Author Topic: Forum Letter and the 8th Commandment (June, 2005)  (Read 1179 times)

Richard Johnson

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Forum Letter and the 8th Commandment (June, 2005)
« on: June 08, 2005, 11:59:50 AM »
Forum Letter and the 8th Commandment
by Richard Johnson
Forum Letter June, 2005
©2005 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau

Every now and then, we here at Forum Letter get accused of violating the eighth commandment. Some of the other ones too, no doubt, but the Eighth is the biggest, baddest, most lethal weapon in the arsenal of those who don’t care for what we write.

It happened most recently at Forum Online. A reader took exception to our article about Ebenezer Lutheran Church in San Francisco (“Raising an Ebenezer at the Church of Her” in FL 34:3). She suggested—well, a little more than that, actually—that we had violated the commandment because we did not follow the prescription of Matthew 18, to go first and speak privately with the pastor, the congregation council, Ebenezer members, the bishop, and everybody else. We just wrote the article. Of course, we were commenting publicly upon the contents of a public web site; probably that was the real sin, making public what was already public.

Another Forum Online reader, though, swiftly sprang to our defense. It wasn’t an Eighth Commandment violation, he said, because it was all true.

Both readers, it seems to us, have got it wrong. The first is wrong because Matthew 18 is really irrelevant here, it being addressed to a situation where a fellow Christian sins against another. In that instance, Jesus says, “go and tell them their fault.”

Excellent advice, but, as we said, irrelevant. The shenanigans at Ebenezer aren’t a wrong done to us personally. That’s true, of course, of almost everything we write about in Forum Letter.  If we took personally all the ridiculous things that happen in Lutheranism these days, we’d be too depressed to write anything, or too worn out from confronting everyone personally to have any energy for writing.

But the Eighth Commandment does dog us, time to time.

What does not get printed
Are we obligated, as Christian journalists, to speak directly to the people involved in the situations we report? The short answers are “well, not really,’ “always,” “sometimes,” and “sometimes not.” It depends upon the nature of the material being published.

When we do an investigative piece, such as the Marshall, TX story or the one about Luther Seminary and the transgendered intern, the answer is “always.” We will do extensive interviews with as many people as necessary for the story. Often it is helpful, frequently necessary, in order to judge the truth about allegations made by others. We then try to produce an account that is fair, even while expressing our distinct judgment on things.

That’s for the stories that get published, of course. But we will do it even for the stories that do not get published when, as a result of our work, we decide there is no real story to publish. We will occasionally pursue something only to find it has no genuine substance. Funny how facts will sometimes determine what actually does not get printed on these pages.

But public commentary upon events or situations or remarks already publicly accessible do not fall into an investigative category. Sometimes we will contact, the principal, sometimes not. These are the “well, not really” and “sometimes/sometimes not” situations.

Journalistic power
Clearly in the Ebenezer story, it was “well, not really.” Or, less politely, perhaps it was a “Talk to them? You’ve got to be kidding?” sort of situation. We discussed the public contents of a web page posted by the congregation itself for the public. What might direct conversation with representatives of the congregation have accomplished? Would they say, “Oh, gee, we didn’t realize that stuff was even there”? Would they decide, after hearing our reasoned analysis, that they had erred and strayed from Christ’s ways like lost sheep, and therefore repent? Would they, knowing the incredible power of Forum Letter, beg us not to say anything about their web page, lest the wrath of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America descend upon them? Hard to imagine any of that.

We did, for the record, forward a copy of the article to the pastor prior to its publication, for her information. Perhaps it also served to prepare the congregation for the overwhelming influx of new folks who had been desperately searching for a Lutheran congregation where they could recite the Goddess Rosary. We wouldn’t want to be responsible for  the congregation running out of tea, certainly.

Truth is no defense
The other mistake, though well intentioned, is by the reader who defended us because what we said was the truth. Actually, if one reads Brother Martin closely, “truth” isn’t really the primary issue when evaluating one’s actions in the light of the Eighth Commandment.  Not that “the truth” is unimportant; it’s just that “truth” is not necessarily a defense against an Eighth Commandment violation.

In his Large Catechism, Luther puts it like this: “We should note that none has the right to judge and reprove a neighbor publicly, even after having seen a sin committed, unless authorized to judge and reprove.  There is a very great difference between judging sin and having knowledge of sin. You may certainly know about a sin, but you should not judge it. I may certainly see and hear that my neighbor sins, but I have no command to tell others about it.”

Continued on next post
« Last Edit: March 18, 2006, 03:04:15 PM by roj »
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

Richard Johnson

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Re: Forum Letter and the 8th Commandment (6/05)
« Reply #1 on: June 08, 2005, 12:00:54 PM »
Continued from previous post

Recognizing all this, we never write anything here without an eye to the Eighth Commandment. Journalism—like life itself—is fraught with risks to one’s spiritual wellbeing. We have never pretended that press credentials or desktop publishing software offers us carte blanche for saying just any old thing we like, regardless of whom it offends or what the fallout may be. Still, we find in Luther some excellent guidance for how we do what we do.

What it is
For Brother Martin, there are only three situations in which it is proper to “say anything evil of a neighbor, whether true or false.” The first is to say it privately, as in the Matthew 18 scenario. There the motivation is neither to scold nor to vent, but always to bring about repentance.  

The second situation comes into play if you are one who has authority to speak publicly about a person’s sin. He has in mind here magistrates, judges, witnesses in court, etc.—those, in other words, who by virtue of their office have a responsibility to speak up. Whether his caveat covers journalists who are pastors is an interesting question, and one with which we wrestle, regularly.

The third, however, seems most applicable here. It is not an Eighth Commandment violation if the behavior being spoken is “so public that everyone is aware of it.” Could be, Luther was justifying his own harsh words about the Pope and other bishops who were teaching falsely. But his point is clear: when there is blatant and public teaching that is contrary to the gospel, one is not obligated to “interpret it in the kindest way.” One is required, instead—borrowing a phrase from the Heidelburg Disputation—to “call the thing what it actually is.”

This is particularly true of those who have been given the office of public teaching in the church—that means pastors, not journalists. It is the responsibility of pastors to point out false teaching, to call it what it is. As pastors who also have this journalistic thing on the side, we at Forum Letter have the task and opportunity to do that in a context somewhat wider than our own parish. It is not one we take lightly.

Cranky charm
It is also one we’d happily yield to someone else. We’d much prefer that bishops and theologians deal with theological wackiness. But when that doesn’t happen, well—well, like the monk in Wittenberg, we feel constrained to call a thing what it actually is. We do our best to do so without malice, but we freely acknowledge that we are in bondage to sin. Sometimes the besetting sin for us may be the Eighth Commandment, though we struggle against that one mightily. More often it’s just crankiness, although it is a charming sort of ironic winsome crankiness, to be sure.

Truth be told, we think the Catechism’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment is one of the most challenging and helpful nuggets in Lutheran teaching. If we all worked harder at embodying it, the world, or at least the church, would be a kinder place. But it was never intended, in our view, to squelch the truth. Sometimes “interpreting your neighbor’s actions in the kindest way” in fact must mean, for those burdened with the office of preaching and teaching in the church, “calling the thing what it actually is.”  

[i/by Richard O. Johnson, associate editor[/i]

©2005 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau
« Last Edit: March 18, 2006, 03:00:10 PM by roj »
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS