Luther and Globalization: A Review of Healing a Broken World: Globalization and God by Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda

[1] This passionate, clearly-written book is a post-Euro-American essay in Lutheran theological ethics. Which helps to explain its considerable strengths and some of its unfinished business.

[2] Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda teaches Christian ethics at Seattle University. She writes from the perspective of an intense Third World experience. She served for a number of years as a healthcare missionary in Honduras and later worked with homeless women in Washington, D.C. Her theological commitments have been formed in conversation with colleagues in Africa, India, and Korea, as well as in the Carribean region. She is a regular theological collaborator with Larry Rasmussen of Union Theological Seminary, New York (see, for example, their joint essay, “the Reform Dynamic,” in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, ed. Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998]). Much influenced by theological feminism, she – paradoxically, as she says – is also a dedicated, albeit critical, celebrant of the theology of Martin Luther.

[3] This book is a post-Euro-American essay in Lutheran theological ethics, first of all, because of the global perspective from which Moe-Lobeda writes. One of the things this book shows, indeed, is, comparatively speaking, how culturally specific, even parochial, the most highly regarded Euro-American Lutheran approaches to theological ethics often have been (e.g. Werner Elert, William Lazareth). Can anyone imagine a work in Lutheran ethics that does not even mention the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms? Undoubtedly because of the global context from which she writes, Moe-Lobeda has done precisely that. She is, to be sure, thoroughly conversant with the Lutheran tradition and well prepared to justify her own argument in terms of Luther’s theology. But the point is this, that hers is a different context, and the issues which preoccupy her and the appropriate way to think about them are not the issues and the ways of thinking that preoccupied many 19th and 20th century Euro-American Lutheran ethicists.

[4] The book is also a post-Euro-American essay in Lutheran theological ethics because of the way in which Moe-Lobeda claims her Lutheran heritage. It is the resounding and sometimes self-contradicting voice of Luther the public reformer she hears, the Luther who stood up against the oppressive theo-political establishment of his time, who is remembered for having said “Here I stand,” rather than the sometimes muffled voice of Luther the church theologian, resonating through the works of his more systematically inclined theological followers and confessional heirs. With a number of more recent interpreters of Luther, as well, she adamantly rejects the darker side of Luther’s thought and life, especially his virulent anti-semitism and his savage response to the Peasants’ Rebellion.

[5] In the spirit of Luther, Moe-Lobeda wants to persuade us to take on what in her view are the insidious and virtually omnipotent forces of globalization, as Luther took on the oppressive political-ecclesial world of his time. Readers not familiar with recent scholarly discussions of the forces Moe-Lobeda refers to by the term globalization, especially those readers who may consider themselves sympathetic with, if not card-carrying members of, the theo-political right, should give Moe-Lobeda the benefit of the doubt, at least to begin with. She is no knee-jerk Lutheran fellow-traveler of the theo-political left. She has done her intellectual homework. Hers is one of the most balanced, and most persuasive, analyses and critiques of globalization by a theologian available anywhere.

[6] Around the globe, masses of the poor, especially impoverished children, are dying. So is our earthly habitat, slowly but steadily. And many of the best-intended among those of us in nations like the U.S. have been brainwashed (not her term, but her meaning) by the very forces which dominate the world where the poor of the earth and the good earth itself are being destructively exploited by forces beyond their control. In this respect, Moe-Lobeda could have helpfully invoked the biblical testimony about the principalities and powers of death in this world, and the witness of the Book of Revelation, in particular, against Roman power. But her point, often narrated in first-person terms, and typically backed up by thoughtful and sobering socio-political analysis, is telling, nevertheless.

[7] How are Christians to respond to this situation of rampant, global destruction of the poor and the earth? To begin with by seeing and thinking clearly, Moe-Lobeda believes. Hence her careful and detailed analysis of the forces of globalization. But all the more so, for her, Christians can respond to our global crisis by drawing on the power given to them by the indwelling Christ, by whose grace and in whose presence, they can reach out, by being “little Christs”(Luther), to their poor neighbors around the globe and to an earth now groaning in travail. Although Moe-Lobeda doesn’t couch the matter in these explicit terms, this is her reinterpretation, in part, of Luther’s theology of the bondage of the will. We are in bondage to sinful, earthly powers, which we cannot resist, which, in significant ways, we cannot even see or understand. We can only step forward to claim the freedom which Christ has given us coram Deo and coram mundo, in virtue of the immediate, indwelling power of Christ himself and his “subversive moral agency.” This is one way, Moe-Lobeda believes, in which the theology of Luther can be of help to us in this era of globalization, by his theology of the ubiquity of the indwelling Christ.

