“The Holy Spirit is calling this church to be mindful that those within it who live with disabilities are full companions in the journey of faith.”
The Church has always taught compassion towards those in unfortunate circumstances. But in the late 20th century, both church and society put additional focus on people with disabilities, including research, rethinking and advocacy. The Americans with Disabilities Act is one product of that new and different attentiveness to people living with disabilities. In 2011, the ELCA Church Council adopted a social message on people living with disabilities.
Aware that many congregations were already working effectively with people living with disabilities, the framers of the message wrote a 4-part message: theological reflection; confession; calls to renewed commitment and action in the ELCA; calls to action in society.
In the section on theological reflection, the message acknowledges human sin, but does not jump to the conclusion that so many have done erroneously—namely that disability is the result of sinfulness and the person or his/her parents are to blame. The emphasis is on dignity as a gift of God, acknowledging that all are created in God’s image.
In the section on confession, the message challenges individuals and the church to reexamine ways that we as individuals and society as a whole dehumanizes people with disabilities. It lists a number of ways that we as a society make assumptions about people we don’t even know.
The sections on what the ELCA can do, and what society can do are extensive. The ELCA portion gives suggestions and encouragement to congregations, individuals, synods, and the wider church, including other ministries. Suggestions include having accessible worship space, including people with disabilities in leadership roles. In addition, the message commends synods to life up congregations, outdoor ministries, campus ministries and other ministry sites that have made their facilities accessible and who include people with all kinds of disabilities in their ministry and programs.
The Montana Synod is on board with these priorities. One of the major reasons for building a new Synod House is to make it ADA-compliant. Our original building had restrooms in the basement, and our editor for the Living Lutheran Montana Synod Insert was unable to get into our building. The new design is all on one floor, and designed with access in mind.
At the 2013 Churchwide Assembly, when the Campaign for the ELCA was adopted, the Assembly voted to add ministry with disabilities to the projects in the campaign.
In the final section on society, the message affirms the principles that: All people have equal moral and legal status in our society; all people deserve equal protection under the law; and all people have a right to representation and participation in government. Topics of concern include: employment and poverty, education, family caregivers, staffing and training caring professions, disabled veterans, and citizenship.
The message encourages direct action and advocacy in the private sector and in government. The message concludes:
In both church and society much remains to be done to ensure inclusion and justice for people with disabilities. Social and economic justice are not the sum total of what people with disabilities and their caregivers need, but they need justice as urgently as they need support, friendship and love. This church, through its members, various ministries, partners and organizations is being called to support this quest for justice and inclusion in both society and the church and to accompany those who seek it.”
Jessica Crist, Bishop
For Montana residents it turns out that the political season is not over yet. Our lone representative in the US House became the Secretary of the Interior, leaving us without any representation in the House of Representatives. I have certainly felt that lack, as I have written to my senators about various issues in these last months. On May 25 (ironically, it is Ascension Day) Montana will have an election for our representative in the House.
Although there is some talk out of Washington about allowing religious organizations to become more partisan in their advocacy, even endorsing candidates without losing tax-exempt status, do not yield to the temptation, no matter how strongly you feel about the candidates, the election. In the ELCA we do not endorse candidates. We talk about policy. We encourage discernment. We encourage voting as a way not only to demonstrate civic responsibility, but also to show love for your neighbor. Voting is a way to be accountable for policies that affect the least and the lost.
Presiding Bishop Eaton has written an important statement on Religious Freedom. You can read it below:
On May 4, President Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious
Liberty.” The measure addresses the IRS ban on political campaigning by tax-exempt 501(c)(3)
organizations, an important protection for houses of worship. That regulation is codified into law, so it
would take an act of Congress to reverse, but President Trump signaled his administration’s opposition to
the rule by directing the IRS to use maximum discretion to refrain from enforcing it.
The Lutheran Confessions state “the power of church and civil government must not be mixed ... [while]
both be held in honor and acknowledged as a gift and blessing” (Augsburg Confession, Article 28). The
ELCA Constitution affirms that one of the purposes of this church is to “work with civil authorities in
areas of mutual endeavor, maintaining institutional separation of church and state in a relation of
functional interaction” (ELCA Constitution 4.03.n.). Our social teaching encourages members and leaders
to be politically active as citizens and to provide moral leadership that advocates for just and fair policies.
Nothing in the current IRS rules prohibit such activities.
Neither our theological heritage nor our social teaching lift up what we would understand today as
partisan activity by church officials—endorsing or funding specific candidates, for instance—because
that confuses the appropriate responsibilities of church and state leadership.
Exemption from taxation is an appropriate benefit granted to churches and other charities. The restriction
on endorsement of political candidates in no way restricts freedom of religion. In fact, it allows churches
to continue to focus on ministry and protects them from being lured into participation in partisan politics
to the detriment of their proclamation and mission. The ELCA provides this guidance to ministries on
participation in the electoral process.
Earlier this year, the ELCA joined with 99 diverse faith groups in sending a letter to Congress opposing
any effort to undermine the so-called Johnson Amendment—those IRS regulations that protect both the
taxpayer and our houses of worship. We do not seek or desire a change in tax law that could prove
divisive in our congregations or detrimental to our witness of Christ.
