By Professor Mark Swanson
On March 31st, the ELCA Church Council adopted “A Declaration of the ELCA to the Muslim Community,” uplifting our commitment to friendship and solidarity with our Muslim neighbors.
The idea that the ELCA should develop “A Declaration to the Muslim Community” has been around for some time, especially since the Reformation commemorations of 2017, when there was renewed focus in a variety of forums on Luther’s attitudes toward the religious Other. After the adoption at the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly of “A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment,” the Lutheran-Muslim Consultative Panel began in earnest to discuss the need and possibility of such a document.
At the Panel’s last in-person meeting on February 22, 2020, we decided that the time was right: Muslim friends were asking for such a statement; the LWF Assembly in 2017 had committed itself to working towards a statement on Lutheran-Muslim relations, but had encouraged the ELCA to develop its own and to offer it to the LWF as a contribution; and, of course, acts of discrimination against Muslims (e.g., the so-called “Muslim ban”) and violence (think of the Christchurch mosque shootings of 2019) were heavy on our hearts and minds. Even then, we were wondering what the 2022 US election season might bring (remembering the ”Ground Zero Mosque” and Qur’an burning controversies of 2010, and the “Muslim ban” of 2016).
Work on a preliminary draft of a statement continued into the pandemic but stalled for a time. But last October (2021) we made a fresh start, asking Panel members and a few Muslim friends and colleagues to name just two or three things that should be included in a possible Declaration. The collected responses provided a remarkably coherent roadmap, and a series of focused Panel meetings led to the statement that you now have before you.
I would like to make a few comments about this Declaration:
- We tried to keep it short and simple, resisting the natural inclinations of the scholars in the group to write excurses and lengthy footnotes.
- We decided to keep the focus on North America and our relationships as ELCA members with our friends, neighbors, and inter-religious partners here. In just one paragraph do we broaden out (partly at the request of LWF and Muslim colleagues), to speak of projects of the LWF and of major inter-religious initiatives by Muslim leaders and scholars.
- We were challenged to speak a word about how we view Muslims, and not just how we think or theologize about them – and the language that seemed right was that of love, respect, esteem, and friendship (and certainly nothing that could be read as simply toleration).
- In speaking about Luther we walked a tightrope, or several at once: acknowledging his painful rhetoric while not going into unnecessary detail about it; avoiding making an apologetic for Luther while at the same time honoring the one from whom our denomination takes its name.
- We build on earlier Declarations of the ELCA, especially the “Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment” and also “A Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community.”
- And we conclude the Declaration with two remarkable quotations from bishops of this church, from Bishop Eaton and from Bishop Hanson, which point to the “journey” or the “pilgrimage” that ELCA members and our Muslim friends and neighbors are on, together.
The final draft of the document was reviewed by several of our Muslim partners, by Bishop Eaton, and by the Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Committee of the Conference of Bishops and by other key partners within the ELCA.
Over the coming month, during the holy season of Ramadan, we will be sharing this declaration with our Muslim partners and neighbors, and invite you to join us in this effort.
I want to close by acknowledging the members of the ELCA’s Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Muslim relations, which was entrusted with the development of this Declaration: panel members Prof. Jonathan Brockopp; Dr. Carol LaHurd; Prof. Paul Rajashekar; and Prof. Nelly van Doorn-Harder; ecumenical representative Dr. Peter Makari; and churchwide staff: Dr. Kathryn Lohre, along with the Rev. Dr. Carmelo Santos and Ms. Kristen Opalinski. It’s been an amazing team: intellectually stimulating, passionate, unafraid of disagreement, every one with extraordinary experience and contacts among Muslims and others.
Professor Mark Swanson is chair of the ELCA Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Muslim Relations. He serves at the Lutheran School of Theology as the Harold S. Vogelaar Professor of Christian-Muslim Studies and Interfaith Relations and Associate Director of A Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice.