What follows is a close reading and response to President Matthew Harrison’s letter of February 21, 2023, featured by the LCMS Reporter as “Statement on recent online unchristian teachings.”
I wrote this in February, put it in a barrel, and aged it. It might not have improved. I am posting it now with minimal edits just to get it off the desktop, because I can’t do anything with a barrel on my desk.
With this post I especially mean to skewer Dr. Jeff Gibbs’s “myth of righteous anger” teaching as the complete hokum that it is. This is the buried lede. The Luther quotation at the bottom is the heart of the whole post: “I must hate them, or I must hate God, who commands and wills that men should cling to His Word alone. So it is a blessed hatred and hostility, one which proceeds from love.”
So, to all of my righteously angry brothers out there:
Keep the faith, and stay Joy:Fully angry. Hate the enemies of God with perfect hatred. Love them by hating them. God grant that the buckets of burning coals you heap upon their unrighteous heads would be for the destruction of their flesh, that they would be saved on the Day of the Lord. But in the meantime, keep hating them. It is not your job to guarantee the end result. God will sort it out and direct it to His good purposes. This post is dedicated to you. – Ed.
“Accursed is that peace of which revolt from God is the bond, and blessed are those contentions by which it is necessary to maintain the kingdom of Christ.”— John Calvin
A close reading and response to President Matthew Harrison’s letter of February 21, 2023
featured by the LCMS Reporter as “Statement on recent online unchristian teachings”
Harrison’s letter begins:
Dear Friends in Christ,
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, its president, vice-presidents and all 35 district presidents, along with its ministerium and congregations, categorically reject the horrible and racist teachings of the so-called “alt-right” in toto (including white supremacy, Nazism, pro-slavery, anti-interracial marriage, women as property, fascism, death for homosexuals, even genocide).
Right off the bat, the use of the term “alt-right” demonstrates a lack of cognizance of current political discourse. It would be like inveighing against the incursion of the teachings of “the emergent church” in the LCMS in the current year. Finger not quite on the pulse there.
Secondly, we should note that this letter reads like a rough draft. Perhaps it’s specious and Harrison didn’t write it.* [*This best construction was valid for about twenty-four hours, after which it collapsed stupendously. – Ed.] In any event, the grammar is awkward. The “racist teachings” of the “so-called ‘alt-right’” are said to include “white supremacy, Nazism, pro-slavery, anti-interracial marriage, women as property, fascism, death for homosexuals, even genocide.”
Well, what about these things? Filling in “I teach [predicate]” with terms from the list doesn’t yield many statements that make sense:
“I teach white supremacy.”
“I teach pro-slavery.”
“I teach women as property, even genocide.”
Run the rest on your own; you get the point.
The letter continues:
The Synodical explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism teaches that the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder,” includes the prohibition of “hating, despising, or slandering other groups of people (prejudice, racism, and so forth).” The Scriptures agree: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15). Every human being is precious to God and as valuable as the very blood of Jesus Christ shed for all, “for God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).
“The Synodical explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism” is not part of the Lutheran Confessions and binds the conscience of exactly zero Lutherans. Period. It merits—requires, in fact—a quatenus subscription only (as does the Koran, as the great 17th century Lutheran dogmatician Dannhauer once noted wryly).
So let us examine this excerpt from the Synodical Catechism in the light of Scripture.
Claim: “You shall not murder,” includes the prohibition of “hating, despising, or slandering other groups of people (prejudice, racism, and so forth).”
By way of a refresher, Luther’s explanation of the Fifth Commandment is “We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need [in every need and danger of life and body].” His explanation of the Eighth Commandment is “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”
While it is true that all of the commandments are related, it is, as the gentle say, “unhelpful” to conflate the meanings of these two words of law. It should surprise no one that the official CPH Catechism Formerly Known as Small, a very strange book, sows confusion here.
