Our religious and political identity is forged early in life by our families, the area of the country, churches and social groups we grew up in. Our ideas about how things should be were shaped long before we got old enough to challenge these assumptions. Acceptance or rejection is deeply conditioned. Most of us unconsciously filter out anything that doesn’t support our deeply held beliefs and assumptions.
Much as I like to think of myself as a free thinker, I am a Mennonite and an advocate for peace and justice because I grew up in a family that taught and lived those values. Some of my earliest memories are sitting on my dad’s lap and listening to the grown-ups talk. While mother would fix the meals and serve as hostess, Dad and his friends reveled in theological, political, and social justice debates and discussions. But they also fleshed out their words with specific actions.
Fairfield Mennonite was founded in 1927 by a group of college educated men and women who no longer fit into a more conservative church intent with protecting established church traditions and doctrines. I was taught to question and believe something only if it made sense, not “just because.” From it’s inception, FMC brought in speakers from other states and countries. The adult discussion group with its dedication to tolerance, freedom of thought, and community service has shaped both the congregation and my life.
My attitudes toward public service were instilled in early childhood. During WWII, I played under the big tables at church while the women knotted comforters, rolled bandages for the troops and hospitals, packed relief, Christmas, and food parcels for war victims. The women canned food for the county home. FMC helped start Child Welfare or what is now called Children and Youth. It built the community hall in Fairfield. It’s been instrumental in starting and shaping the Fairfield Food Pantry as an ecumenical pantry. 57 years ago it started the International Gift Festival whose proceeds go to the artisans, not church coffers. This explains much about who I am and why I write the kind of columns I do.
Acknowledging how our political and religious leanings are determined early in life helps me understand why we vote the way we do or advocate specific public policies. Each of us processes information and facts based on our fundamental sense of who we were and are, where we came from, which party we support, etc. Yet this should never be used as an excuse for not being thoughtful. We all need to constantly challenge our basic premises and be willing to grow and change.
Our polarized society needs to stop blaming or judging “the other.” We need to listen to each others stories and views without judging, demeaning, or automatically rejecting them. We must discard the win/lose, right/wrong mentality. Instead we must seek out places where our ideas and hopes overlap, even as we disagree on other issues. Most of all, we must find those areas of agreement which are there, and then work together in those areas. By so doing we will lose our fear of “the other” and discover friends and allies. Together we can build a better America.
Joyce Shutt is the pastor emeritus of The Fairfield Mennonite Church. She writes a daily blog, stepstohope.weebly.com.
Many of us woke up the day after the election either ecstatic or saddened, but even so, life goes on. True, our neighborhoods are no longer comprised of people who look the same or speak the same languages. Many jobs will never come back and the soil under our feet shakes with unrest. While our tendency is to resist change, our only real option is to accept diversity is here to stay. We may not like it, but the genie is out of the bottle.
President Obama, in his farewell address, challenged us to fight the monsters of hatred, violence, and exclusion that appear to be deeply planted in the soul of our nation. We thought we knew each other, but fear and other divisive events have shown otherwise. Now it is up to us to find a way to work together, which we will eventually do, because that is who we are, and because democracies exist only when everyone works for the common good.
How do we do this? By letting go of our longing for a simpler past. Those days are gone. We must acknowledge the hard reality that our economy will never go back to the 1950’s, that we are caught up in the inevitable changes that come with the technological and instant communication revolution.
Perhaps the most important step we can take is to stop seeing anyone who disagrees with us or belongs to a different political party, religion, or race as “the enemy.” Instead of exaggerating our differences let’s focus on our shared goals and dreams, our shared humanity. Let’s start by letting go of the illusion that in order to be happy and safe, things must go my way.
Acceptance and cooperation doesn’t mean we agree with or condone everything, but instead of trying to turn back the clock, retreating into nationalism and isolationism, we can seek ways of working together for the common good. We can find viable solutions to the many problems facing our nation and world. Ironically, blaming “the other” or immigrants for the economic upheaval and social unrest only creates more unrest and fear.
We can start working for change here Adams County by insisting that our local, state and national elected officials work together to find solutions instead of blaming the other party and playing party politics. Instead of focusing on fear and exclusion, we can demand a positive dynamic of cooperation that will ripple outward from us. By fighting for changes in the ways voting districts are gerrymandered, we open the way for better voter representation and less bitterness, no matter who is in office. We can become good neighbors, especially to those who speak a different language or practice a different religion. By welcoming newcomers or “the other” into our communities, we not only help them feel wanted, safe, and secure, but we create an environment where we will feel safer ourselves….because the stranger has become a friend.
Democrat or Republican, white, black, brown or yellow, straight, gay, legal, illegal, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu, we can do this. We can affirm our common humanity, our shared hopes and dreams for a safe and sane future for our children and ourselves. It won’t be easy for it will require forgiveness and even admitting we are wrong, at times. But we can do this. The fate of America and the world depends on it.
Joyce Shutt is the pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church. She also has a blog at stepstohope.weebly.com,