Standing with Standing Rock Takes All of Us – Rev. Dr. Gordon Straw

ThomasLindaThe news of Rev. Gordon Straw’s illness and abrupt passing has utterly devastated not only my home institution, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, but much of it’s parent denomination as well – The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A member of the Brothertown Indian Nation, Gordon had long been a leader and advocate for some of the most neglected yet vibrant voices in the church – those among the Native community and lay leaders. In honor of his passing, We Talk. We Listen. has reposted a reflection he wrote for our blog at the height of the conflict at Standing Rock. Centering around Dakota concept of metakuye oyasin, Straw speaks of how its insights go far beyond Standing Rock. These words are a classic expression of this wonderful man in all of his aspects – professor, husband and father, mentor, friend, and fellow worker in the vineyard – and we are proud to share them again in tribute.

You are missed, Gordon – and we’ll be keeping an eye on your loved ones.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – We Talk. We Listen.”

Just say the name, “Standing Rock,” in a crowd and see what happens.


There are not many people in this country, perhaps the world, who haven’t heard that name and has already painted a picture in their minds of what that name signifies. But, do we really know what “Standing Rock” is? My guess is that each person you ask will have a different answer to the question. The most obvious difference in answers are found in opposing parties: the water protectors, the oil protectors, the Standing Rock Nation, Energy Transfer Partners and all the financial investors in the project, etc. These differences seem insurmountable and most likely they are. These differences are buttressed by decades (even centuries) of distrust, anger, hatred, and completely disparate worldviews. But, if there is to be any hope for a nonviolent resolution that most people can accept, these differences can’t be insurmountable. These are not the only differences of opinion or strategy about this phenomenon called “Standing Rock.”

There are differences of vision within the larger, binary parties of “for” and “against” the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL), too.

Within the “pro-DAPL” party, there are different views: those who are directly connected to the project and looking to profit from it; tribes who are “pro-oil”, but are appalled at the violent, disproportionate use of violent force against another sovereign native nation; much of the federal government who seem to be in favor of the pipeline, but want the route altered to honor the sovereignty of the Standing Rock Nation; law enforcement officers or entities who disagree over the use of force and what appears to be a “bending of the rules” regarding basic human and civil rights; church members who are divided over whether the biblical principles of justice and the preferential option for the poor and disadvantaged (not just Natives) take precedence over the economic context in western North Dakota, which is heavily dependent upon the oil industry.

Within the “anti-DAPL” party, there are different views: the Standing Rock Nation, whose lands and access to clean water are directly impacted by the pipe line; the environmental groups who want the whole project ended, at all costs; there are groups of activists who are focused more on the actual conflict and not on the issues of the conflict, and any number of “well-meaning” people who just want to help the Indians and don’t understand why Chairman David Archambault III is asking them to go home, not understanding the basic premises of tribal sovereignty. Now, I will admit immediately that listing out these differing positions is not comprehensive, are broad generalizations, and are probably not all that helpful at getting at the nuances of this phenomenon we call “Standing Rock.”

Ditches dug for the pipeline.

But, here’s the thing: if we can’t ALL stand with the Standing Rock Nation in some way, this will not end well for most, perhaps all.

What “standing with Standing Rock” means specifically is that we stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Nation by honoring their inherent right to govern themselves and to take hold of their own destiny. So, when Chairman Archambault asks people in the camps to go home for the winter, we stand with Standing Rock by going home without second guessing the wisdom of that decision. It is not ours to make. When the Standing Rock Nation insists that the federal government and corporate interests honor the boundaries of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty as sovereign territory of the Sioux Nation, we stand with them. It also means, specifically, that we stand with the Standing Rock Nation and all other nations in declaring that Water is Life. No amount of tainting the earth’s fresh water supply with oil or chemicals is acceptable. Our nation’s dependence upon fossil fuels (that’s each and every one of us, folks) is threatening our Mother, the Earth, especially the waterways which bring life.

There is an important concept in the Dakota language and culture, metakuye oyasin (meh-TAH-kway oh-AH-see). The common English translation is “all my relatives” or “all my relations.” This phrase is used at the end of prayers, much like our use of the word, “amen.” The concept is a recognition that every aspect of existence is connected to every other aspect of existence, because all things have a single origin, the Creator. It’s not merely an acknowledgment that everything has an existence. It is a declaration that I am connected to everything that exists. I cannot do anything that does not affect ALL my relatives. I cannot pretend that I am not connected to the people, things or forces that I do not want to recognize or even that I hate. We are all related, period. Similar to Martin Luther’s notion of “neighbor,” this extends to all of Creation, not just those closest to us. For the Dakota, it doesn’t even end at the distinction between conscious/not conscious. I am related to all humans, all the members of: the winged nation, the plant nation, the buffalo nation, etc., etc. I am related to the wind and the rain, the sun and the moon, the seven sacred directions, and the forces that move the planets and stars.

All Saints – Wassily Kandinsky (1911)

It literally takes ALL of us, creatures of the Great Mystery, to stand with the Standing Rock Nation, to stand with the people of Aleppo, with the unemployed and the uninsured, the disabled and the disaffected- with ALL my relatives. This is the intention of the Creator, that we stand with each other for the benefit of each other. There is no other reality, but this earthly reality. Even if you could build a spaceship, as some Westerners seem to think will make a difference, it would be the same reality. Metakuye oyasin is a recognition that I am one part of the great Web of life that rests in the Creator.

