(Lecture presented Oct. 22, 2006, at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Huntington Beach, CA, and Oct. 29m 2006, in Faith Lutheran Church, Capistrano Beach, CA)
By Uwe Siemon-Netto
What are priests? Are they men in long dresses swinging bowls of incense and murmuring mantras? Do they have a special relationship with God? Are they mediators? Are they all Catholics or Eastern Orthodox or Episcopalians, or perhaps Hindus? Do they rate as higher beings than the rest of us?
Do we Lutherans have priests?
We do and we don’t.
Yes, we do have priests, but they don’t run around in drag. They don’t have a special relationship with God. And they are not superior to the rest of us.
In fact “the rest of us” – that’s precisely what priests are. Each of us is a priest in a very special way – not at the altar or the Baptismal font. We are priests by doing what we are doing in our everyday life.
We are priests by making other people laugh. We are priests as party workers, both Republican and Democrat.
We are priests by going to the polls November 7 electing people to be priests in government or as dogcatchers.
We are priests by repairing somebody’s plumbing or piloting an airplane.
We are priests by being students. Or teachers. Or taxi drivers. Or grandparents.
We are priests by being President of the United States or soldiers in Iraq, by being nurses or doctors -- or indeed by receiving their care as patients in a hospital.
We are priests not because somebody has laid hands on our heads. No, we are priests – all of us – by doing what we are doing out of love for our neighbor.
Then we are God’s servants just like the pastor and the acolyte at the altar or the organist.
We are what the apostle Paul called Leitourgoi gar Theou – God’s liturgists, or workers.
We just serve him differently than the pastor of the choirmaster. We serve God by serving the least among us lovingly following Christ’s command.
In fact, if we do that we render the highest possible service to God. That’s what Luther said.
This is an immensely important message at a time when the common mantra is Me, Me, Me. For ours is a countercultural message. It runs: You, You, You.
You are the focus of my attention. You, the other, are the object of my Christian love. You are a little Christ to me as I am a little Christ to you.
Don’t expect this love expressed in schmaltzy tunes, though. I show my love in my everyday work with which I serve you.
In aprons or overalls, as soldiers in fatigues or lifeguards in bathing trunks, as circus clowns in the funny costumes, or as shoeshine boys in humble attire we are all members of the priesthood of all believers.
We are, as St. Peter called us in First Peter 2:9, chosen people, a kingdom of priests, God’s holy nation, his very own possession.
That’s what God has created us for. He wants us to be his cooperators, as Martin Luther said, and as Orthodox Judaism has taught for millennia.
This is core Lutheran theology.
In a sense, God created us as his co-creators, as participants in what theologians call the Creatio Continua, the ongoing process of creation.
He created and equipped us to engage his world, to explore it to the furthest corners we can reach.
Yes, astronauts, too, are priests in the secular realm. And future colonizers of the universe are also priests, if they do their work out of love for their fellow man and not just to enrich themselves.
And yet, in the eyes of God they are no better than the doorman, no better than the cancer patient in his final hours accepting lovingly the love given to them by doctors, nurses, cleaning staffs and relatives surrounding them in their final hours.
We are all equal before God. No Christian is excluded from this priesthood in what we Lutheran call the left-hand kingdom, which is also God’s realm but where he reigns in a hidden way, a realm where we live out our biological lives.
This is an immensely liberating piece of information.
This 489th anniversary of the Reformation is a perfect time for us to commemorate Luther’s rediscovery of our common priesthood.
We would not be living in a democracy today if it were not for that huge accomplishment of the Reformation.
It was Luther who established the equality of all believers. And this equality shows in two ways – in worship and in our secular lives.
In worship, Luther underscored our equality with the celebrants at the altar and in the organ loft by having the men, women and children in the pews participate in the liturgy.
In the German Mass, he substituted the Gloria Patri, the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo and so on with theologically rich chorales chanted by the entire congregation.
This is something to remember when others like Rick Warren urge us to do away with our rich traditional liturgy.
The music of Johann Sebastian Bach that gives joy to the entire world is rooted right here.
But this is a topic for another day. Today we are here to consider our equality as priests in our daily lives.
That too Luther has brought to the fore when he declared all of us equal in our service to God. To be priests, all we have to do is perform our normal chores with our neighbors at heart – and not ourselves.
This is election time. You are about to go to the polls as sovereigns in a democracy. Sovereigns are also priests, be they voters in a democracy or emperors, kings and princes in Luther’s day.
As voters, you are priests called to serve your neighbors by giving them congressmen and senators, governors and mayors.
Hence we owe our contemporary democracy to Luther. He was the one who taught Christians their equality in vocation – a move that ultimately led to the awareness of every voter’s sovereignty.
It sometimes infuriates me that this major theological insight is so often forgotten even among Lutherans. Lutherans rarely think of what we call Luther’s doctrine of vocation.
So what did we get in its place?
The Me culture in which half of all marriages break up. The Me culture that kills more than one million unborn babies every year. The Me culture with its corporate scandals.
The Me culture that seems incapable of providing affordable health care to all.
The Me culture that has elected officials indulge their filthy desires in the halls of Congress. The Me culture that declares deviant behavior sinless.
The Me culture that has so many media people serve themselves by promoting their ideologies, rather than serving their readers and viewers by given them the news fairly, comprehensively and correctly.
The Me culture that has done away with basic courtesies. The Me culture that sees no need for grandparents to participate in the upbringing of their grandchildren.
The Me culture that is not interested in faraway civilizations, their needs and their sufferings.
If you think about it you will recognize the Me society everywhere in its most superficial manifestations.
Just turn on your television sets.
- Me and My Toyota.
- Me and My Metamusil.
- Me and my Preparation H.
Ah, Yes, of course:
- Me and My Jesus.
- Me and My Faith.
Me, my, mine.
The Me is even more significant than God.
“God never asked Me if I want to bear children,” classmates of mine at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago told me.
But there also exist more subtle, indeed pious variations of the Me culture. I would call a Me piety. Its practitioners say, “As long as I am saved, I am alright, Jack.” You have run into those, haven’t you?
They have a venerable Puritan tradition going back religious standards of the Westminster Confession of 1647.
Sociologists of religion will tell you: One fountain from which the Me culture has sprung is the post-Calvinist doctrine of double predestination.
This doctrine states that most people are foreordained to eternal death.
In article 3 of the Westminster Confession’s we read: “By the decree of God… some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.”
Max Weber was right when he termed this passage a “doctrine of extreme inhumanity.” This doctrine, wrote Weber, has done away with the God of the Gospels: Gone is “the Father in Heaven of the New Testament, so human and understanding, who rejoices over the repentance of a sinner as a woman rejoices over the piece of silver she has found.”
According to Weber, this has prompted generations of American Protestants to make checking their own state of grace the top priority in their lives.
Weber wrote, “The question, Am I of the elect?, must sooner or later have arisen for every believer and have forced all other interests into the background.”
This is my point: The personal fate became the believer’s main concern, which means that the “Me” more than the “You,” not the Other to whom the Lutheran doctrine of vocation directs all Christian activity in the secular realm.
In other words, the doctrine of double predestination steers us away from the very Christ we are instructed to acknowledge in our fellow human beings.
To this we must add another Weberian insight. It was Weber who discovered the sociological phenomenon that religious doctrines become internalized for many generations, and then shape culture.
Hence even if you no longer believe in a given doctrine you will continue to behave as if you did.
And so now we have an extremely perilous potion, which can become all the more destructive as thanks to American media power it has gripped most of the developed world.
In a Lutheran setting, the effects of internalization are positive and can be easily discerned. Sociologists have long attributed the excellence of products from Lutheran countries and regions to the Lutheran doctrine of calling – Luther’s Berufslehre.
Think of Mercedes, Volvo, Saab, Volkswagen, Audi or Porsche – or of France’s most reliable car, the Peugeot.
Twenty years ago, Roland Peugeot explained the high quality of his cars with his family’s Lutheran faith. The Peugeots hail from Montbéliard, a Lutheran enclave in eastern France.
This is not to say that non-Lutheran Americans are ungenerous and uncharitable. In truth generosity is one of the Americans’ most lovable features.
Moreover, many Reformed ministers today feel that there is something wrong, cruel and self-righteous about the doctrine of double predestination.
This is where the Lutheran voice must make itself heard today. It is, I believe, our Christian duty to remind our Christian brothers and sisters from other denominations of the Biblical truth that one’s entire life must be focused on the Other; that love of the neighbor should shape our working day.
And as far as salvation is concerned, just relax, have faith, have trust, and live not just for yourself, but primarily for others.
I am therefore pleading here for a departure from one sinister aspect of American culture brought about by Puritanism.
If our secularized society is absorbed with the Self, to wit our therapeutic culture, then we must endeavor to dry up the source of this sorry state of affairs.
