Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Re-cutting the seminary pie

I had a conversation with one of the recently laid off ELCA churchwide staff members. As we discussed the downsizing happening all over the church, I mentioned one of my pet peeves: the ELCA’s eight seminaries. “They just can’t do it,” this person said, referring to the need to somehow consolidate these institutions. Ultimately, we agreed, it’s going to be the rules of the marketplace that change things. Or as I put, eventually some of them just aren’t going to be able to write checks anymore.

I have been involved in different ways with several congregational mergers and consolidations. None of them were easy; some of them were a mess. After thinking they were the answer to declining memberships, synods and bishops have backed off from encouraging them. Some time ago the Alban Institute reported its findings that after merging two congregations, the size of the new congregation will not be A+B but usually only A, where A is the size of the larger congregation. In other words, in the transition you should plan on losing the equivalent of the smaller of the two congregations. My experience would affirm that.

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is famous for his adage, “All politics is local.” I think something similar could be said about religion. Local congregations get people’s loyalties. Local congregations have personalities and histories. Local congregations have egos—sometimes big ones. As a result congregations don’t die or merge with other congregations very easily or well.

Seminaries it seems are not any different. I went to the most “blended” Lutheran seminary: LSTC in Chicago. When I was a student there were still a fair number of faculty members from the predecessor schools. One way to identify them was where they ate lunch in the cafeteria. There was the Augustana table, the Maywood table, etc. Institutional memories are long and persistent.

It seems unlikely than any of the ELCA’s seminaries are going to voluntarily put themselves out of business. Yet that is what needs to happen, whether through merger or closure. The shrinking ELCA simply doesn’t need all of them and can’t support them. There needs to be fewer teachers, fewer deans, fewer support staff, fewer buildings, fewer light and heat bills.

The problem is that in the ELCA’s decentralized polity virtually all of its constituent institutions are functionally independent: congregations, camps, colleges, medical facilities, social service agencies, and seminaries. They all may have the name Lutheran in their titles, and even claim a specific connection with the ELCA, yet by-and-large they are all free to pretty much do whatever they please.

For most of these, that organizational independence is backed up by financial independence. Seminaries, however, receive significant subsidies from synods and the ELCA. They may be unwilling to consolidate but that doesn’t mean the church has to subsidize their inefficiency.

Talking about the ELCA’s latest budget cuts in his recent open letter, Bishop Hansen specifically said aid to seminary education was unaffected. Why not? If belt tightening is necessary, there’s no reason why seminaries should be exempted. If the pie has shrunk, rather than cut smaller slices why not cut fewer slices?

The seminaries’ inclination toward self-preservation is understandable but it’s time for the church they serve to provide a reality check. How about this memo: “We have eight seminaries but we are now only going to support four. Figure it out.”

Follow up: In the comments, a press release is mentioned about a recent joint meeting of the boards of three ELCA seminaries: LSTC, Trinity and Wartburg. You can read it here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

ELCA's theological fail

The repeated judgment of those upset by the ELCA’s decision to permit noncelibate gay clergy is that the church has rejected the teaching of the Bible. For Lutherans taught the principle of sola scriptura at their father’s knee this is, of course, the worst possible theological infraction. 

As I listen to the endless loop of biblical arguments and counter-arguments, I keep asking myself if the past century and more of biblical studies really happened. The conversation has such an antique feel, including the responses of those supporting the August assembly’s actions. It could have happened two or three centuries ago. It shouldn’t be happening now.

Somehow, the most important question has been missed in all of this wrangling. What does the Bible say about homosexuality? Answer: Nothing. Not a word. Why? Because the concepts of homosexuality and sexual orientation did not exist until the 19th century. Writing centuries earlier, the Bible’s authors knew nothing about them and so could say nothing about them.

In this, of course, homosexuality is like countless other scientific and academic concepts and discoveries which came into being in the modern era. For this reason the Bible has nothing to say about infectious disease, mental illness, democracy, gravity, genetics, electricity, free market capitalism, plate tectonics, relativity, climate change, cellular biology, labor unions, organic chemistry, and on and on and on.

The proponents of gay clergy have attempted to fight the battle on their opponents’ field—always a bad tactic. Well meaning scholars have taken apart the various Bible passages which seem to condemn same-sex relations, showing that they actually referred to specific situations involving abusive and exploitive relationships. Their analysis is very likely accurate—but no one cares. Supporters didn’t come to their beliefs because of such analysis and opponents are never persuaded by it. That’s not how they read the Bible and their eyes glaze over.

