Friday, December 11, 2015

Why Lutherans Fight Over Sin and Social Justice

One strong tradition in Lutheranism is a focus on forgiveness of sins, the justification of the ungodly through the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this tradition, faith is what takes hold of this gospel and also that which extends the justification in the first place. Christ's faithfulness is that which justifies; our faithfulness is the response. This is salvation.

Quite a lot of our confessional documents give space to this topic, with entries in the Augsburg Confession on original sin, justification, the causes of sin, confession, repentance, etc. Because this matter was of central importance to the reformers in their debates with leaders in the Roman Catholic Church of that time, it is no surprise it is given considerable space. It's a complex theological construct, with many moving pieces. Here's one brief articulation, the AC article on justification:
Also they teach that humans cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in God's sight. Rom. 3 and 4.
Justification in particular was hotly contested, so Melanchthon, in the longer apology to the Augsburg Confession, wrote his longest and most theological rich (and dense) piece specifically on justification.

Here's where things get tricky, and Lutherans part ways. It seems to be the case that "confessional" Lutherans focus on personal sin and sinfulness and the doctrines surrounding justification itself. "Progressive" Lutherans, among whom I count myself (although I tend to lean in the confessional direction more than some of my colleagues), find the doctrine of justification and forgiveness of sins important but see it leaning towards issues of social and institutional sin, and less towards personal morality.

These are big generalizations, but I think they are accurate.

The result: Confessional Lutherans are critical of progressive Lutherans because they perceive us as being lax (or conforming to societal norms) on topics of personal morality (sexuality in particular). Progressive Lutherans are critical of confessional Lutherans for their failures to address sin at the structural level (sexuality in particular).

Where we really divide is in our approaches bringing our understanding of sin, repentance, and faith to bear on contemporary life. To be really straightforward--many confessional Lutherans think progressive Lutherans don't really believe in sin because we won't call same-sex attraction sin, and many progressive Lutherans don't think confessional Lutherans believe in sin because they won't see their own judgment of the LGBTQ community as complicity in structural, social sin.

Sometimes I wish we would all attempt to understand our theological commitments more carefully in the proposed language of those on the other side of the line. I have trouble, for example, understanding why confessional Lutherans resist liberation theology so strongly. They seem to react strongly to any theology that takes account of personal experience of oppression as a resource for reflection on complicity to sin, and the call for repentance.

Similarly, I have trouble understanding why progressive Lutherans resist forming adequate phenomenological accounts of repentance and forgiveness along the lines of the confessions, including the direct address of personal sin.

One of the oddest developments on the confessional side of the equation is the libertarian tendency in Lutheran confessionalism. I admit, I simply can't completely get my head around this one. Basically, Lutheran libertarians believe social structures (in particular government) should get out of the way to make space for the free proclamation of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in Christ. In other words, if institutions get out of the way, individuals who need to hear the law and be convicted will do such preaching better with complete liberty. Somehow they are inherently more good and able to make this happen than the institutions that constrict such preaching. This is, we might say, a contradiction in terms.

But similarly, social justice advocates, liberation theologians of all sorts, have developed an odd tick of not talking about sin while talking about it all the time. They call it by every other name--racism, homophobia, cisnormativity, xenophobia, misogyny, oppression--but not the name that would make sense to confessional Lutherans, or frankly, a large majority of Christians worldwide. I do not know if this is because they want to avoid speaking of personal sin, or if they feel the word has been so co-opted as to be unusable. Nevertheless, there it is. Our language fails us at the Horizontverschmelzung.

An additional matter has to do with the this world/eternal life dichotomy. Progressive Lutherans tend to see the doctrine of sin and justification mattering for this life. Liberation theology calls for change now, an in-breaking of God's kingdom today. They believe the Marxian critique of religion is valid, that it sometimes functions as an opiate, as in Marx's contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right:
The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo...  It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
Liberation theologians by and large accept Marx's critique. Only through a focus on Christ's preferential option for the victims of sin, and a commitment to changing the structures that continue the violent effects of such structures and powers, can real repentance and justification happen. We might adapt Feuerbach's thesis on Marx in this way:
The theologians have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.
The Augsburg Confession includes an intriguing article on civil affairs worth quoting in full:
Of Civil Affairs they (Lutherans) teach that lawful civil ordinances are good works of God, and that it is right for Christians to bear civil office, to sit as judges, to judge matters by the Imperial and other existing laws, to award just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to make oath when required by the magistrates, to marry a wife, to be given in marriage.

They condemn the Anabaptists who forbid these civil offices to Christians.

They condemn also those who do not place evangelical perfection in the fear of God and in faith, but in forsaking civil offices, for the Gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart. Meanwhile, it does not destroy the State or the family, but very much requires that they be preserved as ordinances of God, and that charity be practiced in such ordinances. Therefore, Christians are necessarily bound to obey their own magistrates and laws save only when commanded to sin; for then they ought to obey God rather than men. Acts 5:29.
Quite a lot of our current debates about civil affairs hinges on a few lines in this article, especially "save only when commanded to sin," and "lawful" civil ordinances. The Lutheran doctrine of vocation and orders of creation is on full display here, but those little terms are the arena in which the complications of sin and its effects, social justice and its merits, play themselves out.

On the flip side, confessional Lutherans point out that progressive Lutherans seem almost exclusively concerned with this world, with little or no conversation about life after this life. Interestingly, the Augsburg Confession doesn't have a particular entry on eternal life per se, but only on Christ's return to judgment. This article follows a fairly traditional separationist line, with Christ separating the godly from the ungodly, each receiving their predictable deserts. But the article is followed by one on free will, and indicates in traditional Lutheran fashion that basically, we don't have free will. So if we are "godly" and righteous, it is only by God's grace and favor and gift. We are made righteous. We do not make ourselves righteous.

This being the case, with God being all in all when it comes to the life after this life, it is fairly clear that there need not be a disjunction, but rather continuity. We can live now in anticipation of what is promised in the right-making God is accomplishing both in this world and for the next.

One last thing. A remarkable aspect of our disagreements concerns the extent to which sin itself corrupts our perception of sin. In other words, sometimes what we call or label sin is itself clouded by our sinfulness. Sometimes we learn it was our sin that labeled something else sin. Nowhere is this more true than in Jesus Christ himself (2 Corinthians 5:21), who became sin who knew no sin. Concomitantly, those who once were sin find themselves surprised by their righteousness.

In this life, those are all rolled up together. In the next, they are sorted and righted by God. In the meantime, God's justifying action is, in my estimation, best understood as social and singular, each and all. The best confessional theology is also liberation theology. And vice versa.


  1. "The best confessional theology is also liberation theology. And vice versa."

    This is most certainly true.

    Sin infects individuals *and* collectives.

    Further, individual and collective sin are often twisted up with one another. When sin corrupts collectives, as consequences ripple out, those most vulnerable are often left with fewer choices and individual sin becomes harder for the vulnerable to avoid. Correspondingly, when individuals with a great deal of power are caught up in sin, they bear responsibility for how their individual sin ripples out into the community.

    Can we say that someone with power is a worse sinner than someone who is vulnerable? Naturally, the powerful will feel persecuted if you suggest such a thing! It is far easier for those with power to see the specks in the eyes of the vulnerable and to condemn their sin than it is for the powerful to acknowledge the logs in their own eyes.

    Particularly when the powerful are convinced that their intentions are pure, their goals will serve the community, and their methods are above reproach, they are most at risk of doing harm. Those who, in pride, will not hear critique are indeed guilty of worse sin than those who acknowledge their sin, yet remain stuck in circumstances that make it difficult to break free from it.

    As to societal change, we can make superficial changes to structures by votes, court decisions, and regulations. But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that these changes do anything to root out the sin in the hearts of the individuals who built and benefitted from corrupt collectives. Turning the tables on the powerful by co-opting their power isn't a particularly effective means of getting them to repent.

    But change is change. Progress is progress. So what if we upset a few individuals as long as the collective is functioning better? But with this attitude we are no more righteous than the powerful people who used to add to the burden of the vulnerable.

    Change that is meaningful and lasting will come best from reform driven by true repentance and cooperative decision-making.

  2. Luther's initial critique was an attack on the Medieval economy of PERSONAL sin, with its classifications, hierarchies, manual-driven penalties and Church claims of being able to control and/or "fix" one's afterlife. Luther's rejoinder is that if it weren't for God's mercy in Christ, you wouldn't even stand a chance--no matter what system you or the Church wants to cook up.

    People though, being who they are, want personal guarantees (Matt. 19:16). So we get things like incantations on the backs of tracts about the Four Spiritual Laws and Jesus becoming the PERSONAL savior, saving the individual from personal sin. Salvation is reduced to ME not going to hell. Nothing about salvation in the here-and-now; and that simply won't pass the biblical prophetic screen in terms of social justice.

    I think where the Confessionalists (broadbrushing) jump off the Lutheran ship in favor of a Reformed or even Catholic one is in their understanding of the law. They will argue to the death about the uses of the law, but completely ignore the law's nature and content. For Luther, there is the law as text (which is rule-making, "Jewish," back to the old economies of personal sin, and which can never save)--and the true, more real law, the law of faith—the law written on the human heart (as described in Romans), inaccessible and obscure as it is for us most of the time. The law of faith is NOT about rule-making/rule-following but is an abstraction, more like Platonic justice, say in the Republic. I think that's why Lutherans are much more concerned about justice in the world rather than who did what to whom. I also think we would be much more true to the Lutheran understanding of being in the world if we began to speak about "justice and mercy" rather than "law and Gospel"--since so many people's understanding of "law' is mucked up beyond hope.

    Like the rich young man, I think the Confessionalists want do's and don'ts and a clear code of personal morality. To my mind this is back to box-checking. That's perfectly fine, but it's just not a Luther-an approach. Luther pulled the rug out of people's insurance policies for the hearafter--making them rely ENTIRELY on the mercy of God. Since we really have no control over the hereafter, the here-and-now comes into sharper focus.

  3. I would add for myself another element to this distinction: a certain mode of focusing on personal morality *is* the quintessential systemic sin. It is Satan casting out Satan -- playing the game of identifying sin in the other in order to expel what we deem to be evil. But it is a game that can be played on both sides of your distinction. It is the sheer genius of Genesis 2-3 that we bit of that fruit of thinking that we know Good and Evil. That act of distinguishing tends to become the basis of our sin, whether it's on the interpersonal or systemic level.

  4. The personal address is by God in Christ to the individual sinner in the Gospel. It is active in the forgiveness of sin which is given to the sinner through Christ's death on the cross. The issues of justice through collective attempts are done under the aegis/standard of life lived under God's law. Retribution both in the positive (rewards) and in the negative (punishments) sense is the arena in which God manages sinners under the aegis of His own law. There is no such thing as forgiveness under the law per se.