Image is in the public domain.

Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice

Adopted by more than two-thirds majority vote as a social statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America by the third Churchwide Assembly on August 28, 1993, at Kansas City, Missouri.

Part of a series on the Social Statements of the ELCA.
A complete copy of this social statement can be found here.

We live on the surface of a planet whizzing through space, orbiting a bright yellow star, in a distant corner of our galaxy. Right now, it’s the only one we’ve got–to our knowledge, this is the only planet in our solar system with any sort of life (unless you count Mars, inhabited entirely by robots), and we can’t yet bring people to another. How are Christians called to live on and with this amazing gift?

God’s Creation

Our planet is not our own–we are merely stewards of it, and are as much a part of it as we are guardians of it. It is God, not we, who created the universe and everything in it. In Genesis, God declares all of creation “good”, and though it is now a broken creation, God’s intent for all of creation is restoration, healing, wholeness and salvation.

I was surprised that there wasn’t a long discussion on Genesis 1:28: “God blessed [the human beings], and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth'” (NRSV). The Hebrew word translated as “subdue” is kabash, which does mean to subdue, enslave, or dominate hostile forces. The word translated “dominion” is radah, which means to rule over as a king. This verse, just one of the 31,102 in the Bible (thank you, Wikipedia), has been used over and over to justify brutal exploitation of the land and the environment.

And yet, what does it mean to be a king? For that, let’s look to our best example: God. God, the Master of the Universe and Sovereign over All Creation, is the undisputed king–The King. And this King, as Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “slipped into skin” and became incarnate in creation, taught peace and good stewardship, lived as a servant, endured suffering, and even died, all for the sake of a creation that was and is deeply loved. If that’s what it means to be King over All Creation, then our traditional understanding of the dominion of humanity over the earth is grossly inappropriate.

The Crisis and the Hope

Two main problems are identified as the cause of our current environmental crises. Not surprisingly, both are human-centered–because of sin, humans have turned to the destruction of nature and the environment. The first problem is excessive consumption of resources by industrialized nations, and the second is uncontrollable population growth that strains already limited resources. The earth is not an “infinite warehouse”–it is being consumed faster than it can be replenished

The statement identifies a number of immediate environmental crises human beings face: depletion of non-renewable resources, extinction, erosion of topsoil, pollution of air and water, increased waste, acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer, and global warming (the ELCA is not a climate change-denying church!). The church must learn as much as it can about these crises so that it can enact changes that will make a difference.

Though human beings have an enormous propensity to destruction, our sin and our failures are not the final word. Christian hope continually looks forward to the fulfilment of God’s promises: that the reign of God has come near and will soon fully arrive, that the salvation that comes from God by grace is for all of creation, and that the fulfilment of these promises will result in “a new heaven and a new earth”.

Acting for Justice

When talking about environmental justice, there are four principles that the church identifies as necessary for attention:

Participation: Discussions about environmental justice must include everyone–not only the people affected by them, but also the implicit voices of all creatures and lives in creation as well. People who make their living off the land and people who have lost their living through the destruction of the land must be heard.

Solidarity: The church is called to acknowledge the interdependence and connectedness of all creation. It must stand with the victims of environmental disaster. It must also call attention to the greed that facilitates the destruction of the planet.

Sufficiency: All life needs sufficient means and resources to survive, thrive, and grow. If there are lives deprived of these sufficient means, we are obligated to ensure that sufficiency. This will be, I think, the hardest concept to get across, because, as the statement says, “In a world of finite resources, for all to have enough means that those with more than enough will have to change their patterns of acquisition and consumption”.

Sustainability: We live on one planet, so until we get to another with resources to sustain us, we have to make this one last. The principle of sustainability means balancing our consumption with replenishment and rest so that we leave for our descendants a planet that can support them. The earth is not a perpetual motion machine, able to continually churn out resources for our consumption without eventually running out.

What Can We Do Now?

The best way to combat environmental degradation is through education! The better informed people are about the environment and how to care for it, the better we as humankind can do so. Congregations especially can put on programs and bring awareness of environmental crises to the people in their communities.

Advocacy can and must be done by the church. As an institution with a prophetic voice, it is called to use that voice to speak to corporations and governments that abuse the land for profit and oppress the people living on it out of greed. It must advocate for better business practices, effective regulations, and appropriate economic incentives.

