Tag Archive | ethics

An Open Letter to Minnesota’s ELCA Bishops

NOTE: On Sunday afternoon I emailed this letter to all six of Minnesota’s ELCA bishops, along with a brief introductory note in which I state, “I am deeply concerned that the President is leading us into an era in which he will intentionally escalate xenophobic fear in order to make possible deep and damaging changes to our institutions and to the social fabric of our society. The church cannot be caught flat-footed in this moment. It cannot take a cautious “wait and see” approach. I know the situation regarding the order on refugees and immigrants is dynamic and may change between the time I send and you read this message. Nevertheless, I ask you to take my words to heart and consider together how you will choose to exercise leadership for Minnesota Lutherans in which is quickly becoming a national crisis of civility and Christian conscience. I believe that some statement of public witness that includes both a clear pronouncement that the administration’s intended treatment of refugees and immigrants is unequivocally unchristian—and a clear pronouncement that you WILL lead your church into direct confrontation with an administration if it tries to compel your members to betray their faith for sake of country—is essential.”


An Open Letter to Minnesota’s ELCA Bishops

On this Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 29, 2017
“What does the LORD require of you, except this, that you do justice,
that you show mercy, and that you walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

Dear friends in Christ,

As I write these words, Muslims, immigrants, and especially refugees, tremble in fear.

While the President has done many things in his first week in office that Christians might take issue with, his executive order this past Friday banning refugees along with immigrants from certain countries is jarring in its immediacy.

As Lutherans we affirm with evangelical zeal that God’s work happens through our hands. Here in Minnesota we Lutherans have set the standard for using our hands to provide human hospitality and institutional resources of welcome to the immigrant and refugee communities that make Minnesota their home. Even as we struggle (with little success) to deepen the diversity in our congregations, we have at least continued to excel in our active witness of welcome to immigrants and refugees.

But the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service calls the President’s recent order “a drastic contradiction of what it means to be an American” in that it “completely disregards the values on which our country was founded.” In fact, the LIRS, hardly a voice on the leftwing fringe, goes so far as to name this executive order “reprehensible.” (lirs.org, January 27, 2017)

More than this, for Christians, it is unconscionable. It asks us to violate our conscience.

The witness of our Hebrew forebears is unequivocal: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

The declaration of Jesus is equally clear: “I was a stranger and you welcomed (or did not) welcome me … just as you did it (or did not do it) to the least of these.” (Matthew 25: 35, 40, 43, 45)

And the pledges we make in baptism reveal the stark death-to-life transformation that sits at the heart of our faith. “I renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God. I renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God. And I renounce the ways of sin that draw me from God.” (ELW, p. 229, Holy Baptism)

Thus, to be ordered to participate in the detention and/or deportation of refugees or lawful “aliens” (the word used in both the President’s order and the biblical text) will place Christians who work in U.S. Immigration, Homeland Security, or other agencies directed to execute this order, in a position that requires them to contradict their faith. To borrow the powerful image from Shusaku Endo’s Silence, they will be forced to trample on the face of Christ.

We—all of us—are ever tempted to be moderate in our response to evil. We prefer to wait and see. We’d rather defer to the courts (whose current stay is only temporary and in no way removes the contradiction to personal faith). We hope for the best. We’re content to pray.

However, in this moment, on this Sunday as we hear both the words of Micah and the Beatitudes, it seems critical to hear also the pained words of Martin Niemöller, penned not in a flight of heroic wisdom, but with regret for not having acted boldly … in the first moment.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

We each have a responsibility in this moment. And lest it become the first moment in a litany like Niemöller’s it is essential that we respond fully. And now. Because you are leaders, your foremost responsibility is to lead. I invite … encourage … implore you to lead in this moment in this way.

Confer with each other and then declare, publicly and in unison:

  • that President Trump’s executive order suspending the arrival of refugees, limiting the free movement of lawful aliens, and directing the detention and possible deportation of these persons is contrary to Christian faith;
  • that, as Lutherans we understand the promises we make in baptism to be both lifelong and communal;
  • and that therefore, in the state of Minnesota, any Lutheran whose job compels them to participate in this blatantly unchristian task—and who refuses to comply—these persons will have the full legal, financial, and spiritual support of Minnesota’s six ELCA synods.

(There are many more actions to which we may be called, some of which may ultimately be more useful and strategic. But the integrity of our baptismal pledges—and the authenticity of our pastoral-prophetic posture requires at least this much. And swiftly. Similarly, I’d be delighted to see such a declaration spread across the ELCA nationally and across other denominations as well. But it makes sense—perhaps it is the Spirit’s leading from our particular past into our present—that it begin here in Minnesota. On Monday.)

May the unrest you feel in your souls lead you to prayerful discernment, to courageous leadership, and to holy witness for the upbuilding of Christ’s church.

Yours in Christ,
David Robert Weiss
Saint Paul, MN

Bishop Thomas Aitken, Northeast Minnesota Synod, ELCA, thomas.aitken@nemnsynod.org
Bishop Jon Anderson, Southwest Minnesota Synod, ELCA, jon.anderson@swmnelca.org
Bishop Steven Delzer, Southeast Minnesota Synod, ELCA, delzer@semnsynod.org
Bishop Patricia Lull, Saint Paul Area Synod, ELCA, patricia.lull@spas-elca.org
Bishop Ann Svennungsen, Minneapolis Area Synod, ELCA, a.svennungsen@mpls-synod.org
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe, Northwest Minnesota Synod, ELCA, wohlrabe@cord.edu

An Easter Evening Reflection: Ethics as Easter—or the Virtuous Zombie

An Easter Evening Reflection: Ethics as Easter—or the Virtuous Zombie
David R. Weiss
March 27, 2016

“Just remember folks, the Easter bunny and his evil candy are pagan idols not to be worshiped by the true believers. Then again, neither should a zombie. Trust in experience, not myth.” –Ben Zamora-Weiss

I don’t believe there was an empty tomb on Easter morning. At least not in a physical sense. I suspect that Jesus’ body, having been first brutalized and then crucified, (perhaps) wrapped in clean linen and placed in a garden tomb, eventually found its way back into the dust from whence it came.

Which is why Easter’s hallelujah hoopla often sits as uneasily on my lips as I sit uneasily in the pew during Easter worship. Now mark my words: I continue to identify with the Christian tradition, to draw strength, inspiration, wisdom from its teachings and tales. (Although I feel a greater kinship with Jesus—that ancient prophet-mystic-healer-teacher—than I do with the dogmatic orthodoxy that developed in his wake … and, I’m pretty sure, against his wishes.)

When I saw my son’s playfully serious Facebook post, I added my own little rejoinder: “But he’s a virtuous zombie.” Which is (sort of) how I feel. Let me explain.

TLDR version: Jesus died. Decomposed. End of story. Except not. After days, weeks, months of grief, Jesus’ followers decide to honor his memory by carrying on his teachings in their community. And … BOOM! Well, maybe b o o m. By actually applying Jesus’ teachings they precipitate such new, incredible, authentic human community that Jesus truly seems “undead”—so much in their midst that how else to speak of it except to say, “He’s here, he’s alive!”? Long story short: eventually this experience took on narrative form as resurrection. A powerful metaphor (or, as Ben says, though in a disapproving tone, “myth”). Our big mistake is that on Easter we worship the metaphor rather than incarnate the ethics. The point is to be “infected” by the virtuous zombie.

Long version: thirteen paragraphs and a conclusion. (Remember which blog you’re reading. Some people would call this piece full-blown heresy. I prefer to think of it as a perfect example of why I call my blog “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”)

1.  I see Jesus as a real historical person who was a mystic (in his experiential sense of oneness with God/Universe), a prophet (in calling on his people to change their attitudes and behaviors—their ethics), a sage (a skilled teacher of his vision of renewed community), and a healer (however you explain it—and I don’t think you need to suspend the laws of nature to do so—Jesus, like others in history, could channel extraordinary healing power). His ministry was NOT focused on calling others to worship him. Rather his teachings and healings, even the manner of his meals, were aimed at announcing God’s unconditional regard for “the least of these”—thereby inviting us to take God’s perspective as our own by practicing deep, risky and relentless compassion toward others.

2.  Jesus’ ministry was sufficiently vibrant that it came to pose a real threat to both Jewish and Roman power structures. Because both of these societies/cultures (like virtually every society/culture) were built on a hierarchy of privileges and biases, of in-groups and outcasts. And Jesus’ model of community fundamentally challenged that.

3.  His death, in which both Jewish and Roman leaders were complicit, was NOT—I repeat, was NOT IN ANY WAY—a sacrifice for sin. It was the unmistakable consequence of the threat he posed to the status quo. It was a political elimination by the most brutal means possible.

4.  Sidenote: that the church came to (mis)understand his death as a sacrifice is a misstep that can be explained historically, biblically, theologically, anthropologically, etc.—but it remains nonetheless a devastating and inexcusable misstep because it empties the arc of Jesus’ life of its true redemptive power.

5.  It seems likely that Jesus (not unlike Martin Luther King, Jr.) anticipated his death—after all, he, at least, understood the threat he posed to the prevailing powers. Despite this, his followers (like most followers) could not see beyond their imagined messianic success for Jesus. The gospels are clear on this: Jesus realized—to the week—when the shit was going to hit the fan . . . and the disciples and the rest of his followers were mostly oblivious to this right through the Last Supper.

6.  So, when the arrest, trial, flogging, beating, crucifixion, and death all happen it knocks the wind (if you prefer, think Wind, capital W—Spirit, faith, hope) right out of Jesus’ followers. They’re devastated. Grief-stricken. Traumatized. At a loss for words. Again, if you prefer, think Word, capital W: at a loss for Word.

7.  Aimless, for days, weeks, months maybe, the circle of Jesus’ followers frays at the edges, wondering what do we now? (In John’s gospel we might have an echo of a recollection that those who used to be fishermen went back to fishing.) In any event, “Easter” did not happen on a chronically calendared third day. Their grief and confusion and despair and trauma—like most life-numbing emotions—persisted far past that mythical third-day morning.

8.  BUT—and all the best that Christianity has offered humanity hinges on this “but”—one day (weeks or months after the crucifixion . . . long after the body has decomposed), someone … Mary Magdalene? Peter? John? . . . someone says, “Ah, Jesus, I miss you so much. How I long for the days when you showed us how to be God’s kin-dom!” And in that moment of silent holy anguished longing, that person decides the best way to preserve and honor the memory of the man they loved is to recreate in some small meager way the community he had invited them to imagine. THAT MOMENT is the first glimmer of the dawning Easter morning. And it surely did NOT happen on the third day after his death—but the fact that it surely DID happen (which is more/less historically verifiable by the mere existence of the church, warts and all) matters much more than the timing.

9.  Jesus’ teaching about compassion (my shorthand for the whole of Jesus’ message and ministry—and my absolute bedrock core conviction about the fundamental nature of reality itself) presented a genuine cosmic truth, so when his followers choose to put it into practice they release energy not unlike a moral nuclear fusion reaction. Far from a meager attempt, because they manage to tap into the energy that courses through the cosmos itself, their earliest echo of Jesus’ own ministry is phenomenally vibrant. As Luke tells us in the Book of Acts, each gave according to their means and each received according to their needs. As I put it above, they precipitate a new, incredible, authentic human community. Yes, there was plenty of discord, too (human habit, at both the personal and social level is notoriously messed up), but the power they tap into is nonetheless so vivid that Jesus seems “undead”—so much “undead” and in their midst, that how else can they speak of it except to say, “He’s here, he’s alive!”? And so begins the metaphor of resurrection: words grasping after a reality too deep for words but begging nevertheless to be spoken. “He is here. In this way of being community, he is alive and here among us!”

10.  The earliest gospel, Mark, is written around 70 CE, at least 30-35 years after the crucifixion, and in Mark’s gospel there is not yet a narrative of resurrection, only an empty tomb. Whatever exact language the earliest followers of Jesus used to name the experience of phenomenal power that their communal ethics unleashed, by the time Mark wrote, they had only reached the point of declaring that despite being crucified, Jesus was not dead. They knew that, because they lived that truth. To borrow Ben’s Facebook wording, they “trusted experience,” and their experience was that whatever happened to Jesus’ body (and they likely presumed it had just decomposed), he was not dead.

11.  By the time that Matthew, Luke, and John assemble their respective gospel accounts (some 15-30 years after Mark) the empty tomb gives way to a “zombie” tale: Jesus is not only undead, he’s walking around. In the rich and fluid imaginative world of the first century this type of narration is myth in its best sense: the embodiment of deep truth in narrative. It is no lie, unless you press this truth too far in the direction of fact. In the pre-critical but myth-savvy minds of the early Jesus’ movement, I suspect no one was concerned about the “facts” of resurrection. Not because they didn’t care, but because in their experience, which is what they really cared about, resurrection was self-evidently true. It was (and is) profoundly true: “Jesus is alive and here among us, actively shaping the gracious character of our community.” But to force this truth into a factual claim (as we are wont to do) about the supposed re-vivified molecular character of Jesus’ body reduces it to a “myth” of the cynical sort referenced in Ben’s Facebook post.

12.  WORSE, by reducing the metaphor of resurrection to medical miracle we entirely miss its power. We tease our minds to the point of distraction. Could it really be? Back from the dead?! How marvelous! And before we know we’ve lost all interest in the real miracle: that a community of people actually chose to honor Jesus by incarnating in their own lives the ethics of compassion—and discovering that when they did this, they unleashed in their midst a power so transformative that the only metaphor they knew that could do it justice was resurrection.

13.  Hence my suffocating discomfort on most Easter mornings. We could be clamoring (in our best ritual, prayer, and song) about the ethical renewal of our lives—about unleashing the resurrection power of compassion right here in our midst and right now in our day to meet the challenges of racism, inequality, homophobia, climate change, transphobia, sexism, terrorism, etc. Because that’s what resurrection is for. But instead we stack Easter lilies everywhere, play our brass and organ like there’s no tomorrow, sing Hallelujah! in our loudest voices, and say “Happy Easter!” to celebrate a medical miracle that never happened . . . and because we put all our energy into worshipping the metaphor rather than incarnating the ethics, we all too rarely actually get “infected” by the virtuous zombie—leaving Ben’s criticism spot on. (And this is one time I’d rather he not be correct.)

Well, I can hear you right now. You’re thinking, “OMG, so whenever you talk about ‘resurrection’ you don’t really mean it at all—you don’t even believe it’s real!” Um, NO. I do believe it’s real. But it’s about the ethics that enliven our bodies. It has nothing to do with what happened to Jesus’ body after he died. Of that, I’m quite certain.

And because I take resurrection so seriously, I worry it’s the rest of you, shouting Hallelujah! over a metaphor as though it’s “real,” that have missed the miracle. More than anything today (and for all of our yesterdays, really) we need to tap into the compassion of Jesus’ life, not the misconstrued sacrifice of his death. Resurrection sits on this side of grave. It begins with us. Or not at all. If we could put that at the center of our Easter worship, I’d be a lot more comfortable. And until we do, as restless as I am, I suspect it’s worse for Jesus. He’s stuck—turning over—in his grave.

*       *       *

David R. Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2013; www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”