Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ,
We live in the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation; there are plans being made for a celebration service with other area Lutheran churches, and at Bethlehem we will acknowledge this historic time throughout the year. We do not do so out of nostalgia and to pat ourselves on the back for being Lutheran but to appreciate what the depth and breadth of the Reformation has meant for the last 500 years and more important what it has to say for us today as Christians in the world.
Luther was many things, counselor and preacher, husband and father. His vocation as teacher and his value of education might very well be his unspoken highest value. He valued knowledge and being informed; he wanted the same for others. He expected others to value the same, though he acknowledged he was often disappointed on this matter. It was his value of teaching that led him to write both the Small and Large Catechisms to teach children and their parents the basics of the Christianity as found in the Lord’s Prayer, 10 commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, and the sacraments. Does what he wrote 500 years ago have anything to say for us to day? It was 500 years ago; a lot has changed!
And a lot hasn’t.
Martin Luther was not one dismiss innovation and change out of hand. For instance, he would have loved the internet. He would have seen the potential for the sharing of ideas and thoughts, the possibility of instant dialogue. He also would have been dismayed with how internet is used and how much a tool it is for breaking the 8th Commandment, You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor, which wrote he quite a bit about.
Here is what Luther wrote in the Small Catechism regarding the 8th commandment:
We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
Luther went beyond the most simplistic reading of the commandments. To bear false witness went beyond testifying in a court of law; it involved our judgements and prejudices toward our neighbors in daily life.
Luther challenged us to speak well and give the best possible interpretation to the actions of anyone, even if the neighbor was our enemy. The does not mean that we must let a neighbor run roughshod over us. For instance, Luther writes in the Large Catechism that if you know of crime and can prove it, then tell it the authorities. But, he also instructed not to spread it around to everyone else. What if you were wrong or the wrongdoing could not be proven? If you had told everyone, you would have defamed that person to their community.
This sadly happens a great deal through the internet; somebody gets a piece of information and does not work thoroughly find out the truth; instead they go on the internet with an opinion or statement that is not entirely informed and it creates outrage for many people. On the internet, many others then will, sadly, jump into the drama too. It spreads like lightning.
One might point to events in July when a local business owner with very limited English skills and our local Sheriff's department were both subject to vicious amounts of internet abuse over an incident that would have best been handled in person between the two parties with the help of an interpreter. We, as your pastors, both jumped to conclusions before knowing the full extent of the situation. By too quickly "sharing" a post, we became part of a deeply escalating outrage that went around the nation and put our community in the news in ways I hope we all deeply regret.
Luther’s teaching on the 8th commandment instructs us not to immediately take sides in any conflict we aren’t directly involved in nor to immediately retaliate in to any offense. Rather, the 8th commandment calls us to spend time in prayer and to dig deeper when we hear something about others or what others say about us. Until we know better, we are to interpret actions and words in the best light possible. And even when one has a legitimate enemy, we are called by the 8th commandment to not personalize it. When we hear something we don't like about another person, place, or event, when we hear someone say something about us that makes our blood boil, we follow the 8th commandment by praying first to to calm down and then taking the time verify if what we heard was actually what was meant. This does not mean we do not address wrongdoing or work for justice for those who have been wronged. But the 8th commandment calls upon us to take a deep breath and come into any situation of conflict from a place of prayer and graciousness toward our neighbors, whether they be friend or enemy.
This, of course, is really hard to do, especially in the era of the instant "share" on facebook. That’s why it’s a commandment; it’s not supposed to be easy. It takes grace and continual reformation in our lives to make it possible to practice any of the commandments, becoming what Luther termed “Little Christs" over time. Prayer, worship and Christian community help us grow, and renewing our minds and hearts in Christ through study and conversation with each other strengthens our faith in order to fulfill God’s calling in our lives.
If you want to put it in the simplest terms: talk directly to people, not about people. And be very cautious about using social media as a place to address issues about or with our neighbors. And remember who Jesus said "our neighbor" includes.
This goes just as much for us, your pastors, as for all of you. After all, the 8th commandment is likely the most broken commandment on the planet.
And perhaps we should mention that Luther regularly found this commandment the most difficult to keep, and his own history of extremely passionate and angry responses to his opponents and those he disagreed with show that he struggled regularly with putting his own teaching on the 8th Commandment into practice. If you, like we, struggle with putting the best possible interpretation on the actions and words of others, then you are in good company. That is why we are works in progress, needing baptismal renewal, with renewed hearts and minds each day.
Your Partners in Ministry,
Pastors Eric and Rachel