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This Week’s Sunday Scribblings Prompt: Inspiration

“What Would Jesus Do?” — The ELCA “Chose to Stand Silent”

~~ Originally published August 4, 2005 ~~

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out —
because I was not a communist;
Then 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 out for me.

Rev. Martin Niemoeller

I have been was busy with family commitments, church activities, etc. so I have did not post for awhile. We took a family vacation to Hawaii with the Stockton Concert Band where I played my flute in two concerts.

Frankly, I had to take a step back. I started drafting this entry in April 2005, but every time I tried to finish it, I became so angry and upset that I couldn’t continue. Because this entry deals with a very personal topic: My own church.

We get very attached to our churches, of course. Our church affiliation is part of our identity. For many of us, it’s a place where we spend significant amounts of time engaged not just in worship, but other activities, as well. It’s where we go when we need to feel comforted, safe, secure. Changing one’s church affiliation, whether it be adopting a totally new denomination or belief system, or just transferring from one congregation to another, is frequently a stressful, traumatic event.

I come from a long line of Norwegian Lutherans. I was baptized, as was my older sister, at the tender age of three months in Pleasant Valley Lutheran Church, near Kidder, South Dakota. (I say “near” because the town of Kidder, like so many other little Midwestern towns, hasn’t existed for a few decades now.) Three months later, when I was just six months old, my family moved to California. My parents quickly found and joined a local congregation in which I grew up, participated in the music ministry from virtually the time I could walk, was confirmed, married, and — you guessed it — had both of my children baptized when they were just about three months old.

I’ve visited other churches over the years. My first big crush was on a young man who was a staunch Roman Catholic. I often wonder if other aspects of the relationship had fallen into place, what we would have done about the issue of religion because, at that point in my life, I would not have agreed to convert or allow my children to be raised in a faith other than my own. I have no ill will toward the Catholic or any other church . . . it’s just not right for me.

That was never a problem with BigBob because his parents neither took him to nor attended church themselves, so he didn’t have any church identity when we met. He works every Sunday, so the kids and I always go to church by ourselves save for a few holiday weekends and Christmas Eve.

The bottom line is this: My church identity is was, until recently, an integral part of who I am. If you study Lutheran theology, doctrine, traditions . . . if you listen to Garrison Keillor talk about the Lake Woebegone Lutheran Church in the heart of “the little town that time forgot” . . . you’re talking about me and mine. I’ve been to more potluck dinners than I could ever count. And yes, there were plenty of “hot dishes” right next to the Jello. Jello in the liturgical color appropriate to the season, of course.

As Terri Schindler-Schiavo lay dying and various religious leaders weighed in, I wanted to hear what my church had to say about her case. Terri was a life-long member of the Catholic church, but during that 14-day vigil, virtually every religious viewpoint was showcased by the mainstream media. Unlike in the Robert Wendland case that I litigated, Roman Catholic leaders, including Pope John Paul II, were extremely vocal about the death sentence imposed upon Terri. In addition to the many Catholic priests who weighed in on both sides of the debate, I heard or read commentary from practically every well-known and lesser known person of faith, including Pat Robertson, Pat Boone, Jesse Jackson, Dr. James Dobson, Joni Eareckson-Tada, Muslim and Jewish leaders.

It was then I learned that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) “chose to stand silent” on the Terri Schiavo case.

Finding no indication anywhere on the church’s website of what position church leaders had taken on Terri’s situation, I finally gave up and called its Chicago headquarters. Those were the precise words of John Brooks, Director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s News and Information Department.

I sat in stunned silence for what seemed like an eternity after hearing Mr. Brooks’ words.

When I finally regained my composure, I asked if I could quote him, and he assented. We discussed the matter a bit further and he reiterated: “The ELCA had no public comment.”

No wonder scouring the ELCA’s website turned up no press release, position statement, message from the Presiding Bishop, or any other indication that the ELCA — my church at the time — had publicly taken a stand in favor of life vis a vis Terri Schiavo. As I dialed Chicago, I had been feeling pretty stupid, thinking that I just wasn’t navigating to the correct portion of the church’s website where I would surely find proof that my own church had issued a public statement in favor of life.

Instead, as noted above, the ELCA opted to “stand silent.”

Our Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod brothers and sisters were not silent. Specifically, on February 25, 2005, the Rev. Dr. Gerald B. Kieschnick, President, issued this statement:

As Christians, we believe that assisted suicide (euthanasia) fails every test by which history judges the compassion and morality of a society. We believe it degrades the ethics of medicine. Judging from various news reports, it does not appear that Ms. Schiavo has entered irretrievably into the dying process. Therefore, administering food and hydration would belong in the realm of ordinary care and should not be withdrawn. Removing Terri’s feeding tube will not allow her to die, since she is not dying. Removing her tube will, in fact, cause her to die.This court struggle has the potential effectively to legalize and set a dangerous precedent for this type of killing in our country–a precedent that would have profound effects on our culture as a whole. Our society is shaped by the value we place on human life. If we believe that the life of every human being is of special worth, we will choose to treat each person with care and respect. As we face often-difficult end-of-life issues, our aim must always be to care, never to kill.