A while back, at a theological conference that brought Lutherans from the Western hemisphere together, I shared the podium with one of my relatives and mentor in things spiritual. Albert White Hat, Sr. was a greatly respected Lakota spiritual elder of the Lakota people on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. He was a professor of Lakota language at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation. He led a handful of Lakota elders who re-formed the Lakota language to restore much of the original meaning of the language, which had been lost through translation into English by the White missionaries. By chance (not really, in the native world, there is no such thing as a coincidence), I gave my presentation first. I spoke about the beauty of the concept of “metakuye oyasin.” How it binds all creatures together in a harmony of relationships. As a Christian theologian, I identified this as the work of the Holy Spirit. For 45 minutes I spoke on this theme. The group took a short break, then Albert got up. He thanked me profusely for my presentation, then said, “But, you’ve got “metakuye oyasin” all wrong.

Albert went on to explain what “metakuye oyasin” means to the people of the Great Sioux Nation, which include both the Rosebud and the Standing Rock Reservations. He explained that by virtue of our creation by the Great Mystery, the Creator of all things, each individual creature has the power to make one of two choices: to bring life or to bring destruction. “That is what binds all creatures,” he said. It isn’t a neat, abstract, “kumbaya” notion of “we all live in harmony and isn’t that great?” Metakuye oyasin is the understanding that each of us, at each point in our lives, has the power to choose to bring life to the world around us or to choose to bring destruction to the world around us.

“It is that simple,” he said.

Simple, yes; Simplistic, definitely, no.

Joya Martin

Applying “metakuye oyasin” to your life today is about understanding the power you have, not only for your life, but for the life of the whole world. You have the power to choose self-interest, greed, parochialism, xenophobia, hatred and distrust of others (including your enemies), and the attitude that none of the things that are happening in our communities, our nation, or in the world apply to you. In that case you have chosen to bring destruction: of the earth, of relationships, of community. You also have the power to choose the common good, generosity, respect for all others (including your enemies), tolerance, love, and the attitude that everything that happens in my community, my nation, or in the world is directly connected to me. In that case, you chose to bring life.

No matter where you stand on any particular issue in your world today, including the issue of protecting the water and sacred lands of the Standing Rock people, you must take a stand.

You have no option.

No option other than to choose either life or destruction of life. Standing with Standing Rock, indeed, takes all of us. Metakuye oyasin.


“Standing Rock may be the new Selma.” –  Presiding Bishop of the Michael Curry Episcopal Church 

Gordon-Straw-150x150.jpgThe Rev. Gordon Straw brought years of experience in organizational development, development of lay ministry leaders, and experience and commitment to intercultural competency to his work for the church – culminating is his appointment to the Cornelsen Chair for Spiritual Formation at the Lutheran School of Theology (LSTC) in the Spring of 2017. Gordon is an enrolled member of the Brothertown Indian Nation. Prior to his work at LSTC he was in charge of Lay Schools for Ministry in the ELCA as well as functioned as their Director for American Indian/Alaska Native ministries . Gordon is survived by his wife Evelyn Soto and their daughter Amanda, a recent graduate of DePauw University.


Advent, Christmas, and Public Church – José F. Rodríguez Páez, MDiv student at LSTC

IMG_4512Advent is nearing its end and Christmas is upon us. The life of migrants and refugees, all who seek peace and freedom, is especially poignant these days. José F. Rodríguez Páez gives us his own deeply personal observation of what this means to us, as Christians moving from Advent into Christmas, giving us all reminder that even in the darkest days of displacement and fear, God is always with us. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


Advent, which means “arrival” and precedes Christmas and then Epiphany, provides us with a very special opportunity to renew ourselves and prepare ourselves to receive the Christ and celebrate his presence in our midst. We know the prophecies about his birth, the announcement of the angel to Mary and Joseph, the census, the manger, the shepherds, the child wrapped in a manger and the visit of the Sages of the East; these are all important and well-known events in the Christian tradition. However, the Gospel according to Matthew tells us about a moment in the life of Jesus that we rarely hear about in our churches during Christmas, despite the fact that this story is very relevant for the Christian people of today. Matthew 2:13-14 says:

“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.14 so he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.”

Currently thousands of men, women, youth and children are immigrating to this country. They are forced to leave their countries in search of a better future. Just as Jesus and his family had to flee to Egypt, these people come to the United States fleeing from the Herod who oppresses them in many of our Central American countries. The lack of work and health and education services, as well as poverty, government corruption, social inequality and weakened economies are some of the powerful reasons that motivate people to venture on an extremely dangerous pilgrimage to try to cross the border in search of better jobs that allow them to offer a better quality of life to their loved ones.

refugee caravan.jpg
The refugee ‘caravan’ making its way through Mexico last month.

The events that Matthew describes lead us to reflect on the fact that, in a literal sense, Jesus Christ began his life as a refugee and foreigner in another country.

As an immigrant, Jesus lived in his own flesh, together with his family, the harsh reality of having to leave his country and move to a strange land in search of safety and well-being. When we contemplate this aspect of Jesus’ life, then his name takes on a broader and extremely hopeful meaning for immigrants.

