Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Glasnost... Lutheran Style

In the fall of 1996 I lived at the Lutheran House of Studies in Washington D.C. My course load was light and I didn't have a job, so I had plenty of free time on my hands. Barnes & Noble (which was, if you remember, at that time in its ascendancy, bringing the blessing of big box bookstores to cities across our country) was hosting a book signing, but the guest wasn't just anybody. It was Mikhail Gorbachev!

I went out and immediately purchased the book, then got to the B&N very early the morning of the signing--I think it was like 7 a.m. He was going to sign books for one hour starting at noon. I was approximately 30th in line.

I can't remember what I was reading for that five hour period. I think it might have been Edward Schillebeeckx's Christ. I had been sitting around much of that semester in various bookstores and coffeeshops reading that two volume set, the first volume titled: Jesus.

In any event, I was so hyped up with anticipation I don't think I read that much. Then at noon, the line started moving. Gorbachev very kindly signed my book while I stood at a distance of about twenty feet, the space between us protected by two very sturdy guards. The first guard searched my book and handled it. Then Gorbachev signed it. Then the second guard handed it back to me.

Since that time, I've kept his Memoirs safely in a plastic bag in a cool, dry place. I've actually never read the book, because it was the only copy I could afford at the time. It was signed, and who wants to handle overly much a book signed by an author who lives in Russia and only did one signing of his book in the U.S. for one hour, in Washington D.C. on a short visit?

I'm looking at the book right now. I pulled it out just to verify my post. His signature is inscribed on the title page in a mostly illegible script, black-felt marker. The back of the dust jacket includes Gorbachev and Reagan embracing each other doing a man-hug. You know what I mean... the half-hug with a handshake in-between. I get chills remembering that period in history, the end of the Cold War. It means so much even if we have mostly stopped discussing it.

You have to remember, Gorbachev was the head of state in the U.S.S.R. precisely when I was coming to both historical and global awareness, my high school years. He loomed so large in my imagination. It was almost unbelievable to actually meet him.


So, what does this have to do with anything, you ask? Well, one of my favorite words from Gorbachev, and perhaps one of my favorite words of all time, is Glasnost. You probably know what it means: openness and transparency. For Gorbachev it meant those things in his own political context, especially at the higher levels of government in the U.S.S.R.

But I hold transparency as a very high value, period. I don't always achieve it. But I try. And I tend to think all organizations and all groups benefit when they function with a commitment to Glasnost.

Let me give an example of why. So, I've known a good number of Lutheran pastors who won't ever let on what their own personal political biases are. They believe in order to lead a congregation well, they need to hide their political perspective. Their goal in this is admirable. They want to make space for the diversity of political perspectives present in their congregations, and they fear letting on to their own will exclude some or encourage others.

However, two problems arise from this lack of transparency. First, it gives a congregation the illusion that a pastoral leader could in fact be "apolitical," or even should be "apolitical." As if Christian ministry somehow transcends or stands apart from the life of citizenship and polis. In fact many Christians are under the illusion that the church could or should do this. I happen to think it's impossible. I also think if Christianity really is what it says it is, it has to be political, in addition to being theological, and cultural, and religious, and so on...

All of this precisely illustrates the second problem, that inasmuch as we think we can submerge our politics and just do ministry, we have fooled ourselves. It's a modernist heresy, that there is an objective point you could get to and stand above your own biases and operate outside of them. But you can't. And you don't. So even if I try to be as absolutely objective as possible and not take sides in the political realm, especially in my preaching, teaching, etc. (and actually I do try to do this... I never preach intentionally "political" or "partisan" sermons), the fact is that I can't escape being political in various ways, because my worldview shapes what I do, and often shapes it in ways unknown to me.

This is where Glasnost comes in handy. If I am completely transparent with people about my own biases, there is a better chance they will be able to tease out and identify what aspects of my preaching or leadership arise out of my political worldview. If they know me really well, this will help them hear the gospel better, regardless of whether they agree with me or disagree with me. They'll be able to see what parts I'm presenting as gospel that are actually my own bias. Then they have the chance to shape future preaching and teaching by calling me out.

