Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Elephants, Grass, and Suffering: 2016 Convocation of Teaching Theologians (Brian E. Konkol)

The following text is taken from a homily given at the closing worship of the 2016 Convocation of Teaching Theologians, which gathered under the theme, “Lutheranism and the Famil(lies)”. 

This text was published with the Huffington Post on 10/25/2016 and can be found at:

Please note that the below manuscript was originally written with the intention for it to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. This proverb from Kenya is as true and relevant today as when the words were first spoken, perhaps thousands of years ago. The statement reminds us that, when the most powerful among us conflict, the most vulnerable ultimately endure the most. 

This pearl of insight from the cradle of humankind, is - in many ways - a commentary upon our contemporary political climate in general, and our current election season in particular. Leaders of our ideological factions continue to make truth claims about how dangerous, irresponsible, foolish, misguided, unqualified and unpatriotic those of its opposition are. Furthermore, as our disappointing media once again converts potential civic education opportunities into sensationalized political pornography, those who suffer most from the cheap theater and expensive dysfunction of it all are those that continue to be placed on the margins of society. Because, “when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”.

In the midst of what many describe as a political gridlock, the wheels of injustice have not stood still, and with each revolution of the Earth our scales of opportunity and prosperity continue to tip in favor of the most powerful and privileged of our planet. We now possess unprecedented local and global income disparity, increasing consequences of climate change, inequitable access to health care and suitable education, violent warfare across the globe, and near nuclear levels of racism, sexism, religious extremism, ideological polarization, idolatrous imperialism, and violent discrimination based upon sexual orientation. And of course, then there is Donald Trump. He is a man whom my faith compels me to see as a Child of God, yet my faith also moves me to resist his message and methods as contrary to the Mission of God. As another timeless African proverb reminds us: “When the elephant sits on the mouse, the mouse does not appreciate your neutrality”. 

The 12th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel sharply reminds us that “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded”. As participants in a Lutheran church and tradition that claims to share a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded”. 

These words from Scripture were stirring when first recorded and shared generations ago, but in such pivotal political times as now should especially sink deep, for we recognize that everything which begins in theology tends to end up in politics! Yet despite our theological claims which express the ways and means by which God is active in and through our civic configurations, we so often cite our religious commitments as an excuse not to engage publically in matters that most matter. 

There are countless reasons not to be involved in the potential poisons of partisan politics. However, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues to remind us from the grave, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil... Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” As we now know, Bonhoeffer then knew, and yet he still paid, such costs of discipleship. Why not us? In response to all that we have been given as people justified by grace through faith, and in reaction to that in which we have been entrusted as stewards of this Earth and blessed caretakers of the faith, we are called not only to share a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, but also a living and daring suspicion of cheap grace. At this moment, when the history of fascism is rhyming once more, we that might dare to identify as Lutherans are especially called and equipped to consider whether or not we will practice what we preach and teach this time around. We cannot sit back and let the fullness of life be sacrificed once more at the altar of another golden calf.

So what does this mean? For starters, as people of faith, we recognize that whenever two or three are gathered, there are politics. This is a fact of life. Which in turn means, there are always political implications to our theological affirmations. Always. Which further means, as people called to participate in a missiological trajectory, informed by the Lutheran tradition, in which the wisdom of God’s Household (oikos-logos) is active in and through the ways in which we organize life in God’s Household (oikos-nomos), the ecclesial means by which such missiological ends takes place is - by its very nature - political, which ultimatley means it is not a question of if one is engaged, but more fundamentally a matter of how. 

So the question then becomes: If God in Christ seeks to provide the fullness of life, and if the political process clearly has an impact upon the fullness of life, then how do people of faith serve as the hands and feet of God in this world through political means, especially when policies are too often proposed that would have a disastrous impact upon far too many?

If politics, at its core, is about how we choose to organize our lives together in service to the common good, and if religion, at its core, is about how we are bonded together through a God that is good, then we let our full lives speak fullytheologically and politically, for the sake of life, and in the name of Jesus Christ. We cannot allow a world order that values dominance over cooperation, denies climate change, insults veterans, trivializes truth telling, threatens a free press, mocks the differently abled, encourages espionage, denigrates women, celebrates violence, dehumanizes immigrants, criminalizes Muslims, puts profit before people, and insists that black lives don’t matter. Furthermore, for those of us that care about the Church, we cannot allow a world in which Constantinian-like Christian conversions of political convenience leave us with a rejuvenated brand of Constantinian-type Christianity.

Despite our best attempts, we are not saved by theology, nor are we saved by politics. This is most certainly true. As Lutherans we ultimately place our hopes at the foot of the cross of Christ. Nevertheless, theology and politics do matter, as those that believe the theologically absurd are too often tempted to commit the politically atrocious. Which is why, as practitioners of Gospel proclamation, any amount of real or perceived silence from our platforms and pulpits in response to the absurdities of our days will inevitably lead to more atrocities in the days to come. In response to the amazing grace of God made known in Jesus, we recognize that silence itself in times such as these is both absurd and atrocious.

To think about this all is not enough. To talk amongst ourselves is not enough. We are called to inform others and be informed by others, pray and be prayed for, knock on doors, allow our doors to be knocked on, organize and empathize and strategize, make calls and stand tall, speak out and explore doubt, register to vote, help register others to vote, vote, encourage others to vote, and drive ten friends to the polls so they can vote! And in the midst of it all, with both humility and boldness, engage those who seem most unbearable, and ultimatley, accompany those we know are most vulnerable. Because, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. 

As Jesus sought to narrow the gap between what is and what ought to be, may the gift of the Gospel give us all the strength to meet this critical moment in time. May we be set free from the fear of what our collective prophetic voice might sound like. May we be set free for the courage required to let our full lives speak fully and put our faith more boldly into action. 

For the sake of all families. For the sake of all futures. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.