What has never been decided is WHAT ARE WE ARGUING ABOUT? Is this a theological and biblical issue or is it a scientific question? In the Bible, when someone begins behaving erratically or collapses on the ground in a fit it is assumed that they are possessed by an evil spirit. In the Middle Ages, when a community experienced a plague outbreak authorities looked for a moral cause: God's rejection of the king, the townspeople’s sinfulness, blasphemous acts by local Jews or gypsies, and so forth.

We know now that the analysis of these situations was wrong, not because people misread the Bible but because they lacked any understanding of mental illness or organic and infectious disease. In fact, the Bible had nothing to say to say about them. And this should have been the first question asked by the ELCA sexuality task force or any other group studying this issue: not WHAT does the Bible say about homosexuality but DOES the Bible say anything about homosexuality?

The historical critical study of the Bible was championed by 19th century European Lutherans and widely adopted by American Lutheran seminaries and colleges after World War II. It was, of course, the cause of the 1970s split in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the departure of most of the faculty of its premier seminary. Knowing this I have been stunned by some of the things I have heard coming out of the mouths of clergy opposing the new ELCA policies. Where did they go to school? What did they hear in their Bible classes? What did they learn about modern church history?

The answer is the sad story of mainline Christianity and its unwillingness to grapple with awkward and difficult theological questions about the Bible. What thousands of pastors did with their biblical training is…forget it. Confronted by the naive biblical realism and literalism of many of their (often most vocal) parishioners, they quickly learned to keep their own beliefs to themselves, preaching and teaching “around” such questions often with amazing creativity and dexterity. Others who were never completely persuaded by their professors in the first place, found it easy to revert to their own previous literalism. It has to be admitted that one of the appeals of fundamentalism is that it’s so much easier to have a Bible that is the definitive authority on what God thinks about every issue or problem.

Just as in secular universities, it’s a well-known paradox (and embarrassment) how little the various departments of most seminaries have to do with each other. As a result, it’s hardly a surprise that new pastors would have trouble creating an integrated and consistent message given how little coordination there is between the Bible, theology and homiletics faculties of most seminaries. In some cases, they’re barely on speaking terms.

It’s a common observation that the discoveries of the past two centuries of biblical scholarship have had little penetration in the average congregation. The reality, in fact, is much worse. Modern biblical scholarship has had little penetration in most clergy and most seminaries, even in mainline churches.

Instead, even the church’s theological authorities compartmentalize their minds. They “know” the fictional and mythical nature of the Bible but keep this from having any real impact on the rest of their beliefs or behaviors. What can’t be accepted or recognized is that modernity and the corresponding transformation of how we understand the Bible has also transformed the authority and mission of the church.

Mainline churches have resisted embracing the discoveries and conclusions of critical biblical and theological studies out of fear of losing disgruntled and disillusioned members to more conservative churches (current example: the Book of Faith Initiative). The ELCA’s train wreck over gay clergy, however, shows that trying to live in two different worlds has its own problems. Our bifurcated theology is serving only to pull us apart. The church today is like the cartoon character riding two horses which are about to go around opposite sides of the same tree. It’s time to pick one horse and let go of the other. Otherwise we’re just going to end up lying in the dust feeling really sore. 

Follow up: I have blogged several time before about the problem of the use of the Bible in the ELCA and the Book of Faith Initiative. The last two posts include an exchange with BOFI's director, Luther seminary professor Diane Jacobson.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The bishop tries happy talk

Where does the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) stand today? We stand together in God's grace, but we are not standing still. We proclaim Jesus Christ and are fully engaged in this mission by actively caring for the world that God loves. God's mission is serious work that calls for serious commitment. We bring all that we are -- especially our rich diversity, our shared tradition and even our disagreements -- in service of God's mission.
(“An Open Letter to ELCA Members” from Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, November 20, 2009)

The ELCA today released a letter from Bishop Mark Hanson, along with an accompanying video (its content was similar but not identical to the letter). Take a look at the opening paragraph above. Reading it reminds me of that refrigerator magnet toy which allows you to arrange words into profound poetry or nonsensical gibberish, however you feel moved. The words and grammar make sense but together the paragraph says—nothing. It imitates the kind of political and bureaucratic verbiage we see and hear all the time, only a small dose of which is necessary to put us to sleep.

Obviously the release of the letter and video is an attempt to balance the “negative energy” surrounding last week’s mass layoffs at the ELCA churchwide office, stories of withheld mission support and departing congregations, and the CORE announcement that it would be forming a new Lutheran denomination. All of that, however, is barely acknowledged in the letter itself.

As so often happens with institutions in trouble, the assumption is made that the real problem is public perception. All we have to do is manage the news cycle. We’ll drown out the bad news by shouting good news even louder. Unfortunately in the church such PR campaigns are too obvious and serve only to deplete energy rather than build it up. In this regard the video is even worse than the letter, since meaningless words are combined with the Bishop’s robotic happy talk.

I don’t know what such cheerleading is supposed to accomplish. The limited distribution of these pieces means they go primarily to people well aware of the denomination’s difficulties. For these folks many of the items of good news Hanson highlights ironically only raise more questions:
  • Why is a Florida congregation planning regional mission strategy rather than the ELCA or synod? (If they can do it, what do we need churchwide structures for?)
  • Why are we starting more ministries in poor minority communities when so many previous multicultural mission starts are struggling or closing?
  • The ELCA will “raise up leaders” by supporting its seminaries but won’t acknowledge the financial crisis of many current pastors, that it simply can’t sustain eight independent seminaries, or that it is not at all clear that the full-time pastor with an expensive graduate education is a model that will work in the future.
“Honesty is the best policy” we were told as children. It works even better with adults. The ELCA has serious problems and its membership is mature enough to handle a serious discussion of them. They don’t need to be cheered up. They just need the truth. (I think that's in the Bible somewhere.)

Follow up: blogger and religion journalist Susan Hogan has similar concerns: Bishop Hanson, ELCA need new PR

God be in my genes (Sunday Reflections for November 22, 2009)

“God be in my head” is a late-medieval poem and popular contemporary choral text. If the recent conclusions of some anthropologists and other scientists are accurate, it might be appropriate to update it with a new line, “God be in my genes.”

An article in last Sunday’s New York Times, “The Evolution of the God Gene,” highlighted the results of studies looking into the question of whether we have an inherited disposition toward religion and belief in God. NYT science reporter Nicholas Wade is the author of a new book, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures.He says in the article:

[R]esearch is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world. Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.

Such an idea is controversial for several reasons. First, it assumes that natural selection can favor traits beneficial to a group and not just an individual. Rejected for a long time (though suggested by Darwin himself), the idea has recently begun to be viewed more favorably.

In a completely different context, I recently heard a group-benefiting explanation for ADD. While ADD is a problem for individuals (especially in modern society), this theory hypothesizes that clans or tribes would benefit from having a small number of people with a hyper-awareness of the surrounding environment. That way, when everyone was sitting around the campfire telling stories, it would be good if at least one person wasn’t paying attention so he or she could hear that lion in the bush getting ready to pounce on them.

Similarly, anthropologists are recognizing how religious behavior could have been favorable for our ancestors, both pre-historic and more recent. In various ways, religion served to create group cohesion, promoting cooperation and self-sacrifice. It also gave a mystical and sacred quality to people’s primary activities, first as hunter-gatherers and later in the cycles of agricultural production. It also supported and gave structure to life’s stages: birth, adolescence, marriage, death.

Wade notes that ironically both militant atheists and ardent believers will probably be uncomfortable with the idea that religion has evolved. Many atheists don’t believe religion can be of any value and believers don’t like the idea that religion exists because it’s “useful”—they prefer to believe it exists because it’s “true.”

But Wade doesn’t think either group needs to feel threatened. Rather, he believes this could provide a place for the two sides to meet. One can accept the social value of religion and our inherited “knack” for it without having to accept the truth of any particular religion. We all have an inherited ability to acquire language, for example, but whether that’s English, French or Swahili is based on our individual circumstances. Our religious preference could work the same.

I also wonder if these studies don’t give us some clues about why contemporary religion is floundering, especially in modern Western societies. For centuries and generations, religion served as a “glue” that bound people together in communities and gave their collective lives meaning and structure. This was experienced primarily through ritual activities and shared stories.

In modern times, however, religion has become more about theological ideas and doctrines believed by each person individually. We champion freedom of religion so that you can have your beliefs and I can have mine. Our beliefs, we say, are our private business. Following the Reformation, people with similar beliefs banded together in churches and denominations. Yet the glue of those beliefs is just what seems to be failing. Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic—how many know or care anymore what sets each of them apart?

