Lutheran bishops offer bridge for troubled waters

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Posted 11/08/16 (Tue)

Passing Dreams
By Steve Andrist

Thursday, Nov. 3, the sun was shining and the temperature was 70.
A perfect day, we thought, to change into shorts and head out after work for a long walk in the splendor of a North Dakota autumn.
As we headed toward the walking path that surrounds the state Capitol grounds we weren’t yet aware that the building had been locked down after protesters staged a sit-in in the judicial wing.
Nor did we know that a group of clergy from around the country, who had spent the day in solidarity with protesters at the Oceti Sakowin encampment south of Mandan, had brought their demonstration to Bismarck.
It didn’t take long, though, to learn first hand about those activities.
We turned south on Fourth Street and started walking toward the governor’s residence.
It’s a route we take often, but we weren’t used to sharing the sidewalk with so many others. 
The others, we learned, weren’t walkers, but demonstrators, part of the group that had been at the camps.
They were crowded onto the sidewalk 15-20 deep singing “This Little Light of Mine” and keeping an eye on the line of law enforcement officers blocking a path to the governor’s residence across the street.
They were courteous as we walked through their midst, stepping around people carrying signs expressing opposition to pipelines and fossil fuels.
That night on the news, and the next day in the papers, we saw them again.
They got plenty of attention, these Episcopalian, A.M.E, Muslim and Jewish clergy from places like Oregon and Massachusetts and Indiana.
In every case I saw, that attention was focused on the side they have taken -- support for the Standing Rock Sioux and opposition to oil and pipelines.
What was obvious by its absence was any mention of the views of standard-bearing North Dakota Lutherans.
It’s not because those views haven’t been expressed.
It’s because they’ve been expressed in thoughtful and prayerful ways that don’t involve chants, protests, marches, sit-ins and media coverage.
Mark Narum, who served Stanley congregations for many years, is bishop of western North Dakota Lutherans.
Terry Brandt, who did his internship in Crosby, is bishop of Lutherans from the eastern half of the state.
Late last month they traveled with Elizabeth Eaton, the ELCA bishop for the United States, to meet with native leaders in Fort Yates and in the camps and in Bismarck. They also met with law enforcement and state officials.
Separately, in statements following their visit, all three expressed strong support and respect for native people who feel so passionate about water and sacred precepts.
Beyond that, though, they are not taking sides.
Rather, they seek to advise their members to build bridges, not tear them down, and to seek understanding of one anothers’ beliefs.
“What is needed more now than ever before are people who are willing to help de-escalate the situation,” wrote Narum.
“This is a time for all to be praying that God would lead all involved to act in such a way that no harm would come to anyone.”
Wrote Brandt: “We are called to be a voice calling for justice and peace. We are called to pray. We are called to encourage and initiate conversations which might lead to understanding, compromise, care, and respect!”
Perhaps this is a cop-out.
Perhaps it is a way to dodge the responsibility of taking a stand and advocating for an end game -- an end game that is both elusive and necessary.
But perhaps it is also a way to recognize that the people they represent have myriad views on the disagreements that seem insurmountable.
In the final analysis, what could be more important in the debate over divisive social issues than for ALL people to respect those with whom we disagree?
For ALL people to seek understanding of those with different ideas?
For ALL people to commit to no harm to anyone?
For EVERYONE to understand that when there is a conclusion we will need to continue to live together?
Without that respect, understanding and commitment, there’s no way this is going to end well.