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Part 3: Politics and Nationalism in the Church: A Kitchen Table Conversation

By Dr. Matthew Cobb (Host), Kevin Kot (Ojibwe), Colleen Bernu (Ojibwe), Patricia Dickson, (Congregational Justice Team Chair) the Rev. Beth Pottratz (ELCA), and the Rev. James Muske (ELCA)







In the wake of our last episode, Thanksgiving: An Autopsy, we’ve observed an uptick in the number of heated conversations within some of our ELCA congregations. Specifically, we’ve encountered a lot of questions and debates around politics and how we reckon with our role as members of a nation-state while also being members of the Body of Christ.

Conversations surrounding how these two identities inform one another and can be difficult and emotionally charged. They touch on some of the most tender areas in our souls related to how we think about ourselves, our family histories, and our relationships with our neighbors. When proceeding on this sacred ground, we want to walk gently and with caution so that we can relate to one another in a healing way rather than in a way that does further damage. Before we resume our more focused conversations around treaties, reparations, and bridge-building between Native Americans and Settlers, we are taking a pause to have a kitchen table-style conversation with spiritual faith leaders, Indigenous and Settler alike, to breathe into the work we are doing and ponder where we've been, where we're at, and where we're going.


So, what roles do our politics and our national identity have to play in our churches? We invited Kevin Kot (Ojibwe), Colleen Bernu (Ojibwe), Patricia Dickson, (Congregational Justice Team Chair) the Rev. Beth Pottratz (ELCA), and the Rev. James Muske (ELCA) to our kitchen table to wrestle with this question. The transcription of this episode has been edited for readability.


Matt Cobb [Host]: I appreciate you all being here, and I have a question for you to ponder. What is the crisis that brought you to this conversation? Rev Beth Pottratz [ELCA]: I can start with a humorous take on your question. It came last night. My husband believes that one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time is National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, which is a huge comedy. But last night as I was preparing for this conversation, my family was watching this movie, and there's a scene in the movie in which the family all sits down for their Christmas meal. And they ask Aunt Bethany if she will say, grace. [Clip from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation: ]


Clark Griswold: Before we begin, since this is Aunt Bethany's 80th Christmas, I think she should lead us in the saying of grace. Aunt Bethany: What did you say? Uncle Lewis: They want you to say grace.

Aunt Bethany: Grace? She passed away 30 years ago. Uncle Lewis: They want you to say grace..the blessing!

Aunt Bethany: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America...


All: ...and to the republic for which it stands. One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Amen.

[Laughter of participants ]

Rev Beth Pottratz [ELCA]: And I thought, as I had this conversation on my mind and that scene came up in the movie as we were watching it, I thought, what a better example of this topic at hand, of civil religion, of politics in the church, of how our faith and our political lives blend together in good and bad ways.


To answer your question a little bit more seriously: one of my big concerns in our society today, and I see it coming into our churches, is how completely divided and polarized we are as a society, especially in the United States because of our politics and political situation that we have going on. I see it all over the place where politics really becomes a dividing factor, and for the church, I think the Body of Christ is in crisis, that we use these politics to be divisive instead of bringing the unity of the Holy Spirit that we're called to do as Christians. Matt Cobb [Host]: If someone would offer an experience of why they came here today, that would be really helpful. Because we need to really land this on the ground for our listeners right now. Colleen Bernu [Ojibwe]: I'm just fed up, honestly. Why am I here today? I'm fed up with not being able to have a civil discourse with each other, I'm fed up with the fact that we've gotten to a place in our culture where we jokingly say that when we come together as families that there will be political division. I'm fed up that when we as a Body of Christ take a misstep-and it's going to happen when we take risks–that risk can either go in a way that makes everyone happy and we're all celebrating, or maybe it doesn't. I'm fed up that we've gotten to a place where when we take risks and it ends up being a misstep, we can't have a healthy conversation about it. [The debate turns into] “that's the liberals talking“ or “this is the conservatives talking,” and then we end up in this battle and we're not having a conversation about what it means to be baptized into a single family. Matt Cobb [Host]: That's identity too, and the politics of identity is what I hear you kind of get into, of the body politic. Beth talked about the Body of Christ. Is that the crisis points that we're talking about here? The intersection of body politic and Body of Christ or is it something even more grounded than that? I don't know.

Kevin Kot [Ojibwe]: I think it's moving away from a fundamental question. And that question is: What does the good news mean? What did it mean then, and what does it mean today? Has that meaning changed? When the writers proclaimed Jesus as having the good news, that was a counter-narrative to the emperor and empire. And I think we've veered so far away from understanding, trying to figure out what the heck that is, what that means, that we don't even go back into the narrative of looking back in the Exodus story. What was it meaning for the Israelites to come out of Egypt? What did all this mean? I mean, what is Christianity, if Jesus is the good news? What does that mean?


