The Brethren and Politics


This coming Tuesday is election day, just in case you have heard nothing about it on your television, radio, social media feed, telephone or newspaper. Just in case you have missed this hotly contested presidential campaign I wanted to mention that it is coming up on Tuesday. And if that isn’t enough, here in California there are 17 propositions on everything from the death penalty to the legalization of marijuana. Plus, I don’t know about you but I have three ballot measures to vote on. Then just when I was feeling sorry for my self, spending hours doing research, my oldest son, who lives in San Francisco, told me he had ballot measures A through X on which to vote, also.

I’m so sick of this election. Every where I turn I have to listen to the latest thing said by a candidate or leaked from a candidate. We are weary of this election. Even my die-hard political friends are ready for it to be over. But to not speak on it today is to say that faith has nothing to say about politics.

I remember years ago going to a preaching conference in which Welton Gaddy spoke. Gaddy is the president of Interfaith Alliance, a non-partisan grassroots organization working politically to promote policies that protect religion and individual rights. Gaddy’s lecture to us preachers was that we better be preaching sermons that address political issues. His reasoning was that preaching is the most important public discourse for shaping our political life. He said if we disagreed with him about that we should look at what was being preached in pulpits at the time the Revolutionary War broke out. Gaddy was worried that we preachers had abdicated our position of political preaching. He said that the result was that most people decide on their politics and then turn to their religion to justify their politics. His point was that Christians should be making decisions based on their faith.

Now, I want to be really clear that I am not going to tell you how to vote on Tuesday. I will never use this pulpit to ask you to vote the same way I vote. But I want us to consider what we are about to do on Tuesday unless, of course, you have already voted.

Brethren have long had a difficult relationship with politics. As you can see on the top of the bulletin today back in 1912 the Brethren felt that they should not vote or accept an office unless they were convinced that they needed to do so in order to fulfill their mission in the world. Now I know that sounds kind of crazy to our ears 100 years after it was written but think about it. Brethren did not feel like they could participate in war in anyway whatsoever. Their rational for not participating in politics was that it would go against their morals to vote for someone who might vote for war. Just voting for someone who would vote for war made them complicit.

The amazing thing to me about this statement from 1912 was that is was actually a loosening of the rules about political involvement. Until 1850, Brethren were consistently reminded by their Brethren communities not to vote or attend any political meetings. In 1852, it was decided that Brethren could hold a government office only if it was approved by a committee from their church and they could vote, only if they did it quietly. I love that. I don’t know about you but I’m pretty quiet when I vote.

However, by the time of World War I most Brethren were voting in elections and the catalyst for this new political participation was the temperance movement of the late 1800s. The Brethren were strong temperance activists and the Brethren simply had to participate when it came to this issue. Then after World War I, Brethren realized that they truly needed to use their political voices to campaign against war being the answer to anything.

But things really shifted in the 1950s because of a man named Kermit Eby, a Brethren man who was heavily involved in the labor movement. He served on the Chicago Teachers’ Union and on the Congress of Industrial Organizations. He was prolific in his writings urging the Brethren to develop a political strategy. He felt that when the Brethren developed their idea of nonparticipation in politics they lived in a different time. They lived in a time where you spent time face to face with your neighbors. Eby pointed out that while most Brethren used to live in rural America, far removed from the issues of the city, this was no longer true. Eby wanted the Brethren to adapt their thinking to this new, more impersonal world in which they found themselves. Besides, he pointed out that non-participation in politics wasn’t even possible. Politics is everywhere. In the family, in the workplace…even in the church. Eby argued that to not participate and yet complain about corruption aided corruption. He begged the Brethren to move towards a new attitude of Christian citizenship and become agents “of moral stimulation and social responsibility.”

Now, Eby was clear that he wasn’t encouraging the denomination to direct us on how to vote. He was encouraging Brethren to get politically involved where they lived. His argument was that the church is a key institution in instilling values and integrity to its members. The world needs these members of integrity and responsibility to participate in local politics.

Now if you look at the history of the La Verne Church of the Brethren in local politics you will find many members were very active on the school board, city council and even the draft board, I think. The members of this church were heavily involved in anti-liquor, anti-gambling, anti-war, anti-racism and anti-cigarette movements. Church members worked diligently for de-segregation, recycling and draft counseling. Brethren in La Verne have been very busy people in the City of La Verne. So much so that I have often heard us referred to in this town as the “Brethren mafia”. No one thought we were corrupt but they felt this congregation had a controlling influence in this town for many, many years. It grew out of that call from people like Kermit Eby that the Brethren use their values to make their local communities better, safer and more equitable.

But still, many Brethren struggle with politics when it goes beyond the local community. It is a fine line for us to be involved politically because we have never believed that the State has ultimate authority over us. We have not historically pledged allegiance to the flag. You will notice that we don’t have a flag in our sanctuary. Our allegiance is to God and we live our lives continuing the work that Jesus began. When you name Brethren who have held government offices beyond the local setting it is a short list.

Our current denominational statement on the church’s relationship to the State says that it “may demand reasonable obedience but it may not demand absolute obedience, for that belongs to God.” That understanding comes from the Gospel of Mark: “Render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar and to God the things that belong to God.”

When we read the scripture from Romans 13 it is often misinterpreted to say that God has ordained the government to have absolute authority, the Brethren argue to put this scripture in its context. We are much more comfortable with the previous chapter in Romans which tells us to hate what is evil, serve the Lord, extend hospitality to strangers, live in harmony with one another and live peaceably with all. When the Brethren read Romans 13 they include verse 8: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

When we get on the subject of politics, people often quote to me the concept of the separation of church and state. If you go back and look at its origin, it specifically states that the government shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion. It is not saying that the church has nothing to say about the State. We have plenty to say about the State and we should. We can’t really be partisan but we can have opinions on political issues and on the positions of the candidates. We have call to speak up on issues like the death penalty, racist behavior, gender equality and immigration, just to name a few.

I sat down with my ballot a couple weeks to prepare myself to vote on November 8. I decided to start from a place of faithful integrity and I said to myself “Owe no one anything, except to love; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Then I said a silent prayer and I began my research. What are my best options on this ballot to express love? I know that sounds like a strange way to mark your ballot. We often think of our political options from our own best interests. Who and what will benefit me and my family? But that is not what we followers of Jesus are called to do. We are called to hate what is evil, extend hospitality to strangers, live in harmony with one another and live peaceably with all. We are called to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We are even told to love our enemies. We are called to turn the other cheek and walk the second mile. We are called to live in the Kingdom of God here and now.

It is a strange place we find ourselves. We are blessed people. We live in this wonderful country that affords us the opportunity and responsibility to let our voices be heard. While we are blessed our true blessedness comes from God who made heaven and earth. May our focus always be to faithfully be citizens of the Kingdom of God. Amen.