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What do Rochester faith leaders say about our tension-filled political times?

How to love your fellow man when we vote more for the things we are against than the things we are for.

Faith and politics
Post Bulletin photo illustration / Getty Images
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ROCHESTER — How to love one’s neighbor in these times of political strife?

It’s the theological question of our age, but also one for the ages. After all, while Jesus said, "Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God," today, the line between what "belongs" to God vs. what "belongs" to the government is often blurred.

How do faith leaders balance the world of faith and the world of politics, when the latter can be so toxic? The answer can be tough in these challenging times when moral certitude is often met with resistance, and politics — and political ideologies — have become as much of a person's identity as their religion.

The Post Bulletin put the question of faith vs. religion to many church leaders in the Rochester community. Nearly all of the church leaders who responded acknowledged how challenging the times have become.

Several talked about how the church through history has always played a public role. Others said today’s politically contentious mood goes to the heart of what it means to be Christian: How do people enter the public fray and engage in political debate without losing sight of the "other side’s" human dignity? Others said they try to keep politics to the margins, and keep their focus on God’s message. But the subject can sometimes be unavoidable.

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The Rev. David Werner, senior pastor at Evangel United Methodist Church, said it’s a question he’s had to consider more frequently in his own ministry.

David Werner
David Werner.
Contributed

“I’ve been looking at people who are good, decent people in some venues, and then in others, we become unglued,” Werner said. “I’ve been pondering this as a pastor: How do I call us as Christians to live out our faith in all areas of our lives and not let this divisive climate derail us?”

Werner said a message he emphasizes more is the church’s “calling to discipleship.”

“To me, this all goes back down to biblical commandments to love God with our whole selves and love our neighbor as ourselves,” he said. “These are our anchoring principles by which we strive to live.”

Werner said “our mission statement” is to make disciples of Jesus, “for the transformation of the world.” He has been reminding and calling his congregation to the idea of living differently than the world does.

Today, he said, we live in a divisive, angry, "cancel-culture" culture that suggests that if people don’t agree with one another, they can’t get along.

“I say we live in a different way,” Werner said. “I’ve been talking to my church about how we need ourselves to find a way of getting along when we don’t agree, so we can show the world that it can be done.”

Kwasi Kyemereh, pastor of Wind and Fire Church in Rochester, said the commandment to love one’s neighbor is still relevant, but too often, it has been twisted into a more narrow translation: To love those who share “your platform of beliefs.”

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Kwasi Kyemereh
Kwasi Kyemereh.
Contributed

Kyemereh said faith leaders have an opportunity to use these emotionally charged partisan times to teach congregations “what love looks like.” He points to a statement by Jesus: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.”

Divided we fall

Kyemereh, a native Ghanaian who is now an American citizen, says the U.S has changed in the past couple generations. The country was more unified, bound together by both faith and patriotism, he said.

“Politics was important but secondary,” he said. “People disagreed, but rarely vilified entire swaths of the opposition the way it seems today. Today, I struggle to find what holds the United States together as a nation. Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. I’m afraid we are there, or very close to getting there.”

He said faith leaders have a role to play in the political arena. That role is to highlight the dignity of every human being.

“I believe as the Scripture says, that humans were created in the image of God. And as bearers of that image, we need to treat each other with dignity regardless of how corrupted we think that image may be in others,” he said.

Don Barlow, senior pastor at Rochester Community Baptist Church and a Rochester School Board member, said faith leaders have an important ambassadorial role “that Christ calls us to fulfill.” The challenge is not telling people what they should believe, but in modeling for them the possibilities of what can be.

Don Barlow
Don Barlow.

“As a faith leader, we can best approach divisive rhetoric and political discontent by being peacemakers,” Barlow said. “It seems that for some faith leaders, a shifting of priorities has occurred, moving some from having faith in God to having confidence in political promises.

The sociopolitical space should be viewed as an opportunity, both for faith leaders to speak to the issues of the day as well as live out biblical truths.

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The Rev. Rob Zahn, senior pastor of Zumbro Lutheran Church, said the tensions that faith leaders face are multilayered and not new.

