UPDATE: ELCA issues revised statement on genetics and faith

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America released a proposed social statement Thursday, titled "Genetics, Faith and Responsibility," somewhat revised from a draft last year that raised controversy among members who said it rejected modern farmi...

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America released a proposed social statement Thursday, titled "Genetics, Faith and Responsibility," somewhat revised from a draft last year that raised controversy among members who said it rejected modern farming practices such as genetically modified seed.

The use of seeds genetically engineered to be immune to a common herbicide, to make weed control easier and better, has become common in the Red River Valley in corn, soybeans and sugar beets.

But, its authors said, the 34-page document has a much broader mission: to address how the nation's largest Lutheran church should view the fast-changing science of genetics and issues such as human cloning and manipulation of DNA strands.

"The ELCA is probably the only religious body in the United States or the world that has tried to address plant, animal and human genetics in one document," said Per Anderson, professor and associate dean of global learning at Concordia College in Moorhead. He co-chaired the 18-member task force that has worked four years on the proposed statement. "We are pretty proud that, as a church, we are trying to be serious about these issues."

About 210,000 of the ELCA's 4.4 million members are in eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota.


Controversy arose last year at church meetings in North Dakota and South Dakota, during which several congregations said they were leaving the ELCA partly over the document. They said the document condemned farming with GMO seed, or at least raised questions about it that offended some farmers.

"We have felt some in the farming communities feel some alienation from the church and we need to find a way to address that," Anderson said. "But we did not weigh in on the so-called management issues we were accused of addressing."

One of the critics of the previous draft is Sarah Wilson, a farmer and ELCA member from south of Jamestown, N.D., who blogged about it last year.

Since then, she and her husband and their two young children have stopped going to their ELCA congregation and helped form New Hope Free Lutheran in Jamestown, affiliated with the more conservative Association of Free Lutheran Congregations.

Wilson grew up on a five-generation dairy farm in Maryland, has a master's degree in animal science from North Dakota State University and worked in dairy education for the Minnesota agricultural extension service out of Hutchinson.

So, it's her study of the ELCA's agricultural policies that persuaded her to leave the church, Wilson said Thursday. She hasn't had the opportunity yet to read the new draft. But she's familiar with the ELCA's stances on issues, based on what she sees on its website and in church publications, Wilson said.

She and her husband grow wheat, corn and soybeans. "About 65 percent of our crop is GMO," she said.

"But it's bigger than just the genetics issue," she said. "It's their position on a number of farm bill issues, and their position on cap and trade and any number of political issues they have become involved in, on which I fall on the other side of the fence. They really are taking a very liberal stand when it comes to agriculture; that is really it, in a nutshell."


Last year, she attended an ELCA meeting on the genetics statement in Gackle, N.D., at which Per Anderson, as well as the Rev. Bill Rindy, bishop of the ELCA's Eastern North Dakota Synod, spoke.

They had a good talk, and she invited Anderson out to see her farm, Wilson said.

Wilson said there was not enough representation on the ELCA task force from "people like me," meaning conventional farmers from the Upper Midwest. There was one retired farmer, from Worthington, Minn., on the task force, Wilson said.

One small victory she thinks she might have won in talking to Anderson last year: getting the ELCA to remove a link on its web site to a "radical animal rights group," that opposed most livestock farms.

Farmers already have thought these issues through and try to do what's best for their families as well as for the environment, Wilson said.

"I didn't think it was necessary for the church to spend all this time and resources on developing a lobbying tool for the church," she said.

There obviously are different opinions within the ELCA over how to apply genetic engineering in animals and crops, and reasonable people can disagree, the document says.

"We are very clear that we are not rejecting GMO in principle," Anderson said.


The document will be reviewed by the ELCA's bishops next month and by the Church Council at a meeting in Chicago in April; then voted on by the Churchwide Assembly in August.

The document doesn't go into detail on technologies, including GMO seeds, or whether it's right or wrong to engineer the genes of plants so they are immune to pests, for example, or have more vitamins.

"What we are approving is a framework document with a number of principles," Anderson said today. "Hopefully this document will help people think better about these kinds of particular things."

ELCA social statements are not dogma in the church, but considered learning documents that members can use to make up their minds about difficult issues.

"We have really tried to listen to the interpretations we have heard and the concerns that have been raised," Anderson said. "I think you will find the text is much clearer on certain points that people were wondering about in the text."

The mention in a previous draft of the document referring to the labeling of transgenic foods was removed, Anderson said. "But also there has been more language added about the issue of agriculture and plant and animal health."

The statement is clear on one issue in the welter of genetic science: Reproductive cloning of humans is wrong and should be rejected.

That's based largely on a hallmark of Lutheran teaching of a special respect for all people, past, present and future, according to the document.


"As respect governs human relationships within the community of life today, it must also guide actions toward future members," the document says. "For example, human reproductive cloning might be (scientifically) possible given the development of mammalian cloning. As a matter of respect, however, the ELCA affirms the widely held rejection of research into human reproductive cloning because of the unacceptable risk of harm to experimental subjects."

The statement, though, also provides teaching in case the unacceptable happens: "However, if individuals are cloned despite societal and ELCA rejection, this church will respect their God -given dignity and will welcome them to the baptismal font, like any other child of God."

When it comes to animal experimentation, the statement likely won't satisfy PETA entirely.

"Conflicting interests cannot always be reconciled," the document says, leading later to: "Genetic research on animals, such as mice, may require the death of individual experimental subjects. The directive of respect, however, rules out frivolous or abusive treatment."

On GMO plants, the statement leaves room for both ways.

"Genetic research on plants and animals should consider also what it means to respect a species in relation to the health and integrity of the biotic community. Species come into existence, change continually and sometimes go extinct due to natural and human causes. The flourishing of life, however, depends upon complex capacities to deal with stress, to reproduce and to maintain optimum operations such as biodiversity. When genetic science and technology intervene into the integrity of a plant or animal species, the wider web of life must be respected and regarded as morally relevant."

"Members of this church will not always agree about what it means to respect an individual life form, a species or the biotic community. An ethic of responsibility requires this church to be in dialogue about how the directive of respect governs the many different domains of genetic science and its applications."

"This church also rejects the tendency to cede moral deliberations to those whose primary interest is determining what kinds and levels of technology economic markets will bear. Self interested pursuits in an economic marketplace cannot serve as a substitute for direct and explicit respect for the needs of participants in the community of life."


The document isn't in everyday language, and it includes a four-page glossary of terms such as "community of life," "pharming," and "global village," as well as "koinonia" and "original sin."

While taking care to not call modern farming an original sin, the document perhaps belies some bias in the glossary's somewhat glowing description of "organic farming," as "an ecological and production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."

The document mentions more than once the "moral ambiguity" in modern science and society.

"Genetic knowledge and its applications introduce into the community of life a potentially mixed blessing," the document says in its conclusion. "The power now available through genetic science and its various commercial and cultural uses requires diligent and sustained attention in order to direct its potential good and to limit its potential harm."

The document appears to coin a new term: "innovative stewardship." Anderson said the phrase is rooted in previous ELCA teaching on creation and the ability of humans to manage nature in creative ways.

"We are trying to affirm the Christian idea of the inventive qualities of humans, the capacity for new arrangements in nature," Anderson said. "This is a good thing."

The term goes back to the creation story, but has new meaning as science changes, he said.

"We were trying to provide some fresh language to think about these issues."



See the document HERE .

See Sarah Wilson's blog HERE .

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