The parenthetical appositive is almost humorous: “prejudice” is supposed to go with…what, exactly? Hating, despising, slandering? This is a very 90’s word. Unless, of course, you are using it in a positive sense, which is what Hillsdale College (the alma mater of one of Harrison’s sons) will teach you to do, especially if you have the pleasure of digesting some of the works of Russell Kirk while you’re there.
“It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality,” writes Kirk. He goes on:
“The individual is foolish, but the species is wise,” Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.
Basically, the fact that “Not All X Are Like That” doesn’t mean squat when, in reality-land, most X are like that (X referring to people, dogs, Applebees, thunderstorms, whatever you want). So you use prejudice, derived from your own experience or that of others whom you trust, as the basis for some of your decisions. In this sense, “prejudice” is the thing that makes you keep driving and reroute when Google directs you to take the exit for “Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.” Thanks to your prejudice and that of many others, State Farm is able to keep your car insurance rates relatively low.
“Prejudice” is the virtue described anecdotally by Jesse Jackson when he says, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps… then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” It may be painful, but it isn’t as painful as getting mugged—something which even Jordan Cooper can’t deny is about 6 million times more likely to be perpetrated against a black guy by a black guy than by a white guy. If you don’t like it, take it up with Jesse and Jordan. Take it up with St. Paul, who was always relieved when he heard footsteps behind him, turned around and saw someone who was not a Cretan.
The goodness of prejudice aside, the biggest issue with President Harrison’s letter so far is his unqualified contention that “hating…groups of people” constitutes a violation of the Fifth Commandment. It simply does not. This is easily proven from Scripture:
“I have hated the congregation of evil doers; and will not sit with the wicked.” Psalm 26:5. What is that if not godly hatred of a group of people, namely evildoers?
“I have hated them that regard lying vanities: but I trust in the Lord.” Psalm 31:6. Same as above.
“Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.” Psalm 139:21-22.
“Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion: the same is the city of David. And David said on that day, ‘Whosoever getteth up to the gutter, and smiteth the Jebusites, and the lame and the blind that are hated of David’s soul, he shall be chief and captain.’ Wherefore they said, ‘The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.’” 2 Samuel 5:8.
Blog favorite P. E. Kretzmann writes:
The difficult passage is best rendered: “Every one who conquers the Jebusites, let him cast into the waterfall both the lame and the blind, hated of David’s soul.” The expression “blind and lame” applied to all the Jebusites, and the order to throw the slain down the declivity was given in order to gain space for the hand-to-hand encounter in the fortress. “Wherefore they said”—it became a proverbial saying—”The blind and the lame”—undesirable people like the Jebusites—”shall not come into the house.”
David hated the Jebusites, because he hated the congregation of evildoers, he hated those who regarded lying vanities, and he hated those who hated God. And the Jebusites were all of those things. So he hated them with perfect hatred. But he did not hate his brother in this, per 1 John 3:15. (When King David did hate his brother in another instance, it was indeed sinful and wicked: Nathan the prophet rebuked him for hating his brother Uriah the Hittite, and David repented and was forgiven for the sake of Him who was both his son and his Lord. For the rest of his earthly days the death of his own child reminded him of the price that his Lord would pay—and had in fact paid already, before the foundation of the world—to ransom his soul from the Evil One.)
The OT passages cited above are not sub-evangelical. They do not describe states of mind and heart that are unbecoming of or improper for Christians. They are not opposed to Christ’s command to love one’s enemies. Rightly understood, they describe “a blessed hatred…which proceeds from love,” as Luther puts it. Martin Luther had the right understanding here. These are his comments on Psalm 26:
5. I hate the company of the evildoers, and I do not sit with the wicked.
I am hostile to them, and I want nothing to do with the evildoers. From my heart I mean what my mouth is saying. I turn away from them with my heart, for one should have nothing to do with the evil- doers and the wicked, as the psalm says (Ps. 139:22): “I hate them with perfect hatred.” And the First Psalm also calls the Christians blessed who avoid and separate themselves from the wicked, as David says (Ps. 1:1): “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.” If one has a lot to do with them otherwise, eventually he makes himself a party to their false teaching, lies, and error. Who- ever handles pitch will soil himself with it. Thus Psalm 18:25, 26 also says, “With the holy Thou art holy; with the faithful Thou art faithful.” Again, “With the pure Thou art pure; and with the crooked Thou art crooked.”
Now a question arises: Does not the Lord Christ command (Matt. 5:44) that we should also love our enemies? Why, then, does David boast here that he hates the company of the evildoers and does not sit with the wicked? Shouldn’t one do good to them and thus heap coals of fire on the head of the enemy (Prov. 25:22)? Yes, I should hate them, but on no other account than on account of doctrine. Otherwise I should be at their service, in case I might convert some of them. As far as their person is concerned, I should love them, but on account of their doctrine I should hate them. Thus I must hate them, or I must hate God, who commands and wills that men should cling to His Word alone. So it is a blessed hatred and hostility, one which proceeds from love. Love is subject to faith, and faith is a master in love. A Christian says: “I will not forsake God for the sake of men. Whatever I cannot love with God, that I should hate. If they preach anything that is against God, all love and friendship go by the board. Then I hate you and do nothing good for you.” Faith must be in charge. Where the Word of God is involved, there hate comes in, and love is out. But where my person, my property, my reputation, or my body is involved, there I should render him complete honor and service. These are God’s property, given by God to help the neighbor. They are not God’s Word, and these one may risk and put on the line. Do not risk God’s Word, for that belongs to the Lord, our God. There say: “I shall gladly forsake whatever God has given to me for your sake. But what God Himself is, what belongs to the Lord our God, that I will not lose or release. If I give you my temporal property, God can give me more. But I will keep God for myself.” We can easily give away the temporal gifts and property that we have received from God. In this way faith is the the rule, measure, and master over love, so long as the Word of God remains pure and faith stays in motion.
So David wants to say: “I hate them, not because they have done evil or wrong to me, nor because they have led a wicked and sinful life, but because they despise God’s Word, defame and blaspheme it, adulterate and persecute it.”
So you see how we should endure, and also how we should behave in relation to the false teachers and schismatics.
There is no contradiction here: the Jebusites were not David’s brothers. (They were, among other things, typological for the remnants of sin that remains in the regenerate after baptism and wars against the Spirit.) If someone is a brother, he is not an enemy, and vice versa. It follows that the love which is owed to brothers and to enemies is not identical. (This is a large topic; we cannot explicate it fully here. It suffices to say that not everyone is your brother, just as not every group is a family and not every woman is your wife.)
The letter continues:
We were shocked to learn recently that a few members of LCMS congregations have been propagating radical and unchristian “alt-right” views via Twitter and other social media. They are causing local disruption and consternation for their pastors, congregations and district presidents. They have publicly stated that they seek the destruction of the LCMS leadership. They have made serious online threats to individuals and scandalously attacked several faithful LCMS members. Through these social media posts, even our wonderful deaconesses have been threatened and attacked.
This is evil. We condemn it in the name of Christ.
These “alt-right” individuals were at the genesis of a recent controversy surrounding essays accompanying a new publication of Luther’s Large Catechism. This group used that opportunity to produce not only scandalous attacks and widespread falsehoods, but also to promote their own absolutist ideologies.
Here we read the real gravamen of the letter. The scaremongering outline of the “alt-right” in general having been quickly pencilled, Harrison moves on to drop the news that there are “alt-right” Lutherans in the LCMS, and that they are propagating their radical and “unchristian” views on the internet. How do we know that their views are unchristian? Because they are “alt-right.”
Where can one see proof of the unchristian nature of the views espoused by these people?
What does “publicly stated that they seek the destruction of the LCMS leadership” mean?
