Archive for March, 2012

Today Congressman Bobby Rush was removed from the floor of the house for wearing a hoodie (hooded sweatshirt) in support of Trayvon Martin, the young black man who was gunned down by George Zimmerman. (video below)

What’s made the news is mainly his being removed, but I don’t actually think that’s the most important part of this.  I’m most drawn to the fact that as he was being removed he was quoting scripture as he was doing it.  Specifically he was quoting two core Biblical texts on justice.

Micah 6:8 ” He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God.”

Luke 4:18-19 “18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

As a pastor this wanted me to stand up and cheer because, finally, someone is actually quoting scripture in the way that it was meant to be quoted.  Yes, I do think that a massive injustice is/was being done to Trayvon and yes, race plays a factor (but not the only factor) in this situation.  It has exposed some deep systemic problems in our culture, problems that result in peoples deaths.

This is bigger than Trayvon’s death.

This matters.

Pay attention.

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Church and State

Some people find it odd that I am both a pastor and that I am against having mandatory prayer in the public school system.  After all, didn’t Jesus say things like, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” and “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory”?[1] Aren’t we called to boldly proclaim the Gospel in every area of our life?

The short answer is “yes.”  Unfortunately, that’s an answer to the wrong question.  The real question for me as a pastor does not have to do with religious freedom but rather with religious coercion.  In other words, the question is not, “can I freely share my faith” but rather “can I force others to share my faith”.  As I said, the answer to the first question is “yes”, but the answer to the second is “no”.  More importantly, considering that our schools and teachers are representatives of the federal government, the second question is not simply “can I force others to share my faith” but rather “can the government force others to share my faith”.

In fact, these two questions are tied together, and the answer cannot be “yes” to both of them.  If we live in a society where the answer to the second question is “yes, we can force others to have or express a particular faith”, then it is also true that “no, we do not truly have the freedom to express our faith as we see fit.”

This should of particular importance for Mennonites for a couple of reasons.  First of all, we should be committed to the separation of church and state because it was our idea to begin with.  Yes, the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, but that’s not the reason I hold this view.  I’m more concerned with what founding documents like the Schleitheim Confession say; “the rule of government is according to the flesh, that of the Christians according to the spirit…Their citizenship is in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven.”[2]

The reason that I want to keep church and state separate is not for the sake of the state but for the sake of the church.  Besides inviting corruption when the two are joined, we would do well to remember that the persecution that our spiritual forbears suffered was at the hands of other Christians, empowered by the state in an attempt to force us to believe, pray, and worship as they did.

I’m continually perplexed by Mennonites who argue vehemently that prayer and other religious activities should be mandatory in public schools.  How is it possible that we can have forgotten our own core values and history so completely that we some can argue against those values that our people pioneered?  What’s more, how is it possible that we have forgotten that Mennonites are still in the minority in this country?

I support a strong separation of church and state, not because I believe we should be ashamed of, or limit our faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  I support it because if the government did start forcing our children to pray in school, the prayers they would be saying would not be our own.

[1] Mark 16:15, Luke 9:26

[2] Dyck, C. J., & Koop, K. (2006). Confessions of faith in the Anabaptist tradition, 1527-1660. Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press. Pg. 31

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This winter the invasion has begun.  The motels are full indefinitely.  Buildings have quickly and mysteriously been bought up.  Hundreds of trucks from 10 different states roll around town.  They found oil in Harper County.

Natural Gas to be specific.  At first it was a rumble of a rumor, but sometime this winter it really became official as several oil companies began to set up shop here in town.  There has been all kinds of speculation as to what this will mean for our community.  Some of it is pretty wild (quadrupling the population of the county within five years) and some of it is worth thoughtfully considering (how can the churches reach out to this new group of people).

While I’ve had a couple of passing conversations about this changing dynamic, I have yet to say something in my official pastoral role.  Perhaps this is an attempt to begin to articulate what I’d like to say.

The place that I want to start is with the Bible.  Specifically with an understanding of Biblical Shalom that I will shamelessly steal from Marion Bontrager and Michelle Hershberger.  Essentially the idea is that God created the world to be in a particular harmony, order, or relationship.  This right relationship we call Shalom.  These right relationships can be described in four ways: being in right relationship between each of us and God, us and other people, us and ourselves, and us and the earth.  Sin, then, is when these relationships get broken, which is something that can happen both on an individual level and on a larger systemic scale.

As I reflect on the impact of the oil boom I can see that there are some benefits to be had.  The biggest of which is that Harper County has been on an economic and population decline for about 40 years, and yes, we can definitely use the income and jobs.  But this is only a surface benefit.  The questions I have are much bigger and much deeper.  Most of the large scale questions that I have can be framed in Marion and Michelle’s understanding of Shalom and what it means to break those relationships.

Between each of us and others – There are two main areas of concern for me here; 1) housing costs and 2) unequal income distribution.

1) Harper County just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the influx of people that we are beginning to experience.  As a result, landlords can begin to raise the cost of rent quite drastically because they know that the higher price will be paid by someone, usually by the oil company.  I have already heard several stories, however, of landlords who have tripled someones rent, sometimes with less than a months notice.  Here’s the difficulty of sin: landlords are struggling too, and it seems pretty reasonable that if you could get a higher rent, you would charge a higher rent.  It’s an obvious choice.  The problem is that when a whole society does this, large populations of poor people who have been life long residents of Harper County are being pushed out on to the street for the sake of oil field workers who may not be here a year from now.  As individuals, it’s hard to fault a landlord, but as a whole, it’s definitely sin.

2) Yes, there is a tremendous amount of money flowing into Harper County because of the leasing contracts with the oil companies.  And yes, some of that money has begun to trickle down into some specific parts of the economy.  However, it is very important to note that this influx of money is not shared equally.  If you own land, you stand to make a tremendous amount of money.  However, the number of people who own land in the county is relatively small in comparison to the overall population.  This kind of massive inequality will, and already as begun to, breed resentment, hatred and injustice between neighbors.  Again, this is a difficult situation because I know many landowners do genuinely want to do the right thing, but what that is isn’t exactly clear.  Nevertheless, as a whole society, this is going to cause some problems.

Between each of us and the earth – I have jokingly said that yes, I think we need the economic boost in our county, but I also don’t want my water to light on fire.  Water is scarce enough already around here.  The damage that the hydraulic fracturing process does is irreparable and highly taxing on our already limited natural resources.  This is a major concern for me, and yes, I put the damage done to the earth in the category of Sin, not just politics.

Between each of us and ourselves – Money brings a lot of things with it, most of them aren’t particularly good.  I worry about what the greed and envy will do to each of us.  I worry about whether our hearts will be turned to stone or moved to compassion as the economic landscape changes.  Whether we are only peripherally connected to this change in our community or a direct recipient of it, it is going to change us.  The question is how.

Between each of us and God – Economics is always spiritual.  On on hand, these changes will affect our own personal spirituality, but they will also impact us as a church.  The impact on our church is coming.  Even in my own mind I’ve begun to think about new possibilities for additional programing or staff or buildings, all of which could be made possible because of the oil money floating around.  The question for me is yes, but at what cost?  Are we being bought off?  How will in change our church?  There’s at least one church in our area who was almost completely destroyed because they found oil under church land.  While I don’t know the answer, I feel like we need to ask the question whether or not our ideas for the future of the church are actually the leading of God or are they are something else.

I think that the most concerning thing about how our county has reacted to this industry moving into town is that there has been (or it feels like) little to no critical reflection on the deeper impacts on our community, our relationships and our faith.  The most telling example of this to me was an article in a local paper last fall that was talking about the economic growth in our county.  They outlined two major industries moving into the county.  One was the oil companies and the other was the large wind farm going in on the west side of the county.  In the article the only discussion was that of jobs and economic opportunities.  There was no reflection about the environmental or social impact of either of them, let alone the idea that they are two opposing industries in the energy industry.

I’m aware that right now I don’t have all the answers, but I’m hoping to start to identify some of the issues.  Now if I can just figure out how to start the conversation in church and in the community.



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