I know many communities will balk at this. I live in a community that depends on hunting, fishing, and other land/water tourist activities for its economy. Fishing and hunting regulations can decrease the draw of tourists, even though the regulations are meant to keep the animal populations sustainable. Where is the balance between making a livelihood, and protecting creation?

Importantly, these discussions and these decisions must be made with the full participation of everyone whom is affected by them. There are no short term solutions–we must think long-term if we are to stem the crises we have created, and that might mean sacrifice in the short-term.

Let me rephrase that–it will mean sacrifices in the short-term. But we, who have more than sufficient resources, are called upon to ensure sufficiency and sustainability for all. We are called to be Servant-kings in creation, for the sake of creation.

Featured image: “Sunlight over Earth as seen by STS-29 crew” by NASA on The Commons is in the public domain.

Seminary Campfire

Communities

My sister and I grew up in Hegewisch, a 5-miles square neighborhood on Chicago’s far southeast side. Our mother is one of five siblings, and our father is one of three (not including their cousins). All of them but one lived in the neighborhood or right next to it. My twenty cousins and I bounced between each other’s houses nearly every day as my aunts and uncles took turns watching us after school and taking care of us on days off. I  grew up with nearly forty extra parents and siblings who worked together to raise us all.

Most of my college years were spent in one building at Capital University: the Conservatory of Music complex. I played in a brass quintet, tuba-euphonium quartet, tuba-euphonium ensemble (Capital Thunder), brass choir, and wind band. If I wasn’t in class, or practicing, or studying, I still hung out in the lobby (the Fishbowl) with other Con students. I slept in my dorm room and worshiped in the chapel, but I lived and learned with my classmates.

Though not all of us in seminary were training to become pastors, we were all aware that we formed a Christian, transient community. We lived in an apartment complex together. We worshiped together and had class together. We celebrated weekly cookouts and a Common Meal, where we could relax and get away from the stresses of exegesis, sermon-writing, and systematic theology. We watched each others’ kids when they had classes. After graduation, we traveled around the country to attend ordinations, installations, and support our friends and coworkers in Christ.

Human beings were made to live in community with each other. We need each other.

"pregnant woman" by Teza Harinaivo Ramiandrisoa is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Abortion

This social teaching statement was adopted by a more than two-thirds majority vote at the second biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting in Orlando, Florida, August 28-September 4, 1991.

Part of a series on the Social Statements of the ELCA.
A complete copy of this social statement can be found here.

There are few social issues that divide Christians as much as abortion. I still remember the group that came to my college campus with giant photos of aborted fetuses and verbally accosted passer-bys with a megaphone (the alumni were less than pleased with the aggressive tactics).

The Value of Life

The central premise of the social statement is that all life has equal value, in this case, especially, the lives of a mother and her unborn child. Whether we are talking about the life of the mother or the life of the child, the statement reminds readers that all come from the same place: a common concern for and commitment to life. Human beings are created in the image of God, and nothing we do changes that.

In the public discourse around abortion, there are often hard-and-fast stances taken by the different sides, setting up moral absolutes. The statement is wary of such claims:

Nor is it helpful to use the language of ‘rights’ in absolute ways that imply that no other significant moral claims intrude. A developing life in the womb does not have an absolute right to be born, nor does a pregnant woman have an absolute right to terminate a pregnancy.

While it sounds wishy-washy at first, I am impressed with how the statement is able to take a firm, easily understandable position that navigates the treacherous waters around it.

Support for All Life

While the social statement is titled “Abortion”, it is just as much about life in all forms as it is the life of a mother and unborn child. Abortion is just one part of a larger social problem with all of life–it can’t be considered all on its own.

Pregnancy requires a great deal of care and support. There are medical concerns, emotional issue, familial problems, financial concerns, and other cares that need to be addressed. Are we prepared to offer that support? In this country, not yet.

For those already living in poverty, an unintended pregnancy is a nightmare. With little in the way of financial or community support, giving birth to a child is nearly unimaginable. If the circumstances are bad enough, an abortion may seem to be the only answer. If we are to tackle the issue of abortion, then, we have to first call out the society and culture that refuses to take care of expecting mothers. The church calls for increased support at all levels for expecting mothers as well as better, comprehensive sex education and prevention, so that unintended pregnancies themselves are reduced.

