Saturday, September 20, 2008

Pietism's Weakness?

A couple had a conversation with me about our church's stance (or lack thereof) on a variety of social, ethical and political issues. When I explained my pietistic orientation, one that focusses primarily on the interior and personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ as an historic reaction to Swedish Lutheran State Church control and American fundamentalism and its endless legalisms, they understood my quietism better.
Every election cycle I get particularly quiet and they called me on that. How can I be quiet about clear moral issues that do not just pop up every four years? What about the killing of 1.1million babies every year through abortion? Does my pietistic relationship with Jesus tell me to be quiet about that or say clearly that it's wrong? Has the issue of the sovereignty of personal choice removed both abortion and homosexual marriage from the range of issues that bear on being a disciple of Jesus Christ?
When the discussion translated into the realm of my teaching confirmation to 7th and 8th graders, I had no problem being clear and explicit with my ethics: Premarital sex? not a good idea. Pornography? bad deal. Racism? no. Bullying? not! Violent video games? bad stuff for the brain. Homosexuality? not God's planned way. On confirmation retreats the students have a time to pepper me with just those sorts of questions and I have no problem shooting back short and, I hope, accurate responses based on the Bible. But in all things, over all issues, and to all people we must reflect first and foremost the love of Jesus for us and through us.
While pietism's deep love of fellowship and preservation of the community is wonderful, sometimes we sacrifice speaking truthfully about the big issues and let us go our own ways. Maybe it's being reticent to go back to legalism. Maybe it's because we recoil from partisanship. Maybe it's because we just don't want to rock the boat. Is it time for pietism to get more muscle?


At 10:06 PM , Anonymous Tim Eaton said...

Pastor Don,

Thanks for wading into rough waters. I would not have thought speaking openly about the killing of 50 million unborn babies since 1973 might qualify as tipping us into legalism. I've certainly never heard the specter of legalism raised with respect to other worthy concerns of the church, such as social justice, concern for the environment, or care for the poor.

Tim Eaton

At 1:11 PM , Blogger Kalon L said...

An important topic to explore. I think Telford will be speaking to this at the University Club on October 16th.

The problem is that almost none of our biblical teachings translate unambiguously into the political arena. But that there is ambiguity or alternative ways of living out biblical imperatives does not mean we shouldn't wrestle with the concerns. It just needs to be done with a lot of humility and openness to others who may reach different conclusions.

And while I think the church is the place to have these conversations, I'm not sure the pulpit is. There is simply no freedom to interrupt a sermon and suggest alternatives, but there would be in a church classroom.

Kalon L

At 7:45 AM , Blogger donnjohnson said...

Good point Kalon about the need to keep it an open dialogue and not monologue.

At 11:42 AM , Anonymous Tim Eaton said...


Thanks for your post. Surely Biblical teachings translate into the political arena in many ways, but one of the most important is the degree to which our criminal and civil code mirrors the Judeo Christian ethic. This seems incontrovertible. By your logic, Christians might be politically indifferent to slavery, bribery, racism, murder, theft, polygamy, rape, incest, the despoliation of the environment, and so on and on. It seems that what you really mean to say is that the prohibition of abortion does not belong on the list, i.e. that we cannot scripturally divine an imperative to seek an end, by political means, to the killing of 100,000 unborn children a month (in this country alone). I would be happy to engage in that discussion.

As a beginning, let me ask a question. I know that the Christian left is deeply committed to political activity under the broad umbrella of seeking social justice. How is the slaughter of 50 million innocent human beings in the U.S. since 1973 not an issue of social justice for the victims?

Don, I understand what you mean, but I think the desire to keep "it [abortion] an open dialogue and not monologue" is more representative of our comfort level with the status quo and our confusion about the key issues, than it is about the merits of the moral imperative. In other words, abortion has slipped into a "gray area" because we have allowed it to, not because it is intrinsically morally complex in a way that slavery, for example, is not. I believe that most parishioners, when confronted with the reality of abortion would intuitively reach the conclusion that in almost all instances it ought to be legally prohibited. We simply don't confront our parishioners. In our church it is neither a monologue nor a dialogue. We just don't speak the "a" word.



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