Transforming Polarization: A Distinctive Lutheran Witness in the World?


[1] When asked to write an article upon the occasion of John Stumme's impending retirement, my immediate impulse was to reflect back on our early days together in 1988 at the beginning of the ELCA, and the long conversations we had trying to discern how the ELCA should go about arriving at social statements. Everything needed to be thought through and developed, and in the midst of it all, there were always John's carefully thought through perspectives, which were very much needed. 

 [2] The church as a "community of moral deliberation" was not original with us (to our knowledge it was first used by James Gustafson) but it signaled the participatory processes by which this young church set out to arrive at social statements. It was based on the assumption that moral discernment takes place through "the plurality of transformative discourses arising out of the faith we confess." [1] and in that sense, was a kind of "postmodern" approach that was consistent with the founding vision of the ELCA -- potentially creative, even if disorderly at times for those who desire to keep things ordered and under control. It took some years for this vision to catch on, and when it did, I became aware that it also can be distorted into a way of managing differences or used as an excuse for postponing making a decision. That was not the intention in the beginning.  

 [3] At any early stage, this vision did begin to become reality in relation to the ELCA abortion statement in 1991, which over time has been seen as a distinctive Lutheran public witness amid polarizing differences raging at the time. It was while staffing that process, assisted by John, that I truly experienced the Spirit active in bringing together people whose views on this issue would have otherwise made it impossible for them to communicate with each other. This is in stark contrast to what I heard was the inability of "red" and "blue" voters in the 2004 U.S. elections to be able to communicate with each other. The media and public opinion seem to always be looking for where the churches will come down, on one side or the other, and were confounded in 1991 over how to characterize the newly-adopted position of the ELCA. They never quite got it right, because it didn't fit with their pre-conceived categories. 

 [4] I began then to realize that this may be a distinctively prophetic place for the church to stand -- going against the grain of societal polarizations and in that sense being "counter-cultural." Reports by Jim Childs and others involved in the recent sexuality study (which clearly built on the earlier moral deliberation emphasis) of what happened in hundreds of congregations where "Journey Together Faithfully" was discussed, have also been an important testimony to this: going against the usual polarizations many have come to expect when the church talks about sex.

 [5] While speaking a year ago at a consultation at Yale, I heard moving accounts from a bishop (Martin Wells) and an activist pastor who has long led struggles for change (Anita Hill) of what occurred at the 2005 Churchwide Assembly. Despite disappointment over the lack of a clear decision that pleased either "side" (in what has now been a nearly two-decade long saga!), there nevertheless seems to have been a qualitative difference. Speaking honestly in the presence of one another - face-to-face -- rather than "speaking about" those who are most affected by a decision or lack thereof, resulted in a new stage of deliberation - a transformational ecclesial reality empowered by the Spirit, rather than something that can be effectively managed or controlled. 

 [6] Is this just another Lutheran case of middle-of-the road ambivalence, or is this intrinsic in its "paradoxical vision"? Might even the paradoxical vision be in some sense prophetic (or at least counter-cultural) amid fundamentalist tendencies, whether from the right or the left? It certainly transcends the usual sound-bytes that continue to deform our common life. 

 The communio substance of this in the LWF
[7] My involvement since the late 1990s in the communio discussions and developments of the Lutheran World Federation have moved into a global expansion of this emphasis. To begin with, most of the 60-some million Lutherans (beyond those in the ELCA) seem somewhat perplexed by what moral deliberation actually means. Creating conditions for this to occur within and among churches of the LWF is a far more formable challenge in the LWF because of the diversity of cultures, assumptions, languages and customs and the huge economic, educational and other gaps.

 [8] Far more than political theory or effective group process is at the heart of what makes moral deliberation possible in a global communion of churches. What transforms the polarities afflicting our common life and witness, whether in the church or the wider society, is not the latest "know how" but a theological substance that is deeply trinitarian and ecclesial, and resists casting groups into winners or losers, conservatives or liberals.   

 [9] In 2003, when "A Communion of Churches" was officially added to the name of the LWF, the Assembly pointed to some of the implications of this change in self-understanding:

 Our mutual participation in Christ leads us to challenge all those cultural, economic and political forces that define and tend to divide us. Thus, communion can make us uncomfortable as assumptions and practices that we take for granted are challenged and we are pushed to consider questions that we would not as separate churches on our own. These tensions, which can at times be threatening, are also a sign of vitality; they can deepen the realization of what it means to be a communion. (para. 17 of the Message)

 [10] Thus, being a communion does not depend on whether we "like" one another, or what we share in terms of our histories or positions on political, social or moral issues. Although liking one another, or being in harmony with one another certainly is preferred, and coherence preferred over tension and disagreement, being a communion is not synonymous with harmony or uniformity, or finding middle-of-the-road positions that will offend no one.   Our differences are a sign of life, and are constitutive of the church as the body of Christ.

 [11] Communion is grounded in who God is. God is relational - which points to the relationships within the Trinity and with us and the rest of creation. God is love, God-with-us, suffering with creation. In trinitarian terms, this points to the whole gracious movement of God toward fellowship with creatures. Who God is is grounded in grace and love, vulnerability and death, understood in light of the resurrection and eschatological hope. As Gary Simpson pointed out at a recent LWF consultation in Africa, the triune god is "an abundant triune community; we share in the communion of this triune God - the indwelling of God in us."

