Have We Lost Our Way?

(This is a repost from my home blog at http://ballymennoniteblogger.blogspot.com/)

A new issue of the online version of “The Mennonite” church publication has been released.  I just got my e-mail today.  I enjoy getting this weekly dose of information from the primary publication of my denomination.  It keeps me informed as to what’s going on at the denominational level and gives me some different insights on modern issues from a Mennonite perspective.

However, I must say that this morning’s issue disappointed me.  Not because of the lack of content, nor because it somehow didn’t meet the professional standards of the publication.  It disappointed me because of the content itself.  The lead article in today’s e-mail found here discusses how the health-care reform bills currently being worked on by the US federal government coincide with Jesus’ inaugural sermon from Luke 4.

On one level, I agree with this article.  The Kingdom of God is a kingdom in which there is no more poverty, no more disadvantaged, no more illness, no more pain, where everyone can come to the table of the Lord with equal stature and be blessed by God.  Amen.  Preach it.  Come Lord Jesus.

What disappoints me about this article goes towards the roots of what the Anabaptist movement and the Mennonite denomination has been about for centuries. 

The foundations of our denomination are not in advocating programs in the government, having the state dictate the ethics of the church, giving power to the secular human institutions to carry out God’s kingdom.  Quite the contrary.  As I read the stories of faith from our denominational past, both the general as well as the ones more close to my personal story, I hear stories of a people who have a faith in their God that acts out in personal witness and activity.  I hear of people who, when the secular organizations are insufficient, step up to the plate and sacrificially give of themselves to meet the needs.  Organizations like MCC with their meat canning project, Mennonite Disaster Service when FEMA fell through, educational programs in third world countries, advocacy for peace in Palestine when the UN fails to save lives… the list goes on.   One instance after another where a denomination, when a need is seen, gets out of the pews and goes into the world to carry out the mission of the Kingdom that Jesus read about in the writings of Isaiah.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do feel that it is the responsibility of the members of the Kingdom of God to act as God’s ambassadors to this world, calling our governments and secular institutions to repent and come into line with God’s plan.  However, the article in the Mennonite, along with many discussions with other Mennonite church members, advocates giving this power to the government.  One reasoning I heard was that “It’s such a big job, there’s no way the church can do it.”  This has been the primary argument for a number of things, from this current health-care reform debate to debates on welfare reform to conversations about marriage.  The church does not have the power or the resource, therefore we must advocate the government’s role.

I’ve got one word for that argument: BUNK.  Here’s why.  The suppositiion seems to be that the human ability of the Christian church is insufficient to meet the immense needs of the poor around us.  Listen to that again.  God’s church does not have the power to do it.  Okay, one more time.  The body of Christ is unable to change the world.  You hear that?  You hear what is being said?  The argument seems to be that there is a limit to what a people, who call themselves the body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in this world, blessed by God with talents, abilities and gifts…there is a limit to what God’s people can do.  The power of God, acted out through his people, is limited.  We can’t do it.  God is not big enough to help us do what needs to be done.  The same God who, as the God-Man Jesus, raised Lazerus from the dead, healed countless people, cast out demons, fed 5,000 men with a few loaves of bread and some dried fish…  Nope.  Can’t do it.  The church cannot do it.  God does not have the ability to give us any power to make these changes.  It costs too much, takes too many people, takes up too much time, there are too many obstacles.  Nope.  God cannot help us do this.  We’ve gotta have the government do it.

This is the same God who Paul wrote, as a reason why he was able to surmount many obstacles, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13).  Or how about the same Paul who wrote that, when faced with the power of sin, is able to say “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).  What about the many stories in the book of Acts where the church stepped up to the plate and, through their own sacrifice and generousity, were able to meet the needs of hundreds of people without having to ask the Roman emporer to do so?  Paul alludes to this in his letters to the churches, how Macedonian Christians gave out of even their poverty and, because of this act of sacrifice, were able to bless many.

Again, please understand, I do believe that we need to call our government to justice and mercy.  We need to ask our government to step in on the part of the poor and disenfranchised, to act justly, to live mercifully.  But we CANNOT.. I repeat, we CANNOT expect the government to do it.  It is a human institution and subject, especially in an institution that is constitutionally not a spiritual organization, to the failings of all such human institutions.  Our own church confession of faith, concerning government says, “Even at its best, a government cannot act completely according to the justice of God because no nation, except the church, confesses Christ’s rule as its foundation.” (Article 23).

As I said, I agree with the article in The Mennonite and the resolution in Columbus that the Mennonite church “asks members to urge their legislators to support legislation extending access to all Americans, especially the poor and disadvantaged”.  That is EXACTLY what the Mennonite Church has done over the centuries.  But what is MOST important to our traditions of the church, is that it doesn’t stop there.  It is the church (meaning the body of believers characterized by faith in Christ) living out the mission of God that ultimately bears the responsibility for the Kingdom.  To sit back and expect the government to do so I would argue is going along with the idolatry of the government (also stated in Article 23 of our confession of faith).  To say that the government has more power than the church to effect change in our society, I believe, is a wrong statement.

Let’s write to our legislators.  Let’s tell them what we want.  Let’s be that voice the cries out in the darkness.  Let’s be the light on the hill.  But let’s also be salt and light in the world.  Once we’ve raised our voices to the secular powers, let’s grab hold of the power given us by God, as joint heirs with Christ, and step out into the world, confident that God will bless us with everything that we need to be able to do the work of His kingdom in this world.  Peter Dyck used to tell the story of the Berlin Exodus.  He always introduced the story by stating a German phrase: “Gott Kann”.  Obama’s supporters used a particular chant during the campaign.  “We can do it, yes we can.”  As the Christian church, I would say we can borrow this, with a slight edit:

“We can do it!”
“Yes, God can!”

Comments (22)

  1. Josiah Garber

    This saddens me too. The Church has much more potential for good than the government.

    In my opinion this health care bill will be funded by more deficit spending, creating more inflation, which is a implicit, brutal tax on which unfairly targets the poor much more than the rich.

    Secondly, we will have taken power away from The Church and given it to the government.

    I am glad to see that people are beginning to heed Jesus’ call to care for the poor, I just happen to believe this government solution will end up hurting the disadvantaged.

    Reply
  2. AlanS

    Robert,

    First off, I completely resonate with the thrust of this post. I have believed for a long while now that there probably won’t be profound change in the way our country does health care until the churches reclaim the idea of the Hospital (Hospitality).

    But I would also throw this observation from Anabaptist history out into the discussion: Many Anabaptists called on the state to do certain things (or mostly to stop doing certain things) not on the basis that the “church” could do them better, but rather on the basis of Romans 13. Namely, that governments were appointed by God and thus subject to God’s rule. I’m thinking specifically of Menno Simons, who quite often would appeal to, what he called, the divinely appointed leaders to conform to the teachings of Jesus. For Menno, this didn’t really have to do with health care and more with persecution, but I think there is some consistency in thought. (Also, one could make the argument that the “state” at that point was in fact the catholic church and the appeal to Christ still held to them. I would argue, however, that Anabaptists didn’t see the Catholic church as a legitimate church and the argument that governments, in general, are appointed by God and subject to God still holds, even for explicitly secular governments like ours)

    So, this leads me to the following thought on health care. Is there a place to call on governments, the U.S. one specifically, to institute universal health care not with the assumption that they are “secular” or somehow outside of God’s rule, but rather precisely on the basis that they are appointed by God and thus subject to God’s rule? Now, to be clear, this line of “divine appointment” gets pretty shaky and interesting if taken in the wrong direction, but it is one that is present within Anabaptist history.

    Like I said, I ultimately think I come out with what you said, but I thought I just might play a bit of the devil’s advocate and throw this tidbit into the conversation. I’m also not convinced that my little bit of history doesn’t fit with what you said. I just thought it was interesting.

    Any thoughts?

    Reply
  3. todd

    I, too, have been incredibly saddened by anabaptists’ advocacy for Power-Over Empire programs instead of Power-Under Kingdom action.

    As mentioned, it goes against article 23 of the modern confession, but also article 6 of the Schleitheim (the Sword).

    We should not be calling upon the sword to enforce programs via threats of violence.

    As per calling on the Sword, I believe a Christian should only do so when asking them NOT to harm people. I understand the desire to plea for: fewer threats, less violence, less stealing, fewer restrictions on peaceable behavior, and the like.

    Reply
  4. Josiah Garber

    Great thoughts Robert & Todd.

    Reply
  5. Robert Martin

    Alan,

    I think what you’re pointing out is why I’m of the opinion that we should be the conscience of our government. Romans 13 does resonate well.

    Reply
  6. John Ballard

    Either the article has been pulled or the the link changed. I had to find it in a Google cache.

    http://74.125.47.132/search?q=cache:qwXY5jHpaQIJ:www.themennonite.org/issues/12-14/articles/Healing_hope_and_healthcare_reform+Healing,+hope+and+health-care+reform+-+The+Mennonite&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

    It’s possible that a critical mass of disapproval has been effective.

    Reply
  7. Robert Martin

    John Ballard,

    Now THAT is interesting… The issue (12-14) is still online, but I cannot find that article in it… really strange. I’ll have to check with Anna Groff and see what she says…

    Reply
  8. Robert Martin

    To all:

    The link to the article in “The Mennonite” has been corrected. Thanks to Anna Groff for the info. The article was moved, apparently, from issue 12-14 to 12-15.

    Reply
  9. Stephen

    I’m not sure I completely follow the objection.

    Is it not possible that God can act beyond the church? And that when any agency acts to feed the hungry or heal the sick, God rejoices?

    Reply
  10. Robert Martin

    Stephen,

    The objection is not about whether or not we should ask our government to do something. Nor is it about whether or not the government has the ability to do something. Nor whether or not God empowers the government (see the Romans 13 argument by Alan s).

    The objection is to the language in the article in “The Mennonite” that seems to imply that the only solution that is viable is a public (aka government) solution and that should be the focus of the Mennonite church’s resolution.

    Perhaps I’m reading the article incorrectly but it seems that the resolution passed in Columbus was only concerned with pressuring our legislature towards justice rather than giving any indication as to what we, as the church, could do as the true Kingdom of God in this world.

    Reply
  11. Jonny

    Robert,

    According to your own admission (as I understand it), this “pressure the government to be better” stance is okay as long as it’s coupled with concrete action on the part of the church to “live out the mission of God” and “bear responsibility for the Kingdom.” But in this case, isn’t that what the Mennonite Church is doing? We’ve already launched (or are attempting to launch) The Corinthian Plan, which is the church’s attempt to do its part to care for those without health insurance. Sure, it’s a small piece, but it’s a start. Now, after that, comes the second piece — pushing the government to provide universal health insurance and care for “the least of these.”

    I understand what you (and others) are ranting about — I’m just not convinced that you picked the best example.

    Reply
  12. DenverS

    Robert,
    In the article, I’m not seeing that the author is implying this is the only solution. At least that’s not the point of the article as I see it.

    Here’s my slant. I think the poor should have health care. In the media, there seems to be a strong ‘conservative’ voice opposing a government health reform. Besides the scare tactics about euthanizing the elderly, paying for abortions, or deterioration of care, it seems like the main argument boils down to this: It’s going to cost ME more tax money.

    This seems like a selfish reason not to allow the government to provide the poor with health benefits.

    Your post strikes me as a distraction from the point the author was making. 50 million Americans need insurance. As Christians, getting them care should be top priority.

    I hear your post. Yes, Christians can do more. But getting in the way of government health care reform doesn’t seem like a step in the right direction from my vantage point.

    I believe God can work through broken governments. I also believe that God can work through broken individuals and broken church institutions. I agree with you that we should NOT expect our government to God’s work for us. But I’m wary of Christians who seem to get in the way of letting God work through others (even broken government solutions).

    Reply
  13. Robert Martin

    Jonny:

    I admit that I had forgotten about the Corinthian plan. That’s an excellent way for the church to start taking a hand in providing health care to those who otherwise can’t afford it as well as take the burden off those congregations who can’t afford it.

