Giving Thanks for John Stumme

[1] One of my first tasks as associate director for studies was to work with John to research and write what became the ELCA’s message on commercial sexual exploitation. I’d been working at the ELCA all of about three months before I found myself being driven around the seedier parts of Minneapolis by a member of the police department who pointed out all the women in prostitution and just how long they’d been on the street. The other person in the car with me was John Stumme. We’d been interviewing women who’d been in prostitution, who’d been strippers, and people who’d worked with them, for several weeks. It was, needless to say, not the first thing I expected to be doing when I took a job at the ELCA. I remember asking John before we started the message: “What will we say? We’re against it, right?” and John smiling in that gentle and tolerant way he has. He said nothing to me of my ignorance then or later. Perhaps being the youngest of eight children taught him the kind of patience he exhibited in the five years I worked with him.

[2] Whether weighing the sincerity of pop star Madonna’s devotion to Catholicism (okay John, you were probably right, that her swift conversion to Jewish mysticism conveys something about the depth of her affections), combing through classical texts of Lutheran ethics, or discussing postmodern Christianity, John is simultaneously open minded and incisively sure of his intellectual footing. When our departmental reading groups delve into essays, he listens to our feeble attempts at grasping the argument and then, perhaps out of pity, deftly summarizes the author’s work and cuts to the central question.

[3] His grasp of the context in which our work takes place is unmatched-he is not given to prognostication, but when John makes a prediction, it always turns out to be correct. I simply have not met anyone who understands the history, traditions, scholarship, and personalities of our church body as well as John.

[4] One of the most notable of John’s works at the ELCA was his crafting of the social statement on peace, For Peace in God’s World. I will leave it to another, more impartial source to describe some of its merits:

“For Peace in God’s World.” The printed version of the twenty-four-page social statement says it was “adopted by more than a two-third majority vote.” Very considerably more, one notes, the vote at the assembly of the EvangelicalLutheranChurch in America being 803 to 30. It is altogether a remarkably sane and sober statement of what is and is not possible in securing a world without war. The characteristic Lutheran distinctions between law and gospel, between sin and grace, between saving redemption and social responsibility are all prominent, as is the employment of the classical “just war/unjust war” criteria. Some will cavil at the assertions about peace and economics, since the statement gives a very large role to government regulation and emphasizes the distribution of wealth at the expense of the production of wealth. But, all in all, it is a solid piece of work and the overwhelming support for it is a refreshing change for a church body that in the last few years has had enormous difficulties in speaking its mind on much of anything of consequence. We don’t know how many of the 803 delegates who voted for it (or how many of the 30 who opposed it) actually read the statement, but they should, as should Christians in other churches who are pondering what needs to be said about war and peace. (
[5] The social statement on peace has been reread a lot lately. Given the current geopolitical situation that’s not surprising. What is surprising is how well it serves us more than a decade after it was written. The timeliness of this social statement is due not just to the fact that the U.S has engaged in large-scale military action twice in this presidency. The timeliness of the social statement is also related to the durability of the original draft. Like its author, the document transcends time by being certain of its origins and open to deeper understanding of the present. John’s treatment of terrorism in the message on terrorism will undoubtedly stand the same test of time.

[6] Another document John authored, the ELCA’s message on suicide prevention, remains one of the documents most frequently accessed via the internet. Writing a message on a social issue requires a grasp of more than the theological, ethical, and academic. It requires an understanding of the human condition. Not only should John’s intellectual skills be the subject of tribute, but his pastoral skills should be as well. Every one of his coworkers will attest to his honesty, fairness, and concern for social justice. Even those who have disagreed with him would have to grant the aforementioned qualities. Every one of us supervised by John has enjoyed professional support and personal friendship. Every one of us has been mourning the prospect of John’s retirement since it was announced.

[7] As Stewart Herman says, John is characterized by a gentleness and openness that signify his Iowan roots. Though Iowan pastor’s kid runs in his blood, his experiences in the Civil Rights era and his time teaching seminary in Argentina lend him a kind of worldliness that leaves him at ease in any setting, and able to put others at ease.

[8] John’s retirement is a real loss personally to those who have had the honor of working with him, and professionally to every constituency in the ELCA. The seamless blend of scholar, pastor, and person of faith that is John is rarely experienced and never duplicated.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind- just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I Corinthians

Kaari Reierson

Kaari Reierson is the founding editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics and is the Chair of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics Advisory Council.