Monday, August 27, 2012

The Mennonite vote?: A response to Michael Shank

From Harrisonburg, VA
Photo by Ken Wilson via Flickr
I'm not typically into the whole "a response to [so and so]..." style of positing, but a friend of mine asked me to write a quick response to a piece by Mennonite-raised Michael Shank, who works in Washington D.C. and also happens to be a fellow alumni of EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Here's the piece...

Republicans and the Mennonite Vote (The Hill)

One thing I've appreciated about Shank's writing is that he talks openly on DC-affiliated media about his Amish-Mennonite heritage and tries to appropriate this faith heritage into his public policy work and his public commentary. Someone talking so openly about how and why religious faith matters to public life is admirable in such a work environment. In this piece he reflects on the experience of talking politics at a family gathering, feeling a bit like a fish out of water because of his party affiliation (Democrat) amongst his largely conservative Republican relatives.

He notes dynamics that help explain this situation in his family: News media for rural, largely agricultural Mennonites consists of what you get on the AM radio band in your tractor or pickup truck, i.e. conservative talk radio (or sports talk radio). For more modern and affluent rural Mennos, there's satellite TV at the homestead and XM radio in the tractor, which serve up any number of conservative stations, if that's what trips your trigger. It's pretty easy to see these dynamics around Harrisonburg and EMU. Just over the hill from the university you have conservative Mennonites who sneer at the word "Mennonite" in Eastern Mennonite University. "They're not Mennonite," one farmer told my friend in seminary.

But back to Shank: I want to commend him for staying connected to his broader family despite a vast political divide. I love that he's pointing out all the wonderful work that Mennonite relief and development agencies have been doing for decades. Yes and yes! But while sharing a passion for justice and peace with Shank, I want to offer a rebuttal. It's a rebuttal that cuts against both progressive Shank and his conservative family. And to do so, I'll simply point to another Amish-Mennonite boy for my defense: John Howard Yoder.

Yoder worked for a rigorous and unflinching Christian pacifism and public witness that was anything but "sectarian." He spoke from and to his own Mennonite tradition, to the broader church, and across faith traditions and intellectual disciplines. He engaged a wide array of pressing topics for Christian life, publishing in everything from formal academic journals and books to obscure denominational pamphlets. Yoder was committed to causes of justice and peace in this world. But one can't hang with Yoder for long and not start to get the impression that the church really matters quite a bit when considering the Christian faith and how it occupies space and time in the world.

We can't somehow distill the "values and principles" of Jesus and translate them into U.S. public policy for either party, and that's the mistake that I see Shank and his conservative relatives making all too easily (along with a great number of Mennonites and Brethren...and pretty much the rest of American Christianity). The body of Christ has vanished in such an arrangement, where the only body that really matters is the body called "United States."

If the only political horizon one sees is "Democrats and Republicans" in the United States, then one isn't ready to see the globe-encompassing, horizon-shattering implications of The Politics of Jesus. The body of Christ will not suffer being relegated to any one American political party's pleasures, or the philosophies that underwrite the entire American project. So I'm not asking for Shank and his family to become "less political," so much as I'm asking for a bit more imagination around matters theopolitical...

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