Note: The following excerpts are from an article by the same name in Lutheran Forum,Vol. 29, No.4, November 1995. Used by permission.
Over the centuries since the Reformation, Lutherans have proudly laid claim to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and that of Christian vocation. Luther, they declared, was the first Reformer to strike a blow at the medieval system of religion with its two classes of Christians. With justification by faith as his wrecking-ball, Luther, they assert, reduced to dust the two-story edifice of salvation-by-merit, placing all believers on the same level before God: equally forgiven, equally free, equally empowered to serve their neighbors in the world…
The redeemed in Jesus Christ, having been called out of the world, are at one and the same time called back into it to be its salt, leaven and light. As Christ became incarnate in order to be the obedient servant of all even to his death on the cross, so Christians are called to be servants of all, bearing the cross within their bounded existence in the situations, structures, and roles where they happen to be. This means doing both the priestly work of mediating Christ’s reconciling love and the non-redemptive work of holding the world together through the offices or roles of spouse, parent, magistrate, worker, manager, as responsibly and competently as possible. The Word is to become incarnate in daily life, in the family, in the arena of work, in politics and the state, and in the church. In the economy of God, matter matters.
Lutheranism has often been alleged to have given divine sanction to a rigid social order and thereby to have acquiesced to injustice in favor of stability. Luther, like Paul, believing that the Parousia was imminent, did not hold out much hope for fundamental social change and was actually horrified by the excesses of the utopian sectarians. But Luther did not hold a particular social order to be divinely sanctioned. The “orders” were God’s loving means of preserving civil justice and peace and providing the conditions for people to live together in harmony and to insure the free course of God’s saving Word. Luther was neither a utopian nor a theocrat: he did not espouse a rigid, much less a totalitarian, state and society. Indeed, totalitarianism as the modern world knows it would have struck Luther as demonic. For him, the orders were spaces for the flourishing of the Christian’s freedom in service to all.
To Luther, the role model of Christian obedience within bounded existence through one’s office or role is the Blessed Mother of ourLord. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, in his address to the 1992 Democratic Convention, had it all wrong. In that address, Jackson sought to portray Mary as an icon of the Pro-Choice movement, declaring that the blessed Virgin had the right to choose an abortion but instead chose to carry the infant Jesus to term. For him, it was Mary’s decision that was the determinative one.
For Christian piety and theology, and certainly for Luther, it was God’s choice, not Mary’s, that was decisive. Mary is the model of humble obedience who brings Christ into the world through the faithful exercise of her office, motherhood. As Mary bore the Incarnate Word to sinners, so Christians are to incarnate God’s gracious word through their faithful exercise of their offices.
I offer the following personal story of what I believe to be the proper division of labor in the exercise of the calling that is ours in Christ.
During the Vietnam years it fell to me, as a bureaucratic official in the then Lutheran Church in America, to facilitate as best I could the sorting out of the ethical issues in relation both to U.S. policy and to the problems of conscience facing young men of draft age. As a pastor, I turned to a study of the normative sources, Scripture and the Confessions, and the writings of theologians and ethicists. For reliable descriptive information I turned in large part to trusted Christian laypersons regardless of their political preferences.
I made then the acquaintance of one of the finest Christian laymen I have ever known. He first sought me out after having read something I had produced on war and Christian conscience. He was a career official with the U.S. Department of State who would shortly be sent to Saigon where he would analyze intelligence information. A Lutheran by choice, he was a faithful member of his parish, well-read in theology, especially that of Reinhold Niebuhr.
My friend was an astute reader both of events and of human nature. He shared Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” and had a profound sense of both sin and grace. Not a utopian, he was nevertheless an idealist. His political leanings were Democratic Socialist which, given his position in government, he pretty much kept to himself.
Through the Vietnam years he supplied me with a steady stream of information in the form of personal impressions and official background papers on one or another aspect of the political and military situation. His work on North Vietnamese internal politics was fascinating.
My own passionate opposition to the war policy was tempered and nuanced by my friend’s input. I credit him with keeping me a Lutheran in more than name during that troubling time.
About a year before the war’s end my friend came home and was reassigned to the State Department unit on Anglo-American affairs. I saw him often and continued to benefit from his knowledge and wise analysis. As before, he provided a corrective to my tendency to view events through an overly simplistic, ideological lens.
During that period the Republic of Chile underwent a bloody crisis as the leftist regime of Salvador Allende was overthrown by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, an overthrow accompanied by mass killing and widespread human rights violations. Agents of Pinochet tracked down exiled officials of the former regime and killed them. One such assassination, that of a former Allende cabinet minister, took place on Washington’s Sheridan Circle.
At about the same time, the Rev. Helmut Frenz, bishop of one of the Lutheran church bodies in Chile, had come to the U.S.on a speaking tour. Frenz, an outspoken critic of the Pinochet government had experienced considerable harassment by the police. It was widely known that he was on the regime’s hit list.
One sunny afternoon, my telephone rang at LCA headquarters in New York. The voice at the other end was that of my State Department friend, but without the usual relaxed, chatty tone. “Two DINA (Chilean secret police) agents passed customs at JFK at noon today. Tell your buddies not to let Bishop Frenz out of their sight.”
That was all. Still in shock and disbelief, I called the individual charged with arranging Frenz’ itinerary and escort and passed the word. I learned later that the bishop had been well shielded throughout the duration of his trip. I continue to give thanks that my friend and I had both been at our respective stations that fateful day.
A year or so later my friend suddenly took sick and died. At the funeral I was privileged to speak some words of remembrance. I organized my thoughts about the three words that, for me, capture the essence both of the Christian’s calling in the world and of my dear friend’s life in Christ: salt, leaven, and light.