The ubiquity of religion in this campaign season is distinctly un-Lutheran.
Uwe Siemon-Netto | posted 4/02/2008 09:56AM
The campaign season has brought many news stories and analysis pieces on religion's role in the presidential election. Beyond questions of whether Democrats can win more evangelicals' votes or whose health-care plan is most just, however, are deeper questions of how God has called Christians to act in society. In the coming months before the election, Christianity Today will be publishing a wide spectrum of viewpoints on the proper role of Christianity in electoral politics. Here, Uwe Siemon-Netto offers his Lutheran perspective.
The religious aspect of the 2008 election leaves this confessional Lutheran once again mystified. First there was the kerfuffle over whether Christians could elect a Mormon to the White House, a dispute making no sense to followers of Martin Luther, who said, "The emperor need not be a Christian so long as he possesses reason." Meanwhile, the amiable Mike Huckabee mused inexplicably about an alleged need to conform the Constitution more to the Bible. Then John McCain got in hot water for accepting the endorsement of Texas pastor John Hagee, a vituperative critic of the Roman Catholic Church.
The latest uproar is over the church Sen. Barack Obama has affiliated himself with, and whether he should have fled Jeremiah Wright after the pastor offered such hideous political pronouncements as "God damn America."
All this makes a staunch Lutheran groan in desperation. Did not Christ tell Pilate: "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36)? Which of these seven words is so hard to understand?
Hearing Wright's unsettling videos (and Obama's elucidations) made me think fondly of my own congregation. I belong to Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in downtown Washington, D.C. This is an all-black parish, just like Obama's. My wife and I, along with another congregant and the organist, are the only white members. We did not join Mount Olivet to make a political statement, however; we did so simply because it was closest to our home, and because it was liturgical and faithful to Scripture and the confessional writings of the Lutheran Church. That was all we needed.
No doubt our pastor, John F. Johnson, and many congregants have experienced just as many frustrations as Wright on account of their race. But I have never heard about it from the pulpit or in committees and voters' meetings. Johnson preaches every Sunday on the prescribed readings for that day. That's the beauty of lectionaries in liturgical churches; they are meant to shield homilists from the hubris of their urge to be "original." Therefore our pastor is a much more convincing preacher than Wright. As a confessional Lutheran, he knows, as do his listeners, that personal gripes have no place in divine service. They have learned from childhood to distinguish properly between the spiritual and the secular realms, between law and gospel, between the "two kingdoms," as we Lutherans call the two realities constituting every Christian's paradoxical existence - kingdoms in which every Christian holds dual citizenship.
There is the "right-hand" kingdom that will ultimately be glorified in the kingdom of God. It is infinite, and the church is part of this realm. Here God has revealed himself in Christ. Here Christ rules by grace. Here all are equals, all forgiven sinners, all members of Christ's body. And then there is the temporal "left-hand kingdom," where God conducts a strange mummery and never reveals himself. "Through good and bad princes God governs the terrestrial world," Luther said. In a democracy, these "princes" include all of us, the voters. We make mistakes, of course, but God will ultimately correct those. This is the realm of the law and of practical reason, both under sin, yet gifts from God to operate in this world.
The kingdoms are not antagonistic toward one another. Both are God's, and their dialectic is "one of the most valuable and enduring treasures of Luther's theology," wrote German theologian Paul Althaus. It is a treasure because of the liberating message proclaimed by Luther "that society need not be run by the Church in order to be ruled by God," according to William Lazareth, the former Lutheran bishop of New York. Yet too many Protestants have a hard time grasping the breathtaking implication of this insight, which reminds me of Luther's grumble in his commentary on Psalm 101:
Constantly I must pound in and squeeze in and drive in and wedge in this difference between the two kingdoms, even though it is written and said so often that it becomes tedious. The devil never stops cooking and brewing these two kingdoms into each other. In the devil's name the secular leaders always want to be Christ's masters and teach Him how He should run His church and spiritual government. Similarly, the false clerics and schismatic spirits always want to be the masters, though not in God's name, and to teach people how to organize the secular government.
This is not to say that every Lutheran is immune to the disease we see in this year's electoral battles; all too many Lutheran pastors in Nazi Germany hailed Hitler as a redeemer. But if Lutherans stick to their theology, they are more likely than others to eschew social gospel heresies that made Christian idealists welcome the United States, the Soviet Union, Communist China, and even Pol Pot's Cambodia as precursors of the kingdom of God. Lutheran theology teaches that transforming culture is precisely not what the gospel is all about. Christ made himself small not for "the culture" but "for me." He did not die at the cross to make our society nicer or fairer; no, he suffered to redeem the believer from sin, thus giving him eternal life.
In the 1930s, Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was later martyred for his resistance against Hitler, observed during his stays in America:
One of the characteristic features of church life in Anglo-Saxon countries, and one from which Lutheranism has almost entirely freed itself, is the organized struggle of the Church against some particular worldly evil. ... It is necessary to free oneself from the way of thinking, which sets out from human problems and which asks for solutions on this basis. Such thinking is unbiblical. The way of Jesus Christ, and therefore the way of all Christian thinking, leads not from the world to God but from God to the world. This means that the essence of the Gospel does not lie in the solution of human problems, and that the solution of human problems cannot be the essential task of the Church.
Nine years from now, in 2017, Protestants will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. This is a good time to remember its theological treasures, which differ from earthly treasures in that they multiply when shared. Where the world is concerned, Lutherans have perhaps the soberest message of all Protestant traditions. Like Paul and Augustine, Lutherans know that our secular reality cannot be fixed. They know that it is finite. It will disappear. Until that happens, though, we must roll up our sleeves and manage our fallen world as well as we can, preventing chaos and lovingly serving each other - not by the gospel, which would be impossible, but by natural reason. We are free to act rationally in this world thanks to our knowledge of our redemption in the kingdom of grace. But the gospel has nothing to say about traffic rules, illegal immigration, the price of gasoline, or the deployment or withdrawal of forces to or from the Middle East. The gospel cannot really be associated with any worldly cause. The gospel will illume the Christians' good sense, we hope, and affect their personal comportment to the extent that it makes others curious about their faith. But the gospel is no instrument of secular power.
Uwe Siemon-Netto, a lifelong journalist, is director of the Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.
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