Mindful of the Risks, Up and Calling A Thing What It Is Anyway
“Mindful of the risks, we pledge ourselves to involvement in the social systems and structures, so that these become more responsive to God’s will for the world.
We will be our Lord’s advocates for the powerless, the poor, the lonely, the exploited, the deprived, the rejected.
We will resist any governmental, social, economic, or ideological force which would blunt justice or demean persons.
We will work with those who will be helpful us to respect all, care for all, and aim at freedom for all.
Thus committed, we look to Almighty God for direction.
In Jesus Christ and through the prophets, God gives us the vision of a world made new for a life of social justice and mercy, of reconciliation and peace, of promise and fulfillment.
We rely on the Spirt to give us power to do that which a faith active in love demands us.
Our hope is in God.” Mandate for Peacemaking, 1982, American Lutheran Church
Last weekend (although not by any means for the first time) I mentioned Trump and the Republican Party and GOP policies by name in some presentations I gave at a synod assembly.
The bulk of the presentations, the point of the presentations, of course, was not Trump, and was not about the Republicans or their policies.
Instead, my keynotes (linked below) were about our interconnection with one another. I based them all on the brilliant and succinct mission statement of the synod, namely that we are called to walk together, to love Christ together, and to love all together, for the sake of the world.
Because I’m a nerd, I delved a bit into some lessons that quantum physics can offer people of faith. It’s a stretch of mind, not gonna lie, to think about quantum physics, but once a person does, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see how faith and physics play in the same sandbox nicely together: both concern our mysterious relationship with all people, all creation, and all things; both defy reason; and yet both depend on it too.
But most important to me was to ground everything I said (and say, and do) less in quantum physics, and instead all in the Gospel.
As I pointed out to those gathered, I am absolutely convinced that we in the church are facing a crisis of the First Commandment: who, or what, is our God?
I’m of the mind that as Christians, our God is to be understood by way of Jesus: his life, his death which came about precisely because of his life, and his resurrection, which confirmed God’s way of being in the world, as seen in Jesus’ life and death.
The gospel, as I understand it, is that Jesus is risen from the dead.
That is the Good News, and it is news that still affects us—if we let it, of course.
So in the course of those presentations, I said (as I have in blogs, and presentations, and will in the book to come out which you can happily pre-order here [granted, this theme is a bit of a present-day passion of mine]) that if we identify as Christians (aka, Christ-ians, to make the point that we believe that Jesus was the Christ because he is risen from the dead), we identify with all with all that Jesus was about when walking about on this green earth, because the whole of his way of being in the world—feeding, healing, welcoming, serving, forgiving, and even calling-outing—were affirmed by the resurrection as revealing of God’s agenda.
It was in a name-calling-outing mode that I named Trump, and I named the present day Republican Party, and I named some of their policies.
The first question thrown my way was great: with a smile, the guy more or less said, “You know that everything you said could get you thrown out of most churches, right?”
I laughed, and then agreed, and pointed out that for better or for worse, I know something about that from somewhat mind-bending personal experience (you can read about that saga in my blog “Spent Dandelion, and Truth Mattering.”)
But, mindful of the risks, the gospel up and calls a person forth anyway—and, in fact, precisely because of the risks. If they weren’t present, of course, nothing would need to be said or done in the first place, right?
Now, it may surprise some people that I don’t, actually, have a lick of vested interest in and commitment to the Democrat Party, in and of itself.
In fact, although I admit that I’m registered as a Democrat, technically, if anything, were you to sketch out my views, I’m pretty much of the Democratic Socialist persuasion.
Also, in fact, I have a record of calling out my own people, as you see here, and here, and as I did in letters to President Obama when he let down Standing Rock during the Dakota Access Pipeline matter, when he and the Democrats snubbed single-payer health coverage (a review of his evolving ideas on the matter here), when the Obama administration initially made horrible decisions regarding immigration (a review of which you’ll find here), didn’t raise the minimum wage, didn’t close Guantanamo, didn’t enact tougher environmental taxes and regulations, didn’t close the income gap…well, you can find a bunch of the disappointments and my-ire-inducing decisions of his administration here.
The point for me is not, that is, to be an unflinching Democrat.
The point for me is to be an unflinching Christian.
What that means is gleaned from the life of Jesus.
To paraphrase a contemporary line from political activism, I’m with him.
Everything about my politics gets is grounded not in party identity, not in national identity, not in self-interest identity, but in this question: given the messiness of matters, who or what will bring about the closest approximation to Jesus’ way of being in this world in this moment?
It’s basic Lord’s Prayer, stuff, right? “Hallowed by your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…for the kingdom, the power, the glory are yours….”
But in a very under-appreciated way, part of Jesus’ way of being on this earth was spent calling people out.
Like, take a look at Matthew 23, when Jesus called out, by name, people (arguably his people).
Moreover, not because of what they were teaching, but because what they were teaching and purporting to believe wasn’t consistent with what they were doing, he up and called them snakes, hypocrites, and fools.
Yep, why yes he did. (Also, to refer back to my first question, he too pretty much got thrown out of that place, when you flip to the end of the gospels…)
In fact, the Greek word used here for fools is where we get our word, wait for it, moron.
(Also, for the record, not advocating.)
He also called out by name the ruler of his day, King Herod (the one from whom Jesus and his parents had to flee and find asylum in another land: fortunately, they, in contrast to present-day refugees here at the borders of the US, were let in) a fox, which would have been heard as a weasel, which would not have gone over any better with Herod (and his supporters) than it would Trump (and his supporters).
He also called a woman a bitch, which completely rankles me, and so I wrote a blog about it.
Jesus, in other words, Jesus himself called religious and political leaders alike out by name and just up and called them names!
Luther had a knack for doing the same thing, as it happens. In fact, I even pointed out this website where, for free, you can be insulted by Luther, 500 years later. It’s really quite impressive, the names and slurs he came up with for those he believed were against the gospel.
Now, in 1518, Luther wrote a little ditty called The Heidelberg Disputation. In it, he objected to people who believed that God was seen where there was no suffering, and where all was apparently good and merry. Instead, Luther made the case that where you see—and, in fact, only when you see—suffering, you see God. He drew up several “theses,” the 21st of which said, “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing [by name] what it actually is.”
(Also, again to refer to my first question, if you take a peek at the whole Diet of Worms escapade, thereafter he pretty much got thrown out of church, and the town too….)
Jump forward to the days of Hitler, the days when Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others whom we laud as courageous saints of the church took this sort of calling-out mandate to heart.
The Barmen Declaration (linked to here on the Lutheran Church of Germany’s website—in English) was written by Christian leaders directly to address the crisis created by the threat of Hitler and the Nazi party. It’s worth noting that Bonhoeffer felt as if the Barmen declaration did not go far enough, saying “This is the capitulation of the church to politics!“
Willing to go further, just days away from only age 27, he criticized Hitler by name on a radio show…and was, unsurprisingly, cut off.
Of course, for these sorts of naming-words—and for the fact that he participated in an assassination plot to end Hitler’s life—Bonhoeffer not only was thrown out of church and town: he was killed.
Turns out that this naming-habit, this calling-a-thing-what-it-is habit, it’s a long-standing heritage, you see: a religious, a Christian, a Lutheran, a rostered-leadery sort of heritage.
With all of that, as I see it, these days, mindful of the risks, a Christian perspective—one defined by the life of Jesus, and his death due to the threat he posed to the authorities by way of his social, political, and religious statements and actions, and by his resurrection, which frees us to no longer fear the risk of calling a thing what it is—leads a person to not really run out of things to criticize by name about this current administration, an administration which itself has a name: the Trump administration.
As but a brief summary:
- Its persistent rejection of immigrants.
- Its animosity toward refugees. This distressing, disheartening NYT article, just published, references not just my state, but my congressional district, CD8!
- Its commitment to a wall which
Mexico, USMCA, US taxpayers and military will fund.
- Its creation of hurdles for all people to access affordable health care.
- Its consistent and subtly wielded racism.
- Its bigoted views on Islam.
- Its mocking and threatening the livelihoods and security of disabled people.
- Its creation of policies that harm impoverished people.
- Trump’s incessant lying.
- A litany of sexual assault allegations against Trump, and derogatory (and recorded and broadcast for all to hear) comments made by him about women from decades back.
- Its abominable track record of curtailing, rescinding, and removing rights and safety of the GLBTQIA community.
- Its separation of children from parents, guardians, and adults, holding them in what many—including Holocaust experts—are likening to concentration camps (the youngest prisoner is now believed to be four months old), and neglecting their care.
- The felonization of humanitarian aid.
- Its rejection of science to fit its own policy and economic needs.
- Its refusal to care for creation.
- Trumps incessant bullying (despite his wife’s “Be Best” efforts) which is only creating and condoning widespread bullying.
- Its economic policies which harm the middle-class and poor.
- Its equation of Christianity with nationalism and vice versa (in fact, studies show that the highest indicator for support for Trump was just that: Christian nationalism).
- And, in this article from Slate Magazine, you can see its dismissal of stunningly long survey of Christian moral tenets (all linked) which are pooh-poohed by Trump and his white evangelical supporters.
Now, some people, compelled by their faith to object to abortion, see Trump’s views on abortion as worth the scandals above.
But on several fronts, that is a questionable pass.
Women who are forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term suffer extremely adverse health affects; suffer far more tendencies toward suicide, depression, substance abuse, and mental health issues when the pregnancy is due to rape or incest; and bring their child into a world shaped by GOP policies which are bent against poor and single mothers.
Too, if abortion is the key GOP platform plank, then clearly all life is valued, which means then that clearly the GOP ought to be in radical favor of health care for all (not least of all to attend to the health care of women who do carry a baby to term), a living wage (not least of all to attend to the financial needs of women who do carry a baby to term), equal pay for women (to attend to the financial needs of women), paid maternity and paternity leaves (to attend to the financial and mental-health needs of women and the children whom they bear, and as do, say, European countries [I know: I received them]), not to mention be for welcoming all lives who are desperate for help and safety (even the babies and grown adults seeking protection at the border were, presumably, once sought to be protected in the womb) and be against the death penalty (the mass murderer was once an unborn child).
Right-to-life must mean right to all life, and secure, healthy life at that, right?
But, alas, nope.
(It is why, even though I disagree with the Roman Catholic stance on abortion, I respect its theological consistency, for in contrast to White Evangelical Protestantism, you generally see Roman Catholic social justice policy fighting for human rights and against the death penalty.)
(Also, the ELCA has a marvelous, sensitive social statement on abortion, which you can read here.)
Now, circle back to the quote at the top of this blog. It is excerpted from a 1982 document of the old American Lutheran Church (ALC), the equivalent of our present day ELCA social statements. It is called, “Mandate for Peacemaking.”
Just the word “mandate” alone ought to catch our attention: it comes from the same word from which we get “commandment” and, not to be missed, “Maundy,” as in Maundy Thursday, as in the day when Jesus broke bread and gave wine, and not only said that we were to do that in his name, but also “Love One Another,” a commandment which did not go unnoticed by the crafters of the synod’s mission statement.
In this singular paragraph quoted above, we get the whole schmear: An acknowledgement of the risks of prophetic speech and action, a centering of the faith in advocacy for the Least of These, a call to be involved in the dismantling of systemic oppression, an affirmation of resistance, an exhortation to network with others who care about justice and compassion, a reminder of where our trust is to be located, and a naming of this way of life as a mandate.
A mandate! And not just for rostered leaders, but for all people of faith!
That said, if you look at the ELCA Visions and Expectations (a document not without its troubles, to be sure, and notorious for its Page 13), you see another series of mandates for rostered leaders in the section under “Faithful Witness:”
Christians are called by God to participate in compassionate care for those in need. This church expects its ordained ministers to follow the example of Jesus and to lead the church in compassionate care of the suffering….
Just as Jesus received sinners and ate with them, the church is called to welcome the stranger and to open its life to those who are “outside” and alienated. This church expects its ordained ministers to be models of ap- propriate hospitality in their personal lives, to preside at the Eucharistic table where God welcomes sinners and to lead the church in its witness to divine hospitality.
The culmination of God’s eschatological salvation will be the overcoming of every enmity and the reconciliation of the whole creation. Yet even in the present time, God’s peace is a reality. This church expects its ordained ministers to be witnesses to and instruments of God’s peace and reconcili- ation for the world.
The church is to witness to God’s call for justice in every aspect of life, including testimony against injustice and oppression, whether personal or systemic. This church expects its ordained ministers to be committed to justice in the life of the church, in society, and in the world. The ordained minister is expected to oppose all forms of harassment and assault.
Stewardship of the Earth
The people of God are called to the care and redemption of all that God has made. This includes the need to speak on behalf of this earth, its environ- ment and natural resources and its inhabitants. This church expects that its ordained ministers will be exemplary stewards of the earth’s resources, and that they will lead this church in the stewardship of God’s creation.
Rostered leaders agreed to this as a recognized mandate of their rostered leadership.
And, insofar as congregations call rostered leaders, congregations should expect that their rostered leaders engage actively in the above, even and perhaps most especially in the pulpit.
You see, the Gospel is not partisan.
But it is political.
“There is no such thing as a nonpolitical Christianity. To refuse to critique the system or the status quo is to fully support it—which is a political act well disguised.”
Or, what John Shelley wrote in the preface to the late German theologian Dorothee Sölle’s book Political Theology, “Thus the question of meaning—What do we mean when we speak of God?—must be supplemented by the more practical question: ‘What are the social and political consequences of speaking of God, or remaining silent in a particular situation?’”
Or, as Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
You see, I was not speaking in a partisan way, when I publicly named Trump and his administration—again, I have a long record of calling out the Democrats, not to mention voting against them and for an Independent (i.e. Bernie, who, for the record, does not get my vote this time around).
But I sure as heck was speaking in a political way…based on what I hope is a solid reading of the Gospel.
If a person says that these faith claims “don’t work in the real world,” or are fine in theory but aren’t meant to be put into practice, then I ask you: what, then, is the point of being a Christian?
Is it only to “be saved” in a post-death sort of way?
If this is one’s religious approach, then it may be worth flipping, and stat, to Matthew 25: 31-46:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
Like, what are we about, if not radical hospitality, radical inclusion, radical love?
It’s our M.O., people of God!
If a person claims to be a Christian, then one claims that everything—not just some things, not just when politically/culturally/economically/institutionally/congregationally convenient, but all-the-time-everything—is to be in accord with Jesus.
I fail to see how separating families at the borders, putting children in cages, refusing to recognize climate science and therefore global warming, lying, grabbing women’s “pussies,” refusing to aid the poor, rejecting refugees and (legal!!) asylum seekers, bullying, racism, religious bigotry, mocking the disabled, threatening GLBTQIA folk, and identifying any country—including the USA—with God any more than any other country is, is by any stretch of the imagination in keeping with Christ…let alone something that even the most ardent Trump supporters would do, were they to be face-to-face with the revealed Jesus as a child in a cage, or as a disabled journalist, or as a critter on its way to extinction, or as a person with a home flooded because of climate change.
Upshot: as I see it, based on my reading of the gospel, many of the agendas of the present administration and of the GOP do not not not line up with the agenda of God.
Draw a direct line between the gospel and separated, wailing, frightened, hungry babies; walled off nations; the mocking of people like my son; white extremism; policies that harm the poor; lack of access to health care; discrimination; sexual assault; lying; and preventable global warming, and I’ll change my mind.
Rostered leaders are compelled and emboldened by our mandates, and by the gospel, to Call A Thing What It Is.
We just are.
That’s our vocation.
It’s what we are called to do.
And it is damn risky: that old ALC document called that thing exactly what it is.
It is also prophetic.
Annnndddddd, all evidence sometimes to the contrary, it is pastoral—pastoral to those who are being excluded, for they need to hear and experience the tangible Gospel, and pastoral to those who are doing the excluding, for they need to hear and experience the tangible Gospel too.
Even though it may feel like Law.
That’s often what happens, when a Thing is Called what it is.
It feels like an insult.
But actually, actually, it’s extended, if uncomfortable, grace.
For just as this particular synod’s mission statement says, we are called to walk together, to love Christ together, and to love all together, for the sake of the world.
The three keynote presentations I offered can be found here.
A hearty thank you again for the overwhelming and generous welcome from the Northern Illinois Synod.
I was so, so glad to be with you all.
Clearly, in sitting amongst you and hearing of the way you are God’s hands in the world, you do indeed do so much for all people, in the name of Jesus, and for the sake of the world.
You can pre-order Anna’s new book I Can Do No Other: The Church’s New Here We Stand Moment here!