Rob Zahn
Rob Zahn.
Contributed

“There is a tension between loving and praying for those we disagree with the very most and seeking justice and correcting oppression,” Zahn said. “There is a tension between honoring the separation between church and state (not preaching in favor or against candidates from the pulpit) and calling out the people and policies that clearly are not in line with the Gospel. … So what are we to do?”

Evil of silence

Zahn cites a quote attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who lived in Nazi Germany: “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself.”

“The reality is that faith does have a political voice. It is political,” Zahn said. “As a Christian pastor, I cannot ignore the clear statements from Jesus and the prophets that take direct and overt stances in regards to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the 'alien,' etc. These are political issues, and have been for centuries. Therefore, we are not to avoid politics just to keep the peace.”

The trick is how this is to be done. Zahn said faith communities have to “ride that tension” between being clear as to the theological position of the community and being kind, loving and respectful.

“The problem isn’t that faith communities should or shouldn’t engage in politics,” he said. “It is that when we do engage, we have forgotten to care for the same people Jesus cared for. We have forgotten who the oppressed, the hungry, the voiceless and the homeless are. We have forgotten to love each other when the debate and the vote is over.”

Aaron Wager, pastor of Bear Creek Christian Church, says history is replete with examples of the mingling of church and politics. Churches were more involved in politics in the 1970s and 1980s.

Aaron Wager
Aaron Wager.
Contributed

There was the rise of Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority, Dr. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, and Pat Robertson with his Christian Broadcasting Network and 700 Club. Their emergence stemmed from the chaos coming out of the 1960s and the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973.

“The Founding Fathers wanted freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” Wager said.

“There are some who do not want Christians involved in politics. However, people criticized German Christians for not standing up to Hitler and the Nazis. There were a few who did, like the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in prison a few weeks before the end of the war,” Wager said.

Faith leaders face a balancing act in their churches, because they include members with many political persuasions. The political parties that exist today don’t perfectly align with the beliefs and values of a Christian. People tend to choose one or the other based on an issue they strongly believe in or, as in some recent elections, “choosing the lesser of two evils.”

Wager said he doesn’t preach politics or publicly support political candidates. But he won't shy away from political issues when the Bible has something to say about them, including racism and the poor, sexuality, marriage and family, immigration and peacemaking, and loving your neighbor.

“On the more controversial issues, I don’t shy away from what the Bible says, but I do teach with kindness and grace,” he said. “I think people will actually listen to hard truths when you recognize their value as a human being.”

Wager said he’s heard of stories in which parents will not allow their children to see their grandparents because of differences over politics and candidates. He said the 24-hour news networks created some of the tension. There was not enough news programming to fill 24 hours, so they turned to opinion programs and shows. To keep ratings up, they turned to controversy.

Twitter and Facebook have upped the tension. Wager said one family left the church over a comment another made on Facebook.

Wager believes the church is the moral conscience of a community and the country. When a person drives out in the country and approaches a small town, what do you typically see? A church steeple.

“They built them that way to remind people in the community of God’s presence — the presence of a conscience,” he said.

The Rev. Nathan Brand, pastor of Berean Community Church and president of the Evangelical Leaders & Pastors Fellowship, agrees that politics has reached a “sad state.” Instead of listening to one another, we seek to silence those we disagree with by shouting at them or denying them access to speaking or publishing.

Nathan Brand
Nathan Brand.
Contributed

In dealing with politics from the pulpit, Brand follows a few principles:

As a minister of the Gospel, Brand said he is more interested in winning people to Jesus than in winning them to his political convictions. It is more important that a “person be reconciled to the living God than I win an argument." Truth does matter though, Brand said.

The Bible speaks clearly on matters “that we have turned into political matters. It is the adjudicator of what is true and right even if I or society may feel differently,” he said.

Brand said he rarely goes out of his way to address a political issue outside of the text he is preaching from. But if the passage does address a political issue that “affects our lives, I want to say what God says about it in his word.”

Brand said he tries not to endorse candidates or political parties from the pulpit. The closest he has come to publicly calling people out is to say, “Look at the fruit” of a current leader or administration.

“At the end of the day, I do not believe we as human beings can save ourselves outside of God’s assistance,” Brand said. “That is why I am more interested in proclaiming the Gospel and the truth of God’s Word than political messages.”

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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