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Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Perspectives

We Will Get Through This Together

By Kristen L. Opalinski

“We will get through this together.” Over the past month, we’ve heard these words spoken countless times by health officials, governors, mayors, presidents, prime ministers, and journalists – but also doctors, nurses, grocery clerks, and other essential workers. Parents have offered these words to comfort their children. Family members have offered them as they mourn the loss of a loved one. Religious leaders have offered them, too, in support of their spiritual communities and as a reassurance of interfaith solidarity in these troubling times. These words have taken on new and profound meaning as humanity’s rallying cry in this time of COVID-19.

As a Christian, these words also took on new meaning for me last week as my family navigated Holy Week while sheltering in place. I reflected anew upon Jesus’ journey, from his palm-fringed entrance into Jerusalem to his death upon the cross and the empty tomb on Easter morning. The isolation he must have felt as he moved from Gethsemane to Calvary seemed rawer and more amplified to me this year. Thankfully, the story doesn’t end with death on Calvary, but with new life and an empty tomb. In the midst of so much pain, confusion and suffering, we also see the very best of humanity shine through. We see on display the daily compassion and courage of medical professionals, the goodness of neighbors helping each other, and the creativity and passion of people of faith.

Religious communities throughout the world are having to reimagine themselves – from the ways in which we worship to how we create community and serve those in need around us. As Lutherans, we believe that we are freed in Christ, and it is through this liberation that we live lives in service to all. On this, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s writing on “The Freedom of a Christian,” we are now faced with perhaps the greatest global challenge of our time – responding to those in need during this time of COVID-19. The needs of so many, not only the sick, but those who are lonely, jobless, homeless and hungry are all around us. I too carry the anxiety of uncertainty through each day. We are all in this together, and it is together that we will get through this.

God created humankind to be in relationship – with God and with each other. In times like these, relationships carry us through in ways that may otherwise seem impossible. In recent weeks I’ve witnessed firsthand the ways in which this time has transformed how we are living out our call to ecumenical and inter-religious relationship building. As one example, Christians across the United States joined together in common witness in unprecedented ways during Holy Week. Three of the nation’s prominent ecumenical bodies – the National Council of Churches in Christ, Christian Churches Together in the USA, and Churches United in Christ – all joined with one voice, standing in solidarity with each other to share a message of hope and to give witness together to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Their joint letter was an invitation and testament to that which binds us together, despite our differences – an emerging theme that continues to permeate across a diversity of religious, cultural and social contexts.

It is perhaps fitting that at this moment of physical disconnection Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities are now navigating the confluence of their respective holy days this month with greater solidarity and purpose. Easter, Passover, and Ramadan are all reminders of life and equity that move us beyond our isolated spaces to a place of shared humanity. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton recently joined with Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union of Reform Judaism and Dr. Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America in a message of interfaith solidarity. Dr. Syeed proclaimed this as, “an opportunity to emphasize the human, global brotherhood and sisterhood, to emphasize that all humans are one family.” Additionally, Rabbi Jacobs reflected that, “No matter how difficult a situation can be, there is the bud of springtime, the ray of light and of hope that sustains us…we are all children of God and that we were put on the earth not simply to care for our own, but to care for all of God’s children.” That is at the heart of our new reality, a reality that forces us to look beyond the walls of our homes to where there are needs in our communities, our nation, and around the world.

Our religious commitments are a catalyst for connection. This realization has become ever clearer over the past month for many of us. Now is the time to reach out not only to loved ones but also to strangers. Life in the time of COVID-19 has forced people of faith far beyond our comfort zones – pushing us all to rethink and reimagine what community and connection looks like. Churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples have embraced virtual gatherings, and also a re-framing of what it means to be gathered together, as distinct religious communities and as interfaith partners.

For the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign, an interfaith coalition in which many of us work together to counter discrimination and violence against Muslims in the US, this new reality has meant a shift in programing. Shoulder to Shoulder has relied for years on the power of shared physical space as a primary setting for educating and equipping people to join together to bring an end to anti-Muslim bigotry. From the Faith Over Fear trainings to the Ramadan Supper Series, the campaign members are working together to reimagine relationship building while people are sheltering in place at home. This year, the Ramadan Supper Series has been re-envisioned as the Welcome to My Table initiative. Rather than facilitating communities to gather to break the Ramadan fast in interfaith community, “this initiative connects households to households…to virtually share an iftar meal.” On the webpage the message is clear: “We strongly believe that physical distancing should not mean social isolation. It takes extra intention, effort, and creativity to connect with one another in these times, but connection remains so important for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of our communities.”

In the interfaith solidarity message, Bishop Eaton asks the question, “Where do you see God at work in the midst of this global pandemic?” Perhaps it’s in the nightly cheers that echo across the world for our health workers, the stories of people’s strength and resilience rising up to meet this moment. Perhaps it’s in the shared experiences of new kinds of ecumenical and inter-religious engagement. I imagine for most of us, it’s in all of these places and more.

At home, I see God at work in the vibrant spring blossoms and accompanying songbirds, which bring me hope each day. I know for so many of us it might be difficult to see these signs of new life in the midst of so much death, and that’s OK too. I confess that I sometimes feel like we are still trapped somewhere between Good Friday and Easter morning. But at the same time, I am experiencing anew the promise of life and light we know God has already placed in our midst. We will get through this together.


Kristen L. Opalinski serves as the Manager for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations for the ELCA

Glimpses of Clarity, Not 2020 Vision

By Kathryn Mary Lohre

At every ecumenical and inter-religious meeting or event I attend, the conversation invariably turns to the rapidly changing ecumenical and inter-religious landscape. At times it is raised as a caution: we cannot continue down the same path because it will no longer lead us to where we thought we were going. At other times, the conversation itself feeds circular thinking: we cannot effectively engage in new ways until we have a clear view of our new context. No one, it seems, has a compelling vision for how we might bridge the gap between the past and the future of ecumenical and inter-religious relations – between the institutions and models that well-suited a different era, and the institutions and models emerging and needed today.

We seem to forget that the ecumenical and inter-religious movements weren’t launched as a strategic response to the demographic landscape, but as feeble-yet-faithful responses to contextual realities that were scandalous to the Gospel, or injurious to the dignity and sacred worth of all people and the planet. Today’s false expectation of 2020 vision has become a major stumbling block to the vitality and urgency of these movements’ work and witness today.
What if we didn’t try to see the whole panorama in clear view? What if, instead, we tried to focus on what we are glimpsing anew, or for the first time, in our own work? When we no longer expect clear vision from ourselves, we are reminded that it is, in fact, God’s vision for unity, justice, and peace. Our work is not to see the whole picture and to construct God’s vision like a jigsaw puzzle, but to invite others through our witness into glimpsing what has already been freely given to us. Our vantage points, our perspectives, are also a gift from God. They aren’t perfect, but they can be used to point to what is.
Let me begin this conversation by sharing with you one area of my work in the ELCA that I am beginning to see more clearly. As a church, we now have a corpus of “Declarations” that serve as ELCA social teaching on “relations.”

These include: “A Declaration of Ecumenical Commitment” (1991); “A Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community” (1994); “A Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent” (2019); and “A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment” (2019). A fifth, “A Declaration of the ELCA to the Muslim Community,” will soon be underway. Together, they speak volumes about the relations, both within and beyond the ELCA, that are central to our Lutheran self-understanding and Christian vocation.

But these ELCA Declarations are also in dialogue with each other! Let me explain…
Since the Churchwide Assembly last summer, I have been interpreting the implications of the adoption of “A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment: A Policy Statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” It is exciting to help people understand the contents of the document, to expound upon the historical and theological considerations for our inter-religious life together. It is energizing to share more about the proceedings themselves – the essential deliberation and debate on the floor of the Assembly on key theological concerns, and the spontaneous and moving expression of solidarity by the nearly fifty partners who were present with us. (They joined hands and raised them in the air in response to the Declaration’s adoption.) It is also motivating to explore next steps as we seek to live into the commitments we have set before ourselves, and made to our partners. All of these things are important, and will continue to be in our life together – but they are also deeply linked to other parts of our life as church together.

In July 2019, just one month before the Churchwide Assembly, and in the quadricentennial anniversary year of the transatlantic slave trade, the ELCA Church Council adopted “A Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent.” It apologizes to people of African Descent for the church’s complicity in slavery, and its vestiges of racism and white supremacy. It offers confession, repentance, and repudiation of the church’s silence in the face of racial injustice. It was presented publicly at the Churchwide Assembly in August, and the apology was publicly accepted by the African Descent Lutheran Association, with calls for accountability. (Of note, the President of the Association was a member of the Inter-Religious Task Force, the body that developed the inter-religious policy statement, and the presentation of both Declarations took place on the same day.)

I had been in consultation with the drafters of “A Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent” during its development. Was the 1994 Declaration to the Jewish Community a model worth considering? What had we learned as a church from a previous confession and repudiation that would bring insight into a different, and differently complex, set of questions? What had been the impact, both immediately and over time? It seemed poignant, not mere coincidence, that the 400th anniversary year of “A Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent” was coinciding with the 25th anniversary year of “A Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community.” We have seen over time, and in recent months, that anti-Jewish hatred and racism are two symptoms of the same sin of supremacy.

As a result of seeing the Declarations in dialogue, I have also begun to look for other connections, too.
In 2016 the ELCA Churchwide Assembly acted to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, which justified the colonization of Indigenous lands and peoples in this context for centuries. In our inter-religious policy statement, the colonizers’ denial of religious freedom to the indigenous peoples is named explicitly in describing our multi-religious context. The 2016 repudiation is also named explicitly together with the 1994 Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community in Commitment 11 of A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment, calling for confession, repentance, and reconciliation with those whom we have caused offense, harm or violence.

In 2017, for the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations developed a “Litany of Confession” based on the 1994 Declaration, which was repurposed again for the 25th anniversary in 2019. In an early public usage of that Litany in 2017, I was approached the late Rev. Dr. Gordon Straw, a leader of and within the ELCA’s American Indian and Alaska Native community. He expressed hurt over the language in the 1994 Declaration that reads: “In the long history of Christianity there exists no more tragic development than the treatment accorded the Jewish people on the part of Christian believers.” What about the treatment accorded indigenous peoples? The language in the opening paragraph of the Litany was adjusted accordingly to reflect our acknowledgement that the suffering of the Jewish people in the name of Christianity is shocking and tragic, without weighting it as more or less tragic than another development right here in our own context. We can and should do better.

Lastly, I am interested in thinking about how the broader culture is calling us into conversation, advocacy, and action on the basis of our Declarations.
Consider the pernicious rise in recent years of the transnational white supremacist movement, and its undeniable links to the rise of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim violence and discrimination. The manifestos of many of the white supremacist extremists name influencers that are linked to one another in a tangled web of hatred, racism, and religious bigotry. Whether we are speaking of Charleston, Charlottesville, Christchurch, or Tree of Life, it doesn’t take much to connect the dots from the shooters or organizers to those who are appropriating, again, the legacy of Christian anti-Judaic teachings. The 1994 Declaration needs to be reckoned with – by the ELCA, and with our Jewish partners – in light of these most recent manifestations of anti-Jewish hatred. The development of “A Declaration of the ELCA to the Muslim Community,” and our church’s relations with Muslims, needs to take these things into consideration. There is much work to do.

In 2020, my perspective has shifted. I can see how each of the ELCA Declarations stands alongside the others – as complimentary to, consistent with, and conditional upon them. Together, they answer questions about how and why we relate to people – both within and beyond our Lutheran family. They also confess where we have fallen short of the glory of God, violating the body of Christ, and harming or violating the dignity of our neighbors. But they don’t stop there. They remind us of God’s whole, healing, and hopeful vision for our common future. They give us glimpses of Divine beauty amidst the horrors of human sin. They are, by design, and by God’s grace – in conversation with one another. Just as we are.

What of God’s vision are you glimpsing more clearly?


Kathryn Mary Lohre serves as an Assistant to the Presiding Bishop
and is the Executive for Ecumenical & Inter-Religious Relations and Theological Discernment for the ELCA