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What is the role of our faith in public life?

What is the role of our faith in public life?

Commentary Social Justice


Methodist Christians have a long history of connecting faith and social action. At our best, Methodist Christians are known for their “practical divinity” in that you see them singing, praying, preaching and having Holy Communion on Sunday and then fighting for government policies during the week that would reflect the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Rev. David Williamson

We commemorated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in August, and move toward the general election in November, and reckon with ongoing racial inequity in our country. It is worth considering the role of our faith in public life. What place does it have?

Let’s start with the Bible.

That’s where the Christians who became known as Methodist got the idea that personal holiness couldn’t be separated from social holiness. Loving God and loving our neighbor (the great commandment Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:36-39) meant feeding hungry people, tending to the sick, visiting prisons and being generous with the poor.

But it also meant working for just policies which result in fewer hungry, sick, imprisoned and poor people.

When Jesus was flipping tables in the temple, he wasn’t forbidding the youth ministry from having a fundraiser at the church building. He was challenging the abusive policies of those who held power. They had all the outward appearance of being righteous, but their policies were marginalizing and impoverishing widows instead of centering and supporting them in community.

Of course, Jesus picked up all his ideas about what God really cares about from reading the Torah and prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos and Micah just to name a few.

These prophets relentlessly disturbed the people and their kings with warnings of impending judgment and doom if they continued to ignore Yahweh’s justice by putting their trust in wealth and sex idols, and ignoring the widows, orphans, immigrants and widening wealth gaps in their land.

“Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” -- Isaiah 1:15-17

Jesus held people in power accountable to act in ways that recognized and included everyone’s sacred worth. In his ministry, Jesus consistently elevates the lives and experiences of persons who have been overlooked and neglected.

In our day, nothing is more fundamental to recognizing the value of every human life than the right to vote in free, fair, and safe elections. Our system of government makes policies that impact the daily life of all our citizens, and therefore it is just for all adult citizens to have one voice and one vote.

We know that this has not always been the case in the United States, and still today our faith compels us to fight voter suppression.

As United Methodists, our Book of Discipline states, “[W]e hold governments responsible for the protection of the rights of the people to free and fair elections… The form and the leaders of all governments should be determined by exercise of the right to vote guaranteed to all adult citizens” (The Book of Discipline. “Social Principles,” paragraph 164, p. 138).

I confess, I don’t remember much being said in my United Methodist churches growing up around voter registration, participation and anti-suppression.

But historically, that is not the case as Methodist women in particular joined the struggle to expand the right to vote which led to the 19th Amendment giving (mostly white) women the right to vote. (Google “Methodist Women Fight for the Right to Vote” sometime).

And this conversation is never avoided in predominantly African American churches. There, an unfailing commitment to securing free, fair and safe elections for black people cost many their lives leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (outlawing literacy tests, poll taxes and other barriers to voting).

Today, we join Jesus in elevating the concerns of the poor and people of color who are far more likely to face voter suppression. We commit ourselves to dismantling policies that produce and perpetuate racial inequity, and join the work to ensure free, fair and safe elections in our country.

Recently the Antiracism Taskforce Policy and Public Witness Team for the Florida Conference UMC shared this statement: 

“Laws and practices such as restricting voter registration, mass purging of voter rolls, disproportionate closing of polling places in communities of color, gerrymandering, and felony disenfranchisement fail to show God’s love and treatment of neighbor as self and are sin.

This year, protecting the right to free and fair elections is made more urgent by the COVID-19 pandemic. Government bears the responsibility to protect the health and safety of its citizens by providing safe alternatives to in-person voting. That includes early voting, extended registration periods, plus absentee and mail-in voting alternatives. We especially decry the recent government activities in not funding the U.S. Postal Service that have resulted in a slow-down of the mail delivery system as a means of suppressing the vote.”

Here are some practical ways to put your faith in action

Make sure you are registered to vote and that your name has not been purged from voting rolls or designated “inactive.” The deadline for registering to vote is October 5, 2020. The Naples Daily News reported in March this year, “There was only about a 113,000-vote margin between Trump and Clinton in 2016. Florida counties removed 203,460 inactive voters from the rolls in 2019.”

If you didn’t vote in the last primary election but plan to vote this November, you should verify you are actually registered to vote by going to www.votesjc.com.

Make a plan to vote. We encourage people to vote by mail and vote early, especially during the COVID pandemic. You can request a mail in ballot by going to this website www.votesjc.com.

If you have concerns about voting by mail, see the vote by mail myth vs. reality flyer. Early voting starts October 5. Do not wait until election day if you can help it. You can easily verify that your vote has been counted when you vote early by going to registertovoteflorida.gov.

Educate yourself about the impact of policies, particularly on those who have been historically excluded (people of color, women, children, older adults). Related to voter disenfranchisement, pay particular attention to what has happened after Amendment 4 was passed in 2018 restoring voting rights to over 1.4 million Florida citizens who had completed their sentence. Learn more at www.wegotthevote.org.

--Rev. David Williamson is co-pastor at Grace UMC-St. Augustine and one of the leaders of the Public Policy & Witness Team of the Bishop's Anti-Racism Task Force.


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