Three Challenges to Lutheran Ethics

[1] During discussions by JLE’s editorial council this past summer, I rashly suggested that contributors to this focus section might want to articulate one global challenge, one local challenge and a hermeneutic challenge to Lutheran ethics. Swallowing my own medicine, therefore, let me identify three such challenges from the admittedly limited vantage point of the classroom, challenges which point me back to the social statement on peacemaking.

[2] Globally, we need to reconsider where we, as a nation, are headed. Amid the rising distrust of the U.S. abroad, dare we still speak of a national vocation, as in a “city on a hill”? Our adventures in oligarchy-support and democracy-building (to say nothing of our newly acknowledged torture prisons abroad) yield violence, instability and repression for the peoples we are trying to “help”, and shred our moral authority abroad. Do we really think we can sustain this kind of costly global hegemony?

[3] Sustainability is not a concern only in a political sense. On the environmental front, the race for resources is heating up well beyond our capacity to control. The increasing interconnectedness of the world makes our future much more difficult to predict. But it seems clear that American hegemony cannot last, and that the hegemony of consumption cannot spread very far without global collapse. The world we are creating is not politically, economically, morally, or environmentally sustainable, nor are current trends likely to loft us along some magic parabolic curve onto a sustainable path.

[4] In the face of such contingencies, we need a resilient definition of the meaningfulness of our national life. The point of departure for that vision has to lie somewhere beyond the realist/idealist debate that we have inherited. Perhaps we are at a moment of prophetic clarification, where we might begin with a moment of confession: that we have absolutely no idea what God has in store for the U.S. beyond the current set of crises. By relinquishing all claim to know our future, we might consent to humility and open ourselves to a new beginning whose benefits perhaps only our grandchildren might fully grasp.

[5] Second, a more local challenge–one which merely tinkers with our political environment. I suggest we focus attention upon the nature and role of empathy as a resource in political and social governance. Philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, and more recently, feminist philosophy and psychology have instructed us as to how central empathy is to the moral development of individuals. Empathy is not merely a winsome feature of personality. It also has a role in political life, as currently illustrated by its lamentable absence. The ruthless partisanship which now marks U.S. politics both feeds upon and fosters a culture of callous indifference, veneered with bizarre protestations of care. We can’t just blame the politicians. The cultural obstacles to the development of civic empathy are many: for a short list, consider the acids of acquisitive individualism, of lazy relativism, of desensitizing violence, voyeuristic sensuality, and the creepy isolations spawned by television and video gaming.

[6] The challenge, then, is to articulate a sense of how our own sensibilities of personal empathy engage (or disengage from) politics, and then proceed to the question: how vital is the civic reservoir of empathy for the body politic? Exchange-oriented theorists might shrug, unchastened realists might sneer, but Lutherans who in recent years have come to understand the importance of social-capital formation might see empathy as a vital ingredient in politics. Certainly college campuses have taken on the explicit role of nurturing empathy. Multicultural requirements, service learning, sensitivity training programs, Habitat builds and other service trips are intended to latch onto and nourish the impulses of students towards identifying with an “other” which otherwise might remain unfamiliar and therefore alien to them. As a phenomenon of rising importance at Lutheran colleges, the deliberate inculcation of empathy could use theological exploration.

[7] Lutheran political ethics, to my reading, has yet to explore empathy as civic trait. But there are promising avenues of theological development. We might see this “affection”, to use the quaint terminology of Jonathan Edwards, as a link between the kingdom of the heart and the kingdom of duty. Such a connection needs to be made explicit, for our Reformation signals are decidedly mixed. On the one hand, Luther himself seemed to imply that the roles we take on excuse us from expressing any more empathy than the roles themselves call for (recall how heartily he endorsed the job of municipal executioner!) On the other, the struggle between German rationalists and pietists might be read in part as a struggle to privilege empathy over reason, even if this empathy was understood more personal and spiritual than political. Certainly the North European and American pietist strand in Lutheran sensibility, for all its manifold failings, reminds us that without empathy we are dessicated tumbleweeds blowing around in a desert of instrumentalism.

[8] A third challenge concerns biblical interpretation. We are challenged by the cultural hegemony of arrogant literalisms and doctrinaire fundamentalisms to clarify a distinctively Lutheran method. There are various methods in play under our wide tent, of course. But I suspect they all have to do with privileging Word over cultural context, interpretation over flat-footed literalism, dialogue over monologue, myth (in the Niebuhrian sense) over cookie-cutter allegory, narrative over abstraction, and so forth. We’ll never win interpretive debates by bombastic proof-texting, pseudo-scientific claims of accuracy or hair-splitting logic. The challenge rather is to demonstrate how a Lutheran method yields the fruits of the Spirit: wisdom joyful, obedience enthusiastic, and life abundant. We might start by recovering Joseph Sittler’s helpful exposition of the “doctrine of the Word”. God’s Word is a focal term whose exploration provides a rich and indefinitely expanding understanding of how our act of interpretation is mandated, necessary, challenging, fallen, and redeemed-all at once, and as such, a microcosm of the Christian life.

[9] So far, I have made no attempt to synchronize these three suggestions. Some linkages are evident: an enlarged sense of political empathy might sensitize us to the impacts of our foreign interventions on others, and drive us to confess our ignorance of what Providence has in store for us. A Word-centered interpretative strategy might open us to new readings of where we fit on the world-historical stage, and what is required of us. And a good stiff dose of national humility-not isolationism, defeatism, appeasement-ism or the other ills we historically all too aware of-might impel us to engage in the constructive peacemaking called for in the social-statement “For Peace in God’s World”. There we are called to build “cultures of peace” through nonviolent conflict resolution, respect for human rights, international law, advocacy for economic justice, enlightened aid, and other initiatives which commend themselves to practical sense. Not rocket science, but unless we are jarred into empathy by some prophetic revelation of a future out of our control, are we likely to move in that direction?

Stewart Herman

Stewart W. Herman is a visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg University, after having retired from the religion department of Concordia College in 2015.  His Durable Goods (University of Notre Dame, 1997) offers a covenantal account of the relation between management and employees.