Zombie Church?

I’ve been intrigued by our American cultural fascination with zombies in recent years. TV shows, movies, books, and video games all seem to be populated by horrifying, mindless, undead beings bent on the consumption of others and the conversion of others to zombie-hood. A Google search of the word “zombie” returned over 182 million hits in less than a quarter of a second.

Today is Halloween, which also happens to be the day that Lutherans and some other Protestant Christians celebrate as Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, taking issue with the medieval practice of indulgences. (Note: this was not an act of defiance, but the customary means for scholars at the university to invite scholarly debate.) The 95 Theses did a 16th century version of “going viral,” spreading throughout Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe within two months. Thus began a 130 year period of reform, division, debate and religious warfare collectively known as the Protestant Reformation.

So what do zombies and Reformation Day have to do with each other? To me, the link is that Lutherans run the risk of becoming a zombie church. It’s a fine thing to treasure, and even to be proud of, our history, but if we choose to live in our past, we run the risk of becoming the walking dead. Too many Lutherans, I fear, continue to adopt a position of self-satisfied chest-thumping in relation to Roman Catholics, a smug superiority based on battles fought almost five hundred years ago on another continent. (We also do this in relation to those we brand as “non-denominational” or “fundamentalist”, but that’s another post for another day.)

I belong to a number of Facebook groups populated by Lutherans, and I’m astounded by the amount of this I see. One example is the comments I hear about Pope Francis. Most Lutherans I know are favorably impressed by the current pope, but even their favorable comments are tinged with snark and self-righteousness. “I hope the American bishops follow his example,” or “It’s about time the Catholics started acting like followers of Jesus” are just two comments I’ve read lately.

The trouble with these comments, and with the attitude of judgment that they imply, is that such an attitude is itself antithetical to the example of Christ. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount,

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

At various times in my life, I have been the beneficiary of enormous grace, channeled to me by my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. The Catholic nun who prayed with me every day as I was recovering from a broken back in 1994. The Roman Catholic U.S. Navy chaplain who shared the Eucharist with me when I was deployed because the Protestant chaplain only offered the sacrament twice a year. The Roman Catholic professor at Washington Theological Union who encouraged me to commune there, saying, “This is Christ’s table, and it is open to all.” The priest who prayed for me every day as I discerned my continuing vocation in the church. The Roman Catholic laywoman who was a colleague of mine as a hospital chaplain who taught me much about how to stand on holy ground with those who suffer. I often describe myself as “so Lutheran it hurts,” but I wouldn’t be the person, the man, the pastor or the Lutheran I am without the grace of God that has come to me through these brothers and sisters in Christ.

Yes, there were enormous abuses in the church of Luther’s day. Luther himself, though, was far from perfect; his comments on the Jews are frankly stomach-turning and were later used by the Nazis as part of the propaganda of the Holocaust. Yes, the Roman Catholic Church of today is an imperfect institution, but so is every member church of the Lutheran World Federation. Perhaps before we presume to point out the flaws of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, we should look a bit more closely at the ways we ourselves have failed to “commend the faith that is in us.”

Honoring our history is a fine thing. Continuously refighting the battles of five hundred years ago, however, is the way of death. Treasuring our Lutheran theological core, the assertion that we are justified by grace through faith apart from works of the Law, is entirely right and proper. Holding onto grudges from half a millennium ago, though, does nothing to share that good news of grace with a hurting world today. As my friend Drew Genzler used to say at least once a week, “Tradition is the living faith of those who have gone on before us; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

And so, on this Reformation Day 2013, my prayer is that we Lutherans will continue to be reformed. I pray that we will be reformed away from a walking-dead, zombiefied refighting of battles long past, and that we will be reformed towards the hope of the One who came that we might have life and have it abundantly, the one who prayed that we might all be one, as he and the Father are one.

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