As many of the readers of Let’s Talk know, in mid summer of 1999, after twenty-five years as a parish pastor I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, in order to accompany my wife Karen who was called to be Director of Theology and Studies for the Lutheran World Federation. I have not regretted my move. With no hope of being a parish pastor and seeing clearly the dangers of playing ‘ain’t it awful,’ I began a self-immersion process into New Testament studies and early Christianity and their relationship to the Roman Empire, and I also began a revisiting of my undergraduate studies in American History.
Over time I used these studies to discover if there were any essential guidelines in the early days of the Christ movement and my history as an American that might assist me in my Christian vocation. This has enabled me, from abroad in Geneva to look ‘home’ at America, to come to some understanding as to who and what I am in relation to what I believe as a Christian and a citizen of the USA, which admits to being the world’s sole superpower but insists it is not an Empire—a claim that many of the folks with whom I worship strongly disagree.
Put another way, I began to look biblically at my homeland and my faith and their shaping experiences from a wider angle. Fortunately, I had other than Americans to look with me because our congregation in Geneva has members from every continent on the planet.
Let me explain the help they gave to me: Each Sunday morning, at the Spaghetti Factory Restaurant in The Old Town of Geneva, Switzerland, folks from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Geneva gather for a Bible study of the Gospel for the week. Most of us are not Lutheran, and we all come from someplace other than Geneva and range in number from Jesus’ mandate of 2-3 to a dozen or so. On our better days we hear the voices of folks from all continents. We gather because the language of worship is English and we are sustained as a gathered community by an embracing Gospel that speaks of Jesus as the one to whom we give our allegiance.
Our voices and our experiences ‘accent’ the given text by bringing to our collective attention the diverse perspectives of and about the Bible and the faith formed through its use in and by folks from around the planet. We attempt to understand the Bible in its diversity and we welcome the challenge of that diversity and its interrogation of each of our perspectives. We view this Gospel of the Risen Jesus Christ as a story of God’s earthly ‘good news’ for a ‘rising’ people who seek courage and hope in the face of anxiety and despair . Led by a woman pastor from Brazil, we attempt to confess and ‘accent’ the faith in the Triune God in the midst of Empire. What follows will be my ‘accented’ voice as I look at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly of 2007 from abroad.
Watching the CWA took some doing. What with a seven-hour time difference, I could not view all of the Assembly live. I will concentrate my observations on the Report of the Bishop and our Journeying Faithfully Together in and around human sexuality. The latter will take me ‘out of the assembly hall’ and onto the World Wide Web where many conversations occurred during the Assembly and continue as of this writing.
I am more accustomed to hearing, indeed being with, our presiding bishop when he is abroad than when he is at home. I first heard him speak when he visited Geneva while on an ecumenical journey. He preached in our congregation in which he talked about the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ as it is mentioned in the Gospel of Mark. I was taken with his sermon and thought to myself that he is reading some of the same commentaries that, in pursuit of my own study on Faith and Empire, I was reading.
That night, at a dinner at the home of the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, I asked him if he was reading a Markan commentary, Binding the Strong Man, by Ched Meyers. “Yes,” he said and added that he hoped other pastors were reading it too. I was impressed. Meyers is a pretty ‘radical’ read because he associates Jesus with those on the margins of society and states clearly that the ‘good news,’ the Gospel in Mark, is a direct affront to the good news of Caesar(s) then and now. Perhaps, I mused, Bishop Hanson’s view of public church has its foundation in the earliest of Christian scriptures, which were essential guides authored by leaders of a Christ movement that sought to negotiate their day-to-day life with allegiance to Jesus.
In 2003 Bishop Hanson was elected president of the LWF. He has since made many trips to Geneva and I have experienced him conducting meetings of the Church Council with a ‘no nonsense’ approach. He listens well and he learns. He is the president of the LWF because its member churches know that he, as the presiding bishop of the second largest LWF church, has responsibility for the life and direction of the ELCA as a people of God within the societal life of the world’s self-proclaimed sole superpower. Put another way, the member churches of the LWF elected him, at least in part, and ‘looked to him’ to hold him and the church over which he presides accountable to the Gospel within empire.
I mention this because his presidential address to the LWF in Lund, Sweden on the 60th anniversary of the LWF has additional strains, compared to his Bishop’s Report at the CWA, that need to be reported. Bishop Hanson abroad spoke about the need for the church to join other public voices for the cessation of current and potential military conflicts. Alluding to the current situation in and around terrorism, he mentioned that all too often politics plays to the fears of citizens and becomes the bricks and mortar that lock us in prison. I heard him telling the LWF that the Gospel of the resurrected Jesus and the thorough thinking of Luther’s Theology of the Cross leads us out of that enclave of fear. For a continent that works daily to heal the ravages of the Second World War and live toward reconciliation, Bishop Hanson’s concern is well received.
Bishop Hanson at home spoke to me as a man who is constantly growing into his calling as presiding bishop. He often sounded like a ‘motivational speaker,’ and came close to saying, “I’m in charge here.” It was apparent to me that he wants to lead the ELCA and lead well. At times he was funny and at times he seemed sassy.
He is sincere. He acknowledged and charged the gathered voting members that he saw them as leaders of a ‘sent church’ and challenged them to be followers of the executed and risen Jesus. He followed that up by reminding them that that the Cross of Christ emerged from the executioners cross of a raging Roman empire that sought to and thought they had, nailed a challenger to its power. That challenge, that faith claim of our bishop, was to me, good news.
I heard the radical reading of Mark’s gospel much as I heard it in his preaching when at my home congregation in Geneva. I also heard our Bishop speak of our church becoming fluent in the language of faith, Holy Scripture so that we can tell the story of Jesus within a suffering world that is far more ignorant of Jesus and the God to whom he points than many of us think. Too, he suggested that we are now a vital part of that never-ending story and need to step forward as a Public Church knowing what we are talking about as Church in Society.
Bishop Hanson was talking about faith; he was not talking about morals. His call to be fluent in the language of faith and scripture reminded me that the church is not in the morals business. Morals are the business of the world, of nations and governments. Rather, the church is in the business of forgiveness and compassion. We, as the people of God called church, live in this world to deal with the sin that the world refuses to admit and which continues to exist and continues to fuel daily life. We might want to tell the folks whose business it is to do what is right and good, what they should do so that they could do right and avoid evil, but as we know many of the folks who are in the morals business will not listen to us any more than they listened to Jesus.
So, in telling The Story, we are reminded that we are in the business of offering, to a world that knows all about the subjects of good and evil, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice and for its unwillingness to take risks. Now this forgiveness that we have as a people called church is of course at the core of our faith and life together. It is what, on our better days, keeps us from fighting one another and joining the world when it thinks that fighting evil with evil is a good alternative to doing nothing. Forgiveness, of course, is not something the world thinks about very much. All too often the world thinks about how to obtain and abuse power.
Bishop Hanson’s urging for us to become fluent in the language of faith and Scripture was a call to think and confess the faith and not simply to recite the rhetoric of faith. Such thinking and confessing holds the ELCA, as he said at Lund, to be accountable to the cruciform gospel and to do so in spite of our hesitancy and to do so with urgency and joy. Good news!
I was eager to hear and am more eager to see how the ELCA will follow through on our relationship with our ecumenical partners. It was so good to hear them named. There is something to be learned about the proclamation of the Gospel from them and much too that we will teach as bridges are built. I applaud Bishop Hanson and this church for staying the course in this ecumenical and interfaith vision. I have received much from my personal relationship with The Episcopal Church and I am grateful for becoming familiar with the Book of Common Prayer. My Episcopal bishop has gone on record in thanking God for CCM and the gifts I as a Lutheran have brought to his ministry.
It was clear to me that Bishop Hanson desires the ELCA to be a discerning church that bases its decisions in and around sustained theological deliberation. The polling of private opinion at a CWA is not the best way to advance faith. Yet, in our current times, it is clear that much of the ‘historic glue’ that held Lutherans together (not only in the ELCA but also within the LWF) is gone.
It appears that what is necessary is a sustained discussion of Lutheran fundamentals in the midst of fundamentalism. Such discussion might be a risk. It involves listening to the other not as accusers of the other, but as folks hankering for a glimpse of how God accepts us. From abroad I hear those who in some way, shape, or form seem to rage over the loss of the order of lost times and tradition and who fear the abyss of an uncertain future, and out of this outrage threaten to separate. If so, it is ironic because it was in the abyss, both personal and societal, that Luther found the gospel. Perhaps it is this gospel which will mediate us in our all too often agitated state.
