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Church historian offers concerns, hopes concerning civil society

Martin Marty is generally recognized as the pre-imminent Protestant church
historian in the United States. He has been a parish pastor, a faculty member
with an endowed chair at the University of Chicago Divinity School (where he
is still a professor emeritus), and a columnist for Christian Century magazine.
He is also a popular speaker. He was in Minnesota for Lutheran Healthcare
Bangladesh’s annual gathering in May.
Marty was interviewed at the Minnesota Church Center by Bob Hulteen.
Metro Lutheran: You’re in the Twin Cities this week at Lutheran Healthcare
Bangla-desh’s celebration. In that spirit, what’s your sense of the Lutheran
Church’s understanding of mission in today’s world? How is it affected by
current international realities?
Martin Marty: Well, my seminary roommate retired a few years ago, as I did.
He is spending his retirement years traveling to Lutheran sites around the
world. He loves to go to Africa; he recently visited South America,
He tells how in Kenya, or anywhere else where he’s been often before, they
hear he’s there on Friday, and on Sunday they’ve cleared a space in the
groves and 3,000 people will show up for a six-hour service. The more
stories like that reach us, the more we’ll get the sense that Lutheranism is
not going downhill just because it’s downhill in Saxony, or static the way it
seems to be here. Now, I don’t agree with the “static” because there is some
statistical decline, I don’t think that’s the story.
Years ago Look magazine asked 25 different people what it means to be a
member of their particular faith. G. Nelson Ruff, at that point one of our great
editors of The Lutheran, was asked “Do Lutherans believe that theirs is the
only true faith?” He answered, “Yes, they just don’t believe that they’re the
only ones that hold it.”
Some think that all motion now will come from the Third World, from many
other cultures. I think we have many gifts to send and a lot to learn, and I feel
very good about the concept of global Luther- anism. This is our mission,
this is our tie, and again in our middle-class life just to see that, and to send
your youth there, greatly enriches our experience.
ML: It’s interesting, you just ran into the Lutheran Bishop of Nigeria here and
somebody mentioned that church now has 1.7 million people. What was your
response to that?
MM: I’d read statistics that say that 20 to 40 years from now, there will be
more Lutherans in sub-Saharan Africa than we’ve had [worldwide] from 1624
until now.
And I believe Namibia has the highest percentage of Lutherans, not the
highest number, of any nation, because it was a German settlement early on.
Kenya and Tanzania certainly have tremendous numbers.
ML: Here there is an election going on this year. 2008 is going to be kind of a
unique and important year in terms of who is running. There is a fair amount
of distrust or dispute between different political philosophies. What do you
think the appropriate role of the church is in the middle of this alienation?
MM: I make a strong distinction between public church and political church.
“Public” is every place where different kinds of groups run into each other. It’s
the town hall; it’s the mall; it’s the symphony hall; it’s the art gallery; it’s the
market. Any place where the textures and colors are, there conflict has to be
Politics is a species of that genus, where one particular transaction goes on in
which the diverse interests, which inevitably have some self interests, collide.
I don’t like when all public issues are reduced to politics right away, because
it falls into the partisan.
The pulpit is not the best instrument for confronting this, because the
minister has a monopoly on the voice. These discussions should go on, but
they should go on in the parish hall, where everyone is free to speak up.
I also make a strong distinction — I didn’t invent this — between argument
and conversation. A congregation built on argument is really going to be in
I want the legislature to argue. I just visited the legislature — saw my son
[state senator John Marty] over the balcony. I want them to argue. You can’t
have justice without that.
But in a congregation, you’ve come together for different purposes.
Argument is determined by the answer. I have an answer and I must convert
you, convince you, be converted by you, or exile you. I won that argument.
Conversation is guided by the question. If I come into the gathering and say “I
think the ELCA should come out for school vouchers.” Then 51 percent will
agree because they already agree. The other 49 percent not, because they
already disagree. If I come in front of a congregation and say “Come up with
five good ideas by which we might improve public education,” all these other
things will show, but nobody ever says “I won that conversation.” You learn
from it.
Certainly the economy is a huge issue. And there are religious and theological
issues. Distribution, equality, injustice in resources — they’re huge, they’re
religious. And every line of the prophets is there. Every parable is there. But
the minute you say, “Therefore, support House Bill 302,” that, you should do
after leaving the church.
I gave a much too parochial — which for me is a good word — parish-
centered definition. I think the church also is often most effective when its
people link up in para-church organizations like Bread for the World and
World Vision.
There’s a political dimension. Bread for the World is not just saying, “Let’s
send bread,” it says, “Write your congressman!”
I’m not opposed to church resolutions, but I don’t think they’re very effective.
And I don’t think that a legislator trembles [at a denomination’s social
statement]. Who comes in and gives good moral advice is a very different
thing. So my own concept of church resolutions is explaining that we have
discussed an issue and we commend to our members to carry it out. Those
who don’t want the commendation don’t [carry it out]. I don’t think you can
say “Therefore, this is the voice of the church,” to the legislature.
ML: Lutheran colleges and service institutions seem to keep some tie or
connection to the Lutheran church. What’s unique about Lutheran institutions
that they keep that identity?
MM: It’s not just a recruiting device; it’s an ethos or energy. I can walk on a
campus of Church of the Brethren colleges — Elizabethtown, Junita,
McPherson, Manchester, La Verne — and I can tell in ten minutes that it’s a
Brethren college. I don’t care where it is. And then I read the statistics, that
only 5 to 10 percent of the students are of the tradition.
But there is an ethos that is generated and that, at its best, is propagated.
You need kind of a core of faculty that know what it’s about. But at the
institutions that I’ve been at, I’ve never made people sign the dotted line. I
used to be at the head of a center for faith and ethics, which had a very
explicit Christian mission. All we would ask is, “Are you friendly toward the
Of the Lutheran schools, I know St. Olaf best. I think you could call any board
member at 2 a.m. and they could tell you the mission statement: “We are a
college of the church, rooted in the gospel, with a global perspective.” That’s
why St. Olaf is second in the country in placing students overseas. Rooted in
the gospel doesn’t mean that everyone accepts it as their way. We said “a
college of the church” instead of “a religious college” or “a Christian college”
because it means that we feel responsible to a body of people — the church.
Augsburg is very clear about its sense of mission to the city and to Central
America. I think every trustee there would support that. All the Midwest
colleges do this. Some colleges in other places are more embarrassed about
their Lutheran identity. They are militant in feeling “more secular than thou.”
Now, this is a time when young people are not located in a church, but they
are on a quest. If you can create a climate to support that, well, that’s good. I
don’t ever expect Lutheran faculty, students, board members to be a majority
on campus. I don’t ever expect most [people] there to wake up able to recite
the Lutheran confessions. But I do believe that there can be an ethos, that
you know that certain things are done and others aren’t done. It’s a Lutheran