Evangelical Catholicity -- not theirs, and not enough.

I've avoided calling myself an "Evangelical Catholic" for a while now.  Basically since college, when I realized that the ALPB and their periodicals were taking the perfectly good concept and making it the exclusive preserve of the politically reactionary.  I don't mean to say "conservative" because I'm not clear that they are in any way actually more conservative and less liberal -- but I've said that already here.  But I'm sick of abandoning perfectly good Lutheran identifiers, and along with "confessional," I refuse to give this one up to the right wing any longer.


Evangelical catholicity is a basic descriptor of Reformation polity.  We are those who retain the catholic tradition as the root of our churches as well as the Officially Catholic in the West and the Orthodox in the East.  But we retain it critically.  We retain it as what Benjamin called incisive history, the constant backward gaze at the only material strong enough to cut into the present.  As the only way out of whatever mess of present history we have found ourselves in.  As the witness to the faithful God beyond history who acts within history.  And the tradition is huge!  It is stunningly plural, especially in the division of East and West.  And we have always only taken a small part of it at a time.

And yet we are those who, because of our incisive use of this history, use it to speak the proclamation of Jesus Christ, of his death and God's raising him up.  That's euaggelizein, proclamation, also known as gospel.  Also known as evangelism.

Now, all that sounds remarkably like everything I've been re-reading lately from the Lutheran right since CWA2009 (if you leave out the use of Walter Benjamin).  They're incisive and traditional, certainly.  But against what?  For what?  I hear a lot of language of the persecuted minority of the orthodox, suffering for their faith against the powerful and pervasive heresy all around them.  Shades of the Cappadocian fathers vs. the Arians.  It's a sexy image, to be sure.  But the dispute is nothing like so clear -- even if we wanted to say that a dispute over the application of Hellenistic metaphysics of deity to the scriptural witness was "clear."  There are no facts of God at stake here -- explicitly, at least.  (Our images of God's action and judgment in the case causing our divisions are another matter.  See Romans 1 in rhetorical perspective for more on that.)  We're talking about human sexuality, about sin and what counts and how we deal with it, about good order in the human institution of the church.  About the nature of the church as a communio sanctorum.  About hermeneutics and interpretation.  About authority -- wait, let's be clear, about power -- in the church.  It's not about sexuality; that was just the trigger.  But for a moment, let's treat it as though it were.

These reactionaries: against what?  The pervasive and pernicious heresy ... of redefining marriage.  (Not even!  Of accepting same-gender relationships as no impediment to the service of God in Word and Sacrament, in leitourgia as well as in diakonia, and of accepting them in our koinonia.)  The endangered, minority orthodox position ... of upholding a theology of the orders of creation.  Of upholding a claim to the longstanding position of the historically dominant group, which they claim has been the way things are for centuries.  Of striking down a minority counter-cultural position that does not conform to longstanding societal norms of family structure.  One that has been persecuted for most of Western history.  Oh, yeah, God has a horse in that race.  God hates persecuted minorities, because God believes in the way society is currently structured -- or at least, the way it was structured until recently, when the problems began.  And we have about 7 verses from the canon to prove it, plus the whole history of Western European morality, plus ridiculously large percentages of "world Christianity" representing our colonial mission morality.  But that's not how they picture it -- they're the persecuted minority of the just.  They are orthodoxy.  And the ELCA has walked away from all of that, which shows that the ELCA is not church (um, anyone remember AC 7?)

I'm writing an ethnographic history of Lutheran whiteness in the ELCA, and damned if this doesn't all fit right in.  Upholding positions of universalized social dominance built on cultural positions with all the culture abstracted out from under them.  Identity that is purely theological -- lily-white in its concern for purity, in fact.  Of course, the other side is just as white, just as dominant and central in their social power -- but "good" white folks, open and inviting and accepting of marginal identities, bringing them into the fold with us.  And this side is just as evangelical and just as catholic -- which is to say, both sides do EC differently, and both sides fail to live up to the best of it somewhere along the line.

So I want to make it clear: evangelical catholicity isn't enough.  It isn't good.  It isn't necessarily bad, but when it stands as a label for upholding the status of the present order of social power, it becomes morally questionable.  Because where in the last two paragraphs did you hear gospel?  The gospel is messianic.  It breaks into the present order of things, from outside.  It does this because God didn't design the present order.  The way things are bears no imprimatur from the Lord.  The gospel doesn't take sides, and it doesn't uphold judgment as an impediment to God's saving and redeeming action.  The gospel says that Christ died at the hands of the orders of the world, and God raised him up to create a realm of justice apart from it.  A realm of justice we enter solely because God refuses to let sin stand in the way of salvation.  And because of that forgiveness -- which is simply God's refusal to countenance our sin as a power -- we live into our obligations of obedience to God, not according to Torah or any other law, but under the rule of the Spirit because of our trust in God.

And this is the point I have discovered about Romans: this is not justification by faith apart from works.  This is justification by faith apart from any notion that who we are gets us out of judgment.  This is justification by faith as a necessity because God privileges no identity, but least of all the identity of those who practice domination and injustice.  Doesn't matter if you're Israel -- in fact, all that you have going for you in your relationship with God means you should know better!  Doesn't matter if you're Christian.  Same result.  You have one mission: proclaim the gospel.  To do that, you have no choice: live together in harmony, and be just and equitable to one another, because God has forgiven all of you in order to save all of you.  You don't get to declare sin and use it as an obstacle to grace -- forgiveness is about getting sin out of the way, not by compelling someone to stop sinning, as though it came from them, but by cutting right through any notion that we must determine sin and judgment, and simply doing our part in God's work of salvation and redemption.  Set sin aside and tell the gospel in its purity.  In Christ, the power of sin has been defeated.  Quit respecting it as though it had to be dealt with.  As though you had to be on the lookout for it, so you could root it our wherever you found it.  Quit making up sins in order to create impediments to salvation.  Bear one another's burdens in love, because that is your righteous obedience.

How's that?  It's missing a whole lot of street cred to be called EC, what with no patristic or liturgical references, but I see no contradiction.  For that matter, it holds up both law and gospel, the one drawn from the proclamation of the other in the proper order.  What is it doing?  It leans awfully hard on Paul, but I'm a Lutheran, and it's an occupational hazard.  It is not reductionism, or else all of Romans is.  But if I'm on my mark, it is the opposite of the problem.  It is, to use a new favorite term, apocalyptic.  It uses Paul to cut into the way the world works, into the order that has been applied to the creation under sin.  It refuses to countenance the oppressiveness of that order, and it refuses to align cleanly with the liberality of it, either -- as Paul does, negating the judgment of the people of God while twisting the "freedom" of imperial Hellenism.  Why?  Because God is in charge.  And it cuts into me just as hard as anyone else.  Harder, in fact, because I'm white and unjust.  Now, what does that do?  Guilt would be stupid right about now -- and this is the point of forgiveness.  But I'm not allowed to fall back into the ignorance and injustice of using my power.  That is emphatically not the point of forgiveness, to bolster the status quo.  I'm not allowed, because the system of my liberality is just as oppressive, and I never know the other as the other is in their created perfection.  I am to proclaim the gospel at all times because I need it as much as anyone -- it is the only thing that consistently breaks me out of the invisibility of my secret faults.  And that is law.  That is the consistent application of the obligations of my gospel obedience, driving my service to God's good order.  Enabling mission and humility at the same time.

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