Social Ministry and Church Fellowship
By David H. Benke
The Radical and Subversive Nature of Ecumenical and Interfaith Social Ministry Efforts (And Why The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod Should Lead the Way in Participation)
Looking For Prayer Wherever You Can
Cristo Rompe Las Cadenas: Breaking the Bonds of Irony through Purposeful Christian Action
We gathered in the lobby, an even dozen of us, to rehearse our parts. Then Alice McCullom said a prayer, and we rode the elevator to the eleventh floor to meet with the Commissioner of Building Demolition in beautiful downtown Brooklyn. It would be a memorable meeting for us. For him it turned out to be absolutely unforgettable.
This was about seventeen years ago. The twelve of us represented roughly ten different churches from different Christian traditions. Alice was a Southern Baptist, I a Lutheran. There were Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Pentecostals in the mix that day. Later Jewish and Muslim assemblies would join the consortium, but at that time we were fifty parishes and 50,000 parishioners strong, and we were called East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC). We had coalesced several years earlier, hooking up with a community organizing group called the Industrial Areas Foundation, which had its beginnings in Chicago under the leadership of Saul Alinsky.
The East New York neighborhood in Brooklyn where we lived had experienced a decline of a third in population to about a quarter million people through the 1970s due to burnout—not the psychological construct but the real burning down of homes and apartments by fire. Arson for profit, revenge, abandonment, poor public policy decisions—there were many contributing factors, but the result was devastation, plain and simple. Chaos reigned. The world was upside down for all the wrong reasons.
All of us there in the lobby had been assaulted, shot at and abused as the death rate soared. But we were there. Our churches were the remaining social institution in the neighborhood, spiritual and daily-used sanctuaries. All of us, lay and clergy, had been run ragged trying to chase bad news to the ground. We were worn out from doing triage. We needed a way to bring real healing to the community. So we organized, against all of our natural separatistic instincts, across the bounds of denomination, racial configuration and past history. We organized as churches in the community and for the community. We organized for the sake of social change against all of our natural instincts to do social service and pastoral care because social change was the only option. And we learned how to fight back.
When we got to the commissioner’s office that morning, they didn’t want to let us in. There were too many of us, said his secretary. How many people was he used to meeting with, we asked. She replied that he had never had a meeting with regular citizens before. There were no chairs in his office for that purpose. We were off to a good start.
Of course, before we got to the lobby, we knew this guy was going to be big trouble. We had done an analysis of his performance. He rated a zero on achievement and a 100 on corruption. Demolition’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it, and the fees are quite high. So our commissioner had given an amazingly tight circle of friends the contracts for demolition, paying the most possible for the least amount of demolition. To put a number on it, the average time between the takeover of a ruined or burned-out building by the city and its demolition at that time in Brooklyn was fourteen years—from infancy to high school.
We had done our homework. And not surprisingly, we had a different thought. These buildings were killing people. They became hangouts for prostitution, drug-taking and drug-dealing. They were literally death-traps. And they were in our way. We had a dream, at that time, of building new homes where those bombed-out wrecks were hulking.
The secretary finally relented after we assured her we wouldn’t need seats, waving us into the inner sanctum, never before desecrated by the citizenry. “Well, what is it? I don’t have all day!” he began the meeting cordially. We proceeded, as always, to introduce ourselves, standing around him in a horseshoe configuration, by name, by church and with a tag line, like this: “My name is Dave Benke. I’m from St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, and there is a burned out city-owned building on the corner of Fulton Street and Warwick Avenue that I see every day. It needs to be demolished.” Multiply that by twelve. Then I, as the designee at this meeting, handed him a printed list of the thirty buildings, their type and precise location by block and unit number, and said, “We have come here today to present you with this list of thirty buildings that we want demolished in the next six weeks.”
Having done that, we were done talking. The commissioner took the list, didn’t bother looking at it and gave a loud bellow: “Well, that’s just plain impossible. That can’t be done, because that’s NEVER been done.” We stood silent before him, looking directly at him. He then looked at the list. “Let me see this—no, no, that’s too many. Look at these, they’re all over the place. No, can’t be done.” We remained silent before him.
He went to his desk, sat down and began poring over the list, silently. We gave him silence in return. “Well, what do you want me to do?” he finally shouted. “I’ve told you, this is way too many buildings. I can’t do this.” We remained silent, looking directly at him. He began muttering to himself, looking back from us to the paper. Then he looked at length at the paper again. Silence cloaked the room.
