By Arthur Simon
Thanks to my father, I became aware at an early age of the reluctance within the LCMS to question the status quo regarding social justice. The scandal of racial prejudice and segregation within both church and nation were special concerns of my parents. Then when my brother Paul was first elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1954, he learned that, although Lutherans represented six percent of the population of Illinois, only one-half of one percent of those holding public office of any kind in Illinois were Lutheran.
That disparity came to mind when I was asked to write for this issue of Daystar, so I checked on the numbers of LCMS and ELCA members who are active in Bread for the World. The ELCA is more than twice the size of LCMS; but for every LCMS member in Bread, there are not two or three, buttwenty ELCA members. I am disappointed, but not surprised. Bread for the World is a Christian advocacy organization–but it grew out of an LCMS church. The congregation I served in a low-income neighborhood of New York City struggled to give emergency assistance to people. It struck us that, while churches everywhere were engaged in assistance, Christians were not being challenged to seek more effective government action against hunger. This led to a chain of developments, out of which Bread for the World emerged: a politically non-partisan, faith-based effort to reduce hunger by getting citizens to seek action from their elected representatives in Congress. Bread for the World became the nation’s main citizens’ lobby on hunger and has had remarkable success in helping to reduce hunger. In doing so it has attracted many members from a wide range of church bodies, but relatively few from my own LCMS.
Why should a church body, so blessed with a tradition of Gospel Promise, be so under-engaged in arenas where matters of public justice are determined? Why have we lagged so badly? In this essay I will try to explain the lag, and suggest how the Promise shows us the way forward. I will interpret “the prophetic ministry” as the ministry of all believers in Christ, not primarily that of ordained clergy, and offer a few observations about our current economic and environmental impasses.
Lutherans have been blessed with a marvelous example of courage in Martin Luther, who risked his life to speak out for the Gospel. We have also inherited a legacy of quietism regarding social justice. The legacy of Luther in this regard is mixed. He urged believers to assist poor people; he supported a community fund that would provide a safety net for the destitute; he condemned usury; and he held princes accountable for ruling justly. He did so because he believed that faith must be active in love to people in need; and for Luther this included participation in civic life. So he spoke out.
But Luther, overwhelmed by a torrent of changes he had unleashed and the dangers that suddenly emerged, appealed to secular rulers to act as “emergency bishops.” Alas, the emergency arrangement became institutionalized. Along with it came a heavy emphasis on obedience to those in authority. “Pray, pay [taxes] and obey” began to summarize the church’s teaching regarding the responsibility of Christians toward government. Challenging social injustice didn’t make the cut. Luther’s intemperate urgings (“Smite, slay, and stab!”) in the face of the Peasants’ Revolt reinforced this emphasis on obedience, despite his view that the peasants had legitimate grievances. His later requests for princes to deal mercifully with the peasants did not prevent the episode from dampening the popularity of the Lutheran movement among the common people.
In the decades following Luther, the pattern of unquestioning submission to the princes prevailed in Lutheran sections of Germany. In the hands of these secular “bishops” the church became a cog in the bureaucracy of the state. Ecclesiastical decisions of importance (including the appointment of clergy, church discipline and financial matters) were in the hands of the civil ruler. This arrangement discouraged Christians from engaging in matters of civic or church governance. It also contributed to growing disdain for the church. Meanwhile orthodox Lutherans stressed pure doctrine and the spiritual character of the church. Eventually Pietism triggered a religious awakening, missionary fervor, and impressive initiatives to help some of the most distressed and marginalized people. But Pietism did little to change the passive stance of Christians with respect to government policies.
Those who began to challenge autocratic authority and pave the way for freedom of religion and democratic reforms came mainly from the Calvinist and Reformed tradition and dissenting groups such as Baptists, Quakers, and Mennonites. Yes, the early Saxon immigrants who founded what is now the LCMS came to this country seeking religious freedom. But they also brought with them political quietism, with a strong focus on Romans 13 and submission to those in authority. They were not comfortable connecting Christian life to the shaping of government policy. Although their immigrant status accounts for some of this discomfort, it had much deeper roots. Scandinavian Lutherans and even other German immigrants were not as badly afflicted as our orthodoxist Lutheran forebears.
We have inherited their discomfort and taken refuge in a “two kingdoms” theology that is widely misunderstood to relegate God’s left-handed rule to matters so inferior to the Gospel that public justice can be largely ignored. After all, “It is the church’s job to preach the Gospel, not to get involved in politics.” But isn’t that true? Well, yes, properly understood. But this over-simplification invites the misleading notion that Christian life is disconnected from government policies. In this way we have been taught to avoid the public square.
People commonly construe the doctrine of the two kingdoms (the two-fold rule of God) to mean the separation of faith from much of life, for it seems to make political and economic issues either irrelevant or off limits to faith. But this cannot be. If Jesus Christ is Lord, he is Lord of my entire life, not just certain aspects of it. Political and economic issues have an enormous impact on everyone. Unless I see my connection to them as a citizen, and my responsibility as a Christian, I wind up with a privatized faith that is walled off from much of life.
The opposite of a privatized faith, however, is not a politicized faith, but a faith in God’s redemptive love that prompts us to love others in every aspect of life. Such a promise-driven faith seeks full-life discipleship. Full-life discipleship embraces the priesthood of all believers in a way that a privatized faith does not. It seeks to put all of life under the guidance of Jesus, and considers the world our arena for service. U.S. citizenship is an important part of this. Our responsibility and the influence we can have as citizens in this great “government of the people” must be seen as an extraordinary gift of God, a gift to be used to pursue a more just and peaceful world in accordance with the prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” To pray with a true heart for God’s will to be done on earth commits us to work for it as well. Part of God’s will includes justice for all, especially those who are oppressed, such as poor people, widows and orphans, and immigrants. I mention these not to exclude others, but because they are so often singled out in the Bible as recipients of God’s compassion and therefore requiring our own (e.g., Deut. 15:1-15; and 24:10-22). Seeking justice for them is one of the most effective ways for us to love them and promote the common good. In fact those who pervert justice for them are cursed (Deut. 27:19).
What I am writing is perfectly consistent with two kingdoms theology, in which the pursuit of earthly justice is distinguished from but (for believers) connected to the Promise. We start with the Great Reality that, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God has rescued us from sin and death by taking our sin upon himself and, in exchange, granting us forgiveness and life with God. This good news creates faith that is active in love–which makes the good news even better, because salvation is much more than an after-life insurance policy that only takes affect when we die, while in the meantime leaving us to our own devices. Our new life with God has already begun and we have a purpose now. We are saved by grace, but we have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” (Eph. 2:8-10) Grace has a purpose that extends beyond forgiveness. Put another way, we are the light of the world, commissioned by Jesus to let our light shine so that others may see the good we do and give glory to the Father (Matt.5:16). Ours is a purpose-driven life because it is a promise-driven life.
Why on earth, then, would we want to avoid seeking justice for the oppressed, when God is working to do so, and has called us to become instruments of that work? Why should we not let our light shine also in this arena, so that others may be helped to survive and thrive, and be prompted to give glory to God? We do not live, as so many of our Lutheran foreparents did, under the limitations of an autocratic ruler, with few opportunities to oppose injustices and seek change. We have been given the powerful gift of having a voice in determining the nation’s policies and their impact on others. We have been handed a wide-open opportunity to love and serve those in need. And our response? Quietism.
God urges us to be advocates for others. “Seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow,” Isaiah urges (1:17). “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. . .[and] defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9). God did not ask Moses to take up a collection for the slaves in Egypt, but to tell Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Advocacy. The New Testament reminds us that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one” (I John 2:1). Having an advocate in Jesus, we of all people ought to be among those who advocate for others, not close our hearts to them (3:16-17).
In promoting citizen advocacy, I do not for one moment mean to disparage the importance of direct private aid, whether in the form of personal assistance to others or indirect assistance through private agencies such as Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Services in America. That kind of assistance is essential, and by any honest measurement of the words of Jesus, we ought to be vastly more generous in such aid than we currently are. My point is rather to say that it is a great mistake to give private aid and ignore the role of government. Charity is not enough. Both private and government action are necessary if we are to deal justly with others. By urging better government policies we can leverage the impact of our private efforts many times over. Even the work of Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran social service agencies are enhanced by government support.
