On this sixth anniversary of 9/11, I remember and honor those who lost their lives in the acts of terror that day. I also honor all the American soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq since that day. I remember the hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi citizens killed directly or indirectly because of our actions in those countries.
I must reflect on the issue of partisanship today. I have been thinking about this especially since I received an issue of the Word Alone Network’s newsletter (located online here) – especially Robert Benne’s article ‘Replacing the Center with the Periphery.’ Now, I resonate with many of the supposedly core concerns of Word Alone – the five ‘solas’ or ‘alones’ of the Reformation: salvation through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, as revealed in scripture alone, with all glory to God alone (solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, soli Deo gloria). Now, how those ‘solas’ are understood or worked out theologically is another question, and I am sure that I differ from many Word Alone members (I am not a Word Alone member) in that regard. But I share the conviction that we need to keep the main thing the main thing – and that main ‘thing’ is a Person – Jesus Christ. If you put any other good thing in the center, be it social justice or peace or equality, for example, you actually work against those goods, because what properly motivates Christians to seek justice, peace, and equality is a living faith relationship with God through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Benne outlines a schema of concentric circles, with “core Christian beliefs” (the Triune God, etc.P at the center, “implications of Christian beliefs in history” next (Benne cites the example of “the overturning of slavery”), and finally specific “public policy and legislation” at the periphery. He then argues that the leadership of the ELCA treats the core as fuzzy, but is dogmatic about the periphery. That is to say, the ELCA treats the ‘solas’ as less than ‘sola,’ while peripheral issues take center stage. Specifically, Benne argues that the ELCA’s “social ethics and public policy commitments” suggest “a thorough accommodation to ‘the world’ - in this case to the world of left/liberal elite opinion.” Benne cites many ‘peripheral’ concerns of ELCA leaders as evidence of a liberal agenda, including “whether or not we should have invaded Iraq,” quotas to ensure “inclusivity,” “global warming,” and various commitments to fight racism, sexism, heterosexism, and imperialism.
Now, I am not particularly interested in defending the leadership of the ELCA in Chicago. I think they can do a capable job of that themselves, and frankly, I am more concerned with what’s happening on the local level of the church. Sometimes, I do share the Word Alone impression that the leadership of the ELCA is out of touch with what matters in the local church. For example, I recall all the energy the Bishop’s office spent in advocating Called to Common Mission – our full communion with the Episcopal Church. It caused a great deal of division in the church, and has very little practical effect in most churches. I cannot think of any practical difference it has made in either of the churches I have served. Episcopalians could receive communion in our churches before the agreement, and they can after. We could cooperate in mission before, and after, the agreement. The only practical difference my Bishop in Northeastern Minnesota could see coming from CCM was that, as Bishop, he now had to go to all ordinations in the synod, instead of almost all of them. It didn’t practically affect any of the 75,000 other Lutherans in the synod.
I also share the Word Alone Network’s concern to keep the ELCA decentralized and representative. The concentration of power in the offices of bishops would not, I believe, empower and enable the spread of the gospel at the local level.
But, here is what I find interesting: when you search the Word Alone Network’s website as Benne searched the ELCA website, you also find some interesting emphases. For example, whereas the ELCA website has 677 references to “Iraq,” many of which refer to statements by the Bishop’s office or social policy resolutions on the war, Journal of Lutheran Ethics articles on our ethical obligations to Iraq, etc.; a Word Alone website search turns up only 5 references to Iraq, none of which are serious reflections on the war. And yet, the Word Alone website has about 149 references to “homosexual,” while the whole ELCA website (a much larger archive than the Word Alone website) has 247. A third example: the Word Alone site has 0 references to “torture” and 0 references to “Abu Ghraib” to the ELCA’s 108 and 8. Poverty: 21 for Word Alone and 1,730 for the ELCA. Refugee: Word Alone – 0, ELCA – 534. Immigration as a contemporary issue: Word Alone – 0, ELCA – approximately 508. (Word Alone on “abortion” - 11, ELCA – 108.)
