Last week, while the sports-loving public watched timed Olympic events, viewers relearned the values of timing, measuring, and scorekeeping. Some races were decided by 1/100th of a second margins. The substantially smaller, microscopically observable religion-news-watching public did not always have to measure outcomes quite so close. Thus on August 18 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, during its Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans, voted to approve a document called “Declaration on the Way” relating to a document, “From Conflict to Communion,” approved earlier by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation. The vote, by more than a whisker? 931-9.
Those with historical senses could recall what Catholic-Lutheran actions used to be like. For instance, through the first centuries after the start of the Protestant Reformation, to be celebrated next year after 500 years, most of these actions were not close calls with whisker-thin margins. No, characteristically and regularly, linked with civil authorities, Catholics and Lutherans by the thousands killed each other. They got mixed up on both sides of a Thirty Years’ War, whose Christian devastation provides cheerless comparison to Muslim-related conflicts in Syria and elsewhere today.
Then, when the gunfire subsided in Europe, “conflict” got exported to new sites in the New World, where civil authorities were no longer free to choose up sides. So the people, believers on both and all sides, invented free-enterprising, individualistic ways to fight. Historians recall, at book length, “crusades” of Christians against Christians. Current older generations can well remember vehement if not violent actions of believers versus believers, in the name of…? In the name of “justification by faith” and its favored alternatives.
Despite such history and with little outside encouragement, many leaders in the churches, nurtured with the prayers of many of the faithful, made efforts to bring about and recognize change, which has moved so far along that in our safer(?), secular world positive actions do not make front-page news. Some see the change as betrayal. If Catholics and Lutherans had convictions, we hear, they’d still be murderous toward each other, and not be greeting other comers, like the United Methodists who signed on a few years ago, leaving the welcome sign up for others.
Those who read blog comments on the New Orleans action will find that, as is often the case in blog comments, the crabby and self-assured voices and writing have their way. They summon far more than the nine who “nayed” in New Orleans. This is not the place to go into the issues of justification and the steps “From Conflict to Communion.” (I have written about this trajectory and these issues from a theological vantage in my new little book October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World. It’d be “bad manners” to advertise implicitly in more than this parenthetical aside. Or it’d be a sin? Luther encouraged believers to “sin boldly.” OK.)
The point of this column is to set in context some of the reasons why some issues in the life of the church have faded and quieted, and why others, if revised, remain alive to be stirred up by various factions and interests, as they were in the first Christian generations, or in 1517, or ever since. Whatever others will do, Sightings will celebrate.
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
This post appears courtesy of Sightings, a publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Martin Marty Center.
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