Kriss: Our political tension

Feb 26, 2018 by

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Mennonites first came to Pennsylvania more than 300 years ago, attracted by American values like freedom of religion and the ability to act according to one’s conscience.

Stephen Kriss


An initial act for those early Mennonites was a public protest joining with neighboring Quakers to protest Christian participation in the slave trade. Mennonites didn’t own slaves and couldn’t reconcile slaveholding and profiting from it with their sense of faith and justice.

For those of us whose ancestors were among the earliest of colonists, we are people with a long history in this country. As a religious minority, our self-interest is wedged into an ongoing tension between church and state.

We were and are entrepreneurs and farmers. In Pennsylvania, these seeds continue to bear fruit and have enhanced our capital and capacity. The concentration of Mennonite wealth within 75 miles of Philadelphia is likely unrivaled globally. The first credentialed Mennonite minister in what became the U.S., William Rittenhouse, was interested in the technologies of his time, and his family would grow to have significant influence shaping Philadelphia.

I’m struck these days by the reframing of American values, and how our story and our livelihood as communities fits within that narrative. The “Make America Great Again” banter, which latches on to civil religion and racialized overtones, cultivates for me a sense of discomfort with my own citizenship.

I am reminded that true citizenship and allegiance belong to God. At the same time, I acknowledge the years of flourishing the U.S. has provided Mennonites. I recognize the safe haven provided to my great-grandparents when they slipped out of Slovakia before the beginning of the 20th century’s great wars. I am grateful to God for the safety and prosperity that has been provided.

But what does this commingling of gratitude and dis-ease mean? I have not avoided participation in the democratic process. I do, however, question the validity and justness of our processes. I wonder how my imperfect ballot choices implicate my Christian witness. I understand why some of us choose not to participate. Yet, I can’t shake the privilege that I am proffered through my earthly citizenship, which allows me to participate in the governing process.

I readily advocate about issues that affect Mennonite communities. After 9/11, Pennsylvania attempted to pass a law requiring flags in all schoolhouses, including private schools. I quickly protested to our local representative. He responded positively. The law was never passed in a way that mandated the flag and Pledge of Allegiance in private schools. The state honored our historic legacy and our religious freedom.

I am challenged to not only attend to political issues when they affect me directly. The legacy of the Germantown slavery protest remains at the foreground. Early Mennonite settlers, within a decade, agreed to a written protest that is portrayed now as the first formal anti-slavery document penned in the colonies.
At the same time, I acknowledge that political advocacy isn’t much good if it doesn’t match my actual way of living in community. It matters how I interact with people different from me.

The current posture of the political realm has been a helpful reminder to continue to advocate, to pay attention, to believe leaders who claim the Christian faith are called to a higher standard. At the same time, it’s been a blunt reminder that the reign of God, while here now, is still waiting to be fulfilled, and my loyalty belongs to that realm.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.

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