‘Sin boldly’: Lutherans and social justice issues

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In preparing for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation this year, I’ve hit on a number of topics and themes in this column.

I’ve tried to give some of the history of the actions and times around Martin Luther and his actions of the 1500s. I’ve tried to hit on most of the major theological innovations that came from Luther’s writings, teachings, preaching and actions. And in more recent columns, I’ve tried to hit on the implications and applications of all of that for modern times.

Given the progression of those topics over the past few weeks both in subject matter for this column and in actual news events for today, I thought it might be pertinent to address where Luther’s progeny have ended up on the very practical issues of social justice in the world today.

As frequent readers of this column might have noted, Luther himself was for the most part very progressive for his time in most of his opinions, such as the need for education for the masses and access to the very Gospel he sought to impart, a lifting up of status for the children and women of a very patriarchal society, and a harsh look at the abuse of power for those honored with the act of stewarding the safety and well-being of those under their care.

However, as I noted in my column for Aug. 26, Luther was also uneven in his advocacy to the point of disaster on at least two occasions.

Lutherans in the 21st century of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have tried to learn lessons from the past, be more consistent in issues involving justice and society and take into account the complexity of modern issues that quite frankly were not even a possibility of debate at Luther’s time.

Whenever I start to think about the subject of justice, I hearken back to the prophetic words of Richard Pryor from his “Is It Something I Said?” album wherein he warns that whenever he experienced the court system, he went looking for justice, and that’s what he found—“just us.”

Though originally intended as a comment on racial divides, it has also stood, for me, as the unevenness that is apparent between what black and white rules and laws might intend, versus the very gray, messy, jagged-edged lines of reality in real people’s lives.

Hard and fast rules about social justice issues are easy to come up with in the abstract, but much harder to apply when dealing with real people who are both, as Luther contends, Saint and Sinner at the same time. Because, you see, there is very rarely a totally good side (that Sinner part always raises its head no matter how Saintly the good try to be) nor a totally bad side (because that Saintly part is inherent in everyone that God creates, and we’re really not talking about robots here, only humans).

So when looking at issues today, modern Lutherans have to put on that Luther-Think hat and actually THINK about situations rather than simply react: all the while, recognizing that these issues fall under that category of Adiaphora that Luther talked about — things not necessary for salvation, because salvation is dependent on God’s unconditional grace.

In fact, in most social justice topics, there is equal argument that one side of the argument is correct over the other (or in reality, each option is equally fraught with sinful implications). The example I would give is the one from that same Aug. 26 column that talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s choice to either join a plot to kill Hitler (“Thou shalt not kill.”) or do nothing, in essence, allowing millions more of Jews and innocents to be killed (“Thou shalt not kill.”).

His “choice” was not “to do the right thing,” but the sinful thing that would result in best of all sinful outcomes. That’s what Luther meant when he advised to: “Sin boldly!”

No matter what we do, we do it imperfectly. Whether it is choices related to social justice or actions that seems only virtuous and noble like worship and love, all are fraught with our own selfishness of intent and therefore sin! So, Luther says, make your best choice of all the bad choices, and “sin boldly!”

The ELCA says in part the following in addressing issues of justice and society: “Our grateful response to God’s love and grace motivates us to live lives that demonstrate our responsibility for the well-being of society, communities and the environment. Addressing social concerns as a church involves many dimensions and occurs in many ways, but can be summarized as:

• Supporting the vocation of members in their daily callings and work

• Encouraging learning and moral discernment

• Developing and endorsing social teaching and policy 

• Witnessing for social justice as individual Lutheran Christians and as organized faith communities.”

The ELCA website lists way too many statements and documents to list here, but a few of the more noteworthy ones are on the topics of sexuality (that one’s sexuality is a gift from God to both be celebrated and not abused nor judged); immigration (a strong advocate for those seeking asylum and new starts and a major ministry of the denomination); abortion (not pro-life, not pro-choice, but much more a complement to the complex discernment inherent in the real-life issues); death penalty (probably the closest to a black-and-white statement against death as a punishment); education (for); suicide prevention (for); homelessness (against); terrorism (against); race, ethnicity and culture (equality for ALL); environment/clean energy (we are the stewards of this world — keep it clean, and prevent manmade destruction); and even issues such as genetics (wherein the morality keeps moving along with the goal line as the science progresses).

And there are many other topics that have evolved since the time of Luther that the Church has had to address, but some are as old as creation itself such as the equality of the sexes and the rights of women. The ELCA continues the stance of its predecessor church bodies by having women as ordained clergy since 1970 and currently having a woman as our national bishop, The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton.

But of course, that social issue was one actually addressed by Luther himself and his treatment of the nuns of his time. All of which reminds me of that salacious story of how Katie von Bora, the nun, became Mrs. Martin Luther, but you’ll have to tune in next week for that one!

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 26 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.