Below is my response to the Rev. Ziegert. My original post on the April 2005 Event at Venice (CA) UMC can be found here. The pastor of Venice UMC, the Rev. Ziegert, responds to my email requesting information about the event and his thoughts on politcal activity in church can be found here. My lengthy response back to him is below:
From: William Timothy Sisk [mailto:tim at timsisk dot org]
Sent: Thursday, September 01, 2005 10:49 PM
To: veniceumc *at* aol *dot* com
Subject: RE: Cindy Sheehan speech at Venice UMC
Dear Rev. Ziegert,
Please feel free to address me as Tim. Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to respond to my email. Let me also express appreciation for your ministry. I hope you had a refreshing and enjoyable vacation. Sometimes pastors forget to reserve some "Sabbath" time away church and ministerial duties to the detriment of their person, family, and ministry.
While I suspect that there are many issues we will disagree about, in times like these, when so many in my state and neighboring Louisiana are suffering, it is important to focus on that which can unite us. I am appreciative of the connectional system and the strength of our response when we face difficult crises. I am particularly grateful for the work of UMCOR, a ministry of our connection, and urge support of their relief efforts.
As I mentioned in my email to you and the post of my blog, my interest isn't to debate the issue of the Iraq war. Perhaps part of our struggles in becoming faithful disciples might involve in doing such a thing, but I'm choosing not to do that at this time or in this forum. I think we can agree, though, that war is always less than God's perfect will.
As I expressed in my post, I am troubled by UM churches being involved in political activity. As politics are a part of life, I agree with you when you write that “politics [are] unavoidable when we live in community”. (But I believe we should tread very, very lightly). I don’t, however, believe churches of any stripe, theological persuasion, or political leaning should be involved in partisan, political activity. Based on the media reports that I have read about your April 19 event, I believe that your church did just that.
I come to this conclusion for a couple of reasons. First, I'm concerned about the speaker roster. I think one could defend a speaker list of people opposed to war in general. A speaker list that only includes those who are opposed to the Iraq war is troublesome. (What can be the harm in hearing from people who support the war?) A speaker list that includes people who not only oppose the war but who have very publicly expressed anti-Bush sentiment is absolutely indefensible and tendentious. Given that this event was publicized before and after by various "left-wing" (I don't mean that pejoratively) media outlets suggests to me that I'm not the only one who sees the predominate (in fact only ) perspective of the event. (Consider this, this, this, and this.)
Secondly, it is hard for me to imagine how this event could be part of any church strategy for Christian growth. Perhaps the inclusion of Michelle Shocked [website here, warning nudity and language] is what tips me over in this. Although I’ve never been a fan of hers, I’m not opposed to secular music. I listen to secular music and even use it sometimes in a positive way in my Bible studies (The Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil” is a favorite that I used before.) But as each church has different approaches to living and preaching the gospel, I’ll concede that perhaps this is something that I just don’t get. But put this together with the first reason expressed above, I do feel pretty strongly this was a partisan event.
Even if we can’t agree that the event was a partisan, political activity and should be discouraged, I am troubled that the event could comprise your church’s ministry.
Some quotes from the event:
Is there anyone in America who cannot yet see that Donald Rumsfeld is a liar...that he, as with Hitler and Stalin....will say anything so long as he thinks it will help shape the world to his own liking? Is there even one, sane adult among us who cannot see that Donald Rumsfeld is a threat to our nation’s security and to peace on our beloved earth?
As soft-spoken and sincere-sounding as Paul Wolfowitz is, is there yet any sane adult in this country whose skin does not crawl when this murderous liar opens his mouth and speaks? Am I the only person in this room who clearly sees that Paul Wolfowitz is a threat to our nation’s security...and to peace on our beloved earth?
Can we not agree that however one feels about Rumsfeld’s policies, linking him to Hitler and Stalin (two men who history says are directly responsible for deaths of 12 million people) is unsuitable in any setting but certainly out of place in church. I can’t imagine a Christian response that could defend the personal invective expressed in just these two paragraphs. Consider what Christ said:
43 "You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48 TNIV).Surely the above Sheehan quotes regarding Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz qualifies as hateful speech. It is certainly ugly and insulting to these two men. And regarding the ugly, insulting language directing toward these two men, consider the words of James:
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:9-12 TNIV).One might say, it is unfair for the church to be responsible for the content of the remarks of these speakers. To which I respond, surely it wasn’t a surprise what the speakers were going to say. And it certainly was clear from the speaker roster what position the church was taking in that only speakers who were stridently opposed to the Iraq war and who had voiced strong positions against the Bush administration spoke. I’m not suggesting that the church was able to view their speeches before hand, but many of the invited speakers have a famously partisan reputation. (I am unaware of media reports regarding Cindy Sheehan prior to this event, therefore she may have been an exception at the time, though I suspect not, because she was, after all, invited to this event).
Further, I would suggest part of your duty as the pastor of this church is to point out when that the language of love is absent in these remarks. Perhaps you did, or have, or you intend to do it. Silly as it may sound, do you think your church could minister to either Cheney or Wolfowitz if they came to Venice United Methodist Church after Sheehan’s personal, repugnant remarks went un-condemned by the pastor? Could this church ever feel like home for them after such an event was organized? And if it cannot, is it truly a church of open minds, open hearts, and open doors if it is closed to these two men? Could our fellow United Methodist George Bush feel like this church is a place he could worship in after this church was bathed in the music of Michelle Shocked, who has made her recent musical career mocking and demeaning him? Is there no room at the table of your church for serious, reflective Christians who have come to the conclusion that this war might be just? Can they not at least be heard from? Will they ever have the confidence in knowing that they will be fairly and respectfully listened to (heard) after your church hosted this event?
And if you take the view that all wars are unjust have you not made a judgment that faithful Christians high (Augustine) and low who believe in a Just War theology (even if it is debatable whether the Iraq War would fall under that doctrine) are sinful and wrong? I’m considering your response below when you write, “Whenever I can, I speak against war and how war never has brought a lasting peace but is a preamble to more violence. I consider that an extension of New Testament gospel.” I consider pacifism to be a very defensible response to war. But I think it is important to point out that there are many serious and devout Christians that believe that there can be just war even if it is less than God’s perfect will. While I don’t preach pacifism, I have made sure that when I lead studies on the morality of war that I’ve made it clear that I thought pacifism was a strongly defensible theology even as I argued that I personally believe in a doctrine of Just War. (And here, I recognize that our Social Principles articulates neither pacifism nor Just War.
I apologize for the length of this email. As I promised in my blog post, I would post your response should I receive it. I will also be posting this email. I welcome any further comments from you on this issue and will post them accordingly. I want to be fair to you and if you feel I haven’t or that you have been misrepresented in anyway, please, please let me know and I’ll rectify it quickly and publicly. I’m interested in the conversation, not in condemning you or your church. I have a great deal of respect for you and your ministry (feeling yoked with you by our ordination as elders in the United Methodist Church). Our connectional system makes us strong as does our diverse life experiences.
Grateful for your ministry,
The Rev. Tim Sisk
Aldersgate United Methodist Church