Thursday, August 20, 2009

ELCA Vote for Greater Inclusivity Stirs Up a Storm

In Minneapolis on Wednesday, the General Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed an important social statement. The statement acknowledges the lack of consensus within the ELCA concerning the ethics of homosexual relationships and essentially extends to individual congregations the right to decide for themselves whether and in what ways they will recognize or bless same-sex unions. The vote passed by precisely the two-thirds majority that was required. And when I say “precisely,” I mean exactly that. A single vote the other way, and the measure wouldn’t have passed.

At the time that deliberations on this agenda item were about to start, an unexpected tornadic storm passed through Minneapolis, causing significant damage in several parts of the city. A confirmed tornado went through an area south of downtown. The Electric Fetus record store had its windows blown out…and the storm also caused damage to the convention center where the General Assembly was being held as well as to the spire of nearby Central Lutheran Church.

Predictably, these last two facts have caused a number of conservative religious pundits such as John Piper to paint the storm as a divine warning: it was, they claim, God’s way of telling the ELCA General Assembly not to pass the social statement.

That’s one theory--a theory which inspires me to wonder what the First Baptist Church in Mena, AK did wrong to warrant a million dollars worth of tornado-related damage back in April. Since the tornado hit on Maundy Thursday (the day during Holy Week when churches around the world remember Jesus' Last Supper), maybe God was trying to urge the church to rethink its theory that Holy Communion is merely a symbolic memorial. How dare they deny the ancient Church's doctrine of transubstantiation on the very day when the event which instituted Holy Communion is commemorated? Outrageous! How could God not smite them?

Oh wait. Lots of churches treat Holy Communion as just a memorial, and most of them weren't hit by tornadoes on Maundy Thursday. Hmm. And then there's the fact that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved some even stronger measures towards gay and lesbian inclusion back in July, and even though the convention took place in Anaheim, CA, not a single earthquake shook up the proceedings.

So maybe Piper's theory isn't the best one. Here's another: The storm was God’s way of warning opponents of the ELCA social statement that He is not happy with those who stand in the way of expanding the scope of agapic love. Because He knew that the vote would be so close, God rattled the rafters of the convention center to put the fear of God in those assembly delegates who were thinking about blocking this move towards greater inclusion and compassion.

Then again, maybe the ELCA General Assembly wasn't God's target at all. Maybe God was furious with the Electric Fetus record store. Who knows why? Maybe He thought the name was in bad taste. Or, since the Electric Fetus has been described as "iconic," He may have been expressing His wrath against graven images. More likely, it was because one of its employees is a secret fan of Air Supply.

Or maybe one of the drivers on I-35W, where the tornado touched down, was actually listening to Air Supply, inspiring even greater divine outrage. Perhaps the Electric Fetus employee hooked him up with the CD.

Of course, it might be that God was mad at the trees that were knocked down at 42nd and Portland. There is some biblical support for this. Jesus did, after all, curse an olive tree. Then again, since the storm system spawned tornado touchdowns in other parts of Minnesota, as well as in Iowa and other states, it may be that there are Air Supply fans elsewhere who inspired God’s wrath.

Or perhaps we should conclude that since no one was harmed in the convention center, God was actually protecting the members of the assembly from the storm so that they might complete the important work they had before them. Since injuries would have been more likely to take out delegates who voted with the two-third majority in favor of the measure, and since the measure would have failed if even one of these delegates hadn’t been present for the vote (had the storm taken out a few of the opponents, it wouldn’t have changed the result), we might conclude that God’s protection ended up saving the day for the advocates of greater inclusion.

We might even suppose, given the precipitous and unexpected nature of the tornadic storm, that it was spawned by Satan in an attempt to preserve policies of exclusion in the ELCA. Thankfully, God protected the good delegates of the assembly. Satan, furious at having his malign will thwarted, petulantly swatted Central Lutheran’s steeple on his way out of town.

Then again, maybe it was just a storm.


  1. A very eloquent response. Thank you.

  2. "Jesus did, after all, curse an olive tree"

    I didn't think I gave a fig about Biblical "literalism"......but I think it was a fig tree.

    Excellent post! Bring on the agape!

  3. I hang my head in shame. Yes--it was a fig tree.

  4. Great post - love it! Yeah, I've been pretty pissed at those trees myself for years. Used to pass them on the freeway all the time. They had it coming.

  5. There is also at least the possibility that Piper is right.

  6. CrackleDawg,

    My point is that Piper has no good reason to foist this interpretation on events, even if it IS possible.

    But I wonder at the sense of "possible" that you're invoking. If you mean "possible" merely in the way that my sprouting wings and flying right now is possible--then you MAY be right.

    But I'm not even sure about that. The orthodox Christian understanding of God holds that God is what He is necessarily, and that God is perfecty good and perfectly loving. If this is right, then it is simply not POSSIBLE for God to behave in ways that fall short of moral perfection and perfect love.

    So, whether it is even possible that Piper is right depends on whether behavior of the sort Piper attributes to God is consistent with moral perfection and perfect love. Personally, I think not.

  7. For the sake of the argument, let's say I am a morally perfect parent. If this is true, then I must warn my child not to run into the street when I see they are contemplating it. To not do so is to endanger my child's life and thus be immoral.

    Further, you left out a key trait of God's: perfect justice. If he is morally perfect, then his standards are infallible. If this is so he may mete out penalties as he sees fit in order to uphold his justice. His penalties would be just because he is morally perfect.

    In the example above if, in spite of my warning, my child runs into the street, I must take action. To not do so would be immoral as, again, I would be endangering my child's life. I am just asking that we consider the possibility the tornado was God telling the ELCA not to run into the street.

    If we are to contemplate God's moral perfection and his perfect love we must also deal with the fact that he is perfectly just. To not do so is inconsistent with his moral perfection and his perfect love.

  8. CrackleDawg,

    Thanks for the further development of your ideas.

    The point I was making was this: whether or not you think Piper's interpretation of events in Minneapolis is even POSSIBLY true depends on how you conceive of God's moral character and what behavior you take to be consistent with such a character.

    And so, before we can say that Piper's interpretation of events is possibly true, we need to address these more basic issues. And then I noted briefly that given my own take on these more basic issues, I cannot endorse the claim that Piper's account is even possibly true.

    You have, in reply, sketched your own views on these more basic issues and indicated that given THESE views, you think it might be consistent with God's moral character to send a tornadic storm through the northern midwest, causing damage hither and yon (not just in Minnesota but in other states), entirely for the sake of warning the ELCA delegates in one of the damaged buildings against voting a certain way.

    But to settle this deeper dispute, we would need to look more deeply at God's character, the concept of divine justice, its relation to divine love, and its implication for the kind of behavior Piper attributes to God.

    In fact, a colleague and I have taken up a study of this kind in relation to whether the doctrine of hell is consistent with the divine character. But since I can't do justice to these issues in a comment, I won't try.

    But I do want to ask other readers what they think of the idea that divine justice might warrant a divine act of the sort Piper describes. The defender of this view would, it seems to me, have to confront some issues of distributive justice (since many people unrelated to the ELCA were impacted by this act). And then, of course, there's the problem of justifying an act that does harm for the sake of the message it supposedly communicates, when the act's message (or lack thereof) is so utterly open to interpretation.

  9. Greg Boyd discussed this in his blog as well: