January 8, 2021
Week of the Epiphany of Our Lord
Dear ULS Community:
Let me start by wishing all the members of the extended ULS community happiness and health and every blessing of God in the New Year! In the three weeks since you heard from me last, a good deal has happened around us, though ULS itself has been in recess and life on our campuses has been mostly quiet. Rob and I continue settling in, both in our cozy home near the Philadelphia campus and in the president’s spacious house in Gettysburg. We made some strides in the last week toward making the Gettysburg house more livable, and I would say we are almost ready to make it our “other” home.
I hope your holidays were as pleasant as they could be under the circumstances: limited travel, the extra effort of preparing worship services in the pandemic, and the inability to gather in person to celebrate will all have made these much different holidays than those we are used to. But I know that “going small” can also have its quiet joys. Big or small, the heart of our celebrating is the revelation of God’s love in the incarnate Jesus, which remains “glad tidings of great joy” no matter what else we do.
The beginning of a new calendar year and a new semester always brings with it the promise of a fresh start and a new perspective. I still hold out great hope for what 2021 will bring us, both in terms of advances toward ending the pandemic, and in the sense of a new political and social day dawning with a new presidential administration in the United States. But it has to be said that these first few days of the years have been as bad, and as frightening, as any since the pandemic began, and this week the political news has been especially alarming.
I have had occasion in other statements in the last two days to express my alarm and dismay at the events in Washington, D.C. this week. No one should have any doubt that I condemn this violence in clear and unequivocal terms, and that I deplore the anti-democratic spirit and the manipulation of truth it represents. I also believe it is a clear demonstration of the entitlement bred by white supremacy. Though it was shocking to see Americans attack their own government, especially those bearing banners declaring an allegiance to Christianity as well as flags and symbols of defeated and discredited enemies of freedom like the Confederacy and Nazism. Let me say again: true Christianity has nothing to do with this, and to use symbols of hate and oppression to intimidate others is sinful and wrong.
It was distressing and appalling to see the rioters, but to be honest it was not surprising in itself that the anger stoked by the radical right would boil over into terrorism yet again. We have seen it coming for years, and it has been growing in strength as it has been abetted by irresponsible media, unaccountable pundits, and even the White House. What happened on Wednesday did not come out of the spontaneous, righteous anger of an oppressed people: it was the deliberately framed manipulation by a long-term, well-funded and deliberate disinformation campaign that stoked and magnified the sense of grievance while providing convenient lies to focus the anger of the aggrieved on particular targets, which now include the very organs of our government themselves.
I don’t quite know whether the minute-by-minute coverage in the news media, and the widespread availability of both professional and amateur video views of the Capitol Hill rioters is more reassuring (in the sense that we could all see it with our own eyes) or more alarming, in that what we saw was so deeply troubling but at the same time so weirdly “normal”—we saw neighbors and churchgoers and people who in many outward ways were indistinguishable from many of us, except that their feelings of loss and anger have driven them outside the bounds of law and order to destruction and violence. Some us might have seen relatives there—I know I could, at least notionally.
This is what is most deeply painful to me: that somehow the agents of untruth and of resentment have become more trustworthy to many of our fellow citizens than the hope and charity that is at the heart of the gospel we preach. The church has failed, if its people are more devoted to their entitlement than to discipleship, and if to follow Jesus has been understood as “looking out for oneself” first. Entitlement is the opposite of charity, focusing on self and not neighbor. Likewise, moralizing that condemns others’ sinfulness without first repenting of its own is a misuse of religion for power and social control. I deplore our inability to recognize and repent of ways we all participate in systems of injustice and harm—and like some of you, I don’t always understand them.
Perhaps we have been too optimistic about a fallen humanity’s ability to rise above its fearful self-centeredness. That is what depresses my spirits right now—but at the same time I am buoyed by the signs of selflessness and hope I see around me too. I know full well that there are many (I hope to God in fact more) people in America who are repelled by the violence we saw this week—who are committed to neighbor-love and social equity, and reject racism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice. I am also encouraged by the ability of many to resist manipulation, to use critical thinking, to demand real evidence instead of swallowing conspiracy, and to keep an open mind and a willingness to admit to error. For every window-breaker, I hope there are at least two others who are trying hard and with good will to understand what is at stake for us right now, asking with sincerity and charity “What does this mean?” In that, at least, I still can trust.
I also feel compelled to say that Wednesday’s damage to the body politic also did our nation a second and equally great harm: it deflected our attention from the nearly 4,000 people who that day died in ways related to COVID-19. That day—a new high record in the number of deaths—reveals a second national shame: that our collective lack of concern for the health of our neighbors has left us without an equitable system of national healthcare or a well-functioning public health network. We make proud claims of the superiority of American medicine, but we cannot efficiently vaccinate our population against a deadly disease. We have had months to get ready for the day a vaccine would be readily available for distribution—but instead of organizing toward that day, our highest leaders have bickered about masks and the freedom to shop and eat out, and minimized the risk of the disease. In this we have neglected those most vulnerable.
When this current presidential administration is long gone, we will still remember these months as the ones in which we were unable as a nation to face this disease in any united way, and when we lost hundreds of thousands of friends and family because of it. Each passing day of hesitation or delay in vaccinating people increases the culpability for new infections and deaths of those responsible for protecting society’s health. I urge every member of our ULS community to avail themselves of any opportunity to be vaccinated, and to advocate for and encourage others to do the same. This is not just for your own safety, but for all of us. Love of neighbor calls us to this care for each other’s health.
At ULS, we are committed to an open-hearted and never-ending conversation about how best to be followers of Jesus in a diverse and pluralistic nation and in a vastly complex global community. We know that the unity Christians share in their baptism should empower us to understand ourselves not primarily as citizens of an earthly country, not primarily as members of a family or a race or tribe or identity, but most basically—and equally—as adopted children of God, followers of Jesus, and siblings to each other. This is one of the greatest challenges to faith: to be able to see each other as equals in God’s eyes, and to really love others as ourselves. We fail at this every day, but we awaken each new day to a fresh opportunity to love. That’s why it’s the “Great” Commandment—because we have to obey it most and first of all, even to understand who we truly are.
In this week as we celebrate the festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord, we remember what it means to recognize Jesus as “God-with-us”: as the magi see in a helpless infant; as his followers see in a suffering servant on a cross; and as we see in one another, and in the community of the faithful. As we prepare to remember the Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday, my prayer is that we remember with greater trust the promises God has given us in baptism: that our life is now in Christ; that our truest relationship is with God; and that our first earthly duty is to those God has given us as neighbors.
I wish each of you, and all those you love, every blessing in the New Year.
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary