By Pastor Craig Pederson
Before I felt the call to explore ordained ministry, I was a federal employee. Fresh out of college in the early 1990s, I secured a job as a claims representative for the Social Security Administration. Ironically, the Minneapolis District Office where I worked was a few blocks down Franklin Avenue just east of our synod office – and it’s still there. Perhaps some of you have visited that office to apply for a new Social Security card, or to apply for retirement or disability benefits, or to process survivor benefits upon the death of a loved one.
During the six years of my federal employment, I was a part of two government shutdowns. The first was in 1990, just a few months after I started; it lasted only three days. I was single and had only myself to support, so that was kind of like a paid holiday!
“Martin Luther would scoff at shutdowns as antithetical to the “good government” he believed was necessary for baptized Christians to live out their vocations.”
But, the second shutdown lasted 21 days. It took place in 1995-96, during my second year of seminary when I had cut back to halftime at my job in order to take a fulltime load of classes. With tuition, housing, and other family living expenses to manage, that shutdown had some really bit into my life.
I write this blog entry on the 35th day of the current federal government shutdown, which has dubiously broken the record for the longest shutdown in United States history. While hoping and praying that it will have ended by the time you read this, it appears unlikely.
STORIES CONTINUE TO MULTIPLY and intensify about the adverse effects of the shutdown on some 800,000 federal employees (who are promised to be paid eventually, but that doesn’t help their cash flow now), on contract employees who provide services to federal agencies (who will not receive any back pay, so their income losses continue to mount), and on the overall U.S. economy. And, we hear increasing concerns about air traffic safety, food and drug safety, tax return delays, deteriorating conditions at federal parks and museums and other attractions, and on it goes.
One of the benefits (if we can call it that) of these shutdowns is that they debunk the tired old stereotype of the nameless, faceless, uncaring government employee. My co-workers at Social Security were devoted, caring public servants who just wanted to report to work and do their jobs the best they could (I hope they would have said the same of me!).
But the troubling stories and concerns are very real and should compel elected leaders to get to the table and work out a compromise to get the federal government open and running again.
“My co-workers at Social Security were devoted, caring public servants who just wanted to report to work and do their jobs the best they could.”
I think Martin Luther would scoff at shutdowns as antithetical to the “good government” he believed was necessary for baptized Christians to live out their vocations. And beyond the disruption of civil order in our public life, shutdowns also point out the brokenness of our civic dialogue.
In the past week I’ve been asked more than once if there was any kind of collective response to the shutdown by the church. I am not aware of anything locally. In areas of the country where there are higher concentrations of federal employees, the church has been stepping up in some inspiring ways.
In the coming weeks, I would encourage you to reach out to federal employees you may know and offer your prayers and support. You may also want to consider reaching out to your elected federal representatives to let them know how you feel about the shutdown. Even if it ends soon, we still have serious work to do in making government work better – especially for the most vulnerable among us.
Christians can and should be part of that conversation, upholding the values of love, justice, and mercy that Jesus exemplified. That is our baptismal call; let us live it!
Editor’s Note: You can thank Craig for ending the shutdown! As he completed this blog on Friday afternoon, it was announced that President Trump will sign legislation reopening the government – at least for three weeks. Now we hope, pray, and encourage our elected leaders to form a more sustainable agreement that lasts beyond three weeks.