One of the great blessings and great temptations of the modern workplace is access to the Internet. Its search engines and endlessly linked articles lead to information one would never find otherwise, but following all those links and reading all that information can be tough on productivity.
Without necessarily confessing to the latter charge, I did unexpectedly discover the following quote. Abigail Thernstrom, vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, recently received a prize about which I know nothing, but I was struck by these words from her acceptance speech:
People often say to us, you are so courageous. That's nonsense. We say what we believe because that's what intellectuals are supposed to do, a point much of the conformist academy can't seem to remember. I have no problem with disagreement. But when academics--particularly academics--whisper, I agree with your views, but I would never express them publicly--that drives me crazy. Why is intellectual combat so scary? Indeed, what's so terrifying about standing alone if you are standing by your convictions?
Whatever the actual context of those words, they could easily have been spoken by WordAlone. Countless times, WordAlone members have encountered private agreement paired with public silence. Of course, we appreciate those who believe we are courageous, although I tend to agree with Thernstrom that standing up for one's beliefs is not, or ought not to be, all that extraordinary. I absolutely agree with her frustration at hearing, "I agree with your views, but I would never express them publicly."
In saying that, I must admit that I am enormously blessed to serve a congregation where I can speak honestly of the need for reform and not get in trouble for it. I am profoundly grateful for that, not least because I know many others do not have that luxury. I understand that bishops fear being ostracized by other bishops, that pastors fear creating conflict in their churches or being unable to get a new call, that church members fear antagonizing their pastors or other members, that loyalty to and gratitude for the institutions we call "church" make criticism of institutions seem terrifying. Those fears are real; the consequences of criticism can be significant. I do not discount their fears or the consequences in any way.
But when the truth of the Gospel is increasingly at stake, fear is not a sufficient reason for silence. Jesus tells us, "So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matt. 10:26-28)
A growing body of evidence shows that the theological soul of Lutheranism in North America is under attack. Some might say that WordAlone is a weak force and unlikely to win this battle for the church's soul. WordAlone's official numbers are small, our budgets inadequate, and our staff members stretched thin. Yet we know that if all those who "agree with (our) views," but "would never express them publicly" were to stand by their convictions and take the risk of speaking publicly, the picture would be dramatically different. WordAlone believes that it represents (in principle, if not in every detail), a majority of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but unless that "silent majority" is willing to stand up and be counted, we cannot make that case nor eventually win this battle. For the sake of Lutheran theological integrity and for the sake of the Gospel, bishops, pastors and church members--who recognize that basic Christian truth is eroding in the ELCA--must take the risk of saying so, of engaging the argument, of standing by their own convictions, even if they find it terrifying to do so. At the ELCA churchwide assembly two weeks ago, many faithful and courageous people did go to the microphones and made their voices heard for the truth, despite how intimidating it was to do that. Their example sets the course for all of us in speaking out in winsome, honest and humble ways.
Judging by my own considerable fear and hesitation to do exactly that, however, I sometimes wonder if the enormous privilege of freely practicing our faith in this country has lured Christians into believing that we can, or even have a right, to live out our faith without real cost. If living for Christ entails any major claim on our security, income, comfort or others' respect for us, many--including myself--may find it too high a price to pay.
I hope not, but if that is true to any degree, we need to hear again the words of our Lord. "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow me." (Mark 8:34) Martin Luther understood the implications of that call. He once wrote to a friend, "I know that whoever wants to bring the Word of Christ into the world must, like the apostles, leave behind and renounce everything, and expect death at any moment. If any other situation prevailed, it would not be the Word of Christ." (Quoted in "Luther the Reformer," Augsburg, 1986, p. 116 by James Kittelson.)
Thanks be to God, today's struggles within Lutheranism (and across the Christian church) will not likely result in anyone's death! However, the issues at hand are a matter of life and death--eternal life and death. To sit quietly by, for the sake of keeping the peace or our own protection, while the truth of the Gospel is increasingly distorted or completely displaced in the church, is not worthy of followers of our Lord and it is not sufficient for the task at hand. The time to stand up and be counted is now.