In the background of this month’s 11th General Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, it’s important to recall the recent history of global Lutheranism.
The basic context is that Lutheranism has been self-understood as historically associated with social quietism, particularly as expressed in the church’s impotency in the face of the Nazi menace. One approach in answer to this has been to become correspondingly active in social causes.
This is, at least in part, we see such an emphasis on social justice issues at Lutheran ecumenical gatherings over the last few decades. This current gathering, for instance, is committed to focusing on hunger issues.
As the introductory ENI story relates, this move from social quietism to social activism is constitutive of the Lutheran ecumenical movement’s self-understanding.
German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said in Stuttgart yesterday, “It has been observed that the Lutheran heritage in Germany has tended to encourage individuals to be obedient subjects rather than active citizens.”
“Germans had to learn through a painful history that good government is the responsibility of all citizens. Protestant Germans in their majority took a long time to understand that this was also what their Christian faith demanded of them,” Schäuble told a 1200-strong ecumenical congregation.
The ENI piece specifically cites Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his involvement in the Abwehr conspiracy, whose climax was reached in the Stauffenberg assassination attempt of July 20, 1944. Bonhoeffer certainly does have a great deal to teach us about social engagement, as his deep reflections on the nature of social life, from his first theological dissertation (Sanctorum Communio), to his reflections on communal life together at the theological seminary in Finkenwalde, to his Ethics.
What we see in Bonhoeffer, and what I try to communicate in my use of his work in the concluding sections of Ecumenical Babel, is a balanced approach that does not allow for secularization between church life and work life, for instance. But neither does it allow for the opposite error, the substitution of social activism for the Gospel proclamation itself.
This is the risk that Lutheran social engagement has faced over the last few decades, and the trap into which the LWF has often fallen. I pray that the invocation of the prayer for our “daily bread” at this gathering in Stuttgart will take up a balanced approach to work and wealth. But as I show in Ecumenical Babel, there is little precedent in recent history to suggest such balance.