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ELCA Bishops Say Addressing Violence Begins by Listening

ITASCA, Ill (ELCA) -- Expressing grief over the tragedy of gun violence in the United States, the 65 synod bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) offered a pastoral letter on violence to the 4-million-member church. In their letter, the bishops invite members to address together the cause and effect of violence, engage in prayer and respectful conversation, and care for one another and the communities impacted by violence.

"We recognize that we serve in different contexts and have different perspectives regarding what can and should be done," they wrote. "But as we live out our common vocations, knowing that the work will take many forms, we are committed to the work of reducing and restraining violence.

In this time of public attention to gun violence, local communities of faith have a unique opportunity to engage this work. We begin by listening: listening to God, to Scripture, and to each other. Providing a safe place for people to share their own stories, together we discern courses of action. Together we act."

"While the church grapples with this call to reduce violence and make our communities safer, we recognize that before God we are neither more righteous because we have guns nor are we more righteous when we favor significant restrictions. Brokenness and sin are not somehow outside of us. Even the best of us are capable of great evil. As people of God we begin by confessing our own brokenness -- revealed in both our actions and our failure to act. We trust that God will set us free and renew us in our life's work to love our neighbors. This shared work is a sign of our unity in Christ," the letter states.

The bishops discussed the content of their letter during the ELCA Conference of Bishops, which met here Feb. 28-March 5. The conference is an advisory body of this church that includes the 65 synod bishops, the presiding bishop and secretary.

"I was very pleased that the Conference of Bishops adopted a pastoral letter on violence during our meeting," said the Rev. Jessica R. Crist, bishop of the ELCA Montana Synod. Crist is chair of the conference. "The ELCA has already made significant statements on violence, and we wanted to call attention to what our church has already said. But we also wanted to be able to make a statement as a Conference of Bishops in response to a culture of violence. The letter was carefully crafted and re-crafted, debated and prayed about. We commend it to the church," she said.

The Rev. Jon V. Anderson, bishop of the ELCA Southwestern Minnesota Synod added, "At our meeting, the Conference of Bishops sought to lift up our shared vocation to work to reduce and restrain violence through a pastoral letter. The letter invites Christians to go deeper in lamenting, listening, sharing, discerning, deciding and acting to make this world a safer place for all. We invite leaders and congregations to imagine who they might invite into conversation."

During their discussion, the bishops talked about the impact of violence on their own communities and acknowledged they each bring a different perspective to the conversation.

The Rev. Stephen S. Talmage, bishop of the ELCA Grand Canyon Synod, spoke about the 2011 shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, who at the time was a member of Congress from Arizona. "The Gabby Giffords shooting began the debate and we all hear it in our territories. Inside that gun debate is the debate on mental illness. You will all not agree with me on the response, but we need to have a response on a safe community and care for mental illness."

The Rev. David B. Zellmer, bishop of the ELCA South Dakota Synod, said "I've been a pastor for 32 years and have worked with 11 families who have been touched by murder." He added that "violence is incredibly localized" in his state.

Calling for ELCA members to join in the work of reducing and restraining violence, the letter also acknowledges resources produced by the church on peace, community violence and mental illness.

"As we worked on the letter we were reminded of the helpful resources that have been created," said Anderson. "As Christians and congregations we are called to deep reflection and conversation about reducing violence. With humility we are called to discern, decide, act and evaluate our strategies."

In a pastoral video message soon after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson said that as "long as a culture of violence is holding us captive -- our spirits, our imagination, our debates, our actions -- we have work to do."

ELCA leaders and members across the country have participated in inter-faith and ecumenical prayer vigils and services. In February, the Rev. James Hazelwood, bishop of the ELCA New England Synod, took part in an ecumenical prayer service with other Lutheran and Episcopal clergy, deacons and rostered leaders. Commenting in his blog he said, "The intent is to reflect on the challenges of doing ministry in a culture of violence."

Other ELCA social messages and statements include: "The Body of Christ and Mental Illness" and "Peace: God's Gift, Our Calling." The Conference of Bishops' letter is available at