Current Conversation:  Reforming Political Discourse

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Gratitude, immigrants, and our brother Jeff Sessions

As a final case study from our small church, I would like to present a sermon I gave on June 17th, 2018. Our fellowship observes communion about once a month, and this was given right before communion. The greater context was the news of that week: President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had hardened their immigration policy on the US-Mexico border, and begun detaining immigrants, even those guilty of the misdemeanor of entering U.S. soil for the first time, separating the children of these immigrants, and taking the children into custodial care, and removing them far from the parents, in some cases. Attorney General Sessions attempted to justify this action to his fellow church members as an application of Romans 13.

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Counting the Cost of Ministry Together

I am grateful for having read Will Fitzgerald's post regarding the ministry at work in the Kalamazoo Mennonite Fellowship.  I have an immense amount of respect for small church ministry - I cut my teeth doing ministry in small group settings. I have found that the smaller the church, the more intense the relationships and the deeper the discipleship.  It is incredibly challenging to get more than a handful of congregationalists to agree on nearly anything. Small churches likely represent the future of the church in America and we ought to live into their example.

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Transformational Advocacy

In 2012 the Office of Social Justice (OSJ) coordinated hundreds of letters to encourage Christian Indonesian immigrants who were living in Highland Park Reformed Church to avoid deportation. We also coordinated hundreds of letters to Congress, urging legislation that would allow these Christians, who came to the U.S. fleeing persecution, to gain legal permanent residence in the United States.

Highland Park Reformed Church started sharing their building with an Indonesian congregation in the late 1990s—not for immigration sanctuary but as a shared space where both congregations could worship. Members of the Indonesian congregation had recently left their predominantly Muslim country at that time and arrived in the U.S. on tourist visas which were offered as means of quick escape from the danger they were in as members of a minority religion in their home country. Once in the U.S. they had a year to apply for permanent asylum but many say they were unaware the necessity of that crucial step. Because they never adjusted their status, when their first year ended they were living here illegally and the window for a chance at permanent legal status was officially closed.

 

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Joyful Engagement

My wife was confirmed at First Presbyterian Church, another one of the “downtown churches” that sit on Bronson Park, our town square. Later, her family moved to a smaller Presbyterian congregation, North Presbyterian Church, on the integrated North side of Kalamazoo, where she became a member. Much later, after we were married, we moved to Kalamazoo and became members there together. North Presbyterian was a wonderful congregation, with a strong gospel witness, great Bible teaching, active participation in the community, and a membership where a third to a half of the congregation had diagnosed mental illnesses. It was always a bit of a poor relation to the downtown church, and eventually had to leave its building.

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A Body at Work: Politics, Protest, and Praise

Recently I was asked by a frustrated Christian how I might respond to the imprecation, "keep your damned politics out of my church."  I asked her to allow me think on this - as it is something that I have wrestled with in my personal ministry but have rarely spoken about in a pastoral context.  Comforted by the promises of Jesus Christ in Matthew 10:20 and Luke 12:12 I offered the following encouragement.

I riffed on the famous quip by German novelist Thomas Mann.  I said, "Everything is politics. And nobody goes to church on Sunday to feel bad."  On balance, these two counterweights have informed nearly every sermon I've ever preached and my efforts at encouraging fellow pilgrims to repair this broken world and build upon it the Kingdom of God.

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The gift of a small church

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Romans 12:9-13.

Kalamazoo Mennonite Fellowship is a small house church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, fewer than twenty people, including kids, on a good day. We are part of the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church, USA, the largest, at least for now, Mennonite denomination in the United States. I say, “at least for now” because difficult questions around scripture, human sexuality, and politics have led many congregations and even whole conferences to leave. The very idea of having respectful conversations is critical to institutional survival, but it is also critical to our spiritual growth and obedience to God’s command to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19).”

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Subtopic 10: Case Study Conversations Regarding Political Discourse and Political Action Within Churches and Christian Para-Church Organizations (June 2018)

Case Study #1: Kalamazoo (MI) Mennonite Fellowship – A church that encourages its members to become involved in social service ministries that serve persons in need (e.g., the homeless, the hungry); that has church-wide social service ministries; but does NOT take church-wide political positions or initiatives (whether or not it encourages its individual members to be politically active).

Leading  Questions: What kind of social service ministries does your church provide? How do you encourage your members to become involved in social service ministries? Do you encourage your members to be politically active, and why? What are your reasons for NOT taking church-wide political positions or initiatives?

  • Conversation Partner: Will Fitzgerald, Senior Pastor, Kalamazoo (MI) Mennonite Fellowship 

 

Case Study #2: First Congregational Church – Kalamazoo (MI) – A church that encourages its members to be politically active and involved in social service ministries that serve persons in need (e.g., the homeless, the hungry); that has church-wide social service ministries; and SELECTIVELY takes church-wide political positions or initiatives.

Leading Questions: What kind of social service ministries does your church provide? How do you encourage your members to become involved in social service ministries? What are your reasons for selectively taking church-wide political positions or initiatives? What types of issues have you selected and on what basis did you make that selection?

  • Conversation Partner: Nathan Dannison, Senior Pastor, First Congregational Church - Kalamazoo

 

Case Study #3: Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice – A Christian para-church organization that believes that reforming/redeeming the political realm is an important activity for Christians; that Christians should carry out social justice ministries that persons in need; and that provides resources and others assistance to help its church constituent members and their congregational members to carry out these responsibilities.

Leading Questions: How do you encourage individual Christians and your church constituent members to become involved in political activities that reform/redeem the political realm and in social service ministries that serve persons in need? What kind of resources do you provide for such individuals and churches? What has worked well? What hasn’t worked well?

  • Conversation Partner: Kris Van Engen, Congregational Justice Mobilizer for World Renew and the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice

Closing Comments: Healthcare in America

If you would like to comment on the May topic as a whole, please do so below.

Getting to a Unified System? Is It Desirable? Will It Ever Happen?

Getting to a Unified System? Is It Desirable? Will It Ever Happen?

 

            I’d like to begin my last essay by thanking Clarke Cochran for an engaging three weeks of conversation.  Dr. Cochran represents what is best about dialogue concerning hard problems.  He is civil.  He is clear.  And, in what is best about Christian engagement with difficult conundrums, he presents his interlocutors’ positions with charity.  It’s been a pleasure “conversing” with him this month.  I hope we’ll have a chance to think together again about the place of Christian conviction as it relates to the American healthcare system.  Cochran is obviously an expert, and his ideas and positions are well worth reading.

 

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Steps on the Journey

To no one’s surprise, our conversation about healthcare in America ends inconclusively. The topic is too large for a month’s discussion, even with as engaging partners as Jeff Hammond and Julie Kuhl! I learned much, and I hope contributed some to advancing the conversation. Which is a good thing. A few steps on a long journey beats waiting for a ride that never comes.

The United States is on a long journey of healthcare reform; it may end well; it may not. The end is not in sight. The best I can do is suggest a path forward and some guiding principles. I hope that my first two essays have done that. Here I address some gaps in my account and some nagging issues that could not fit into the first two essays, and I make a closing plea for social justice.

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