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.