While listening to and thinking about the goings on at Navy Pier, I was also reading a book by Doris Kearns Good-win, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In the book, she talks about the struggles over free labor and slavery between the North and the South and she reminds us that William Seward and rival for the presidency once referred to this struggle as an irrepressible conflict. It had to be named. It would not go away. At the time, the use of the phrase did not include the assumption that the “irrepressible conflict” would necessarily find expression in secession or a violent Civil War. Unfortunately, it did.
I do not believe that the issue of sexuality will our irrepressible conflict. As a church we, at least on our better days, know that heated disagreements can lead to the bearing of false witness and that Luther’s call to the ‘love of neighbor’ is forgotten. From abroad, I hear too much malice and little charity. Bad news. Daily, during the CWA and after, on three email lists, I encountered all sorts of words that resembled those of a Lord of the Flies Preschool than between (mostly) brothers and sisters of faith.
One dear friend was called “secular humanist scum” by a Word Alone fellow because he would be able to support a move toward union blessings, followed by a move toward ordination of those in same-sex committed relationships for which there has been such blessings. From another camp he was called a “[expletive] Nazi homophobe” and several other choice terms for declining the offer of a rainbow stole to wear.
Caught between a rock and hard place, where does my friend, a moderate, go? In spite of what we learned in grammar school, names do harm. Still, I am convinced my friend, a moderate, will link with other moderates, to assist others to temper their words. What is needed is shrewdness in dealing with folks on the extremes. Needed too, or so it seems to me, is for our presiding bishop and the Conference of Bishops to urge strongly their pastors to temper and refrain from their harsh words about folks with whom they disagree on various email lists.
Lincoln, of course, spoke in the aftermath of the Civil War. In his second inaugural address, he said that in order for the nation to have a new sense of order it must act “with malice towards none and charity towards all.” He spoke these words with firmness and resolve. He was intent on binding up the wounds of a nation. My friend has some amount of charity embedded within him and rejects malice as part of his vocation. In that there is hope.
Goodwin suggests that these words from Lincoln are the summation of the man in his recognition of the human condition. I trust we might still learn from him. It is, I believe, the closest any president has come to suggesting that confession and repentance might become a part of the American political tradition. The most singular clue to our Christian command to love is the fact—‘the stern and easily forgotten fact’—that such love, such reconciliation is pure gift, sheer grace. It is, obviously, not our personal achievement.
Looking at the issue from abroad, my European friends wonder what the problem is; indeed, what our problem is. What is it about Lutherans in America that they spend so much time discussing The Issue when to them, it is not an issue in their lives and churches? In Geneva, the German speaking Lutheran church as it neared its 300th anniversary adopted same gender blessings unanimously. Its pastor serves as counsel to our congregation as we, a multicultural congregation, act on a request from a member of 17 years for such a blessing. It is noteworthy to point out that most of the opposition for such a blessing comes from those members whose home church was established by missionaries.
The voting members of the CWA heard from two of the members of my congregation in Geneva, Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro and Dr. Ishmael Noko. Both worship regularly, and Musimbi serves on our altar guild. Her life is dedicated to the eradication of HIV/AIDS. She knows pastors who bury parishioners daily. When Dr. Noko, LWF president, returned home he gave me copies of the material from Goodsoil. I read them and discovered that many of the pastors named and seen in photos had been classmates or colleagues, and that some had slept in my house. I grieved.
One day, as I walked down the corridor of the LWF, with my hand on Ishmael’s shoulder, he was beginning to talk about the pastors he had met who had ‘come out’ at a previous CWA. Interrupted by another, I will pick up on his comments at a later date. Both returned to Geneva in hope that given the desire to deal with theology the issue will be resolved. I do too.
Dogma and doctrine are important forms, though to make them a central form seems to me to be disastrous because they all too often become our horizons. There is, I believe. life beyond the horizons that hem us in. I trust we can sail our boat out into the deep toward the horizon.
Throughout the CWA the encouragement of one another’s faith was suggested as something the leaders at the CWA carry home and practice. Good encouragement. Let’s Talk. Let’s practice the faith.