Thursday, March 20, 2014

In all things…

Last Thursday, Plymouth Creek hosted an event unique to my pastoral experience: a political news conference. Here’s the news. One of our members- Sharon Sund- decided to run for U.S. Congress. The district within which Plymouth Creek sits, and most of its members vote, is Minnesota’s 3rd, currently represented by Erik Paulsen. Sharon has participated in political organizations and causes as long as we’ve known her, and before. It’s one way she puts her faith into practice, advocating for public policies she believes in. Indeed, you may remember that during the 2012 election cycle, she sought the DFL endorsement for this seat, but lost during caucuses. After much thought and prayer, she decided this time was right for her, so she’s now challenging Rep. Paulsen.

Thus, two Sundays back, she asked her church to host last Thursday’s event. She set up a podium outside our building, invited supporters and reporters to attend, and made a speech declaring her candidacy, after which she took several questions. As her pastor, I welcomed the guests, then went off to the side- away from cameras- to watch the proceedings. In fact, I stood with a couple college students who attended, members of a local Young Republicans club, and we chatted about ice fishing and their political interests. It was a nice, civil event all around.

But it’s also a tricky one for a local church, isn’t it? Politics and faith sometimes mix poorly. First, there are tax implications for certain political activities a congregation might pursue. We’re allowed to advocate for specific issues, even public policies the church deems important. Were we, say, to join the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition’s current efforts to curtail payday lending in Minnesota, we could set up phone banks, host letter writing sessions, invite speakers and much else to further the cause. And in doing so, our tax-exempt status would not be at risk. However, should Plymouth Creek ever endorse a specific candidate, we’d be in violation of the law as a tax-exempt religious institution. Even if that candidate is a member. Hence why I didn’t appear on camera during Sharon’s speech.

Besides, we’re not a politically monolithic congregation. Some of you may vote for Sharon, while others probably won’t. And for the church or its leadership to behave in ways that overlook that diversity would be a disservice to our members. In fact, I’m convinced it would be a disservice not just to this church community, but the broader community too. One of the fundamental failures of our current political culture, as I see it, is the hardened partisanship and persistent meanness that permeates news and campaigns. I’ve read reports in recent weeks of activists and candidates across the spectrum behaving disgracefully- belittling opponents with differing views, questioning not simply their goals but their characters and basic goodness, comparisons to Hitler, hyperbole, invective, and smug, ironic disdain. It’s like we Americans forgot that we can have political adversaries without treating them as mortal enemies. It’s like we’ve given up on believing that people of good faith can disagree.

Our church tradition, by contrast, rests entirely upon that conviction. Freedom of belief is a core Plymouth Creek (and Disciples of Christ) value, which extends to politics as much as scripture reading. Remember the old frontier days rallying cry? “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.” Would that be uttered more often in the White House and halls of Congress, we’d be better off, I’m convinced. Which is to say that, when one of our own asked her church to stand with her as she took this brave step, it wasn’t to endorse her partisan candidacy. We couldn’t, and shouldn’t, do that; we’re a diverse group. Rather, it reflected one of the best things about us, this hope that though we differ sometimes, we can love at all times; supporting our sister in her chosen way of following Jesus, even if some vote and believe differently. That’s the Disciples way of doing church, of building community, and it’s a way I couldn’t believe in stronger. Kindness and dignity, respect and freedom, offered to all, for all are God’s children.

Grace and Peace,
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