Amidst the atmosphere of hatred and persecution that currently prevails in the United States, against the immigrant community, it is extremely encouraging to know that even today, Jesus, the immigrant, is walking along with all the people who are pilgrims and foreigners. More comforting is knowing that Jesus Christ not only knows and understands our suffering as immigrants, but also suffers with and for us.

The presence of God and the certainty of this love and solidarity, as they are incarnated in our lives through Jesus Christ, strengthens us and gives us hope that a better day is coming for our people. On that day, our people will no longer be “invisible” or considered “illegal”. There will be just migratory laws that will treat all people with dignity and that will promote the unity of the family. The security of knowing that Emmanuel is walking by our side is what allows us to work hard to build communities where discrimination, racism and classism are not are tolerated in any of the spheres of government, society and church.

God says: “Do not be afraid, I am with you.”


I may raise my voice when discouragement, frustration or nostalgia robs us of the joy and desire to move on. Let us raise our eyes to heaven and seek to be enlightened with the comfort, healing and strength that Jesus Christ gives us. Remember that the light of hope, which emanated from the humble crib of Bethlehem, still continues to shine in our favor to give us true freedom, salvation and hope. This freedom is key. As Christians—and as Lutherans—we are called to live in the freedom of Christ. I believe that there is no contradiction between freedom and the call to service of the human being because each of these faculties is given by different natures. We live out God’s freedom by also living in service to one another.

With a loving voice, today Jesus continues to encourage us with the same words that the angel pronounced to Mary and Joseph. It tells us: “do not be afraid”. The churches, which proclaim Jesus the immigrant, the churches that serve the immigrants who come to our communities with love, are the ones who receive the words of Jesus “do not be afraid”, as a call to continue raising their prophetic voices against discrimination, racism and unjust laws who oppress our people. For me, Public Church means connecting with the community with the needs of community member.

The Public Church is in the street, wherever it is located. It means walking with the people, as Jesus walked with people. In this situation, it means walking with immigrants, as Jesus walks with them.

To be with those whom are often regarded as the classic “other,” who do not belong. Such constructions of the “other” may be based on legal grounds, physical appearance or race, (perceived) cultural and religious differences, class characteristics, or on any combination of these elements. Such constructions have been used politically, e.g., by the anti-immigrant movement, and express themselves in discriminatory practices, deteriorating inter-ethnic relations, and weakening of social cohesion in communities, cities, and states.


And it is for the sake of the least of these beloved ones, the least of these, to whom the cries of the baby Jesus summon us. 

14991307_1483363748347244_1499329586401493230_oHaving spent most of his career as an attorney, José F. Rodríguez Páez emigrated here to the US as a consequence of the political unrest in his native Venezuela. Currently, in addition to completing his divinity studies at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago he also works coordinating Hispanic ministries at San Andres/St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in West Chicago, Illinois.

Evangelism, Hubris, and the Progressive Church – Francisco Herrera, M.Div.

lt-ny-eve-march-2016When John Allen Chau, a twenty-six year old Chinese American Christian from the United States, ventured into the Indian Ocean in a vain attempt to evangelize an indigenous tribe well-known for their hostility to outsiders, little did anyone know the full impact of his efforts. The conversation sparked by his death at the hands of the Sentineli tribe has riveted leaders all over the church and blog regular Francisco Herrera is adding his voice to this discussion. But instead of discussing the motives and morality of the slain missionary he instead focuses on what the progressive Christian church can learn from this sad affair.

Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

A photograph of members of the Santeneli tribe, guarding their shoreline against landing by the boat from which this picture was taken.

When I heard that a  young missionary from the United States, John Allen Chau, had been killed while trying to evangelize a hostile indigenous community on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, it didn’t take me too long to guess the tribe. I easily recalled the old National Geographic footage from the documentary “Man in Search of Man” (begins at 16:30 in the link) that I’d seen three years before, showing an aborted attempt to contact the community living on North Sentinel Island, the film’s director getting a five-foot long arrow in the leg from his troubles – and this despite being in a boat nearly a quarter of a mile from the island’s shore when shot.

I cringed to think of this ill-advised, misguided young man suffering a similar fate – though likely shot through by more than just one arrow – the fishermen who returned to the island to check on him the next day saying how they saw his body being dragged along the beach and buried.

Initial responses to Chau’s killing quickly split into two camps – those speaking of him as a martyr for the faith, and those seeing him as a clueless tool of colonialism whose fool-hardiness earned him death. Facts on the ground tended to confirm the latter, as excerpts of his final letter to his parents revealed what before had only been speculation. Those last days Chau made multiple attempts to communicate with the Sentineli, not just one as many had assumed, by shuttling back and forth between North Sentinel’s shore and a boat crew he’d hired to take him to the forbidden island, but his ignorance (or arrogance, depending on whom you ask) pitifully hampered his efforts.

He tried introducing himself in English, which they didn’t speak, singing Christian songs which they didn’t know, and making gifts to them of things that they didn’t need. He’d even been let off with a warning for his intrusion, so-to-speak, as when shot at by one of the Sentineli children, the arrow struck Chau’s water-proof Bible in his outstretched hand, not his body. He later wrote that these rejected attempts at communication left him feeling frustrated, leading him to pout “is it worth me going a foot to meet them?” But between his zeal and his thought that the island might be “Satan’s last stronghold” Chau went back one last time, telling the boat crew to return home with the assurance that he would be safe to stay on the island overnight.

