A Rejoinder to Robert Benne and Cathy A. Ammlung

[1] Firstly, I am grateful to Robert Benne for plugging my new book, Empire of Sacrifice. I don't think it's "brilliant," but I do think its analysis of religious violence in America sheds some light on Lutheran CORE, and especially its Chapter 4, "Sacrificing Sex."

[2] More substantively, while my essay might appear to Benne to be a "rant," and to Pastor Ammlung to be "appallingly ignorant," their own language suggests that I did surface at least a few issues for serious consideration.

[3] Strong rhetoric aside, however, I'd like to suggest calmly (and I realize that my previous essay has raised the temperature in the debate) that my essay was, in fact, a reasoned, documented, and structured argument with two basic points. The first point was that CORE's theology distorts historic Christianity by accommodating the faith to four features of the nationalistic American civil religion — millennialism, moralism, individualism, and innocent domination. Neither Benne nor Ammlung addresses these four themes.

[4] This ought to worry confessional Lutherans. Links between our tradition and nationalism do not have a happy history. So, I will continue to challenge members of Lutheran CORE (and other Christians) to distinguish the gospel from nationalist distortions, not only for historic, but for confessional, reasons.

[5] Confessionally speaking, because CORE's theology tends to confuse the living God with those four idols of the American civil religion, CORE's theology veers toward, if does not cross into, the heresies of Pelagianism — works righteousness, Donatism — only the "pure" get to be leaders in the church, and Docetism — denying Christ's full humanity. If those are not substantive theological points, in defense of the historic great tradition of Christianity, contrary to Benne, I don't know what would be.

[6] Ammlung does address the question of Docetism in CORE, which I appreciated. She feels that CORE members are committed to the church as "the Body of Christ." I hope that's true. But what is the living corpus to which CORE members are committed — is it the congregation, Word Alone, LCMC, NALC, CORE? As I tried to suggest by talking about how "Protestants multiply by dividing" in America, the typical "body" of the church in the American civil religion has no flesh, but is a fantasy of purity that invariably fails — what Luther called a church in "cloud cuckoo land." As is common with Docetics, one senses suspicion of the body of the ELCA and its duly called and elected leaders on the part of some in CORE — a need to control the body, discipline it, punish it, even. And I must confess that I have experienced more than a little punishment from individual CORE members over the past few weeks. I've repeatedly been called a "liar," "ignorant," "narcissistic," "disgusting," — the list goes on an on — usually without any substantive engagement with the theological critiques I offered, or the evidence I gave.

[7] That said, I am willing to learn how, in fact, CORE members are committed to the church as the Body of Christ. It is hard for me to see, however, how withholding funds from the ELCA or starting a new denomination represents faithfulness to that Body, rather than (in fact) rending it. And I am definitely willing to join CORE members and leaders in renewed commitment to work together locally and globally to address the serious problems of violence and suffering that plague our world. I certainly encourage and support CORE members' commitment to Hispanic, African-American, and African Lutheran churches, to Lutheran World Relief, and to local and global ministries of many kinds, especially those that care for and emerge among the poor. The ELCA, of course, also shares those commitments — and has since its inception.

[8] My second point in the essay is that CORE's positions manifest a self-interested (heterosexually privileged) judgment that substitutes sex for salvation at the core of the Church's teaching, and that thereby confuses law and gospel. I raised the provocative question of "whether a homophobe can be saved" as a way to clarify that it is God's grace that saves us, not any stance on sexual ethics (though by raising the question of whether a homophobe can be saved I do want to bring about repentance).

[9] My article, in short, is almost entirely a work on the Law, which (as Luther says) always accuses. It is odd, to say the least, that a theologian like Benne can't recognize that, and that Pastor Ammlung accuses me of holding to a "parody" of the Lutheran theology of the Law. In fact, my essay articulates the law's most basic theological point: to hold us accountable as sinners.

[10] I do not, however, as Ammlung supposes, uphold only a "generically spiritual sense" of universal sinfulness. I had a quite specific sin in mind, as did the Apostle Paul in the passage from Romans quoted at the outset of the essay. To trust in one's own moral goodness for salvation (by fixating on a condemnation of some others' supposed "sin,") is idolatry, as it is to worship the false gods of some imperial religion rather than the living God revealed in Jesus Christ. These are hardly a "generically spiritual sense" of sinfulness, but quite specific violations of the First Commandment. Hence — my call for Lutheran CORE members to repent.

