by Berry Friesen
Congregations often take pains to be scrupulously apolitical in a year when a United States (US) President is elected.
This self-censorship is sometimes justified by reference to the Internal Revenue Code, but that doesn’t wash: a congregation’s tax exempt status is in jeopardy when it makes explicit candidate endorsements, not when it preaches the social and economic implications of the Bible.
More to the point, most congregations want to avoid giving offense during a season when people are easily riled due to the charged atmosphere of an acrimonious campaign.
Out of caution, then, we likely will hear less-than-usual from our pulpits during 2016 about widows and orphans, refugees and aliens, state-sponsored violence, dealing with criminals, the responsibilities of political leaders, or how economic opportunities and burdens should be allocated.
Yet Jesus chose a time when the public’s attention was most focused on political dynamics (the annual commemoration of the Passover in Jerusalem) to highlight the most potentially offensive aspects of his message. That’s how Jesus went about “taking up his cross.”
Can we imagine 2016 as an ideal time to bring the implications of Jesus’ message to bear on life here in the US? Sure, such discussions are likely to upset some people, but amid the ferment we can depend on the Spirit of God to be at work.
Toward that end, here is a list of suggestions to be worked into sermons, adult education classes and community forums.
- Reading through the letters of Paul and other New Testament authors, we see no concern whatsoever about who leads the Roman Empire. One gets the impression the early church regarded it as an irrelevancy. Why is our behavior today so different? Is it only because we have elections? If we feel passionately about who should be the next Commander-in-Chief of the empire, might we have invested in the wrong kingdom?
- Much has been written about the anger and restlessness of the US electorate. Getting in touch with those feelings can be a doorway to compassion for our neighbors and ministry within our neighborhoods. Why are people so angry and restless?
–Over the last 25 years, US-initiated wars have caused at least four million Muslim deaths and left five Islamic nations in chaos (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen). No candidate will say so, but it is obvious that the US is targeting Islam and Muslim nations. When we affirm our welcome of Muslim refugees, can we also speak honestly about why they are refugees?
–The purchasing power of wages has hardly increased at all for working people since 1973. Yet worker productivity has increased by 72 percent over that time and the country as a whole is much wealthier. Where has all the money gone?
–Terror attacks in the US are sensationalized by the media and used by politicians to restrict individual liberties, increase military spending and legitimize war. Yet the investigations of these crimes are inexplicably narrow and media discussions are surprisingly scripted. Why?
- We are living in a nation whose leaders expect endless war. As they tell it (and we hear this especially during an election year), war is the price of being the world’s leader, “the one indispensable nation,” an “exceptional nation.” This is empire talk; it is the way the reigning superpower justifies violence and domination.
Yet the Bible tells us YHWH opposes empires. Is the US-led empire an exception? Should Jesus-following congregations understand themselves to be communities of resistance to this empire?
Let’s view 2016 as an opportunity to engage our communities with the Way of Jesus. Let’s not hide the light of Jesus under a bushel just because a presidential campaign is going on.
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, PA and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. He blogs at http://www.bible-and-empire.net