Living into Kennedy’s legacy

/ 3 September 2009

So much has swirled around me this week! It’s First Week at Luther, so we are deep in the process of welcoming a whole new class of students, and supporting them in developing relationships with each other and with those of us already here. But it’s also the “first week” of school, in the sense of the first time that most faculty are back on campus after the summer — and particularly, after the summer’s events (including the ELCA church-wide assembly and the decisions the church made).

As we venture back into conversation after such a profound set of decisions, I think there is a lot of tentativeness in the air. What will the impact of these decisions be? How will we relate to each other now? Part of me is surprised by this tentativeness. It's not as if we haven't been relating to each other (at least, those of us who have been here in years past) prior to this decision! I, for one, have been very clear about my beliefs and have worked hard to advance them -- even when I was clearly in the minority, or very clearly dissenting from my church's stance. (Which, let me be clear, since I'm a Roman Catholic who is very excited about the ELCA's decisions, that also makes me a Roman Catholic who is dissenting from magisterial teaching.)

As I ponder this tentativeness, as I struggle to figure out how I am being called into these discussions, I keep remembering much that was said of Senator Kennedy in the aftermath of this death. Over and over again people remarked on the ways in which he was a staunch defender of liberal political positions throughout his long life. At the same time, he was also friends with people who held very different positions, and worked very closely with them to fashion political compromises where such compromises were possible.

I think his is a way of being that I aspire to. I am so excited by the ELCA's courageous decisions! I heartily affirm the path they are walking on, and am both full of joy and full of renewed resolve, that I have been invited/called into helping to nurture leaders for this church. I am more committed than ever to "educating leaders for Christian community" (as our mission statement puts it), who can walk into the future with the ELCA. I will not apologize for my joy at the path the ELCA is walking, nor do I intend to back down from making the profoundly biblical arguments that support that path. But at the same time, I will also continue to work hard to listen carefully to those who opposed the decision, and to represent fairly their positions. As Timothy Wengert points out in this month's issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics:

If there is one rule we need to follow in the wake of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, it is this: Do not break the eighth commandment (against false witness) in order to defend the sixth (against adultery and other sexual sins). Both those who supported the changes in policy and those who did not need to remember this. We must speak what we know and not cast aspersions on those who disagreed with us. Luther’s comments on the eighth commandment in the Large Catechism are helpful here. Even when forced by one’s office to speak out, one must not lie or distort the truth.

Senator Kennedy was never tentative on behalf of his liberal views -- views, I might add, that sprang directly out of his deeply committed Roman Catholic faith -- and I will not be, either. It's been my experience, actually, that people who disagree with me appreciate that. In other words, it can feel patronizing to have someone whose views you clearly disagree with, not venture to share them with you, or "tone them down" for fear of disagreement. We can and will disagree with each other, even reading the same biblical texts and following the same Christ. But that disagreement needs to bind us even more tightly into relationship and community.

I believe the ELCA heard the Spirit moving this summer, and responded to that Spirit. Now the rest of us who engage this faith community need to keep alert and open to the Spirit as well, wherever it is leading.