Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Collective Ignorance of the Church's Roots

Do we really know our history as Lutherans? I suspect not in many cases. This was brought home to me the other night at a youth meeting when I showed a video clip from the Luther movie. Before I ran the clip, which happened to be Luther before Charles V at Worms in his famous "Here I stand" speech" (1521), I tried to review the basics of Reformation history. Basic as in "Does anyone know who Martin Luther is?" While some of the answers were predictable, as in confusing the great Reformer with the U.S. civil rights leader who happened to also have his name, they were also alarming in their ignorance. They seemed to have no idea of who this man was, what history surrounded his actions, and how any of that pertains to where we are at today. To my defense, in part, some of these kids did study these things under my catechetical direction.

I realize that Americans, in general, are often ignorant of their historical roots, as evidenced more than once on late night talk show street surveys. Viewers laugh at the ignorance, yet probably know little more than those they deride with their chuckles.

We are a people who value immediate relevance over long-term effects. Pragmatism reigns as the operating philosophy of many. Yet are we paying a price for our historical ignorance? Time will tell. In the Lutheran church it has already meant a mass eroding of our liturgical treasures and a distancing from our distinct identity. Our people regularly read Evangelical literature and sing Evangelical songs and prefer it over the perceiving dryness of the corresponding Lutheran books and music. Little by little we are evolving into Baptists.

That night at the youth meeting reminded me, however, that I am responsible for this as much as anyone else. Educating the next generation about who we are and where we came from begins in the local parish. That is "ground zero" for our efforts. With so many resources now available, such as first-rate films, there is no excuse for us to wait. May Reformation 2008 be a new call for rediscovery of our rich treasures as Lutherans before we lose them in a haze of indifference.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Living in Two Kingdoms

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
October 19, 2008
Text: Matthew 22:15-21

Election season, especially in a presidential year, can get pretty nasty at times. Candidates are placed under a public microscope where their lives and words are picked apart unmercifully. But it’s not just the candidates that are the focus of extreme scrutiny at times like this. It seems that government itself is often put on trial. Much ink is spilled during election years showing everything that is wrong and broken and misguided with government. And it’s easy to set the whole system up as a kind of “enemy” that is out to get us and our money.

As Christians we may feel this tension as well. Government becomes the “necessary evil” we must endure, but certainly not support. We live in a different kingdom, a spiritual kingdom, right? After all, doesn’t the Bible tell us that our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20)? Yet, on the other hand, could it also be possible that we instead actually live in two kingdoms at the same time - the Kingdom of the World and the Kingdom of Grace- and each is blessed and supported by God?

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus answers that very question by dealing with an issue about paying taxes. Which is kind of timely, wouldn’t you admit, given all the talk about taxes this election season? It turns out that a group from the Pharisees and from the Herodians came to Jesus with the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. By “lawful” they mean does it square with God’s law, His will. In truth the question was really a ‘set up,’ and Jesus was well aware of their evil intent. They really weren’t interested in what Jesus said. All they wanted to do was discredit him. And it didn’t matter which way Jesus answered. If he said “no” He would be branded as an insurrectionist in open rebellion against Rome. If he said “yes” He would be branded by others as a traitor to His own people. The Zealots of the time even said that for one to pay the tribute tax to Rome was to give up the yoke of the reign of God.

It seemed that Jesus was, as they say, on the “horns of a dilemma” from which he would not free himself. Yet his answer ended up surprising all of them in the end, for it brilliantly avoided the “either-or” bind they were trying to force on him. And it also helps us appreciate the truth that we also are not locked into an “either-or” bind with regard to our own support of government and church.

“Show me the coin for the tax,” Jesus told them. Someone in the crowd handed him a denarius, a common silver coin. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” he asked them, no doubt holding the coin up for them to see. There was no denying that the likeness or image was the Roman Emperor. And around his head was the inscription in abbreviated form: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus” and “Father of His Country.” If you were to flip the coin over you would see the figures of two Caesars, with the words above and around them reading, again in abbreviations: “Augustus” and “Pontifex Maximus,” referring to the Emperor as the “Highest Priest” or supreme religious ruler of the country, along with other references to his station as absolute monarch with total power. For a devout Jew it was downright idolatrous, with the image of a man claiming to be a “god.” Still, they had them in their pockets and used them. Talk about hypocrites!

“Well then, give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Jesus instructed them. And then without missing a breath the second half as well: “and to God the things that are God’s.”
Did Jesus just support what was on the coin - Caesar‘s claim to divinity and all that? No. He simply acknowledged that “Caesar,” that is the government, owns the money which bears its image. The point was whether they had the right to demand money for the support of their work.
What is interesting is that those who confronted Jesus that day enjoyed much of what the Roman government did for them. They benefited from the army’s ability to maintain a lasting peace. They used the roads Rome constructed to aid their travel and help their business affairs. Truth be told, the government - even one like Rome - was helpful to them in many ways.
Which is true for us also. Say what we might about waste and mismanagement and heavy-handedness in our government, we all know that we would not want to live without the security and benefits it brings us.

And that is no accident. God has always intended that earthly government would be His servant for our greater good in this life. It is part of the gifts we confess in the First Article of the Creed where Luther reminds us that the God who created us is also the God who “provides me with all that I need to support this body and life,” and that He willingly “defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil.” And how does He do this? In part through the servants of God in the government.

Note also Luther’s concluding words. “All this He does out of His fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” The work of government, imperfect though it be, is part of God gracious love toward us.

Which is why we also owe God our prayers on behalf of this special servant. We serve God by actually praying for the government which God has given us. This is part of “rendering to God what is God’s.” As Paul told Timothy: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be make for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” The governing authorities provide a safe and secure climate in which we carry out our most important work of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Without their protection and stabilizing power that holds evil at bay, we might not be able to do what we are doing today - freely and openly telling everyone about the Savior Jesus who God sent into the world to save lost sinners for eternity. While we don’t mix these kingdoms - making one do the work of the other - even Paul realized that one can still serve the other.
Which now brings us back to our election season and how we as Christians can best serve God and Caesar. Many of you are probably experiencing a bit of election season fatigue by now with all the ads and debates and such. Maybe you are among those who say you just want to stay clear of anything that is political - including voting.

Yet voting is part of what we owe Caesar. Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto, in a recent article in the Lutheran Witness called “Priests in the Voting Booth,” writes that we are “divinely appointed sovereigns of a democracy and as such compelled to exercise [our] office by virtue of good sense.” He also states that “In these dangerous times [we] must have the courage to ask candidates to be brutally truthful about the dire state the world is in, and how they intend to deal with this, even at the risk of proposing unpopular measures. Should voters base their decision on prejudice, ideology, conjecture, ignorance, selfishness, and a sloppy desire for an easy way out, rather than informed logic and neighborly love, they neglect their priestly duties.” (Uwe Siemon-Netto, “Priests in Voting Booths,” Lutheran Witness, October 2008, page 23.)

This morning you are exercising your Christian calling as the “priesthood of God” through your prayers and praises in the Divine Service which you render on behalf of all people. But you also have a priestly duty as citizens, and you owe your services as such in both kingdoms. It is not pious to avoid your role in the worldly kingdom just because it is imperfect. You are called to serve in a sinful world. The Pharisees and Herodians had it all wrong. It has never been an “either-or” but rather a “both-and.” May God therefore bless your service as God’s priests in both of His kingdoms.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Remembering Collective Shame

I recently found this article in my email inbox from one of the 'lists' to which I currently subscribe. To find a clean copy to print here I did a Google search of the title and author and received 227 'hits.' Apparently others have found this as thought-provoking as I did. [Note: The pictures were added by me and were not part of the original article.]

By Uwe Siemon-Netto

This column requires a caveat: I am not an American citizen and therefore neither a Republican nor a Democrat. But as a German residing permanently in the United States I believe I have a duty to opine on at least one aspect of the upcoming elections - the question whether years from now Americans will have to wrestle with collective shame, just as I have had to deal with collective shame over what has happened in Germany in my childhood for my entire life.

It was West Germany's first postwar president, Theodor Heuss, who coined the phrase, "collective shame" contrasting it with the notion of collective guilt, which he rejected. No, I cannot be expected to feel guilty for crimes the Nazis committed while I was still in elementary school. But as a bearer of a German passport I have never ceased feeling ashamed because three years before I was born German voters elected leaders planning the annihilation of millions of innocent people.

I am certain that in 1933 most Germans did not find the Nazis' anti-Semitic rhetoric particularly attractive. What made them choose Hitler, then? It was the economy, stupid, and presumably injured national pride, and similar issues. This came to mind as I read the latest Faith in Life poll of issues Americans in general and white evangelicals in particular consider "very important" in this year's elections.

Guess what? For both groups, the economy ranked first, while abortion was way down the list. Among Americans in general abortion took ninth and among white evangelicals seventh place, well below gas prices and healthcare. Now, it's true that most evangelicals still believe that abortion should be illegal, which is where they differ from the general public and, astonishingly, from Roman Catholics even though their own church continues to fight valiantly against the ongoing mass destruction of unborn life. Still, 54 percent of Catholics and 60 percent of young Catholics have declared themselves "pro choice," according to the Faith in Life researchers.

What I am going to say next is going to make me many enemies, of this I am sure: Yes, there is a parallel here between what has happened in Germany in 1933 and what is happening in America now. The legalized murder of 40 million fetuses since Roe v. Wade in 1973 will one day cause collective shame of huge proportions. So what this wasn't a "holocaust?" This term should remain reserved for another horror in history. But a genocide has been happening in the last 35 years, even if no liberators have shocked the world with photographs they snapped of the victims as the Allies did in Germany in 1945. And it has the open support of politicians running for office next month.

If most Americans, and shockingly even a majority of Catholics think physicians should have the "right" to suck babies' brains out so that their skulls will collapse making it easy for these abortionists to drag their tiny bodies through the birth canal; if even most white evangelicals think that economic woes are a more important concerns (78 percent) than legalized mass murder (57 percent), then surely a moral lobotomy has been performed on this society.

I agree it would be unscholarly to claim that what is happening in America and much of the Western world every day is "another holocaust." No two historical events are exactly identical. So let's leave the word "holocaust" where it belongs - next to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Mauthausen. Still there are compelling parallels between today's genocide and the Nazi crimes, for example:

1. Man presumes do decide which lives are worthy of living and which are not. "Lebensunwertes Leben" (life unworthy of living) was a Nazi "excuse" for killing mentally handicapped children and adults, a crime that preceded the holocaust committed against the Jews. Notice that today fetuses diagnosed with Downs Syndrome are often aborted as a matter of course in America and Europe.

2. In German-occupied territories, Jews and Gypsies were gassed for no other reason than that some people considered it inconvenient to have them around. Today, unborn children are often slaughtered because it is inconvenient for their mothers to bring their pregnancies to term.

3. Murder I is legally defined as killing another human being with malice and aforethought. The Nazis killed Jewish and Gypsies with deliberation - and maliciously. But what are we to think of babies being killed deliberately simply because they would be a nuisance if they were allowed to live? No malice here? 4. Ordinary Germans of the Nazi era were rightly chastised for not having come to their Jewish neighbors' rescue when they were rounded up and sent to extermination camps. Ordinary Americans and Western Europeans might find the fad to kill babies disagreeable, but as we see from the Faith in Life poll, most have more pressing concerns.

Some future day Americans and Western Europeans will be asked why they allowed their children to be slaughtered. They would even have less of an excuse than Germans of my grandparents' and parents' generation. In Germany, you risked your life if you dared to come to the Jews' rescue. In today's democracies the worst that can happen to you is being ridiculed for being "a Christian."

As a foreigner I have no right to tell Americans whom to elect on Nov. 4. Recently, though, a friend asked me: "If you worked in an office and a colleague asked you at the voter cooler, whom he should vote for what would you tell him?" Well, I would say: "I am not here to make up your mind for you. But personally I could never give my vote to so-called pro-choice candidates."

This would doubtless lead to a heated postmodern dialogue. Perhaps the colleague is not a Christian; he might chastise me for mixing politics and religion. "If you as a Christian oppose abortion," he could say, "then by all means don't get involved in an abortion, just don't impose your religious views on the rest of us." How would I answer that? An evangelical might yank out his Bible and quote passages pertaining to this issue. But to a non-Christian the Bible is meaningless; I am not sure a political debate around the water cooler is a great venue to start individual evangelization.

My Lutheran approach would be different. I would argue natural law, the law God has written upon the hearts of all human beings, including non-believers. Unless they really have undergone a moral lobotomy they should be open to this story: Down in Wichita, Kansas, there is a physician by the name of George Tiller. On his website he boasts that he has already performed 60,000 abortions, mostly late-term, and week after week he is killing 100 more unborn babies.

Dr. Tiller does not think of these fetuses as clusters of cancerous cells. He knows they are human because he baptizes some of them before he incinerates them in his own crematorium. You don't baptize non-humans. Dr. Tiller knows that. He is a practicing Lutheran. His former congregation, Holy Cross of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, excommunicated him as an unrepentant sinner. But the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, which belongs to the ELCA, communes him.

Did I mention that he kills 100 human beings every week and has already done away with 60.000? Sixty thousand. In Nuremberg they hanged some fiends for murdering less than 60 -- zero point one percent of Tiller's toll. Perhaps this little tale will give even non-believers pause if they have not discarded their conscience, known to Christians as the law God has written upon every man's heart. One day, of this I am certain, this will indeed result in collective shame - and God knows what other horrible consequences.

---Uwe Siemon-Netto Ph.D., D.Litt. is Director for the Center for Lutheran Theology & Public Life in St. Louis, MO He writes an occasional column for VirtueOnline

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Facing Death without Christ

A recent article from the Religious News Service made me wonder: What is it like to die without the direct comfort of the resurrected and living Christ.? Pastor Forest Church of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York is dying of terminal cancer. But he is dying, it would appear, without the comfort of eternal life in Christ in which Christians find great comfort at times of death. The article notes:

"Like other Unitarian-Universalists, Church rejects many aspects of Christian doctrine. He neither blames God for his illness nor asks God for a cure.

"I don't pray for miracles," he said. "I don't pray to cure my incurable case. I rejoice and consecrate each day that I'm given as a gift.

As to the afterlife, Church said he has "no idea what happens after we die. I go with Henry David Thoreau who, when he was asked about the afterlife, said, `Madam, I prefer to take it one life at a time.'"

At the same time, Church says he has come to believe that without God there is nothing.

"God is what sustains me. I am connected with that grace and power. God is that which greater than all and present in each," he said.

"For me, Christianity is a faith about love, love to God and love to neighbor that is right at the heart of my very being," he said. "I am a Christian Universalist. I believe that the same light shines through every religious window. And it's interpreted. The windows are different. It's interpreted in different ways. It refracts in different ways."

Church calls "Love and Death" a coda to his theology, to his "lifelong belief that love and death interwoven were the heartstrings of religion."

"The greatest of all truths is that love never dies," he said. "That every act of love that we perform in this life is carried on and passed on into another life so that centuries from now the love carries. And that is the work of religion."

So that's it. The sum total is simply love. Love endures. But can you define love without Christ (1 John 4:10)? Do our singular acts of human love really amount to anything truly significant without Christ?

I agree that reconciliation before death is important. We need to tie up loose ends. So is leaving a legacy of love and concern, as opposed to bitterness, hate and resentment. Knowing we are dying allows us the opportunity to do that which we have too long put off and neglected in this life. Yet dying without a firm hope in what is to come is for me unthinkable - and empty. I suppose it has been a part of my life and faith for so long that to consider its absence is inconceivable. More so, is the thought of viewing God apart from Christ. It simply goes against the very witness of scripture itself (John 14:7-9). Mr. Church is therefore an enigma for me. There is no real comfort here. How sad....

Monday, October 6, 2008

Atheist Group Suing Over National Day of Prayer

The founding fathers certainly could not have imagined that people today would be so hypersensitive about anything religious in connection with the national government. Yet once again we hear the clarion call that something else has violated the constitutional ban on "government officials endorsing religion" and the so-called separation of church and state. This time the target is the National Day of Prayer. Note the recent AP article:

By Scott Bauer, Associated Press Writer Fri Oct 3, 9:26 PM ET
MADISON, Wis. - The nation's largest group of atheists and agnostics is suing President Bush, the governor of Wisconsin and other officials over the federal law designating a National Day of Prayer. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Friday in U.S. district court, arguing that the president's mandated proclamations calling on Americans to pray violates a constitutional ban on government officials endorsing religion. The day of prayer, held each year on the first Thursday of May, creates a "hostile environment for nonbelievers, who are made to feel as if they are political outsiders," the lawsuit said. The national proclamation issued this year asked God's blessings on our country and called for Americans to observe the day with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle is named in the suit because he is one of 50 governors who issued proclamations calling for the prayer day. The foundation is based in Madison. Shirley Dobson, chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, and White House press secretary Dana Perino also are named. The foundation has filed numerous lawsuits in recent years, including one rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court last year that attacked President Bush's faith-based initiative. The White House and Doyle spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner had no comment on the lawsuit. A message seeking comment from the task force was not returned Friday.

"Hostile environment for nonbelievers who are made to feel" like "political outsiders"? Did I hear that right? Maybe someone can explain to me what that means. How are they "outsiders"? Did someone take away their right to vote? Were they forbidden their constitutional right to free speech (obviously not)? Were they banned from participating in the work of government? Did the government say they had to pray?

The stated mission of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is "protecting the constitutional principal of separation of church and state." The First Amendment of the Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ." The phrase "separation of church and state" does not actually appear in the constitution. According to Wikipedia the phrase "is generally traced to an 1802 letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, where Jefferson spoke of the combined effect of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause."

Unfortunately some have taken the "freedom of religion," where the state cannot dictate the religious practices of its citizens, and reinterpreted it as "freedom from religion," where the state must be entirely separate from any religious service or intent. If we rule out prayer are we then catering to the religion of atheism? Although there has been a lively debate about whether atheism is indeed a religion, the government, in one instance called it such. Note this article from 2005:

Decides 1st Amendment protects prison inmate's right to start study group

Posted: August 20, 2005
1:00 am Eastern

© 2008

A federal court of appeals ruled yesterday Wisconsin prison officials violated an inmate's rights because they did not treat atheism as a religion. "Atheism is [the inmate's] religion, and the group that he wanted to start was religious in nature even though it expressly rejects a belief in a supreme being," the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said. The court decided the inmate's First Amendment rights were violated because the prison refused to allow him to create a study group for atheists. Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney for the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy, called the court's ruling "a sort of Alice in Wonderland jurisprudence." "Up is down, and atheism, the antithesis of religion, is religion," said Fahling. The Supreme Court has said a religion need not be based on a belief in the existence of a supreme being. In the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins, the court described "secular humanism" as a religion. Fahling said today's ruling was "further evidence of the incoherence of Establishment Clause jurisprudence." "It is difficult not to be somewhat jaundiced about our courts when they take clauses especially designed to protect religion from the state and turn them on their head by giving protective cover to a belief system, that, by every known definition other than the courts' is not a religion, while simultaneously declaring public expressions of true religious faith to be prohibited," Fahling said.

Well, based on the above, I suppose the only fair thing to do now is to have a "National Day of Non-prayer." But then that's about what the other 354 other days are.

Pittsburgh Diocese Leaves Episcopal Church

The Diocese of San Joaquin of Fresno, Calif. (now known as the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin) became the first to leave in 2006. Now the Pittsburgh Diocese is following suit. Bit by bit the Episcopal communion continues to fray apart at the seams. It would appear that even in this country, where diversity is praised above fidelity, a church can become so liberal that people will still leave - and take much of their church with them.

Following the vote of clergy and lay members of the theologically conservative diocese to officially break from the Episcopal church, Assistant Bishop Henry Scriven commented: "I am delighted that what we have done today is bringing the Diocese of Pittsburgh back into the mainstream of worldwide Anglicanism."

Naturally not all were pleased. The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the U.S. church, was critical of the vote saying: "There is room in this church for all who desiere to be members of it."

It would seem that what the bishop means is that the Epicopal church should be large enough to incorporate and accept a wide variety of behavior and doctrine, including the practice of homosexuality, even among its own clergy. However, many in this church body are taking the scriptures quite seriously and noticing that such behavior is clearly sinful and unacceptable in the Christian church.

After the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, Anglicanism represents the third largest Christian communion in the world today. According to the official website of the Anglican Communion the church body is comprised of over 80 million members in over 160 countries.

As a liturgically-appreciative Lutheran and self-professed anglophile, the Anglican church has long appealed to me. I am encouraged by these stands for the truth against what has been a constant erosion of faith and fidelity to the scriptures. It will be interesting to continue watching the unfolding developments in this church body as it wrestles with the strong pulls of liberalism in its ranks.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Reason vs. Faith??

It seems that there is the belief out there among some that faith is a purely subjective experience entirely divorced from reason. On "The View" the other day someone again made that claim, one I seem to be running across more frequently. To be fair, I understand how some arrive at this conclusion, especially if they have concluded that what faith is based upon is pure myth. If you do not acknowledge the premise, then the only conclusion is that faith is mere subjective opinion or wish.

However, those who have concluded this a priori have neglected to examine the objective evidence of the faith claim - i.e. historical documents that underly the claim. If a faith claim (in this case Christian) asserts that it is based on objective, historical facts that can be authenticated and examined, then the claim deserves to be heard and reasonably debated on those terms. Christianity has not divorced reason from faith, but understands that reason can be wrongly used. Typically we speak of its use as either magisterial or ministerial. If reason rises above the faith it informs, it ultimately replaces it. That is the magisterial use of reason.