It doesn't land on any political spectrum. It calls out all political spectrums. If people are oppressed if people are hungry, if people are suffering, if you don't identify with that, you don't see your Creator. That's where you see your Creator. So, for me, a lot of these arguments, whether it be political, it still comes down to a very basic value of: what does the good news mean? You have to answer that yourself. That's just my thoughts. Colleen Bernu [Ojibwe]: Well, I would say, Kevin, if you can't answer that, then you can't answer what does it mean to love your neighbor either. You get all twisted up in the conversation of what does love my neighbor means. What does that look like? If you can't answer the very basic question of, “What does it mean to follow the Way?”, then loving your neighbor, which is a fruit of that, becomes incredibly difficult. You start using language that you have, and I don't know that that language that we've had has been really healthy. Patricia Dickson [Congregational Justice Team Chair]: I came today because I was invited to come. I kind of felt like how I think my little three-year-old son would've felt many years ago at the end of swimming instruction classes when he was told to get on the diving board and jump off and swim the length of the pool. I learned much later that he hadn't even learned how to breathe that's why he swam so fast.


But I also came because I have questions about where have we gotten lost. It seems to me that we're a lost people. That our church has not been able to prevent us from becoming lost, we've gotten mired down so that “social justice” is a bad word in many congregations, and I want to find out what can we do about that. How can the church be different? I have a lot of thoughts going in a lot of different directions. If somebody says something about social justice, [the complaint is] “it’s politics in the pulpit.” But where would Christ be, but in the pulpit proclaiming that we should be doing justice? Matt Cobb [Host]: Yeah, you just landed us in the middle of the deep end of the pool. Thank you. And thank you for that three-year-old boy of yours, those many years ago, because that's a visceral experience. I think all of us can go back to that. Remember when we had to really pay attention to our breath when we went swimming. Pat, you were going to say something else? Patricia Dickson [Congregational Justice Team Chair]: Yeah, I was going to say “breath”…we don't stop and breathe often enough. The one thing that we perhaps have in common with everybody, if we pause, is silence, and we don't take the time for that silence to really listen and hear. Rev James Muske [ELCA]: I was thinking back and my mind goes to the Apostle Paul who loved the Body of Christ's imagery, that we are all these different members of the same body. And you couldn't fully live out the good news, to Kevin's point, without the body all connected together and operating and humming along together.


[Also, I wonder] do we listen [to each other]? Well, I think we listen, but we listen for kind of the buzzwords or, it's like we've become internet doctors, you know, so we're listening for every little possible sign and symptom of something that is wrong, something that's a disease, and we're going to lop that part off as soon as we can. And so, we don't really listen to each other deeply, but we do listen for some sign of illness, at least that we think is an illness, even if it's not actually an illness. I think that's what's so heartbreaking and so frustrating. And there may be times when parts of the body are not healthy and we do need to find health and wholeness, but it gets so confused because of our struggles with fully and deeply listening. Rev Beth Pottratz [ELCA]: Yeah. I'll share a little more of my life story. In my northern rural Minnesota life, I met and fell in love with my husband, who is the opposite of me. I love the city and he hates the city. Politically we're different. We disagree on a lot of different stuff, which leads to lively debates between us. In a lot of ways, we're opposites, but it's worked out well. And in all of that journey, from my urban life to now, God has really, worked hard through me to help me understand the difference between my politics, my political preference, and the Gospel message. Kevin was mentioning the Gospel is “good news,” which means if it's going to be good news, it has to be good news for all people. If it's not good news for all people, then it's not good news, and the political debates that my husband and I get into, they become very lively, but they always challenge me to view different issues in different lights that I don't necessarily agree with or have different opinions about. But one of the reasons why we can debate politics as well as we do is because we share the underlying values. And that's something that I don't see the church able to do, and I think it's a challenge and it's not necessarily to the church's fault because I don't see our general society today in the United States being able to do this well, either.