He was killed sometime afterwards.

John Allen Chau in 2017

Over the Thanksgiving weekend countless bloggers and commentators have weighed in with their respective takes on the subject, however their nuance still follows the same binary that emerged during those first hours after Chau’s death was announced: that he was either a martyr or a fool. I’ll admit to being in the latter category, because  it is unconscionable to me he would go and preach Christ to a new people utterly indifferent to their culture, not to mention so filled with entitlement as to suggest that he should be listened to. Added to this, was the fact that Chau paid no heed to the dire warnings he surely received that outside human contact with the Sentineli might decimate the island’s population, as they are so isolated that they have likely not developed any immunity to modern illnesses.

But my concerns in this post have little to do with judging a dead man, rather, I hope to initiate a deeper conversation around what I see to be another example of the progressive Church in the United States being very selective (I would even say cowardly) in where and how they make counterclaims in response to intolerant Christian communities and their often destructive theology and praxis.

And Mr. Chau’s story highlights what I believe to be multiple such concerns.

Pakistani Christians protesting against government harassment and public killings

On one level, it puts in stark relief how the cause Christian martyrdom – what it means to be a martyr as well as paying prayerful and material attention to persecuted Christians around the globe – is barely ever taken up in Progressive Christian circles – a fact which is financially exploited by multiple fundamentalist Christian organizations based in the United States.

A worship service  to show solidarity between the Christian church and the LGBTQ community in Kigali, Rwanda.

It also exposes the paucity of our efforts to develop genuine relationship with our beloved kindred in Christ in the Global South – to the point that whenever progressive Christians in the United States raise needed scrutiny on the violence done towards the LGBTQ community abroad, our lack of relationship to these Christian communities makes it easy for fundamentalists in the United States to paint us as judgmental, out-of-touch, and condescending – even neo-colonial.

But it is the evangelist in me that grieves the most deeply as I write, especially as one who came to Christ not in the United States, but through the global Church via an amazing community in Switzerland, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva. Situated in an unassuming building in the middle of Geneva’s Old Town, this globally-rooted congregation with about 230 active members from 47 nationalities speaking 39 different languages gave me a thorough schooling in what it meant to be a Christian  connected to other Christians all over the planet.

Francisco Herrera

It was among them that I first experienced the shock of the Holy Spirit and began my first efforts at evangelism – fueled by a near compulsive desire to share the beauty of this community with everyone around me. I even had a Jesus fish tattoo’d on the left side of my chest (see above) both as a visible sign of my dedication to Christ as well as a not-so-subtle conversation starter (like when I would deliberately wear thin t-shirts to make my Jesus fish more visible), making it easy to share testimony and church invites to the largely secular citizens around me.

So what does this have to do with John Allen Chau?

Over time, my experience testifying to the power of the Gospel has led me to act as a vehicle of repentance and healing for many who  have been terribly abused by pastor and parish. But even more frequently, many with whom I speak express surprise and relief to know that there are indeed churches that will accept them, even love them. They often confide to me how most people who usually share Jesus with them invariably insist that something or other about them is wrong, things that they consider to be vital to who they are as human beings, let alone as a children of God.

And it saddens me that in the progressive Christian community, I have known of only three or four others with a similar love of evangelism – who love sharing the story of how God loves them so much that they invite others into their communities to share that love.


And I worry, as liberal/progressive Christians sidestep Matthew 28’s call to make disciples, that who-knows-how-many people in the United States seeking spiritual nourishment continue to live hungry – languishing in their search for community simply because many progressive church leaders don’t go out into the street and invite others into the love they’ve been given.

But on a deeper, planetary level, I see the need for progressive Christians to become more dedicated evangelists as a justice issue – for each person from more inclusive churches who invites someone to Sunday worship, there are literally thousands of others inviting people to church so that they will hear sermons teaching that if you are poor or homeless it is a sign that you have been rejected by God.

Hence those of us who are Christian leaders, prophets, and teachers of what we like to call of as ‘inclusive Christian communities’ need to do more to tell the world about the churches we serve, the love we experience, and the justice which the Holy Spirit has energized us to fight for if we are to ever counter the destructive, anti-Christ theology coming from intolerant Christian communities. We cannot be a light to the world and hide ourselves under a bowl (Matthew 5:15).

And yes, mission and evangelism has often been the first beachhead in every all-out assault by white supremacy and hegemony upon both individuals and entire societies. Yes, it is important for contemporary Christians to fully embrace and repent of the people who have died because of this complicity. But the problem is that the forces of hegemonic white Christianity are not even close to done with their work and are ever looking for new lands to ‘conquer for Christ’- just as Chau was. Therefore to counter this – as flawed as we are – all of us who claim ourselves to be proclaimers of the radical grace of God must do more to proclaim the love and acceptance of this radical God, and do so more vehemently, more unabashedly.


And the more of us who do this, the more of us who there are to prevent another travesty as happened on Sentinel Island from happening again.

And besides, this love that we feel, the sacrifice the Christ has made for us, this power which God has given to us to strengthen ourselves so that we might strengthen others – don’t you all think we should share it?

Aren’t you tired of reading or hearing story after story of how our faith is used to spread misery  instead of boundless Grace?