    I would suggest that the church can then take it one step further. Could the Corinthian plan be expanded someday to encompass, not just ministers and leaders of underprivileged congregations but even the congregants in those congregations? For that matter, could the plan be expanded to provide care to those outside the Mennonite church? That is the crux of my argument, really. Which brings me to..

    Denver:

    I agree God can work through broken governments and what I think you miss is that I’m not saying DON’T support government reform. I’m not saying get in the way of the current efforts of reform. Neither viewpoint out there in the political arena is faultless in what it is doing, saying, supporting, etc. The church needs to advocate justice from all viewpoints and so we need to keep our voices out of the political mindset and work towards justice from a Christ mindset.

    That said, I think that Jost’s article and the Columbus resolution was not strong enough in emphasizing what the church itself can do. The focus in both articles is in what the church can tell government to do. The underlying implication (and this is actually voiced by some people I’ve heard) is that the problem is not for the church to solve.

    Perhaps that is not the point of Jost’s article, but it is what I’m hearing among many church members, and not just Mennonite, but globally, that the problem is too big for the church and so we must hand it off to a bigger institution. As I point out, I believe that is theologically unsound and counter to the core of our Anabaptist faith and the whole purpose of Christ’s church.

    Maybe it’s too much for the Mennonite denomination alone… but Christ’s church is bigger than any one denomination. With the Lutheran church’s reconciliation approach in Paraguay, I think we are seeing a reunification, at least in faith, among all denominations. Maybe we can join together in the USA and, as Christ’s larger church, solve this problem?

    For that matter, why does it need to be something formalized? I’ll quote my Mom here (and this may tell you all more about who I am) but after coming back from an Executive Board meeting some years ago, she voiced in frustration to my father “Those MEN! Why can’t they see that it’s not about the programs, it’s about the relationships?”

    We can talk all we want about government programs and church programs and all those things. But what it comes down to is the efforts of the individual hands, feet, eyes, ears, and hearts of the people in the church, working in concert towards the Kingdom that Christ proclaimed. Yes, resource needs to be drawn from the formalized church, but it is the people and their relationships with their friends, neighbors and families that will change the world. The formal church will pass in it’s current form (it has not been static over the centuries) and our current government will as well. But the actual body of Christ will not pass.

    Reply
  14. lukelm

    Robert,

    If you look just a bit deeper, you will find Mennonites/Anabaptists at work on health-care access in the ways you think we should be working at it. Here’s an organization I’m involved in: Mennonite Medical Association (http://www.mennmed.org/). Also thinking about these issues is the Anabaptist Center for Healthcare Ethics. They released a study resource a few years ago that talks about healthcare access, scriptural perspectives, and the role of Christians in bringing healing & justice (from the Herald Press site: http://store.mpn.net/productdetails.cfm?PC=585)

    For just one little example of what some Mennonites are up to, check out this amazing clinic (started by a Mennonite doctor & with a big base of Mennonite support/workers): http://www.mchcc.com/en/ (I worked at this clinic before starting medical school and am still challenged by the vision of justice & care that I encountered there, something that has been very lacking in most of my other experiences in the medical world.) There are very many ways that Mennonites are being salt & light – and just like you say – it’s not necessarily “formalized” at the highest levels. Just another small example: in my hometown in Ohio, the only practice of family doctors that accepts patients with medicaid is a practice of Mennonite doctors. The last time I visited my home church, one of these doctors made a passionate plea for people in the church to write representatives about health-care reform because of the effects he sees every day that lack of access has for his patients.

    Having said that, I’d ask you to revisit the original Mennonite article & the health-care resolution not as an exclusive view of “this is all the Mennonite church has to say about this” but as simply one way Mennonites use our community voice to get behind important justice advocacy work. I agree that there is a long conversation to be had about the role of government and where/how Anabaptists should relate to government – but it sounds like you already agree that there is a role for justice advocacy for the church. If we all accept that the church should petition the government for justice, then I’d put health-care access for the poor as one of the central domestic issues that Christians should be advocating for.

    Reply
  15. joe

    An interesting discussion. From my point of view (which is probably a long way from Mennonite views as I know next-to-nothing about them), the issue is that we are called to a new Kingdom. But the way this falls out in our countries (I’m in the UK) is that we don’t actually need to trust in God because the State has replaced the functions of the Kingdom.

    So, if we’re sick we go to the state hospital. If we’re unemployed, we claim benefit. And so on and so forth.

    And the main problem is that the State is not the Kingdom. Sometimes the State acts as on behalf of God – but normally, in my opinion, when the Church refuses to act on behalf of the Kingdom.

    Universal healthcare is very good. Undoubtedly. But we have to ask ourselves what and whom we have abused for our government to give it to us. Who is failed by the system. Who is ignored, brutalised, forgotten.

    And then we have to look ourselves seriously in the face and ask why we are not out there doing a better job.

    Reply
  16. Tim Baer

    The issue among conservatives isn’t that it is going to cost more tax money. It won’t. The issue is the Federal Reserve, the printing of money, the increasing of debt (which God disapproves of). One day our debtors will come calling, it will increase inflation, and our money will be worthless, sending us into a drastic depression.

    History doesn’t lie.

    Reply
  17. Robert Martin

    Lukelm:

    Thank you for these additional views of concrete ways in which the Anabaptist based churches in the US are doing their part. I particularly appreciate the clinic you used to work for and the doctor in Ohio you mentioned. Mustard seeds that are doing amazing things. Makes me wonder, a bit, what more could be done (or, for that matter, is being done). Why are these types of things not being spoken about more broadly as examples of what the body of Christ can do? I know of another young doctor in North Carolina that, one day a week, his “paying” practice is closed and he runs a free clinic for those cannot afford care otherwise. These are the kinds of things that the body of Christ can do. What kind of transformed world would we live in if the body of Christ took these examples as the norm rather than the exception?

    Joe:

    Your point is my main point, actually and thank you for your input from “across the pond”. In no way do I say that the government can’t help. My problem is the reliance on government as THE answer rather than, as Luke pointed out above, that the church has AMAZING power to transform without needing government.

    Tim:

    I’m trying not to politically polarize this discussion. :-) But stewardship is also an important factor in this discussion. Someone pointed out in a comment on this same article in my home blog that the government has a LOT of spending that is questionable and inefficient. And both of the current parties in power are guilty of it. No one party is “snow white” when it comes to living towards kingdom ethics and, honestly, I don’t think one is better than the other. Is it good stewardship for the body of Christ to give money to an entity for this health-care initiative when that same entity has proven unreliable in many situations at proper stewardship of that money? The same could be asked for any government initiative. Would the money be better spent if it were kept in the hands of the believers for them to do with what the Spirit leads them to do?

    Reply
  18. Josiah Garber

    Good point Tim.

    And the inflation will disproportionately hurt the poor as it has been doing for quite some time.

    Reply
  19. Josiah Garber

    Joe,

    Just wondering if you could define what you mean by Universal Health Care in this sentence?

    “Universal healthcare is very good. Undoubtedly.”

    Reply
  20. joe

    Well, it means that in the UK we have healthcare available and free at the point of need. I’m not saying it is perfect or an appropriate model for other countries, but it means a lot of people here get medical aid who might not otherwise be able to afford anything very much.

    And that is generally a good thing.

    Reply
  21. Josiah Garber

    Thanks Joe. At least I know that we agree on providing affordable health care for the needy.

    Reply
  22. Jason Barr

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. It makes absolutely no sense to me that a church whose foundational beliefs include the concept of the ecclesial body as an alternative structure to the governing powers that serves as a witness to God’s basileia should so strongly advocate a pending government program as intrinsically related to the mission of Christ and the church.

    While it may be the case (and I think it probably is) that a “public option” is a better option than having a nearly-completely corporation-dominated health insurance system that intrinsically ties insurance with employment, the concern of the church should not be this kind of immanent political move but rather finding ways to respond to the problem as the church. Mutual aid and relationship-oriented strategies, which the state is probably as incapable of providing as are corporations, but for which the church is uniquely suited, tend to be much more effective – and are arguably much more in line with the character of the New Testament and the Anabaptist traditions.

    Reply

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