When the line to check in at a church-sponsored conference on a beautiful Saturday morning in April stretches out the door, it’s a sign that the event has generated an impressive level of buzz.
For the North Carolina Lutherans, their faith partners and other friends who turned out in strength on April 12, those more predictable Saturday pursuits of grass-mowing, grocery shopping and golf would just have to wait.
The event at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Raleigh had an ambitious theme: “Navigating Public Policy Issues Guided by a Moral Compass.” Specifically, it examined state government policy choices that have given rise to the Moral Monday movement – the movement grounded in a yearning for social justice that has enlisted many thousands of people to protest those choices. And it focused on the connections between social justice and a Christian faith that has concern for the vulnerable and marginalized at its core.
In case there was any doubt that these are high-priority matters within the greater Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the head of the church’s NC Synod, Bishop Leonard Bolick, was on hand. The statewide synod, based in Salisbury, is a member of the NC Council of Churches. Judith Roberts brought greetings from the ELCA national office in Chicago, where she is program director for racial justice.
Bishop Bolick introduced his counterpart with the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, Bishop Michael Curry, who offered a powerful keynote speech framing the rationale for bringing a progressive faith perspective to the state’s policy debates.
All in the family
Jesus came to show us how to be more than merely members of the human race, Curry said. “He came to show us how to become members of the human family of God. That’s the basis and grounding of a Christian social ethic.”
The bishop quoted the famous passage in which Jesus says, “Whenever you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you have done it unto me.”
“Every man, woman and child is a child of the most high God, and a member of your family,” Curry said. “Any social policy that casts down any child of God is evil, wicked and wrong, and I must be about the business of changing it.”
How to reconcile that call to activism with churches’ duty to avoid becoming embroiled in partisan politics was a theme underlying the event. Organizers acknowledged a reluctance within some Lutheran churches to wade into the public policy arena – an attitude that allows churches to maneuver around controversy, but one that risks glossing over the basic Christian mandate to make sure others are treated as we’d like to be treated.
Certainly churches’ own charitable efforts and social outreach programs are consistent with that mandate. But what if policies and laws are written in such a way that they make it harder for those programs to succeed? What if the political system becomes skewed to serve the interests of the powerful while the powerless are pushed aside? Surely it’s legitimate for churches and their members to try to connect the dots between what they believe and how the rules of our society are structured.
The threshold that can’t be crossed, at least when it comes to church-centered activity, is the one that separates issue-oriented activism from efforts meant to boost specific candidates. There can be no direct overlap between the roles of churches and political parties unless churches want to forfeit their tax-exempt status.
In that vein, Curry reminded his audience that church members, even ones confident in the rightness of their causes, must keep open minds. Other people in the same congregation who are just as sincere may hold opposing views. “When someone differs with me, I must have the humility to see that they may know something I don’t,” the bishop said. “And he’s also a child of God.” Whether within a church or the political system generally, he said, “We must negotiate our way forward.”
The conference included a series of presentations geared to topics that have been central to the Moral Monday movement:
- Gene Nichol, law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, discussed the troubling scope and challenge of poverty in North Carolina.
- Rodney Ellis, president of the NC Association of Educators, reviewed policy and budget changes that make it more difficult to attract and retain an adequate supply of well-qualified teachers in the state’s public schools. Class sizes have been increased, pay has stagnated and job security has been weakened. As Curry had said, “If you want a good education for your child, then as a Christian you want a good education for every child.”
- Jennifer Frye, associate director of Democracy North Carolina, explained how changes to state election laws make it more difficult for some people on society’s margins to exercise their right to vote. With their voices muffled at the polls, these citizens will find it even harder to influence the choice of leaders whose decisions bear so weightily on their well-being.
- William Murray, a board member of the group Health Care for All NC, told the gathering that the state’s decision not to expand Medicaid coverage — with most of the funding coming from Washington – represented a costly missed opportunity to invest in better health care for people of lesser means.
- Judith Roberts of the ELCA discussed the consequences when racism and classism infect organizations, including churches, from the inside. Her presence was a reminder that the greater Lutheran Church understands the gravity of these issues and is committed to countering institutional racism wherever it may exist.
Taking the plunge
All in all, the conference amounted to an earnest attempt to address and overcome what for some Lutheran churches has been a conceptual barrier inhibiting them from applying their faith ideals to the real world where public policies are decided.
A section of the event’s program material entitled “Theological Touchstones and Themes” made a series of points that could be taken to heart not only by Lutherans, but also by all those sharing the values that mark the Council of Churches. For example:
- “Our primary objective is to witness to a particular understanding and practice of the qualities, characteristics and attributes of God’s Kingdom which scripture makes known to us, including Justice – Mercy – Humility – Servanthood and Sacrifice, rather than to control the outcome or impose our will upon others, i.e. support particular parties/candidates or win elections.”
- “Our motivation is protecting and advancing the interests of others, not the advancement of our own interests. Particularly, we are called to stand with the powerless and the ‘least of these’ among us, whom Jesus demands that we treat with the same consideration, compassion and concern with which we would treat Our Lord himself.”
- “Our actions are characterized by love of neighbor as of self. Including loving those with whom we may disagree. We refrain from objectifying those who disagree as our enemy and thus unworthy of our concern and respect. Victory or achievement is not measured by ‘winning’ a contest but by increasing the practice of love.”
When conference attendees finally scattered on that warm and radiant Saturday afternoon, there could have been little doubt that in the quest for social justice, many North Carolina Lutherans intend to do their part.