How involved should we be in politics?

Now that the partisan dust has settled, as Mennonites we have a chance to ponder the question: How involved should we be in politics?

June 14, 2011 | Young Voices
Emily Loewen | Young Voices Editor

The federal election came and went, our elected representatives have filled the House of Commons, and campaigners have removed all the lawn signs. Now that the partisan dust has settled, as Mennonites we have a chance to ponder the question that lay neglected in deciding how to vote: How involved should we be in politics?

The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective doesn’t provide an easy answer. It calls the church God’s “holy nation” and says that, as Christians, our true allegiance is to the church. On the other hand, it says God instituted governments to maintain order and we should respect those in authority. And still there’s more: “[B]ut like all such institutions, nations tend to demand total allegiance,” it says, and that “we may participate in government or other institutions of society only in ways that do not violate the love and holiness taught by Christ.”

When responding to a survey on faith and political involvement, Gerald Ens, a young adult from Bethel Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, summed up the dilemma well, writing: “I struggle with this one. In the broad sense of the term, we are absolutely called to be politically active. . . . I believe that the church is called to be active in the world; this is being political. Whether or not Mennonites are called to vote is a trickier matter.”

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The presence of a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) office in Ottawa demonstrates that the organization believes in some level of political involvement. “We have this conviction that governments are to maintain a just and peaceful order,” says Paul Heidebrecht, executive director of the MCC Ottawa Office, adding that the church has a responsibility to help governments to be faithful. He was clear, though, that MCC engages government on behalf of its global partners—“raising voices to power that otherwise wouldn’t have access to that power”—not its own political interests,

Heidebrecht gives the example of the narrowly defeated Bill C-300, a private member’s bill introduced by Liberal MP John McKay, that aimed to hold Canadian mining companies responsible for overseas practices. Concrete situations where communities are harmed by mining practices makes it easier for people to understand why MCC works in Ottawa, Heidebrecht says. “If the opportunity presents itself, why wouldn’t we try and work towards government policy that is going help, rather than hinder, the viability of those communities?” he asks

Heidebrecht is quick to point out that the MCC Ottawa Office isn’t partisan. “We’re under no illusions that the kingdom of God will come to earth if just the right party is elected,” he says. “We have a long record of constructively engaging the government and criticizing the government, regardless of which government is in power.”

For Jonathan Sears, faith and politics interact less directly. While the associate professor of international development at Canadian Mennonite University says that elections are one chance to express an opinion, a public conversation outside of the organized system is the home for a real relationship between religion and politics. “Between times when we vote it’s through our organization in society where we make manifest, where we put the flesh on the bones, so to speak,” says Sears.

People of faith aren’t necessarily called to take part in organized politics, but in conversations about issues like poverty, justice or child care, they are, Sears says. When he was starting his studies in politics he believed that caring about a community would naturally lead to political involvement. Now, however, he says, “I think there’s an important role for activism; I think there’s important roles for solidarity, for witness, for struggling, putting the legs under a hunger for justice for which maybe partisan politics is actually not a good vehicle at all.”

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