I came to the Mennonites through the Mennonite Brethren, and specifically through my alma mater, Tabor College, an MB school in my hometown of Hillsboro, Kansas. The MB church shares a lot of history with the folks who make up Mennonite Church USA, but the MB denomination is more evangelical and, in my experience, more reliably culturally conservative than its cousin.
This leads to occasional tension between the “Mennonite” side and “culturally conservative” side of the church, one that plays out often within the college. Whereas Mennonite colleges wrestle with whether to play the national anthem at all before sporting events, that was never a question at Tabor. Instead, I’m told the current controversy is over whether student-athletes should be required to stand for the anthem.
In response to the controversy — and to the recent observations of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door — Del Gray, a Bible professor at Tabor, put up his own “95 Theses” on Tabor’s “Wittenberg Door,” a place where students and faculty can post IRL comments on issues of concern. A friend sent Del’s document to me; he has granted me permission to reprint here.
I wanted to do so, because I think the following document is a powerful statement on one of our core themes here: Do Christians — especially Mennonite Christians — owe their allegiance more to earthly tribalism like country? Or does God come first, in such a way that makes country tribalism much more difficult? Some of what follows, I think, will seem very strange to our non-Mennonite readers — Del won’t even say “The Pledge of Allegiance” — but isn’t so unusual in a church with such a longstanding history of pacifism. There are some Tabor-specific inside jokes, but I think this piece stands on its own anyway. It is tough. It should be.
Exactly 500 hundred years ago on October 31st 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on the Wittenberg door in protest of abuses that he perceived in the dominant church of his culture. Some historians say there might be a bit of legend in this account, but let’s not allow that to ruin a good story. This act of protest led to an entire new branch of the church in western society. The majority of us at Tabor College (except our beloved Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters) historically trace our denominational identity back to Luther’s bold act of courage and conscience that opened the door to a variety of other protest movements, including Mennonites, Baptists, Lutherans (duh), Methodists and basically all other American church denominations. This protest was so successful that it has lasted 500 years and hundreds of millions of people today still identify themselves with a name that pays homage to Luther – Protestants, those who protest.
On this anniversary week of Luther’s protest, I offer my own protest against the heartbreaking movement of the dominant church in America away from the teachings of Jesus. I have written this in a way that attempts to honor Luther’s own 95 Theses.
“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend … (insert other titles here if you want to) Del Gray, and very ordinary lecturer therein at Tabor College, intends to defend the following statements and is willing to discuss on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and discuss with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter (writing is a much better way of making and evaluating careful arguments anyway).
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”
1. The evangelical church has lost its soul, trading the teachings of Jesus for politics. As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.
2. The evangelical church has become the latest in a long history of churches that have sought to transform their culture but ended up being transformed by it. Instead of the world looking like the church the result has become the church looking like the world.
3. I protest that the evangelical church has come to equate conservative politics with Christianity.
4. It is not wrong for Christians to come to conservative political conclusions on issues, but it is a betrayal of conscience and of Jesus when we do so on an issue by ignoring the teachings of the Bible.
5. I protest when Christians make theological or ethical decisions based purely on aligning with the “right” political party. Christians often say Jesus would not fit neatly into either party, but then that is exactly what we do.
6. I protest where the church has blatantly disregarded Jesus in favor of politics in the following issues:
Immigration The death penalty
Racism and Nationalism.
As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.
7. I protest both the active agreement and passive complicity of the evangelical church in disregarding the Bible’s teachings about how God’s people should welcome immigrants. As citizens of a country there are complicated social issues involved, but the nation is not our highest priority. As Christians our first allegiance is to the undeniable call in the Bible to welcome foreigners, refugees, and outsiders, even when they are undocumented and studying in our schools, as an act of loving our neighbor. When Christians forget that they have a higher calling than doing what is best for the nation, we flirt with idolatry. As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.
8. I protest as forcefully as I can the evangelical church’s support of state-sponsored execution by the death penalty . When Jesus said “love your enemies” I am absolutely, positively, certain that he did NOT mean to kill them. As Christians we witness to a higher way of valuing all life, even when the consensus of our nation or our political party holds that killing is the right thing to do. As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.
9. As a Christian I am pro-life, but Jesus’ version of pro-life does mean the same thing as the political platform. Pro-life means ALL life; unborn and born, innocent and guilty, citizen and immigrant, rich and poor. The Bible clearly and repeatedly affirms that all life is valuable to God and equal in Christ. This means that we don’t kill criminals, we don’t kill babies, and that black lives DO matter.
