Lecture at Annual Convention of the Augsburg Lutheran Churches in El Paso, TX, July 25, 2011
By Uwe Siemon-Netto
I am sure that all you pastors had nothing better to do during the last two months than to follow the Casey Anthony trial in Orlando on Fox or CNN. If you have not done so you might have missed a paradigm for what we will be discussing this morning – the destructive force of the Me culture and how to resist it.
In simplistic terms, had Casey been found guilty of killing her two-year old daughter the paradigm would even have been perfect: Mother murders kid because the kid prevented her from having a good time. The Me trumps a child’s right to live. Case closed. Theologically speaking, my argument would have been the same as in the case of abortion. But that’s just the theological perspective, not the legal, secular view.
Casey Anthony was acquitted of all homicide-related charges, and from this point onward this case becomes even more fascinating for us Lutherans with our two kingdoms doctrine -- the doctrine that every Christian holds dual citizenship in God’s two realms: the spiritual realm of Christ, of grace and faith, and the secular kingdom where the hidden God reigns through His masks – meaning all of us.
Casey Anthony is not guilty coram hominibus, before man, period. She might be guilty coram Deo, before God, but only God alone can judge that. We have no say in this. We must accept the acquittal.
But a hateful rabble roused by massive media malpractice thinks otherwise. During my 55 years in journalism I have not seen anything as appalling as this in any democratic country.
Media stars called the jurors morons. So-called reporters opined before millions of viewers that Casey Anthony had no place else to go but into porn industry. They openly discussed that her life was at risk, pointedly suggesting that some kook out there might well hunt her down and kill her.
We were told that Casey was considering plastic surgery to change her appearance. Television anchors claiming to be Christians declared her doomed; the possibility of repentance was clearly not an option.
The scandal came to a head when entire fleets of media vehicles pulled up at the Orange County jail in Orlando a week before yesterday in anticipation of her release.
When she slipped into an SUV to be driven to a secret hiding place, scores of “reporters” chased her in helicopters through the night, clearly intent on letting the vengeful public know her whereabouts; thankfully, they did not succeed.
I am telling you all this at a Lutheran conference because what we were witnessing here was a vile symbiosis of the contemporary Me culture and a sinister, judgmental strain of American popular religion, which is not rooted in our tradition but, Max Weber would say, in Chapter III of the Westminster Confession of 1647.
The “Me” culture shows in these reporters’ flawed perception of their vocation. Their behavior proved that they felt no calling to serve their neighbors out of love.
Instead they instead pursued their craft in a self-aggrandizing manner. They sought their 15 minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol would say, by catering to the hateful lust in the hearts of their audiences, for nothing useful could be accomplished by putting this young woman’s life at risk. That’s the Me trumping the You in the singular and plural sense of the word.
The Westminster Confession, which according to Weber shaped American Calvinism and both independent and Baptist creeds, showed its impact on the crowds clamoring for “justice” for Casey Anthony’s dead daughter Caylee. This frightening Confession’s chapter on God’s Eternal Decree states that God predestines some unto everlasting life and foreordains others to everlasting death.
Clearly, Casey Anthony belongs to the latter category in the opinion of the plebs; she has no hope for redemption; hence she must be shunned, possibly destroyed.
This must make us shudder. But where were our Lutheran leaders in all this? Why did they not thunder: No, no, no, no, no; the option of grace, repentance and forgiveness is open for everybody, including Casey Anthony?! Why did Lutherans withhold the treasure of their theology from the rest of American Protestantism? Why did they not remind all those involved in this case – including reporters -- to live up to their vocations?
I fear that this is so because too many of us have become too evangelical in the wrong sense of the term.
I have had to say this because once again I sensed that Lutheranism was living up to its reputation of being America’s sleeping giant and snoozing on. I am told that Teddy Roosevelt coined this phrase and Billy Graham picked it up from him, but I might be wrong.
Never has the genius of the Lutheran theology of the two kinds of righteousness been more glaringly evident and more blatantly ignored by too many of its own practitioners.
And – to beat my own drum -- never have I found the need for the League of Faithful Masks, which I am heading, more palpably confirmed. I am not saying this because we seek glory, but because Lutherans too must be reminded of the self-evident Lutheran question: Now that we know that we are saved by grace through faith, what are we going to do with the rest of our lives?
The Christian answer is: We roll up our sleeves and engage this sinful world – the world of Casey Anthony and the rest of us – and help manage it as an act of love. We follow our vocations in all our daily endeavors, in the present case as lawyers, voters, jurors, witnesses and, yes, defendants, and most definitely as journalists.
What does our fledgling organization do? And why have we set out to start chapters across the country? We are confronting the Me culture by championing the Christian worldview, which says that we are called to serve our neighbors. Our sights are set on the You rather than the Me, and we are spreading this message by mentoring the young, by lecturing, and publishing. You will find more about this in the brochures you were given. I do hope that some of you will intiate new LFM chapters in your congregations.
And why do we call ourselves “Faithful Masks?” We have borrowed this term from Luther’s definition of all creation, especially human beings.
According to Luther, humans are “Larvae Dei”. They are the masks behind which God hides while carrying out His hidden purposes in the world.
Luther described God’s action in this world as a masquerade. If we accept our part in this masquerade as a service of love, then we are priests in the secular world, according to Luther. This requires some elucidation for which I beg your indulgence.
First let me stress where Lutherans differ from certain other Protestants concerning the Christian’s role in the secular world.
Unlike some other Protestant denominations, Lutherans do not teach that Christ transforms culture. And here we take great exception to American religion of which we have seen an ugly side in Orlando. The idea that Christ transforms culture has had an enormous influence on both sides of the political and religious spectrum in the United States.
Take the Social Gospel Movement, an essentially American phenomenon. Its preachers started from the assumption that the secular realm can be converted by religious means. Social Gospel preachers believed that the Second Coming could not occur until mankind rid itself of social evils by human effort.
But conservative evangelicals also insist that this world can be fixed with the help of the Gospel, for example by shunning people we believe are predestined to doom. In Orlando we saw evidence of this. I have no doubt that all those irate demonstrators considered themselves to be righteous Christians.
At the extremes of the political-religious spectrum even President Obama’s ex-pastor Jeremiah Wright fits into the category that preaches Christ as a transformer of society. But so does Baptist minister Steven Anderson who proclaimed from the pulpit that he hates Obama, wants him dead and burn in hell.
Lutherans say that such outlandish views mix pulpit and politics in a dangerous way.
As a Lutheran I am therefore often lost in the religious jabber that comes with political campaigns of the United States and elsewhere in the public square.
It reminds me of certain artery-clogging types of American food -- something topped with something else, and that topped with yet different stuff, plus more gunk and more and more and more, and finally everything smothered in melted cheese running over the rim of the plate.
I am overcome with a similar kind of distaste when I hear quotes from the Bible, blended with personal idiosyncrasies, recreational sociology and Marxist-Leninist liberationist rhetoric, plus theatrics – or when I listen to Bible thumpers abusing God’s word for their own political ends.
To quote Luther, this is the mark of “false clerics and schismatic spirits.” To Luther, the act of knitting and brewing spiritual and secular concerns together, amounts to presuming to give God a helping hand in the construction of His kingdom Here and Now.
In Lutheran terminology, this is Schwärmerei. It is utopianism. It tries to drag the Hereafter into the present reality. Impatient with God’s hidden timetable for the trajectory of the universe, utopians attempt to build little Elysian islands in our imperfect world. They try to craft quasi paradises tailor-made for their own preferences.
Remember what the Communists promised to create? A Workers’ and Peasants’ paradise! Remember what the Nazis claimed to have established? A thousand-year Reich, a kind of preliminary millenarian heaven with limited access. What was the Orlando rabble clamoring for? A neighborhood without Casey Anthony, a sinner.
According to Luther, man has no such divine assignment. In Hitler’s Day certain misguided Lutheran theologians spoke otherwise. But they manifestly betrayed their own theology.
Lutherans do not believe that the secular realm can be straightened out by religious means. Lutherans argue that this world is finite. It cannot be fixed but, as I said, must be managed until it disappears. This can only be done by virtue of reason.
And now I must take you along on an excursion to the specific part of our theology that pertains to the interface between the spiritual and secular aspects of human existence, the Two Kingdoms doctrine, also known as the Law-and-Gospel dialectic. Please refer to my chart; it makes it easier to follow this dialectic.
The two kingdoms doctrine is often confused with the ideologically inspired rhetoric in the United States about the separation between Church and State. What I am here to discuss is no separation but the need for making proper distinctions between two realities none of which can really exist without the other.
First we must understand that that both kingdoms belong to the same God. As man can’t separate God from God, the very idea of erecting a Berlin Wall between these two realms is absurd.
According to Lutheran theology, God simply reigns the universe in two different ways. The God who has revealed himself in Christ is also the Lord of this world, which He will never allow to slip from his hands. The two realms are not in an antagonistic but exist in a paradoxical relationship.
Lutherans say that all Christians have two citizenships. Christians hold the passport of the Kingdom of Christ (please refer to the right side of the two-kingdoms chart). This realm is infinite. Here God has revealed himself in Christ. We refer to this reality as the right-hand kingdom.
The reason why only Christians can be citizens of this realm can be found in Christianity’s core conviction that by the grace of God, Christ has redeemed the believer with His sacrifice on the cross.
Whoever believes this has eternal life.
On the other hand, Christians do share with everybody else a citizenship in the secular left-hand kingdom – the realm of which Christ told Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
This secular kingdom will ultimately disappear. Still, until this happens it will remain the realm of the hidden God. Here He reigns through his masks – through all of us. This is where we live out our biological lives.
In this world, we are God’s cooperators. We are His partners in the process of ongoing creation – by planting trees, by plowing fields, by raising children, by scientific research, by building spaceships, and perhaps by colonizing other planets and keeping order with the help of the police and the courts and – this will be my topic tomorrow – the military.
The two kingdoms are governed by different principles. In Christ’s kingdom this governing principle is the Gospel, the good news of the believer’s salvation by grace through faith. This knowledge, called Heilsgewissheit or assurance of salvation, frees us to engage in the sinful world.
This is the secular kingdom, where the governing principle is the law in two different manifestations – Mosaic and natural. Mosaic Law applies to Jews, Christians and Muslims, who were given the law.
But God has also written His law – natural law -- on everybody’s heart. Natural law is inscribed in our sense of right and wrong, it shows in our built-in sense of ethics. It is the universal morale code.
Though from God, the sense of natural law is a property of the secular left-hand kingdom. To be sure, it can be warped. It can be bent. It can be numbed to a point where it will be barely perceptible in the public mind.
This has become particularly evident since natural-law thinking was replaced by a new kind of positive-law thinking coming out of the French Revolution.
Luther made it plain that man-made “positive law” always had to be rooted in the “lex inscripta,” the law God has inscribed in man’s heart.
By contrast, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the principal philosopher of the French Revolution, interpreted “Positive Law” as freedom from internal constraints that limit vice.
It seems to me that Roe versus Wade offered this freedom from internal constraints limiting vice. Similarly, the fact that in the Nazi era most Germans did not express outrage at the persecution of Jews suggests generalized departure from the universal moral code.
On the other hand, when law is religiously embellished but not accompanied by reference to the Gospel, then you also liberate it from internal constraints, for example the innate constraints of human decency.
This is what we have in Islam, and what we have seen in Orlando. Can a case can be made for the existence of a kinship between Islam and a perverted kind of Reformed Christianity? Absolutely! They are akin in that they both deny the Gospel. Orlando has made this blatantly obvious.
Before we move on, let me emphasize in passing that natural law, not Scripture, is the perfect platform from which to argue against abortion rights. Lutheran often foolishly follow the evangelical example of randomly choosing Bible verses to stem the contemporary genocide of one million babies a year.
These references are meaningless when you talk to people who do not even know the Bible. On the other hand, it is easy to ask anybody of any culture: “Is it right to kill innocent human beings? Is it right to suck out their brains to collapse their skulls in order to yank a child’s body out of the birth canal?” If you will check the Internet you will find a website of an organization called “Atheists and Agnostics for Life.” Clearly, the moral position of these nonbelievers must be rooted somewhere. I suggest it’s natural law.
But let us now look at the problem that has been troubling me ever since I began covering American politics as a journalist back in the 1960s: the improper use of both leftwing and right-wing religious rhetoric in affairs of state.
Lutherans should be much more outspoken about this issue. Against the religious junk food offered by other Christian traditions we should address the following questions from our perspective:
Where does government fit into the two-kingdoms scheme to which Calvinists, Methodists and others object out of doctrinal ignorance? By what means are we governed?
Here is the answer based on Scripture:
Christ’s kingdom is governed by the Gospel, by grace, love, and faith. But the Gospel can tell you nothing about how to fight the war in Afghanistan, how to end the world’s immigration quagmires, whether or not to impose speed limits or gun control or a universal health system.
These are all issues of the secular realm. And the secular realm is governed by natural reason.
Luther’s detractors often argue that he called reason the Devil’s whore. This was an especially popular charge in England during World War II. Dean William Inge of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London used to make this point.
Luther did say this, but let us quote him in the proper context.
What Luther said was this, and I paraphrase: Reason is the empress of all things in this world. Reason is a gift from God enabling us to find our way around this world. Reason can even tell us that God “is.” But if reason presumes to tell us anything about God’s nature then reason becomes the Devil’s whore.
It is by natural reason, not the Gospel, that Kings and Presidents, Prime Ministers and mayors must run this world. ”The emperor need not be a Christian, as long as he possesses reason,” Luther said.
But of course rulers are themselves divine masks, like the rest of us in our secular vocations.
So did God govern through Hitler? Did He govern through Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot? Were these tyrants God’s masks? Are dishonest judges His masks? Are greedy businessmen? Is God hiding behind a coke-snorting brain surgeon?
Let me remind you of how Luther defined Satan. He called him God’s imitator, and this imitator too, like God Himself, conducts a masquerade in this world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor martyred by the Nazis, addressed this phenomenon most succinctly when he wrote in his prison cell:
“The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to disguise as light, charity, historical necessity or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethics, while for the Christian who bases his life on the Bible it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil.”
In this crazy situation, we have to do what’s reasonable while operating in the secular realm. But how does one act reasonably when a tyrant poses as the mask of the hidden God? Luther has often been accused of preaching quietism in such a situation, and indeed some Lutherans, though not all, have acted that way in Nazi Germany.
Yet Luther said, “If the coachman has lost his mind he must be removed from the driver’s seat.” But even in so doing we can make mistakes; we are fallible after all. Therefore if before we topple the tyrant and we must find the right replacement, for we cannot leave the carriage driverless, lest chaos ensue.
Even then there is no guarantee that things will work out well. Bonhoeffer participated in the plot to rid Germany of Hitler by means of tyrannicide. When asked about this he said he knew that he was engaged in a sinful plot. But he added, “Right now reason compels us to do this.” He added that he must turn to Christ’s right-hand kingdom for forgiveness.
Bonhoeffer’s plans failed, and he was hanged.
Carl Goerdeler, the former mayor of my hometown of Leipzig and leader of the German civilian resistance against Hitler since 1937, tried to remove the coachman not by assassination; Goerdeler plotted to have Hitler arrested by the German military and tried for treason before a German court; and Goerdeler put together an elaborate list of candidates for a post-Nazi German government – from chief of state right down to county police chief.
He also failed and wound up on the gallows.
So where does this leave us now?
In his Nazi prison cell, Bonhoeffer wrote these memorable words:
“I believe that God will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For these purposes, he needs men to make the best use of everything.”
This paragraph contains the quintessential Lutheran paradox, that shows that for all of their differences, no Berlin Wall separates to two realms: We have a statement of faith in the first sentence and an affirmation of God’s ultimate sovereignty over the left-hand kingdom in the second.
I have taken this quote from the prologue to Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. A little further on, Bonhoeffer pushes this faith-and-reason dialectic even more forcefully:
“I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are turned to good account, and that it is no harder for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds. I believe that God is no timeless fate, but that he waits for and answers sincere prayers and responsible actions.”
Prayers belong to the right-hand kingdom; responsible actions are performed in the secular realm. Thus the two complement each other and therefore are not separate from one another, just distinct.
This is the tension field in which all Christians live, and in which Lutheran theology seems to provide a helpful compass.
Such a compass is particularly vital in a democracy because the sovereigns in a democratic nation are not a select few as in Luther’s day five centuries ago.
In a democracy, voters are the divinely appointed sovereigns. Therefore Romans 13:1 applies to voters as much as to all other rulers: “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
This has such profound implications for Christians that neither the social gospel approach nor Bible thumping seem right when considering the thorny issues of church and state, faith and reason, religion and society.
These implications can be summed up in three points.
1. According to Romans 13, Christians in the voting booth must be aware that they have a divine calling to help manage God’s secular realm.
2. In this vocation they will not proclaim the Gospel, as little as a responsible brain surgeon preaches the Gospel to the patient whose head he is operating on. They “share” the Gospel in church or in prayer groups or in private discussions. But in the voting booth or political assemblies, Christians serve God by serving their fellow man.
3. If they do so with love and circumspection rather than for selfish ends voters rank as members of the universal priesthood of all believers.
These three points pertain to the world of which Christ said that it was not His kingdom. They pertain to the world whose empress is reason, according to Luther. The Gospel will hopefully illume reason. Still, Christians like non-Christian voters – who have the law written upon their hearts – must base their decision on reason.
The Church has no business to tell the sovereigns of this world how to vote, but as the Church is imbedded as a corporate citizen of the left-hand kingdom it can and must counsel these sovereigns in a non-partisan way.
Take the race issue. The Church must make it clear to its members that under the Gospel there is not racial divide in Christ’s right-hand kingdom.
But the Church is in no position to opine on the means with which the results of racial segregation can be overcome. Would affirmative action the right way, for example? This is a question so be discussed reasonably in the secular realm.
But here is a neat point: If whites and blacks worship and commune together in a colorblind congregation on Sundays, to would surely be easier for them to discuss secular matters during the week. Here one must hope that Luther’s dictum should apply: The Christian faith illumes reason.
The Church must tell is congregants that they have an divine obligation to be relentlessly curious. The Church must urge them to muster the courage to ask candidates be brutally truthful about the dire state the world is in, and how they intend to deal with this, even at the risk of proposing unpopular measures.
The Church has a calling to warn voters against basing their decision on prejudice, ideology, conjecture, ignorance, selfishness, and a sloppy desire for an “easy way out,” rather than informed logic and neighborly love, lest they neglect their priestly duties.
This applied to politics as much as to court cases. The Orlando rabble based its actions on prejudice, conjecture, ignorance, selfishness and the sloppy desire for an “easy way out,” in this case a witch hunt against Casey Anthony.
The Church must also inform its members that playing ostrich is not a Christian option, but neither is kneejerk reaction to an unpopular verdict. A Christian failing to go to the polls for fear of voting wrongly resembles the useless servant who kept the pound entrusted to him laid away in a napkin (Luke 19:20). The same applies to Christians deaf to the calling to run for public office.
By the same token, a Christian behaving like Pavlov’s dog when a jury arrives by use of sound reason at a judgment is sabotaging God’s trust because that Christian implicitly denies the divine origin of the jurors’ vocation and thus rejects the created order of secular government, which includes secular justice.
Secular vocations are part of the created order. In my life I have witnessed the chilling consequences of attempts to undo created order. The behavior of the Orlando rabble shows the pitfalls of such behavior, which was an expression of self-righteousness has nothing in common with the Christian faith.