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The New Protestantism: Messiah Church
The mainline denominations need to now understand themselves as 'New Protestants' over against a reactionary Southern form of Christianity or the 'religious right'. We have a new important mission.
By Ed Knudson
In the fall of 2013 I gave a series of four presentations at an adult forum at Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon, and created a new section of this website called The New Protestantism which contains the written presentations along with other supportive materials. I have now put the four sessions into one essay below for readers to have easier access to these ideas.
There has been so much change of the public meanings of Protestant churches over the past fifty years that it is possible now to speak of "the new Protestantism." In these presentations we will speak about the core beliefs of Martin Luther and the Reformation and the influence of Protestants in philosophy leading to the development of modern nations, including the United States. Now after 500 years Protestants are able to accept responsibility to critique economic and societal institutions based on historic Reformation faith.
I. The Great Turn of Reformation Faith from Heaven to Earth
Looking back now to the 16th century from our perspective today we can see the huge influence of Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in Geneva in shifting the focus of Christian faith and practice from an exclusive focus on heaven to this world which God has made. Using core Reformation beliefs we will in this session provide an interpretation of changes experienced by Protestants especially in more recent history since the 1960s. Key differences in understanding how God is active in history will be noted, with big consequences for determining the mission of the church in the world today.
Today I want to talk with you first about Martin Luther and the Reformation in the 16th century. Then we will discuss changes in Protestantism over the past fifty years or so. In doing this we will be engaged in the interpretation of history, looking for the public meanings of events and figures of the past, in order to identify who we are and what we are to do in the present and future. That's what the bible itself is, a series of interpretations of the history of the people of Israel and the Christian church. And that's what Martin Luther himself did, he engaged in an historical interpretation of his own times based on what he read in the an ancient text, the bible.
To get our bearings, let me begin with a little story about my mother. When I was a child I was playing in the back yard when my mother called me into the house. She told me that "We are going downtown." And then she took a look at my clothes and said, "You can't go out in public looking like that."
Now this little story is more complicated than you may think at first. Notice that we are moving from one place to another, from the privacy of home to the public of downtown. My mother has a clear idea of the norms or standards of how people should look when they are "out in public." She in a quick moment can imagine herself walking downtown with a dirty kid with old clothes on. She can imagine other people (the public) looking at her and judging her on the basis of the kid with dirty clothes. The human mind has an incredible capacity for imagination, and I want to call this "active consciousness", that is, we are all conscious of ourselves sitting here right now today, we have an internal consciousness, sometimes called human subjectivity, or the "inner heart" of ourselves.
For Martin Luther this inner consciousness is all important, it is the place where salvation occurs, it is the target of all preaching. It has to do with what people in their inner selves believe about themselves and who they are in relation to other people. My mother in her inner self didn't want to be seen out in public with a dirty looking kid.
Notice the public here constitutes a place of judgment, the seeing eyes of others, even if one does not know these others personally. The public judges on the basis of norms or standards of what is considered right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable. And if you don't measure up to these standards you are expelled from the community in one way or another. A dirty kid is not acceptable so my mother made me wash up and put on better clothes. Now I just want to say that the Reformation was an event out in public, it occurred in public space, and it had a major impact on what it was good and right to be able to say in public and how to act. The whole public religious space of Europe was significantly changed by Martin Luther and the Reformation, and I am calling that change today a change from an exclusive focus on heaven in Christian faith to a focus on earth, a concern for the neighbor.
But it was also a change in the internal consciousness of individual human beings. So we are dealing here both with the public nature of the whole community as well as the internal consciousness of each individual. What is the connection between these two?
It is language. It is how people talk. The Reformation was a language event. It changed the way people talk about God, themselves, others, the church, the purpose of their lives. Notice the words my mother used in my little story. She spoke in two different ways. The first sentance was descriptive, it announced something was going to happen, she said "we are going downtown." I knew from this announcement that I was going someplace.
The second way she spoke was an imperative, or a command, she said "you can't go downtown looking like that." Go wash up and change your clothes. This was based on a law, as I have said, it judged me, and told me in no uncertain terms to change myself immediately.
So we have two kinds of statements here, one announcing something and one telling me what to do. These correspond to one of Luther's most important and very significant distinctions between law and gospel. The gospel is an announcement of what is true. The law forces you to do something under a threat that something bad will happen to you if you don't do it. These two ways of speaking, of the use of language, connect the internal consciousness of individuals and the public life of the community. And Luther separates these two institutionally, the church is the place for speaking the gospel, the state relies on law, as we will see next week when we speak of Lutheran political ethics. This distinction was the beginning of what became a key modern notion, the separation of church and state.
So from this little story about my mother we have before us several key categories by which to interpret history and the Reformation.
From Up and Down to Side by Side
If you ask most folks about where God is located I think it is probably still true that the response will be given in spatial terms, God is up there someplace, out there, out of this world. At a breakfast diner one time I heard the waitress refer to God as "the man upstairs." This way of thinking is strongly influenced by Greek philosophy which thought of God in highly abstract terms, such as Aristotle's unmoved mover. In fact, Greek philosophy had a tremendous influence on Christian theology. Plato had taught that this world was not the real world, just a shadow of the real world which was beyond this world, a world of perfect concepts. This meant that when Christian faith was preached to those influenced by this Platonic world view "heaven" was associated with this perfect spiritual world up and away from this lowly, sinful, earthly world. And this became the central image of the medieval Roman Catholic Church for several centuries, especially from the 4th century when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire. The entire goal of this religion was to get into heaven up there where God is located and the church controlled the only ways to achieve that goal.
Martin Luther was born in 1483 into a public European world nearly completely dominated by what he came to view as the oppressive power of Roman Catholic Church. Rather than becoming a lawyer as his father wanted, Luther became a monk in an Augustinian Monastery after a fearful experience in a thunderstorm. After years as a student of the bible he began his work as a biblical professor at Wittenberg, Germany, and there published his 95 theses on the church door in 1517, the year most often used to designate the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
By this act I would like to suggest Luther was engaging in an interpretation of history. He saw how the church was treating people, he read the scriptures, an act of "memory" of the past, and evaluated current church practices based on what he found in the scriptures. And this was all informed by a sense of existential solidarity he felt with common folks trying to live their lives under the burdens imposed by the church. Luther says later that you know a theologian by his heart, that is, by the compassion one can feel for the suffering of others. And Luther saw how oppressive the church had become, establishing all manner of "good works" which had to be performed in order to reach the goal of getting into heaven rather than roast in hell.
Here's how this works. Luther experienced considerable spiritual anguish in the monastery. He could not find peace with God by confessing his sins; there were always more sins to confess. This resulted from faulty thinking, he later finds, because he is focused on what he himself must do to achieve salvation. The church law that "you must confess your sins" resulted in constant existential worry that you have not done enough. Luther could therefore identify with others also living under many different kinds of church law, trying to do "good works" but always failing to do enough; Luther felt a sense of "solidarity" with all those trying to live under the law. He came to believe that the church was literally terrorizing the consciences of the people. Note this is what I referred to above as the internal consciousness of the individual. The church kept the internal consciousness of persons in a state of terror in order to control them to achieve the purposes of an authoritarian church dedicated to its own glory.
The specific practice Luther attacks in 1517 is the sale of indulgences by the church in order for the church to gain money to build St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. An indulgence was a piece of paper absolving sinners, one's self or others, to gain entrance to heaven. The church was, blatantly, selling access to heaven. Luther attacked this blatant commercialization of Christianity and thus threatened the power and glory of the Roman Church.
Luther did all this in public. His 95 Theses were published with the new invention, the printing press, and copies sent around Europe. His message spread like wild fire. His sermons and pamphlets were also printed, read out loud to those who couldn't read for themselves, and preached in sermons by pastors who were converting to Protestanism.