Suddenly he rose from his chair, crumpled up the paper and flung it in our direction. “That’s enough—I’ve had enough! Why are you people shouting at me? I won’t stand for that conduct in my office—now get out!” And he threw us out of his office. We left—in silence.
In the lobby we talked it through. We were shaken up. The silent treatment is very hard to pull off in a public meeting. It’s not overly enjoyable to get thrown out, either, we were saying. But his saying we were shouting too loud—that was good. Our organizer said, “Not to get thrown out of that guy’s office would be the mistake. And your discipline was tremendous. Now we’ll see.”
Three weeks later all thirty buildings were demolished. It was a record for the City of New York. We did the only right thing. We gave the commissioner a list of thirty more buildings to demolish.
I tell you that story as an illuminating introduction to my topic, which I have triply titled “The Radical and Subversive Nature of Ecumenical and Inter-Faith Social Ministry Efforts, and Why the Missouri Synod Should Lead the Way in Participation,” or “Looking for Prayer Wherever You Can” [which is self-explanatory in my case] or finally, “Cristo Rompe Las Cadenas,” subtitled “Breaking the Bonds of Irony through Purposeful Christian Action.”
It is my contention that the Lutheran tradition provides the strongest possible theological motivation for participation in what we’ll call in the widest way “social ministry,” that is, engagement with the world. It is my further contention that we need to enlist this theological motivation in the strongest way toward parish and wider church social engagement at all levels, be they care, cure, housing, education, anti-poverty, living wage jobs, senior care, social change, governmental lobbying, and many others. We enter the fray for all the right reasons. It is my further contention that when we enter the fray, Lutherans of the Missouri Synod persuasion will enter into alliances with other Christians, including other Lutherans, as well as simply others who agree. Entering the fray will be messy as far as some of the other neat and theoretical suppositions concerning issues of fellowship are concerned. And it is my final contention that by entering the fray, by entering into this particular set of messes on purpose, both mission and nurture components of our church’s design for the future can be addressed in an authentically earnest way.
A. Theological Motivation
Praying in lobbies and diners and living rooms and church basements and sanctuaries about issues and actions of vital community concern with people not automatically of one’s own unique faith perspective makes one think about what’s unique about that perspective. At least that’s the way it’s worked for me.
While duking it out with the demolition commish, I was also tackling a Doctor of Ministry degree at a very ecumenical place called New York Theological Seminary. Our first assignment was to ask and answer the question “Who is Jesus?” through an examination of Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture. As most of you know, Niebuhr pins the Pauline and Lutheran position under the title “Christ and Culture in Paradox.” My classmates— Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and a stray Moonie—took great delight in lampooning my Lutheran roots. This was new to me. They noted Niebuhr’s dictum that Luther’s strengths ended up producing weakness—that is, Luther exposited and lived out the dynamics of the two kingdoms. He understood the Christian baptismal dynamic – to live and be involved selflessly in society under the rubrics of the First Article of the Creed. BUT—historically Lutherans have tended to be weak on both ends of the kingdom scheme. They’ve either been antinomian privatists (of the type who could allow a Hitler to rise to power) or cultural and social conservatives who lived on the point of the pin of their paradox. “You Lutherans don’t get anything done or tried in the real world,” one of my classmates used to bug me. “You’re just— paralyzed.”
“And you Pentecostals,” I replied, “have a church in every storefront stealing members from the one next to it.” It must be emphasized that we were New Yorkers. This is the way we talk. These are signs of love.
Anyway, this guy drove me to analyze the theological roots of social action from the Lutheran perspective. Preparing the thesis, I got to read and inwardly digest Paul, Luther, Philip Nicolai, Pieper, and Elert. And the results are simply spectacular. Holy Baptism carries with it for Lutherans not only the ultimate thing, the reception of forensic justification propter Christum accomplished by the Wholly Other God in the gift of faith at a mathematical point where the cross of Christ and the emptied self meet. Holy Baptism also accomplishes the indwelling of the Holy Trinity in me and corporately in us. This is the mysterious and yet completely real replacement of me/us with Christ. In the Pauline equations I have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), died and buried with Christ (Rom. 6:4), risen with Christ (Romans 6 and Ephesians 2), ascended with Christ to be seated in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2), and my life is hidden with Christ in God (Col.3). Wherever Christ has been, I have gone, so that wherever I go, Christ is in and with me.
Luther states it several ways. For one, he says “The angel said, ‘He is not here, he is risen.’ So when they ask you where you are, you say, ‘I am not here either. I am with him.’” And again, “God pours out his dear Son on us, lets Himself flow into us, and draws us into Himself, so that He becomes altogether human and we altogether divine—it is all one thing, God, Christ and you.” So that we won’t think Luther a raving mystic, Elert interprets: “God remains the Other One. But God’s You and the I of the psyche are connected through love, which makes of man and God ‘one thing.’”
What this means for life in the world is that it is the location for the living Christ, the living God, to act through Christians in a selfless way. As Niebuhr puts it, attempting to explain how Luther’s dualism was dynamic and tense rather than flaccid, “(Luther realized) that the law of Christ was more demanding than radical Christianity believed; that it required complete, spontaneous, wholly self-forgetful love of God and neighbor, without side glances toward one’s temporal or eternal profit.” This leads Niebuhr to expostulate, “More than any great Christian leader before him, Luther affirmed the life in culture as the sphere in which Christ could and ought to be followed…. Christ cleanses the springs of action.” You go, Martin! Unfortunately, it’s a great tribute unworthy of the mostly flabby and flatulent contemporary Lutherans who are around to receive it. But Niebuhr demonstrates point one—for Lutherans, social ministry in all its engagement with culture is inherently radical beneath and beyond the usual understanding of radicality. We are not only more than conquerors. In the freedom of the Gospel received and worn in a Trinitarian way we are more than radicals!
A person who articulated more thoroughly Luther’s seemingly mystical, thoroughly radical thoughts was Philip Nicolai. This is the same Philip Nicolai who wrote the Epiphany classic “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star” while burying most of his parishioners due to plague and the Thirty-Years War. He had time between funerals to write this about baptismal union:
There God and man grow together so closely, associate so closely, are joined together, bound together, and united so closely that they are not only one spirit, one mass, and one body, so to speak, but that from this union and spiritual interlacing of them three logical consequences, three mystical effects, or three kinds of mutual communication result, the first of which one may call the spiritual idiopoeia of God, who receives; the second, the spiritual metapoeia of man, who has been received; and the third, the spiritual koenopoeia of God and man.
Exactly, nicht wahr? Let’s call upon brother Elert to interpret:
By means of idiopoeia God transfers all the sufferings of Christians, their pious words, works and feelings to himself, as if they were his own. By means of metapoeia the believer shares in the work and powers of Almighty God and Christ. By means of koenopoeia God and man unite in such a way in a spiritual community of action that the one always thinks and acts in common with the other. This is what is meant when it is stated in Scripture that all believers in Christ are priests, judges and wrestlers—ability and action they can achieve only by virtue of their cooperation with God.
This entire line of thought is revelatory in profound ways to me. Me and God cooperating? In the post-justification world arena it’s the only option. We share in the work and powers of Almighty God? How else could we live in the “hope of glory” out there where all is darkness? And that last Elertian sentence is the validation not only of our fellow traveler Jesse Ventura but of all baptized wrestlers, sacrificers and discerners in the arena of action in society.
Let me illustrate. When we got tossed out of the demolition commissioner’s office, having gone there to give it up as priests for the sake of our common church and community future, having discerned that he was indeed the nexus both of the pain of enduring blight as well as the cure by rapid demolition, we were in the right wrestling match. And God was indeed wrestling with us. When we beat the scoundrel two out of three falls, the results were not only apparent in the community, and not only credited to East Brooklyn Churches, they were received by God because they belonged to God all along.
So when my mom, who happened to be visiting, confronted commissioner of parks Diana Chapin one morning at a meeting to fix up the park down the street from where we lived, which was described as the worst park in the city, by introducing herself as “I’m Dave’s mom, and I’m scared to death at what might happen to him in that park,” an intro which so startled the commissioner that her eminence Mrs. Chapin was discovered personally installing port-a-potties at 6 am on a Sunday morning in that park for the sake of crowd control, my mom had on her wrestling togs, God in her in action, and she was a first fall victor.
What Elert’s recapitulation of Nicolai, Luther, and the apostles gives us is in fact a triply broad set of garments for the Christian life in the world. Wardrobe-starved Lutherans who are traditionally self-limited in an understanding of baptismal life to the Petrine alb of the “universal priesthood” are granted license to incorporate Pauline judicial robes (First Corinthians) and wrestling T-shirts (Ephesians) into the hall closet.
Why then are Lutherans theologically equipped to be at the forefront of Christian involvement in Social Ministry in all its applications?
–We understand and inhabit completely the difference between ultimates and penultimates. We die daily and rise again in baptismal renewal, revealing our complete dependence on the ultimate mercy and initiative of God. But there is more, and it is important.
–We run toward engagement on the penultimate level because a) the ultimates have been taken care of through the divine initiative of reconciliation and b) the Ultimate One in us carries us there.
–We understand the transitory and ephemeral nature of earthly engagement, conquest, and societal transformation, and yet are compelled to practice temporal justice at all levels in our judicial robes having been declared innocent eternally and having been propelled into what can best be described as a world-wide wrestling federation by the God in us who is the cause of all prophetic and judicial action on behalf of the poor, the afflicted and the oppressed, and who perfects that cause unto all good results.
(1) Authentically Joyful—we celebrate victories and accomplishments in society from an ego-liberated soli-Deo-gloria perspective under the unio mystical category of ideopoeia;
(2) Irrepressible—why be repressed? Why hold it down and in? The inner workings of the Trinity are being manifest in and through us! Let it out.
(3) Resilient—we bounce back no matter the setback because the metapoeatic power of God in us and through us is always available.
(4) Absorbent—we retain pain, because any pain we have is shared with and absorbed by God within us.
(5) Collaborative—we labor with all the baptized because the Head of the Body who is Christ has labored for us and the dynamics of Trinitarian authority and power are working koenepoeiatically among us.
(6) Conspiratorial—we share the same air, and the air we share is the breath of the Spirit moving among us and the whisper of the Almighty directing us.
In sum, we engage because we are baptized and because of the way we understand the dynamics of our baptism. We cannot and need not explain away passive and almost sectarian social action, social care, and social justice non-involvements in our Lutheran and LCMS past, or contemporary ignorance of the history in which we did stand tall (Passavant, Schulze, Kretzmann et al.), or proposals toward inertness or sectarianism directed toward the future. We need instead to get busy. We can articulate and live in the dynamic tension to which our baptism calls us. I would encourage those gathered in this august assembly to do exactly that.
B. The Fray
Entering the fray as the baptized from our LCMS perspective involves us immediately in some interesting moments of discovery:
Several billion others, baptized in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are already there (to say nothing of civic-minded Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and the odd agnostic). As Ralph Bohlmann states in “The Celebration of Concord,” “Thesis One: The church in the narrow or proper sense is the assembly of believers…. The church is constituted by faith in Jesus Christ, not by membership in external organizations.” Alliances in the civil arena for better health care, foster and adoption services, housing, poverty, education, and the like will bring a flotilla of the like-minded together, most of them, at least in this country, already baptized. We might not even have gotten there first. We might not even have all the brilliant ideas. We might even be in the back row in the picture with our face slightly hidden. It might not be our cathedral. So be it. We rejoice in the unity of the faith already witnessed in those settings. We rejoice in the life of the Trinity enacted through humans accomplishing love and mercy.
One of the least helpful suggestions I received when involved in an act of prayer in the wrong place in the wrong uniform awhile back was that I should have convened a Missouri Synod prayer service at a separate place and time, or called other denominations and faiths together on the steps of one of our Manhattan LCMS churches to talk about prayer for the poor. Yipes. In Newyorkese—fuggedabuddit. More to the point, black congregations and pastors in central cities have played a tremendous role in the public arena as regards racism, employment, housing issues, and the like. When East Brooklyn Congregations was formed, an alliance cutting through the racial divide was forged that had to play itself out as baptized Christians—black, white and Hispanic—learned to trust one another while speaking to civil authorities. That’s quite a fray to enter, but I can tell you it can be done.