What about after a child is born? Baby’s need care. New mothers need support, such as actual paid maternity leave. Children as they grow have medical, nutritional, and other needs that can be difficult to provide. They and their families need quality childcare, shelter, and education. The needs of a child are much more far-reaching than simply being born. It is our responsibility as communities of faith to ensure that our communities provide care and support as well as advocate for better, broader support beyond our communities.

Adoption deserves special mention. Though it carries less of a stigma than it used to, there is still this cloud of suspicion around adoption, both for those who choose to give up their children for it and those who take them in. Consequently, the church calls for better support for the adoption process as a viable, positive alternative to abortion.

With better comprehensive support for mothers and children, we can greatly reduce the number of people who consider abortion. But, there are still some circumstance in which abortion may not only be an option, but it may be the only option.

Ending a Life

There is no one-size-fits-all guideline for when an abortion is a morally responsible option. Each case must be weighed and considered on its own. As always, the two equal, greatest considerations are the life of the mother and the life of the child. The statement outlines three conditions in which an abortion could be a moral choice.

Case in which the life of the mother is clearly threatened. There are cases in which continuing a pregnancy would be fatal to the mother or both the mother and the child. I know someone who experienced this in their own family–it does happen. In these cases, there is no way to prevent the loss of life, and the church laments that in our broken world, such choices have to be made.

Cases in which sex was coerced. “Sexual assault” may be a better way to describe this, but the statement specifically mentions rape and incest. In these cases, in which the woman has been physically abused and traumatized, where “conceptions occur under dehumanizing conditions that are contrary to God’s purpose”, she is not morally obligated to continue the pregnancy as further traumatization.

Cases in which there are extreme fetal abnormalities. These cases are only those in which the baby is so badly developed and deformed that life outside of the womb will be extremely short and excrutiatingly painful. In these cases, the church asks, and implicitly answers the question, “Are there cases in which death is better than life?”

In all cases, the church opposes abortion when the child will be able to live outside of the womb with the assistance of “reasonable and necessary technology”, except in the third cases above. If the child can survive, then the community is obligated to provide all of the love, support, and care necessary to ensure that the child’s life reflects the value and dignity afforded to him or her as created in the image of God.

Conclusion

The first and primary choice should always be life. But we have a long way to go. Our community and societal support structures for pregnant families is pitiful. Maybe it’s because we believe that we are all capable of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps and that caring for our neighbor is a sign of weakness, but how is it moral to let the fate of a child be determined by circumstances outside of their and their family’s control? This is why, when wrestling with the issue of abortion, the church comes out strongly in favor of better support of all kinds and at all levels for giving birth to and raising children. If we reduce the need for abortion, then we will reduce abortions, and at the same time, provide a better life for everyone.

Unfortunately, there are times when an abortion is a moral and ethical choice. The church is called to minister to families suffering the pain of a lost life, to nurture and uphold them, to support and care for them. We are all created in the image of God, with equal dignity and worth.

Featured image: “pregnant woman” by Teza Harinaivo Ramiandrisoa is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
This photo is in the public domain.

The Death Penalty

This social practice statement was adopted by a more than two-thirds majority vote at the second biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting in Orlando, Florida, August 28-September 4, 1991.

Part of a series on the Social Statements of the ELCA.
A complete copy of this social statement can be found here.

The first social statement to tackled a divisive issue, The Death Penalty was a statement that was born at the congregational level, because congregations wanted to discuss it. It is a critique of a world characterized by horrific violence and our responses to it.

Arguments in Favor of the Death Penalty

Lutherans hold a wide range of convictions regarding the death penalty and the statement reminds readers that social statements are persuasive, not coercive. There are arguments in favor of both positions, and I find myself agreeing with some on both sides.

These arguments are cited by the statement in favor of the death penalty:

  • In the scriptures concerned with law, they demand a life given for a life taken and submission to rightful authority, as when it uses violence responsibly, it is acting in accordance with its divine purpose.
  • In the Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel, the state bears the responsibility of carrying out the duties of Law.
  • Life is precious, so wrongfully taking a life should be paid for with something equally precious: the life of the offender.
  • Society is made safer by the permanent removal of convicted murders.
  • The procedures in place for carrying out the death penalty are heavily scrutinized to make sure that the risk of error is as minimal as possible.
  • The death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime.

Arguments in Opposition to the Death Penalty

  • In the scriptures, Jesus Christ teaches against retribution and that no one has the moral authority to execute another.
  • Governments are ordained for good order, and the death penalty is contrary to good order.
  • The death penalty violates the sanctity of life, which is God-given and belongs only to God.
  • There are other ways to remove people dangerous to society.
  • The risk of a mistake is too great to justify the death penalty.
  • The death penalty is not effective as a deterrent.

All of these arguments are valid and deeply held by faithful Lutherans. Taking all the arguments into account, however, the social statement opposes the death penalty.

Restoration

The primary reason that the ELCA opposes the death penalty is because it believes in restoration, not retribution. We are called, as a church and as Lutherans, to respond to violent crime in the way that Jesus did. Jesus takes the tit-for-tat basis of retaliation and throws it out. “Do not resist an evildoer”, he says, meaning, “if someone hurts you, don’t go and hurt them back”. This is the model we are given, and as disciples, should be the one we seek to emulate.

In its ministry to victims, the church has found that the death penalty does not address their deep wounds and needs–it neither restores them, nor gives them satisfaction. Retribution breeds more violence and more retribution. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, and with good reason: when we human beings use it, it never ends.

Justice

There are also serious justice concerns with the death penalty. The sources of violent crime are many and complex, yet the death penalty reduces violence to a simple 1-for-1 equation. This simplistic treatment of violence is itself an injustice because it ignores the painful reality of those affected by violent crime.

Another justice concern is, “What is the purpose of the death penalty?”. One purpose of the death penalty is to deter violent crime, yet “the body of research on deterrent effect indicates, at best, conflicting evidence. Many proponents of the death penalty have abandoned the deterrence theory altogether.”

If the death penalty neither restores the brokenness of victims or society, nor fulfills its purposes, is it just to continue using it? The social statement says no.

Concerns Regarding Use

The third major reason that the ELCA opposes the death penalty is because of serious concerns about its implementation and use. Were the death penalty perfectly administered, this wouldn’t be an issue. But we know that it isn’t.

First, there are concerns about who is being sentenced to death. The sentence one receives too often hinges on an offender’s race, class, age, gender, and other factors. If it is disproportionately being used against one section of society, then it is not being wielded fairly or justly.

In a recent sermon, I quoted a study on the rate of false conviction of criminals who are sentenced to death. The peer-reviewed study concluded that up to 4.1% of death row inmates are actually innocent and could be executed for crimes they have not committed. The study makes no attempt to identify how many innocent people have actually been executed (that is beyond the scope of the study), but the implications are clear–of the 8000 people who have been executed by the state between 1974 and 2004 (the timeframe of the study), it is very likely that some were innocent.

“The execution of an innocent person is a mistake we cannot correct,” says the social statement. There is no way to restore that brokenness. At least with other forms of punishment, if the person is later found to be innocent, some restitution can be made. This isn’t the case with the death penalty.

Conclusions

For these reasons, the ELCA opposes the death penalty. It does not offer the restoration or healing it is meant to, it does not deter violent crime, it is used unjustly, and the risks of executing an innocent person are too great. I would generally agree.

Yet, there is a part of me that wonders if the death penalty is truly necessary in some cases. I find myself empathizing with the argument that one role of government is to protect society from very clear, very present dangers. Are there people who are so dangerous to society, even in prison or under other forms of punishment, that executing them is not only desirable, but necessary? How do we decide when this really is the case? I cannot answer these questions, and because of those difficulties, the ELCA errs on the side of alternative punishments.

There is also the greater problem of our criminal justice system, which seems to be built around punishing and imprisoning as many people as possible, actively discouraging rehabilitation and encouraging recidivism. Our justice system does not seem to be concerned with restoration. It is no surprise, then, that the social statement published in 2013 addressed criminal justice as a whole. The issue of the death penalty is not a simple matter apart from the rest of our justice system.

In the end, the death penalty is not the solution to our problems. Instead, we desperately need to find other solutions that will serve the purpose of the death penalty, but with a greater focus on restoration, on justice, and on fair and equitable use; and, because we are human, fallible, and sinful, something we can undo when we are wrong. Are our current forms of rehabilitation and punishment enough? If the death penalty is still our best solution, then no, they aren’t. It is up to us to address these problems in our justice system and implement better, effective solutions to stop the cycle of violence.

Featured image is in the public domain.