On Epiphany Day, January 6, 2021, the United States Capitol building was invaded by an angry mob intent on disrupting the working of the U.S. federal government. This was by any definition an act of terror intended to intimidate and influence the conclusion of one of the most bitter and partisan elections in history. These actions have left many in our nation, across political divides, stunned, shaken, and angry.
Over the almost five years that I have served as Bishop of the NT-NL Synod, I have observed our nation and our synod becoming more and more bitterly divided. Violent protests have become, particularly in the last year, a common phenomenon. Throughout this time, I have, along with Presiding Bishop Eaton and faith leaders from many traditions, supported the right of people, regardless of their political ideology, to peacefully assemble and express their grievances. We have done so while also consistently condemning violence, intimidation, and destruction of property. Today, I condemn the actions of those who invaded the Capitol building and of those whose words have stoked the fires of partisanship and violence.
Here is something else I have learned in these five years: the intense partisanship of our time has made it possible for me to predict the response I will receive from you, members of this synod, to my words. These predictions are possible based on who is involved, where the events take place, and which partisan political ideology is primary. What this has taught me is our arguments have become too well rehearsed and easy to deliver. And thinking theologically about them they smack of a desire for self-justification and self-righteousness.
On January 1st I wrote to you a New Years greeting in which I called us to recognize the disruption of this time has and is changing us. That the status quo did not and will not hold. The previously unthinkable events at our Capitol building bear that out. In that message, I called us to rely on our Lutheran distinctives to guide us in our response to this great disruption, particularly our understanding of the proper use of the Law and of the Gospel.
The violent action of storming the Capitol building was a violation of the civic use, or first use, of the law as Luther understood it. This law, embodied in structures of civic governance, is a means of bridling sinful human nature to preserve the good order of society and ensure the wellbeing of our neighbor (Smalcald Articles 2:2-3). In this time of intense partisanship this use of the law has been consistently violated; we are thus reminded that our human sin cannot only be restrained by civic structure but must be held up to us and convict us of our unrighteousness. This is an unrighteousness we all share regardless of our ideological beliefs (SA 3:7-8).
Our easy and well-rehearsed arguments are a symptom of this unrighteousness. We are quick to condemn the other just as we are quick to point out the speck in our neighbors’ eye (Matthew 7:3). We have been, all too willingly, conditioned by our sound bite, 24-hour news cycle, social media culture, on how to respond. We have been complicit in ideologies of supremacy and systems that oppress. We look to deflect the blame, to find a scapegoat. From our history we as Lutherans know this conditioning and complicity is dangerous particularly for our siblings of color and others on the vulnerable margins.
I therefore call upon us, having experienced this disruption, to sit with our collective sin for a time, to not rush to easy answers but ponder why we respond and how we respond. To listen to our neighbors, particularly our neighbors who are of a different social/economic class, race, gender, sexuality, or political perspective. To look at ourselves and our reactions critically. What might we be afraid of, or who might we be afraid of? What righteousness are we seeking, what kingdom?
This is not going to be easy work. We cannot ignore that in our society our experiences of power, law enforcement, access to health care and education, financial security, and a myriad of other things are uneven and often break down on lines of race, economic class, gender, sexuality. There are real divides in our communities, real experiences of oppression and violence, real reasons to be afraid and worried.
But if our primary identity is as people baptized into Christ then we should know that the only thing we truly have to fear—death—is no more (SA 3:4-5). So we can be people who know we are condemned by the Law and yet raised by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to cross over borders and barriers that would separate us from our neighbor, to let go of the easy and well-rehearsed answer and dig deeper to better understand one another and, by extension, ourselves.
I have no illusions about how hard this work will be, the time and energy it will take, and that frankly many of us will not desire to take it on. Our identities have become so confused in this partisan time, the answers so embedded, that the primacy of our baptismal identity can and often is obscured. But I pray, that by sitting together, even when apart, by being synod together, listening to one another, we might be able to model another way forward. I pray that this disruption will end our self-serving and self-seeking righteousness and help us see again that the gospel is the way of life and hope for all of God’s world. And, I pray that in so doing we might be more effective in our witness to this gospel and invitation for others to share in the way of Jesus.
“Rise up and come to our help, merciful God, for we are in need. Our spirits are weighed down with fear; our bodies feel as fragile as the dust from which we came. All that we have trusted seems hidden from sight. Although this moment has come upon our nation, you have not forgotten us. We do not trust in our own power or strength, but in your steadfast love in every generation. Show us your face in this time of trial, remind us of your faithfulness, and save us for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
-All Creation Sings, p. 49 “A prayer for a time of civic distress”