We must cut roots reaching back to the Westminster Confession.
Weber found that the Westminster Confession has not only resulted in the harsh, specifically American form of capitalism. According to Weber this kind of capitalism evolved from the Puritan conviction that financial success in a calling was a “sign” – though never a means – of being one of the elect.
It follows from Weber’s theory that the Anglo-Saxon adherents of Westminster have over the centuries felt the continuous urge to check their state of grace against their ability to accumulate capital.
And this has warped culture.
Lutherans who are well instructed in their faith should know this. They should find it easy to understand this idea of the priesthood of all believers.
For it is an important aspect of one of the great treasures of our faith, the two kingdoms doctrine, which proclaims a dual citizenship for each Christian’s in two kingdoms, the spiritual and the secular.
This is not an easy doctrine to defend these days Such is the religious mindset today that it does not grasp the indisputable fact that while already saved by Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection, Christians still have to live and work in an unredeemed world, which is nonetheless God’s world.
In is in this realm that we Lutherans call the Kingdom to the Left that we exercise our priesthood in aprons and overalls. Why doesn’t this penny drop in contemporary society?
There are two weighty answers to that question.
On the one hand, many Lutherans are embarrassed by this doctrine because it has been blamed wrongly for the meekness of many German Protestants in the face of the Nazi evil.
But this, too, is a story for another day.
On the other hand, inert minds stand in the way of the Lutheran doctrines of vocation and the two kingdoms.
Inert minds are the chief feature of modernity and its even more hideous daughter, postmodernity.
Inert minds lack the intellectual elegance to comprehend the contradictions on which Lutheran theology thrives.
They don’t fathom the brilliant paradox formulated in Luther’s definition of a Christian as simul iustus et peccator – at the same time justified and sinner.
And yet the great sociologist of religion Peter L. Berger describes precisely this concept as most pertinent for our time in history.
It is this concept, he says, that sustains him through the uncertainties of these troubled times.
It has never been easy for Lutherans to explain to other Protestants any of the contradictions in their theology and anthropology.
But now it has got worse, for we live in an age when thinking beyond the comma has gone out of fashion, and so we often encounter hostility.
Cut to the chase,” is the slogan of the day. Don’t trouble us with statements you have to relativize.
Express yourself in absolute terms. If you can’t do that you’d better not say anything lest you be misinterpreted.
To give you one example, in World War II, Anglican High Churchmen such as Archbishop William Temple and Dean Ralph William Inge called Luther immoral. “He urged Germans to sin boldly,” they claimed, blaming him, in a sense, for National Socialism.
This is what happens when you snip the explicatory tail off Luther’s crisp description of the way a Christian should live in this world: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe even more boldly and rejoice in Christ, who is victor over sin, death and world. We must sin as long as we are what we are. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness but we look, says Peter, for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
For the postmodern mind, this statement was two and a half sentences too long.
Some might suspect me now of leftwing leanings because I am pushing a doctrine incompatible with the Me first mentality plaguing segments of today’s corporate culture.
Before I go on, let me one thing abundantly clear. I am not promoting socialism here, although nothing in Lutheran theology excludes democratic socialists from the universal priesthood of all believers, as little as it includes supporters of capitalism.
But I am not a socialist. I am simply setting the scene here for a comparison between two types of capitalism.
It is particularly instructive to contrast the corporate culture, which has evolved from the hard Puritan merchant class, with typically Lutheran industrialists such as Robert Bosch, the founder of the most important automotive electrics – and later electronics -- conglomerate in the world.
Back in the late 19th century, Bosch was the first to introduce the 48-hour workweek in Europe. After Hitler’s rise to power, Bosch financed the German resistance, and put his overseas service stations, especially in North America, at the disposal of valiant anti-Nazis, such as Leipzig’s former mayor Carl Goerdeler, who traveled the globe trying to warn American, British and French leaders of Hitler’s intentions.
Compare this with corporate executives whose sole purpose seems to be to accumulate capital, and who squander their staff’s pension plans in the process -- or with automobile executives scheming to destroy America’s once magnificent network of passenger railroads.
I leave to you to decide which kind of capitalist is priestly and which is not. The disappearance of these railroads and of efficient public transport systems since the 1960s reveals somebody’s lack of a sense of calling.
The same goes for the failure of our media to provide us with comprehensive news of the rest of the world when some of us believe that we are in the middle of World War III. We continuously hear all around us complaints about officials, business people, craftsmen, civil servants, politicians, and journalists who are simply not doing “their jobs well.”
Well, the reason why they are doing their jobs well is that this is precisely what they are doing: their jobs. They are not living up to their vocations, which according to Luther we are called to execute to the best of our abilities out of love for our neighbor.
If you go to the core of this phenomenon, we discover that it is testimony to a dramatic development – an unwillingness to bear the cross. Yet bearing the cross is precisely what we must do in our vocations as parents and politicians, as plumbers and policemen, as scholars and students.
If you are not prepared to bear your cross you are caught up in the Me culture. But you cannot think “Me” and still claim to be a committed Lutheran, because Lutherans of all Christians should know best that the primary focus of their endeavors in the secular realm must not be the “Me” but the “You” – the Other, the neighbor.
All this does not mean that we must deprive ourselves. There is no Lutheran law – no Christian law – against earning a decent wage. We are not called to asceticism. We are not called to eschew a good glass of wine, a tasty meal, the blessings of a lovely home and an excellent car.
You can be rich and still heed your calling out of love for your neighbor, centering on the You rather than the Me. One of those was my former boss, the German newspaper magnate Axel Springer, a confessional Lutheran. He was a self-made billionaire.
He owned a villa in the best section of Hamburg, a castle in northern Germany, a manor house in Berlin, a sumptuous property on Sylt Island in the North Sea, an island in Greece, a ski lodge in St. Moritz and a town house in London. Se he was no pauper.
Still, Axel Springer bore a heavy cross. In the 1960s and 1970s he was subjected to terrorist attacks, and constant demonstrations by extreme left-wingers, not because of his ample bank account but for the unfashionable things he did for the wellbeing of his readers, his staff, and his fellow Germans, and the world community.
Then the world thought Berlin was lost, he moved his company headquarters from Hamburg right to the Berlin Wall. When all others seemed prepared to write off 17 million East Germans, he set himself up for public ridicule by campaigning relentlessly for Germany’s reunification.
When others paid no more than lip service to the reconciliation between Germans and Jews, he pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into this cause.
He donated huge amounts of money to Israel and made every one of his journalists sign a covenant promising to work for this reconciliation – and for a transatlantic partnership with the United States, a partnership the German left tried to undermine since 1968.
Axel Springer was clearly a Lutheran with a sense of calling, working out of love for his fellow man.
Earlier this year I had a fascinating encounter with the Rev. Fredric Hinz, a Lutheran pastor, scientist and high school principal in Minnesota.
He predicted: “The Lutheran doctrine of vocation will experience a great resurgence. You want to know why? Because of the Intelligent Design movement, which will not go away.”
Here is this pastor’s reasoning: The concept of I.D. posits purpose in creation against the randomness theory. If, as we Christian believe, there was purpose in creation, if indeed there is purpose in the creatio continua, the ongoing process of Creation in which we are God’s partners, then our own creation has to have had a purpose.
And this purpose cannot be eternal death. To quote John Milton, a God creating most human beings for eternal damnation “will never command my respect, though I may be sent to hell for it.”
Increasingly I hear from non-Lutheran theologians that the time has come to hear the Lutheran alternative to the Westminster doctrine. Some of these voices will be heard at a forum titled, Called to Engage the Postmodern World, on November 3 and 4.
Changing the mindset of American Christians from the ‘Me” culture to a focus on the “You” will be a tall order for Lutherans, who have so often been called sleeping giants, not least by Teddy Roosevelt almost a century ago, and by Billy Graham in the 1940s.
How do you change a culture where every television commercial sounds like a secular rendering of a Puritan testimonial? How do you change a mindset that has been cast 350 years ago? How do you refocus a self-serving society’s interest to serving the neighbor, not just as an act of charity but as a lifestyle, as a life-long ethic, as something perfectly natural?
We must return to Luther’s message, which I am not always sure it is the Lutheran message as well, for if it were, how come there are only 20 Lutherans serving in Congress?
How come our substantial university system focuses so little on the media, which shape today’s culture like no other institutions today and should therefore receive urgent attention?
How come so few of our pastors and congregational leaders seem to be encouraging young talented members to soil their hands in the dirty business of journalism and politics?
To say it bluntly, the time has come for Lutherans to awake from their slumber, that they become priests in aprons, overalls and business suits.
And should being wealthy be a Lutheran’s calling then let him put his money where Luther’s mouth was. Let him fund educational and other programs that encourages Lutherans once again to cheerfully dirty their hands in the pursuit of their priesthood in our everyday reality.