Editor’s Introduction: Income Inequality Part II and Remembering Jim Echols

[1] This June/July issue of the Journal ties up several threads. One of those is marked by the Resolution in loving memory of the Rev. Dr. James Kenneth Echols, who served for several years as JLE’s editor. As JLE’s “publisher” I claim a moment of privilege as part of that recognition to write a bit more than editors usually do in JLE. I also tie up a thread here as I finish my stint as guest editor. The traditional book review issue of August/September also will introduce our new editor.

[2] The two main essays this month (Dr. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda and Dr. Willa Swenson-Lengyel respectively) complete a set of six begun last month that focus Lutheran ethical reflection on growing income inequality and wealth in the United States. Moe-Lobeda argues that Lutherans have been given powerful resources for challenging the economy toward economic justice. She opens by noting how strikingly contemporary some of the writings of Martin Luther are. Most importantly, they provide markers for an ethic of neighbor-love grounded in a moral anthropology of human beings as beloved, broken, and body of Christ’s love. Swenson-Lengyel’s response finds much to commend but presses the point that Christian ethics should fundamentally be communal in focus, not individual. She tasks readers to always keep the collective dimension central when approaching moral problems like inequality of income and wealth.

[3] The third main piece focuses on the Rev. Dr. James K. Echols, who served as the Editor of the Journal during a critical transition period. While he has been retired now for several years and joined the Church Triumphant last December, it was seven years ago this month that he joined the Theological Discernment Team in the Office of the Presiding Bishop, which publishes JLE. It seemed fitting to recognize him on this anniversary. As many know, his tenure here in the Office of the Bishop was a kind of coda to a long, path-breaking career among Lutherans. Among other firsts, he was the first African American seminary dean (United Lutheran Seminary, formerly Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia) and the first African American seminary President (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago) in the ELCA. He helped found the Conference of International Black Lutherans (CIBL) and was a respected pastor, scholar and writer. To learn more, see the CIBL Resolution piece for highlights of his noteworthy contributions to the ELCA.

[4] Though of relatively short tenure he made significant contributions to JLE that remain evident. Along with his predecessor editor, Dr. Victor Thasiah, he helped JLE transition successfully from its original home in the Church and Society Unit to its current home. The Journal’s home in the Office of the Bishop is natural because of the Bishop’s responsibility in the teaching dimension. Since the Journal is a prime tool for moral reflection and discernment, it was a natural move in a church that understands its identity as a community of moral deliberation.

[5] Every move however, even from one home to another, carries perils as well as opportunities. Every move means a person or a thing, or, in this case, a journal has to reassess its character and take stock of how it can serve and be sustained in its new context. Jim helped the Journal do that. He brought into existence the means for a long wished for, but elusive to establish, JLE Advisory Council. He was able to make that a priority for his work, knew the right people to recruit, and had the insights necessary for creating a sustainable arrangement. That Council continues to shape the way that the Journal serves moral discernment on behalf of the ELCA, of Lutheran ethics, and of the wider church.

[6] The Journal always has aspired to bring contending viewpoints and diversity into conversation. Jim began to “thicken” that aspiration during his tenure. It was part of who he was to look deeply from various vantage points, and he initiated a move to ethnic, gender, etc. diversity that editor Carmelo Santos made even more robust. It was a huge shift for Jim from being president of a Seminary to the publishing a journal in his role as Director for Theological Resources and Networks. But the existence of several ventures he began in that role indicate how deeply Jim could look into those needs and create or sustain resources and networks. JLE is a better journal because of his contributions.

[7] On a personal note, I consider it a particular honor and a privilege to have worked with Jim. He brought gravitas to his work. He had and could communicate deep insights. He gave of himself unstintingly to the church, despite its failures, for the sake of the good news it brings to the world. He brought a steadiness to his work, like a deep flowing river.

[8] On my wall I have kept a couple of small posters that he created for himself. They remind me of Jim and urge me to honor what he brought to the work we shared then. One of them is an ancient maxim from ethics that pithily sums up its central question: “How then shall we live?” I sometimes think, “well, just like Jim did” in his dedication to, challenge to, and love of this church.

Roger Willer

Rev. Dr. Roger Willer serves as Director for Theological Ethics on the Theological Discernment Team in the Office of the Presiding Bishop. He also serves as Publisher for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.