Saving Lutheranism from Ayn Rand

Or, how local congregations saved my Christmas from national Lutheran bullies

By Greg M. Johnson

First of all, let me stress that I believe there are serious theological problems in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  I have occasionally been dumbstruck by some of the “theological liberalism” coming from official publications or media of churchwide office. Here are some examples:

i) The Grace Matters radio show and podcast was billed as “the radio ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” One of their episodes took pains to attack the idea that the bible could provide a motivation for humanitarian concern for the disabled.  It was promoting the view that “the healing stories of Jesus in the bible show an anti-disability bias” and “were probably put in there by someone with an agenda to prove the divinity of Jesus.”

ii) The study guide for the Journeying Faithfully Together books published the the ELCA were meant to facilitate small-group discussions in ELCA congregations about sexual ethics.  The booklet touted Jungian spirituality as offering insights to Christians, and implied homosexual persons were more spiritually attuned than others.  ‘The psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung held that homosexually oriented people were often endowed "with a wealth of religious feelings, which help to bring the ecclesia spiritualis [church of the spirit] into reality, and a spiritual receptivity which makes them responsive to revelation." ‘

Here is how I sum up this “liberal theology”: Scripture does not reliably confess a divine Jesus; people with an agenda put that into the text. The parables of Jesus’ healing don’t show God’s compassion for us or a model of how to treat our neighbor but are instead a source of prejudice against the disabled.  Gay and lesbian persons are better spiritually because Carl Jung told us.  

Now I believe this kind of theology to represent neither all nor certainly the best of the ELCA. But if material like this got into its national media, then no wonder people wanted to reform it!  

Given these problematic examples of an approach to scripture and church tradition that is completely foreign to that of my own, I have great sympathies, if not some allegiances, with those who were trying to “reform” the ELCA and Lutheranism.  In a book published by the reform group WordAlone, By Whose Authority?, a case was made  that social justice had become the raison d'etre for this denomination. Surely, too much of any good thing -- any thing-- can be bad. But is its complete absence any better?  Or how about a bitter sarcasm for that thing-- for something that has been part of church tradition for centuries?

Around Christmas 2010, I read three pieces by “reform-minded” Lutherans which offered an approach to social justice and concern for the unfortunate that are completely foreign to my understanding of scripture, the Lutheran confessions, and church tradition.

The first was a tongue-in-cheek statement from “Bishop Barbie”.  Bishop Barbie is the nom de plume of a satirist within (ex-ELCA?) Lutheran circles who jokes about matters from a theologically or politically conservative perspective.  This person published a “Barbie who saved Christmas” story on “her” blog:

“You see, boys and girls, the true message of Christmas has nothing to do with sin, death or the power of the devil being overcome by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  The true message of Christmas is not the coming of God’s Son into the world to redeem the world from its bondage.  The true story of Christmas is a message of social justice, where you learn to care about the Bob Cratchits of the world because it is the right thing to do (with or without your exemplar, Jesus). “

My view: it is of course reprehensible that anyone within Lutheranism could have the view satirized here-- social justice minus “sin death, power of the devil overcome by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  I wouldn’t doubt that too many Lutherans do have this view.  Equally reprehensible, however,  is the view that social injustices (as the world is talking about them) have nothing to do with “sin, death, and the power of the devil”: that there were a dichotomy! The message  from “Barbie” here is that social injustices are worthy of no “air time” within a Christian’s faith walk, that the most important thing for biblically minded peopled to do about social injustices is to mock the machinations of denominations who talk about them.  Similarly, Bishop Barbie’s Facebook  status once featured a parody of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” . In the ensuing list of the parody, we see juxtaposed  the “Ten Signs of Justice”, “Four Fair Trade stoles” with  “Prayers to …[sic] ” and “Five De-i-ties!”.  The satirist is lumping concern for the oppressed with being unsure about who or what God is.  In contrast,   I actually went to two different congregations’ Christmas services this year.  One was ELCA, one was non-Lutheran evangelical. Both times I heard a bible passage mentioning justice as being part of Jesus’ mission.

During the Offering at my ELCA congregation’s Christmas Eve service, I made the mistake of checking my email on my smartphone.  There was a letter from the WordAlone organization which contained an article, “The Crisis of Christmas”, published by Pastor Jaynan Clark.  I figured it’d be fine to read more inspirational Christian material during this lull-- wouldn’t it?   Pastor Clark introduced her article by saying she took an email that was originally addressed to “liberals and conservatives”, but she had transposed the two groups to be “Those Conformed to the World” and “Those Being Transformed by Jesus and the Work of the Spirit.”  That right there ought to give one pause. I personally take pains to put “theologically” in front of the words “liberal” or “conservative” when talking about theological movements within Christianity.  Sometimes it seems that there are folks who conflate the “conservative” as used by political pundits like Sean Hannity with the “conservative” approach to scripture that say, theologians like James Nestingen might have. There’s a difference between preserving the social order (warts and all) and preserving the confession handed down to us through the centuries.  I would contrast Clark’s schismatic address with those of Pope John Paul II.  I note a tendency in his encyclicals to address them various church leaders, various Christians, and “persons of goodwill.”  JPII included the humanitarian-minded non-Christian in his addresses, and I think this was a brilliant witness. You open the door to evangelization by acknowledging that some folks are already allied with a part of the church’s mission.  Pastor Clark’s goes

To those conformed to this world:

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low-stress, non-addictive, gender-neutral celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasion and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all.

The best wishes for “Those Conformed” including a holiday that is “environmentally conscious, socially responsible”.  Again, I was dumbstruck over the idea that having environmental and social concerns goes hand in hand with being conformed to the world.  I could just as easily imagine that indifference to your neighbor’s suffering is fruit of being conformed.  After mentioning “America”, the piece offers a disclaimer:  “Not to imply that America is necessarily greater than any other country nor the only America in the Western Hemisphere.” Is this a jibe at those who aren’t sufficiently nationalistic?  The piece continues with a fairly good theology of the cross, offered of course to the conservatives / “Those Transformed by Jesus”.

It’s just two quotes from the Lutheran reformers, but I only had two quotes from the headquarters of the ELCA.  Perhaps it would be fairer to judge a movement based not only on its sarcastic moments alone but also on a scholarly exposition of its views in one of its magazines.  Later in the week I read “Focus: Feed the Hungry,” by Pastor Joseph S. Copeck, in the November/ December 2010 issue of Connections: a magazine for evangelical Lutheran Christians.  It was published by Bible Alive Ministries and the issue featured many articles by officers of the WordAlone organization and/or pastors of the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ denomination.   If it matters to anyone, I believe I received a copy in the mail because I have given money to WordAlone several times over the past decade.

I suppose it would be fruitful to start by citing the places I agree with Pastor Copeck. He says, “Our Lord commands us to feed the hungry.”  He cites many different ways to raise money and provide outlets for direct relief of the hungry.  He also stresses the need for evangelism of the poor, not to “leave out the food that feeds the soul-- the Word of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  He also talks of how Christians have to be careful in handling the potentially difficult situation this arises-- “When [receiving] faith is too connected to the food or clothing given, it can become a coercive push toward belief in Christ.”  All of these are good thoughts.

So what did I find objectionable, does anything warrant the tying of “Ayn Rand” to this flavor of Lutheranism?  He cites problems: “hunger campaigns  connected to specific political goals,” “solving the world’s problems,”  “common connection of alleviating world hunger with political solutions.”

While it would be bad for the church to reduce the struggle to alleviate hunger to mere political advocacy, it’s equally naive to think that political problems themselves don’t cause hunger.  From wars to trade rules, government policies affect hunger. These items have been on the radar scope of social justice Christians and advocacy organizations like Bread for the World. I would note that Bread for the World’s financial supporters include the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod World Relief and Human care,  Catholic Charities USA, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops-- groups that ought to have some street cred in theologically conservative circles. While we shouldn’t worry too much about whether the new Lutheran groups will give financial support to Bread for the World, per se, I do wonder what kind of witness they would have on policy problems that oppress the poor.  I would note that talking to princes has been a part of the faith tradition: Moses said to a Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”  Likewise, it’s not like our denomination isn’t named after someone who ever wrote a letters to a prince.  Luther’s “Admonition to Peace” not only warned the peasants against rabble-rousing but also told princes and lords that their own unjust treatment was directly responsible for the unrest.  Luther might be accused of “seeking political solutions”, but he was also calling those who abused the poor to repentance.  Let me say that again: he wrote to get them to turn from a sin, not just to affect some sociological benefit to the country. Luther spoke of a spiritual effect on the princes as a result of their active deeds of oppression, at least including God’s wrath. Now today, on this whole planet, are there no cases where employers or princes are abusing the poor worse than those in Luther’s day?  Is anyone, to these contemporary oppressors, preaching a “repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name?”  I do see a lot of sarcasm directed at those who make complaints of injustices, in politically conservative circles of Lutheranism.

