let single-issue politics and especially deeply flawed political parties tear us apart?
It is particularly Roth's proposal to focus on church-based initiatives that deeply resonates within me. I confess that, for all my years and pages of rhetoric against poverty and violence, I had never experienced either, nor truly helped a single person free themselves from one or the other. Now I am much closer to both, and find the issues to be infinitely more complex than I used to espouse. Let's practice before we preach (or as is the case more often, before we sign those all-or-nothing petitions).
I also agree with Roth that a "shared language for political witness," in which the church serves as the reference point, is needed. Congressional aides often say that when the faith community unites and advocates together, it is hard to ignore. And with Roth, I heartily concur that our political witness be diverse, "animated by a spirit of compassion and love." As in all life, our actions within the frenzy of political discourse bear greater witness to our beliefs than words ever could.
But overall, the sabbatical proposal makes me a bit wary. Five years is a risky length of time to withdraw our advocacy on policy-making. During a meeting in a Congressional office several years ago, a senior aide showed our group of faith-based advocates an array of dazzling, glossy brochures sent by military aircraft suppliers. "If we don't hear from you," he said, "we start thinking this is all that's out there." A faithful U.S. Mennonite perspective on public issues is an ethically distinct voice that should not lightly be quieted.
Of course, the U.S. Mennonite body holds a plethora of viewpoints on political issues. So what is our voice saying? It seems to me there is a direct correlation between a) being neither grounded in Scripture nor guided by our faith statements and b) getting swept off our feet by political partisanship. But what if we emphasized the ongoing, active interchange of congregational study of Scripture with the corporate living of our faith in the public square? Might we not become more dynamically, more lastingly united than through a five-year "cooling off" period?
It might also be pointed out that Mennonite groups are already doing much of what Roth proposes. We are carrying out "serious, sustained church-wide conversation about the nature of Christian witness" (MCC Peace Committee), as well as on specific topics such as health care (Anabaptist Center for Health Care Ethics). The task of listening to, representing, and at times educating the church is long term, arduous task not something to be completed or replicated in five years. Shall we abstain from voting and advocacy in the meantime, if the "meantime" is ongoing?
Let me offer several observations from my current perspective in Ukraine:
1. God is ultimately in control, but that doesn't let us off the hook
The recent "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine saw masses of ordinary Ukrainians nonviolently overturn rather blatantly invalid presidential elections. In the end, the opposition candidate was successfully brought into power. It was a remarkable turnaround for a society more accustomed to accepting and learning to deal with its "fate." Wherever one travels in Ukraine, it doesn't take long to come face to face with a new hope that things may just get better in education, the economy, reduction of corruption, or even with regards to shipping MCC canned meat into the country!
How did the Evangelical Christian-Baptist church respond? One typical response came from my host mother: "Why should I vote, since God knows the outcome anyway. Better to pray instead." Not only did her 20-year daughter passionately try to persuade her otherwise, but church leaders did as well. "We will never preach politics from the pulpit, nor tell you who to vote for," said our pastor in a sermon on Romans 13 before the first round of elections. "But the scriptures make it clear that we are citizens of earthly kingdoms, which carries the responsibility to vote in addition to praying." Far from their historical pattern of staying as far out of the public eye as possible, a number of church members even camped out in Kiev's Independence Square for several weeks feeding and tending to the spiritual and emotional needs of fellow protesters.
Creatively sharing our convictions with God-given structures of governance is not only a responsibility. Ukrainians have shown us that it's also an opportunity not to be taken lightly. Roth eloquently writes that "history is shaped not by human might nor by power but by the spirit of the living God." Insofar as the spirit moves within and among us, we are invited to help usher in God's redemptive work in the world.
2. Participation need not be partisanship
Much like the red/blue divide in the U.S., Ukraine was deeply divided into orange (western Ukraine) and blue (eastern) camps. The evangelical Baptist church was just as evenly split as the general population. In one eastern province, church members were stunned to hear from their pastor, just returned from the Kiev rallies, that "faithful Christians" were actually supporting the opposition candidate! After a worship service in the church I attend, a conference leader gave a report on the church's activities at the Kiev rallies. But the report soon turned into a thinly veiled attack on the "establishment" candidate, much to the discomfort of our pastor. Discussion was cut off, and many members were left grumbling about "politicking" in the church.
It's all too easy to get carried away where politics are involved, especially in drawing simple, narrow party lines. But this weakness is not an entirely convincing reason to steer clear of necessary public and congregational discourse during campaign seasons. The Senior Presbyter, who leads the Zaporozhye conference of ECB churches, was under intense pressure from the vying candidates to declare the church for one party or the other. He refused to do so, but instead used the opportunity to share with each party's representatives what the church stands for on issues that are important to it.
The church's voice is given an audience in the U.S. as well, much more so than in Ukraine. Let us also use the opportunity to share what we believe about issues of importance to us. But let's not fall into the common trap of believing that the arbitrary package of issues that the Democrats or Republicans have assembled for us are the only options. May we be truly issue-oriented rather than party-bound.
3. Towards deeper understanding and nuance
"Praise God that Bush was elected!" our assistant pastor exclaimed to me after church one evening last fall. "He's a real Christian." What a trial my Russian language (in)ability was subjected to! I'm afraid I fell well short of my goal: to delve deeper, to unpack the assumptions and stereotypes that undergird sweepingly broad statements like that.
We hear and use them all the time stark positions repeated verbatim from the radio call-in shows or lifted straight from printed political propaganda. Issues become especially stark and divisive when we don't really know what we're talking about. Roth's proposal for intensifying congregational-based initiatives is perhaps the best remedy. Deeper, more personal experience of the issues cannot but deepen our understanding and appreciation for how policies touch actual people.
We can also help prevent and close political divisions by pursuing clarity of language. As I later thought about the above conversation, I realized that a few simple questions could have prevented my subsequently negative stereotyping of this favorite pastor. Most basically, "How do you see Bush living a Christian life?"
Let's take the time and energy for real discussions, helping each other to unpack empty lines we've heard elsewhere, and sharing truthfully from our experiences. And may we be guided in all of this, not by our own interests and agendas, but truly by the spirit of God moving among us.
Copyright © Bethel College
Contact Mennonite Life