We know that previous religious activities included things like feasts, stories ritually re-enacted, and dancing. Today we see that many of these have been transformed into secular events. Crowd behavior at rock concerts and football games has a lot of similarity with ancient religious rituals and festivals.

We will soon gather for Thanksgiving, a curious blend of both secular and religious tradition in which everyone can participate regardless of religious affiliation or beliefs. Christmas, on the other hand, is in a bit of a tug-of-war. Some want to be like Thanksgiving: a holiday for all. Others want to “put Christ back in Christmas” and limit it to believing Christians. I’m not sure Macy’s would be very happy with that—or Santa, or Bob Cratchit.

Religion based on doctrines and on what people think doesn’t seem to be doing very well. It just isn’t very—useful. Clearly, though, we aren’t reverting back to the times of hunter-gatherers or primitive agriculture. Returning to ancient religious forms wouldn’t work either.

But what if it is true that religion meets a deep-seated need for us, both individually and socially? Our hyper-individualism often leaves us isolated and anxious. Yet neither are we satisfied by the meaningless groupings of employment, government bureaucracy, or marketing demographics. How could religion genuinely connect us with our neighbor and give us a collective sense of purpose and meaning? I don’t have an answer to that but it does seem like it might be the right direction to look.

The world’s religions all agree that God is both immanent and transcendent—God is somehow both “here” and “everywhere” at the same time. Perhaps a new way to understand that is to recognize that God is, indeed, in our genes. In which case, finding a religious form for experiencing God appropriate to our time may well be right in front of us after all.

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"The ELCA has left us"? Not exactly (continued)

Congregations now pulling out of the ELCA or threatening to do so are, of course, blaming their disgruntlement over the approval of gay clergy at the churchwide assembly this past August. Yet, the church newsletter quote from Pastor Terry Breum is evidence that this is only part of the story.

Breum cites a long list of biblical, theological, ethical and even political issues about which he finds LCMC much more compatible with his views (and he assumes those of his congregation) than he does the ELCA. From this statement, acceptance of homosexuality is just one, and not necessarily the most important, issue over which Breum feels the need to find a new denominational home. This continues a theme pushed earlier this summer by Carl Braaten and others lamenting the ELCA’s having become just another “liberal Protestant” denomination. He, too, had a long list of complaints. Acceptance of gay clergy and partnerships would be just one more step down this path to ecclesiastical ruin.

What should be obvious is that whatever split is coming has been long in the making. It is the result a fundamental divide within the ELCA that has finally reached the surface and can no longer be ignored. Many who disagreed with the decision in August will nonetheless remain in the ELCA. They can agree to disagree. For others, however, this is the last straw on a heaping stack of theological complaints.

It’s this group that needs to go. Their continuing presence serves only to irritate themselves and everyone else. And while ELCA leaders can’t publicly say, “Here’s your hat—what’s your hurry?” they can also drop the facile lament that any loss of congregations is a body blow to the denomination. This is a divide that is not going to be resolved within the lifetime of any of those involved. Trying to patch it won’t work and will only divert our time and energy from more important endeavors.

The accident has happened. There’s nothing to see here. Let's just move along.

Monday, November 16, 2009


One of the comments on my first post about the ELCA layoffs challenged my assertion that we are in the worst recession since the Great Depression. Regardless of the ranking (which I still think is accurate), the current downturn is obviously severe. Yet whatever its depth, what may be an even bigger problem is this recession’s length.

One of the few economists to call the housing collapse and subsequent credit crisis, Nouriel Roubini, wrote Sunday that “the worst is yet to come.” He reiterated the prediction of Princeton economist and New York Times economist, Paul Krugman, that we are in for a “jobless recovery.” The concern that they and others have is that, while the economic free-fall has been stopped, there is no obvious source for a recovery.

New construction, both residential and commercial, will be very slow in coming back. Consumer spending will remain weak with high unemployment and as people continue paying down debt and rebuild their savings. And the Federal stimulus spigot can’t remain open indefinitely. Many are predicting a “double-dip” recession, with another period of economic decline coming (including a drop in the stock market). There are still many banks and other businesses in very precarious condition. Some big dominoes could still topple. Double digit unemployment is likely to remain into 2011 (or even longer).

None of this, of course, bodes well for the many churches already under financial stress. National church bodies will almost certainly see their revenue continue to decline as congregations try to cover their own budget shortfalls. For the ELCA, I continue to believe that negative reaction to the August assembly is only a small part of its financial problems. While there may have been some improvement in income the past few years, I think that was largely due to our national false prosperity which has now deflated so dramatically. Membership decline has been reliably steady for thirty years so any financial improvement was sure to be temporary, if not illusory. It’s hard to see how further budget, program and staff cuts will be avoided.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"The ELCA has left us"? Not exactly

The reports and stories are starting to trickle in of congregations leaving or preparing to leave the ELCA. This certainly isn’t surprising and it’s too early to tell yet how significant the exodus will be. The current meme on this week’s layoffs at ELCA headquarters is to blame them on contributions being withheld by discontented individuals and congregations. This may have played a part but it’s also true that revenue for ELCA churchwide operations has been falling for years. Most or all of these staff cuts likely would have happened sooner or later.

Here in the Metro Chicago Synod, one of our larger congregations, Hosanna! in St. Charles (far west suburbs), voted (89%) this past Sunday to cut its ties to the ELCA. For the designated synod representatives at the meeting, it apparently was not a pleasant experience. The congregation also voted to affiliate with Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), an association of disaffected former ELCA churches. None of this was unexpected.

Another relatively large congregation likely to leave is St. Mark in the far North Chicago suburb of Lindenhurst. Its most recent newsletter includes a report from its Senior Pastor, Terry Breum on the recent annual “gathering” of LCMC, which St. Mark is also considering joining. Apparently he didn’t even need to enter the church where the meeting was being held to know this was the place for him: “When . . . I drove into the parking lot I instantly felt an incredible peace and the sense that we had arrived at home.”

Breum then goes on to give a lengthy and rapturous description of the doctrinal and biblical beliefs of LCMC members with which he, and he assumes his congregation, is in full agreement:

I knew that I was with people exactly like the people of St. Mark, Christians who are not ashamed of the Gospel, love Jesus, and believe the Bible to be the true Word of God, without error. Our core convictions of Jesus, the cross, salvation, heaven and hell, were all the same that we hold to here at St. Mark. We all believe the miracles of the Bible to be true and in the reality of angels and demons. There is no question at all that Jesus was raised bodily from the grave. Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, and even Jonah’s existence are not in question. There is not even a hint of universalism (the belief that all are saved and that there is no such thing as hell. This is taught in many seminaries today). They believe Israel has the right to exist and do not agree with the ELCA’s strong support of the Palestinians. LCMC is strongly pro-life. And when it came to issues such as marriage we all held to the same Biblical doctrine of creation. Marriage is to be only between a man and a woman. There is no revisionism here at all. How refreshing! How invigorating! How thrilling! How inviting! To be with like minded, fellow believers, it felt like we were one body and indeed we are. St. Mark is where the LCMC is. It is safe to say the ELCA has left us.

And there’s another meme: “The ELCA has left us.” Um, no. Reading this paragraph does not in the least remind me of the ELCA, or of the predecessor body I knew, the LCA, or of the seminary I attended over 25 years ago, LSTC. If such a view genuinely represented a significant portion of the ALC that organized St. Mark, then the ELCA should never have come into being. The Bible “without error”? Adam and Eve? Jonah? Oh dear.

Surely such beliefs can be found in the ELCA (obviously) but they certainly aren’t the norm. And I doubt they were the norm in the ALC but they likely were more common than in the LCA. The AELC separated from the Missouri Synod, of course, over just such questions. The ALC described the Bible as “inerrant” in its constitution but this was explicitly left out of the ELCA statement of faith.

To me this just further confirms that the ELCA has been a bit of an illusion act from the start. Its creation depended on people seeing in it what they wanted to see. The vote at this August’s churchwide assembly finally pulled back the curtain for pastors like Breum and congregations like St. Mark. The ELCA is obviously more diverse than they wanted to realize. To say the ELCA has left them is disingenuous—it was never where they were to begin with. As I’ve written before, their leaving can only help the ELCA to finally get a coherent sense of its identity and mission. In my view, whatever the cost, it will be worth it.

(And here's a follow-up.)

Beware of bankers in sheep's clothing (Sunday Reflections for November 15, 2009)

The heads of the world’s major banks have discovered that they have a bit of an image problem. A lot of people don’t like them or the companies they work for very much. So the biggest bank, Goldman Sachs, has been working on a strategy to change the public’s perception of them.

