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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Four questions ...

about how the American context has shaped Lutherans and the ELCA

How does the existence of the American empire (military might) impact the ELCA's history and theology?

Jon Pahl: That the U.S. is an empire of a new sort is clear. The wide range of U.S. military might trumps any competitor, and the U.S. model of doing business (now through transnational corporations) is dominant. Throughout history Lutherans have often accepted whatever the state does. One maxim is "As the state goes, so goes the church." So it's a temptation for Lutherans to go along with power as a force for security and self-interest.

shutterstockYet throughout Lutheran history there's not only been a "quietist" acceptance of state power. On the one hand, Lutherans are eager to embrace laws that promote justice. They organize effectively, so they have a distinguished history of service in law (chief justice of the Supreme Court, most recently), the military (chaplain to the House of Representatives, most recently) and other similar vocations.

On the other hand, Lutherans have found a critical voice to speak against unjust laws. On occasion they have even embraced civil disobedience. One early example is found in New Amsterdam (now New York) where Lutherans in the 17th century worshiped despite official prohibition (and fines and imprisonment) imposed by the Dutch government.

Maria Erling: In the 21st century the issues of American empire and cultural dominance make it difficult for Lutherans to square their more modest, personal and pious beliefs with the fact of their participation in such enormous power. Much of the appeal of liberation theologies and the campaigns for social justice derives from honest Lutheran ambivalence about the ways that we are, as assimilated Americans, implicated in the unfair inequities of living as we do in a successful nation.


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