Politics – sometimes – belongs in church

Religiously Speaking
Frances Stebbins

Back in the 1960s, I attended a Roanoke church whose minister was deeply committed to both racial integration and opposition to the Vietnam war then escalating and taking many young adults to what seemed to many a senseless conflict in Southeast Asia. The minister was a Korean War veteran. He soon became closely associated too with the Lyndon Johnson anti-poverty program.

Many of us in the small congregation were not ready for his constant sermons which often seemed to have little relevance to what not only the Bible, but our own denominational tradition stood for. Most of the men in the congregation were either veterans of World War II – my late husband included – and we were schooled in the patriotism of the times.

Sunday mornings became anything but a pleasant place to be. We had some African-American members by that time – they had come several years earlier – and toward the end of the minister’s decade with us, he also welcomed a gay group to use the building for meetings. Several households left then taking their much-needed money. Finally, the minister himself broke emotionally under the strain of the times, took a rest leave and eventually entered a helping profession outside the institutional church.

This all came back to me as I attended a recent seminar presented at Roanoke College by a Lutheran woman pastor in early mid-life, Sarah Trone Garriott of Des Moines, Iowa. Her theme for the 90-minute program was “Being Political.”

Until recently, Garriott was an associate at a large suburban parish. Feeling unsupported when a nearby congregation wanted to share their building to carry on a refugee program and the lay leadership showed little enthusiasm, she took a job with an interfaith group helping coordinate the city’s food pantries.

Her call, Garriott explained, is now to “social ministry.” God has slowly revealed to her, she believes, that she needs to be directly involved with helping the needy. The decision, she indicated, has come over a decade of seeing the needs of Navaho in an early parish near the Mexican border as well as encountering church people in a tiny Shenandoah Valley congregation who saw the church only as a place of comfort. The issue there was confronting domestic violence of which many faithful members are only beginning to become aware of.

Taking her cue from 16th Century German reformer Martin Luther, the speaker described how he eventually formed a theology of trying to be true to both God and the government. A sincere Christian must pay taxes to support means of combatting evil including a police force, prisons and various other means of keeping order, she pointed out. Church people should and do stand for peace, but one cannot do without justice.

The speaker outlined four movements in history in which God-centered believers affected the society of their times. Abolitionists-some Quakers but mostly individual foes of slavery 175 years ago—were so unpopular that although their intentions were noble, their mission was finally completed with the horrible loss of 500,000 lives.

Another movement arose in early Nazi Germany when many Christian leaders accepted Adolph Hitler’s views of a perfect nation. And though the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer is now proclaimed a hero, it took more bloodshed to rid the world of the devil’s henchman, the speaker said.

Two later movements in which church people brought needed social change were the racial civil rights struggle led by a black pastor, Martin Luther King Jr. and a movement in Leipzig in East Germany in the 1980s now seen as a major source of opposition to Communist rule, Garriott recalled.

“God’s power is over us all. {To effect social change} we may have to die to something in ourselves.”

Feedback from an estimated 30 present revealed that fear of change is a major drawback to righting wrongs, and great care must be taken even before what seems good is promoted. {Sending mosquito nets to prevent illness in some poor countries has taken the livelihood of native women,} Garriott revealed.

Righting a social wrong, she concluded, must be grounded in prayer, Scripture, repentance for our own indifference and finally awareness that suffering may well follow –including sustaining members.

The painful days in my church of 50 years ago left their mark on me.

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