Let me illustrate. This past Lent the little congregation to which I belong raised a total of $1,800 for mosquito nets, enough to provide protection against malaria for 180 people. That’s good news for some vulnerable families. But Congress will soon decide what programs to cut in the coming years in order to restrain the nation’s mushrooming debt. In a single vote, Congress could effectively remove millions of mosquito nets from our foreign aid program. How foolish, then, to give in church to get 180 mosquito nets, if we remain silent while Congress wipes them out by the millions. (I hasten to add that some of the same people in our church who gave for mosquito nets also wrote letters to our members of Congress urging them not to balance the budget on the backs of poor people–a double dose of love.)
Similarly, we can urge people to give in church to relieve hunger, but by our silence on public policy lock people more deeply into hunger. It may be happening as I write. That is why Bread for the World has joined forces with many denominational leaders and agencies to urge Congress to create a “Circle of Protection” around poor people, here and abroad, as it attempts to deal with our deficit. The stakes are high, and the outcome may well depend on how many people–starting, please note, with devout God-fearing readers of Daystar!–are willing to spend some thoughtful minutes to get messages off to their U.S. House and Senate members. Or has quietism gotten the best of us?
Is the cry of the prophets for justice merely a theological footnote, perhaps useful for a Bible class but not to disturb us or compel action? Or is it part of God’s living word for us today? And does the church therefore have a prophetic role today in urging justice for the poor, the hungry, the marginalized and vulnerable? Do the words of Moses (Deut. above), Isaiah (10:2), Jeremiah (7:5-7), Amos (8:4-6), Micah (6:5), and Zechariah (7:8-14), have no connection with the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 25, Luke 4:16-19, Luke 6:20-26)?
If Jesus’ life and teaching is in continuity with that of the prophets, are we doing justice to his and their passion for justice? Or are we like the scribes and Pharisees, so preoccupied with small matters that we forget “justice and the love of God” (Luke11:42)?
And if Jesus’ life and teaching is connected to justice for the oppressed, is not his death and resurrection, and therefore his redemptive sacrifice also connected to it? Not that he died for social justice, but that he died to set us free from sin and death, so that in loving others we would (among other things) seek justice for them. The door is open wide for us to do so, thanks to the invaluable gift of U.S. citizenship. But we seem to have buried that treasure. Are we closed to this word of God regarding justice, blinded by living in a comfort zone of quietism?
Today our nation faces truly huge and seemingly intractable problems that cry for wisdom in governance. The problems seem intractable not so much because of their complexity, but because of political polarization. Stimulated by public demand for quick, self-serving fixes rather than long-term solutions that require sacrifice, polarization threatens to make our legislative branch dysfunctional. The Federalist Papers (e.g., #10 by James Madison) called factionalism a mortal disease that made previous efforts to create a government of the people fail. Madison saw it as an incurable part of human nature; but he argued that the proposed U.S. Constitution provided ways of controlling the effect of factionalism. Polarized politics are now putting that conviction to the test. We, as Christian citizens, are also being put to the test for our response, and quietism will not do. Consider economic inequality, and global warming.
(1) Economic Inequality. There always will be economic inequalities. But the degree of inequality between the rich and the poor in the United States has reached record extremes that threaten lives, livelihoods, and our social cohesion. Our country now has the highest income inequality of any rich industrialized nation. In 2009 the ratio of income in the U.S. between the top 20 percent and the bottom 20 percent of households was 14.5 to 1. The Census Bureau reported that 46 million Americans lived below the poverty line in 2010, and that the income for the bottom 10 percent of wage earners had declined by an average of 12 percent since 1999. (The top one percent was the only group to have substantial gains.) A recent study reported that the average compensation of CEOs of large companies was 325 times that of its workers. A sequence of tax breaks allows most of the richest Americans to pay taxes at a lower overall rate than do many, and perhaps most middle income Americans, because wages have higher tax brackets than investments. Multi-billionaire Warren Buffet called attention to this problem by announcing that his secretary was paying taxes at almost double the rate of his own.
Earlier this year the House of Representatives passed a budget with huge cuts in programs that provide vital support for poor people, while refusing to allow exceptional tax breaks for millionaires to expire. We are in a temporary stalemate on that issue, as I write. The Bible does not give us a tax reform package, but it roundly condemns greed and urges justice and compassion toward those who are poor. Justice for the poor was even built into Old Testament laws (including the use of tithes, gleaning, Sabboth day rest, debt forgiveness every 7th year, Jubilee year restorations, and more). Does the church not have a prophetic word to say about the sinfulness of our extreme inequalities and our neglect of the poor? The Old Testament prophets sure did. It is good to help out in a food pantry or contribute cash to agencies that offer assistance. But developing informed consciences and expressing our views to those who legislate action on our economy might help even more. Both private assistance and government action are necessary. It’s not an either/or.
(2) Global Warming. It is undeniable that humankind is failing dangerously in its stewardship of the earth. That is evident in a number of ways, but high among them is global warming. Although science lacks perfection in measuring the extent or pace of global warming, there is overwhelming scientific agreement that it is happening, that it is to a significant extent caused by humans, and that its consequences will put life, health and livelihoods in jeopardy for hundreds of millions of people, especially poor people. But even to slow the rate of global warming will require far more than personal lifestyle changes. Turning down the thermostat, walking more, recycling, and driving less are among the steps most of us can take, and they are important. But these steps have been urged for decades, and practiced by some–while the nation continues to accelerate its contribution to global warming (as do most other countries). We are corporate sinners, caught in a complex way of life in which we can only function well by causing more global warming. Voluntary lifestyle changes alone cannot remedy this. If anything is clear, it is that we have to make difficult decisions as a nation, through government, on standards and practices that will move us toward energy efficiency and cleaner air in ways that will gradually reverse the rate at which we contribute to global warming.
A recent issue of The Lutheran Witness contained an article about how Lutherans should care for the earth. It was a thoughtful theological piece. Unfortunately it made no mention of global warming, and the only specific actions suggested were personal life-style steps–all of them important–but without a hint of changes needed in public policy or the responsibility of Christians in that arena. It is not hard to imagine how the prophets might roar at our national folly in this respect. But we are children of a quietistic heritage.
These and other challenges threaten our nation and world, but hold out the prospect of huge benefits if wise and courageous actions are taken. In the face of this, is it not clear that Christians, including we LCMS Lutherans, have a call to a prophetic ministry? I stress that it is a call to all of God’s people to become advocates for a more just and caring country, not in vague and general terms, but regarding specific policy issues that confront the nation’s decision makers. It is not mainly a call to the clergy, except and insofar as it is their job to help equip the saints for this ministry. The pulpit is no place to promote anyone’s political agenda, but it is a place to challenge Christians to repent of our part in national sins and encourage one another, as forgiven sinners, to become better informed, atuned to God’s Word, and active in urging policy makers to do what is right.
The church’s prophetic ministry may at times take the form of official resolutions by a church body and/or statements by church leaders, but these should be chosen and crafted with care to reflect biblical principles. We should have no illusions about their effectiveness. With occasional exceptions, they make little or no direct impact on policy makers. They may, however, provide guidance for folks in the pew, if they become the basis for discussion in local congregations and motivate lay people (and pastors) to take the action of being citizen advocates. Good preaching and good teaching can, of course, prepare people for this. But the response of biblically grounded advocacy takes time, patience, and training in discipleship–and above all a Promise-driven faith that is truly active in love.
My own observations from working in this area over the years is that all of us need concrete opportunities and handles. We also need to work with others in ways that are timely and focused. We seldom influence government policy as lone rangers. Christians who are wary of stepping into the policy arena find doing so easier with issues that are clearly grounded in the biblical witness. For these reasons Bread for the World offers an attractive port of entry. Christians who already help with private assistance can be invited to take the next step and let their concerns be known to those who legislate for the nation. It’s a modest “ask” to get people to write a thoughtful letter or two, and the payoff can be huge. Letters have a leveraging effect that often multiplies the impact of our private contributions a hundred times over. But whatever the issue, if you are a pastor or lay leader and you want to break through the loveless tradition of quietism, your first step is to become an advocate yourself. Then you can with integrity invite others to see how that form of love is an important response to the Gospel, and can be of life-giving and life-saving benefit to others.