Conversations in Community

[1] “The church,” writes John Stumme, “is about speaking and listening. For those who believe the church has responsibility in and for society, it follows quite naturally that Christians should talk together about the relationship of the faith to their responsibilities. Christians have done so for centuries in a variety of ways, and in a democratic society with its emphasis on citizen participation, the obligation has even more plausibility.”[1]

[2] Stumme has clearly kept this goal of “speaking and listening” at the forefront of his agenda during his tenure as the Director of the Department for Studies of Church in Society of the ELCA. At a time when the local communities in which moral formation takes place have largely broken down, Stumme has sought to create opportunities for conversation among Lutheran ethicists, most significantly by way of the annual gatherings he has facilitated, and through the online Journal of Lutheran Ethics.

[3] While there are surely some who lament the loss of a bygone era when a handful of theologians gathered to produce the social statements of our predecessor church bodies, Stumme’s approach to the development of ethical consensus within the body of the ELCA realistically addresses our present situation. Not only does he take into account the loss of our local communities that once fostered theological and ethical agreement, he also takes seriously the diversity of perspectives that emerge from the addition of voices historically absent from the conversation. In creating opportunities for church ethicists to gather and talk about important social issues, Stumme has provided opportunities for the development of new understanding and agreement across divisions, some of which may reach out to inform conversations in classrooms, congregations, and beyond.

[4] Though Stumme’s inclusive approach has encouraged a wide range of perspectives to surface, he has at the same time consistently encouraged his colleagues to measure these various viewpoints against traditional Lutheran concepts and commitments (which have themselves been the focus of conversation upon occasion.) The normative, or what he calls “communally accepted ‘objective convictions'” is, as he writes, “the controlling factor in moral deliberation.”

Not all talk about important issues is moral deliberation: such talk must seek to bring the church’s normative teaching to bear on particular issues. Moral deliberation is not non-judgmental; judgments are made about what is right, good, and in conformity with God’s will. Not all views are equally valid; not all are biblical and confessional. Nor can all positions necessarily be reconciled. Moral discourse structured by communally accepted “objective convictions” is the controlling factor in moral deliberation, not personal experiences or individual consciences.[2]

[5] The community of Lutheran ethicists that Stumme has cultivated provides the thresher for the sifting and winnowing of those “objective convictions.” And when teachers go back to their Church-related colleges, and pastors to their pulpits, these are disseminated to the wider community for further discernment.

[6] And beyond these benefits, the gatherings have been fun! Lutheran theologians gather from throughout the US and beyond to challenge and support one another, to hash out divisive questions, sometimes far into the evening, to worship, and to share meals for a few days each year. It was a memorable evening when two of our leading theologians squared off over the matter of sexual orientation. Others sat around the table, adding comments as they could. Did we reach consensus? Of course not. Did we listen carefully, and try to understand one another? We did.

[7] The continuity of this group of Lutheran ethicists has been strengthened enormously by the online Journal of Lutheran Ethics, where the conversation continues unimpeded by distance, without some of the advantages of the face to face meetings to be sure, but with a much expanded circle of “speakers and listeners.” What a great contribution this journal is becoming, as part of a conversation that moves well beyond the borders of the ELCA. I have colleagues teaching in schools identified with other Christian communions who assign readings from JLE for class discussion. And so the conversation around shared Christian traditions expands to engage others in this task.

[8] And in a world so diverse as our own, is it not the conversation itself, including the ongoing disagreements, that defines the community? Stumme’s energy and theological expertise have faithfully provided the structures in which this conversation lives and thrives. For this gift we are grateful. Though there will undoubtedly be those who will carry on Stumme’s work with imagination and energy, we will miss his commitment to justice, diversity and confessional clarity.

[1] Stumme, John R; The Church as a Community of Moral Deliberation-A Time of Testing; Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Volume 5, Issue 8, August 2005

[2] Ibid.

Mary Gaebler

Dr. Mary Gaebler is Associate Professor in Religion; Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies; and Peace Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Peter MN.