We started this blog to show the connections we have together in the North Country and how we can partner and do “mercy” together. It’s fun to see the connections and find out all the ways that we are working together already as well as explore new ways. Last week I mentioned that folks from Chisolm MN drove all the way across Minnesota and much of North Dakota to go muck out houses in Minot. I just heard of a group that went from Niagara, North Dakota and this morning I received a note from Pastor Drevlow in Breckinridge MN that he went over with 8 youth and 2 adults from Grace Lutheran. Now I would say in our life together, these folks undertook a “mission of mercy”. Can I say that Grace Lutheran Church in Breckinridge was “doing” mercy?
I have been thinking a lot about Prof Herrmann’s article in the Concordia Theological Journal – see December 7 blog. He said in part –
When God is described as “merciful” it is a beautiful thing. Yet what happens when we use the term “mercy” to describe our actions towards our neighbor, or the churches orientation to the world? Are we to picture the Christian as one who is accustomed to a position of privilege? Is the church comprised of those who have the upper hand and thus from that place of luxury to be gracious and merciful to a disadvantaged world? Interestingly, Paul writes that God did not choose the privileged – the rich, the wise, and the powerful – but the weak, the poor, and the foolish. So is “mercy” the right word?
This has brought back a lot of memories. The question of whether or not an institution can practice “mercy” was one that was raised early on in our relationship with a LCMS World Relief and Human Care. Discussion on the board centered around the fact that as most of us had been educated in LCMS schools and were never taught that the church had a corporate or institutional life of Mercy. We were taught that the function of the church was to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments and that individual Christians in their own vocations practiced mercy. This was no ivory tower speculation either, but very practical down-to-earth discussions as we studied our bylaws and who we were supposed to be is the Board for World Relief and Human Care. We were called in various places “the mercy arm of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod”. Our bylaws were full of verbs, action words that told us we needed to “do” something and yet our question was what is it exactly an organization can “do”? We spent a lot of time discussing the idea that if our job was simply to raise money from the good people of Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and send that money off to somebody else to “do” something, we might as well shut the shop down and refer everyone to the Red Cross. It was this conversation that led us to discuss as a Board a theological understanding of mercy as it applied to the corporate life of the Christian church at every level. We realized that the Lutheran confessions are replete with references to the corporate life of mercy that we are all supposed to participate in as members of the church. For these reasons then the discussion that I would like to have with Prof. Herrmann takes on an aura of déjà vu.
I believe it is a discussion worth having however especially as it relates to the idea of colonialism or a kind of paternalistic attitude developed by an institution over against those to whom they are doing mercy. Individuals can go there too, but it seems to be a proclivity in organizations. In my discussions with some folks last night about Prof. Herrmann’s article someone said it sounded way too liberal and 60’s radical to be taken seriously. One friend of mine asked, “do people actually debate whether we are being patronizing or demeaning when we want to “do mercy” in a crisis for instance? Has anyone ever actually had that conversation?” Well yes they have and they do!
Early in our work with LCMS World Relief and Human Care a rather heated debate took place with some good folks that we had patnered with in the past. The folks on the corporate level of that organization had forbidden the workers on the ground to hand out Gospel tracts, or to “witness” to faith in Christ, after a hurricane . To do so they said was, “coercive and might lead to mercenary conversions”. Since that formative event in my life, I have talked to missionaries who are adamant that no mercy work whatsoever be done in the mission field, that codependancy caused by “mercenary conversion is ultimately destructive to all work done in a mission field.
Right now if I have to take a position of being one who has “the upper hand and thus from that place of luxury” I can “be gracious and merciful to a disadvantaged world” or not being able to talk about Christ in a disaster situation, I’ll take the former.
By the way, to further the discussion, Pastor Drevlow said that his group “had a great time”. To say you had a “great time” while doing ‘mercy” in a disaster area adds a certain layer to the nuances of this topic but they need to be aired.