Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Voter Education

I am overdue for a couple of rants and raves, so the continuity of this post will likely not be obvious.

It has seemed increasingly clear to me that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the only church body I know at all reasonably well -- and even her I do not know well) has been untrue to itself in this country by failing to teach its faithful how to live with and in the "two kingdoms" that it touts in its doctrinal texts. I speak especially of its refusal or its inability to teach the members how to vote in elections at all political levels.

Now let me say right up front that I don't know much about the so-called "two kingdoms" or "two realms" in Lutheran teaching. I have tried to education myself, since I didn't get much of that in my formal training (there was, after all, a whole lot of other stuff to cover). But it seems to me to boil down to a fundamental uncertainty of how to deal with the widely-defined political realties of human life. Since we do not live in a theocracy (for which many of us give thanks, mistrusting as we do even the bishops to establish a political realm of order according to the Word of God seen by their lights), we have to figure out how to deal with other people who share our air, our space, our intangibles (freedom, liberty, aspirations).

Lutherans say, I think, that God has given over the kind of day-to-day management of human sin and possibility in the world to governments, which in turn have the authority to impose order and restrain human sinfulness by the use of the sword -- i.e., by force, either physical or suasive. Such an order is God's will, and because that is true, Christians are bound to respect and obey the civil authorities as having been placed, in some sense, in their offices by God. (There is provision for opposing the governing authority -- Luther himself has offered permission -- but the general "tilt" of Lutheran politics has been an acknowledge of the legitimacy of the public authority, I think it safe to say.) In other words, God's authority or reign is exercised indirectly by or through the powers-that-be.

God's direct authority is gospel-focussed. He does not use force to make things happen; instead grace is his modus operandi. He is, of course, the object of our ultimate obedience and loyalty. So if there is a conflict between the civil authorities and the Gospel authority, obviously the Gospel authority wins.

But Lutherans have not been very cleaar about more than that, so far as I can see -- no matter at what length they have discussed the "two realms."

I am not a great fan of the teaching, mostly because I don't understand it and partly because I am not convinced by it. But because I do not understand it, I do not fight it -- very much -- except to suggest, along the lines offered by Hauerwas, that the Christian community contitutes its own polis, its own political reality, its own "culture." And as such, the Church may at times find the political authority irrelevant and even antithetic to the Church's life -- which is to say, believers' lives. (I am intrigued by the debate among solid theologians of the Hauerwasian persuasion, and many others who root in different traditions and theological points of view, who argue whether Christians ought even to vote in American elections. I'll read and think about that more before offering even a synopsis.)

Well, if we take as a given that Christians may -- indeed, must -- live in two realms (even if God is final authority over both and has not abandoned the civil to its own fate), then discourse about how one is, at minimum, to balance the responsibilities of these two realms -- not exactly accurately described as "church" and "state" -- is a pressing issue. At this time of this year, the most pressing issue is how do I make up my mind about which, if any, of the presidential candidates do I vote for?

And here we come to my point: If God is ultimate authority over the civil realm, and if the Church is where one is trained to life the life of faith obedient and celebratory of that authority, ought not the Church have some involvement in educating or forming the faithful into living faithfully in the civil sphere? In short, ought not the Church teach me how to vote?

Now by "teach me how to vote," I don't mean tell me which candidates or causes to support -- at least necessarily. But the Church -- at the congregational, synodical, and national level -- ought to be involved in helping voters who are members of the Church balance concerns, identify priorities, and articulate principles.

Obviously I operate with certain assumptions about how Christians reach ethical decisions: I believe that voting involves making ethical decisions. I believe that Christians are expected to use their minds, as informed by the teachings of the Church, to reach ethical conclusions. I believe that not all decisions we are called to make are black-and-white clear. And I believe that Christians of good faith may come to different conclusions on ethical issues -- though I am often bewildered when Christians reach different conclusions from mine.

Now I know that the Church is very active in formulating "policy statements" -- on everthing from the environmen to sex. But those grand statements are, as it were, released into the atmosphere -- with no serious efforts either to be sure that they are properly disseminated among the congregations or to bring the policies to bear on particular issues or campaigns. There is an almost gnostic tendency to act as though merely releasing the wisdom is enough, that to go farther and try to help people apply the wisdom to their mundane lives is unnecessary.

I suspect that is so because we fear, like the plague, conflict in parishes and across the Church (and I guess we should do so, since we are so bad at knowing how to deal with conflict). I suspect, too, that a certain level of self-interest governs: We don't want to alienate givers by articulating stances that seem at odds with one or another political candidate's positions. After all, we must minister to Democrats and Republicans -- and never question whether Christians ought to be knee-jerk Republicans or Democrats at all!

But our current lack of practice is not a faithful way of being Church. As Christians, we are called first and foremost to be loyal to God -- him who has been ultimately faithful to us. To be faithful to God is to be in his Church and to be faithful to our fellow members of the Body of Christ. To be faithful means to be in constant dialogue. It means to consult and advise. (It may be irreverent, but I have often described the intercessions in the mass as the Church's advising God about how to rule his world. In a relationship, the parties may not be equal, but they do engage in dialogue and listen to one another.)

Christians ought to be talking together about this and every election. We ought not split up into our various interest groups and reinforce one anothers biases (and I'd say that even if I fit into a caucus; however, the socialist, pro-life, non-violence, historically critical-Biblical literalist caucus is so small as not to require a meeting). We need and should be talking beyond or without party lines because in Christ there is neither "conservative" (usually meaninglessly defined) or "liberal" (usually inaptly defined), neither hawk nor dove -- there is the one Body of Christ in union with all the other manifestations (instantiations, as my teacher Jenson is fond of saying) of the Body in the oneness of the Holy Trinity. We ought to be trying to reach consensus (whether or not we do is another matter) on matters of local and national and international life together -- and if not agreement on whom to vote for, at least some consensus on what matters and on what is true and on what is irrelevant.

So why are we not talking about the war in Iraq in adult fora across the ELCA? That topic is never absent from any other gathering -- social or professional -- of which I am a part, yet it has never been discussed in my parish's education offerings. What about tax breaks? Those are not only -- if even -- a matter for "economics majors"; they are of basic importance to how we structure the entire range of programs that we offer through government and non-government organizations, and they have enormous implications, if one is to believe the Old Testament prophets (check out Amos, for starters).

I know: The problems are complex. Well, so is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity or of the Two Natures of Christ. Yet we have taken those on. If we have to take six months to understand trickle down economic theory or socialist doctrine, so what? If we have to ask people to do some research, so what? And if it gets touchy to draw the Bible's witness to bear on the discussion, so what: Why else do we have pastors?

But, I am told: Our adult fora frequently feature people who are advocating for affordable housing, and care for people with AIDS, and new styles of judging and disciplining petty crimes in the neighborhool, and food programs. We're doing the job.

And I guess to some extent that is true. But where is the part of the prgram that makes clear that this particular concern is or should be of concern to Christians? Where is the rubber-hits-the-road discussion of whether this ought to be of concern to the legislature so that Christians should write letters or picket or vote for Candidate A? Ought Christians honestly be satisfied that we offer a cafeteria-style assortment of feel-good projects?

But, we are told, people are not interested in "politics" in church. Not true, I answer. What they don't want is partisanship in Church. (The Sojourners fellowship, known for its Christian-faith-based political action, sells a fabulous bumper sticker that says, "God is not a Republican -- or Democrat!) But it is not partisanship to analyze the platforms and performances of politicians and determine whether they meet muster. But, further, if people don't want to deal with political issues in Church, they are not being faithful to the Gospel. For the Gospel mandates a certain level of involvement in the world.

No, I suspect that the church has settled for being a religious ghetto or relatively meaningless proportions in order to carry on its "religious" duties. And just so the Church has ceded the civic realm to some other influence and has effectly abandoned its teaching (whether true or false) about the two realms of Christian life. There is only one, practically speaking -- the non-Church. Come to church, which has a niche carved out for it on a limited-time basis; come as a Republican, as a Democrat.

And unless we face that and begin to change, all other efforts, my brothers and sisters, is just so much rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

What is it to be the or a Christian Church?

In a recent adult forum in my congregation, a friend who is a theology professor (and former missionary) reminded some of us of the existence of numerous “churches” (his focus was on Africa) which are independent of any of the historic branches of the Church catholic and of relatively recent institutional origin. There are, of course, numerous ancient branches of the Church which one or another of the other branches consider unorthodox. The Nestorian churches, for example, have long been dismissed as heretical, but recent ecumenical dialogue has revealed that they may be less at odds with the decrees of the ecumenical councils than we have supposed for centuries. But these churches are of a different breed. They are not “mainstream” in any historic sense. Akin to storefront or side-pasture “Bible churches” that spring up all over the United States, these congregations and even networks of congregations have little concern for the ancient dogmatic structure of the Church (which, of course, also raises the issue of how they heard the Gospel in the first place).

The great ecumenical dialogues of the twentieth century have highlighted the importance of distinguishing (to employ a Lutheran term) “adiaphora” (i.e., debatable non-essentials in the Church’s life, which do not of themselves affect the purity of the Gospel’s proclamation) from the essentials. Thus, to employ a radically simplistic example, it is adiaphora whether a eucharistic minister vests in cassock, business suit, alb, or chasuble. What has seemed undebatable is that the eucharist must be celebrated. (Recent American Lutheran dialogues – with various Reformed churches – arguably seem to suggest that the nature of the presence of the Lord in the eucharist is also an adiaphoron, despite centuries of assertions that “real presence” is a given in eucharistic theology praxis. But I can’t afford the energy to take on that battle right now.)

With the introduction of the “new churches” of which my friend spoke, however, the old distinctions seem to turn grey. In many Pentecostal versions of the “new churches,” the eucharist may never be celebrated. Preaching, response, sanctification, and even rites carried over from other (pagan) religions hold the system together. But the standard “marks” of the Church seem not to exist among them.

I am moved to ask, then, how we are in the present age to discern whether a self-proclaimed “Christian” entity is “church”? Does naming the name of our Lord suffice? (I remember the words of our Lord: Who is not against us is for us.) What about the dogmatic perimeters set out in the decrees of the great ecumenical councils (the only ones that can legitimately be pointed to, because since them, the church has been in schism and has been able to articulate – on other than a parochial, chauvinistic and/or interim basis – virtually nothing about the nature of the Church and the faith.

How do Christians of good will, with a passion both for the unity (i.e., full fellowship, if not institutional union) of the Church and for the “right praise” (i.e., ortho-doxy) of God as that is enabled by concern for the theological heritage of the Church, determine whether to have truck with an organization that claims the name of the same Lord as do we?

Are the ancient dogmatic formulations open for debate? Is, for example, the two natures of Christ no longer an issue? (As I understand a distinction, “dogma” are those non-debatable claims about the nature of reality which govern the church’s teachings and practice. “Doctrine,” on the other hand, is a construct that explores the meaning and implication of a dogmatic statement or proposes dogma where the Church has not yet spoken on the subject.) Given the schisms that currently constitute the character of the Church, are we in any position at all to delineate the dogma binding on all Christians?

To cite my friend, can we reasonably expect self-described, Southern Hemisphere churches to buy in on dogmatic formulations that grew out of philosophical arguments that these newer churches have never faced – e.g., the Niceno-Constantiopolitan Creed, the Chalcedonian formulations (I suppose even the Augsburg Confession)? But if we do not hold them to such dogma, how do we know with any certainty that the Gospel they proclaim is “the one delivered from the apostles”?

It is easy when one’s focus is the long-established churches (East and West): One can reasonably hold churches, pastors/presbyters, theologians, and even laypeople (heaven forfend!) to standards of orthodoxy relatively easy to identify. Is that a na├»ve statement? There does seem to be an increasing debate about the very essentials of the Faith. There are thousands of blogs on the internet that muse on the relative heresies of this and that theological position juxtaposed with commentaries by those who would change or ignore those supposedly fixed formulations. Still, with all the controversy, there is still, it seems to me, consensus that there is some basic “inner core” to the proclamation of the Gospel that can be spelled out (perhaps the Apostles’ Creed or something similar.

And what about the liturgical practices of these churches? For many of them, there is no interest in the Eucharist at all. (They may have other rites of “fellowship” and they certainly pay great attention to their own rituals of conversion and baptism, but the Holy Meal seems not to be even marginally interesting to many of them.) Aidan Kavanaugh has said that “A baptized and baptizing group that never celebrates its death and life in Christ around the Lord’s Table may be a sect of some vigor, but it is not the Church.”

What about all these new “traditions” – which term seems most inapt to describe them, with their lack of a sense of historical succession? How are we to react or respond? Should we welcome them as brothers and sister in the faith? Or should we treat them as neophytes, who need to be nursed into the True Faith? Or do we stand fast by our principles and question their validity.

Now I know little or nothing about these new “Christian movements,” so I may be blowing this matter out of all proportion. But I’m quite confused about and by them. And I’m ready and eager to learn.

I admit that I am in a quandary. I want to be friendly and welcoming, but I can’t conceive of what welcoming means without strict confession of the ancient creeds and confessions and the practice of at least the minimum number of “sacraments,” not the least of which is the Eucharist.

How about some help?

Grace and peace to you.