New Testament apostolic calls to baptismal ministries of wrestling, judging, and priesthood are invariably in the plural. Because baptismal engagement is corporate and not merely individual, the process of group discernment is critical. Not everyone will agree on every issue at every turn. What if the scoundrel housing demolition commissioner were a member of your parish? That would call for an intramural wrestling match, the appropriate discernment of the Body of Christ. This calls for “grappling” with the issues, which Lutherans like most people love to do in the abstract but shy away from when the results might hit too close to home. Flaccid baptismal practice leads to cultural and social conservatism, no matter the location of the parish, no matter the racial and class composition of the denomination. Because baptism crosses all human lines (Gal. 3:27) of race, clan, class and gender, the very act of baptism is inherently subversive of orderliness from a traditional human perspective. “All are one” is jumble-productive. “All are one in Christ” cannot be somehow limited to the out-of-this-world spiritual arena, because the spiritually empowered are not called out of but into the world. “All are one in Christ” cannot be extruded from the dimension of inclusive vocational service in the church, because the church in service to the world demands the gifts of all.
I am convinced, because Scripture so indicates, that this is God’s purpose in the church through baptism—to forge a graceful community that is the inside-out, upside-down counterpart to the communities of the world’s power, in order that God’s merciful power might be revealed as applicable to each and all, and God’s justice might be revealed in all social interaction. The leveling of race, class, clan and gender then in baptism is not ornamental. It is purposeful of God’s mission and God’s ministry. It is descriptive and illustrative and a living enactment of the working of the Triune God.
This is not automatically a word about women’s ordination in this context but a preliminary baptismal word, a word about the divine, Trinitarian necessity of the utilization of the gifts of the entire Body of Christ in the world. It can be no other way.
In the Big Apple arena, this meant that African American mothers ended up in the mayor’s office telling him how to run the city of New York so that the city might have better housing, education, and opportunity for its citizens. Or a coalition of working class inner-city public school parents ended up telling the highly-paid and maximally-educated school bureaucracy how to establish a whole new set of schools that could succeed where none had in the past. In other arenas it means the Lutheran senior care facility counting on a Roman Catholic woman religious head of a neighboring facility to accomplish a unified plan for better rates from the State.
When the baptized work together in the world, from the spiritual resource of the Trinity, they will want to communicate in foundational ways. They will want to learn and reflect together from Scripture in order to judge its application. And they will want to pray together, to discern the will of God. This must be encouraged.
The circles or spheres of the Christian life, like tectonic plates, rub and overlap one another individually and institutionally. I’ve heard both Ralph Bohlmann and retired Bishop William Lazareth use this spherical analogy. As Bohlmann states it, “Imagine that in the center of a series of continuous circles, or if you prefer concentric circles, you stand as a Christian at that cross and you are simultaneously involved in a whole series of relationships with other Christians.” Bohlmann moves out from congregation to denomination and into the world with those circles as he describes the concept of koinonia, or fellowship, an example of his appropriately circular logic. These circles flow readily into the classic Lutheran statements about two kingdoms, civil righteousness and cooperation in externals. For some Missouri Synod Lutherans, however, cooperation in externals has meant seeing the world as two one-dimensional spheres that have rigid boundaries and no overlap; this is neither classic Lutheranism nor real. This is theory based on reaction.
Reality is far more complex, a multi-sphered, multi-dimensional overlay of interactions. So Baptist Alice McCollum leads prayer in the lobby before meeting with the demolition commissioner. That is deemed appropriate. But when 300 people throng to celebrate the vital demolitions in prayer and song at the neighboring Baptist church, is it now somehow deemed inappropriate for the Lutheran pastor to offer a prayer? Or if subsequently 10,000 people jam the streets for a gigantic rally as the earth is turned and the land that was in ashes is reclaimed for new housing, is it deemed inappropriate for the national Lutheran church leader to speak or pray or sing the songs of joy? Watch the spheres roll.
Put another way, it is deemed appropriate for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service to function with a pan-Lutheran board that opens and closes meetings with prayer. Baptized Christians, Lutherans even, are engaged in promoting just and fair treatment for refugees around the world and for those who migrate to this country. Cooperation in that external arena brings Trinitarian strength to the cause of the oppressed and afflicted in a ministry of hospitality and justice, and prayers are required. But when the office moves and the facility is dedicated in Baltimore, it is now inappropriate for those who have prayed together to accomplish the ministry to participate fully in the dedication. Greetings only in civilian duds are the order of the day. What has changed? Both the meeting and the dedication are prayer events. The spheres are rolling.
Directions toward God-pleasing solutions to the “problem” of cooperation in externals among baptized Christians that leads to expressions of faith for me are as follows:
1. Maximize all prayer and reflection opportunities with the baptized as the world is engaged. “Pray without ceasing” is a Pauline exhortation to the baptized that immediately succeeds the instruction to “return no one evil for evil, but follow that which is good both among yourselves and [my translation] out there in the world” (literally “among all people”). Pray without ceasing is written in the plural. Later in the last chapter of the earliest New Testament epistle come the words “prove all things.” Reflection on the Word goes with prayer hand in glove. Look for prayer in all the right places. By way of personal example, Bishop Stephen P. Bouman of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the ELCA and I went to school together. He rebounded, I shot, which made it possible for him to get many rebounds. In our latter years we have covenanted to maximize every opportunity to cooperate as rebounders and shooters in areas of social ministry organization and effort; we do so reflectively and prayerfully, for to enter the fray in the New York metropolitan area is to find chaos and noise at all fronts. We convene regular meetings of the chief executive officers of ten or more pan-Lutheran social service organizations precisely to hone and sharpen the specifically Lutheran nature of our servant leadership in the wider community. We have convened those leaders to interact with politicians, to engage in mission to the poor, to find ways to provide jobs and healing in the community. Steve and I will be sharing office space to emphasize our continuity in Christian community. We pray and reflect together because we’re looking to pray. We’re standing in the need of prayer.
2. Push hard against anything that adds to the standard for operating procedures. That standard is contained in Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions (LCMS Constitution Article II). No more, no less. As has been shared by others, German confessionalist Hermann Sasse was convinced that the LCMS had lost the way when it adopted official doctrinal statements, namely the Brief Statement, over and above the scriptural and confessional norm. He was right. These over-and-above norms—now extended to synodical convention resolutions and what used to be considered doctrinal guidelines—have the effect of binding consciences and are thus raised de facto to a status on a par with scripture and confessions. This ought not be so not only for all the usually mentioned reasons, but in this context because the false binding of consciences dramatically affects the ability of the baptized to engage corporately and individually in the social arena. What happens when wrestling, discerning and priestly skills are placed on the sideline, on “observer status”? The will of God for the active participation of those Trinitarianly empowered cannot be accomplished. Vital discerners, especially those who have a clear understanding of ultimates and penultimates, feel unable to participate, and the perspective of the Body can be skewed. Wrestlers critical to the tag team are but fans in the stands. Battles are lost. Lives are lost—unnecessarily. Let me state it plainly. Failure to live out the baptismal identity in the world individually and corporately by members of the LCMS is sin. A particularly malevolent strain of Niebuhr’s cultural and social conservatism is revealed. Our authentic scriptural and confessional lights encourage exactly the opposite behavior, that of running toward engagement at all levels. My own advice to us at this Free Conference is that we cannot content ourselves with tearing down the walls of restriction coded in Missouri Synod resolution and handbook. We must at the same time be building broad bridges from the base of our baptismal beliefs. We must be writing the theological papers that authorize action in the world for the sake of the God in whom we live and move and have our being. And we must exemplify that which is beyond radical and authentically subversive in our own lives, collaborations and choice of prayer partners.
3. Maintain the appropriate Scriptural and Confessional standards for communio in sacris with forbearance. Because we’re going to be engaged baptismally in the fray with folks of all possible backgrounds and beliefs, we owe it to those with whom we’re engaged to articulate clearly our own background and belief in word as well as deed. Glenn Tinder writes persuasively and thoughtfully in the magazine First Things (January 2000) about the concept of forbearance as critical to Christian future. Forbearance for Tinder is the Christian version of tolerance. Since tolerance declines too often and too quickly into acquiescence, into cultural and social relativism and confusion, forbearance is the alternative. For Tinder the three principles of Pauline forbearance are (a) charity, which he describes as attentiveness in action-oriented relationship and “dialogical patience” as opposed to, say, taking potshots from a distance; (b) what Augustine calls “the beauty of the ages,” seeing the divinely providential plan through the confusions of the present; and (c) election, seen not only as the ordination to salvation but as the responsible living out of that new order. This was to me of great assistance in understanding the contemporary dynamics of baptismal service in the world. That which is uncharitable, shortsighted, and pronouncement-oriented will be unhelpful and unhealthy for God’s truth to be seen and heard in the world. That which speaks and acts clearly and yet listens and understands is to be encouraged. If this dynamic were encouraged in LCMS dialogues regarding the Holy Mysteries, the gospel and the sacraments, with other Lutherans, Christians and fellow-travelers, our witness would be not only credible but attractive. The release of the gospel and not new law would be the goal and accomplishment. And the gospel in all its articles most certainly includes the service of the baptized community of believers in the world.
C. Cristo Rompe las Cadenas
Jedediah Purdy’s recent book, For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today, takes off where commentators on America’s culture of narcissism like Christopher Lasch left off. The essence of irony for Purdy, a young man of 25 peering through the lens through which he and his generation see life, is “a quiet refusal to believe in the depth of relationships, the sincerity of motivation or the truth of speech—especially earnest speech.” An example is the young person who goes to a frivolous party and spends the whole time making fun of the party and those at it. This happens in a general way when people believe they know more than others and yet feel they can accomplish little. So the end is detachment of a particularly lonely and bitter sort—“you can’t change the world, so you might as well get ahead of it” is the maxim in the culture-of-narcissism. Purdy challenges this by counseling for the long-term chastened pursuit in the world of commonly held things. In other words, he proposes realistic engagement.
This is a Lutheran approach in its structure and direction but absent our theological baptismal content. For Lutherans the fundamentalist, legalistic exhortations to socially transformative action prior to the imminent apocalypse cannot hold Christian commitment in and to the world. The Lutheran Christian realist finds sin and corruption at every turn and true transformation way out on the horizon. Yet like Purdy, we Lutherans call for engagement in the social arena. But we do so from the impetus and motivation and sincerity and earnestness of the God who speaks and acts within us and through us. “We’re baptized—we’ll BE there” is our maxim. We’re delivered from the privatized and the narcissistic because we’ve been delivered from ourselves. And we can seek to deliver others from the chains of narcissistic irony because Christ has broken the iron fetters (in the words of the Spanish corito sung by Pentecostals and the occasional Lutheran, “Cristo rompe las cadenas”).
Let me give you an example. Last week I spoke at a press conference in Washington, part of a group of 100 leaders from community organizations on the East Coast. We had heard enough personal religious rhetoric from our prime presidential candidates. Almost all of them, it turns out, now call themselves “born-again” Christians. Jesus is their hero. As religious leaders, we called this exercise, absent the content of social program concepts serious in scope and scale, what it is—phony piety. In a time of abundance, not scarcity, a quarter of the population in this country is doing without. While a national chain of bakeries for pets is making millions, hungry people can’t find a soup kitchen and millions are stuck in dead-end, minimum wage jobs to eke out their daily bread. It was indeed Martin Luther’s statement that the political leaders of his day, the princes, should have a loaf of bread on their coat of arms, for that was their duty to society, to provide the opportunity for daily living to their constituents. In our day and time the way to break through the phony piety that disconnects is for the baptismally engaged to join with allies of good will in promoting public policy and electing leaders to enact a living wage and equity for the working classes and resource to those educationally deprived.
So we held our press conference. And the press, one of the chief agencies of irony in our society, became engaged. New ideas. Somebody addressing urban issues. Religious leaders pinning politicians for their empty piety. The first question, from Newsday, was “Why haven’t we heard this before?” What do you think our answer was? “Because you haven’t been listening! Because you’re following the money! Because you’re at the $1000-a-plate breakfasts rather than at the bus stops where the working poor pay their own way to get out to the suburbs where they are disallowed housing to mow lawns and change sheets for $5 an hour!” I can tell you from that event that earnest speech brings the ironically detached up short. I can also tell you that earnest speech brings the baptized up out of their seats. And I can tell you that, as my friend Johnny Ray Youngblood always puts it, “The one thing you can depend on about us is this—we’re gonna BE THERE.”
Such earnest behavior in word and deed is the mission tonic for Jedediah Purdy’s generation, the generation of many of our children. Young adult Lutherans cannot be easily dissuaded from detachment if the sum total of parish social ministry is the annual Christmas basket. They have been taught the mission of Christ demands more. But have they seen it in action? Have we walked the walk we talk? That generation and its successor call us to be there in ways and places we have too often not been there.
And that, dear friends, is my final exhortation to us here at this conference. We need to be depended on to be there in the world in deed and word, subversive radicals cheerfully proclaiming and living in the freedom of baptismal community, daily dying and rising, unafraid, simply irrepressible, engaged, fed with heavenly food, taken care of and taking care of business in the Name of the Triune God. God’s promises are our only surety. And sure they are, in Christ Jesus! We are baptized. We will be there.