Thursday, April 26, 2007

Missing the Mark at Virginia Tech

Prof. Ed Schroeder of the Crossings Community threw down the gauntlet last week in his Thursday Theology #462 in an open letter to William King, ELCA Campus Pastor at Virginia Tech. It started, you might say, with an ELCA News release that began thus:
The Rev. William H. King, Lutheran campus pastor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), Blacksburg, Va., and staff of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), delivered the Christian message April 17 at the Virginia Tech Convocation where students, faculty and others of the community gathered to remember the victims of yesterday's shooting on campus. According to the Virginia Tech Web site, at least 33 people died including the gunman.

"We're gathered this afternoon for many purposes. To weep for lost friends and families, to mourn our lost innocence, to walk forward in the wake of unspeakable tragedy, to embrace hope in the shadow of despair, to join our voices and our longing for peace, healing and understanding which is much greater than any single faith community, to embrace that which unifies, and to reject the seductive temptation to hate," said King, who also serves as deployed staff of the Department for Campus Ministry, ELCA Vocation and Education.

"We gather together weeping, yes, we weep with an agony too deep for words and sighs that are inexpressible, but also we gather affirming the sovereignty of life over death. At a time such as this the darkness of evil seems powerful indeed. It casts a pall over our simple joys, joys as simple as playing Frisbee on the Drill Field. We struggle to imagine a future beyond this agony. If we ever harbored any illusions that our campus is an idyllic refuge from the violence of the rest the world, they are gone forever. And yet we come to this place to testify that the light of love cannot be defeated. Amid all our pain, we confess that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it," said King.

"We cannot undo yesterday's tragic events, but we can sit in patient silence with those who mourn as they seek for a way forward. As we share light one with another, we reclaim our campus. Let us deny death's power to rob us of all that we have loved about Virginia Tech, our community. Let us cast our lot with hope in defiance of despair," said King, who invited the convocation to a moment of silence.
Read the rest of the release here. Listen to the Audio of Pr. King's message here on the ELCA Web site.

Then Prof. Schroeder really goes to town:
Dear Pastor King,

I'd say you blew it.

It may be that you did indeed say more than the publicized words we got in the ELCA news release--and from the audio they sent us to. But did you notice? Neither the word God nor the word Christ ever appears. So how can that the THE Christian message for the survivors? Whose side are you on?

The Good News you offered (unless there was stuff edited out of your prose) is not even good Judaism or Islam.

But what was the good news you offered? I ask you to read your own prose again and then articulate for yourself--and for us--just what it was that you offered the folks. Especially if you were billed as THE Christian spokesman. Here's wht I see:

Your diagnosis of the survivors in their dilemma: "weeping . . . mourning . . . shadow of despair . . . agony too deep for words . . . sighs inexpressible . . . darkness of evil seems powerful indeed . . . casts a pall (even over frisbee-playing) . . . we struggle . . .illusions about our idyllic campus are gone.

Where you sought to bring these folks: to walk forward . . . to embrace hope . . . to join our voices & our longing for peace, healing and understanding . . . to embrace that which unifies . . . to reject seductive temptations to hate. . . affirm the sovereignty of life over death. . . to imagine a future beyond this agony . . . to push back darkness.

The power to get them from A to B:
We come to this place to testify that the light of love cannot be defeated
We confess that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it
We cannot do everything, but we can do something
We cannot banish all darkness, but we can by joining together push it back
We cannot undo yesterday's tragic events, but we can sit in patient silence with those who mourn
As we share light one with another, we reclaim our campus
Let us deny death's power to rob us of all that we have loved about Virginia Tech
Let us cast our lot with hope in defiance of despair
Inviting the convocation to a moment of silence
Sounds like the Saviors vis-a-vis that horrendous dilemma are the survivors: "We can... Let us."

If you were actually asked to be THE Christian voice on the program, why did you fudge? Someone apparently wanted something explicitly Christian. And just 9 days after Easter you still must have had something left over that you could have spoken. If the program people just wanted you to proclaim the Gospel of American Pelagianism--"by our bootstraps WE can DO it!"--which I think you proposed, then you might have simply said: "Thanks, but no thanks. Not my job. My ordination vow commits me to a different Gospel. Can't do it."
Read it all here. And note his conclusion:
You had a better Gospel for April 17 delivery. To wit, the Christian message. You should have used it. The folks needed to hear it. They still do. Use your campus pastor post to keep messaging that message. That's the real Good News for all of us to hear in order to cope with the Virginia massacre.
Ed Schroeder isn't the only one to notice. Christian broadcaster Frank Pastore (formerly a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds and Minnesota Twins) wrote over at of the Virginia Tech Convocation:
Each of the four speakers were there to represent their religion, to bring the message of comfort and hope rooted in their faith tradition. The Muslim speaker read passages from the Koran in Arabic and appealed to Allah, the Jewish speaker read from Ecclesiastes 3 while an assistant repeated the passages in Hebrew, the Buddhist quoted the Dalai Lama, while the Christian did not even quote from the Bible, nor mention the name of Jesus – the namesake of his religion.

What Mr. King said should be studied in every seminary in America. It is precisely what not to do when given the opportunity to bring the message of the Gospel of Jesus to those grieving the loss of loved ones and struggling to make sense of the evil visited upon them.

The nearest thing to Christianity anyone heard at the Convocation was the playing of Amazing Grace and the unison recitation of The Lord’s Prayer. There was far more Bible coming from the pews than being preached from the pulpit.

No wonder Christianity is so easily and regularly attacked on college campuses. With advocates like this, who needs opposition? We’ve got guys in our uniform playing for the other team.

Mr. King could have spoken the truth. He could have explained why Christians are confident in divine justice, why we believe that good will ultimately triumph over evil, why we know that there is life after death for those that trust Christ. He could have explained that Jesus paid the penalty for all our sins on the Cross that Friday long ago, and rose bodily from the dead on Sunday to prove His sovereignty over evil, sin and death.

In short, he could have preached the Gospel. After all, the murders were only a week removed from Easter.

But, Mr. King decided to do something apparently more important in his mind. He decided to be politically correct and not offend the members of his interfaith community by offering hollow words of humanistic philosophy lacking any real substance, and by appealing to various “religious streams” and by validating the search “for a way forward,” he insulted those of us who actually believe Christianity is true and other religions false.

In so doing, he denied his faith.

He offered those mourning no hope for the present nor any hope for the future.

He left the hearers dead in their sins.
Read it all here.

Naturally Pr. King's address is the subject of discussion at ALPB Forum Online, where LCMS Pastor Paul McCain of Cyberbrethren brought in Pastore's commentary and, along with other LCMS pastors, raised the question, "Why participate in an 'inter-religious' service anyway?"

I finally put in my 2 cents on the whole controversy:
Because the nature of the community gathering together is to be inter-religious.

Early in my days of ministry, I was occasionally asked to deliver a prayer to open or close "community" events. I was concerned about how to craft appropriate prayers that would be more than mealy-mouthed platitudes yet would not, uh, offend non-Christians. I was quite pleased to find the book 150 Opening and Closing Prayers at our local Catholic book store which helped with that, drawing on both Old and New Testaments while using the classic Collect form. Some of the prayers specifically invoke the name of Jesus, others don't.

Then one day a couple years later I was reading a recollection of the days when the community's pastors would participate in such events -- and that regardless of what the prayer was, the local Roman Catholic priest always began with, "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost," while making the sign of the Cross. There was no fuss from Jews, or Protestants, or agnostics, or even atheists. He was a Catholic priest, and that was how Catholics prayed.

And my eyes were opened. I don't need to shove anything down their throats, but there's no reason I can't be authentic to who I am. And that's a Lutheran pastor. So I open in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I pray in the name of Jesus. I'll speak from our tradition. If they want a "generic" Christian or religious speaker, they'll have to ask for someone else.

I don't want to come down too hard on the ELCA Campus Pastor who gave the "Christian" message at this convocation. Everything we have been taught, both inside and outside the church, tells us to back away from explicit Christian prayer and proclamation. That is particularly reinforced in academic settings and highlighted by the oldline institutional ecumenicalists and the establishment (both national and local) secular media.

But we have been taught wrongly. And we need to do better than that. We in the ELCA ought not back away from speaking of, from proclaiming, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Especially when an inter-faith community gathers to deal with tragedy or evil; especially in Easter-tide.

It was most interesting to read Mark Tooley's commentary on the religious response to this mass murder. He's with the United Methodist desk at the Institute for Religion and Democracy, usually described by ELCAers as a "right wing" religious group. In it he goes after comments of leaders the NCC, WCC, and other mainline/oldline/sideline leaders, which he noted focussed on gun control as the answer to prevent such evils. Then comes this:

"Not all Religious Left officials exploited the Virginia Tech horrors. The chief officials of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tactfully refrained from crowing about their denomination’s stances on gun control. Even evangelical left leader Jim Wallis showed restraint, calling for a time of "prayer and silence."

"ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson actually quoted Scripture in his statement: "We mourn, we pray, and with the Psalmist we plead: 'Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!' (Psalm 130:1) As family and friends grieve the deaths and injuries of loved ones, we claim the promise of Christ's Resurrection."

"How unique that a prominent mainline church official actually responded to the horrible deaths of countless young people by pointing to the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why do others of his colleagues not follow his example? " Read it all here.

Yeah. A "right-winger" praises our ELCA Presiding Bishop. Because ++Hanson indeed offered an unambiguously Christian message in the face of this evil. And in doing so, he is teaching us well -- which is what Bishops are supposed to do.
And, I should add, we pastors and priests, too.

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