7. Service to the advancement of life, health, and wholeness

One of Martin Luther’s essential reforming insights insisted that while human beings are called to work diligently in this world, they can do nothing to work for or earn God’s favor. This counter-intuitive insight, discovered in Luther’s study of the New Testament, contradicted the cultural perception that human beings are called to strive for “perfection” or keep many religious rules and, in so doing, earn the favor of the divine. To this deeply-rooted religious sensibility, Luther offered a steadfast No. Rather, he argued, God freely and graciously offers life, health, and wholeness (the root meaning of the word “salvation”) without the need for human effort.

Such a claim was and is intended to free a person from anxiety, from wondering if he or she had “done enough” to earn God’s favor or an eternal destiny. But if the “knot” of human striving to escape this world had been cut, what was one to do with one’s life on this earth? Are human beings called to use their religious or political or personal freedom in any way they see fit, to narcissistic or even destructive ends? Again, the Lutheran reformers argued for something else: with freedom from religious laws or superstition or the need to always justify oneself, a person is called to use his or her God-given freedom responsibly and maturely in service to others in this world. Luther succinctly states this new reality in his seminal ethical work, The Freedom of Christian (1520): “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” While Luther admits that the two statements seem to contradict each other they are a part of the Christian reality and reflect the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 9: “Though I am free and belong to no one, yet I have made myself a servant to all.”

This emphasis on freedom from anxiety, from making oneself “perfect,” from earning divine favor, and its corresponding emphasis on responsibility to others permeates the Lutheran culture of world engagement. Thus, Lutherans have established schools (from pre-kindergarten through graduate level universities) and seminaries. They have created hospitals, orphanages, retirement centers, and long-term care facilities. Lutherans in the United States are diligent and vital leaders in humanitarian and religious efforts to feed the hungry, diminish poverty, and eradicate disease – both here and in developing nations. Through national and international networks, Lutheran colleges and universities collaborate with Lutheran Community Services, Lutheran World Relief, and the Lutheran World Federation to help and support the neighbor in need.

Thus, the joyful spirit and tenacity with which Lutherans engage the world is a unique dimension nurtured and proclaimed in word and action on Lutheran campuses. It is an integral part of the academy. Indeed, Luther’s words concerning freedom and service are not empty rhetoric at PLU. They are embodied in students who care for the earth, serve the homeless, grow and share the produce of our community garden with the hungry, and enter as alumni into public service as mayors, state legislators, governors, and members of Congress, as medical researchers, healthcare providers in poor countries, and non-profit lobbyists in the halls of political power. They are embodied in faculty and staff who serve their neighborhoods and towns as volunteers, consultants, and citizens who share a commitment to sustain and advance the common good.

“I will therefore give myself to my neighbor,” wrote Luther, “and will do … what I see will be needful, advantageous, and wholesome for my neighbor.” In a culture marked by hyper- individualism, PLU offers a challenging vision of what it means to live an authentic human life: one in which our fate is inextricably bound up with that of others and the degree to which our students, faculty, staff, and alumni transcend narrow interests in service to life, health, and wholeness.