Pastor Copeck makes a few mentions of Pope Benedict XVII.  But I don’t think that the philosophy of his piece meshes with other writings of Benedict XVII.  For example, in his Encyclical Letter, Caritas in Veritate, says

The market is subject to the principles of so-called commutative justice, which regulates the relations of giving and receiving between parties to a transaction. But the social doctrine of the Church has unceasingly highlighted the importance of distributive justice and social justice for the market economy, not only because it belongs within a broader social and political context, but also because of the wider network of relations within which it operates. In fact, if the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well. Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function. And today it is this trust which has ceased to exist, and the loss of trust is a grave loss.  [Emphases original]

Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church goes so far as to say:

1938 There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women. These are in open contradiction of the Gospel: Their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.44

In these two quotes, there is a specific call to address “the world’s problems”, to struggle against them, if not “solve” them.  My analysis of one’s responsibility to the poor, in Catholic doctrine, is that it cannot limited to handing over materials goods from one’s excess.  

I see that this quote from the Catechism has the word, “social justice” in it.  Pundit Glen Beck famously said last year that conservatives should leave congregations that have “Social justice” on their web pages. Frankly, that this kind of sentiment is popular in many political circles made me more sensitive to how Christian reform groups talk about justice. I would note that at the time of this writing, Google had 589 hits for “social justice” at the web sites of the Vatican. Should like-minded (political) conservatives leave the Catholic Church, or at least leave off quoting Catholic scholars? Indeed, I am heartened that the popes have been making annual Messages on the topics of  "World Day of Peace”, “World Day of the Sick, “World Food Day”, “World Day of Migrants and Refugees." Can’t you imagine Bishop Barbie or an article in First Things expressing sarcasm if these Messages were to come a mainline denomination bureaucrat?

I think that social justice and solving the worlds problems are part of the tradition of the church historic, it’s just often under-reported. Here’s an example. John Bunyan, known for writing Pilgrim’s Progress, also wrote “The Life and Death of Mr. Badman.”  In it, he makes reference, naturally, to a bad man, and catalogs a list of sins. Here is an extended excerpt:

Well, this Badman was a sad wretch ...

As for Example:  There is a poor body that dwells, we will suppose, so many miles from the Market; and this man wants a Bushel of Grist, a pound of Butter, or a Cheese for himself, his wife and poor children: But dwelling so far from the Market, if he goes thither, he shall lose his dayes work, which will be eight pence or ten pence dammage to him, and that is something to a poor man. So he goeth to one of his Masters or Dames for what he wanteth, and asks them to help him with such a thing: Yes, say they, you may have it; but withall they will give him a gripe, perhaps make him pay as much (or more) for it at home, as they can get when they have carryed it five miles to a Market, yea and that too for the Refuse of their Commodity. But in this the Women are especially faulty, in the sale of their Butter and Cheese, &c. Now this is a kind of Extortion, it is a making a prey of the necessity of the poor, it is a grinding of their faces, a buying and selling of them.

But above all, your  Hucksters, that buy up the poor mans Victuals by whole-sale, and sell it to him again for unreasonable gains, by retale, and as we call it, by piece meal; they are got into a way, after a stingeing rate, to play their game upon such by Extortion: I mean such who buy up Butter, Cheese, Eggs, Bacon, &c. by whole sale, and sell it again (as they call it) by penny worths, two penny worths, a half penny worth, or the like, to the poor, all the week after the market is past.

These, though I will not condemn them all, do, many of them, bite and pinch the poor by this kind of evil dealing. These destroy the poor because he is poor, and that is a grievous sin. He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches, and that giveth to the rich, shall surely come to want. Therefore he saith again, Rob not the poor because he is poor, neither oppress the afflicted in the gate; for the Lord will plead their cause, and spoil the soul of them that spoile them.

Oh that he that gripeth and grindeth the face of the poor, would take notice of these two Scriptures! Here is threatned the destruction of the Estate, yea and of the Soul too, of them that oppress the poor. Their Soul we shall better see where, and in what condition that is in, when the day of Doom is come; but for the Estates of such, they usually quickly moulter; and that sometimes all men, and sometimes no man knows how.

Bunyan here is complaining about actions that are not socially responsible, about a social injustice. He is complaining about the world’s problems. But more importantly, his motivation for the complaints of these business practices appear to be not limited to the sociological, but the spiritual. Bunyan mentions the Soul.  Bunyan in effect ties the works of “sin, death, and the devil” to legal, mutually voluntary transactions in a free marketplace. Now is there no business anywhere on earth today doing anything less compassionate than Bunyan’s contemporaries?  I’ve heard similar criticisms of WalMart.  Who will preach to them? More importantly, who is sardonically mocking those who are making any such kind of complaint in a Christian setting?  Pastor Copeck mentioned evangelizing the poor; how about the oppressors of the poor, too?