[8] Strikingly, Moe-Lobeda also invokes a Luther here who will probably be unfamiliar to numbers of readers who have been tutored by mainline Luther studies in the modern era. Yes, she allows and indeed emphasizes, Luther was a man of his times, who took the hierarchical world of his medieval society for granted. But he also stood over against that public world, radically, in significant ways, not only by his opposition to the papacy and its political allies, but also by his opposition to the then rising forces of transnational capitalism (!), exemplified especially by the practice of usury (interest!). Moe-Lobeda invokes the careful historical studies of Carter Lindberg at this point: “He [Luther] saw the entire community endangered by the financial power of a few great economic centers… He saw an economic coercion immune to normal jurisdiction that would destroy the ethos of the community… Luther believed that the church was called to reject publicly and unequivocally these economic developments and to develop a constructive social ethic that would include public accountability of large business through governmental regulation. Only through government regulation was justice possible for the poor.” (126)

[9] Further, again drawing on the historical studies of Lindberg, Moe-Lobeda argues that the connection between the power of the indwelling Christ, on the one hand, and the mandate for Christians, driven by christly neighbor-love, to stand up against those destructive economic forces, was and is the self-same indwelling Christ, sacramentally ministered to and by the church. For Luther, Moe-Lobeda explains, “‘Moral life as indwelling Christ” (sic) theologically created both the obligation and the moral power for Christians to develop social welfare systems and to oppose economic oppression.” And that flowed from a liturgical center, she maintains, again citing Lindberg: “Social welfare for Luther was… the liturgy after the liturgy, a work of the people flowing from worship…. Poor relief expressed this community solidarity…. It was, in fact, an act of worship, of divine service.”(89)

[10] Moe-Lobeda’s treatment of Luther in her engaging study is much more detailed and much more nuanced than this review of her discussion indicates, akin, in this respect, to her careful treatment of globalization. But this much should indicate how sophisticated and how well-argued her exposition actually is. Not all will agree with her in every respect, to be sure, either in her treatment of globalization or in her interpretation of Luther. But thoughtful christians, especially those of a Lutheran persuasion, will have to take her argument seriously, even as they may decide, in the end, that it needs revision or perhaps that it should be rejected outright, on any number of socio-political or theo-ethical grounds.

[11] In the interest of continuing the conversation, a number of points of unfinished business come to mind. Moe-Lobeda herself invites this kind of dialogue, since at a number of key points along the way she allows that her argument is very much a work in progress. First a contextual question. Which audience or audiences is she addressing? Much of the time the book reads as if it were a kind of Lutheran theological apology written for a community of readers whose theological perspective is already defined by the insights and the arguments of liberation theology and by feminist theology. If the enthusiastic back-cover endorsement by Sallie McFague is any indicator, Moe-Lobeda has achieved what she set out do to in this respect. But Moe-Lobeda is at the same time, and perhaps all the more so, concerned to reach members of her own theologically and politically diverse American Lutheran community. And much of what she says, especially her engaged, but critical exposition of Luther, will speak with real force to that audience. But she will have to work harder in this respect.

[12] Throughout the book, for example, she invariably refers to God as “She.” Which is surely Moe-Lobeda’s prerogative, and for which there is ample and solid contemporary precedence, above all in the seminal work of Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is. But Moe-Lobeda never offers as much as a footnote to identify why this mode of speaking is necessary for her argument, if it is, or even why it may be helpful. Trinitarian and liturgical questions, of course, are at issue here, as are Moe-Lobeda’s attempts to reclaim Luther’s – deeply trinitarian – thought as her own. (Moe-Lobeda’s single trinitarian reference in this study, to God as “Source, Lover, and Liberator,” sounds very much like Sallie McFague, although there is no reference to McFague at that point.) An American Lutheran church audience, if it is to be won over by Moe-Lobeda’s argument, needs to hear more from her in this respect.

[13] Likewise for Moe-Lobeda’s affirmation of “panentheism” and her rather curious grammatical practice of capitalizing “Earth” in every instance. She does this with no argument, not even a footnote. Are we to believe that she intends us to understand, following McFague, that the earth is God’s body? Or that the earth is sacramental in some sense? In this regard, Moe-Lobeda also makes the uncritical historical judgment that Luther was a panentheist. Well, no. The whole point of the Lutheran “in, with, and under” is that no single preposition, “in” or any other, can attest to the mystery and the power and the immediacy of the Divine immanence. We need to hear more from Moe-Lobeda in this respect, too.

[14] Then a final theological and contextual question, perhaps the most crucial of all, if Moe-Lobeda’s argument is to have the outcome in the life and witness of the contemporary American Lutheran church that she obviously so deeply desires. Can Luther’s thought, even critically appropriated as Moe-Lobeda seeks to do, really carry the theological-ecclesial freight that she loads on it? In a word, how does one get from the power of the indwelling Christ in the heart of the believer to the public witness, even the public martyrdom, of the church that Moe-Lobeda calls for in this era of the death-wielding powers of globalization? In more commonplace theological terms, how does the Lutheran heart strangely touched by Jesus (as John Wesley’s was), become part of a publicly powerful community of witness to the principalities and powers? Is it not the case, indeed, that Luther typically envisions witness and discipleship in terms of the individual, not the community? And is the individual witness, as in the case of Luther himself or, in our own era, as in the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, all that Moe-Lobeda wants us to envision?

[15] Here in this Lutheran context the thought of yet another reformer, John Calvin, is probably worth revisiting. Why? Many years ago, Ernst Troeltsch observed that Luther had a powerful trust in the efficacy of the Word. That trust was expressed in a bon mot by Luther, cited by Roland Bainton in his biography of the reformer: “As I drink my Wittenberg beer, the Gospel runs its course.” Troeltsch argued that this kind of trust in the efficacy of the Word alone, on Luther’s part, presupposed a silent trust in the Divine ordination of the established order: that Luther’s thought always came down on the side of the individual Christian loving the neighbor, within the constraints of the socio-political status quo. Accordingly, when Luther thought of the defining “marks of the Church,” he as a matter of course thought of – “the Word and the Sacraments.” The Word and the Sacraments, for Luther, offer the individual believer “the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation,” and thereby launch the believer, as it were, into the world as a lover of neighbors or even, on rare occasions, as conscientious objector to unjust civil authority. But in this schema, the social structures typically remained untouched and unaddressed. Hence the question: how does one get from the indwelling Christ in the heart of the believer to the communal confrontation with the principalities and powers of this age? This is the point where the theology of Calvin seems to offer some instructive insights.

[16] Luther held that the marks of the Church are Word and Sacrament. Calvin – perhaps already sensing the kind of powers that the emerging capitalist order could and would muster – held that the marks of the Church are Word and Sacrament and discipline. In a word, building up the Body of Christ was, for Calvin, an essential and identifying dimension of the Church’s very being. Can the Church, then, be the martyriological community Moe-Lobeda wants it to be, in this era when, in her view, the principalities and powers of death are raging, without attending deeply and pervasively to building up its own counter-cultural communal reality? If, in other words, I am not part of a community which stands over and against the principalities and powers of this age, how could I ever say “here I stand”? Don’t I really need more than the indwelling Christ in my own – feeble – heart? Don’t I really need the solidarity (one of Moe-Lobeda’s own favorite constructs in other contexts) of my membership within the church? Don’t we really need to think of the church in terms of Word and Sacrament – and discipline? Do not the kind of ethics of moral agency that Moe-Lobeda espouses existentially demand an ethics of communal formation? That much seems to be required of a Lutheran theology today, if it is truly to be post-Euro-American.

Healing a Broken World: Globalization and God by Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda can be purchased online from Augsburg Fortress Publishers.

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda holds a joint appointment in ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and Church Divinity School of the Pacific.