Guilt and Grief, and Relief

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 12.]

Troubled Water (2008, streaming on Amazon Prime) is really a brilliantly made film. You know the whole thing is going to collapse and fall apart between Thomas and Agnes, but you don’t know when. That tension builds and builds, even when there is nothing tense happening in a given moment. And the way the story is put together brings even seemingly unimportant events to their true significance.

It’s not that the shift in perspective in the middle of the film is unique, but perhaps it surprised me because (not having heard of the movie before) I simply didn’t expect it. Even though it’s over two hours, the two couples are so entwined and paralleled, focused on Thomas and Agnes, that I never felt the length. One has seemingly overcome her grief; one has seemingly overcome his guilt; but both have been deprived (or deprived themselves) of the opportunity to face head-on the event that connects them.

Until that happens, you can feel the troubled waters begin to stir beneath the surface. The central moment is highlighted by the caretaker asking Thomas to play “some real church music” for children on a field trip—led by Agnes—and he plays “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (!).

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Faith Deformed

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 29.]

I knew this was going to happen. I knew that if a movie was hyped over and over, time and again, as being an incredible, profound meditation on faith and doubt, that it was unlikely to be anything of the sort. If someone has left or been scarred by Christianity, or an American Fundamentalist version of it; if someone is quick to say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”; or if someone is fully convinced that what the Church should do is take up the apocalyptic cause du jour, then that person is the perfect candidate to be over-impressed with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed.

I don’t mean that those aren’t authentic responses to a real emotional and intellectual experience of viewing this film. But if you don’t find yourself resonating with one or more of those categories, you might well wonder if you’ve completely missed the point of the film. Is there an additional scene after the credits? Did I miss the profundity? Am I too stupid to understand the basic elements of serious film and thereby misunderstand Schrader’s intentions? The last two might, of course, be true. But the simpler answer is probably more accurate: It’s an attempt to be profound about religion, faith, and doubt, without actually achieving it.

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Competing Visions

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 9.]

From February 2-9, the Spokane International Film Festival celebrated its twentieth year, holding screenings of documentary and narrative features, as well as shorts blocks from around the world, including a Best of the Northwest program featuring local filmmakers. The festival opened with Benny and Joon, a 1993 film that was set and made in Spokane and which—I’m somewhat ashamed to admit—I had never seen.

I also saw The Fencer, a Golden Globe winner from 2016, about an Estonian man who is trying to avoid the Soviet secret police because they are hunting down all who had been conscripted by the Nazis to fight against the Soviets in World War II. It’s family-friendly and worth watching if you can find it.

My favorite narrative was The Endless, which is sort of a supernatural, psychological thriller involving two brothers who return to a compound where they used to live in shadowy, cult-like community.

But the film I keep thinking about is No Man’s Land (set to premier on PBS on May 7, but available now on Amazon Prime), a documentary about the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, south of Burns, Oregon. First, it’s simply a great documentary. It’s well-filmed, it allows the principals to speak for themselves, and it tells a compelling story. And second, it does what my favorite documentaries always do: it gives me understanding of something of which I was only vaguely aware.

Of course, I had heard of Ammon Bundy, and I knew something was happening in 2016 at an Oregon wildlife refuge where there didn’t seem to be much else going on. But I couldn’t quite understand what it was all about. Anti-government protest? Okay. Ranchers? Right. But why did they choose to do things this way and what did they expect the federal government to do or not do? The striking thing about this film initially is how close it is to the events. This is not a film shot years removed from what it documents, involving interviews of people who were present a long time before. The filmmakers are in and among, embedded right in the middle of everything.

There are also later interviews with others, including the county sheriff, and at least three members of the press. But that is analysis of what we watch unfold in real time on the screen. And what unfolds is a fascinating story with fascinating characters, and enough drama (ratcheted up by some of the players themselves) to keep the story moving.

As you might expect, and as other, recent protests have demonstrated, the overarching concern of a given protest puts out a wide umbrella. So the Bundys at Malheur draw to themselves anti-government activists of every stripe, nearly every one of them armed with rifles and handguns. For the first part of the story, those differences are drawn together by Ammon Bundy, LaVoy Finicum, and others. They seem to concentrate on over-reach of the federal government in claiming land in Oregon, the government not allowing ranchers to use the land as they wish for grazing, and a distaste for federalism in general.

If the viewer watches without already formed conclusions and biases, as I did, the Bundys and many of their concerns seem reasonable and considered. (What the film doesn’t say is that the Bundys are not from Oregon, and that they arrived there to protest the sentences of two ranchers who set fires on what the federal government said was federal land. But the film does show that apparently very few of those occupying the Malheur refuge were actually from Oregon.)

Because this protest (fed by social media) draws so many different people, with different complaints, it becomes harder and harder to hold it together. And, in fact, the lack of direction and the lack of any plan beyond the original protest causes it to fall apart. There do seem to be reasonable people with serious concerns (to me, Jason Patrick—not to be confused with Jason Patric—is one of the most thoughtful and reasonable, to the extent that he tries to calm some of the protesters when their rhetoric starts to incline toward inevitable violence).

But there are also unstable people with guns, the naive and inexperienced, and those simply spoiling for a violent confrontation. There are people motivated by racial concerns (although I wonder if the number of times an anti-Black-Lives-Matter sign is shown matches the percentage of the participants whose motivation is racial). What is clear is that very few of the protesters are concerned about Oregon or Harney County in particular. The location seems to have provided a convenient place to stage the Bundys’ protest against the federal government.

One aspect of the occupation that is shown, but not in its specificity, is the religious aspect. More than once, people at Malheur are shown praying, confident that what they are doing is God’s will. There is also one shot of a copy of The American Patriot’s Bible with a copy of the U.S. Constitution next to it. One is led to assume that the protesters are the “typical” American, “God and Country” Evangelicals. But, in fact, the Bundy brothers, as well as LaVoy Finicum, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that distinctly American religion. Apparently, the Bundys have claimed to have received divine messages directing them to undertake things like the occupation of the refuge. That is, at least for most Christians, a step beyond simply “God’s on our side.”

Not only does it highlight some of the problems with a mystically inclined enthusiasm that claims private messages related to God’s will, it also shows a virtual interchangeability of “God” and “Country.” Further, this goes beyond the idea articulated in the film that the Bundys have a vision for America that is competing with the contrary vision of the residents of Burns—not to mention much of the U.S. citizenry. It is also a vision of the relationship of Church and State that is far distant from many Christians in general, and Lutherans in particular.

Whereas the Bundys and their fellow travelers (of whatever type) are absolutely certain about the rightness of their cause and their actions, Christians who belong to the Kingdom of God first will always be ambivalent about any political cause, process, or government. But what the protesters (or many of them) view as their constitutional stance, contrary to the anti-constitutional actions that they oppose, has become (I don’t think it’s too much to say) their de facto religion. It has ceremony, rituals, order, and martyrs.

While a Christian might, as a citizen of the United States, agree with some of the opinions and interpretations of what this country is supposed to be and be like, that same Christian cannot be whole-heartedly for “the cause.” No one can serve two masters. As concerned as I might be about what looks like an unjustified shooting, about the curtailing of freedom, about the way the federal government (and all government, really) always advances and extends its powers and never recedes in its authority, about the surveillance that seems to grow with technological ability, and about the complete lack of what the Roman Catholics call subsidiarity, none of that will ever lead me to put all my time, money, and energy into defending one or another competing vision of the Constitution, or of liberty, or of the American founders’ conceptions of the limits of the federal government.

That doesn’t mean I won’t exercise my rights as a citizen to promote the vision of the nation that best seems to serve the common good (which, in my case, would mean a governmental power far more limited than what we see today). But it means that, finally, my life is bound to the cross of Jesus and not to the Constitution or to any form of patriotism. There are, indeed, enemies of the American self-understanding—some of which have been and continue to be within this nation itself. (Read, for one example, Whittaker Chambers’ description of them in Witness.) It is right and good to oppose such enemies.

But that can never be an unconditionally certain enterprise, as it is for most of the people in No Man’s Land. As far as Christianity goes, since we are strangers and exiles within whatever land we find ourselves, it is always and everywhere a serious mistake to assume any kind of direct overlap between American and Christian understandings of citizenship. One is temporary and conditional, the other is eternal and absolute. As fascinating as this documentary is in terms of our current political and societal divisions, the division between a Christian’s finite loyalty and his infinite loyalty is the more interesting and the more fundamental.

Longing for Life

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 30.]

Here’s one for a long and ongoing conversation. Ordet is a 1955 Danish film (and 1956 Golden Globe award winner for Best Foreign Language Film) about a family living in a small town in Jutland, where the division between the organized state church and a conversionist sect becomes the catalyst for everyone’s crisis of faith. This is a hard film to watch for people (like me) who have been inoculated to older (purer?) cinema by technological advances, high production values, fast pacing, and color.