Before coming to Chicago Francisco Herrera studied classical music (viola and orchestra conducting) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and then Geneva, Switzerland. After feeling the call to ministry at his home church in Geneva, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva, he returned to the US to enter seminary in 2005, completing his M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2012. Since beginning his Ph.D studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC)  in Fall of 2013, he has also been developing his skills as a seminary instructor, both at LSTC and the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest. And when he isn’t doing any of those things, polymath and scatterbrain that he is, Francisco likes to write worship and devotional music, blogs at, tweets at @PolyglotEvangel, and travels the country as one of the central leaders of #decolonizeLutheranism.

Dwelling in the Word – Rev. Dr. Benjamin Stewart

thomas110_1027092In every day and age, in good times and bad, in peace and in war – truth-telling can be a dangerous business. Yet we know that as Christians – let alone teachers, religious leaders, or activists – this is part of our call, and that for the joy and wonder this call takes, sometimes it exacts a high price. This week’s author, my colleague the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Stewart, reflects on this interaction between call and sacrifice. This is a particularly poignant note, too, coming off of the 29th anniversary of the martyrs of the University of Central America in El Salvador. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

Times when the School of the Americas has been thwarted.

In the fall of 2002, a small group of us from Holden Village traveled to Columbus, Georgia, to participate in an action at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, a training facility for mainly Latin American military officers, many of whom returned to their home countries as graduates to commit and oversee torture, executions, and war crimes.

On the night before the action, in a budget hotel, we gathered in a stuffy little conference room with a low ceiling to hear some reflections from Father Roy Bourgeois, Daniel Berrigan, and a number of Jesuits from around the world, especially from El Salvador. I remember vividly that some of the Jesuits showed necklaces they wore that had small vials of the bloody earth they had gathered from where their brothers, the Jesuit martyrs of San Salvador, had been found after they were massacred at the University of Central America on November 16th, 1989, twenty-nine years ago.

These martyred priests had had all the connections they needed to flee El Salvador as the violence increased. But they stayed. One of them, Segundo Montes, had made it clear, “This is my country and these people are my people… The people need to have the church stay with them in these terrible times…. God’s grace does not leave, so neither can we” (quoted in Ellsberg, All Saints, 500).

A few years earlier, before he himself had been martyred, their bishop, Oscar Romero, had said in shocking language: “I am glad that they have murdered priests in this country, because it would be very sad if in a country where they are murdering the people so horrifically, there were no priests among the victims” (Ellsberg, 500).

Martyrs of 1989: Julia Elba Ramos, Celina Ramos, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Juan Ramón Moreno,  Armando López, Ignacio Ellacuría, Armando López, and Joaquín López y López.

But the priests martyred 29 years ago were primarily scholars of religion: academic theologians and administrators alongside two women who had taken refuge from the violence at the university. Ignacio Ellacuría, the rector of the university, had put at the center of his scholarship what he called the “the crucified peoples” of history. Jon Sobrino wrote about these Jesuit martyrs: “let us not forget that what was most feared in [these academics] was their serious and reasoned word, their theological word” (Companions of Jesus, 51).

Sobrino continues, writing about the martyrs but with wider contemporary resonance: “Telling the truth does not just mean dissipating ignorance but fighting lies. This is essential work for a university and central to our faith…. As Paul says, the world imprisons the truth with injustice. These Jesuits wanted to free the truth from the slavery imposed on it by the oppressors, cast light on lies, bring justice in the midst of oppression, hope in the midst of discouragement, love in the midst of indifference repression and hatred. That is why they were killed.” (Sobrino, 26-27)

Sobrino’s words are resonant with the Psalm text appointed in Evangelical Lutheran Worship for the commemoration of martyrs. Psalm 5 sings about the life-and-death stakes of truth telling. The psalmist speaks first here about the violent oppressors — and we can think about the ways in recent years, from Mother Emanuel Church to Tree of Life Synagogue, that lies have led to violence. First, a word about the oppressors:

There is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction;

their throats are open graves; they deceive with their tongues.

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy.

Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you.

For you bless the just, O Lord; you cover them with favor as with a shield.

(Psalm 5.9, 11-12)

Lies beget violence. Truth begets sanctuary, and singing for joy.

This year, on the anniversary of their martyrdom, the annual memorial action is not being held at Fort Benning, but is a procession to the U.S. Southern Border, as a kind of prayer for protection and reverence for all who are seeking shelter in this country, as in the psalm: spread your protection over them, cover them with favor as with a shield, let them sing for joy. Some of those same vials from 29 years ago will lead the procession toward the border. All these years later, the commitment of the Jesuits still rings true: God’s grace does not leave, so neither can we.

Communion of the Saints – Elise Ritter

Perhaps the ongoing witness of these fellow academics can be a bracing reminder of the high stakes of our work as theologians, the power of the word to cast out lies, to unsettle the powerful, to uphold the vulnerable, and to put into words a way of solidarity known most deeply as it is broken and poured out for others. That’s the vial we carry in procession.

It’s a word that creates space — sanctuary — for the world to sing for joy.