Benne argues that “public policy and legislation” issues are peripheral, and that would explain Word Alone’s silence on Iraq and torture. But their focus on homosexuality would imply that that is a central issue for them – and indeed, Benne puts “traditional Christian teaching on sexual morality” at the core of Christian convictions, along with “salvation through Christ alone” and “the Trinity itself.” Based on the material I receive from Word Alone, the seven verses in Scripture that seem to address homosexual behavior overwhelmingly outnumber (in importance) the 3,000 verses that address issues of justice for the poor and oppressed, the widows, orphans, and aliens. It is fascinating that Benne states that whether or not we should have invaded Iraq is a complex issue, about which “Christians of good will and intelligence differ” - but he does not say the same thing about homosexuality. For him and the Word Alone network, there is no room for differences on that issue. If I disagree with them on that supposedly core Christian issue, am I not a Christian of good will and intelligence?
I agree that the Iraq issue is complex, and Christians of good will and intelligence differ on it. The ELCA is a big tent, and in our congregations we have liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans and every other political persuasion. We will disagree on many issues. But thank God the leadership of the ELCA is at least taking a stand and engaging in the public sphere. They are a part of the conversation. From my admittedly partisan perspective, we Americans were duped by deliberate misinformation into a war in Iraq that was not necessary, that was incompetently managed for years with no consequences for incompetence, that has enriched the friends of our leaders who started the war, while taking the lives of thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and unleashing Al Qaeda and civil war into Iraq. Our missteps in the Middle East, including our growing tolerance for torture, have raised up a whole new generation of terrorists, and made Americans less safe for many years to come. Now, I wholeheartedly support our troops. They are striving hard to bring good out of the foolish decision our president made to shock and awe his way into the history books, and they are indeed bringing good out of evil at great cost to themselves.
Now, you can disagree with me about the war in Iraq, and still be a Christian of good will and intelligence. I, for example, have no clear opinion on when or how we should withdraw from Iraq. We made the mess there. I know we can’t just leave today and say “see ya!” I honestly do not know how to maximize the good and minimize the evil in Iraq in the near future.
But let’s talk about the Bible. Were the Hebrew prophets, like Amos, silent in the face of injustice, oppression, or violence? Did Jeremiah keep silent in the face of foreign affairs blunders that affected the safety of the nation of Judah? Did Jesus keep silent in the face of the religious-political-economic leaders in Jerusalem? Did John the author of Revelation keep silent in the face of the violence of Imperial Rome? Moving ahead in history, was Martin Luther silent about the major political and social issues of his day? Did he not at least have something to say about them? Why is Word Alone so focused on what committed, faithful homosexual couples do in bed, when war, terror, torture, starvation, mass homelessness, AIDS orphans in Africa (the list could go on) abound? Why are those issues not on their radar screen? Why be so bold in standing up to the supposed evil of blessing gay unions and so timid in facing the real pressing issues of our time? Are issues of justice and peace really peripheral Christian issues? Are they not pervasively biblical and theological? Is there no Christian response to, for example, torture?
Robert Benne has, indeed, lifted up the political and social concerns of the ELCA leadership which, indeed lean to the left – and more to the left than the average Lutheran church member. That’s not really surprising, any more than it is surprising that college professors tend to be more liberal than their students. And, I am not even, at this point, defending any single stand of the ELCA leadership, though I tend to agree with them on most of these issues (as you can see). But it is equally obvious that Word Alone, in its publications, has an equal and opposite bias. They have placed a conservative view of sexuality at the core, and moved the prophetic emphasis on justice and righteousness to the periphery. Their silence in the face of the evils of empire is a tacit approval of them. Benne rightly lifts up the Gospel as the center of church life, and the Word Alone Network serves a good purpose when it reminds us all of the priority of the Gospel, the ‘solas’ of the Christian faith. Would that Word Alone also truly kept the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the center, and not a conservative quietism that is silent in the face of social, national, and international evil.