Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Guns Blazing and the Left Hand of God

Uwe Siemon-Netto directs something called the “Concordia Seminary Institute on Lay Vocation at the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary in St. Louis. He is trained as a journalist (he was once the religion editor for UPI), but he is also listed as a “lay theologian” (he holds a Ph.D. from Boston) at the foot of an article he wrote for Christianity Today, “Work Is Our Mission” (which you can read here). In the article, he sets down a lucid and very brief outline and analysis of the esteemed, objectionable, misunderstood, wrongly interpreted, necessary, wrong-headed, ever-current, and/or outdated Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. He does some nice summarizing, but his analysis highlights, in one wrenching phrase, the problems many of us (even devout Lutherans) have with the doctrine. (In what follows, all the words, phrases, clauses, and sentences in quote marks are the original author’s.)

Siemon-Netto points out that, on the Lutheran understanding of life, Christians are dual citizens. They live – and will dwell forever – in the “kingdom of the right” hand of God. This is the realm of salvation – of “the spiritual” – and it is the “redeemed realm of Christ, the gospel, and the church. Here we remain inactive, resting and feasting with God and freely receiving his grace because here he has revealed himself to us in Jesus.” (My question: Is this a “real” realm? How can one, e.g., point to the liturgy and claim that living in the realm of the church is inactivity or resting?)

But the other citizenship we live out is the “secular reality” – the “left-hand kingdom.” (As a self-defined leftist Christian, I find that this is both confusing and disparaging of lefthandedness, by giving the favored position to the right, but that may be reading it through too idiosyncratic a lens, I suppose.) This, “too is God’s realm, and must therefore never be disparaged.” (For a journalist, even one who may have come later to English, he plays fast and loose with sentence structure and punctuation, I think.) But in this realm, God works from behind a mask and governs “through earthly rulers who are his ‘masks.’” Key to operations in this realm is not revelation, but “natural reason – a gift from God enabling us to find our way around this place.” (I know nothing about the place of natural law in Lutheran theology, so I’m giving this claim pretty wide berth until a later time.)

In the so-called secular realm (the left-hand one), all God’s people are priests – “equal to the minister serving at the altar.” And it is the duty of people to live out their jobs, vocations, and professions with as much competence (and, I expect, care) as possible. Believers engage in priestly work when we employ natural reason and all the skill we can master to keep the world and its structures operating. Thus, “[a]s masks of the hidden God, we perform our priestly duties by going to the polls and running for election, by cooking for our families and doing the bookkeeping, by cutting someone’s hair and issuing speeding tickets, and by storming with guns blazing an enemy position in Iraq.”

Now hold on!

I was with him up to his last phrase. I do indeed believe that one need not become a monk or pastor to do God’s work. (I wish more monks and pastors realized that and didn’t feel the need to be ordained in order to be holy administrators, financial planners, politicians, counselors and therapists, and the like. Since many pastors seem more comfortable in those realms than in presiding at liturgies and at parsing the canons of the Council of Chalcedon, they ought to have been theologically trained to pursue those other vocations with as much sense of the holy as the ministry, as it is often called. But I digress.)

As a lay person, I understand my daily work to be priestly. I try to act in Christly ways – which is what I understand to be a priest’s duty – when I examine real estate titles, when I teach a class, when I try to help my daughter master graphing “slope” in her math homework. Of course, I believe that pastors are most necessary to the life of the Church, but I claim equal dignity and importance for lay people who bring their life in Christ into interface with the rough and tumble world. Furthermore, there is as much dignity in barbering or being a janitor as in running a corporation or teaching from an endowed chair in a university or running a theological think-tank. In all these areas and others, we, most of us, may legitimately hear the call (i.e., the vocation) of God to be his servants, his priests, his manifestation in the world.

But I must seriously wonder whether anyone is priestly if she or he storms anything with “guns blazing.” And therein lies the fundamental issue I have with the two-kingdoms doctrine. Are priests truly called and encouraged to act, and justified (in the non-technical sense) in acting, in un-Christly ways as an aspect of their lives on earth – even though they have been baptized into the Body of Christ? Are we blessed to be killers or cheaters or insulters or liars, so long as we limit that to the left-hand kingdom? For Christians, who by virtue of their baptism are integrated and transformed into the Body of Christ, why do not the counsels of Christ (by which I mean his teaching of what it means to be his disciple – as, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount) override the counsels of the world and “natural reason”?

With respect to the Sermon on the Mount, I know that there are commentators (many of them in the Lutheran lists of genealogies) who claim that Jesus never intended people to try to live the life he outlined in his discourse. They claim that Jesus was merely setting forth an impossible ideal that would require faithful people to recognize the futility of trying to live a holy life so that they give themselves over and just “rest and feast with God and receive his forgiveness” in the right-hand kingdom – while they go on acting like Satan in the left-hand kingdom.

For all my hearing this, I can’t buy that there is this ontological division between the life we are called to live within the bounds of church and the life we are required to live on the basis of natural reason in the world outside the church. If something violates the intention of God for life, is that not to be avoided in both kingdoms? Can I really go about murdering, if such is mandated by natural reason, and then take solace in the general absolution occasionally uttered prior to the Eucharist? How do we square that with what Jesus said about serving two masters?

For all its grounding in Lutheran teaching and its congruence with even some of what I hear from theologians I deeply respect, I think Siemon-Netto’s secular-culture-baptizing interpretation of Luther’s doctrine (whether it accurately reflects the teaching of the Reformer or not) is fundamentally a cop-out that has the effect of keeping Jesus in his place and letting us have our own way in the world. It is a kind of culture-pietism that divvies up life into God’s sphere and not-quite-God’s sphere. It fails to take the transforming power of the Gospel – most especially as that Gospel is worked out in the sacraments – with radical seriousness, restricting it to only some of life. And as such, it is a fundamental denial of the truth of the Gospel. For if “one does not live by bread alone,” but we are encouraged (as in the realm of capitalism) to act as though one does, are we not denying the truth of Jesus’ teaching? And if we deny his teaching, do we not deny him?

Might it not be more in keeping with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to see the right-hand kingdom as the seed of what the left-hand kingdom must – and will, by God – become (I say must, because God’s going to make it that way)? Hauerwas and Willimon, for example, describe the church as God’s outpost in the world, serving to incarnate life lived as God intends and to illustrate on the frontier of the wilderness where God’s will is not heeded – i.e., in the world – what will be. Should not we understand that these two realms (right and left) are not essentially unrelated, which I think they must be by Siemon-Netto’s analysis, but rather paradoxically related in the most pressing and troubling way? And are they not related in such a way that the right-hand kingdom is the school where we learn how to work in and transform the left-hand kingdom?

If I am a priest in my day-to-day life, then I am so as a priest of the One True God. And to organize my so-called weekday life around the cares, the values, the structures, and the means of a so-called unredeemed world, even if governed by a so-called natural reason (which seems to be the servant of the unredeemed world and so is itself unredeemed) is to sin most egregiously by backsliding right into pre-baptismal paganism.

So to address the lay-theologian’s points: I am called to be the best baker I can be – BUT as a Christian baker, I must do so without cutting corners on the quality of the flour or the sanitation of my bakery, even if the market dictates that I lower my price by doing so, because to do so is to sin against the health and well-being of those who will ingest my bread. I may be called to issue speeding tickets if I am state or local cop, but as a Christian I may not participate in profiling, in racial discrimination, or in any of the multitude of ways of treating some differently from others, even if that is the naturally reasonable thing to do. For such activity violates the principle of the Gospel that such divisions as race and class are overcome in the lives of Christians. (Such an erasing of boundaries cannot be restricted to my involvement in Christian liturgies, because if I share the peace with a black person on Sunday and then watch for young black men to pull over for supposed driving infractions based on racial profiling, then I am the most miserable of hypocrites.) I may be called to do bookkeeping, but I am under the Gospel’s power and mandate to be honest and above-board. So I may have to quit and even risk violating client confidentiality if I am an Enron attorney or accountant and know of the efforts to mislead and defraud hundreds of thousands of investors and employees.

And I most certainly may not manifest the love of God – even from behind a mask – by rushing in anywhere with guns blazing. For the status of “enemy” has been eliminated by the cross, where even willing, state-employed murderers were no loner counted enemy, let alone killed as enemies. To say that we fulfill the law of Christ by killing someone is an example of the kind of faulty logic (I might say, world-infected logic) that brings scandal because of its perversion of the Gospel. There is in that nothing of the skandalon that the preaching and living of the Gospel in its purity may engender in others.

Lutherans have to come to grips with the requirements – yes, requirements – of the Gospel for those who claim the name of Christ. And a good place to start would be with a hard-headed and repentant-hearted examination of the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms. If that doctrine is anything as suggested by Siemon-Netto, I don’t know how we can have anything more to do with it.

1 comment:

-C said...

Wonderful post, Dwight. Reminded me very much of Fr. Stephen's series on the "One Story Universe"

Similar themes and in the end, some similar thoughts.