What Luther found in the bible, especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul, was that salvation was a pure gift through the grace and mercy of a loving God received through faith by the prompting of the Holy Spirit and is not in any way based on what human beings do trying to earn salvation by their own good works. It is the work of Christ on the cross that makes eternal salvation possible for all, no human being can boast that they deserve salvation because of their own works. The language that announces this truth is called the "gospel" or good news of God's grace. It is the primary work of the preacher and the church to announce this gospel which then works in the internal consciousness of the person to give them an identity of a child of God of infinite worth before a loving creator. This gospel announces the end of the law in-so-far-as anyone thinks that obeying religious laws merits salvation. Hearing the gospel means freedom for the believer. That very big word for modern people, "freedom", is announced in the Reformation gospel, not as a result of natural law or abstract political documents, but as the divine work of Jesus on the cross.
Because of this gospel a whole new world opens up on earth apart from the control of an authoritarian church. It is quite important to realize that Luther did not believe that human beings can do anything to achieve salvation, it is God's complete gift. In matters of salvation it is all God's work. He believed that the human will was under bondage and could not under its own power come to know God through speculation or meditation or any human activity. It is the language of the gospel that does the deed in the power of the Holy Spirit, in both preaching and the "visible words" of the sacraments of baptism and communion. It is here that God is revealed and works God's will.
In other words, in terms of "up and down" salvation, eternal life, we human beings can do nothing, God does everything. So since it is God who is doing it, it is certain, you don't have to worry about it. What you do have to worry about is what you are going to do right now here on earth. And Luther is clear: we are saved to love the neighbor. Sin is being curved in our selves, worry about ourselves. Since God saves us, we are now able to do what God wants, to love the other who is not like us, the neighbor. Based on this, Luther left the monastery and told other monks to leave as well. It is not necessary to spend all one's time praying to God, go out into the community and do good for someone else, bake some bread, make some shoes, build a house, do something for the neighbor, based on your own practical reason to see what the neighbor needs.
This is where the "great turn from heaven to earth" takes place. The Christian is no longer to spend all the time trying to satisfy God, he or she is free to live on earth in service to neighbor. This is known in Protestant theology as the doctrine of vocation, we carry out God's will by our work in the secular world. A good argument can be made that it provided the background context for the development of the modern world. The Reformation turned European public culture from the medieval reach for heaven to the modern work of building secular community.
Five hundred years later it is necessary for Protestants to evaluate what they have wrought, to do what Luther did in his day, engage in an act of historical interpretation of our own times.
A New Protestantism in America
Luther discounts his own role:
ďI simply taught, preached, and wrote Godís Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everythingĒ (LW 51:77).Luther did not want to leave the Roman Church, he wanted to reform it. But he was excommunicated and under threat of arrest for his whole life. He lived therefore actually "outside the law" of the state, except in his own territory where his prince protected him. More on that in the next session.
But the "word" of gospel preaching was let loose and many others followed Luther, the Reformation moved out from Germany to Geneva where John Calvin is the best known reformer after Luther. Many wanted to go further than Luther in separating themselves from Catholicism, the "anabaptists" for example. Those named Lutherans became prevalent in Germany and the Nordic countries, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). In England the Anglicans separated from Catholicism. Calvinism influenced Presbyterians in Scotland, and Baptists and Methodists in England. All these are "Protestants" in the sense that they share a history anchored in the European Reformation, their identity and experience as a religious group goes back into history which can be studied and interpreted to gain public meaning for the present.
It was English Protestants who were most prevalent in the colonization and development of the United States. Though some Catholics and Lutherans were present early also, their larger numbers didn't occur until the great migrations from nations in southern and northern Europe.
All these Protestants had a tremendous influence in the development of the country. The Protestant faith was significant in defining the public culture in small towns and cities throughout the nation up until commercialization became so prevalent as to open stores on Sundays and mass media technology made it possible for the modern business corporation to have easy access to the hearts and minds of Americans on a daily basis. This occurred generally in the 1950s, at least in the midwest, and nostalgia to return to these times is one of the temptations driving some religious expessions even now.
What this means is that in an earlier period the small business owner likely also attended the local Presbyterian church, for example, and heard sermons about fair business practices and concern for the less fortunate. (Presbyterians often built their large stone churches near downtowns.) But the large business corporation has long since separated itself from influence from the Protestant faith, it functions according to its own ideology, a version of economics, a field of study modern in its origins and prevalent only relatively recently. Modern business leaders tend to see the "economy" as an autonomous field of activity separated from the community or society, and, wishfully, from the government as well. Human beings have become consumers of the products of business, they are to "serve the economy" by consuming as much as possible in order to have a "healthy economy", no matter what happens to actual communities, cities, or the earth itself. Whereas the Protestant Church used to have great power in influencing the public culture, today it is finding itself nearly powerless to influence what has become the single most institutional force in the modern world.
And that is why I think it helpful to begin speaking of "the new Protestantism." The old Protestantism was an important factor in creating public consciousness, the new Protestantism is not. Becoming aware of that change is not so easy for many Protestants.
Some years ago I received a visit from a college professor in Iowa who was planning to retire in Portland. He was looking for a Lutheran church to attend here. As our discussion unfolded it became clear that he was asking me which congregation in Portland had members who were important in the community. He attended such a church in Iowa where there are a lot of Lutherans. Now, in Iowa and still across the midwest in smaller cities it may be true that many community leaders attend Protestant churches. But in Oregon only about one in three people associate themselves with any religious affiliation at all. Washington and Oregon have had the lowest level of religious affiliation in the country, until recently when Northeast states are beginning to share that distinction. So I had to tell the college professor that there was no congregation in Portland where he could hobnob with powerful community leaders. This seemed very disappointing to him. Indeed, Protestants in the west have for some time now had to try to figure out how to engage in the mission of the church without assuming they have the ear of the powerful in the community. We can no longer assume there is a "Protestant establishment" anywhere in the country, except maybe in the South to some degree.
How has this come about? What happened to mainline Protestantism? As we answer those questions remember the focus is on "public meanings" which includes a reading of both public consciousness (the all-seeing "public" in the little story about my mother) and the individual consciousness of each person, as connected through language, how particular words are used both in public and private settings, and how this changes through time. So we are doing "historical interpretation" here. This is all very complex and in this session I can only point to some of the important factors which seek to explain what has happened to the Protestant mainline churches over the past fifty years or so.
So historic Protestantism has been taking a beating in the last fifty years. The revivalist fundamentalists are conservative in that they are now performing in modern culture what the Roman Catholic Church did in medieval culture, they are terrorizing the hearts and minds of the people and trying to control people in order to build large churches, enrich their treasuries, and manipulate people to support their false political projects. To speak of "The New Protestantism" is to recognize these facts clearly and to call for the formulation of explicit understandings of our mission to the world of the 21st century. To do this we must come to terms with what has become the most powerful institutional force in modern society, the modern business corporation.
II. Lutheran Political Ethics in the New Protestantism
Many people are unaware that there is a strong and clear Lutheran tradition for making ethical choices and political judgments. In this session that tradition will be explored in contrast to that of the Calvinist churches, especially those associated with the English Reformation including Puritans and Baptists. A false form of Protestantism has become dominant in the United States called the "religious right" which is an Americanized, commercialized, politicized religion which has terribly skewed the political process in this country. Understanding these matters will help make clear the challenges of Reformation Protestants in the 21st century.
The term "political ethics" may not be as familiar as the phrase "medical ethics" but I think it has become important to think more clearly about how it is that we in the church approach and engage the whole question of politics in our time. Medical ethics has developed as a field of study to address the many questions of what is right and wrong in the use of ever-new types of medical technology. Rather than fighting over different absolute views of what is right and wrong, the term "ethics" refers to an effort to step back to think and discuss different approaches and assumptions to moral questions. It happens that Lutherans have a rather distinctive approach to political ethics which I believe can be very helpful at this moment in history for all Protestants. That's why I put in the title of this presentation "the New Protestantism." I mean to talk about Lutheran political ethics as a contribution to a larger project of formulating a new Protestant understanding of what political engagement means for the church today.