10. Racism has been called America’s original sin. Racism is a founding attitude in which our nation has been rooted and grew. I protest in the strongest language possible the so-called Christians who affirm one race as superior to another and I protest the complicity of the evangelical church that denies racism and looks the other way because it is someone else’s problem.
11. I protest and condemn white supremacist groups that are marching in our city streets with guns and torches, yelling hate speech and threats against people of color, ordering them to leave or be killed. Failing to condemn this because of political ambitions is a lack integrity that puts the kingdom of the world above the kingdom of God. As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.
12. In the name of Jesus I protest anyone who claims to be a Christian and instead of condemning them calls these groups “very fine people.” I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING AGAIN. This is not 1962, this is 2017. The church needs to wake up and speak out against this and witness to the truth we know in the Bible, even if it goes against the mainstream of our political party.
13. I protest that the evangelical church compromises its moral witness in the world when it uses theological and biblical justification for giving 81% of its support to a politician who blatantly disregards the teachings of Jesus with vulgar, hateful, demeaning speech targeted towards people of color, the marginalized, and oppressed. As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.
14. I propose that Colin Kaepernick is the contemporary voice of Martin Luther inasmuch as he has courageously and publicly protested abuses that are rampant in the dominant church in our society today. This makes him one of my great heroes of the last few years. I join him in this protest because as a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for racism.
15. I protest when Christians equate their nation with Christianity. God and country are two very very different things and should never be confused.
16. Because the evangelical church has now identified itself almost exclusively with a political agenda, I can no longer use that label for myself. This is painful for me because I was raised and educated in a strong evangelical tradition of which I once was proud but now am ashamed.
17. Because the evangelical church has now identified itself almost exclusively with a political agenda, the Mennonite Brethren should have a nationwide conversation to reconsider whether we want to call ourselves “Anabaptist-Evangelicals.”
18. The flag and the national anthem are NOT sacred, but are symbols of an earthly kingdom to which I owe no allegiance. Treating the flag or anthem as sacred cheapens that which is truly sacred and is tantamount to idolatry.
19. God is our highest loyalty and as followers of Jesus we can have no allegiance to any other master. Our citizenship is in heaven, as members of the kingdom of God not the kingdoms of this world. My loyalty to God’s kingdom is absolute, even if that means disloyalty to my nation. No one can serve two masters, so I choose to serve God alone.
20. Therefore I cannot and will not say the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America since it would be dishonest to say it knowing that I would break my oath as soon as my duty to nation comes in conflict with my ultimate allegiance to a different kingdom.
21. I have respect for some of the values and ideals of some nations, and I have no respect for other values and ideals of some nations. As a follower of Jesus I evaluate these according to how well they agree with God’s values. I give respect where it is due and do not feel compelled to show respect for ideas that run counter to Jesus’ teachings. The Bible likewise models both of these attitudes toward the state when it urges respect some times and other times refers to the state as a dragon and beast that acts on behalf of Satan. I protest when the evangelical church insists that we uncritically respect all elements and symbols of our nation.
22. America is a great country (after having lived in many other countries I say this with some measure of expertise), and I respect many things about it. But it is also a deeply flawed and broken nation that regularly pressures me to participate in a system that looks nothing like the kingdom of God. When Christians begin to celebrate not just what is good but also what is broken and wrong in this nation because their ethical filter has become politics instead of Christ, I refuse to participate. Warriors who killed people as a result of their racist values should not be celebrated and honored as heroes. As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for this.
23. Because the kingdom of God is upside down from the kingdoms of this world there should always be a counter cultural identity to the church that continually protests against the world.
93. (OK, I skipped some numbers but it had to add up to 95 at the end) When athletes respectfully kneel in peaceful protest of unbiblical racism during the national anthem, they are witnessing to God’s values on this issue.
94. Because kneeling is an inherently peaceful and respectful symbol and protesting racism is an inherently just message, it is dishonest when leaders of the evangelical church and our nation label these athletes “disrespectful” in an effort to discredit them and deflect attention away from the real issues of racism.
95. For these reasons I no longer stand for the national anthem.
(With inspiration from Martin Luther King and apologies to Martin Luther)
I join Colin Kaepernick and many other people of faith who witness to Jesus’ call on our lives on these issues.
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the evangelical church or in their populist leaders, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”
As a follower of Jesus I cannot stand for racism, therefore …
Here I kneel, I can do no other.