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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Talk the walk

Imperative to bring unique Lutheran voice to public square for the sake of world

Editor’s note: This series is intended to be a public conversation among teaching theologians of the ELCA on various themes of our faith and the challenging issues of our day. It invites readers to engage in dialogue by posting comments online at the end of each article at www.thelutheran.org.

The series is edited by Philip D.W. Krey, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, on behalf of the presidents of the eight ELCA seminaries.

There is no quick and easy healing to the fallout from the fall (Genesis 3). Even while the core of our faith abounds with the good news of God’s reconciliation accomplished for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18), the ongoing consequences of sin in society are as painful and pervasive as they are unpopular to talk about.

This can be further complicated for us by being 1) U.S. citizens living in a quick-fix culture and by 2) our version of Lutheran culture that sometimes tends to be reticent to engage in those public dialogues we consider unsettling.

On a positive note, Lutherans in North America have a solid reputation for loving our neighbors, locally and globally, not only in “word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). For example, a signature of Lutheran World Relief’s work consists of its commitment to remain for the long haul in situations of human suffering, helping communities to rebuild more resiliently after disasters. LWR does this even when the novelty is gone, in places with names no longer mentioned in the media.

A Christian’s true colors will often be seen shining most vividly as light for the world while accompanying those who work their way out of crises. But how do we respond faithfully to the biblical imperative to speak as well as to act in Jesus’ name, to talk and walk, as theologian Joseph Sittler once put it, as “heralds with legs”? 

Proper place of religion

The decline of religiously informed, public discourse in the West is often viewed positively, as contributing to civility. A genius of the Reformation was putting religion in its place, so to speak, with its teaching about “two realms” or “kingdoms.” Too much blood had been shed under theocracies. God is at work in spiritual and secular structures.

But life together as community (conviviality) doesn’t come easily in the complexly enlarged commons we now inhabit. In this pluralistic reality of the 21st century, our Christian confession will find new ways to bear witness creatively and boldly to the ancient faith in Jesus Christ and traditions of justice. If we do not, the indictment of Isaiah may describe us: “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter” (Isaiah 59:14). 

Speaking our faith in this context will extend beyond morally neutral, socially nice Jesus jargon or the kind of churchy chitchat that wins friends, consoles the influential and fills pews with homogeneously smiling faces.

Sometimes our speaking emanates from a broken heart, an exasperated spirit, like a burning fire shut up in one’s bones (Jeremiah 20:8-9). Sometimes the message is both tough for us to speak and rough for the world to hear. Like this raw example of an unappetizing excerpt from one of Jeremiah’s messages: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Human corpses shall fall like dung upon the open field’ ” (Jeremiah 9:22). The liturgical responses “The word of the Lord” and “Thanks be to God” do not flow easily.

The imperative to speak difficult truth comprises a transgressive element of God’s word. By transgressive I’m referring to how the Spirit carries the message of the cross disturbingly and surprisingly across those lines to which we are most comfortably accustomed: boundaries are disestablished. Lepers are healed. Power is decentered. Categories are confronted. Tax collectors are transformed. Priorities are tested. Sinners are welcomed home. The dying are loved to life. Fragmented communities discover new friendship. Privileges are upended. Dignity is respected at every age and stage of human existence.

One specific homegrown heresy I would like to see unmasked involves reducing what it means to be blessed to bodily health and material wealth. Namely, that the proof of being blessed by God is to possess an abundance of tangible possessions. This crooked assertion thrives because of the strands of truth woven through it: God indeed is the giver of all good gifts, the grantor of human capacity and the one who rewards the labor of human hands. Yet when this truth gets overextended and misapplied, it becomes mythically oppressive. 

People living in poverty are the most vulnerable under the shadow of such half-truths. The Scriptures and confessions warn us of the other side: possessions can be ill-gotten, as they are by those who “covet fields, and seize them; [desire] houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house” (Micah 2:2). The Lutheran tradition doesn’t endorse a view that only direct, personal action constitutes sin. For example, the seventh commandment addresses economic opportunism and structural sin.

“Stealing is not just robbing someone’s safe or pocketbook but also taking advantage of someone in the market, in all stores … and, in short, wherever business is transacted and money is exchanged for goods and services …” (Martin Luther, “Large Catechism”;The Book of Concord, Fortress Press, 2000).


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