Renowned Professor Emeritus of Ethics Ed Long, who established the Peace Studies Fellowship for PhD students, recently reflected on his life and vocation at the occasion of the 65th anniversary of his ordination. An excerpt follows, with the full personal reflections available here.
When I was attracted to the ministry as a vocation the public face of religion in America was quite different from what it seems to be today. Mainline churches were growing rather than declining. Even though most of them were racially segregated–by design in the south and by default in the north–the movement to eliminate segregation was gaining in strength in religious circles. The national radio networks carried programs on a regular basis featuring the best preaching of the time. The emphasis of the Social Gospel with its concern for economic justice was still strong.
So, what does the young person who is making vocational decisions in our time face, particularly as regards the prospect of a viable life in a religious vocation? There are few, if any, intellectually challenging sermons being preached on either the national radio or on the campus by figures who can qualify as public intellectuals. Almost every ecumenical body has shrunk in size and given up on the quest for Christian unity and many have abandoned the effort to think what constitutes just and durable peace. Many people are judging religion to be the instigator of cultural warfare and even of violence rather a possible cure.
Society itself has changed. Violence has become an almost standard instrument of group behavior, whether by street gangs, terrorists, or nation states. Its use is attended by ever increasing damage to innocent bystanders–no matter where they live or whose side they are on. Fear of victimization is now rampant and helps to sustain a gun culture that is allowed to escalate almost unchecked. Concern for economic justice sensitive to minimal human needs has suffered set backs and now faces hegemonic opposition from who enjoy an ever increasingly disproportionate control of monetary resources and lack any qualms about employing those resources to buy political advantage. And the most common religious attitude among people–especially the young–is that a purely individualized spirituality is an adequate expression of faith and therefore needs no designated leaders.
Had I studied the careers of the Old Testament prophets carefully, instead of understanding them as social reformers in idealistic terms, I would have recognized their role was to serve as critics of the injustices and false commitments of the very culture of which they were a part. Few, if any of them were successful agents of social transformation. They called their society back to the fundamental stance of covenantal fidelity with God and the need for repentance and a change of heart as the precondition of any renewal. As judged by identifiable accomplishments, their lives were probably a waste. But their preaching eventually had the consequences of raising consciousness of the need for a messianic figure through whom forgiveness and grace came to be seen as necessary for the redemption of the human condition.
Thus I have come in the later years of ministry to see its potential significance less in terms of leading morally defined crusades than of prompting the confessional awareness of the need for the transforming redemption of a needful humanity, less in terms of understanding religious leadership as an effective instrument of social transformation than as a way of prompting persons to recognize their failures to live as God intends and the necessity of healing the human situation through the means of grace that are embodied in the church’s sacramental functions–which are carried out primarily though what liturgical traditions all the Eucharist and others call the Lord’s Supper.
So, I have changed my main sense of the ministry from that which is based on the prophet as social reformer to that of the instrument of curative grace for people who have learned from the prophets how deeply estranged from their destiny as children of God they actually are. To many of my close associates (and especially some here in Oberlin) this change probably looks like a failure of nerve, or a concession to despair and submission to a stance that is oblivious to injustice and tolerant of malfeasance rather than dedicated to their elimination. As the teacher/theologian who discerns the meaning of such patterns I can understand their feelings, but it does not convince me they are right.
This change in understanding of the vocation of the ordained does not have to result in abandoning social witness and concern–though often that is what may happen. But it does change the premises on which social witness and concern are embraced. Social action and witness can now be undertaken without having to act as though one’s position is free of ambiguity, or that social advocacy is the sole measure of fidelity. Ministry in its fullness does more that engender social passion; it heals the hurts of dreams unfulfilled and offers forgiveness for the harms that are inexorably mixed in every effort at being righteous. It criticizes utopian hopes without abandoning therapeutic efforts. It can side with the oppressed and downtrodden without regarding those social locations as conditions of innocence to be emulated. It finds meaning and approval in the dedication and not merely in the success of the venture. When endeavor is based on response to the Gospel there is no place for the category of waste, since the significance of such endeavors cannot be measured by merely publicly identifiable consequences.
Download Ed Long-Reflections.