So perhaps our prayer today is simple: that our teaching — what Sobrino called our “serious and reasoned word, [our] theological word” — might accomplish what the Psalmist prays: “let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you. For you bless the just, O Lord; you cover them with favor as with a shield.” For the sanctuaries our students will serve, for our own bodies in need of shelter and care, for those seeking refuge everywhere, and among us:


stewartBenjamin Stewart, PhD, is the Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship and Director of Advanced Studies at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he has taught since 2009.
A frequent conference speaker and a Lutheran pastor, Ben previously served as pastor to a small, Appalachian community in Ohio, and as village pastor to Holden Village retreat center in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of Washington. In addition to articles in a number of journals including Worship, Liturgy, and The Christian Century, Ben is author of A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology (2011). He is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy and serves as convener of its Ecology and Liturgy Seminar. He is currently writing an ecotheology of natural burial practices. Ben and his wife Beth live in Western Springs, near Bemis Woods and the Salt Creek, and are parents of two sons, Justin, in high school, and Forrest, in college. Twitter: @bstewLSTC

My Testimony – Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas

Linda Thomas & Dr. Cone--Graduation June 1981_let
Me and my mentor during my divinity studies, the Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone.

During my second year of theological studies I had a personal and vocational crisis. I began seminary to fulfill my call to ministry that came when I was 12 years old, the same year I began my menstrual cycle. This latter point is very important because it meant that I knew that God knew I was a young girl. My home congregation affirmed me. No one told me that I could not be a pastor because I was a girl.  But, in my second year of seminary, for the first time in my life, people who looked like me questioned my call to ministry. African American male students raised this question and their evidence was found in the bible and church tradition. They were clear that women could not be ordained.

This first experience of sexism was not only extremely painful; it was disorienting because I knew the texts to which they referred: Genesis chapter 2 –“woman was made from man’s side” and so was secondary; Paul in letters to the Ephesian 5:22-24; I Cor 11:3; I Timothy 2: 11-15 basically said that the man was head of the household and women were to be quiet and obedient to her husband. I felt as though I had been check mated by these men, because I believed the bible was authoritative as was tradition.  But, I could not let go of my experience: what about God’s calling of me at the age if twelve. My world fell apart. How could I put together “the word of God” with the “my call by God”?

I decided to do a search for a use-able past and in so doing found an answer that has been incorporated into my life to this day. My embodied strength, wit, and proclivity to speak truth to power is a result of my close relationship to a woman born into slavery, and only freed because of her agency to pick up her bed and walk when her promised freedom was denied.


Her slaveholder named her Isabella and like most enslaved black women she did not control her body. She bore 12 children all of whom were sold into slavery so the plantation economy could grow and flourish. Even with all this as part of her everyday life, Isabella remembered the God her mother introduced her to, whose presence was found in the night sky that held the stars connecting her to that divinity and to her mother. Throughout her life she was never alone and in time Isabella heard a call from God to preach.

This God welled up in her on the day of she had expected to be freed from slavery but was told that she had to work several more years. She could not believe that her Christian slaveholder, who she held regard for, would do such a thing. This betrayal and her assurance in the God of her mother is what propelled her under the cover of the awesome dark night to take leave for her assignment to preach God’s word of truth and deliverance. Betrayal led to freedom granted by God and it was not a theoretical freedom but, one of physicality–meaning that her embodied self was freed by God. She packed a few provisions, walked from the plantation, and asked God for a new name. She no longer wanted the name given to her by the slaveholder.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

She desired a new name to signal that she was no longer enslaved and held as property. God answered, “you shall be called Sojourner” and hence forth she no longer answered to the name Isabella.

Living into her new name, Sojourner followed Jesus’ pattern of walking from town to town across this country preaching the good news, offering hope, asking questions, and standing with vulnerable people. She was both an abolitionist and a woman’s rights advocate. Like the prophets and Jesus, she brought a message she was compelled to preach grounded in the truth of the Triune God. She raised questions about God presence in the activities of Christians who practiced chattel slavery and later spoke about women’s equality with men. She responded to anyone who attempted to limit the authority vested in her by God to preach about the relationship between and among those with structural power and those without such power.

When people wanted to know her “full name,” Sojourner asked God “to give her a handle for her name” and the response from God was “Truth.”  This new name, Sojourner Truth, sealed her divine identity and added strength to her gait as she missioned from place to place. It was unusual for a black woman–to freely walk and preach God’s word, but who else could it have been more fitting than a black woman–one who had been scorned and abused, spit upon and reviled and discounted by the authorities of her day (read her famous ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech here).

A drawing depicting Sojourner Truth preaching.

This woman Sojourner Truth is my spiritual mother. I have been to her grave site and she continues to mentor me always steering me in the direction of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

So why do I mention this now?

Have you been watching the news this past week?

The president of the United States of America denigrated three African American women reporters in one week – women who were simply doing their job by asking appropriate questions on behalf of the American people to hold him accountable.

Are you aware that two Muslim women were elected to Congress, despite the way that as candidate and president used his power to discriminate against Muslims?

Did you note that two Native women were also elected to Congress, just weeks after voting privileges were essentially stripped from Native communities in North Dakota, also won seats in Congress, and one in one of the most conservative states in the country?

Not to mention the slew of female veterans who are going to Congress – Democrat and Republican alike – who have signed a pledge among them to always be bipartisan in their workings with each other?

Sojourner Truth is perched, among the great cloud of witnesses, hiding in the invisible brush that separates her world from ours – and looks upon all of us, strong black women and Muslim women and Native women, approvingly nodding her head with contentment and pride.