This task has become urgent in our time. That is because a new false form of Protestantism has emerged in this country over the last years that is no longer in the Reformation tradition, what we termed last session the "religious right" or "religious fundamentalists." One of the political parties in this country has made the religious right its own religious-political expression. That is, the base constituency of the Republican Party is now made up of religious fundamentalists claiming the "Christian" label. That means that Republican politicians rely primarily on the votes of so-called "Christians" to gain elective office. I believe that this has resulted in a terrible irrational skewing of the political process to the degree that the country itself is having a very difficult time making political decisions actually good for the country as a whole. And religious fundamentalists have become so involved in politics that they are foresaking the historic Protestant public witness on many moral matters. I summarize this by saying they have become an Americanized, politicized, commercialized aberation of historic Christian faith. It is no longer good to ignore this development.
The New Protestantism should be formulated partly explicitly over-against this religious right. If Protestants do not begin to put together a clear understanding of political ethics members of our local congregations will not have the advantage of help from their church in making decisions about political matters, and the field will be left to the religious right to define in its terms, rather than the history of Protestantism itself.
Backlash Politics since the 1960s
And that history is critically informed by the most important single event in the history of the country, the civil war in the 1860s. When I use this word "event" I don't mean just another happening, I mean a crucial event which defines everything that comes after it. You and I continue to live in the wake of the event of the civil war and it continues to define political attitudes and orientations and movements in the public consciousness. The Protestant churches were divided during this period by different views toward slavery; the bible was used to justify slavery as a God-given institution. For one hundred years after the civil war the white South was able to maintain control of black people through Jim Crow laws and strict segregation of the races. It was only with the civil rights movement of the 1960s led by Martin Luther King and others that the United States passed laws outlawing segregation. The federal government sent its agencies into the South to force white people to change their ways and their laws, to change the public space of the South, to change what it was right and good to do "out in public". That's why to this day the white South hates the federal government; that's why politicians coming from the white South even today speak of government as if it is evil incarnate.
And the churches that make up the "religious right" have their origins in the South, the Southern Baptists and the Pentecostals. Billy Graham is a Southern Baptist. The television preachers such at Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell come out of the South. The organizational origins of the religious right come from efforts of white churches sponsoring segregated private schools to organize themselves to fight against the Internal Revenue Service concerning non-profit status. In fact, the primary energy and underlying motivation of the entire religious right and now Republican politics constitutes a backlash against the gains of black people in the 1960s.
And this is combined with a rejection of the movement for equality of women in society. The entire anti-abortion movement is not really about abortion as a moral issue, it is against the idea that women should be free to participate in society as they choose and desire. That's what is meant by "family values," that women should stay home and take care of the family, not enjoy the benefits of participation in the larger society.
And there is another aspect of this that has to do with economic philosophy. When I was in the seminary in 1964 in St. Paul, Minnesota, I had a chance at Christmas vacation to travel to the state of Mississippi to help with the voter registration drives among black people that were happening at the time. This was a life-changing experience. I began to see and feel the world as it is experienced by black people, I saw the world from the bottom up so to speak. And I came to understand better that the definitions of right and wrong, the questions of ethics, have a lot to do with one's social location, the social place in the world from which one is viewing the world. One Sunday when I was there I went to a Missouri Synod Lutheran church. During the coffee hour, when I said I was there helping register people to vote, I was told that it was only the Communists who were doing that. It was Communists from the North who were coming down to disrupt the social structure of the South. If that sounds strange, remember that even J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI believed that Martin Luther King was influenced by Communists and carried on active surveillance of him for several years.
I would like to use the phrase "hysterical anti-Communism" to refer to this set of beliefs coming out of the South and promulgated to this day by southern religion. In the late 1980s I was given a pamphlet by a member of my congregation at the time; he said it was an example of the type of views he thought we should promote in our congregation. I paged through the pamphlet and saw it was one article after another about the evils of Communism and the Soviet Union. In the middle was one page saying that if this pamphlet helps the reader accept Jesus Christ into his heart that he should money to Jimmy Swaggart ministries. Swaggart was a popular television preacher at the time, until he was caught visiting prostitutes.
Billy Graham, of course, got his start in the 1950s in California preaching anti-Communism. He said Russia would send nuclear bombs over New York and Los Angeles if America did not turn to Christ. This association of anti-Communism with Christian salvation is, of course, idolatry. One can reject Communism as an economic philosophy but when it is raised to the level of justification of the use of nuclear weapons I call it "hysterical anti-Communism." And there is an emerging Republican politician seeking to be president who is again using this kind of language, Ted Cruz, whose Cuban father is a "born again" Christian and has associated President Obama with Castro because he says the Affordable Care Act is socialized medicine.
I hope this discussion helps you understand why I say that historical interpretation is crucial for ethics, for the determination of what is right and wrong, good and bad, real or unreal, out there in the public world. In fact, I would say it is not a bad definition of "politics" that it is a contest of interpretations, or stories, of history. It is important to tell the truth about history.
The Lutheran Approach to Politics
OK, what about Martin Luther can we say about all this? First, let us notice his social location: He was, like Jesus, a teacher. And, like Jesus, he associated with sinners. Remember that last time we spoke of Luther in solidarity with regular folks at the bottom of the hierarchy of the Roman Church, the ones who were trying to do all the good works necessary to get into heaven. He thought the church was terrorizing the inner consciousness of the people. From the bible he sees that the gospel is the good news of God's salvation apart from good works through the work of Christ on the cross. So in the very structure of Luther's primary thinking we see the goal of the spiritual liberation of the people against the oppressive hierarchy of the church. Since the church was such a significant dominating institution of the time, Luther's preaching resulted in widespread social change in the Reformation. People left religious occupations, the clergy got married, monks went to work in the secular community, the liberating word spread throughout Europe creating the Protestant churches.
Concerning social questions Luther was himself conservative. He was a medieval man in believing that social structures should not be changed, people must serve the neighbor from within whatever social "station" they had been given. He said some terrible things about Jews which the ELCA has officially rejected. He counseled against the peasants in what is known as the peasant uprisings of the time. I wonder if that is partially because he had already been responsible for such drastic change related to the church.
Both Luther and John Calvin taught that government was instituted by God for the good order of the community. Therefore the wholly anti-government rhetoric of right wing politicians is not part of the Protestant heritage. Luther taught what was is known as the "two kingdoms" doctrine, that God rules all through government based on law, and the church through the gospel. But he says God uses government in a hidden way, that is, one can not come to know the true nature of God through government because the law finally relies on coercive violence (the sword) and God is not violence but love. One comes to know God as love through the preaching of the gospel received in the inner consciousness; this completely changes the status of the person from unworthy sinner to redeemed child of God, no matter the external social/political structures within which the person must live.
During the Nazi era in Germany the two kingdoms theory was used by some Germans to excuse themselves from responsibility for the actions of the German state. The church as a whole failed to take a strong stand against the anti-Jewish actions of Hitler. A group called the Confessing Church did organize itself but it was repressed by the Nazis. Hitler tried to take over the church and those who went along with this were called "German Christians," the implication being that they made their ethnic-national identity more important than their faith in a God who has created all nations. This is a major danger in much of the religious right in this country today when they place their faith in America as a "Christian nation" or "exceptional country" rather than understanding the United States as one nation among all the nations all of whom are loved by the God who created the entire world. Since so many Lutherans lived in Germany the experience of the church in that country has been very significant in Lutheran social ethics, and should remain so.
One theologian has become particularly important because of his public witness against Nazism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His ideas have become significant in helping Lutherans to determine when it may be necessary to oppose the state even though the state is the means by which God orders the world. And that is if the state systematically attacks the least powerful among us, such as what the status of Jews became in the Nazi era. The Nazi "total solution" of absolute exclusion of Jews from the community violated the will of God for Bonhoeffer and this gives us an important principle for our time. Racial policies in this country have had the purpose of excluding whole groups of people from full participation in the life of the community. Any politics of racial exclusion should be rejected by any Lutheran or Christian. The continuing Southern cultural dominance in the Republican Party at this time should raise a particular alarm for all people. The backlash politics I talked about earlier must be clearly recognized and rejected. In allowing itself to become associated with backlash politics the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, has separated itself from its own origins. Here is a project for those of you who want to redeem the Republican Party to play a positive role in current politics!