Let us not be tempted to participate in partisan politics, but rather focus on being part of God's reconciling
work through Christ in the world and proclaiming the gospel word.
The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25: 35)
The ELCA has long been concerned about homelessness, and adopted a Social Message “Homelessness: A Renewal of Commitment” in 1990. Like so many of the social messages adopted several decades ago, this message is still quite relevant. Some of it is prescient: “Without major changes in our society, homelessness will be more pervasive in the 1990’s than it was in the 1980’s.” And indeed it has become more pervasive.
The message affirms the long-standing efforts of Lutheran congregations, individuals and agencies to assist homeless individuals and families, acknowledging that the fastest growing segment of the homeless population is families. Since this message was written, a number of communities in our Synod have enlisted in Family Promise, a program designed for groups of churches to help homeless families find long-term housing and employment.
Another group with high rates of homelessness is veterans. Montana and Wyoming have a high proportion of veterans, and homelessness is a significant issue. A large number of veterans have returned from our ongoing wars in the middle east since the message was written.
There are many root causes of homelessness articulated by the message, including: poverty, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, health issues, mental illness, addiction, racism, domestic violence, natural disaster. In the intervening years since the message was written, the ELCA has taken on many of these issues in social messages (Mental Illness; People Living with Disabilities; Suicide Prevention; Community Violence; Gender-based Violence), or social statements ( Economic Life; Race, Ethnicity and Culture). And ELCA congregations and individuals are responding to a number of these issues as part of their ministry.
The message note that Christians’ responsibilities for homeless and not simply responding with temporary assistance. Helping to prevent homelessness through prevention and advocacy is essential.
“Christians walk with the homeless when they join with others to voice deep concern about homelessness, ask hard questions, ad advocate policies that seek to provide job training, employment opportunities, housing, education, health care, and support for the homeless. While as Christians we may differ in our views on what policies will be most effective, we ought not overlook the need for new and sustained initiatives by government, businesses, and non-profit organizations, including church groups. Church leaders are challenged to help create the public will to eliminate homelessness.”
The message concludes:
“Let the church pray for a renewal of commitment to walk more closely with and among peole who are homeless and who are at risk of becoming homeless in their daily struggles, sufferings, and hopes.”
Jessica Crist, Bishop
“Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God.” (Psalm 90:2)
The ELCA believes in science. No, we do not believe in science the way we believe in God. We do not put all our trust and hope in science the way we do in God. But as Christians living in the 21st century, we affirm the importance of science in our understanding of life.
“The ELCA believes that this gracious God also endows human being with insight and reasoning and calls human being to help order and shape, nurture and promote the creation so that it may continue to flourish.” (from Genetics, Faith and Responsibility, p.2)
In the ELCA we see science as a gift from God, for us to use responsibly and to the benefit of our neighbors. Science and faith are not incompatible. On the contrary, science and faith together can enhance human understanding. They are different ways at looking at reality. Do Lutherans believe in Creation? Absolutely. Do we insist that the 7 day story in Genesis is literally true? No.
As a matter of fact, there are several creation stories in the Bible—Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Proverbs 8, John 1. They are not intended as news reports, but rather as poetic appreciation of God’s creation, each with a different perspective.
Lutherans value education. Our social statement on education affirms that education is part of our baptismal vocation. “Our particular calling in education is two-fold: to educate people in the Christian faith for their vocation and to strive with others to ensure that all have access to high-quality education that develops personal gifts and abilities and serves the common good.”
Lutherans support science—science education and scientific research, particularly as it serves the common good. We acknowledge the practical utility of science—in medical advances, agricultural promise, forestry, animal science, meteorology. And we acknowledge the sheer beauty and joy of more theoretical science—exploring the magnitude of the galaxies, and the intricacies of sub-atomic particles.
We are not threatened by science. We do not see a conflict between science and faith. We do not worship a “God of the gaps,” giving to the divine the responsibility for everything we don’t understand, until we understand it. Rather, we worship a God of infinite complexity, infinite love—a God who created the universe and everything in it, and who gave us the gift of nimble minds and opposable thumbs and expects us to use them for the good of our neighbor. We worship the God who gave us science.
Early in my ministry I had the opportunity to be part of a World Council of Churches Conference on Faith, Science and the Future, at MIT, where I was a campus pastor. I was able to be with Christians from across the globe, discussing scientific inquiry, appropriate technology, economic inequalities. The subtitle of the conference was “Towards a Just, Participatory and Sustainable Society.” It was a life-changing experience for me, that gave me deep insight on how to minister at MIT, where I encountered both fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists. (To say nothing of the Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’i’s, Sikhs and others.)
There was a time (think Galileo) when the church opposed science, seeing it as being in conflict with church doctrine. Many scientists have carried that suspicion of the church from those centuries of conflict. But we are not there anymore. We welcome scientific research, even when it challenges some of our assumptions.
As a church, we depend on the sciences for valuable assistance in addressing contemporary issues. One of our first social statements, “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” states:
“Transformed by faith, this church in its deliberation draws upon the God-given abilities of human being to will, to reason, and to feel. This church is open to learn from the experience, knowledge, and imagination of all people, in order to have the best possible information and understanding of today’s world.”
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA