Thursday, October 1, 2009

ELCA's position on same-sex marriage.

A friend, Heidi, who is a Lutheran in an ELCA church, asked me to write about the recent policy document passed by the ECLA membership on same-sex relationships. The short version: Life-long, monogamous same-sex relationships are compatible with Christian sexual ethics, but we should probably call them something other than marriages.

Of course, a lot of people are freaking out about this. Heidi asked me to address this. How can we justify this policy decision from a standpoint of Christian tradition and scriptural justification and all that good stuff?

Short answer: Well, we can't.

That's not going to make anyone very happy, least of all Heidi. But hear me out. Well, it's a really long argument, but I hope it makes sense.

ELCA stands for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The "Lutheran" church is the American name for the "Evangelische Kirche," or "evangelical church", a Christian tradition started by Martin Luther in the early 16th Century. Martin Luther was a monk who was upset about a lot of practices in the Catholic Church, but the main thing he was upset about is that the Church was strongarming people to cough up money they didn't have to purchase something called indulgences. Receiving an indulgence was a way of reducing one's time in Purgatory being cleansed of one's sins. Usually you got them by performing some impressive act of piety, but the Church was short on cash and had taken to selling them. Of course, the entire doctrine of Purgatory also got on Luther's nerves, because it seemed to him like it was a thought experiment gone awry.

Sound familiar? Of course, to a Christian, it sounds quite a bit like the situation Jesus addressed in the story of the money-changers. Here we have representatives of the church encouraging people to starve their families so they can receive something they shouldn't have to pay for. We all know what Jesus did in response to nonsense like this--he flipped all the tables upside down and started beating the money-changers.

Luther knew that using that tactic would probably get him killed, so instead he wrote a document called The Ninety-five Theses, which he published in 1517. He wanted to engage his superiors in the church and ask them certain questions about their practices, and he encouraged others to do the same.

The Church didn't take too kindly to this, and tried instead to have Luther murdered. Fortunately for Luther, the ruler of his principality (Frederick III) agreed with Luther and had already forbidden the sale of indulgences in his lands and was annoyed that his subjects were traveling to other realms to buy indulgences. Frederick and his allies shielded Luther, and the next thing you know we have the Reformation and Protestantism and bloody wars and all kinds of nonsense.

I give you this seemingly irrelevant lecture in history to get you to think of what Luther did in these terms: Luther saw something he thought was unfair, wrong, and oppressive and challenged it. He asked questions. Of course, he only asked a few questions and didn't ask others. He definitely convinced a lot of people that the Magesterium didn't have the final say on everything. He established a tradition of asking questions. This was a great development in Christianity, in fact.

Unfortuantely, Luther messed it all up. He did realize that if everything was up for grabs, the essence of Christianity might be lost. So, he established new boundaries for the asking of questions--Scripture. You could ask all the questions you wanted and could argue however you wanted, but you'd better make sure your arguments lined up with what was in Scripture, or you were out of line. In so doing, he created a new line of boundaries for people to be oppressive with. But no one noticed the danger of this in 1517, and despite the occasional bloody war sweeping all of Europe, many Protestant traditions arose in this framework.

Except, of course, that this mixed with colonialism and the technology of violence in superlatively ugly ways and led to either the annihilation or enslavement of indigenous people throughout the world. But, hey, that's OK, the Bible tells us it's OK for us to do this, so you can't ask any questions of us. But, no, you can't have this kind of sex, because the Bible tells us that such a thing is condemnable.

I mean, does anyone but me notice how absurd this is? Well, of course it's absurd. And, no, I wasn't the only one who noticed this. Lots of people throughout the Enlightenment, Modernist, and Postmodernist eras thought the whole thing was profoundly absurd. Unfortunately, their solutions were just as absurd and just as easily twisted as Scripture-locked Christianity was, so did that stop the ruin to the world caused by Christian-influenced peoples? Not in the slightest. In many ways, it made it worse.

So, what do we do now? Well, a few of us recognize there is value and beauty to Christianity, and we also don't know how to relate to any other sort of religious tradition. Yet, reactive atheism appalls us in other ways (which are irrelevant to this post, but I can go into it at a future date). So, we try to look at ways to make Christianity at least less harmful. Maybe someday we'll figure out how to make it good.

So, now, I pose this to the ELCA people who are freaking out: You call yourself Lutherans. You follow in the tradition of a man who saw the Church hurting people and spoke out on their behalf. He challenged the traditions of his day, risking everything he had--even his life--in a very real way.

Look around. Your tradition is harming people. And it's not really helping people from the harm our civilization causes them, either. Are you going to sit there like a coward in your nice little suburban church and hide behind the Bible? Or are you going to be bold, like your founder Martin Luther, and start asking questions again?

Here's some questions for you to think about:

* The Bible says a lot of harmful things. Yes, there is no doubt that they are harmful. If you disagree, then I cannot reach you no matter what I say. But those of who you nod that embarrassed nod of the typical liberal Protestant, I challenge you to ask this question: Are we going to persist in declaring it sacrosanct--something that cannot be questioned?

* Martin Luther became the father of Protestantism for standing up for people he saw being abused by the Church. But he also said some harmful things. For instance, about Jews. Let's not get too deeply into that, but all Lutherans (all Christians, actually) bear some of the shame for the Holocaust, because if it were not for the antisemitism strongly laid down by Luther, Hitler would not have so-easily convinced Germans to kill all the Jews they could find. So, in light of this, are you going to declare what Martin Luther said sacrosanct--something that cannot be questioned?

* We let women be pastors, something Scripture specifically prohibits (1 Timothy 2:12, among others). Why was it OK for us to question the Bible here and not on other issues?

* What does sexual ethics mean to someone living in 2009 that someone in 1517 (or AD 35) had no way to imagine?

* Why was Paul so adamant about sexual purity? What was his motivation?

Answer these questions honestly. Decide after you answer them whether you can even be a Christian anymore. If you decide that you can, then write your own theses. Maybe you should actually nail them to the door of your church. Convince your brothers and sisters to change doctrine to reflect the answers to these questions.

Remember, as Paul himself wrote:
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. --1 Corinthians 13:11-13 (New English Translation)

Time to set aside the childish ways and react to the issue of same-sex marriage like an adult.

And, BY THE WAY, this is not just aimed at the ELCA, but at my own denomination, the Episcopal Church USA, and the Anglican Communion, and pretty much anyone else who calls themselves a Christian.

1 comment:

Scott said...

1 Timothy 6:2, Paul describes that slaves should be treated even better than your own brothers - and it is not so much that slavery is great, but that The Bible is consistent with conforming to laws of ruling nations. If slavery is legal, then your slaves will be respected better than even your brothers shall be.

Luke 13:15-16, Jesus is described as healing and respecting a woman, and criticized the clergy for making claims against Jesus of breaking laws. Ultimately, Paul is a disciple of Jesus, and Jesus' teachings come first. One should always figure that a disciples intentions are good, and not harmful - for if you assume that Paul was being hurtful, then you are wanting it to be that way. Jesus teaches equality. Paul's words sound like they are lowering women's status in a marriage, but the question becomes whether or not lowering means lower than a man, or simply not above a man?

Keep in mind, that Paul is an example of being imperfect and severely sinful, and is seeking to be more pure - keyword, seeking. Paul, or Saul, was never perfect, and to assume every word as God's own is foolish.

ELCA and Luther: If Luther teaches us to ask questions, then this is what many are doing. The simple explanation is that ELCA protesting is simply about gay-marriage. It is not. The ELCA has repeatedly strong-armed the representative-styled voting system fo teh ELCA, and taken it upon themselves to pick and choose efforts and resolutions that fit a fairly obvious political agenda. What "we" see is a move from political independance, to the ELCA conforming to what the U.S. society wants, for PR gains. I am sure that Jesus would approve of Church heads profiting with six figure incomes regularly, and abusing their council powers over its members. The social statement in question was approved by an exact 2/3 majority. No recount was offered, for a one-vote swing could have changed the outcome. Swiftly approving the result without consideration shows the inability to make sure that integrity was upheld.

Fact is, the ELCA is trying to write doctrines while dismissing scripture. Martin Luther, as you described, wanted a scripture-based ministry. What we have here in the ELCA is going against that.