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Speak up or shut up?

Two choices for ELCA and its social statements

The ELCA will discuss and vote on a proposed social statement about genetics at its churchwide assembly in August. The orange fruit cube (above) is a graphic artist’s three-dimensional rendition of the types of changes some expect genetic modification to bring. Stock image: 123RFThe Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has, since its inception in 1988, created 10 social statements — documents intended to help church members make informed moral decisions in areas that impact daily life. The range of topics is diverse: abortion; the church’s role in society; the death penalty; the Christian’s responsibility in the economic sphere; education; ecology and the environment; health and health care; war and peace; race and ethnicity; and sexuality.
Some of these statements have generated more controversy than others. In particular, those dealing with abortion and sexuality have been flashpoints. (The sexuality statement was approved by the 2009 Minneapolis Assembly with a margin so tight that a single vote in the other direction would have defeated it.)

Lutheran Christians are seldom of one mind, except perhaps on general doctrinal affirmations.

In its 23-year history, the nation’s largest Lutheran church body has discovered what many could have predicted in advance: developing social statements can cause division in the ranks of the faithful. There are two reasons for this. In the first place, Lutheran Christians are seldom of one mind, except perhaps on general doctrinal affirmations. (But Lutherans are really good at butting heads over the finer points of doctrine as well.)
The second bone of contention relates to something even more fundamental. Some Lutherans think social statements are important documents for the church. (It is one thing to ask a Lutheran to “love your neighbor,” but, as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.”) By contrast, some in the faith community think the interpretation of Scripture and doctrine ought to be left to individuals. These people are quite sure that social statements, approved by majorities and offered as an official position for an entire denomination, are a really bad idea.

Voting on genetics in August

That conflict has surfaced again this year. The ELCA is moving toward approval of its eleventh social statement. “Genetics, Faith and Responsibility” has gone through the several steps required by the denomination’s Church and Society unit. A high-profile task force, comprised of experts in genomic science, held “listening posts” across the country, then drafted a document. There was more input. The document was revised. The denomination’s church council approved the revision in April. The Churchwide Assembly will vote it up or down at Orlando, Florida, in August.
Throughout the process, there have been some fireworks, especially among Lutherans in the Red River Valley of the North (the common border of Minnesota and North Dakota). ELCA farmers in that geography use genetically modified seeds when planting their crops. (The altered seeds resist weeds, lowering or eliminating the need for pesticides and herbicides.)
When word of the coming genetics document began to circulate in the Lutheran farm belt, things got contentious. An ELCA farmer in rural Sheldon, North Dakota, Jill Bunn, attacked the proposed statement as “anti-farmer.” Her congregation, Anselm Trinity Lutheran Church, voted to leave the denomination, in part because of the statement. That, at least, is the way some of the secular media reported it.
The situation may be much more complex than that. The congregation was known to have been unhappy with what it considered to be “unwelcome trends” in the ELCA, even before the genetics project was launched. And, as it turns out, the salvo fired from Anselm Trinity came before anyone there had actually read the proposed document.
A two-point parish in Hayti, South Dakota, has also voted to leave the denomination. It is unclear what role the proposed document played in voters’ decision to cut ties with the ELCA, although it probably was a factor.

Image of Telomere staining of the human chromosome provided by the U.S. Department of Energy Genome Programs:

When word of the coming genetics document began to circulate in the Lutheran farm belt, things got contentious.

What’s ironic about the pushback from farmers in the Dakotas is that the impetus for this social statement originated in another rural area of the same denomination. According to the Rev. Darrel Gerrietts, assistant to the bishop in the ELCA’s Northeast Iowa Synod, the request for such a study was suggested by a lay member who works in the field of genetic research, and who is employed by Iowa State University. He told his bishop, the Rev. Steve Ullestad, that there’s too much happening, too fast, in the field of genetic research — impacting medicine, ethics, agriculture, and other areas of daily life — for the church to remain silent. The researcher was really asking for the sort of help such documents are intended to provide.
The “anti-farmer” claims originating in North Dakota ended up on a widely-read Internet blog and caught the attention of the secular media. At the end of November 2010, a columnist for the farming publication AgWeek wrote, “It’s a reach to think parishioners of Anselm Trinity Lutheran actually read the ELCA’s draft social statement on genetics. A majority of members believe [it’s] an attack on farmers. An honest reading of the draft will find no such attack.”

Social statements offer questions, not answers

The Rev. Bill Rindy, bishop of the ELCA’s Eastern North Dakota Synod, told The Fargo Forum, that the proposed document “does not dictate to farmers what they should or should not plant.” Instead, he explained, the document calls the church to take a “careful and thoughtful approach” when considering the implications of scientific research regarding human, animal and plant genetics.
The ELCA’s presiding bishop, the Rev. Mark Hanson, echoed Rindy’s comments in an interview with the popular broadcast farm journalist Orion Samuelson. According to Hanson, the proposed statement honors the vocation of farming. Noting that nearly half the denomination’s more than 10,000 congregations are in rural areas or small towns where agriculture is important, he said the genetics statement does not attempt to tell farmers how to manage their operations, nor does it criticize the use of genetically-modified organisms.
Not all farmers are hostile to the genetics study. Sarah Lovas, a member of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Hillsboro, North Dakota, farms with her husband. She read the draft and attended one of the listening posts. Although she asked for some changes (following which, she says, the ELCA listened to her concerns), she wrote, in an opinion piece in the denomination’s Lutheran magazine. “One of the proposed statement’s most powerful messages is the concept of humans as innovative stewards.” That, she said, describes the farmers she knows.
Lovas doesn’t object to social statements per se, but she doesn’t like the way the ELCA develops them. “We must make sure this is done in a way that doesn’t hinder the declaration of the gospel or the ability of our members to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves.’” She says she believes recent social statements have fallen short in this regard.
There may be no good answer to the question, “Should the church weigh in on social issues?” Opponents, perhaps fearing that political ideology will poison the results, want church leaders to leave debatable topics alone and “stick to spiritual issues.” Proponents believe the process of developing social statements is, in fact, “dealing with spiritual issues” because, sooner or later, loving one’s neighbor (and, for that matter, one’s enemies) requires making serious moral choices. They’re convinced lay Christians should not be left to make hefty decisions without good guidance.
Unlike some Christian denominations, Lutherans deliberately embrace concepts such as paradox, moral ambiguity, shades of gray and nuanced thinking. They also affirm that, in a broken world, where even Christian conscience is flawed, perfection will always be elusive.
Evidently, that also applies to questions like what to do with social statements. Should the church speak up or shut up? There are faithful voices on both sides in this debate, which is not going away any time soon.

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