Some may say, “I have a different way of helping these people,” or “the church must not be involved in politics,” or, “the church must not endorse one piece of legislation or one political philosophy.”   These criticisms are fair enough. The controversy here, however, is not over whom to vote for, which bill in Congress is God’s will.  It’s about proclaiming law and gospel to lost souls, to unrepentant sinners.  The church ought not be a (direct) player on the political stage. It is, however, a major player on the philosophical stage, and some philosophies ask it to be quiet. I believe this plants the seeds for Antinomianism and Gospel Reductionism.

I would note that in the 2005 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, there were two votes that I believe tell a lot about the make up of the denomination.  Firstly 51% opposed a resolution that would have allowed non-celibate homosexual persons to serve as pastors. Secondly 75% voted in favor of a resolution expressing concern about Israel’s wall-building in Palestine.  I would venture to speculate about the makeup of the denomination based on these votes.  It’s fair to say that many of the arguments I read in favor of the sexuality changes involved setting aside Paul’s proscriptions, while the arguments for the Palestinians appealed to our bleeding hearts.  Based on how I interpret the motivations for the votes, in the denomination,  a full half might be “theologically liberal” on the biblical record on sexual ethics, but “social justice” on oppressed people. One quarter might be “theologically conservative” on sex, and “politically” conservative on criticizing U.S. allies.  In my opinion, these two slices of the pie are very well represented in the dominant factions that have come forth in American Lutheranism since then. I believe that there is another quarter who were theologically conservative, peace-and-justice Christians within Lutheranism  and do not have a voice now.  That is my cry.

Back to Christmas.  I had mentioned how I attended two different church’s services on Christmas.  At the evangelical congregation, there was a beautiful musical service, accompanied by everything from violin to electric guitar.  One of the hymns was, “O Holy Night.”  Given the shock earlier in the day (Pastor Clark’s letter), these words hit my soul like a freight train:

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;

And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,

Let all within us praise His holy name.

Social Justice intruding into Christmas!  Oh woe to those ignoring sin death and the power of the devil!  ;-)    But the “politics” of this hymn were prefaced with:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,

It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,

'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Maybe you can both talk about social injustices and proclaim Christ’s victory over sin.  For some of the time, for some of the people, the two might go hand in hand.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,

Let all within us praise His holy name.

Then I wondered if the hymn were somehow foreign to Lutheranism. I googled, O Holy Night + Lutheran.  It was everywhere, “even” in the hymnals of the most theologically conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The dichotomy of Bishop Barbie is a harmful myth.

What is my agenda here-- which Lutheran denominational affiliation am I supporting / attacking? So far I’ve criticized the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American and ideas coming from folks associated with Lutheran Churches in Mission for Christ, but not the new North American Lutheran Church. I don’t think there’s any one particular group that I’m supporting, but wailing at the gate over errors all around.   Does the ELCA get anything right, perhaps especially in it social justice witness?

In February, I attended a Social Ministry Committee meeting of my local ELCA congregation.  Someone had mentioned an article on human trafficking from Seeds for the Parish, and wanted to know what the committee could do about this.  It was one issue that had weighed deeply on my heart, but I really wondered what people were doing beyond prayer and the problematically vague “awareness raising” ?  So, at the meeting, I started searching the ELCA’s web sites on the topic. Then I found my nugget of gold.  There was a suggested bulletin insert on the topic. It asked the question of “Why does human trafficking happen?” and gave three reasons, each related to a class of persons.  Hopefully, very few ELCA members would fit into the first two camps-- “the Trafficked” or “the Traffickers.”  But the third camp, “the Consumers”, is something into which everyone reading this would fit.  The bulletin insert said:

The Consumers

People who place high demand on cheap goods (i.e. food, clothing) and services (i.e. housekeeping, childcare) and may unknowingly contribute to the demand for human trafficking .

Here we have the social ethic of John Bunyan’s Mr. Badman, sins cited Luther’s “Sermon on Trade and Usury” and the Explanation to the Seventh Commandment,  the lack of solidarity highlighted in Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate; we have “sinful inequalities” from the Catholic Catechism.  It’s an address of the world’s problems, it’s surely social justice, it surely is a worry about being socially responsible-- it perfectly exemplifies things the politically conservative, contemporary Lutheran “reformers” complained about.   There’s no legislative advocacy here, no call for a new political order, but it is a notion that would ruffles certain political feathers.  That shopping with double coupons at Walmart  (if they offered them) could directly, if unknowingly, lead to great human suffering.  That a mutually voluntary, non-fraudulent transaction in the free market could kill people.  Another thing you can do for victims of human trafficking is to proclaim law and gospel to the transgressors of social sins.   You yourself might not be able to solve the world’s problems, but you can have a broken and contrite spirit over your contribution to them.