Transcending (and transforming?) politics on Election Day
This was just one of the many banners on the Facebook page of Election Day Communion (EDC), a movement which has been grabbing the attention of individuals, congregations, schools, and groups across the United States since August of this year. The movement’s website had attracted and listed 193 participating individuals or organizations in 42 states as of Oct. 2, 2012.
Mark Schloneger, Kevin Gasser and Ben Irwin, EDC’s organizers, set a target of having 100 participating groups represented from all 50 states. Given the surprising response, “we may have to set our sights higher,” says Schloneger. Among the participants are Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) and its seminary.
Schloneger is a 2005 MDiv alumnus of Eastern Mennonite Seminary and pastor at North Goshen Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind. Four years ago, Schloneger led a communion service on Election Day at Springdale Mennonite Church in Waynesboro, Va. The church’s youth group created signs such as “Change You Can Believe In” and “Put the Kingdom First.”
“The purpose of Election Day Communion is to build our unity in and allegiance to Christ in the midst of theological, political, and denominational differences,” says Schloneger. “Some people misunderstand this campaign by thinking it is a statement that we need to keep politics out of the church so that we can focus instead on what’s really important, but that’s not how I think about it.
“Politics belongs in the Church because we are to place all things – all things –under the Lordship of Jesus. Of course, when we do that, our political passions and practices will look very different.”
Schloneger’s alternative vision is for “spaces all over the country” where people can come and declare their faith and allegiance to Christ over that of their diverse political beliefs. The leaders stress, however, that the movement is not meant to encourage abstinence from voting or to discourage political involvement.
“The idea for Election Day Communion came from a sense that American politics have become too divisive, particularly within the church,” states Kevin Gasser, a 2008 Eastern Mennonite Seminary grad and pastor of the Staunton (Va.) Mennonite Church. The third movement leader, Ben Irwin, is an Episcopalian writer in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“The Bible is full of teachings and examples of how we as the church, the body of Christ, are called to work together, in spite of our differences, for the Kingdom that Jesus came proclaiming and inviting others to participate in,” says Gasser. In this way, EDC is reaching for ways to bridge the human-made chasms created by politics.
“I think it’s very scary to mix the church with politics, because depending on which side you’re on, it alienates other people in the church,” said Arlene Weins, professor of nursing at EMU. She is a long-time voter and chair of a legislative group representing nurses. She has canvassed for political candidates, including for her husband (a member of the Harrisonburg City Council).
Wiens hopes that Election Day Communion will not replace responsible voting, even though she was raised in a “plain” Mennonite community where everyone was expected to steer clear of politics up to and including not voting. She believes both religious and civic duties are important; however, Wiens has some discomfort when the two are combined in a communion. Furthermore, she believes that the election process is by nature competitive and secular, while communion is a sacred commemoration of the life of Christ.
Weins says she came to understand the importance of government – and thus the importance of choosing who guides the government – when she did some time with Mennonite Central Committee in Harlan County, Kentucky, where husband David Wiens, also a Mennonite, worked with those who had substandard housing. It was there the couple saw and experienced overwhelming poverty and the needs of a community.
Previously, David was employed in Reading, Pa., in child protective services. “Most of the aid for children was either county, state, or federal aid… that’s who takes care of those people,” she says. “I am in health care, and I don’t know what we’d do without Medicare and Medicaid.” No non-profit or church alone can meet the overwhelming needs of impoverished peoples, she adds.
Phil Kniss ’92, MDiv ’95, fully supports the EDC’s campaign as pastor of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va., for the last 16 years. “What I really appreciate about the Election Day Communion is that the emphasis is on the communion, on the Eucharist, on that very tangible symbol of Christ’s broken body and blood. That really in a very symbolic way represents the central reality that we gather around as a church. I can’t think of anything better to do.”
Kniss believes that the church represents the political spectrum of the United States; however, despite having people arrayed from one end of the spectrum to the other, the church is still a community of people with ideals shaped by faith and the example that Christ gave of how to relate to one another and how power is used.
With that in mind, Kniss wants to discourage the division caused by political tension, and keep in mind the idea of allegiance and holding up loyalty to the kingdom.
“While these other issues that affect the country are important, what’s most important is that we’ve positioned ourselves properly towards Christ the King.” Celebrating communion is how Kniss believes Christians can redirect their loyalties to Christ as the purest example of a political entity, whose sacrificial love and reconciliation blankets the agendas and transcends political platforms.
“Politics are not an excuse for us to stop following Jesus and loving others,” Gasser says. “Instead, I hope we can use this opportunity to be a witness to others of a better way, a better kingdom, and a better King.”
Eastern Mennonite Seminary will host an election day chapel on Tuesday, Nov. 6, at 11 a.m., in Martin Chapel. The election day communion will take place at 6 p.m., in Martin Chapel, hosted by EMU campus ministries.
Article by Lani Prunés.