Pastor’s Letter for July
Dear friends in Christ,
In a week in which we celebrate a national holiday I am hearing again discussion about the role
of the church and the role of the individual Christian in relationship to the nation and patriotism.
One extreme is utter devotion to the state: the individual that confuses songs praising America
with Christianity, whose unflinching devotion to America supersedes faith in God; and the church which replaces scripture with the reading of America’s founding documents and raises a flag in front of the cross while praising all things America for the week of July 4th. Those are caricatures, but they find their way into reality from time to time.
Another extreme is ignoring the state altogether: the individual or community who disengages entirely (or as much as is possible) from anything the state offers or supports – education, public utilities, health care, etc. – to isolate from society and rely solely on God.
While I don’t think we in this community are in danger of coming close to either extreme, I wonder if we reflect often enough on the complicated ways in which we live as residents and citizens of earthly kingdoms and at the same time as residents and citizens of the kingdom of God.
Luther thought of the state as a necessary institution given that none of us lives out God’s law
and God’s love perfectly. At the same time he recognizes that an attempt to rule a country with the Gospel would be a disaster for the state and a perversion of the gospel:
“What would be the result of an attempt to rule the world by the Gospel and the abolition of earthly law and force? It would be loosing savage beasts from their chains. The wicked,
under cover of the Christian name would make unjust use of their Gospel freedom.” And… “To try to rule a country, or the world, by the Gospel would be like putting wolves, lions, eagles, and sheep all together in the fold and saying to them, ‘Now graze, and live agodly and peaceful life together. The door is open, and there is pasture enough, and no watchdog you need fear.’ The sheep would keep the peace, sure enough, but they would
not live long.”
(Quotes taken from an article in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.)
The result of this tension for Luther and for us is that we are called by faith to be active and
engaged citizens of our nation, but engaging with a deep awareness of our faith, particularly the way our faith calls us to love our neighbor. For the church today I think that means speaking up in the public sphere about issues that are central to our faith – issues that involve the dignity of all people and all creation – without affiliating with a particular party or candidate. This is support for the role the nation has in shaping public life while questioning and challenging the
nation when it fails to live up to its ideal.
For the individual, faith calls us to be active and engaged in ways that similarly support the
framework while avoiding unquestioned support and whitewashed narratives about who we are as a nation. For the individual that may include support of a particular political party and particular candidates, but never as the sole answer to the question of responsible government.
Like so much of our life of faith, we are called to keep wrestling with how we engage these
questions. Something I ponder often is whether mainline Protestantism, in its rightful prayer for peace and an end to war and in its caution about worshiping the nation itself, has as a result too often ignored the people who serve or have served in the military and in other vocations which make sacrifices for the common good. I also wrestle in an ongoing way with how we as a congregation strike the right balance of engaging the political issues of our day. Doing so is clearly part of our call to be the church together, but it can be a challenge keeping that rooted in our faith and not simply creating another venue where we speak about and influence our collective political viewpoints. These questions will never have a clear, once-and-for-all answer,but we continue to engage them day by day. And we will continue to pray together for our nation and its leaders, for peace and justice, for those who serve in various public capacities, always striving to strike a balance in our prayer between naming our honest yearnings and trusting to God the details as we pray: “Your will, O God, be done.”