Reflections from President Erwin
January 22, 2021
Week of Epiphany 2
Dear ULS Community:
The contrast between last week’s violence, tension, and anxiety in our political life together, and this week’s relative calm, has been remarkable. And the joyful experience of the presidential inauguration on Wednesday was a breath of fresh air. The deep divisions within American society have by no means been healed, and they are still very visible and very dangerous. But a page has been turned, a corner rounded, that cannot be turned back. I think it is fine for us collectively to utter a sigh of relief, and to turn our faces to a new day.
I’m always conscious (partly because of reactions from the wider ULS community to these weekly reflections) that I live in a rarified circle defined variously by education, class, and progressive Christianity, and strongly influenced by African Americans and Latinx folks—and I am of course personally placed within the Native and LGBTQIA+ communities. Though that’s a wonderful, complex and exciting intersectional place to be, it’s not the experience of most Americans, and I try to remember that. I do my best to listen to people different from myself.
That causes me to worry about the fact that such a large number of Americans question the fairness and integrity of the recent election. By all external measures, it was one of the cleanest elections the country has ever had. Keep in mind that our venerable election system has always been haphazard, often unjust, and only recently subject to the kind of nationwide scrutiny it gets nowadays—a by-product of broadcast media and intensive opinion polling is that our elections at every level are much more closely monitored today than they were a hundred years ago. For the most part this should help us trust the process more and more, as the franchise is expanded to all eligible persons.
But in spite of the high level of confidence we should have all had in the system, this time a special dubiousness about the outcome crept in long before the election was held, promoted (presumably) by those who believed that the political tides were against them, and whose political fortunes were advanced best by either discouraging prospective voters or casting any unfavorable outcome in doubt. The fear of outside manipulation of votes by foreign powers—though a real threat—added fuel to the uncertainty, and constant repetition by a partisan media outlet helped doubt grow into conviction in the minds of some Americans. The paranoid fringe of American opinion—always present in our national story—was fully engaged in advancing this sense that the election could be stolen, and that view was echoed even from the White House.
So it is no wonder that a subset of those who voted for the outgoing administration are still unreconciled to their election defeat—they had been conditioned never to have been able to accept any outcome other than the one they desired. It was either “win” or “be cheated.” This is the feeling that exploded on January 6 into violence and insurrection; and which today persists (though in considerable disarray) to promote an ongoing and destructive sense of grievance.
“What does this have to do with ULS or theological education?” you might ask. Here’s what I think: pastors and deacons and other leaders in our churches are often on the front line between these opposing views of the election, and the wider division in worldview among us the election has made manifest. The terrorism of January 6 was not undone or cancelled out by the successful inauguration a week later, and the divisions in our society and our communities have not been erased. The church (and the Lutheran church in particular) is a place where people still meet, who otherwise have gone to their opposite corners of the political boxing ring to view one another with antagonism. The division in America is a division in our church as well, and the church can be the place we learn to listen to one another again.
It would be easier to simply declare that the other side was absolutely wrong, and evil in every way—and some have done this, even before the election. I have been tempted in that direction myself. But we are called to something better than that, to find ways to see as neighbors even those whose views we find repugnant. I am not calling for some false unity, or for papering over our profound differences, but for trying as empathetically as we are able to understand the underlying alienation others might feel from a system we can support and identify with. Where did we lose them? When did they start thinking of us as “other” than they? Why must it be this way? What can we do now?
There are lots of sociological angles on this conundrum. Simple fear—fear of change, of “otherness,” or loss of social or economic status may be at the root of it. Racism, whether as a cause or a collateral effect, is also never absent from any important aspect of American life. But there is also a religious component, one that American Christianity in particular has helped shape and promote: the idea that faith means a dogged commitment to a particular view of human existence and behavior that must be maintained in spite of opposition, even to the point of seeing contrary external realities or opinions as a danger to one’s own faith or as somehow harmful to God.
Lutheran doctrine correctly understood, should—I believe—prevent Christians from falling down the rabbit hole of assuming that their own desires or perspectives on God’s intentions are in any way absolute or certain beyond God’s own revelation of them through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is a natural modesty Martin Luther taught—and I believe we should all cultivate—of leaving to God the things that are God’s, and taking on ourselves the things that are for us: physical life in a temporal, material world among the other human beings God has given us to be our neighbors.
We help a neighbor in need with what they need, not with what we think God wants them to have; we may offer the comfort that trust in God’s love gives us as part of that help, but we can never make another person believe as we do or project onto them our own way of being obedient to the Great Commandment. I would go so far as to say that that same divine command prevents us from trying to impose our faith on others, since faith is not ours to keep or to give away but belongs to the Holy Spirit alone.
This should both give us a perspective from which we can see a neighbor as our own—in the sense of our social responsibility toward them—even if they believe radically different things than we do. It should also help us set an example for those trapped in the rabbit holes of literalism and fundamentalism of a love and care that is more dispassionate and does not require perfect harmony of views. It should also equip us to have a level of self-criticism that holds ourselves accountable even as it judges the thoughts and actions of others—and not by “God’s eternal standards” but our own, human, earthly judgments of what is helpful and what is not, here and now.
We are, I also believe, in a battle for“ truth” in America, on many fronts. In this, too, we need to exercise humility in our own truth claims even as we critique the claims of others. I’ll say more about that in the future. But there is one empirical reality that cannot be denied right now: that our lives and communities are threatened by a pandemic of historic dimensions, and that many lives will still be lost to it even as the vaccines become more and more available. It is not a political or religious choice to believe in the science around the virus’s nature and spread and effect, but a rational one, based in human judgment.
Some of us are conditioned by experience or training to be skeptical of all claims of truth, and suspicious of“ authorities” in general, or doubtful of profit-making in the midst of disease and treatment. But we don’t have the time or space for individual private judgments on all the aspects of something as clearly dangerous as the coronavirus, on which few of us have specialized knowledge. We have to decide whether we will accede to the collective recommendations of public health authorities, or not. I will trust the doctors, because I have no good reason not to, but instead every reason to fear contagion. I urge you, too, to avail yourself of a vaccination as soon as you are given the chance.
As Martin Luther pointed out in regard to the plague of his own day, to refuse an offered chance to avoid contagion is not to trust God, but to tempt God. We cannot know more than we do, but we need to use all we know as best we can to help ourselves and serve our neighbor. Encouraging mistrust among others is seldom a way of helping them, especially if it prevents them from taking a possibly life-saving step.
Right now, I think we have an especially great responsibility to do everything we can to hinder the spread of the virus. Vaccinations alone won’t do that for some time to come. In that spirit, we will be continuing our distancing precautions at ULS until it is safe to stop—which means at least into the summer. Perhaps by August or the fall semester we’ll be able to live differently. Right now, it’s hard to predict. But I pledge that we will let you all know as soon as decisions can reasonably be made. The safety of our community is our primary concern.
I pray for peace in our land, deeper understanding of one another’s fears, and charity for all in this time of contested truth and mutual suspicion. Jesus calls us out of safety, away from our nets, and into the adventure of loving one another as we love ourselves.
May God bless you and keep you safe.
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary