“And Then Comes Freedom”
I’m not a very good Lutheran. Raised in another tradition entirely, I first considered Lutheranism while on a denominational wander during divinity school. Keenly, I watched the Lutheran students. They threw a Saints and Sinners party on a holiday I had known as “Halloween,” and they seemed to know some kind of Scandinavian secret I wasn’t in on. I wondered why they kept talking about Luther instead of Jesus. And I didn’t particularly care for being called a sinner, or a saint, for that matter.
Years later, however, I learned an astonishing truth: that Lutheran theology is all about freedom.
First comes truth: the acknowledgement that we’re a big mess, and we can’t do it on our own. “We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves,” we declare.1
And then comes freedom: the assurance that God’s grace is offered with no holds barred. We couldn’t earn it if we tried. It’s just freely given. Becoming a Lutheran for me was not about joining in at the Saints and Sinners party or taking on an ethnic heritage that didn’t belong to me. It was about receiving the humbling truth that I was as close to God as the beggar on the street or the king in his palace. There were no gold stars. There was only grace: offered freely to everyone.
Lutheran theology blows away the life equations we are so often handed: “try hard and things will
get better.” “Be good and nothing bad will happen to you.” We know these to be lies – lies that bind the faithful up in knots of crippling blame and self-doubt.
These equations are often deployed in the other direction as well. In fact, they run in the theological groundwater of our nation: “If you worked hard you wouldn’t be poor,” and, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Another I’ve heard recently: “If you followed the rules, you wouldn’t get harassed by the cops.” These, too, are lies. They place the blame on those who fail to thrive in impossible situations, rather than acknowledging that, as young activists have been crying in recent days, “the system is rigged.”
“If/then” theology, a professor of mine called it. These days, I see if/then’s everywhere, lined up around us like jail bars, locking us in. “If I could just stop being gay, then God will love me like my pastor promises.”
I am only interested in a conversation about the Reformation in so far as it is centered on the liberation of God’s people. The life-giving theology Luther and his colleagues articulated has rescued me from a life of depending only on myself.
At its best, Lutheran theology has the capacity to be profoundly freeing. It proclaims that each one of God’s creatures is loved wholly and completely, just as we are. We need not suppress the fearful and wonderful ways each of us has been made.
“I live here, too,” wrote Langston Hughes in his 1967 poem, “Freedom.”2 There is no one who falls outside of God’s promise. This truth shatters white supremacy, the notion that only some of God’s people deserve access to abundant life. There is no one who owns America.
“I live here too,” cry voices from Ferguson, from Baltimore.
“I live here too,” says the dreamer, who fears deportation.
“I live here too,” calls the one who has struggled in poverty.
If we are to remember the Reformation, let it stir us to see the suffering of God’s people in our midst: all those who live under beliefs, laws, and systems that withhold flourishing. There are no equations, no if ’s, then’s, or but’s. God’s promise is for everyone, and so the church must blow open the power structures that have held so many of God’s children captive. Let this be our reformation.
Emily M. D. Scott ’06 M.Div. is a Lutheran pastor. She served as the founding pastor of St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn until Spring 2017.
1 Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg, 2006), p. 95.
2 Langston Hughes, “Freedom,” The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Time (Knopf, 1967), p. 89.