Lutheran Ethics from the Perspective of a Pastor

[1] I am discovering that there are mainly three occasions on which people seek my ethical counsel as a Lutheran pastor. The first is when the local newspaper is doing a story on something controversial: homosexuality, genetic research, etc. The phone rings, a reporter asks, “what does the Lutheran church say about thus and so” and I am expected to sound bite a response that is both theologically accurate and pastorally sound. As you might well imagine, I am always thankful when the answering machine intercepts such calls, allowing me to do some homework and rehearsal before responding! Still, I am heartened and even flattered that the newspaper is concerned with what the pastor of the little Lutheran church in my religiously diverse and often secularly-minded town has to say. Though I sometimes suspect that there is cynical expectation that a religious view will necessarily be prescriptive and restrictive, I consistently try to point out the ethics, from a Lutheran viewpoint acknowledges not only a sinful and fallen world, but also a God who is extravagant in grace and love. “Human beings have an incredible capacity for evil,” I pointed out with regard to genetic research, “the question is how can we best use what God has given us to show forth God’s love in the world.”

[2] The second instance usually arises when someone announces a fait de compli. “I’m pregnant and I’m keeping the baby.” Or “I’m having an abortion” or “We’re getting married.” “I left my wife/husband.” “I’m putting my mother in a nursing home.” “I’m quitting my job.” One might argue that this is not an example of someone seeking counsel at all. Indeed, the decision has already been made. I, as pastor, am merely being informed of the choice an individual has made. My pastoral role is to react. Often, this means I am expected to approve and support the individual’s decision, or to help mend any rifts that have been caused as a consequence. This brings with it an interesting combination of pastoral circumstances. It certainly is not intended that I will question the decision; if my pastoral perspective were important in making the decision it would have sought in the first place! I am expected to preside at the wedding, attend to visits at the hospital, and otherwise pastorally attend to the consequences of the decision of one who allowed no possibility of pastoral attention to making the decision itself. My “morale” support as pastor is expected even where my “moral” council is not – an interesting, but perhaps not entirely perplexing paradox.

[3] The third situation in which my view as pastor is commonly consulted is in the midst of a decision-making process. This is a scary situation – often I am sought for an answer, the directive, the “right” thing to do. But attention to the tradition of Christian discernment and to the Lutheran tradition tells me there are no easy answers to many of life’s most difficult questions. Should I kill? No! Should I cheat on my wife? No! But should I quit my job that has been forcing me into ethical dilemmas? Or should I divorce my wife with whom I have no love? These questions simply do not have “yes” or “no” responses (recall that even Luther – for better or worse – advised divorce) that I can spit back like a clerical Magic 8 Ball. More important than the decision is the process in making it. Why are you quitting? Why are you divorcing? Intent is a difficult, always muddled thing. But honesty about those intentions before God is a step in the ethical process.

[4] There are many former Roman Catholics in my parish or people who have friends and family who are Roman Catholic. They often approach me with the question, “What does the Lutheran church say about. . . .” in a way that can leave me feeling impoverished and inept in my knowledge of which bill LOGA is supporting or my ability to quote a particular social statement of the ELCA. Then I realize this is not what they are asking. They have been taught to think not about policy and position, but about prescriptions concerning sin and salvation. Indeed, we live in a nation where Christianity is often articulated publicly in terms of fundamentalism or legalism. My parishioners hear on their televisions and read in their newspapers stories of “Christian” groups who seem to believe that the world will be a better place if we just put the 10 Commandments in school rooms and court rooms, or ban books like “Harry Potter” from school libraries. So, they come to me with the same sorts of questions. They want to know when abortion, birth control, sex, military action, euthanasia are sins and when, if ever, they are OK.

[5] “But tell me where I can go to look up the answer,” a parishioner demanded of me yesterday in our adult forum on Lutheran Ethics. Of course, there is no such book. Lutheran ethics is not prescriptive. However, in asking the question, my parishioners confront theology of pervasive sin and extravagant grace that is at the heart of the Lutheran church. Because we have a deep understanding of the corruption of human nature and our reliance on God’s most extravagant grace, Lutherans recognize that it is often beyond our poor power to eradicate evil in the world, or even make a purely moral choice in our own lives. To think we do, or can, is turn our eyes from the complex consequences and contingencies of every choice. It is this reality of human existence that drives us humbly to Christ, where we ask for the help of the Holy Spirit, the only true originator of godly action. It is often at this point that former Catholics first discover that two churches with very similar liturgies can have radically different theologies. It is often at this point that fundamentalists walk out the door.

[6] Is Lutheran ethics flimsy? A cop-out? Does it lack backbone or responsibility? I once heard a non-Lutheran describe Lutheran ethical action as “well, you’re justified by grace, so you can just sit around and eat potato chips.” Indeed, I would grieve a theology that provides no moral compass to my parishioners in a complex jungle of a world. However, I would grieve it more should it provide boldly marked, but ultimately false claims to a “true north.” Caught between sin and grace, Lutherans are very aware that we live in a gray world with problems that seldom have “one-size fits all” solutions. Indeed, I suspect that many people who shrink from bringing topics to discuss with me do so because they are afraid that their question has a foregone conclusion or, worse, condemnation.

[7] A parishioner of mine tells the story about an experience he had with his son, several years ago, when he was giving a seminar on how to handle alcohol abuse among teenagers. His lecture was interrupted by a phone call from his son’s principal, telling him that his son was being sent home from a school trip because he was drunk. The father drove home from the workshop to pick up his son, who was being sent home on a bus. Secure that his son’s 16 hour bus ride with a hangover would be its own punishment for the time being, he picked his son up with the words, “I still love you. Get in the car.” What followed were two consequences. One, the son lost his car privileges, as part of the deal the father had made with him when he got his license. The other was that the son was suspended from school for six weeks as part of a “zero-tolerance policy” for alcohol recently implemented by that district, which was having trouble with drug and alcohol use. The son had to stay home and contact his teachers on his own to make up his work and graduate on time, which he did. At the end of his suspension, the son went to a school board meeting to address the “one size fits all” policy. He pointed out that it had actually worked with him. He did his work on his own. It was tough, but he still graduated. In fact, he grades were better! He pointed out, however, that he also had a support network of loving parents and friends and good relationships with his teachers to pull him through. Another student, a girl, suspended by the district under the same policy had not fared as well. She did not have the same support network, particularly with her parents. In contrast, she had gone away to New York City during her suspension, overdosed on drugs, and died.

[8] We are tempted, when we see a problem, to want to make a law or raise up a commandment to correct it. Indeed, there is value in this. A lawyer friend points out that there is great satisfaction in being able to tell someone to just “stop that!” This is the value of using the law to restrain sin. It is important. But we should never lose sight of the fact that God did not redeem the world through the general statements of 10 Commandments, but through the particular and generous actions of his Son, Jesus Christ. It is on this that our faith is founded.

[9] In the months following September 11, two groups in my parish read Karen Armstrong’s book, Fundamentalism. Chapter by chapter, week by week, we sought to understand why and how faithful people could do “such things” in the name of God. Chapter by chapter, week by week, we considered what we could or should do to respond. Our discussions were long and probing. We quickly saw the dangers – both moral and tactical – of moving too quickly or too presumptuously. We revisited the anger we felt as the twin towers fell and the seeming lack of justice in doing nothing. Sometimes, our conversations were difficult, as we touched on issues that were close to home or affected us in a particular way. However, as faithful people trusting and talking with one another, we began to feel a moral center to our positions that was different – albeit more complex – than the crusading slogans of the flag-wavers and peace seekers outside our doors.

[10] I would hope that my parishioners would come to see their church community not as place to find the manual on moral action, but a place to talk together about what being a Christian in a fallen world means. The world is full of policies, procedures, commandments and laws. What is scarce are places to talk openly and honestly about what it means to live as a believer in a world caught between sin and grace.