This is mealy-mouthed, and for a reason: it is a worst construction, and it is misleading. If you find a tweet wherein a random person says, more or less, “the IC needs to be taken down,” and you immediately think that this rather anodyne statement constitutes a death-threat, you are the delusional one. Period. The IC does need to be taken down. For one, it is a hideous building. It looks like Gattaca. It needs to be taken down with a wrecking ball—preferably the same wrecking ball that the South Minnesota DP had swung through David Kind’s office in the old University Lutheran Chapel (the opening swing, in case you’re wondering).
“They seek the destruction of the LCMS leadership” makes it sound more exciting than it is. It is true that some people express in very bald terms their desire to see the current leadership of the LCMS lose their jobs. That’s about it. Maybe there are some who think that if we had a godly magistrate, he would punish heterodox pastors. You can have a debate over whether these men are heterodox; you can’t really have a debate over whether desiring this kind of action from a Christian ruler is Lutheran. It’s about the most confessionally Lutheran sentiment imaginable.
The “wonderful deaconesses” comment is amusing, though I’m sure this is not the intent. “Threaten” and “attack” seem to be rather capacious in their meaning these days. How were these gals threatened and attacked? Did someone make them feel bad? Did someone point out that there’s no office of deaconess in Holy Scripture and that they give the lie to the Word of God with their mere presence in seminary classrooms? Again, no evidence. (In the event that this post is getting any attention, here is a great piece by Cheryl Naumann on the strange history of the deaconess program at CTS.)
The letter continues:
Anyone trying to sully the reputation of the LCMS based on comments from a small number of online provocateurs does not know the loving, faithful, generous, kind and welcoming Synod that I have met all across the nation. Our people are delighted to gather with sinners of every stripe to receive full and free forgiveness from our crucified Savior and are not represented by these few men with their sinful agenda.
Here the worst fear of LCMS Corp. is revealed: that people might think we are not decent, respectable, mainstream folks like they are; indeed, that they might think we are racists! DR3!! DR3!! Liturgical Republicans no son racistas! Leave us alone—we espouse Respectable Opinion!
This has been a thing ever since the Great War. This is why Old Glory and the Methodist Sunday School flag are in your church’s chancel.
The letter continues.
I am not speaking about the individuals who may have expressed theological concerns about the essays published alongside the Catechism. I’m talking about a small number of men who based their opposition upon racist and supremacist ideologies. The former we welcome. The latter we condemn.
This is a classic example of what is known in informal logic as “poisoning the well.” It isn’t going to work, though, because too many people already know that the concerns of the supposedly “alt-right” detractors were (and are) entirely theological. The questions they are asking—and in some cases answering—are biblical ones. You don’t have to like their tone. You don’t have to like their memes. But you can’t just call them “racist” and “alt-right” in order to avoid having hard conversations. These few unnamed men (unnamed here; they are named elsewhere) are being scapegoated for the controversy over La Caca, which was highly embarrassing for the cloud people of the LCMS, who were planning their vacations when it all went down.
The letter continues:
The LCMS is a robust Christian community under the absolute authority of the inerrant Scriptures as the very Word of God and bound together in subscription to our Lutheran Confessions. Theological dialogue is good. We have clear processes for registering concerns over published materials, and we encourage such theological critique. The biblical confession of the LCMS on doctrine and life is true and unchangeable.
What does the Bible say about the list of hot topics given at the beginning of the letter? It would probably be good if we all swallowed hard and studied what the Bible and the Confessions have to say on the topics of slavery, interracial marriage, and women as property. The kids are actually quite keen on learning the real definitions of things like fascism, national socialism, autocracy, monarchy, etc., and what the Bible might be able to teach us about these things. We should study the death penalty and learn why it was divinely prescribed for more than just murder in Ancient Israel (adultery, sodomy, witchcraft, etc.) and why what God prescribed in the Israelite civil code is perfectly just. We should talk about “genocide” (do you remember the Jebusites? the Amalekites? the Assyrians?) although we need not insist on using this neologism as we do so.