As Christians, in particular, we understand that God has created civil government so that His creation–and especially His gift of human life–would be preserved and protected. We understand that it is our duty as citizens to help our government fulfill this responsibility, especially in a democratic society, when legalized assisted-suicide is being publicly advocated.

To that end, The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod will continue to inform and educate our members and society as a whole that human life has measureless value at every stage of development and consciousness, for every individual is known and loved by God. Every human life is a life created by God and a life for whom Jesus died to buy us all back from sin and death.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Terri and her family for strengthened and renewed faith.

Following Terri’s death, displayed prominently on the “Office of the President” page was “A Statement on the Death of Terri Schiavo and Living Wills” which begins with this observation: “The long, tortured saga of Terri Schiavo finally has ended.” After appropriately assuring readers that the church will continue to pray for Terri’s family, friends, and supporters, Dr. Kieschnick reiterates what happened to Terri:

It took two weeks for Terri to die following the removal of her feeding tube. This would seem to indicate that depriving her of food and water did not permit her to die but rather caused her to die. As Christians, our aim should be always to care, never to kill. This is particularly critical when significant doubt exists regarding the actual irreversible nature of the patient’s illness and his or her ongoing desire to live.

So why did the ELCA choose to “stand silent?”

And, more importantly, I asked myself back in August 2005, “Can I reconcile my membership in an organization that made such a decision with my own sensibilities and the public stands I have taken over the years? What would Jesus do? Would he have ‘stood silent’ while a disabled woman was senselessly murdered with her parents, sister, brother and the rest of the world watching?”

This was only one of the troubling events and circumstances that inspired me to finally, after a long and intense period of prayer and discernment, say, “No, I can’t be a member of this organization any longer.”

Sometimes, even though we are inspired to take action, even knowing it is good, right and proper to do so, it still takes us a long time to do it because we are stubborn, prideful and, in my case, determined to transform an unworkable situation into a success.

Ultimately, the answer I believe to be true was, “No, Jesus would not have stood silent.” Nor could I.

I do not believe that He would have His church on earth stand silent in the face of injustice. But it happens every day. The problem with organized religion is that it has become a watered-down version of the church Jesus envisioned, fueled by the unfortunate realities of running a nonprofit organization in this culture at this time in our history. Churches need money to survive and that consideration drives decision-making all too often. Choices are made based on who will cut off their financial contributions if their wishes and desires are not determinative, and the ministry the church was founded to perform falls by the wayside. Middle-of-the-road stances are adopted in favor of bringing in the masses (and their checkbooks) and not offending anyone in the process, which is, of course, an impossibility.

If you study the Gospels, you will find that Jesus offended a lot of people, particularly the power brokers of the day. Ultimately, His bold proclamations and refusal to “stand silent” led to His death.

I take inspiration from those persons and organizations who live and proclaim what they believe in an unapologetic way, while respecting those who believe and live differently. I came to the conclusion because of the 2005 episode detailed here, as well as intervening events, that the ELCA is not such an organization. These days, I am not affiliated with the institutional church and have no plans to return, preferring to take my daily inspiration directly from the Gospels.

For me, the church has strayed too far from what it’s founder, Martin Luther, inspired us, as believers and members of the Body of Christ, to do:

God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners.
Be a sinner and sin boldly.
But believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly,
for he is victorious over sin, death,
and the world.

I would much rather sin boldly, but sincerely, than live in such a way that people eventually stand by my crypt in the mausoleum, looking at my name, with no idea what, during my lifetime, I believed, stood up or fought for. The fear of that scenario playing out inspires me daily. I believe that at the end of my days on earth, our Savior will examine my thoughts, words, and deeds to see if they were well-thought-out, sincere and contrite. If so, He will overlook that I was wrong from time to time, rewarding me for being a “good and faithful servant” who refused to “stand silent.”


3 Comments

  1. I completely understand where you are coming from. I am not currently a member of any particular church, but I identify myself as a Southern Baptist. I have attended many different denominational churches and I found hypocrisy at every turn.

    The fact that this woman only needed food and water to sustain life should have been enough to convince the courts that she should continue to be cared for. If you use the logic that she could not take care herself, therefore she would not choose to live, then perhaps all infants should die as well. They are unable to feed themselves.

    As for the homosexuality in the church, it is disheartening to see such a scandal. The fact that any church would even consider the possibility of homosexual marriage, or homosexual pastors, is a neon sign that these churches are not based on Biblical principal.

    Christianity as a whole is based on Biblical teaching. Why in this day in age are so many churches disregarding the teachings of the Bible and basing their decisions on public opinion and what is “politically” correct?

    It’s both sad and frightening the events that are occuring in the World’s Christian churches.

  2. Melissa:

    I find it curious that you automatically assumed I would oppose homosexual ordination or marriage. I don’t believe that either concept violates basic Biblical teachings, after having studied and debated all Biblical references on the subject.

    I am, after all, a civil rights attorney.

  3. Hieyeglasses

    Yes, I agree, people should practice what they teach and what they say they believe in.

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