Additionally, I have it as a deep goal as a pastor that people can really be themselves at church, and in order to accomplish this, we need to pursue a pattern of radical inclusion. Inclusion doesn't mean hiding most of who you are and only including in public church situations the parts of you you think will be palatable to others. Real and radical inclusion allows you to be present with the community especially with your radical ideas and strange outliers intact. You get to bring the whole "you" along for the ride.

And so do I.

Because I was a somewhat philosophical "early adopter" of social media, early on I had to decide how transparent I would be in my on-line presence. I decided to be completely transparent (inasmuch as I can--of course we all present ourselves in social media, so I would be fooling myself to think that I'm actually totally transparent). If you are calling me as a pastor (as my church in Arkansas did 18 months ago), hiring me for a writing project, wondering who I am as a person... well, it's all out there. Or a large percentage of it is.

If you disagree with me, that doesn't mean I want to exclude you. In fact, just the opposite, I'd like to know you in your own peculiarity, and discuss our differences, because I think I will grow from that. Challenge me. Engage me. Just yesterday I, the progressive communitarian (or whatever I am) had an intentional conversation over BBQ with a libertarian member of my congregation about health care reform. Just because I'm transparent with who I am doesn't mean others around me have to be like me. We had an awesome conversation, made all the better by the fact that we let each other be who we are in our difference.

True transparency, true Glasnost, means everyone in the institution gets to be and communicate transparently who they are and what they think, and that very transparency and openness will benefit the organization as a whole.

This is why I love starting groups like the ELCA Clergy Facebook group. By letting all clergy at any level in our denomination communicate directly with one another about anything at all, even communicating information and details that in the past might have been the special privilege of certain church staffers, or internal to certain organizations, I think it strengthens the community as a whole.

Similarly, I'm not a big fan of structures that try to keep everyone "on message." That's the opposite of transparency. Demanding that everyone talk the same about the same things leaves everyone around it wondering what is really going on, what the real deal is.

I tend to think Jesus was very much in favor of Glasnost. He was quite a bit about light shining into dark places (John 1:5). Or I am reminded of Augustine's hard and fast condemnation of any kind of lying at all, even the white lies that hide things (curious? Check out Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity).

And then a final admission. Every once in awhile, even in contexts I have cultivated to be "open," I find myself unwilling or unable to allow everything to be open. I don't always say everything. I've sometimes deleted posts that say more than I want to see said. Glasnost is no easy thing. It takes strength, and moral courage. And it requires us to admit how often we fail, and how much we hide.


  1. This post has really pushed me a bit and I'm not sure what to do.

    I have many conversations with high school youth in small and large doses. I find that being "fully" transparent about my options - political, theological etc - can actually shut down conversation and learning. Ie - if I strongly make a case that Jesus is present fully in the poor or the afterlife isn't all that important - instead of presenting options or allowing for questions first, then discussion and reflections are "shut down". I'm especially aware as well that we "church staff folk" can unconsciously have a bit of power and we ought to be careful to use the roles in the body of Christ we are called into for love and service instead of wielding them as theological weapons.

    Maybe what Glasnost embodies is a bit of both (transparent/inviting and teaching). I can't really be part of a discussion without revealing what my true thoughts/actions are. Rather than pretending they aren't there or deliberately setting them aside, true personhood in Christ says "this is who I am" and invites others to truly be "who they are". Perhaps that's more important than my desire to invite people into wrestling with God by holding back objectives/opinions. hmm.... you've got me re-thinking.

  2. Bryan, I find your point compelling as well. I think if we "strongly make ourselves transparent," then that can shut down conversation. You can put too much of yourself out there, more than is necessary or than people desire. Certainly I've been guilty of that at times. Perhaps the answer is to be transparent but at the level that is called for. People may want to know whether you're a Democrat or Republican. They may not want to know the entire rationale behind your position, or your voting record since the time you were 18. :)

    Thanks for your insights. It's a worthwhile conversation.