The LCMS is a 501(c)3. It is not a community in any meaningful sense of that term. It is not really a Gemeinde or communion. The Evangelical-Lutheran Church is. Your congregation is. The Una Sancta is. What is the LCMS? This is increasingly unclear. It is fitting that President Harrison is called a President and not Synod Bishop. He is only a bishop at Village Lutheran Church.
Yes, we are bound by the Scriptures and the Confessions, which are truly and perfectly normed by them. That is the point these “alt-right” men have been making. Yes, theological dialogue is good, and it’s what these men are doing.
Quite the sleight of hand here, though: “We have clear processes for registering concerns over published materials, and we encourage such theological critique.” We encourage such theological critique. This kind, not that kind. If it goes through the “clear process” for registering concerns over published materials, then it is the good kind. We have declared it to be so, by the authority vested in us by ourselves.
“The biblical confession of the LCMS on doctrine and life is true and unchangeable.” This is very interesting. What constitutes the biblical confession of the LCMS on doctrine and life? Scripture, the norming norm, is true and unchangeable, and in a different way, so, too, the Confessions, the norm that is normed, are true and unchangeable. Is there something else? Synod resolutions, perhaps? Encyclicals posted on The Reporter?
The letter continues.
LCMS congregations agree to uphold our biblical standards. We are not a top-down institution. That said, I will work together with our pastors and district presidents to address this matter wherever it arises among us and reject it. We issue the cry of Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). We are confident that the same Law and Gospel that broke the hard heart of St. Paul, himself a murderer and blasphemer, can and will do the same today. We are all called to repentance daily. “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Where that call to repentance is not heeded, there must be excommunication.
Of all the things I’ve seen as LCMS president, this is the most bizarre. I am informed that other conservative denominations are experiencing similar challenges. This horrid attack of the devil drives us to be firm in our confession. Our message of Christ the Savior for all, our local and global mission that serves the entire human race with forgiveness and joy stands firmly opposed to Satan and all evil. Our steadfast message of love and biblical fidelity on the cultural issues of marriage, sexuality, race, and life is an assault on the devil and his minions to no end. Our steadfast witness and assistance to our global Lutheran friends has the devil fuming.
Of all the things that I’ve seen as a cradle Lutheran who once thought that President Harrison was going to do some good, this is the most bizarre: the President of the LCMS calling for the excommunication of some laymen who ticked him off by having the audacity to throw a little sand in the gears of the Machine, thereby showing that doing so can have an effect that is outside of the control of its operators. Spare us the sanctimonious claptrap about 1 Corinthians 14:33—yes, godly order is good, but the Synod is anything but the conservator of it. Forgive me for quoting Calvin: “Accursed is that peace of which revolt from God is the bond, and blessed are those contentions by which it is necessary to maintain the kingdom of Christ.” Amen!
One final note:
The phrase “to no end” implies frustration of purpose, failure to achieve a goal, futility, etc. It does not imply persistence, doggedness, or perpetuity. To say “Our steadfast message of love and biblical fidelity on the cultural issues of marriage, sexuality, race, and life is an assault on the devil and his minions to no end” is to say “Our steadfast message of [insert question-begging and preening self-congratulation] is an assault on the devil and his minions that is having zero effect whatsoever.”
This might be the best Freudian slip in a letter which could itself be deemed a giant Freudian slip. One small slip for President Harrison; one giant slip for the LCMS.
But it is in fact the sad truth: the messaging of LCMS Corp.—not, mind you, the confession and preaching of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, which is by no means the same thing—is now to the point where it is totally ineffectual against the devil and his minions. It is salt that has lost its savor. The Synod has become the very bushel smothering the bright candle that is the Evangelical-Lutheran Church. For the weapons of the Synod’s warfare are carnal. They are not mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds. The Synod does not cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God. The Synod does not bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.
The Synod protects itself, and that is all it does. It wasn’t always that way, but it is that way now.
“It’s Time” for faithful pastors and congregations to leave this Babylonian captivity.