Preaching the Law in the Christ-Haunted South

[1] What may be unique about the Southern context is summed up in Flannery O’Connor’s assertion that, “By and large, people in the South still conceive of humanity in theological terms. While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted” (The Habit of Being). Religion of a certain passionate and fundamentalist flavor permeates the region, or at least it did until very recently.1 As evidence of that suffusion of religion, someone observed that, in the rest of the country, after being introduced to a newcomer, the follow-up question is, “What do you do?” In the South it is more likely, “Where do you go to church?”

[2] Because of the fundamentalist nature of much of the area’s religious practice, there exists a belief that Christians in the South preach the law and know nothing of the gospel. The South is thus understood to be a great mission field where people need to hear the gospel as we Lutherans have been given it.

[3] Reality is far more complex. The prevailing Southern evangelical theology is in fact very clear about the very Lutheran idea that we are saved by grace and not by works, that it is Jesus’ death upon the cross that reveals to us God’s great favor and forgiveness. But while the gospel is proclaimed among the historically predominant faith communities in the South, the evidence of salvation is largely subjective. “How do I know that I am saved when I no longer feel like it or even act much like it?” For Luther the answer to that question was the daily assertion, “I am baptized.” But most of the faith traditions that are dominant in the South — Baptist, Church of Christ, Pentecostal — do not see baptism as sacramental and efficacious for salvation. Thus, Christian consciences are as troubled as they were by the medieval church of Luther’s day. One can never be quite certain of one’s standing before God.

[4] When they begin to talk about what we are saved from, or what actions and behaviors indicate we need saving, Southern evangelicals tend to reflect a piety that sees sin in terms of personal behaviors — drinking, smoking, swearing, dancing, sexual impurity and the like. On the other side of the cross, the evidence that one has indeed received the Gospel is, of course, the refraining from such behaviors. But while this is certainly true of religious understanding in the South, it is largely true of American religious understanding in general.

[5] From the early days of Calvinist Puritanism, the church in what is now the United States has been seen as keeper of public morality more than as steward of the mysteries of God. For many people the church has been the bearer of bad news, the mediator of God’s wrath and displeasure directed at struggling, imperfect humanity. It is God’s bad reputation which we in the church have inherited and over the years have encouraged, wittingly or not. Thus, whenever the church makes any public proclamation, it is into this particular context of judgment and wrath that it is made.2

[6] Like many of my colleagues in the Conference of Bishops, I have spent many evenings of late meeting with those synod congregations that are trying to discern whether they should leave the ELCA in light of the recent Churchwide Assembly decisions regarding ordination of persons in committed same-gender relationships. I have suggested to these congregations that, even if they are absolutely convinced that the Assembly was wrong in its decisions, they must not speak that word so loudly that those on the outside hear what they are predisposed to hear: that certain “proper” sexual orientation and behavior are prerequisites for acceptance by God and by God’s people. In short, in a culture in which the church’s proclamation has been heard primarily as condemnation, in its public pronouncements the church must be especially careful to speak the gospel louder than it speaks the law.

[7] There is another, counter-reality in our context as well. Increasing numbers of people are practical atheists. While some understand God in terms of judgment and wrath, others view God and the things of God as of little importance. God, if God exists, is remote, unconcerned with the world, making no demands at all on the world. God is nothing to worry about. Several recent polls point to this as the emerging view of God in North America. This is a view that also has roots in our earliest history, in the deism of Jefferson and others among the first American political and social writers.

[8] In the Smalcald Articles Luther wrote that one of the uses of the law is to “make original sin manifest and show man to what utter depths his nature has fallen” (Part III, Art. II). In our post-Enlightenment culture, however, most people are not likely to feel guilt at offending a holy and righteous God. If people in the culture of medieval Christendom experienced general feelings of guilt at what they might have done, most people in our culture experience a nagging sense of shame in who they are. Our economy is built on shame, on convincing people that, as we are, we do not measure up. We need the next designer skirt, the current coolest $200 pair of sunglasses, a more expensive car, the right kind of wine, to be acceptable. And, of course, the bar of acceptability keeps being raised higher so that none of us ever quite makes it over.

[9] This word of shame, of not measuring up to some unattainable standard of acceptability is the law that the world proclaims loudly to each modern person in a thousand ways every day. The human sense of inadequacy along with the ultimate reality of decline and death are the law that every human in this culture experiences apart from anything the church can or needs to say. Thus, in our context, the church does not need to preach law to the world; the world proclaims it loudly enough. The preacher’s job in this culture is to recognize where the law is being proclaimed through shame, illness, death, market crashes and oil spills and into that reality, to proclaim the gospel of God’s absolute love and acceptance.

[10] In a culture of law and death, the church must attend carefully to the ministry of reconciliation it has been given. That ministry and nothing else is the church’s particular mission. It does not matter ultimately if the world behaves itself if in that behaving it misses the knowledge of the radical love of God shown in the cross of Jesus.

[11] This focus on grace does not mean that the church may not speak of morality and behavior. But those conversations rightly take place within and among the community of believers. In Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen make a good case that “community was the commanding moral matrix for both Israel and the early church. When faith community members asked questions about character and conduct, … they asked: ‘What character and conduct is in keeping with who we are as a people of God?'” (19). They go on to say that, “both Judaism and Christianity conceived of the moral life as the practical outcome of the community’s faith” (21). The gospels give ample witness to the necessary chronology of this arrangement as well. Jesus called people to follow him first. Teaching came later. Jesus forgave sinners before saying, “Go and sin no more.”

[12] In the Christ-haunted South or in any culture in which the church has been seen as God’s police force, to be as clear as we must be that moral action follows God’s acceptance and does accomplish it, we must limit our pronouncements of individual morality to the conversations of the community as that community seeks to know how to live as God’s people, responding to God’s love.3

[13] One final note: To suggest that our discussions of morality and conduct among the faithful are “in house” conversations undertaken among the baptized who know their acceptance by God does not mean that the church must be publically silent in all matters of morality, however. As the body of Christ and “stewards of the mysteries of God” in the world, the church can and must speak publically and courageously for God’s justice in the world. It must address powers, principalities and structures that oppress and deny justice. But it does this as Jesus did, never to condemn, and always on behalf of those who have been condemned or excluded by the world. None of our pronouncements, however important, should drown out the gospel of reconciliation. That is the ministry to which the church has been called.

1. It should be noted that O’Connor wrote those words in the 1950s. Much has changed in the Southern landscape since then, from the civil rights movement to the influx of Roman Catholics and other religious groups to the increasing numbers of international immigrants in Southern cities and small towns.

2. One need only wear a clerical collar in public to see evidence of this. On encountering a member of the clergy, often, without provocation or invitation, people begin to apologize for themselves, for their behavior, for their lives. People seem to assume that a representative of the church is there to judge them.

3. To understand the believing community as the proper matrix for our conversations, arguments and struggles over character and conduct, over what it means to “lead a life worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:12) is to underscore the importance of recovering the adult catechumenate in our time.

Julian Gordy

Julian Gordy is the bishop of the ELCA's Southeastern Synod.