[11] But — to move on — the so-called first use of the law (that my essay also upholds) is to restrain evil and injustice and to preserve good order, insofar as possible. Consequently, acts such as adultery, incest, pedophilia, or bestiality are prohibited. Nobody in this debate is arguing for them.

[12] Even more, the core of God's law for marriage (and I have no problem saying that God has a "positive, primal intent" for marriage, as Ammlung puts it) is not merely a matter of plumbing. The key passage is Genesis 1:26–31. But this passage, far from merely affirming heterosexual privilege by clarifying for us the supposed complementary "twoness" of male and female genitalia (as if the image of God was as some kind of bifurcated hermaphrodite), affirms (no — demands!) precisely the mutuality of gift and trust in marriage that the ELCA Social Statement so strongly affirms! Mutuality is what makes it possible for us to be "fruitful and multiply," in all senses, not just procreatively (the text is, finally, about dominion — about the kind of power that is God's, and ours, in reflected glory)! It takes two in mutual relation to make three-in-one, or, more colloquially, it takes two to really tango. Mutuality, for Christians, is the deep mystery of the Trinity — the inner heart of God — as revealed in Scripture.

[13] CORE's key problem is theological. The "image of God" is, in Israel, and for Christians, first and foremost an image of oneness; of unity. The language of "male and female" in Genesis, then, is (again) not about the plumbing that differentiates men and women as the image of God, but about the quality of relationship — about the kind of unity in mutuality that exists in God's self-relation (for Christians, once again, in the Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). This is exactly the point that the Social Statement makes, and that the Implementing Resolutions recognize. God's law for marriage is not about which genders can enjoy mutual unity and fruitfulness together. God's law for marriage is that marriage be mutual (one flesh), marked by trust and commitment, and (so the Social Statement properly asserts) by public accountability.

[14] The problem is that the civil laws have, until recently, been unjust. Those laws have, without reason, excluded gays and lesbians from the kind of mutual relationship that God desires for a couple, as a reflection of the image of the one, living God, who IS (let's say it) — love. Until LGBT people can live in such legal, committed, publicly accountable relationships, God's positive, primal intention for all marriage, not to mention for all humanity, will be thwarted. THAT is the law in God's positive, primal intention: love God and love one's neighbor. The rest is commentary.

[15] It is not at all the case, however, as Benne writes, that I "long ago" decided on this question of homosexual practice. I grew up a homophobe. It was only through careful study of Scripture and the tradition, along with the providential fortune of some close friendships with loving gay and lesbian couples, that I came to repent of my homophobia. I came to see how my heterosexual privilege mirrored an injustice in society, and cloaked self-righteousness in moralism. I have only very gradually become an advocate for the full inclusion of LGBT individuals in church and society (in fact, an earlier essay of mine in this journal concludes that civil unions should be good enough for LGBT people, and "marriage" be reserved for heterosexuals — a position I now repent of. See Why Now? Lutherans Join a Mainline Debate by Jon Pahl, Ph.D.)

[16] This is not to say that my advocacy for same-sex marriage, civil rights, and full inclusion for LGBT individuals in the church is based on my "experience." I base my conclusion on the normative authority of God's Holy Word. And I would be happy to engage in dialogue over the broader and deeper Scriptural, historical, cultural and theological arguments at stake on this question, with any discussants, in any context. In fact, I have done so in a number of congregations, in a workshop I offer entitled "Sex and Salvation." A brief report from one of these workshops can be found at this site: St. Stephen Lutheran Church Theologian in Residence.

[17] Finally, I thank both Robert Benne and Cathy A. Ammlung for taking the time to respond to my essay. Truly, nothing would make me happier than for CORE members to join me in repentance for the sin of idolatry, as manifest in heterosexual self-justification and worship of the false gods of the American civil religion. And I am willing, again, to be shown how Lutheran CORE's theology is not Docetic, Pelagian (for Lutherans, always a central question), and Donatist. That kind of substantive, civil, and robust conversation between Christian brothers and sisters about crucial matters at the core of the historic Christian tradition, as surfaced by this debate over sexual ethics (which is not at the historic core of the tradition), would in the long run be very good for the church, and not only the ELCA.




© June 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 10, Issue 6