Now, concerning the use of reason in human affairs, Luther is greatly misunderstood. He called reason the devil's whore when it is used to try to calculate God's favor or prove to one's self that one is worthy of salvation. Luther was against what is called natural theology, human speculation on who God is and what God does. So he was fiercely opposed to Aristotle who engaged in much such speculation, and to Thomas Acquinas who argues in Aristotelian categories which rejects contradictions. There are lots of contradictions in Luther's theology because he is speaking of connections of human and divine realities. Luther believed the gospel is an announcement of what God has done in Christ. It is not something a person can conjure up from within themelves through meditation or other human methods. We need to hear this announcement from outside ourselves, from some preacher, either in church or otherwise, and from this hearing comes faith. We can not know the true God from our own intellectual works. We must be in the presence of the "living word". Words are the way God gets to us. That's why it is so important to say gospel words to others as much as we can.
But about the use of reason in human affairs, Luther was all for it. Reason is what we use to see and know how to serve the neighbor. Reason can be used to determine the best ordering of the community, and Luther hopes a good ruler will use reason to make for justice. Though he did not have high confidence in such rulers (a wise ruler is a rare bird), he spent great parts of his life, especially later, providing counsel on practical community issues. He supported public schools, paid for by the whole community, rather than just religious schools sponsored by the church. And Lutherans following him have placed a high value on education at all levels, including higher education, consider all the colleges Lutherans have created in this country. We have also created hospitals and social service agencies here and around the world. Luther believed greatly in the use of reason in human affairs and in that sense also helped turn the church from an exclusive focus on heaven to a concern for real people on the earth God loves. Next week we will talk about how Lutherans support the role of science in helping to serve others.
There is one particularly important way that Lutherans are different from Calvinists in terms of the relation of church and state. John Calvin believed that the bible was useful not only as the source of the good news of the gospel but also for very specific rules and practices for how to organize society. Calvin was a lawyer and eventually gained great power in Geneva in Switzerland. He set his followers to work searching the bible for help in building the sewer system of the city, believe it or not. This idea influenced the Puritans, for example, who wanted to create a perfect society in this country based on the scripture. There have been lots of efforts like this. Even today there is great influence among the religious right of the teachings of those called "Dominionists", who believe God has given Christians the right to have dominion over everyone on earth; Christians should rule the world. This includes support for military conquest and holy war. The father of Ted Cruz has been influenced by exactly this sort of thinking and it is terribly dangerous for this country.
Luther rejected this way of thinking in three ways.
There was another group emerging out of the Reformation called the Anabaptists which include Mennonites and the Church of the Brethern. The name comes from the Greek word "ana" meaning "again". The groups rejected infant baptism so called for believers to be rebaptized as adults if they had been baptized as infants. Groups from this tradition are often called "peace churches" today because they reject the idea that Christians can engage in any violent functions of the state. I believe these churches have done outstanding work over the years, along with Quakers, in promoting peaceful solutions to conflict situations. And this has become particularly important in the current situation in the United States which has built a massive national security state including both military forces and surveillance systems which spy on the American people as well as leaders and populations of other countries around the world. Ever since the Vietnam war the several Protestant denominations have especially begun to seriously question military solutions to global problems.
A New Era of History
And this illustrates one of the problems with a principle-based ethical system. People often brag they are going to "stick with their principles" in politics, but rarely is this the case, because principles always have to be applied to particular situations and situations are always changing in the ongoingness of the historical process. It may be a principle that Lutherans may serve in the military to protect the innocent but what if a state is forming itself into a permanent war machine? What if a state has, like the United States, incorporated military spending and infrastructure into the basic economic structure of the society? Such a state is no longer dedicated to protection of the innocent but has become dedicated to a permanent state of war. Can Lutherans ethically serve in the military of such a state? I say no. Should Lutherans in Germany agreed to fight in Hitler's wars? I say no. Should Lutherans have worked as guards and workers in concentration camps which used modern mechanical systems to systematically kill certain human beings? I say no.
Even as I say no in these situations I realize that you, my fellow Lutheran or Protestant, may say yes. You may judge your ethical responsibility before God differently than I do but we can both be members of the same church because we are united by the love of Christ not our views on political issues. We are both sinners as we approach the communion table together.
That is, I used to say this sort of thing; most of my ministry over the past fifty years I said this kind of thing. Most of the Protestant churches said this kind of thing through the 20th century, we are united in Christ and can differ on social-political questions and still be in the same church. And over these years we have observed the continuing decline of the mainline Protestant churches. People are less and less interested in what we say, maybe because we aren't saying much of anything.
One thing about Luther: he didn't try to stand outside the the fight; he didn't try to avoid the fray; he wasn't afraid of conflict. He wasn't afraid to preach the truth as he understood it in spite of the fact that it challenged the most powerful figures and structures of his time. It used to be that Lutherans tried to moderate Luther, take off his edge; I believe we need to now remember the radical Luther.
Consider this development: the institutions created by Protestants have spun off to become independent of any religious authority. The modern corporation, in-so-far-as it was inspired by Protestants, has long since rejected any influence of moral authority from religious sources; economic actors have reduced their thinking process to just one calculation, the calculation of profit is for profit's sake and no other. No consideration of the long term future, no concern for the physical environment, no sympathy to the victims to industrial development, no concern at all for the poor, in fact they are viewed as moochers and the wretched of the earth.
Consider hospitals; Lutherans created hospitals for healing ministry following the example of Jesus, but now they have become separate institutions funded substantially by the state and related to their religious origins only by nostalgia. The same can be said of most of the Lutheran colleges, they are Lutheran in name only. And the same is true of social services which receive nearly their entire funding from the state and base their professional practice on bodies of knowledge which discount any role for theological reflection.
So, one way to talk about this is to say that we are now living in a rather different world, a post-modern world some say, a stage away from the modern period of industrial development. Now we live in the information age, based on technical innovation in communication. Whatever we call it very, very big changes have occurred which have basically left the churches sitting over there on the sidelines with little to say and no real chance of saying it.
The situation the church faces today is exhibited in a book by Lutheran social ethicist, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, of Seattle University. Just ponder the meaning of the name of the book: Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation. The author is writing of political-economic structures of the United States which are here characterized as "structural evil." One is no longer called to work within and contribute to these structures, but our life vocation must be to "resist" them. This constitutes a virtual revolution in Lutheran public theology, a complete turn-around from the old social ethics of modernism. This is the main orientation of those writing prophetic public theology today.
Based on this orientation the local church must become a place for persistant prophetic criticism of current political-economic actors and structures and a means of redemption from those structures. It should no longer be a place that celebrates or glorifies oppressive social systems, it should no longer try to be neutral in politics as if a very real war is not going on, it should no longer sit quiet as the wealthy few manipulate the many poor, it should get its bearings from an interpretation of history based on the fundamental faith of the Hebrew prophets and the prophet named Jesus.
III. Political Agency for Messiah Church in the World
Jesus is understood messiah, one who brings salvation to the world. Martin Luther was a reformer who led a movement against the Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful institution of the Middle Ages which had become an oppressive force terrifying the consciences of common folks. What does it mean to be a messiah church today, following Jesus Christ? The most powerful institution of today is the modern business corporation which wields immense power over the minds, hearts and lives of the people as well as both the political and governing process. Two major issues will be addressed in this session, economic inequality and climate change threatening the very future of life on this planet. The New Protestants in several denominations have made these issues central to how they understand their calling and mission in the world today.
I would like to begin today by mentioning a word that has become important in contemporary theology: kenosis. Sometimes one word can help us identify and remember a great big concept, in this case a way to understand how God works. It is a word that helps situate ourselves as human beings in relation to the world in which we live. It helps us understand the relation between our internal consciousness and the external public world of other human beings.
Kenosis is a Greek word which means "emptiness". The most important place it is found in the New Testament is in the second chapter of Philippians where the Apostle Paul says this:
5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,Paul is speaking into the Greek world where God was understood as all-powerful. So how could it be than an all-powerful God could be identified with a human being such as Jesus? Paul answers that God emptied himself of divine power in the person of Jesus and enters the world as a real human being. Or, to say it another way, Jesus exhibits the divine power of God in a different way than human beings expect, and thus the name of Jesus is exalted above all other names, including all the names of the politically rich and powerful in the Roman empire.
Paul then says: "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
Now, Paul is writing to regular folks who have become a part of the congregation in Philippi. They were not the rich and powerful in the city. In fact, Paul is writing this letter to them when he himself was in prison, so he was a kind of outlaw in the eyes of the Roman state. Imagine how those Philippians must have felt when they read those words of Paul, "God is at work in you." Just as God worked through Jesus who died on a cross, the very image of powerlessness and emptiness, so God is at work in you. And God is working through the Philippians to create something quite different from the world as it was dominated by the Roman empire.
Those are real gospel words. They announce a new reality, a new truth. We here today are not the rich and powerful of society, we are regular folks just like the Philippians, but we can hear these words of Paul said to us even today: "God is at work in you." What can that mean for us today?
To answer that question it may help to consider that the word kenosis has been used by some contemporary theologians to refer to creation, that is, the relation of God and the created order. When God created the world God was "emptying" God's self of power over that world. God created the world which means that the world is not the same as God, is other than God. And God has created human beings to be free in that world so that what happens in the world is the result of the decisions of human beings. That means that what happens in the world today is the result of decisions that you and I make today. The world is not controlled by an all-powerful God. The God revealed in the scriptures is not the all-powerful God of the Greeks, but a God who in the creation of the world has emptied God's self of such controlling power. The future of the world will be what human beings make it. And "God is at work in you" making salvation happen.
This idea of the kenosis of God is helpful because it expresses what is really the historic and orthodox understanding of God in Christian faith. God creates the world as an open field of possibility including human freedom and action.
Now, this is a very different way of talking than what religious fundamentalists are saying today. They tend to believe in the God of the Greeks. And they connect the idea of an all-powerful God with modern notions of how the world works. The world to them is like a big machine, and God is in control of everything, making every little thing happen. God is pushing all the buttons and levers controlling the machine world. This is actually a 19th century image of the world when human beings fell in love with machines in the industrial economy. And it is a huge distortion of the classic Christian understanding of God. In fact, one can say that religious fundamentalists have created their own modern idea of God and that they thus are worshipping a false God. And the big problem with this idea is that it teaches that we human beings don't have to be concerned with this world, God is taking care of everything, God is controlling history completely and we human beings are sitting on the sidelines watching what happens and hoping for the end of the world.
This idea of an all-powerful God gets turned around in modern consciousness as an excuse to reject the very idea of God. The most common reason people reject God today is because they cannot understand why an all-powerful God would allow such great suffering in the world. When people tell me they don't believe in God I always ask them what concept of God they are rejecting. When they say "supreme being" or some other reference to an all-powerful God I say that I agree with them, I reject that concept of God as well. So, in some ways I am like those atheists! But, God is not a concept in our minds, God is other than what we may think or feel about God in our own minds, in our inner consciousness. God is not determined by what human beings think. We can only know God if God reveals God's self to us.
Martin Luther came to see from the bible that the true nature of God is revealed in Jesus Christ on the cross. He even called his theology a "theology of the cross." Everything in the bible, even the Hebrew scriptures, finally point to this one who died on a cross. Here the true nature of God is revealed and it is a God of love and mercy and grace and forgiveness. When we hear the gospel of the love of God we human beings are made whole once again to be able to go into the world to serve the neighbor. Luther writes that because of God's love we are "free from all," free from all law and authorities, and "free for all," free and able to live our lives for others right here in the world. This accent on "freedom" for human beings is one of the most important aspects of the Reformation and the history of Protestantism, and it has had tremendous influence in the creation of modern society.
History is Open to What Human Beings Do
Freedom means that history itself is open to what human beings do. God does not control history; human beings make history.
In 1970 I was a pastor of a congregation in Baltimore, Maryland, a blue collar community of factory workers. One of the members of my church invited me to go with him to a VFW bar one night. So I am sitting on a barstool when I get talking with an older fellow next to me. He starts telling me about what he did during the second world war. He wasn't in the army. He worked in a boot factory. And he tells me that every time he hammered a nail into a boot he thought about the soldier who may wear that boot fighting in the war.
I came to see something important in that little incident, that human beings want to be connected to something bigger than themselves, that they want to participate in history, that they want to know that they are doing something for other people, they are making a difference, their lives make a difference.
Before Baltimore I had been a pastor in Washington D.C. My church there was in the black community and we were active in the civil rights movement as well as the movement to end the war in Vietnam. In fact, the church was a staging center for the Poor People's Campaign in 1968; people came from all over the country in buses and slept overnight on the pews in our sanctuary. Those were quite exciting days, we felt we were in the midst of historical events, we were changing things, we were involved in political events, not partisan politics so much, but we were making history. We were a sort of messiah church making a difference in the world. Lots of other Protestants were engaged with us in these activities.
Now it seems Protestant churches, at least the mainline Protestants, are not providing young people with opportunites to make a difference with their lives. We are not calling young people to significant vocation in the world. Many congregations want younger members but then they think that if they use music young people like they will flock to the church. Not so. Young people will go to churches where they are called to make a difference, where their lives will mean something.
Here it is the religious right which has been offering people an interpretation of history that leads them to feel they are making a difference. A historian, Darren Dochuk, talks about the rise of evangelical conservatism in his book From Bible Belt to Sun Belt. During and after World War II white Southerners began moving to southern California to work in the defense industries there. A whole new culture of southern religion developed there which focused on the anti-Communism of the Cold War. Sunday after Sunday preachers told the workers in these factories how important their work was, how they were helping the country win the war against atheistic Communism. These preachers were telling these workers that their lives made a difference, they were making history. It was in is this context that explains why Billy Graham was so successful in southern California in his evangelical campaigns. He preached anti-Communism and William Randolph Hearst who owned newspapers in Los Angeles sent a memo to his reporters, "Puff Graham," which means to write articles extolling Billy Graham. Hearst thought Graham would be good for the country. And, in the process, of course, the meaning of the Christian faith in this country was being established. To be a Christian meant fighting Communism. God and country preaching has a long history in revivalist traditions of the religious right.
Once the Soviet Union came to an end in 1991 I wondered who it would be that the revivalists would begin to attack since it seemed their preaching needed a clear enemy. We know now who they began to attack, it was the "secular humanists" in our public schools, "liberals" in government and other public institutions, and after 9/11 it became Muslim terrorists. And the anti-Communism habit of thought has not gone away at all, it continues to live in the minds of religious conservatives. The father of Ted Cruz from Texas, a Cuban immigrant, introduces his son at campaign events with language accusing President Obama of being a Communist for his health care law just like Fidel Castro.
So the big all-powerful God of the religious right is associated with the military might of the big powerful country of the United States. There's nothing in the bible about this, of course, but the religious right has long since learned to read into the bible what it wants to believe is there. Martin Luther would call this a "theology of glory" opposed to the theology of the cross and be very strong in condemning it. I say it has moved so far from both the bible and the historic doctrines of Christianity that it should no longer be called either Christian or Protestant. It is idolatry, it is making the country itself into an idol of worship. But it does have the advantage of giving people a clear sense that being a "Christian" makes a difference, their lives have purpose and meaning in history.
Political Agency for the New Protestants
The religious right, as we have mentioned in previous sessions, has adopted a political agent for its view of the world, the Republican Party. And the Republican Party for its own purposes has been happy to use religious right pastors and congregations to win elections. Carl Rove, the master-mind of George W. Bush's campaign for governor of Texas and then president, worked systematically to organize conservative Christians for get-out-the-vote campaigns. It appears right now that there is a fracturing process occurring in that party between conservative Christians and the more libertarian and establishment business interests. Here I want to discuss three key issues and how New Protestants can identify political agency for their own interpretation of history.
All the mainline churches have been affirming a historical agenda signified in three words: peace, justice, and sustainable creation. What we need to do is begin much more actively to actually organize local congregations on the basis of this agenda. And we have to connect that with the historic and orthodox doctrines and practices of the church, as I have tried to do a little bit today by discussing the idea of kenosis.
The United States has become a global empire using its military and mass surveillance to dominant and control everything that happens in the world. This is all justified by the preaching of God and country of the religious right following in the pattern of Billy Graham. Just think about this: fifty years ago during the administration of John F. Kennedy the government of this country came to the brink of using nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. This would have destroyed the world that God has made, but so-called Christians supported a rhetoric that justified the use of such weapons. Right now there are several television programs coming up in recognition of the anniversary of this event. Kennedy became so alarmed by some generals in the armed forces who were actually pushing him to use those weapons against Russia that he himself changed course and began concrete actions for peace. I recommend to you a book by James W. Douglass, a Catholic theologian, called JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. It documents what a large majority of Americans believe, that Lee Harvey Oswald was not a lone assassin but an agent of "unspeakable" forces within the government itself who were terribly worried over the direction that JFK was taking the country, trying to actually make peace with the Communist enemy. Since the death of JFK this country has continued down the path of massive military expenditure and bellicosity toward the rest of the world and this continues under President Obama.
I believe that what it means to be a Christian today is to work for peace in concrete ways. Our congregations should be full of peace-makers who make the mission of peace a central aspect of their vocation in life, making a difference in the world. To do this we need to come up against our own government in many ways, and against both political parties, and join forces with other groups in the community who share our goal of peace in the world. This is not just another "social issue" but a part of the central mission of the church with which we seek to "evangelize" others. To speak the gospel is to speak for peace. Our best theologians are helping us with this, just two are Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Powers, and John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now.
What I mean here is that we members of churches can actually build our congregations based on our commitment to peace. In personal conversations we need not try to use phony language about "coming to believe in Jesus," we can say "my congregation is really working to make a difference in the world about peace." Then invite them to a meeting.
A second major issue today is justice. Every human being has within themselves a sense of what makes for fairness and justice in human interaction, it's part of what is meant by "natural law" or conscience. Protestantism has been a big factor in the development of the modern economics and business enterprise. But over the past decades we have seen vastly increasing inequality in the distribution of income and life chances, so much so that we are seeing major social conflict here in this country and around the world. Since the fall of Communism, those who call themselves "capitalists" have gained more and more authority and power over not only the economy but over politics and the government as well. Neither of the political parties provides much critique of the capitalist system. But during this same period there has been a tremendous increase in poverty, the nation's cities have been allowed to deteriorate to dangerous levels, more and more people want to live in gated communities to protect themselves from the poor and oppressed, more and more prisons are built for millions of people, and human life is defined by how much one can get and consume for one's self. Life has become a matter of serving the Economy, as if the economy itself is a kind of god.
Martin Luther said that if people don't believe in the God revealed in the scriptures they will just make something else into a kind of God, they will worship other gods. The historic Protestant faith in God, a God of both justice and mercy, is no longer at the center of the public culture or consciousness in this country. People have come to worship other gods, and the primary god in this country is the god of the market economy. It is difficult today to find places where it is even possible to begin to question whether faith in this god is good for the country. The church should be such a place.
I believe it is necessary today to put behind us this whole debate between Communism and Capitalism. It was Karl Marx who taught, of course, that material economic relations drive all of history. But it is capitalists today who also believe that the economy determines everything and it should not be questioned. The economy is viewed as an all-powerful god. We need to get beyond this. Communism is a thing of the past. And capitalism as it is now is not well serving all people either in this country or around the world. Economics and finance do not determine everything in history. It is the decisions of human beings that make history. And we human beings can come together to make decisions based on what we can call a "new possibility" for the future, something beyond both Communism and Capitalism. The Protestant Church can be a place where we can imagine such a new possibility on behalf of the world which we believe God loves.
There is an immense literature out there written by people concerned with inventing new forms of economy. Two books I have found helpful are William Greider, The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy, and Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do? Democratizing Wealth and Building a Community-Sustaining Economy from the Ground Up. Local congregations could even experiment with helping form new cooperative businesses, local food markets, employee-owned small industries. But we also need to participate in the debate over future forms of the larger economy.
Worship of false gods is the most dangerous thing human beings can do. False gods turn against you in the end; they are not there when you need them. False gods don't keep their promises. False gods bring chaos and disorder. Think about the financial crash five years ago. You thought your house was worth $400,000 and you owed only $200,000 so you thought you had $200,000 in the bank so to speak. But then you wake up one day and find out that your house is only worth $200,000, and the $200,000 you thought you had in the bank is gone, poof it's gone. You think you have a pension at your work but then Bain Capital buys your company and uses your pension fund to leverage bigger debt and then your company goes bankrupt and your pension, what you thought you had for retirement, is gone, poof it's gone. It's just numbers, money is mathematics, and the whole system is based on trust, trust that the numbers will add up over time. But then a crash occurs and trillions and trillions of dollars are lost, evaporate, gone in an instant, poof it's all gone. The financial economy is literally a house of cards with big players playing their cards calculating how to make the numbers come out in their favor. But it's all mathematics, abstractions contained in computer code, and overnight it can all vanish in the air. That's where the god of the market economy has taken us.
That's the world we live in today. It makes me thankful to attend worship and go to the communion table, to receive real bread and real wine, the material body and blood carrying the divine presence. This helps me anchor myself in reality, not the mathematical abstractions of financial calculation. So I am not just talking about a moral imperative here, that we should act differently. I am not talking about business ethics. I am trying to describe what it means to believe in false gods and how they are always going to fail us in the end.
Worship of the nation, worship of the economy, worship of the state are all the worship of false gods. The false god of the market economy is not keeping its promise of peace and security, it has led to endless war, massive inequality, and total insecurity. And now in our time it is doing something even more terrible, it is killing the earth.
I need not tell you the facts of climate change, it is real and we all know it. I have put some articles on the website for you to read. I suggest a book. The Lutheran theologian Larry Rasmussen has recently published Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key. On pp. 56-57 he has a series of charts which are like hockey sticks, they all dramatically increase in the last decades, increasing population, the use of energy and increase of carbon in the atmosphere leading to global warming. The popular magazine, National Geographic, has been running many articles providing the basic science involved.
So why hasn't the political process in a democratic society been able to begin to deal realistically with climate change? It is because of the worship of the false god of the market economy as if it is in charge of history and is all-powerful. And it is also because so many people and politicians deny the science.
Last time I talked about Martin Luther's positive attitude toward the use of reason in human affairs. God has made the world in such a way that what human beings do makes a difference. Having heard the good news of God's love and mercy, we are to use our reason to help us figure out how best to love the neighbor. Today, we know that science is one of the ways reason has been applied to human problems. Lutherans and all the mainline Protestants are open to the results of scientific inquiry. Science cannot answer the big spiritual questions or issues of divine presence in the world. But it can help us understand the world. And science is telling us today that the market economy is killing the earth.
It is important for us to realize that the fundamentalist religious right in this country started in the late 19th century in a battle against science, especially against Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. And that battle continues to be waged by the religious right in many ways including a war on public schools which disallow prayer and teach evolution. And this religious right, which remember is the "base" of the Republican Party, denies climate science. So large numbers of Republican politicians, especially in the House of Representatives, actively deny that the world is warming due to the energy usage of human beings which has dramatically increased just in the last few decades. The religious right is keeping the American people from being able to address the most important challenge facing us as a country, the challenge of climage change.
That's why it has become so important for what I call the "New Protestants" to stand up and reinvigorate themselves with the resources from their own history to be able to respond to the call today to be what the church has always been in its best moments, a messiah church, a church concerned with the salvation of the world. For it has come to pass that the earth itself, created by God for human flourishing and conviviality, is at threat because of worship of the false god of the market economy. We are called today to make history in a new way. Because of how God has created the world we are able to make decisions on behalf of all God's people everywhere.
It is not enough to have national denominations involved in these matters. It needs to happen in local congregations. I believe that Protestant churches will exist in the future only to the degree that they decide to be responsible for the public life of communities today, just as the church has always done in its history. We do not live just private lives. What we do in private has lots of consequences for everyone else in the "public world."
And there are hundreds, even thousands, of other groups and movements working for peace, justice, and sustainable creation. Paul Hawken has written a whole book on these groups called Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. We need to invite such groups to use our church facilities, to ask their leaders to come speak to our members, to partner with them in support of their activities, and invite them to come and worship with us a God of peace and justice. This can be our political agency, one way we can be active with others in the world. And through this too we will build up our churches enabling people to make a difference. The future will be what we make it.
But most important I think is that we remember the cross; it is a place of pain. We as messiah church are called to be with people in their pain. It doesn't seem natural to do this. We tend to avoid people in pain, we want to be with people like ourselves, or people who are successful and healthy. The middle-class church is tempted here to be a place where only the successful gather to celebrate all the blessings they think God has given them. But God sent Jesus to communicate with us, to meet us on the level of our own pain at the cross. And Jesus in his own life went to people in pain. Martin Luther was addressing the gospel to people in pain, exploited by the Roman Church at the time. It's good that Protestants are no longer important and powerful in society. It gives us a chance to encounter our own pain, and reach out to those who are on the margins of society, the people in pain, and there are billions of them on earth today. The pain from war, the pain that comes with injustice, the pain of not having access to the resources needed for life. Because of the gospel we are able to be in solidarity with people in their pain. Then God is working among us. This is the messiah church opening new possibility for the future for all.
IV. Toward a New Polemical Protestantism
Here we discuss the challenge to speak the faith in a polemical manner today, making clear not only what we believe but what and who to which we are opposed, such as revivalist conservatism. There is a tendency to try to escape into spiritualities of balance and harmony rather than accept our responsibility to interpret our own times and engage in the conflicts of history, conflicts which today threaten the very future of the earth.
Today I would like to introduce a word not used much in contemporary theology, the word "polemics". A polemic is according to one definition "a contentious argument that is intended to establish the truth of a specific understanding and the falsity of the contrary position." It is a forceful way of speaking which not only presents one's own position but also clearly identifies the position one is arguing against. What I will call here the "old Protestants" have somehow lost their ability to engage in polemics. In their effort to become liberal and tolerant they lost the substance of their doctrinal and historical traditions, they lost the ground on which they could stand and speak into the public consciousness of the community. The new Protestants, I claim, are those who now engage in polemic based on the historic content of Protestant faith stemming from the Reformation, the proclamation of the gospel of God's love for all people. The language of this polemics today for the new Protestants, as I discussed last time, has come to include the phrase "peace, justice and sustainable creation." All the main Protestant bodies today use this language along with our ecumenical bodies on the national and global levels. The use of this language is a signal of what we stand for and it clearly separates us from those who refuse to use this language, for those of the religious right or so-called revivalist conservatism.
Martin Luther was a polemicist. He spoke in fierce and no uncertain terms against what he believed had become a terribly oppressive religious institution, the Roman Catholic Church of his time. His message of spiritual liberation through the gospel spread like wild fire through Europe creating whole new social and political attitudes at the time.
Jesus was a polemicist. In Matthew 23 he says of the pharisees, "they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other peopleís shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them." He says, "ďWoe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in peopleís faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to." This is strong language. Jesus is not saying the pharisees have a right to their opinion, as a liberal might say, he says they are hypocrites and are hurting the people.
The Apostle Paul is a polemicist. His whole preaching and theology is over-against the official religion of the Roman Empire. Jesus is the son of God, not Caesar. The church is a new creation in the world where all are welcome, not an exclusive club for the rich and powerful of the time. Paul says in Galations 3:28: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." All the old hierarchies of the world are gone in the new creation of the church. This text in Galatians has become an especially important one for new Protestants. It is completely opposed to those today who believe and teach that Americans are God's favored people in the world over-against other nations, a false interpretation of Christianity preached Sunday after Sunday in fundamentalist churches across the country undergirding with religious fervor a militaristic rhetoric justifying the use of violent force against other peoples in the world for the purpose of protecting economic domination of this country.
What has happened to what was once Protestant polemical preaching? It is a long, and important, story. You can read about it in a new book I am now reading by David A. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History. What happened is the Protestants became the powerful in society. Hollinger says that in 1960 "at the time John F. Kennedy was elected, all the branches of the federal government and most state and local governments were under the comfortable supervision of men and women who shared a religious [Protestant] ancestry. The same was true of the overwhelming majority of the leading universities, foundations, and cultural institutions." But now, he points out, not one of the nine Supreme Court justices was born in a Protestant family. You almost never even hear anything in the media about the historic Protestant churches. In the contemporary public consciousness the old Protestant churches are simply in decline, no longer of much interest. They have nothing to say worthy of note.
In the 1960s those of us involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements used the derogatory word "WASP" to refer to Protestants, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. (Anglo-Saxons were "1. A member of one of the Germanic peoples, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, who settled in Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. 2. Any of the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, who were dominant in England until the Norman Conquest of 1066." - Free Dictionary) They were the power structure; they were the ones who were maintaining racial segregation and military adventure in Vietnam. Looking back on that time now, I think this is not a correct reading. It was, indeed, Protestant leaders who made a huge shift in their social-political views, who joined Martin Luther King in civil rights marches, who led the movement opposed to war, such as Clergy and Laity groups against the war in Vietnam. This was, in fact, the beginning of what I call the new Protestantism. And it is based on a fundamentally different interpretation of history from those who became the religious right in a backlash cultural-political movement to the 1960s.
The new Protestants are no longer the powerful in the way Hollinger characterizes them. They cannot rely on their high positions in society for moral authority to speak to the times. They have to rely on the actual content of the message they have to offer the world today, the historic message coming from Reformation faith. They must be clear-eyed and realistic about the facts of history, how the United States has become a dominating imperial power in the world, how the modern business corporation has come to have nearly exclusive power over the minds, hearts, and lives of people today. The new Protestants must become once again polemical.
Understanding the Individual in Community
To become polemical again I think we have to understand how words work connecting individuals in community, as I began to talk about in the first session in the story of my mother going out in public. In between my mother as an individual and the "public world" was her church, a different sort of community than that public world. I once asked her what the issues were in the rural church in which she grew up, what did people argue about? She said that her pastor had told them not to go to those tent meetings held by revivalist preachers from time to time in the neighborhood because all those preachers were talking about was "god and country." The gospel preached in Lutheran churches did not equate God with the country. She also said that they wondered why the local banker was going to communion after he had been foreclosing on the farms of her neighbors, taking away their livelihood. There in that small rural Norwegian congregation, I learned, they were debating issues of politics and economics in relation to Christian faith, just as we must continue to do today. What we believe as individuals is determined to a great degree by what communities we are born into or with which we choose to affiliate ourselves. Our thoughts are not our own, they are formed by the communities in which we choose to participate. We do not function, we cannot function, as individuals, as abstract, isolated individuals, apart from some community from which we learn what is right, good, and real, from which we learn who we are as persons. This is all done by words, how a community speaks, how a community understands itself, how it understands others outside itself, how it interprets history.
Each of us here has a sense of ourselves as an individual. We have what I called an "active consciousness" and this was of crucial importance to Martin Luther. In many ways, he set individual consciousness over-against the powerful structures of the Catholic Church. This is remembered in what he said at a public hearing before which he was called to account for his teachings, the Imperial Diet of Worms. The emperor and church officials expected him to recant. His books were placed on a table. He was asked if these were his works and whether he would recant their contents. He asked for time to reply and the next day he said this:
"Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen."Legend shortened this to "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise." Notice the "I" here, the individual against the church and the state. It is this that the modern western historical imagination likes to remember, the heroic individual. It is this which also captures the essence of what is known as classic liberalism. Later political and economic philosophy places huge importance on the individual and this became crucial for modern constitutional democracies and human rights. And that is why you and I even here today can have such a significant understanding of ourselves as conscious individuals, as if we are at the center of everything, and as if we determine everything in the universe ourselves.
Luther, indeed, thought of the internal consciousness as a sort of holy place. It was where God worked. It was where the gospel can be heard. But the individual was not by itself separate and alone, the individual was the place where the word worked. The individual needs the external word from some preacher. In fact, Luther understood the internal self as a kind of war zone in the battle between God and the devil. The external devil attacked the internal self to convince it that it was insignificant and unworthy of salvation. The gospel word worked by overcoming the power of evil in the internal self, turning the self from itself to the other, the neighbor.
So Luther's theology is entirely relational, not individualistic. To promote the individual as sufficient all to itself, as modern libertarians do, is completely ridiculous according to the theology of Martin Luther. Luther taught that life is a daily struggle to remember one's baptism in which one is claimed by God's word which defeats the devil.
He also promoted the concept of the "priesthood of all believers." That is, a priest is the mediator between God and persons. In the Catholic church the priest was the mediator in a rather magical and formal institutional manner. But for Luther each member of the believing community was a priest to each other, preaching the gospel. One needs others to hear the affirming word in the power of the Holy Spirit working in the simple words we speak to one another. "Good morning, good to see you." To speak we must breathe, take a breath and breathe out the words, in the power of the Spirit, wind or breath. This is where "God" is working, in our speaking. Speaking gospel to one another in simple words is our spiritual practice. It happens in community. Without it there is no real life.
Now for Luther this preaching creates the church and nothing else. The church is not created by successful people, or by an ethnic identity, or anything else. It is created by the preaching of the gospel of God's love and mercy and the celebration of the sacraments, themselves instrumental through God's word.
All of this is just good Lutheran theology. But I believe that we need to become polemical about all this. The church is constituted by proclamation and nothing else, not a political program, not an economic philosophy, not a national identity, not social status. Those who associate the gospel with anything other than God's love and mercy as the ground and substance of the church should be actively criticized and unambiguously opposed. But that means today that we must face the political struggles occurring in public life.
There is a tendency among much of what is called "spirituality" today to be a search for balance and wholeness in a world of constant conflict. It is possible to discuss the history of this desire. In Paul Tillich's book, A History of Christian Thought, a major theme is a philosophic search for "harmony". If you travel the west of this country you will find towns in every state with the name Harmony. You can just imagine the hopes and dreams of the founders of these towns. Much of what we know as conservative religion is based on this nostalgia, the desire to return to a time of imagined original harmony when everything was good. And it has been a factor too of liberalism, to achieve the goal of human beings being able to live in harmony with what is conceived as the balance of nature. Eastern religions are popular with many today in which the human being gives up itself to union with the endless processes of being. New Age spirituality promises integration with the wholeness of life and larger consciousness.
The problem is that these spiritualities lead us away from concrete history as it is, the public world as it is, the reality of the world as it is, a place of conflict. The Christian gospel is that in spite of everything this place of historical conflict is God's world which God loves and enters into very specifically in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The movement of God is from up to down, into history, not out and away from it. We are called not to escape the world but to take responsibility for it as Jesus says clearly, love God and neighbor. The great heresy confronted by Christianity in its early years was gnosticism, a religion which taught that the world was so evil it was not worth saving. Much of early Christian creeds were constructed against this teaching. Salvation meant for the gnostics to use certain spiritual practices to remove one's self from the world. The creeds say Jesus entered into the world to save the world. In our thinking about the faith it is very crucial and I think helpful to keep in mind this basic movement of God. This means Christians are called into a world of conflict. Martin Luther lived an extremely conflictual life, a life lived out in the midst of the public world of his time. The life of Jesus is a life of constant conflict ending on a cross of death killed for political reasons. The Apostle Paul faced extreme struggles as he preached that a new reality had come into the world with the cross and resurrection of Christ opposed to and other than the power of the Roman empire. It doesn't take much thinking to realize that if the followers of Jesus had tried to escape the world and history we would know nothing of him today.
The God revealed in the scriptures is not a God of balance and harmony but a God of justice and righteousness. It is entirely understandable why modern folks want to reject this God: this God demands justice in human relations. The first commandment says very clearly "you shall have no other gods before you." And here it would be good to remember Luther's understanding of law. He said the "first use of the law" was to order the human community, civil law, the basis of which begins in the ten commandments. But the "second use" of the law is the law used in preaching to convict us of our sin, especially in the worship of other gods. Last time I talked about other gods, the god of the market economy, the god of the nation, the god of the state, gods of racial and ethnic identities. Liberal philosophy has a tendency to worship the god of progress, especially that new technologies will always be invented that will save the world. Now, all these things are important for human beings, but when they become the objects of worship they become false gods which can only betray us and our neighbors in the end. Preaching against such gods is dangerous and conflictual, people love their gods and put their faith and trust in them. To preach the first commandment today is difficult for many pastors, Lutherans included. It leads to conflict, political and otherwise. It is easier to preach of God in vague metaphors of biological balance and healthiness than a God of justice.
God demands that economic relations among human beings result in justice, not just profits. Imagine preaching that in the board rooms of American corporations! Not so easy. God is calling us new Protestants to do just that by organizing and assisting others in movements for economic justice in our time. It means a willingness to engage in conflict and that is not easy for individuals as merely individuals.
Courage and Support from Caring Community
The Reformation and Protestant faith have played a large role in the formation of the modern world where the individual, not social formations, tends to be a the center of everything. The economic system has seen the growth of very large corporations, organized on hierarchial models of authority, which have developed incredible power over the minds of individuals. Sociologists talk about this as "mass society", a society made up of individuals, not families or other small-scale social groups. Just think of television; every night millions and millions of people are sitting looking at their television sets for hours and hours. Even if they do so as a family, still it is each individual looking at the television, they are not talking to one another. The modern corporation has direct access to the internal consciousness of modern human individuals. What they see on televison dictates what it is possible and necessary to do or say in the "public" world.
The first Protestants used the "modern media" of the printing press to rapidly spread the Reformation gospel. The Protestants of our era have strangely failed to use modern communication technologies, except those on the religious right. A new Protestant institutional agency is needed on the national level to provide a faith-based interpretation of history, science, and technology on a regular basis to support the work of efforts in local congregational communities. This must be done before the so-called mainline churches wither away for lack of vitality at either national or local levels.
It is impossible for the most courageous and committed individual to do much facing the world filled with other powers and principalities. It is necessary to build up local congregational communities for both worship and support for people engaged in mission in the world. It is the old Protestant idea of vocation but with the provisions that we cannot do this by ourselves as individuals and that we must address the critical issues of our own time, not live in the past fighting old battles. We each need the support and encouragement of the local community. To be faithful to the gospel these need to be communities which do not encourage escape from the world, but support for those able and willing to engage in the making of history. This requires a polemical Protestant engagement in the conflicts of history, making it clear who and what we are against as well as what we are for.
One of the most prophetic voices writing today is Chris Hedges, a former New York Times journalist whose father was a Presbyterian pastor. The many failures of Protestant churches to stand and face the powers today has led Hedges to become a severe critic of Protestants. But we should listen to his criticism and learn from it. One of the things he says is that we should become, in the word I am using here today, polemical about the religious right. Asked if his Christian background makes a difference to him he says:
Yeah, without question. And what Iím willing to do, which the mainstream church is not, is to denounce the Christian right as Christian heretics [applause]. You donít have to, as I did, spend three years at Harvard Divinity School to realize that Jesus didnít come to make us rich [laughter]. And he certainly didnít come to make Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen rich. And what they have done is acculturate the worst aspects of American imperialism, capitalism, chauvinism, and violence and bigotry into the Christian religion.Chris Hedges is one who today has the courage to speak truth about history. I recommend his book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. The Republican Party has been severely disabled by the entrance of the religious right into its ranks. It is no longer able to be a rational voice within the political process. And the entrance of the religious right into partisan politics has led it to change its doctrines and preaching away from historic Protestant faith. We must be willing to criticize it and point out specifically how it has falsified historic Protestant faith as I have tried to do in these sessions.
We have something to stand up for, the historic gospel of God's love for all and for the world. We need a New Polemical Protestantism.
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