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Public Theology: A Moral Force that Confronts the Society
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A Moral Force that Confronts the Society
A Lutheran laments his church's inability to stand up for the homeless, quoting John Steinbruck of Luther Place in Washington D.C. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Editor's Note: This article is taken from an email received from a friend who did not know the identity of the writer.

“The church should always be accessible, always ready to change, to receive the sickest of the sick. If you want to be involved with Jesus you have to be involved with the homeless,” says John Steinbruck, the former pastor at Luther Place in Washington, DC.[1]

During Steinbruck’s near thirty-year pastorate, he led the congregation to open its doors to Washington D.C.’s homeless population, first with an emergency shelter in the sanctuary itself, and much later an eight-story 51 unit long-term facility across the street, and numerous facilities developed in between.[2] Steinbruck lived through World War II and witnessed the instant construction of massive housing projects for war production workers in his native Philadelphia. Don’t try telling him the homelessness problem cannot be solved.

“Homelessness can be solved in about thirty minutes,” he states, “by simply developing legislation to provide housing to rescue these people…[but] it won’t happen unless there’s a moral force that confronts the society and puts it on the agenda. The church has to be so organized that it can confront the powers and hold up the needs of those who are defenseless.”[3] I talked to more than one Lutheran involved with housing who expressed frustration at the Lutheran record on social issues, particularly homelessness. “I’m not sure this church believes in Easter,” Steinbruck suggests. “There is a streak of gutlessness in the church, a lack of prophetic instinct, that the church finds itself paralyzed, and then justifies it afterwards.”

Steinbruck chocks much of this up to the Lutheran church’s roots of magisterial benefaction (“How can you be a state church and a follower of Christ?”), and a traditionally large membership among the middle class. Remembering minister colleagues driven out of the church for their involvement in the United States civil rights movement, Steinbruck laments, “The Lutheran church buys into [the policy of] no troublemaking; we can’t offend those who give the money. The church doesn’t have it in its DNA to take a risk.”[4]

Ten years before the Augsburg Confession, Luther had laid out the relationship between justification and sanctification in the seminal statement of his essay, “On the Freedom of a Christian”: “A Christian…is the most free Lord of all and subject to none; a Christian…is the most dutiful servant of all and subject to every one.”[5]

However, this intriguing paradox is gutted of much of its dynamism by, as in the Augsburg Confession, an emphasis on sequence: “Being by his faith replaced afresh in paradise and created anew, [the believer] does not need works for his justification, but that he may not be idle, but may exercise his own body and preserve it.”[6] Preeminent Lutheran scholar William Hordern describes this progression as follows: “If I believe that I am justified by grace through faith, then I am keenly aware that my sins are forgiven…The person who has experienced justification will seek to do that which is pleasing to God and thus will seek the will of God in all things.”[7]

In Lutheran understanding, good works only happen with the keen awareness and experience of justification. Otherwise, they seemingly happen under duress or as part of some crude attempt to earn righteousness before God, and therefore they do not constitute good works at all.

Trouble is, the act of justification (a done deal through Jesus Christ) gets conflated or confused with my experience, or better, my recognition of being justified. Luther’s efforts to match a refreshingly low anthropology with a higher pneumatology (“I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts…” [SC.Creed.6]) end up endorsing the fool’s game of seeking that ‘keen awareness’ described by Hordern, as a prerequisite for getting one’s hands dirty with the labours of the plentiful harvest before us.

So we wait on the platform with Vladimir and Estragon, indulging in theological colonics,[8] neglecting the neighbour whilst forgetting that theology is derivative of life and not vice versa (“The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” [Mk 2:27]). Yet is there not something to be said for acting our way into right thinking, even if that means risking the Lutheran anathema of works righteousness (“I think we should risk erring on the side of works righteousness for the next five hundred or so years, and God will probably forgive us” – Steinbruck[9])?

In reflecting on the Luther Place congregation’s development of a ministry of hospitality to Washington’s most vulnerable citizens, Steinbruck writes:
Acts of hospitality are done as part of one’s Christian duty and only over time do they flow from one’s Christian commitment as an all-encompassing commitment that affects a person’s total lifestyle. Yet, a schizophrenic life and witness does at times seem to divide the lives of members. Financially supporting a church that has so many social-ministry activities may pacify the consciences of some. Few would think of hosting the poor in their nicely furnished home dining space. But the very awareness of such personal contradictions demands attention that leads to growth and more fully integrated gospel-oriented lives.[10]
This witness speaks powerfully to the Christian life wherein both action and reflection play a role in one’s development, and not along some clearly definable linear timeline either, but rather in a dialectical dance where action and reflection, acts of sanctification and reflections on justification, take turns at the helm. In a baptism sermon composed in prison towards the end of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer began to articulate just such a vision of life in the church of the future:
[W]e are once again being driven back to the beginnings of our understanding. Reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Ghost, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship – all these things are so difficult and so remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them…Our earlier words are bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and doing justice (trans. corrected) among men [sic]. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.[11]

[1] Rosemary Dyson and Willmar Thorkelson, “Room at the Inn? Providing a home for those without one,” in The Lutheran 1.18 (1988), 12.

[2] These include group homes, recovery and transitional housing, youth hospice, day programs, employment services, daycare centre, emergency food and clothing centre, and free medical clinic.

[3] John Steinbruck phone interview, January 27, 2009.

[4] John Steinbruck phone interview, January 26, 2009.

[5] Martin Luther, “On the Freedom of a Christian” (from Project Wittenburg: Selected Works of Martin Luther, electronic resource. February 15, 2009:).

[6] Ibid.

[7] William Hordern, Living by Grace (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 180-181.

[8] Just check out Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchthon’s defense of Article IV on justification in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, some sixty pages of explanation!

[9] John Steinbruck phone interview, January 26, 2009.

[10] John F. Steinbruck, “The Church as Hospice,” manuscript, 1979, 9.

[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, excerpt from Letters and Papers from Prison, quoted by Larry Rasmussen in the unpublished essay, “Bonhoeffer and Worship in a World Come of Age,” 3 (presented at the International Bonhoeffer Congress, Geneva, 1976; later adapted as chapter 4 in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: His Significance for North Americans [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990]).

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Date Added: 3/11/2009 Date Revised: 3/11/2009

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