She calls us to remember Hagar, the Egyptian, who with her son Ishmael was sent to die in the wilderness, but was saved by God, she names and told that her son would become a great nation (Genesis 16 and 21:9-20). She encourages us to recall the Syrophoenician woman who was scorned and mocked and clapped-back because she knew the life of her daughter was on the line (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30). And of course, we harken back to Mary Magdalene – who witnessed the Crucifixion and was the first person to see Jesus post-resurrection, (although the disciples did not believe her) and was supported by Jesus despite the despicable things people said about her being a prostitute of which there is no evidence in the Gospels (Matthew 27:55-61, 28:1-10; Mark 15:40-47, 16:1-11; Luke 8:1-3, 24:1-12; John 19:25, 20:1-18).

And they’re all there, waving us on.

So we needn’t, and shan’t, fear.

Not then, not now, not ever.


fontDr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, scholars and communities as a scholar for thirty-one years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. An ordained Methodist pastor for 35 years with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.

Antisemitism, White Male Fragility, My Grandfather, and what Jewish Law Teaches about the Nature of Hate – Rev. Dr. Klaus-Peter Adam

IMG_4512This time last week was a dark moment in our country’s history. In the span of three days. Law enforcement apprehended a would-be serial bomber who had been targeting critics of President Trump, a racist went on a deliberate shooting spree with the intent of killing innocent black people – murdering two in a grocery store in cold blood, and then an antisemitic gunman massacred 11 people as they prepared to celebrate havdalah – or the prayers marking the end of the sabbath. To lead a powerful discussion on how to approach such violence – violence perpetrated by trio of men who identified as white – LSTC professor Klaus-Peter Adam offers to us this reflection on the morning before shabbat. Multilayered and honest, he struggles – as so many of us – to make sense of last week’s horrid killings through his own personal experience as well as the wisdom of Jewish scholarship. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

Vigil for victims of synagogue shooting, Pittsburgh, USA - 29 Oct 2018
Mandatory Credit: Photo by JARED WICKERHAM/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9948253an) The Star of David memorials are lined with flowers at the Tree of Life synagogue two days after a mass shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 29 October 2018. Officials report 11 people were killed by the gunman identified as Robert Bowers who has been charged with hate crimes and other federal charges . Vigil for victims of synagogue shooting, Pittsburgh, USA – 29 Oct 2018

The massacre in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh this past Sabbath ended the life of eleven members of a Jewish congregation as they were gathering for prayer. This shooting, targeting a vital Jewish neighborhood in Pennsylvania, is one of the fiercest attacks against the Jewish community in the United States.

Mass shootings, largely by white males, evoke the experiences against minoritized people that, I initially thought, were simply political extremism – but over the last two years events like this have turned into the political new normal. It is truly a terrifying sign for this country that these attacks have now reached a synagogue – and I say this as a German American Lutheran theologian and grandson of a Nazi party member. It signals the country’s level of venomous hate has risen to such a point that antisemitism is now lifting ugly face again in this country.

The but especially the fact that this attack happened at a synagogue during a Sabbath service hits a particularly open nerve in this country. First, this attack took place at a moment in history when minorities in the United States find themselves exposed to multiple forms of discrimination. The parallels in the discrimination against Jews and African Americans have been widely noted – especially by W.E.B. Du Bois. When Du Bois saw first-hand the destruction of Polish Judaism on a visit of the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1949, Du Bois concluded that the hateful acts against Jews in Nazi Germany could not be considered an isolated phenomenon. He saw them in the context of “the perverted teaching and human hate and prejudice.” (The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto, Jewish Life, May 1952, 14-15.)

The second reason why the attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh this past weekend hits a nerve is its timing. It happens around the anniversary of the intersection of undercurrents of racial hate that undermined the communities of Germans under its right-wing, fascist dictatorship. In these Fall days Germany remembers the context of hate and prejudice that erupted in the so-called November pogroms against Jews. This year we will be remembering the 80’s anniversary of the so-called Kristallnacht – “the night of broken crystal glass” –  on November 9, 1938; the night the November-pogroms began. In order to instill terror in the German Jewish population, synagogues were burnt down their synagogues,  Jewish homes were vandalized along with schools and businesses,  Jews were arrested in mass while almost were killed outright 100.

Vandalized Jewish-owned business the day after Kristallnacht.

The shattered crystal glass of the synagogues was meant to demonstrate how the government intended to treat Jews should they choose to stay in the country. This nationwide bullying in 1938 followed a well-orchestrated plan to fuel hatred against Jews. The November pogroms were part of a broad, systemic anti-semitic affront in which the violent outbursts against Jews followed on the heels of aggressive ridiculing hate-instilling propaganda that included iconographic references to the cliché of the rich, ugly, hook-nosed Jew,  known from traditional European antisemitism, and by then wide-spread in many media.

Yet, what lesson will the shooting of Pittsburgh teach me this year? While the gunshots in Pittsburgh are not part of a politically-sponsored, systemic anti-semitism, they echo the very sentiment of publicly proclaimed hate against minorities. The shooter from Pittsburgh subscribes to white supremacy.

