Guest Blog by Phil Schmidt, pastor and 2012 graduate of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.
Greetings from Tabor Mennonite Church in rural Kansas. In light of the political tension in our country throughout this last year, our church sought to respond in a way that would unify us as a congregation instead of causing deeper divisions. You see, Kansas is a "red state" and many in our congregation also identify more with Republican ideals of smaller government, lower taxes, etc.... But we also have many people in our congregation that identify with Democratic values of larger government for the purpose of caring more for people living on the margins of society. That being said, over these past months, several people in our congregation suggested that they did not feel good about either the Democrat or Republican candidate for president, saying that they were both bad options. In light of these political conversations taking place all around as well as the country's insistence that we fit into one of two groups (Red vs. Blue), we sought to focus on Jesus and find a third way.
In the weeks leading up to and surrounding the United States Presidential election, we at Tabor Mennonite Church sought to approach the political tension in our country from a centered-set perspective. We sought to center our thought, discussion, and imagination on Jesus in two specific ways:
1) Beginning in September, we invited people in the congregation to join a Faith Formation class in which they would read and discuss Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw's book, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. As the authors say in the book, "Our president is not organizing another political party...Jesus is forming a new kind of people, a different kind of party, whose peculiar politics are embodied in who we are. The church is a people called out of the world to embody a social alternative that the world cannot know on its own terms" (228). This book explores the Bible through this lens and then the last section of the book provides many practical ideas and examples of what this social alternative can look like in the real world. Throughout this Faith Formation class at Tabor, we were challenged to continue centering our minds and imagination on Jesus: how he lived, and how he calls us to live as citizens of God's kingdom each end every day. This also meant shifting our minds and imagination away from the divisive political rhetoric happening all around. The class ended by reading/praying together the "Litany of Resistance" found in Appendix 4 of the book. If you have not read Jesus for President, I encourage you to do so.
2) Beginning in October, we participated in a worship series entitled "Faith and Politics: Living the Sermon on the Mount." Throughout this worship series, we reflected on passages from Jesus' revolutionary Sermon on the Mount paired with other powerful passages of scripture (e.g. James 3:13-18, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 22:15-22) that all emphasized giving our full allegiance to God's upside-down kingdom. Each Sunday, we sought to name the tension in our political system while focusing on the teachings of Jesus to be agents of peace and reconciliation, to live fruitful lives, to treasure up treasures in heaven, etc.... Each Sunday, we prayed the Lord's Prayer together following the intercessory structure of Week 1 in Take Our Moments and Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayer Book. Finally, we ended each service with a benediction in Jesus' words from Matthew 5:13-16: "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." Our constant encouragement throughout this series was to be salt and light by giving our allegiance to Jesus and God's kingdom (and not to a particular political party, platform, or person).
On the Sunday following the presidential election, we did not celebrate a victory for the Republicans. Nor did we mourn a loss for the Democrats. Rather, we named the fear and pain experienced by many people in our country, especially those living on the margins of society. In the midst of fear and rioting, we prayed for God's peace to reign. And, we again declared our allegiance to God's kingdom and to Christ's way of reconciliation.
Throughout these last weeks, we have sought to center our focus and imagination on Jesus and God's in-breaking kingdom. Some in the congregation resisted the direction we took in this series, suggesting that I preach a sermon in which I would encourage everyone in the congregation to vote in the upcoming election (and they made it clear to me which candidate was the correct one to vote for).
However, I did not take their advice to encourage people in my congregation to vote for the president of the United States. Rather, I preached a sermon entitled "vote with your life," in which my encouragement was for us all to vote each and every day for God's kingdom through acts of compassion, service, and love. After all, in God's kingdom, the polls are always open (it is best to vote early and often)!
On the other hand, several people in the congregation expressed appreciation for the approach we took through this Faith Formation elective and worship series. During one of our Jesus for President discussions, two young people from our congregation decided that they would spend their Thanksgiving weekend traveling to Standing Rock, North Dakota, to join Christian Peacemaker Teams in standing with the Sioux people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. This kind of creative action is a natural result of centering our minds, hearts, and imaginations on Jesus and God's in-breaking kingdom.
I pray that all followers of Jesus can likewise resist the divisive thinking of conservatives vs. liberals and instead pursue a third way, embracing imagination and opportunities to embody God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
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We invite readers to share in the comment section ways you have in recent days sought to lessen division and polarization through centered ways, and ways you have reached out to those on the margins living who are living with increased levels of fear.