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, firstname.lastname@example.org
Bishop Jon Anderson, Southwest Minnesota Synod, ELCA, email@example.com
Bishop Steven Delzer, Southeast Minnesota Synod, ELCA, firstname.lastname@example.org
Bishop Patricia Lull, Saint Paul Area Synod, ELCA, email@example.com
Bishop Ann Svennungsen, Minneapolis Area Synod, ELCA, firstname.lastname@example.org
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe, Northwest Minnesota Synod, ELCA, email@example.com