I was a born and raised Lutheran. I never really ‘left’ the denomination, nor have I ever really protested, too much or too little, against it. After years of being away from church communities altogether for several years of wandering, I ended up in a United Church (of Canada) congregation. As a musician, I already had a habit of going to whatever church was in need of my artistic contributions, but in this case, it was at first a matter of being attracted to the progressive theology and social justice orientation. Of course, I since discovered, and continue to do so, that not all UC congregations are progressive, nor necessarily even know the meaning of the word. Several years ago, the UCC officially stepped back a bit from its prominent role as a strong voice of political dissent in the context of lobbying the Canadian parliament, but that’s a subject for a later time.
When I was in my youngest years of consciously wondering about theology, I still naively assumed that too be ‘Protestant’ simply meant to be anything but (Roman) Catholic. I was confused, therefore, by our saying of a creed that professed faith in the ‘one holy and Catholic church’. But that’s just a side note. It wasn’t until my confirmation years, under the direction of a Lunenburg-raised minister who was fond of salty language and quoting Nietzsche, that I was really introduced to the idea of protest as an ongoing element of true loyalty to the Lutheran tradition. We wrestled with ‘Sophie’s Choice-style’ questions. One I remember clearly: if you were stranded on a desert island with your wife, and a sailor came along and offered to take you both back to civilization, on the condition that he could have one night with your wife…what would you choose? I can’t really claim to have understood all of this at the time, most of my reflections have been after the fact and very recent.
In particular, the confirmation class teachings about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It wasn’t until I was in university (as a mature student, over 20 years after confirmation classes) that I first watched a documentary about Bonhoeffer, and truly began to understand. Bonhoeffer didn’t just protest against Hitler and against the secular society that was supporting the National Socialist ‘value system’ and criminal behaviour. No, Bonhoeffer, like Luther, protested against the vacancy and complacency of the religious community itself. He wrote about promoting a “religionless Christianity”, and therefore would probably have been in sympathy with John Lennon if he had lived longer. You can (and should) read about Bonhoeffer for yourself, whether or not you are religious. There are two superb films about him. There is almost no element of his life that isn’t fascinating.
Now that I’m living in the home town of the minister who asked us to grapple with not only difficult life choices, but with the very nature of protest itself — against society, against the church — I find myself speaking out more forcefully myself against vacancy of theology (vacant in the fact that it is not translating into moving beyond ‘responsible opinion’ into responsible political and social and interpersonal action beyond scattered charitable acts, and against the complacency of the church community against the true evils of our culture. That is, not the individual ‘sins’ of drinking and cussing and having complicated romantic relationships, but the evils of abuse of power and authority, and the evils of enabling it through silence and passive complicity.
My family baptized and raised me to be a ‘good Lutheran’. Although I’m not part of that denomination in an active sense, I was recently attending a study group at a Lutheran church. When a member of the congregation challenged the minister, his response was perfect: “Good for you for being a good Lutheran”. It’s in my blood too, perhaps. As I reflect on sermons given by others about the difference between prophets and leaders, and the need for prophets who challenge those leaders, and who challenge the very structure of church leadership itself, I have to wonder: if I doth protest too much, it’s because some people raised me to do so, and others keep encouraging me to do so without even being aware of what they’re asking for.