If God so loved the world, shouldn’t we?
When I am asked to speak publicly, I am normally asked to talk about the public voice of the church. Professionally, I have alternated between media work and community advocacy and organizing, so I often orient my address to the biblical basis for Christian engagement of the world. And, I normally begin with my most basic and definitional story about myself.
I was born a rather large baby (nicknamed “the Bull Moose” by the nurses) in a rather small town, Bagley, Minnesota. My family lived on a farm nearer to Clearbrook. We (they actually) raised sheep. In fact, my mother, father, sister, and brother all showed state grand champion sheep at the Minnesota State Fair. (Alas, I did not.)
I was baptized about a month after my birth at Seljard Lutheran Church, a rural congregation closer to Leonard, Minnesota. (We are talking double-digit population now, folks.) My family were very active in the congregation, and I began hearing biblical stories at a young age.
In my first year, I probably got equal doses of sermons and 4-H presentations, as the regular accompanier of my folks as they led local 4-H events.
My dad was employed off the farm as well, working as an assessor for Clearwater County. My mom and siblings, and my dad when not at work, shared the chores. (Please remember, I was very young then.)
But when I was five, my dad applied for and was offered a job for the North Dakota tax department (eventually becoming the state supervisor of tax assessments). My folks were both excited and apprehensive about the move — both off the farm and to a new state.
Images from sermons I’d heard flooded my mind when I realized that my family was going from being shepherds to tax collectors.
But I wasn’t excited or apprehensive. I was terrified.
True, I was pretty young. But images from sermons I’d heard flooded my mind when I realized that my family was going from being shepherds to tax collectors. My biblical hermeneutic at that young age was sufficient to know that this was a bad trajectory.
All joking aside, I soon came to understand that my parents interest in becoming involved in public service work in North Dakota was very much linked to their theological understanding of God’s action in the world. Rooted in compassion for “the least of these,” my parents sought solutions. Their faith drove them to find effective means of living with gratitude for the grace offered them.
Their Christian piety mirrored the prairie populism so evident in North Dakota. Following in their footsteps, I often to this day say that I don’t know if I am a populist Christian or a Christian populist. Which is adjective and which noun? Or, are they so tightly linked in my experience that it really is a compound?
The new face of populism has sour look
I was thinking of this self-definition a few weeks ago while attending Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD), an ecumenical conference on advocacy training that is co-sponsored by the ELCA’s Advocacy Office in Washington, D.C., the site of the conference. In a strange twist of fate, the conference was occurring the same weekend as the national immigration march and the health care reform vote by the House of Representatives.
On Sunday afternoon, the third day of the conference, I decided to wander away from the planned sessions to sneak a peek of the immigration rally. Having lived in D.C. for a decade, I knew my way around, and decided to get off the subway at the stop closest to the Capitol and walk from there.
Well, I walked right into the middle of two opposing health care-related groups screaming at any member of Congress who was willing to walk across the street from her or his office to the Capitol. Clearly, tensions were running high.
As I walked through the crowds, the police began moving the two groups — one in favor of, one opposing health care reform — into each other and then away from each other. Eventually I saw someone I knew from my days of living in D.C., and walked toward her. A staff person for one of the D.C.-based Catholic religious communities, she was holding a “Catholics for Health Care Reform” sign.
While my friend and I talked, the groups were again shifted, and soon we were surrounded by some pretty angry people. They approached us, and started challenging whether my friend actually had any ties to a faith community, and demanding to know why we “coveted” their money. Since we were breaking a commandment, we couldn’t be Christians, they opined.
Soon more people surrounded us, and I was somewhat intimidated, with a gentleman at least six inches taller than me sticking his finger repeatedly and with vigor into my chest telling me I was not a Christian.
Eventually my friend and I were able to part the circle that surrounded us and extricate ourselves from the situation. Both a little shaken, we took some time to collect ourselves before walking toward the immigration rally.
I’ve been around long enough to know that bad behavior is not the sole purview of any particular ideology. But, from this experience and other recent ones, I am growing increasingly concerned about the level of incivility in our social order.
I have shared these concerns once before in this space. The strongest, even harshest, responses I have received for any editorial came after that one. Clearly, there is a nerve on this idea of civility.
Taking care with the way we talk
That said, I would encourage all Lutherans to take a moment to step back from a judgmental stance. Some people may be surprised that Lutherans are passionate about anything. I am not advocating that we should lose any of that passion.
I am concerned that we are allowing our passion to become an excuse to feel self-righteous about our opinions. Instead of a Christ-like spirit of servanthood, we can easily start to lord our power and opinions over our sisters and brothers. We often tell jokes and whisper stories that allow us to diminish these others.
I received an April Fools Day e-mail from a pastor I deeply respect that was very derogatory of one church body and its leadership. It seemed out of character for him, though in times of great transition, I suspect, we are all vulnerable to allowing our worst selves out.
But does it need to be that way? It seems like God’s prophets knew that different times required different messages.
When times were a little bit too comfortable for some and difficult for others, God sent an Amos to warn people that centralized wealth would ruin the community of the faithful. Owners of businesses should keep their thumbs off the scales, Amos would say.
At other times, when the community was fragmented and people were isolated, a Nehemiah would arise to rebuild the walls of the community. The social fabric can be rewoven, given the right circumstances. Nehemiah tells us that we all have our work to do.
Perhaps we can all ask what type of time this is: Should we be Amos, or should we be Nehemiah? What is our word to the church and to the world in this day?