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Bishop offers Lutheran perspective on advocacy

As a bishop, the Rev. Martin Wells told participants at the recent Eastern Washington Legislative Conference summarized a Lutheran perspective on involvement in public policy advocacy.

Coming from a position of privilege as the first son of a marriage of 45 years, living in safe communities with access to “excellent” health care and education from baccalaureate through doctorate, he said he has had “access to hope” and unlimited opportunities.

Now in marriage of 30 years, he said his hope is inspired by two daughters serving the world in barrios of Couchebama, Bolivia, and poor neighborhoods of Kansas City, Mo., with Teach for America.

Martin, who is bishop of the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has also been inspired by saints who share his name, such as Martin Luther, Martin Niemoller, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Martin Marty.

 “Those of us so privileged must never forget the call of God to serve those who aren’t so lucky,” he said.

Two gifts from the Reformation legacy of his church are 1) that “justification by faith that God has done what we cannot” lends courage that allows people to take risks, even to “sin boldly,” and 2) that baptism bestows a vocation or calling.

He told of people who “reinvent” themselves midlife as they sense a call that shifts their identity and goals.

Church-related forms of calling and vocation are “invocation, evocation, convocation, provocation and revocation,” plus “advocacy,” a word with roots in lawyer or one called to give evidence.

The Reformation gifts of justification and vocation thus build on a notion that God is at work in the world through worldly power to protect life and through confidence and hope that God’s kingdom is breaking through.

The advocacy the legislative conference addresses is about “giving evidence to the values that are good for the whole commonwealth,” Martin said.

For Lutherans, he said, the tradition of advocacy would seemingly lead to “lives lived and risked in confidence that God is in all.”

Martin said, however, that often people read Romans 13—“let every person be subject to the governing authorities—and turn away in face of persecution as many did in Nazi Germany.

Martin said that in church Lutherans fear power, cede little authority for others and are cautious about Christians who seem enthusiastic.

He sees a gap between rejecting enthusiasm and being immobilized sin may make Lutherans poor partners in public advocacy, with a tendency toward passive-ism, “except in the realm of social ministry and education.”

Serious about Scripture and eager to do quiet human care, Lutheran Social Ministry provides direct human services that touch one in 50 people in the United States, he said.

“So there are Lutherans as your partners in social ministry and social advocacy,” Martin said.

Theologians Wolfhart Pannenburg and Ted Peters at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley  encourage sinners, “stuck in the mud and muck of sin, imperfectable on their own terms, to nevertheless concentrate on the promises of God, and in particular the promises of God’s Kingdom, ‘the already but not yet,’” he said, suggesting that as a basis for Lutherans to be drawn into public advocacy.

Because Jesus has paved the way, he said, “we are free from the terror of sin and death, free to risk everything today for that which is promised.  It means we can spend most of our lives now for the promise of the Kingdom that is breaking through.”

Given the “sin-surrounded realities of this day,” he said, Lutheran advocates need not fear the paradoxes and imperfections of legislating, but can go for the achievable and not be undone by not achieving the perfect:  “God’s Kingdom is not the enemy of human justice.”

For Martin, that means making peace with necessary compromises, honoring politicians for accepting a calling “in morally ambiguous circumstances where personal courage is supplemented by vision of God’s desire that every human being have a healthy, hopeful and safe life to anticipate—public welfare, security, health and safety.”

Thus, the ELCA social teaching statement, “Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective” says that “the ELCA is called to be a part of the ecumenical church of Jesus Christ in the context in which God has placed it—a diverse, divided, and threatened global society on a beautiful, fragile planet.  In faithfulness to its calling, this church is committed to defend human dignity, to stand with poor and powerless people, to advocate justice, to work for peace, and to care for the earth in the processes and structures of contemporary society.”

The heart, Martin said, is to “call out the gifts—the vocations of our members—and trust them.”  The challenge, as exemplified by Jesus announcing good news to the poor, is that lay people may be angered by “politically potent sermons” so pastors may be shy and cautious, feeling “constrained by members’ intolerance.”

He proposes a compact between preachers and members:

• Robust, biblically-informed preaching in anticipation of God’s Kingdom,

• Supplemented by Christian education that reinforces the biblical worldview and promises, and

• Patience on the part of the laity.

Martin advised that after preaching, pastors should let members carry the ball from advocacy to public service.