The example I always go to between my husband and I is that we both agree that hungry people should be fed. In our political opinions, we both have different reasons why we believe our answers are good answers. But ultimately that's a difference in how it happens, but the why is because we both agree that people should not be going hungry. And that's where the good news, the Gospel, comes in with us as the church, with us as Christians and disciples. Politics is how we organize ourselves in our political spheres, the how we accomplish things as a society. The Gospel values are where we need to come together. we need to come together and agree on the why because Jesus calls us as disciples and we are on this walk together. But we can disagree on how that happens because we have different life experiences that point us towards different political answers to these issues, these problems that we have in our society. When we stake our gospel values on political decisions instead of the underlying value, we all of a sudden turn Jesus into a political pawn used for a political party instead of good news for everybody. I think our challenge is to see how we start and end with the Gospel and be rooted in the gospel of good news, of liberation, of salvation, of healing and wholeness for all of creation, including each person within it. And when we agree on all of that, how that comes into play is where debates can happen. Colleen Bernu [Ojibwe]: Then that makes me think about equipping people to be able to have a healthy conversation and how that's a response and a reaction that I can stand behind. That makes sense to me. Matt Cobb [Host]: I wonder if there's anyone else in the round table circuit here, this esteemed council, that's connecting with this sentiment that we're talking about. Kevin Kot [Ojibwe]: For me... so, when it's really coming down to it, really it’s the simplicity of loving your neighbor as yourself. What does that mean? I mean, that's just reaching out, just being a community, a real community. That's just so vital, and it's like how do you get people to move that way? Rev Beth Pottratz [ELCA]: Out of curiosity I went online and googled for a definition of “social justice.” The Oxford Dictionary defines social justice as “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.”


Often, and most of the time in our world today, when we talk about “social justice,” we tend to talk about issues that are relevant to the political left or to the Democratic Party. But I think as Christians, we need to take a look at that and go back to justice doesn't mean particular sets of issues or particular answers to struggles we have in society. Social justice, I mean, in the Oxford Dictionary is “the distribution of wealth opportunities and privileges.” I think for us as Christians, to take the term “social justice” we can define it as “the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God on Earth.” And as disciples, working towards the revelation of the kingdom of God fully on earth, we as Christians are called to ask that question: Where do you see suffering and need? And how can we help end that suffering and need so that people can all experience the abundance of the Kingdom of God? It's about the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. It's about us meeting people where they're suffering, working towards new life and resurrection, which is what we're all about as Christians. It's not about particular issues or stances on those issues. But I often see in the church when we start to mention social justice is the leap toward “I'm not a Democrat.” I think as Christians, we cut ourselves short. Maybe it takes redefining what “social justice” means for Christians, and maybe it means finding a different word instead of talking about “social justice” talk about the “inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.” Patricia Dickson [Congregational Justice Team Chair]: I like that and I think of justice in terms of what Micah said, and of Christ’s justice and righteousness. He was always seeking justice and caring for people, which would go back to an authentic community. Where we're safe to be authentic as ourselves, where the community is an authentic community in our churches. And we're not there. Colleen Bernu [Ojibwe]: One of the things that I haven't heard at all in this conversation, but it's real and we don't talk about it, and I think we need to, is this notion that God is on our side. For us as Christians, we know what that means, and we’ve got to look into that, [this idea that] God is on the United States of America’s side, How do we wrestle with that? How do we wrestle with that as people of God? Rev Beth Pottratz [ELCA]: I have wrestled with that question myself, especially as someone married to a currently serving US military member. When he went off to war, or at least to be prepared for war, [I asked] Is God on our side of this war or the other side? One of the [things] that I come back to as a response to that is not an answer, but a different question: Is this the world that God intended for us? And you can debate one side of an issue or another. You can see where people are hurting and say things need to change and they need to change in this way or that way. But is the war by any means what God intended for this world anyway or are we just humans muddling our way through trying to find the next best answer and struggling to get there? And we might have decent ideas, but most likely the conflicts we're talking about are not the world that God intended, not the fullness of the redemption that Christ promises for the world. And so, what is the world that God intended for us to live in? And how can we be part of making that world a reality? Matt Cobb [Host]: Well, I appreciate each and every one of you coming together for this round table council. And if there's anybody that would like to have the last word here, please discern in your own heart how we all belong to each other, how we're all related. Does anyone have something to send us on our way? Rev James Muske [ELCA]: We are recording this only about 10 days before Christmas, and I always think of Mary's song. And so, maybe I could read that as a closing prayer. So, this is from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, verses 46 through 55.


“And Mary said, my soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God, my savior. Because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant, from now on all generations will call me blessed, because he who is mighty, has done great things for me, and holy is his name from generation to generation, he is merciful to those who fear him. He has demonstrated power with his arm, he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts, he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up those of lowly position, he has filled the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty, he has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Matt Cobb [Host]: Thank you for joining us on Broken Lands. On our next episode, which is entitled “Treaty Rights and You,” we’ll be discussing how honoring the treaties from a white settler perspective is more than just property rights, titles, and deeds, because from the other side, the Anishinaabe side, this is sacred and holy land that is part of them and their identity. So, let us come together and turn the heat up again.


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