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expressed some beliefs considered vio- lently anti-Jewish, he believed we are obligated to see Christ in one another. Did Luther simply reflect his times, when 16th century rough justice and swift executions were the rule in a time with no rule of law?

R. Guy Erwin, professor of religion and history at California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, said he struggles with the chicken-and-egg conundrum.

“There is a big question in my mind about the relationship between

crude and violent language and a crude and violent soci- ety—which is the chicken and which is the egg?” he asked. “The 16th century was a violent world. Our ideas of civil language seem very ancient in the sense that we hold up as an ideal of reasoned, calm discourse that of ancient Greece and Rome.”

Despite Luther’s vitriolic outpourings, he taught that God most authentically communicates with us through the “human Jesus,” Erwin said. “While we acknowledge the sinfulness of all—that there are no perfect people—the call ‘to love our neighbor’ requires that we put ourselves in the neighbor’s place,” he said.

Indeed, Luther interpreted the commandments, par- ticularly “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” to mean a dictate against destroying a person’s reputation or livelihood or betraying, slandering or defaming one’s neighbor, Erwin said. “As Christians, we have every reason to be cautious and kind,” Erwin added.

That’s easier said than done

Pledges to be more civil, such as those endorsed by Con- gress after Giffords’ shooting, must constantly be rein- forced, the experts agreed.

Martha E. Stortz, professor of religion and vocation at

Augsburg College, Minneapolis, said our culture of incivil- ity “is fed by a kind of incantational politics, which moves by innuendo, sloganeering and just plain nastiness.” “It plays politics as if public life were a spaghetti West- ern, where there are easily identified ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ It refuses to acknowledge that things might be other than they seem—and deeply complicated, admitting of no easy solutions,” she said.

Lutherans must look to Luther the pastor, not Luther the polemist (skilled in the practice of disputation), to develop a healthy respect for listening, understanding that human nature is ambivalent and using that sensibility to inject

It is dangerous to describe ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ because often we’re simply projecting onto the other person an identity that we fear or haven’t adequately dealt with ourselves.

a healthy dose of modesty into our political discourse, she said. Kaari Reierson, an ELCA pastor and former editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, said German theo- logian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoef- fer concluded after great self- examination that one must fight evil (in his case, being involved in unsuc- cessful attempts to kill Adolf Hitler) in ways that may not be ideal. “I don’t know that people can rise to that level of self-examination immediately,” she said.

Yet for us today, the answer may be as simple as giving others the benefit of the doubt and refraining from ridicule or misinterpretation. “We are to see others not as something foreign, or ‘the other,’ but as fellow children of God, as fully human and not merely a means to accomplish a goal,” Reierson said.

Another important concept is to refrain from putting words in others’ mouths or thoughts into their minds, she said. “Let people explain themselves,” she added. Stewart Herman, associate professor of ethics and the- ology at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn., said our pluralistic society has taught us to guard against describing one’s self or one’s allies as the good guys and one’s adver- saries as the bad guys.

“It is dangerous to describe ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ because often we’re simply projecting onto the other per- son an identity that we fear or haven’t adequately dealt with ourselves,” he said. “Even more importantly, when we divide the world into good guys and bad guys, we have a reason not only to hate and denigrate the bad guys, but even to harm them.” A proper Lutheran perspective is to be modest, since we are all redeemed sinners, to take care in what we say and to realize that “there are always gray areas on both sides” of issues, Herman said.

He cited Philippians 2:3-4 as a reminder: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but the interests of others.” Simply listening and repeating another person’s state- ments or words without judgment helps clarify conversa- tions, Herman said. “This doesn’t mean abandoning one’s principles,” he added. “The first stand is for civil discourse, but there may be other ideals on which we cannot compromise.” 

Guy is an ELCA member and a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.

March 2011 35

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