The problem, in their view, is that they just aren’t appreciated. People don’t understand what great guys they really are and how important their work is to the well-being of the planet (if not the universe). In fact—and they’ve been reluctant to share this information but realize they must now make it public—they are on a MISSION FROM GOD.

This secret was revealed by none other than Goldman CEO, Lloyd Blankfein. “I’m doing God’s work,” he told The Sunday Times of London.

"I know I could slit my wrists and people would cheer," he says. But then, he slowly begins to argue the case for modern banking. "We’re very important," he says, abandoning self-flagellation. "We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle." To drive home his point, he makes a remarkably bold claim. "We have a social purpose."

Blankfein omits a few recent bumps in this “virtuous cycle,” such as last year’s global economic near collapse. What, we might ask, is the “social purpose” of the loss of trillions of dollars in stock and real estate equity, throwing millions of people out of work, and putting governments trillions of dollars in debt to prevent the financial system from going into cardiac arrest?

Blankfein’s interview was reported just a couple weeks after a London conference on morality in the marketplace. Among the speakers was Goldman Sachs international vice president, Lord Brian Griffiths, who similarly insisted banks’ recent astronomical profits and employee bonuses were serving a higher purpose.

“The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is a recognition of self-interest,” Goldman’s Griffiths said Oct. 20, his voice echoing around the gold-mosaic walls of St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose 365-feet-high dome towers over the City, London’s financial district. “We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieving greater prosperity and opportunity for all.”

Bloomberg.com also quotes the CEO of Britain’s Barkley Bank, John Varley, speaking at a similar event at another London church. “Profit is not satanic,” he said. And lest anyone miss the point, he added later, “Is Christianity and banking compatible? Yes.”

As expected, columnists and commentators had a field day ripping into the audacity of these claims. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi (who has taken on Goldman Sachs before) identified the truly scary part of this story, which is that these guys very likely believe what they are saying. Living in the rarefied atmosphere at the top of the top, you only converse with people just like you. You convince one another that you all deserve to be where you are and that it really is to everyone’s benefit.

You think that reality coincides with your beliefs because your beliefs are true, whereas in truth it’s because you spend all your time with people who believe the same nonsense you do, and generations of your cultural ancestors just happen to have built very high walls all around you fools to keep reality from getting in and spoiling things.

As a result, famously evil nincompoops like Louis XVI and Adolf Hitler were genuinely surprised to discover most people didn’t buy into their systems and actually wanted to tear them down—which they did. Marie Antoinette thought she was being genuinely creative when she advised French peasants to deal with food shortages by eating cake. All it really showed was her total ignorance of what peasant life actually was like—the result, of course, of her never actually having to deal with real peasants.

Some have said Brian Griffiths’ “We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieving greater prosperity” may be the new “let them eat cake.” Compensation for Goldman Sachs 30,000+ employees will average over $700,000 this year. Hundreds will earns millions and even tens of millions—this in a company which a year ago was on the verge of collapse, threatening to drag down the country’s financial system with it, and bailed out by billions in federal tax dollars. “Inequality” seems like a meager word to describe this extravagance.

It’s a long stretch from Jesus “recognition” of self-interest to his endorsement of greed and larceny. There is no question that banks perform an important social service. But as one fund manager recently wrote,

[T]he public purpose of banking is NOT to provide profits per se to shareholders. Rather, the provision of the ability to earn profits is only a tool used to support the attendant public purpose.

The Wall Street bank behemoths have completely inverted this reality. Their purpose now is first to provide obscene salaries and profits and, if it’s convenient, to provide business capital and personal finance.

Christians, and Lutherans especially, have long recognized the value of vocation. Blankfein is right: our work can indeed be God’s work, whatever it is, if it meets human needs and serves to make the world a better place. Nor does a Christian ethic require equal compensation for all. Indeed, most ethical theologians recognize the inevitability of inequality in a capitalist system and accept it for the creativity and productivity it encourages.

At some point, however, gross inequality is not encouraging but discouraging as many people rightly sense the system is rigged and their efforts are not being fairly compensated. Blankfein says his people are paid so much because they are so enormously productive—but productive at doing what, besides making lots of money for themselves and their investors? How does their astronomical pay match their contribution to the betterment of society?

It’s now obvious that the dizzyingly complex financial schemes and instruments which have made banks so much money have also made our economy unstable and have cost millions of people their jobs and their savings. The incentive of seven and eight figure salaries is not leading to productivity but to greed and fraud. It is not doing God’s work but undoing it.

Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches . . .
who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils. . . .
Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. (Amos 6)

Hard times on Higgins Road (continued)

After dealing with multiple congregations and multiple call committees, I concluded sometime ago that personnel matters provided some of the worst examples of church mismanagement and ineptitude. Apparently that isn’t limited to local congregations. The layoffs at the ELCA headquarters also seem to have been handled with a similar clumsiness and insensitivity.

A mass firing, of course, simply isn’t going to be a pleasant experience. Recognizing that, one might have expected some effort to mitigate the suffering but there is no evidence that occurred here. For some time prior to distribution of the pink slips, there were the usual water cooler stories and rumors. Xanax and sleepless nights were in ample supply.

The main problem, once again, has been lack of transparency. Since no statement has gone out about the layoffs, speculation and paranoia are inevitable. A local synod lay leader here has gotten multiple complaints about discrimination and inequity in the firings, alleging that minority support staff took the brunt of the cuts. I do know that there were veteran white males dismissed. I don’t know, however, what the proportions of the cuts were except that they were across the board. (20% per unit was one figure I heard but I also know of one unit that lost more than a third of its staff members—7 out of 20.)

The staff reduction does not become official until the church council signs off on it and it is meeting this weekend. Still, the outcome is pretty clear and it seems that some kind of communication could have been made at least to the staff, giving an overall picture of what was occurring. Instead, this seems to be another case where, in terms of pastoral care, the church talks a good game but when dealing with its own it fumbles the ball.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hard times on Higgins Road

ELCA churchwide headquarters in Chicago is not a happy place these days as the Higgins Road office tower has been rocked by major layoffs. I haven't heard a hard number but one estimate from a reliable source is that the reduction will be at least 20%. Yikes.

Revenue to the national church has dropped significantly in recent months. Everyone is making the obvious correlation with the August vote of the churchwide assembly to approve ordination of gay clergy. While that very likely is the immediate cause of the current financial crunch you can't lose sight of the bigger picture. We are, of course, in the midst of the worst recession since the Depression. More importantly, the ELCA has been in a numerical decline since the day it started more than twenty years ago. While this staff reduction is painfully sudden, it was almost certainly inevitable in the long run.

The ELCA is past-due for a major restructuring that will reflect realities that have been denied from the start. In addition to a leaner churchwide organization, the ELCA's 65 synods probably need to be reduced by at least a third and mergers of its eight seminaries should reduce their number by at least half. Unfortunately a well thought out process would take years--time the ELCA may not have. As a result, its organizational shrinkage may be more abrupt and more painful, as is happening right now.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

From the people who gave us Aquinas: Dumb-as-a-post mediocrity

Andrew Sullivan writes the blog The Daily Dish for The Atlantic magazine. Sullivan is British by birth, gay, HIV+, politically conservative, and Roman Catholic. In short, he is a very interesting person. He is also very intelligent and writes a fine blog. Sullivan is a committed Christian first and Catholic second. He is very aware of contemporary Catholicism’s shortcomings and does not hesitate to expose them.

Here he provides excerpts from a public debate in London of the question, “Is the Catholic Church a force for good in the world?” It opens with a mind-numbingly dull affirmation from Nigerian Archbishop John Onaiyekan. This is followed by a jolting onslaught from world-renowned journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens. Sullivan sees this battle of unequals as a direct consequence of the Vatican’s policy of elevating obedient yes-men to leadership positions.

You can forgive the pro-Catholic side for losing the debate…. What you cannot forgive is the sheer intellectual shallowness of the defense. Just listen to the small speech above, I mean: really, this is the best we've got?

In Onaiyekan, you have a classic Benedict/JP II Archbishop: dumb as a post, sheltered from the actual debate in the West, incapable of argument, and pathetic as a spokesman. The problem with the theoconservative take-over in the Catholic priesthood is not so much its extremism as its mediocrity. And it is mediocre because it has been trained not to think, not to argue, and not to engage the modern world. It has been trained solely for obedience - blind, dumb, unquestioning, intellectually moribund obedience.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The audacity of compassion (Sunday Reflections for November 8, 2009)

On Thursday, November 12, a document called the “Charter for Compassion” will be published. It is the brainchild of British religion scholar and popular author and speaker Karen Armstrong. She presented her vision for the charter in a February 2008 speech accepting a TED Prize for her work. Since then, thousands of people from around the world have contributed their ideas. These in turn have been processed by a group of international religious leaders to create the Charter’s text.

The Charter is a call for the members of all religions and philosophies to commit themselves to the ancient, global principle of human relationships commonly known as the Golden Rule. One of the oldest known versions of it is attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius in the 5th century BCE: “Do not do to others what you would not have others do to you.” It is phrased in various ways in the gospels, one of which is in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 where Jesus says,” Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

From Jewish tradition Armstrong recounts a story of the famous Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus. A pagan comes to him and says he will convert to Judaism if the rabbi can summarize all of Jewish teaching while standing on one leg. Accepting the challenge, Rabbi Hillel says, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.” Similar statements are found in all the world’s major religions.

In making this gambit, Armstrong is making a bold and strategic move. She is attempting little less than reframing and refocusing world religion.

Armstrong grew up in an Irish Catholic family and became a nun in her late teens. She left the order and the church seven years later as a result of a combination of physical, emotional and spiritual crises. She intended to become a scholar of English literature but instead found herself doing television documentaries about religion. A work-related trip to Jerusalem caused her to revalue the role of religion and to see their common message as far more important than their individual differences.

The main thrust of Armstrong’s mission is to return (in her view) to the ancient understanding of religion as a way of living rather than as a collection of ideas to be believed. In her recently published book The Case for God, Armstrong writes:

Religion as defined by the great sages of India, China, and the Middle East was not a notional activity but a practical one; it did not require belief in a set of doctrines but rather hard, disciplined work, without which any religious teaching remained opaque and incredible.

Armstrong correctly notes that both the words “faith” and “belief” originally meant trust and commitment (Latin credo), rather than acceptance of ideas. Christian theology has always been wordy and concerned with getting ideas about Jesus and God right. Yet this was originally motivated by a need to support the church’s worship and liturgy. Orthodoxy literally means “right praise.”

With the Reformation and Enlightenment periods, however, that connection was largely lost. Being orthodox came to mean having the right ideas and doctrines. The invention of the printing press resulted in enormous quantities of theological writing, poured over and endlessly debated by clergy and laity alike. Bibles could now be studied and interpreted by every literate person. There began an obsession with studying and analyzing Christianity’s doctrinal “trees” while losing sight of its gospel “forest.”

In doing so, of course, theologians were paralleling what was going on in the new fields of science. Truth was in the details, scientists said, whether the very small (cells and atoms) or the very distant (stars and galaxies). Christian theology raced to keep up, accepting that the only truth worth believing was in demonstrable propositions: God is X, Jesus is Y, the Bible is Z. To be a Christian meant accepting these “truths” just as being a scientist meant accepting nature’s laws.

The Charter for Compassion is an assertion that religion generally, and Christianity in particular, is concerned first and foremost not with what we think but with how we live, especially in relationship to our neighbor. The world’s rising tensions and violence demand we make this shift. Obsession with what we believe is making world worse, Armstrong says, not better. “Any ideology that does not promote a sense of global understanding and global appreciation of one another is failing the test of the time.”

While Jesus’ commitment to love for neighbor and even one’s enemy is universally recognized, placing this at Christianity’s center as Armstrong wants is not universally welcomed. As she recognizes, many religious people prefer to be right rather than compassionate. Indeed already you can find people basically calling her the Antichrist for saying that having the right doctrine is not the most important part of Christian life. In their view heresy is the truly unforgivable sin.

In this country, at least, the personal value of religion or spirituality is still accepted but the social value of organized religion is increasingly doubted. The injection of religion into politics is overwhelmingly rejected and continuing outbreaks of inter-religious violence deplored. Imagine, Armstrong asks, if religion became a force for peace in the world, rather than conflict?

Sadly, religious leaders have figured out that their power is enhanced when they can create fear in their followers, convincing them that other religions are “false” and therefore their followers dangerous and evil. Armstrong believes, and I think she is right, that this is not the inclination of most people, including most religious people. Rodney King’s plea during the 1992 LA riots is increasingly a global concern: Can we all get along?

In our shrinking world this is becoming the question which may well determine the survival of our species. Calling religions and religious people everywhere to make this simple commitment, to do to others only what you would want them to do to you, may be a first step. In doing so it would return the word “religion” to its literal meaning, that which “binds together,” rather than something which pulls us apart.