 [12] Thus, communion is not what we bring about, but what God has brought about already. We are held together not by our efforts, our good will toward one another, or how moral or upstanding we are, but by God's gracious actions, by justification, and by what God promises to bring to fulfillment. The communion is the sacramental and ecclesial reality that together grounds our identity, how we view one another, and the horizon of our actions as churches.[2] The agape love that is intrinsic in communion involves reciprocity, claims and counterclaims, needs and responses. Because of this, we must take seriously the cries, the violations, the violence, the injustices that others suffer, not for the sake of being politically correct, but because of our grounding in a theology of the cross. The suffering that is often left invisible is uncovered, made concrete and visible, in ways that necessarily evoke ethical responses that cannot remain only cognitive or abstract. This necessitates working together with others (other churches, faiths, and civil society) to resist and change what violates the dignity of others

 [13] Increasingly, it is this kind of theological substance that grounds and is giving direction to ecumenical social ethics, inspired by Orthodox, Lutheran and other theological traditions, and not simplistically by "liberal Protestant social ethics." In developing the ethical responses further, different theological emphases (such as two-kingdoms) and nuances (such as simil justus et peccator) need to be brought into these ecumenical conversations, as we have sought to do, for example, in addressing the logic of neoliberal globalization.[3]   These nuances can be easily misunderstood because they don't fit into simplistic political categories, or assumed to be inherently conservative or middle-of-the-road. Here in Geneva and elsewhere, the ongoing challenge is to keep these theological perspectives at the ecumenical table where common responses for the good of all are being forged, without expecting that they will necessarily prevail. 

 [14] A Lutheran grammar is not based on abstract moral obligations, but on the concrete responsibility toward the neighbor in a given context. How this will be enfleshed is bound to vary-in response to the actual persons and their social situations. Yet the grammar itself is not without substance or content. The grammar communicates a deep and living sense of God's active favor toward us - as promise, grace, living Word, as law and gospel, etc. This dynamic presence of God is what activates us to contextualize, and thus bear witness to this living God, in the midst of the urgent ethical challenges we face. Preaching, worship and other practices of the church "form" us for this. Ethics is about how to live as God's creatures, rather than as objects of control by others, and thus the call to make the changes or create the conditions through which this can occur. 

 [15] This is where our differences begin to surface. We are formed in communion with God and others, in ways that call for faithful responses in relation to those whose lived realities are quite different from our own. We may not even be able to assume that others share our assumptions or ways of interpreting Scripture (despite the insistence that Lutherans are not fundamentalists). Yet we are held together by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in ways that enable us to talk together about our different ways of seeing or interpreting without this degenerating into shouting matches, power plays, or mere restatements of our own positions. We are pulled into each others' realities and seek more deeply to understand such. Simplistic condemnations of the positions of the other will not suffice. In looking back, I began developing many of these awarenesses in those early days of working with John Stumme in the Studies Department.

 [16] Therefore, any process of ethical discernment necessarily requires humility and care, not only to avoid giving unnecessary offense, but because how we interact with one another, especially across all the disparities that divide us, is itself part of the witness of the interactive body of Christ in the world. There may be enormous power disparities, advantages and disadvantages among us, yet we deeply yearn to be connected, as parts of the one body of Christ. Together the different parts are constitutive of the catholicity of the body. Thus, it is not a matter of some correcting others out of a sense of "one-up-man-ship" or dominating power over others, as often occurs in competitive verbal debates that are preoccupied with who will "win." Instead, the attention here is on what can be added or complemented from our respective perspectives. How contributions are offered can be as important as is the content of what is said.

 [17] In the kind of discernment suggested here, the wisdom of all is required. Discernment in a communion involves eyes, ears, mind, heart, bodies, experiences, feelings, stories, histories and more. Far more is at stake than a renewing of "minds," understood in a narrow sense. Discernment does not mean knowing for sure; that kind of confidence can lead to dangerous hubris. Active discernment necessarily occurs in community with others, which helps to keep us humble. It involves a living sense of those who are most different from us, who help to transform how we see, feel and evaluate our faith and ethical convictions. This is an aspect of what it means to be and to grow together as a communion. In a communion, the process of deliberation for the sake of discernment is more important that making statements -- not speaking, but listening, being transformed by the other and living this out through our commitments and actions, enacting communion, not just talking about it. 

 [18] And in doing so, we are pulled back again and again to the church's basic theological convictions. In the current work of the LWF Department for Theology and Studies, although the point of departure are some of the looming ethical challenges churches face, what we are especially inviting all interested to probe with us is what "confessing and living out faith in the triune God" means in relation to these challenges. 

 [19] It is not surprising that the journey I have sketched here began nearly decades ago as a colleague with John Stumme, for as so many know, he has not succumbed to being a church bureaucrat but resiliently insists on remaining a theologian in a deep Lutheran sense, who not only reflects on but lives the faith he confesses.


End Notes

[1] Karen L. Bloomquist, "The Postmodern Challenge of Moral Deliberation in the ELCA," in The Church as Communion, Heinrich Holze, ed. (LWF Documentation 42/1997), p. 396.

[2] "A Call…" in Communion, Responsibility, Accountability (LWF Documentation 50/2004), p. 117

[3] Communion, Responsibility, Accountability: Responding as a Lutheran Communion to Neoliberal Globalization, ed. Karen L. Bloomquist (LWF Documentation 50/2004). 

© November 2006
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 6, Issue 11