Tellingly, he is an isolated 46 year old deranged male, who had bought into the homespun anti-semitic rhetoric and the hate that is vastly present in right winged websites. In its own way, it is similar to the continuous hateful rhetoric against minorities which culminated in the killing of Jews in 1930’s and 40’s in Germany. The Nazis conveyed to citizens that hatred against Jews as the necessary step that would pave the way for the process of establishing a racially pure body of citizens and a better society. Their repeated racial slurs and discriminatory practices would become the fabric of hate into which the Holocaust, labeled “the final solution” of the problem of the Jews, would be woven into the everyday work of administrators and functionaries in German society on every level – and the strategy was terrifyingly effective.


And this same strategy of infusing hate also works in our days here in the US: the bloodbath in the Tree of Life synagogue coincides with a series of attempted onslaughts on Democratic politicians earlier that week. All of the targets were outspoken critics of President Trump and the sender was another emotionally challenged, estranged white male, equally motivated by right-winged hateful propaganda, Cesar Sayoc.

The fatal violence of the frustrated white male haunts me personally as well – the confluence of one’s own personal hateful attitude with hateful sentiments in the collective – because it has roots in my own family.

Nazi propaganda often appealed to aspects of folk culture, which resonated strongly with both urban and rural Germans.

In the 1930’s in the southwest German village of cabbage farmers, Bernhausen, 10 miles south of Stuttgart where I grew up, my paternal grandfather, Karl (1902-1985), had bought into the vitriolic hate of the Nazi propaganda. In 1934 Karl became the movement’s village leader. The son of an impoverished family of farmers, he had been one of the frustrated, economically strained “Arian” males in post-World War I Germany, who found themselves in their twenties suffering through unemployment and economic hardship that they perceived as part of the collective humiliation imposed through the 1918 Treaty of Versailles. Nazi propaganda skillfully instrumentalized the frustration of disappointed males to spark a mixture of personal and national hate against the unfair retaliatory despair of an entire generation. Their conspiracy theory called for a collective hateful revenge against a national insult imposed by an imaginary conspiracy of global Judaism. To my grandfather Karl it was attractive to channel his frustration through the nationalist, racist, hateful ideology of “Arian” supremacy.

And because of this, many questions arise: Why are white men more susceptible to hateful ideologies and tend to act out their hate in mass shootings? What attracts them to fall for racist hateful violence and to indiscriminately target individuals if they belong to the group of their hated enemies?

What is it specifically about the frustrated white male loner that makes a racist hateful leadership attractive and that motivates to publicly declare on social media, as the Pittsburgh shooter did: “screw the optics, I’m going in”? What is it about the multi-ethnic society that drives their sense of superiority to an extent that makes them want to extinct the others? Yet, as the shots of Pittsburgh echo throughout the nation in the homestretch of an exhausting and bitter political season that has seen rising levels of vitriol and threats of violence, a more pressing question is:

What is an alternative narrative capable of countering the rising hatred in this country?

kroger killer

There is hardly one single answer to the problem of how to undo the harm of hatred sparked by the ideology of nationalism or of white supremacy. But ancient Jewish law presents a quite insightful explanation about the mechanisms and the trajectory of hate in humans. The legal thinkers point to the roots of an individual’s deeds in one’s intentionality. They consider the intent to commit an action as equal to carrying out one’s plan – hence, hateful thoughts will eventually be carried out by hateful deeds. The wording of the 9th/10th commandment “you shall not covet” precisely captures the flow from the mental planning of theft and its implementation as an organic interfusion. In the process of taking agency, humans think, plan and subsequently act out their intentions.

In the Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5:21-28 Jesus points to this mechanism of the human brain in which intentions permeate actions: Like any other action, hateful actions will originate in one’s heart and mind. They have long been premeditated. Actions are merely the outside of long term thought processes. It is in our mind where we will have to reject hate. And, only if we actively reject our hateful thoughts and teach love instead, only if together as a civil society we will develop strategies to convince the frustrated white males among us to give up their hateful thinking that permeates social media.

Only then, will we be successful in ending the violent outburst of hate among us.

adamKlaus-Peter Adam is the Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Because Sometimes There are No Words – Rev. Dr. Linda Thomas

I remembered Charleston this weekend when once again I saw a community gathered in a sacred space in the midst of a holy ritual murdered in cold blood. As Jews celebrated a bris – the Jewish celebration of circumcision and life for newborn baby boys – the horrific occurred again— eleven people were slain at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburg, PA We also witnessed violence by a man inspired by the President of the United States, who sent pipe-bombs to people and a news station, people simply exercising their constitutional right to raise reasonable questions, especially to raise question of leader who consistently uses false, polarizing rhetoric from the lofty heights of the US Presidency.

Then, once again, was the cold-blooded, racist murder of two black people in Louisville, Kentucky – murders which received little news coverage. The shooter, a white male and avowed racist, was even apprehended alive with no struggle, as though the execution style killing of two black bystanders was of no significance – such a crime in clear violation of those who are made in God’s image.

Here at We Talk. We Listen. most of our posts are scheduled well in advance, but we have been known to delay publication for a day or two when an event calls us to do so in order to find the appropriate voice to bring a reflection. With the pain of this past weekend, and with all of these voices, we just haven’t been able to find someone to help us lead a way forward.

But we are looking, dear readers. We are looking.

And as we do, know that we love all of you and that Jesus is with us in this mess.

All of us.