Even so, it is clear that there is nothing unnecessary in this film. Every piece of the set was specifically put in place by director Carl Theodor Dreyer (even to the point of Dreyer going shopping for wardrobe pieces with his actors and actresses), and every shot is exactly the minimum. Many of the scenes are, in fact, a single shot, which sets it apart even further from modern, continuously changing scenes. Dreyer has minutes, not seconds, per shot. In the end, the set is so sparsely decorated that the viewer’s focus is forced toward what Dreyer views as essential.

Adding to the force of the film (at least for a Lutheran pastor) is that the writer of the play on which the film is based, Kaj Munk, was a Danish Lutheran pastor who preached against the Nazi occupation of Denmark and was murdered by the Gestapo in 1944 for his opposition. The stone cross erected where Munk’s body was found appears twice in the film.

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No Battle Hymns for the American Church

What kind of “battle hymn” can the Church have?  It cannot be one that applies only to a single nation, unless the Church is limited by certain national boundaries.  It cannot be a truly militaristic one, since the Church does not conquer by the blood shed by real swords, or real bullets fired from actual guns, or by taking the physical lives of her enemies.

The Church is indeed Militant, but that means something altogether different according to the Gospel than it would mean in the civil square.  The Church is militant because she struggles, fights, and endures under the cross in the world, and in the face of temptation from the devil and the flesh.  Our warfare is not against flesh and blood–not against other human beings, for whom Christ came, died, and rose from the dead–but against our own sinful nature, the devil, and the world–all of which have the goal of tearing us from Christ’s promise.

This is true generally, but it is even more important to emphasize in a time when religious and secular (which does not mean “bad,” but simply “according to the age”) goals sometimes get confused or entangled.  It is easy to confuse something like “real Americanism” or “true patriotism” with Christianity or what remains of a civic-religious morality.  If it appears that those currently in authority in the United States or the wider cultural moment are opposing “the way things were,” or promoting things that formerly were never mentioned in polite company, it becomes all the easier to bind together an appeal to a prior, generally assumed morality with an increasingly frenzied flag-waving.

The problem is not necessarily patriotism, or national pride, in themselves.  One can, and should, be grateful for the gifts inherent in a nation such as the United States where Christians can gather openly and freely to hear the Word of God, receive His Gifts, and worship Him in return.  But such freedom also opens up the danger of assuming that the liberty we enjoy in the United States is somehow related–or even identical–to Christian liberty.  It’s inherent in such quasi-Christian statements as “Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you: Jesus and the American soldier.  One died for your soul. The other died for your freedom.”  (Which is partly a paraphrase of a lyric from the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” On the Battle Hymn, see below.)

American Christians especially enjoy such Christian-Nationalism (which ought to be a contradiction in terms) when the Lord’s Day falls on or near national holidays such as Memorial Day or Independence Day.  Citizens may indeed sing national songs and enjoy the celebrations that go along with those holidays.  But citizens who are also Christians cannot bring the celebrations of the localized State into the universal Church, which spans time, space, and national boundaries.

It is strange enough to display the national flag in Christian sanctuaries (literally, “holy places”).  Though it may not seem strange to most American Christians, consider the dissonance if the foreign embassy of one nation were to display the flag of the country on whose soil it finds itself.  It has never happened, and it will never happen, because the embassy is considered part of the sovereign nation which it represents, and not the nation that hosts it.  But the flag is mostly inert.  It is far worse for Christians, within the services of the Lord’s House, to sing songs of praise to the nation.  There is a reason why Lutheran Service Book has only three songs in the “Nation and National Songs” section (964-966): because patriotic or national songs have difficulty not blurring the lines between praise of God and praise of the nation–or even supplanting praise of God with the praise of the nation.  If the United States were identical to Old Testament Israel, we wouldn’t have to worry so much, since Israel was the nation of God (and the Biblical type of the eternal Land of Promise to be fulfilled in the Messianic Kingdom).

But the United States is not and cannot be Israel, because the Church is universal, made up of all the baptized believers within every nation, from every tribe and people and language.  Therefore, the songs of the State, while perfectly acceptable at baseball games, backyard cookouts, and national celebrations, have no place whatsoever within the services of God’s House, where the Body of Christ gathers to receive His Gifts and sing His praise.

It would be bad enough if those songs were limited to The Star-Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful.  Again, no songs of praise to the nation belong with the praise of God.  But it gets worse when there are openly blasphemous and idolatrous songs such as The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  I suspect that most people know only the chorus (“Glory, glory, hallelujah/His truth is marching on”), plus, perhaps, a few other words, so they don’t realize what this song is really about.  It was written by Julia Ward Howe, a committed abolitionist (which is certainly good in itself); but she was also a a Unitarian and Transcendentalist, as well as a firm believer in the (divine) righteousness of the Union’s cause during the Civil War.  The actual lyrics of the song align the action of God and Christ with the fight of the Union soldiers, and declare unequivocally that God’s vengeance is being carried out by the Union.  This is the worst of the sort of theology Bob Dylan identifies in “With God on Our Side” and the slogan “my country, right or wrong.”  Any unambiguous proclamation of God’s action in the world, in nations, through governments, must necessarily be false, because He has not told us what He is doing in the world.  He has only told us what He is doing for the world through Christ.  However rousing the melody is, the Battle Hymn has a history and a context, and it does not make sense apart from that history and context.

Do we still believe that God’s rule in the civil realm is different from His rule in the Church?  If not, we will not only lose a proper understanding of the role and limits of the State, but we will also lose the pure Gospel and Sacraments of the Church.  They both have their proper place–understood correctly–but the history of both Church and State is strewn with the destruction caused by mixing them together.  (For the unaware, read Michael Burleigh’s accounts in Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes of the idolatry that ensues when the State co-opts the Church or religion.)

[For further reading on the history (and heresy) of the Battle Hymn and Julia Ward Howe, see here, here, here, and here.]


A Case for Christians Carrying Concealed

That’s a lot of Cs.

Having recently obtained a permit to carry concealed, I often think about the consequences of actually having to draw a firearm and pull the trigger.  For a Christian, what is legal (and the legality of firing a gun that will likely kill another person has nearly as many gray areas as there are possible dangerous situations) is not always right–and sometimes vice-versa.  I suppose the following could be taken as an exercise in self-justification.  Nevertheless, besides the legality of carrying concealed weapons (firearms, specifically)–which vary from place to place, and the law of the particular jurisdiction ought to be obeyed: can Christians in good conscience carry a firearm which, if it is used for protection, will possibly or even likely result in the death of another human being?

The lines of disagreement are probably set out in advance.  I would guess that those who are opposed to the death penalty or to war (“just” or not), or who identify themselves as pacifists, are unlikely to grant the premises from which I am working, and so also the conclusions.  These lines have been drawn since the Reformation (at least), and are summed up in Augsburg Confession XVI:

Of Civil Affairs they teach that lawful civil ordinances are good works of God, and that it is right for Christians to bear civil office, to sit as judges, to judge matters by the Imperial and other existing laws, to award just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to make oath when required by the magistrates, to marry a wife, to be given in marriage.

They condemn the Anabaptists who forbid these civil offices to Christians.

So if you’re an Anabaptist or one of their heirs, you’re probably not going to grant the first premise about the good of secular government and its protective abilities, let alone the later premises of an individual’s love for his neighbor.

But the state of the facts for Christians is that we have, on the one hand, the command not to murder and, on the other, we have the principle that the government has been given the sword to defend citizens against evil and punish the evildoer (Romans 13:4, particularly).  But Romans 13 is not an isolated treatise on the role of government; it belongs within the wider context of “love each other” (13:8), which begins in 12:1 and goes to, at least, 14:23.  The love of God for people is exercised through the governing authorities; that is, God protects His creation and His creatures by means of the ruler(s) of a given nation.  Obviously, a particular ruler may not rule according to God’s will, and may in fact be the agent of wrongdoing.  Even so, the intention of God for government remains.  The abuse does not nullify the use.

There is also no room for the individual to exercise revenge.  “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” God says (Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30).

The Gospel forbids private redress [in order that no one should interfere with the office of the magistrate], and Christ inculcates this so frequently with the design that the apostles should not think that they ought to seize the governments from those who held otherwise…Therefore private redress is prohibited not by advice, but by a command, Matt. 5:39Rom. 12:19. Public redress, which is made through the office of the magistrate, is not advised against, but is commanded, and is a work of God, according to Paul, Rom. 13:1 sqq. Now the different kinds of public redress are legal decisions, capital punishment, wars, military service. It is manifest how incorrectly many writers have judged concerning these matters [some teachers have taught such pernicious errors that nearly all princes, lords, knights, servants regarded their proper estate as secular, ungodly, and damnable, etc. Nor can it be fully expressed in words what an unspeakable peril and damage has resulted from this to souls and consciences], because they were in the error that the Gospel is an external, new, and monastic form of government, and did not see that the Gospel brings eternal righteousness to hearts [teaches how a person is redeemed, before God and in his conscience, from sin, hell, and the devil], while it outwardly approves the civil state. [Apology of the Augsburg Confession XVI:59-60]

But defense of  those under your care (according to your vocation) is not, in itself, vengeance.  It could certainly become that (see Taken).  Instead, self-defense, broadly construed as protection of your family (and perhaps, in particular circumstances, as defense of those who are being attacked in, let’s say, a movie theater or school), falls under the principle of love your neighbor.  Your neighbor is whoever is in need of your help at a particular moment.  If you are in a position to render aid to someone, you should do so.

Here is the reason why you should do this: In such a case you would be entering entirely into the service and work of others, which would be of advantage neither to yourself nor your property or honor, but only to your neighbor and to others. You would be doing it not with the purpose of avenging yourself or returning evil for evil, but for the good of your neighbor and for the maintenance of the safety and peace of others. For yourself, you would abide by the gospel and govern yourself according to Christ’s word [Matt. 5:39–40], gladly turning the other cheek and letting the cloak go with the coat when the matter concerned you and your cause.

In this way the two propositions are brought into harmony with one another: at one and the same time you satisfy God’s kingdom inwardly and the kingdom of the world outwardly. You suffer evil and injustice, and yet at the same time you punish evil and injustice; you do not resist evil, and yet at the same time, you do resist it. In the one case, you consider yourself and what is yours; in the other, you consider your neighbor and what is his. In what concerns you and yours, you govern yourself by the gospel and suffer injustice toward yourself as a true Christian; in what concerns the person or property of others, you govern yourself according to love and tolerate no injustice toward your neighbor. The gospel does not forbid this; in fact, in other places it actually commands it. [Luther, AE 45:95-96]

For myself as a Christian, for the sake of property, for the sake of money or anything else like that, I ought to be willing to let it go, and I see no way to use violent force to prevent the taking of those things.  But I do not live only for myself; I am a husband and a father.  I have a wife and children.  I would be forsaking my God-given vocation if I allowed someone to come into my house and violate my family or if I allowed a person to accost my family on the street.  In that case, it is necessary to choose which love and which neighbor I will honor.  God forbid that it should come to this, but I will choose to defend those whom God has given to me, and not the one He has not given to me.  Murder is murder, and fear of what might happen is not provocation enough to pull a trigger.  But if it comes down to it, my particular vocation as husband and father demands that I love my wife and children as my closest “neighbors” and not fail to do what God has given me at that moment–not in order to murder someone else, but to defend my family.

This is just a beginning of thinking things through, not from the legal perspective but from the Christian perspective.  Thoughtful comments welcome.


I Love America, But…

Theses on Christianity and Patriotism

  1. The Church and the State have their own separate realms, both of which are God’s.
  2. In the Church God rules according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; in the State God rules according to His Law, written into creation itself.
  3. Each has its own rituals, songs, liturgies, and traditions.
  4. The rituals and traditions belonging to each should remain in their respective realms.
  5. The facts of Christianity are not nor can they be known to everyone, because they are made known by revelation.
  6. The Trinity, Jesus, forgiveness of sins, the Sacraments, the Gospel, and similar things are only known by faith given by the Holy Spirit.
  7. Thus, outside of the gathering of the saints of God around His Word and Sacraments, or outside of the witness of Christians in their vocations, these words and teachings should not be brought into the ceremonies of the civil realm, i.e., those events sponsored by the State.
  8. The facts of the civil realm are available to any person by reason and law.
  9. Laws, creation, morality, the existence of a deity can be known by experience, reason, and examination of the natural world.
  10. The State has an interest in regulating and legislating these things; therefore, they are not, nor can they be, Christianity.
  11. Therefore, Christianity in itself is not morality, law, the good things of creation, or citizenship in any nation.
  12. Christianity does not destroy law, government, morality, citizenship, or civic duty.
  13. Rather, Christianity wishes to keep them in their proper realm: the civic realm, where people have duties and responsibilities toward one another.
  14. Christianity wishes to keep its own realm, the Church, free from legislation and morality, because these will end up subsuming the Gospel back under the Law.
  15. Morality is good, but not in the Church.
  16. That is, the Church does not exist to teach morality.
  17. Legislation is good, but not in the Church.
  18. That is, the Church can legislate nothing.  She has only the Word of God.
  19. This does not mean the Church refrains from proclaiming the Law of God.  She must do this, or risk turning the Gospel into something less than the full, free, unconditional forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake.
  20. But the lack of morality in the world, or the lack of holy living in the Church, cannot be solved by preaching the Law more.
  21. This must, and will, create either spiritually proud people, or spiritually despairing people, unless the Law is preached as a tutor leading to Jesus, who is the end and fulfillment of the Law.
  22. The Church, which will be fulfilled in the Kingdom of God,  is where Jesus alone reigns through His cross, death, resurrection, and the forgiveness He gives.
  23. The United States is neither the Church nor the Kingdom of God.
  24. The Reign of God is beyond all national borders.
  25. God reigns in the United States, as in all nations, only according to His Law, which can only say, “Do this; don’t do that.”
  26. In the realm of the State, the Law is the final word.  There is only Law, and there is only justice.
  27. In the realm of the Church, the Law can never have the final word; it is always God’s “alien” or “strange” work before He does His true or “proper” work of the Gospel.
  28. Whenever these two realms are mixed or confused, the Law ceases to be a demanding and merciless word, and the Gospel ceases to be a free and unconditional word of mercy.
  29. Thus, generic songs about “God,” which are really directed to the State, are not appropriate in the services of the Lord’s House.
  30. This is because we do not have a generic “God,” which has to be interpreted as the Christian, Trinitarian God; we have a specific, explicitly revealed God in Jesus Christ.
  31. A generic “God” is appropriate in the realm of the State, which can know of a deity, but not who this deity is.
  32. Further, most people recognize that there is some “higher power,” by which we are held accountable for how we act.  This is good in the realm of the State.
  33. The Church should pray for the State, and the members of the Church are always citizens of some State.  They should act as responsible citizens for the good of all the other citizens (e.g., by voting, letters to the editor, activism, and any other means open to them).  If the State proscribes religious practice, the members of the Church must obey God rather than men.
  34. Since the Church is the realm of the Gospel and of revealed Christianity, the symbols of the State do not belong in her buildings (e.g., national flags).
  35. Since the State is the realm of Law and of reason, the symbols of the Church do not belong in her buildings (e.g., crosses).
  36. The Church should never give the impression that she is anything other than an outpost of the Kingdom of God within whichever State it finds itself.
  37. The Church is always in a State, but she is never of the State.
  38. The Church should never give the impression that she belongs to a particular State, because the members of the Church are scattered throughout every nation.  Therefore, she should not sing songs that do not apply to any Christian in any State.
  39. The Church should always retain a critical distance from any State, even when the State seems to support the free exercise of the Church’s rites.
  40. The State’s laws can always change; the Reign under which the Church is found never changes.
  41. The State and the Church often use similar words, and yet, according to their proper realms, these words signify completely different things.
  42. Freedom in the realm of the State does not signify the same thing as freedom in the realm of the Church.  Since there is no such thing as sin in the realm of the State (only the breaking of laws), there can be no such thing as freedom from sin in the realm of the State.
  43. Soldiers do not fight and die for the same freedom for which Christ died.  They are absolutely distinct, and must be kept that way to preserve the Gospel itself.
  44. Righteousness in the realm of the State does not signify the same thing as righteousness in the realm of the Church.
  45. Righteousness in the realm of the State is external and earned, not given–and as condemning before God as the worst sin.  Righteousness in the realm of the Church is in the heart and freely given, not earned–and as saving before God despite the worst sin.
  46. Christians ought not put their hands over their hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance or the Star-Spangled banner, because they cannot serve two masters, nor do they have room in their hearts for both Jesus and the State.
  47. The United States is the worst country on the face of the earth–except for all the others; Christians will remember that though she is an excellent and prosperous Babylon, she is still Babylon.
  48. When we ceased to be strangers and aliens to the people of God in Christ, we became, by definition, strangers and aliens to whatever country in which we find ourselves.  Whatever we are as citizens of the United States (rich, poor, governor, governed), we remain in the Church vagrants, beggars, and supplicants who live only by the mercy of God in Christ.
  49. We will take advantage and use fully the benefits which all people are accorded in this country, but we will never rely on them for our life.  They are in the end, like all things that are not Christ, only death.  We will keep the laws, as long as they do not interfere with what God commands, or encroach upon the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel and administration of the Sacraments.  We will give thanks that we do not have to pay taxes on church buildings, etc., but we will not pretend that the Church lives or dies by its tax-exempt status.  We will give thanks for the protection of the Church under the First Amendment to the Constitution, but we will not pretend that the Church lives or dies on whether the government recognizes that freedom.
  50. The Church lives or dies by one thing only: whether the Gospel of the free forgiveness of sinners by Jesus Christ is preached from her pulpits and given out from her altars.

[Open for debate!]


A Series of Unfortunate Events

I believe Jesus is Lord.  He is the only Man who keeps His promises.  That’s not in dispute.  I do not despair, no matter what happens in any given country, because my hope is not in this world or its rulers or its laws.


As far as the secular realm goes, this is not a good day.  This is not about Mitt Romney.  I have no idea how a Romney Administration would have turned out, and we will never know.  This is about the policies of the current Administration, as well as the arguments that this President and his Administration have made in the public square.  In the Hosanna-Tabor case before the Supreme Court, the Obama Administration argued that there is no “ministerial exception,” which, if that argument had succeeded (and with 2 or 3 new Justices in the next four years, it may yet), would mean that neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod would be able to limit its ministerium to men.  You can bet that both churches’ Biblical and traditional arguments would have been challenged in court, if the Administration had won that argument.

More recently, the Administration has argued that religious freedom (i.e., “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]”; and, further, the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly) does not extend to business owners such as the owners of Hobby Lobby.  If you think this is going to stop with contraception and places that are not explicitly “houses of worship,” you are fooling yourself.  Who really believes that the pushers of the absolute secularization of the public square are going to let churches get away with flouting the new progressive order?  (“First they came for the Roman Catholics…”)  For a litany of other attacks on religious freedom in the United States, see here, including

In our universities, those citadels of toleration, we find that toleration can be sharply limited. At the Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, the student chapter of the Christian Legal Society was denied any status on the campus because it would not abandon its requirement that members commit themselves to traditional Christian norms regarding sexual morality. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling in 2010, held that the student group’s rights were not violated by a “take all comers” policy. Following this lead, Vanderbilt University has rewritten its student organizations policy and effectively chased every traditionally Christian student group off campus, denying them regular access to campus facilities. And at the University of Illinois, an adjunct professor of religion, hired to teach a course on Catholicism, was let go because a student complained about his patient explanation of the Catholic Church’s natural law teachings on human sexuality. (He was later restored to his teaching duties, but at the expense of the Newman Center, not on the state payroll.)

In our states and localities, we see other kinds of pressures. Authorities in Washington state and Illinois have attempted to force pharmacists, against their conscience, to dispense “morning after” pills when other pharmacists short distances away make these abortifacients available. New York City has barred church congregations—and them alone—from using public school buildings outside school hours. In New Mexico, a Christian wedding photographer was fined for violation of a state “human rights act” because she refused to take the business of a same-sex couple who claimed to want her services at their civil union ceremony. And in Massachusetts, Illinois, San Francisco, and the District of Columbia, the adoption and fostering agencies of Catholic Charities have been shuttered because they will not place children with same-sex couples, as the local authorities demand.

So welcome to the continuation and expansion of the Brave New World, where the unborn are problems, diseases, and accidents; where fighting against a “war on women” is a euphemism for fighting against the birth of human beings (including, obviously, unborn women); where there may not be any limit whatsoever on the “right” of a woman to kill her own child, as long as it’s still inside her womb; where we have a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) policy of Lebensunwertes Leben, whether the youngest, the oldest, or the most handicapped.  (It is not a coincidence that somewhere between 80-90% of those diagnosed with Down Syndrome–whether diagnosed correctly or not–are aborted.)  Welcome to a world where the most pro-abortion President in history (Cecile Richards’ fawning is evidence of this) now does not have to worry about being re-elected, and so has more freedom to push the extreme edges of his agenda.  Welcome to a world where you have the freedom to worship, but that’s it, and when your religion’s convictions come into conflict with the State, the State wins, simply by virtue of being the State.  I would take a civil-religion, one-nation-under-whatever-god, syncretism over this anti-religion any day.  If the State is the overarching authority, that means that it must and should overrule family, community, religion–anything that opposes its all-consuming agenda.  We will soon discover if this is an overreaction.  But the Obama Administration has given us no hints of any moderation on this or any other issue.  They know what is right and good, and if you oppose them, you are wrong and evil.  There is very little gray area for the defenders of such statism.

If these things are true, the next four years are going to be very bad, and successes on the part of the Administration will mean a lot of this will be very hard to repair.  The damage will already have been done.


The Church will continue to do what the true Church always does: preach Law and Gospel to sinners; pray for and obey the properly constituted authorities up until the point when the State interferes with the Church’s proper sphere (and the HHS contraception mandate clearly crosses that line).  Then we must always obey God rather than men.  But what am I going to do today?  The same thing I do every day, Pinky, try to take over the w–, oh, um–I mean, prepare my sermon, visit my people, pray, and confess.  We’re not in control, anyway.  God works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes in Christ.  Will this country progress (regress) to the point where it is illegal to call sin sin?  Will churches lose their tax-exempt status?  Will churches be sued for refusing to violate their collective conscience?  Perhaps, and we should fight against such things for the sake of our neighbors.  But, ultimately, the Church may lose those battles.  No matter.  Trust the promise of the Promised One.  Though all men are liars, He is the Truth.

“O Thou, whose coming is with dread/To judge the living and the dead,/Preserve us from the ancient foe/While we dwell on earth below” (LSB 351:5).

And, “Preserve Your Word, O Savior,/To us this latter day,/…O keep our faith from failing;/Keep hope’s bright star aglow./Let nothing from truth turn us/While living here below. … Preserve, O Lord, Your honor,/The bold blasphemer smite;/Convince, convert, enlighten/The souls in error’s night. … Preserve, O Lord, Your Zion,/Bought dearly with Your blood;/Protect what You have chosen/Against the hellish flood./Be always our defender/When dangers gather round;/When all the earth is crumbling,/Safe may Your Church be found” (LSB 658:1, 2, 3).


Pelosi On Contraception & Faith: “I Do My Religion On Sundays, In Church”

Pelosi On Contraception & Faith: “I Do My Religion On Sundays, In Church”.

Because it’s “private,” obviously.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with how she goes about her job.  But, really, then: why bother?  If what you believe and what you do have nothing to do with each other, one of them is a sham.  At least since the first Roman Catholic was elected as president, this issue has been at the center of politics.  If you look at how thoroughly what Washington and Lincoln, even Jefferson, believed suffused the way they governed, it is a serious deficit when people think that what they believe does not affect how they go about their vocations.  This is not necessarily about Christianity.  I expect atheists to govern as if there is no higher authority to which they owe obedience; therefore, the State or the good of the nation (however that might be defined by an atheist) will determine what he does.  (However, the work of the atheist politician may still, by his recognizing of some order in nature, align with what the Christian thinks the government should do.)   Likewise, if I serve in the government, and I believe human life is not mine to give, take, or manipulate–even for what I think are good ends–then I will work for laws that support that.  If I believe that it is necessary to, first of all, protect all human life by virtue of its being human, then all other goods will be ordered by the standard of that good, whether that be foreign policy, health care, the economy, etc.  What comes first in the order of goods determines how other goods will be ordered.

The fact is, Nancy Pelosi does govern by what she believes (it is literally impossible not to do so), but what she believes is not the same as what the Roman Catholic Church teaches.  She is, in fact, not separating out her Sundays and the days when she is at the Capitol; she just hasn’t recognized the conflict between what she really believes and what her Church teaches.  Actually, she probably does recognize the conflict, but she thinks her Church is wrong.  That’s why she wouldn’t answer the question about the teaching of the RCC on contraception.  She knows she’s on the wrong side of the Church on that question.  Further, her highest good must be something other than a Creator of human life, if she can, in any way, support the intentional taking of that life.  I don’t know what she would say is her highest good, but it’s clearly something different than the highest good of what she does on Sundays, in church.  In other words, she is deceiving either herself or her constituents about what she really believes.

How much simpler it would be if politicians would simply state their highest Good, so we could evaluate how that Good might work itself out in their particular policy decisions.  They all have one, and it unites their political positions into a whole (although, I admit, politicians may still hold contradictory positions because they haven’t thoroughly worked through what their primary goods mean for what they want to do).  For those, like Pelosi, who support the unlimited abortion license, their highest Good clearly is not the same as those whose religion on Sunday proclaims a Redeemer who was conceived, born, lived, died, and resurrected for every member of the human race.


They Keep On Chipping Away

The legal complications are beyond me (perhaps a certain lawyer could enlighten us), but I find it incredible that the New Mexico court system would require a photographer to take pictures at a lesbian commitment (I almost wrote “committal”) ceremony, especially in a state where homosexual “marriage” is not recognized.  The arguments seem to proceed in different ways, some based on religious, some based on artistic expression.  It seems that businesses do not have the right to refuse any customers because of their sexuality.  But do they have the right to refuse to, say, cater or photograph a ceremony with which they disagree?  In this case, it is the activity that is opposed, not the people (although the people are, by definition, engaged in the activity).

This is in line, however, with the City Council decision in Hutchinson, Kansas requiring churches who rent their property to the general public to rent also to homosexuals.  I’m not sure churches should rent their property to the general public, but it seems that those who don’t want to rent to homosexual couples will have to stop renting in general.  But who will decide if a church is renting to the general public?  What if either the bride or the groom is not a member of the congregation, but the other is?  Is that “the general public”?  Frankly, I can’t see this ending in any other way than a complete separation from the State in the areas of weddings, taxes, etc.  As long as we are connected in some way (the pastor as agent of the State at a wedding, tax-exemptions), churches will be pressed from multiple directions to align themselves with the wider culture, or risk penalties.

Perhaps it’s time we willingly give up tax-exemptions and State-sanctioned weddings, before a lawsuit forces us to do so.