Bishop Kurt Kusserow, SWPA Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Find Bishop Kusserow’s displays at: Zorba’s, 400 Smithfield Street; First Lutheran Church, 615 Grant Street; and Duquesne University.

“We are looking to be a country post-racism, post-economic disparity. I’m not sure we can do that without sacrificing that part of our identity that is speaking lies.”

Early in my ministry I went with a group of pastors to hear Rabbi Edwin Friedman speak. The experience was formative for me. Friedman was speaking about Family Systems Theory. I was not familiar with that way of looking at human relationships, the world, or myself. Rabbi Friedman began with the first story in his book, Friedman’s Fables, which is called “The Bridge.” It is an arresting story that calls into question the desire to help others at personal expense. The story ends in an unexpected way that is alarming and unsettling. The pastors that I was with began to respond with questions that really were criticisms, calling into question Friedman’s view of human relationships and personal responsibility for others.

Their questions took the turn of prefacing with, “in our tradition…” Of course, Rabbi Friedman is not Lutheran. He’s Jewish. So, questions came in the form of, “in our tradition, Jesus calls us to bear one another’s burdens,” and, “in our tradition, Jesus calls us to lay down our life for the other.” Rabbi Friedman gripped the podium, leaned forward and said, “In your tradition, Jesus’s death was salvific. Yours won’t be.” That has stuck with me all my ministry, all my life.

In learning about what it means to bear responsibility for myself and allow others to bear responsibility that appropriately belongs to them, whole worlds of healthy relationships have opened up. Friedman’s reflection has helped me avoid that self-centered fallacy that somehow my martyrdom will save the world. It won’t. His thought has helped me to be less anxious in caring for others so that that work can be more for others than it is for me. As Martin Luther said, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.”

I have come to see that if in any small way I believe my relationship with God is based on what I have been able to accomplish, that’s an error. Neither, dare I believe, that anyone else’s relationship with God, is their work. That’s an extraordinarily freeing thing that it’s not our responsibility to get someone else in the right place with God. That’s a responsibility we can’t bear for others. I find myself more willing to let others be who they are and not to feel like I need to change them into who I want them to be. I am willing to bear the pain of others rather than too quickly try to alleviate it by my own wisdom and strength.

This speaks to a relationship question we need to attend to as a country now. We are looking to be a country post-racism, post-economic disparity. I’m not sure we can do that without sacrificing that part of our identity that is speaking lies. As a country and as individuals, our best efforts are stymied by pieces of our own identity that we refuse to let go. When caring for others, it may be helpful to ask, “if I believe that care of my neighbor is important, what’s holding me back from serving?” Is it my own fear of being associated in public with others? Is it my fear of exposing the disparity of my economic situation with someone else’s? The heart of the Reformation was an attempt to make honest and real the relationship between God and ordinary people in their ordinary lives.