Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My own "J'accuse"

Recently, I received another diatribe about the sorry state of the ELCA, lamenting its turmoil over homosexuality. While the group that produced the book was a little unusual in that it included one or two politically conservative non-Lutherans and a couple non-USAmerican Lutherans among the denouncers, there was little new in the formulations or the analysis: The ELCA has sunk to allowing every person to decide for himself (never herself) matters of faith and life. In so doing it has set itself on a path of departure from orthodox Christianity and centuries of uniform teaching. How can the feckless leaders of the ELCA (along with such unworthy communion partners as the Episcopal Church and the UCC) ignore the clear witness of Scripture and the unanimous teaching of the Church since then? Where is the authoritative voice in the Church proclaiming the clear will of God as expressed in Holy Scripture?

As I said: Nothing new, no new insights, no suggestions for resolving the matter, except to announce and enforce policies in keeping with the politico-theological views of the speakers. But what seems clearer and clearer to me as I read these things is that those who lament the state of ethical thinking and commitment in the ELCA and elsewhere with respect to issues of sexuality are reaping the very whirlwind whose winds they themselves have sown. They are in the train of seventeen hundred years of preachers and teachers who have effectively denied the clear meaning of Scripture in order more peacefully to fit into society, and now they have the ironic audacity to be upset because people have learned the lesson.

To illustrate my point: Nothing seems clearer from the whole of Scripture – from Genesis through Revelation – than that the One True God is seriously concerned for the physical welfare of all people. That concern is expressed in explicit commands to care for one another – most especially to see that no one goes hungry or lives in want – and to exploit and oppress no one. Oh, I suppose you could proof-text me a couple of examples to the contrary, but I think I’m on solid ground. Look at the prophets, look at the words of Jesus: When sexual immorality is the subject of teaching, it is usually a metaphor, not something intended to be taken literally. “This wicked and adulterous generation,” Jesus said, but he didn’t mean that everyone was sleeping with anyone who came by. Rather, he, in harmony with the prophets (Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea) used sexual immorality as a metaphor for the propensity of God’s people to stray into mistreating others, for failing to live according to the clearly revealed will of God, for storing up treasures on earth, for practicing violence in order to defend one’s excess against those who have nothing. Similarly, Paul, whose stereotype is that of a sex-oppressed Puritan, much more regularly upbraids his congregations for forgetting the fundamental issue of church – viz., that of mutual care and support.

And yet despite that clear witness, the majority voice in the Church – at least since the day Constantine had his vision of how useful it would be for the Empire to co-opt the Church by “recognizing” it as an official religion – has been to deny that teaching – either actively by “correcting it” or passively by ignoring it. And so the Church has remained remarkably comfortable with political systems in every age that sanction the gross misappropriation of wealth by the upper classes from the lower classes. Capitalism, whose heretical dogma of scarcity is in direct contradiction of the Gospel’s theology of abundance, has been all but baptized by the Church. Even in most recent times, you will look almost in vain for a sermon denouncing unchecked capitalism, or the on-going redistribution of wealth from the poorer classes to the better off, or the growing gap between wealthy and poor, or the concentration of power and money in the hands of a few non-national corporations through globalization.

In Lutheranism this has been aided and abetted by the supposedly lofty two-kingdoms theology. To those not deeply invested in the Lutheran system, that teaching says simply that Jesus didn’t mean what he said. When Jesus said to share the necessities of life, he didn’t mean socialism (and, my, how willingly we have allowed that word to be co-opted by the Soviets). When Jesus said “don’t perpetrate violence,” he certainly didn’t mean not to kill in self-defense or in defense of honor (personal or national) or in retaliation for an attack on us. When Jesus said to turn the other cheek, he certainly didn’t mean anything about retaliating against someone – anyone, whether the attacker or not – if one is attacked.

The more common-person interpretation of this, which I hear all the time in our congregation’s discussion of the Gospel of Matthew, is that we have to be “realistic.” I mean, Jesus didn’t know much about the real world; what he said is a nice vision of what heaven will be like, but it would be disastrous to try to form a society that exhibited the qualities that he promotes in the Sermon on the Mount, for example.

I would argue that my fellow members of the Body of Christ have learned well from their teachers and preachers: If Lutheranism (and any other tradition one can name) has a crisis of authority, that crisis is longer-standing than the discovery of homosexuality (and keep in mind that the concept of homosexuality is a modern one). And if that crisis relates to sexuality, the causes of that crisis are more pervasive. For once you tell people that the clear witness of Scripture is not clear when it appears to be very clear, and cite centuries of witness to that effect, how can you expect unanimity on those issues of faith and life that are not nearly as clearly addressed? And even many who sound the trumpet on sexuality issues admit that the Scripture’s witness on issues of economic injustice and violence are much more numerous and clearer than those on homosexuality. Who, then, can be surprised when people follow their hearts, experience, science, and whatnot in an effort to be “realistic” about sexuality?

The cries for repentance and for the reformation of ELCA are loud and legion. And I shout some of them myself. I am deeply conservative in my theology and politics (although I probably understand “conservative” differently from the way many do) and find much to complain about. But when I do, I feel that I must be fair: I – as those who vent on the issue of homosexuality – must recognize the roots of the conflict. This is about much more than who-sleeps-with-whom and to what effect, and the forces of retrenchment lost the high ground on this argument long ago.

That charge is not to disqualify their speaking – although if pushed, I might be inclined to ask them to just shut up. But it is to urge that those who would hold the Church to a so-called conservative tradition on homosexuality must demonstrate that their concern is for the witness of scripture and no for some other variable. And up to this point, very few of them can do so.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Place as a Living Reality

To tell what we remember, and to keep on telling it, is to keep the past alive in the present. Should we not do so, we could not know, in the deepest sense, how to inhabit a place. To inhabit a place means literally to have made it a habit, to have made it the custom and ordinary practice of our lives, to have learned how to wear a place like a familiar garment, like the garments of sanctity that nuns wore. The word habit, in its now dim original form, meant to own. We own places not because we possess the deeds to them, but because they have entered the continuum of our lives. What is strange to us -- unfamiliar [and uninhabited -- can never be home.

-- Paul Gruchow, Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, p. 6