Reading Lists and White Supremacy – Marissa Becklin; MDiv student

Picture 002Reading – what a wonderful activity, yes? Reading is important to how we explore new ideas, deepen ideas we currently have, not to mention deepen our faith as Christians. But sadly, even here, what we read – and more specifically how we choose what we read – can just as easily be a tool of white supremacy, and the forces of this world that seek to keep us divided up and primed-up. Marissa Becklin, MDiv sudent at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, shares her personal epiphany of how even something so simple as her personal reading choices entrenched her biases and privilege, and what she is doing to address it. 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.”


I love reading.

books.jpgI have loved reading for as long as I can remember—as a child I used to stay up late (long past when my parents had thought I had gone to bed) in order to finish the book I was currently immersed in. At that young age I read to hear the stories of others, to learn about their experiences, their joys, their challenges—to feel connected to others in a way that felt somehow more vulnerable and real than the interactions that I watched adults around me engage in with one another. Reading was a way for me to seek understanding—it was a way for me to practice listening.

Today, as an adult, I still love to read. I enjoy all sorts of genres, and benefit greatly from hearing about the world through the eyes of another. Reading has become a spiritual practice for me during seminary—when I am overwhelmed, exhausted, bored, and am about to turn to my phone, computer, or TV, I turn instead to a book. When people I am friends with find out how much time I spend reading, they are often astonished—they wonder how I find the time, and sometimes imply that my time spent reading must equate to a habit of laziness. In fact, reading is not a silly habit that I need to actively make time for in my life—it is a practice of quiet time and reflection that I depend on in order to function holistically. Through hearing the stories of others, I feel closer to God.

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But as a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman, born in the United States, who grew up middle-class, if reading is my spiritual practice and my reading list only privileges the voices of those who have been historically privileged, I am worshiping the false idol of white supremacy instead of God.

I have been guilty of this on so many occasions—of reading books primarily by white authors, by male authors, by US authors, by straight authors, by cis-authors. Of, as a student, buying into the narrative handed to me in a public high school in Iowa that the “literary canon” is made up of white men because they “write the best stories.” Of tending only to see or perceive as esteemed and worthy those authors who the narrative of white supremacy names as esteemed and worthy. Of letting the voice of white supremacy ring in my ear in the stories that I chose to read.

As summer begins in the northern hemisphere, this is the season of blog posts about summer reading list recommendations.

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Though it is not shocking, many of the posts that I see pop up on my Facebook page are lists of white authors, or are fluffy stories deemed appropriate for ‘reading on the beach.’ These are lists of books to help privileged folks deny the pain of the world, avoid the reality of oppression that they participate in, and ‘escape from it all.’ The ability to ‘escape from it all’ in books is a sign of privilege. The ability to, in one’s free time, choose not to think about the hardships that others face (and the ways in which many benefit from that hardship), is a sign of privilege. It reminds me of what a white congregant once told me when we were talking about Islamophobia in the United States during an adult education session—“Do we really need to talk about this? I don’t come to church on my day off to get bummed out.”

This existence in a literary vestige to privilege brings me no joy. As I continually reevaluate my reading habits and watch for sinful patterns in my choice of books, I ask myself the question—why do I read?

Do I read to feel good about myself?

To ‘get away from it all’?

To deny reality?

The answer is no.

I read to hear the stories of others.

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Links: Farewell to Manzanar, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Borderlands/La Frontera, Midnight’s Children, Between the World and Me, Our Lives Matter.

I read to listen—to hear what another person sees in this world, to seek understanding. I read to hear in someone’s own words about their history, their experiences, their life. I read to feel closer to others, and subsequently to feel closer to God, and when I read only or primarily the voices of those historically privileged, I grant power to the idol of white supremacy. I sinfully ignore the voices of so many who have stories to tell, truth to speak.

In this sinfulness, I feel separate from God.

Hearing the stories of others, in all of their intricacies and complexities, makes me a more whole person. In the insidious world of white supremacy, the propagation of oppression and violent narratives about the ‘normativity’ of white culture depend upon all of us—all of God’s beautiful, unique, intricate people—not hearing one another’s stories. When we don’t hear one another’s stories, it becomes so easy to buy into false narratives of scarcity—to believe that we are in competition with one another, that our liberation is not interrelated and interdependent. The onus is on those who have privilege—on me, as a white, cisgender, heterosexual, married, Christian, U.S. citizen—to do the work of listening for the voices of those we have wrongfully and sinfully deemed unimportant or lacking in esteem.

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The onus is on people with privilege to seek out the stories of those whose oppression they have wrongfully benefited from, and to amplify their voices.

So, during this season of book lists, why do you read?

Who do you read?


ATT00001..jpgMarissa Becklin is a final year semianry student pursuing her Master of Divinity degree at the Lutheran School of The at Chicago, and is currently as an intern at Christ the Servant Lutheran Church in Waukesha, WI. Her passion for gospel-centered justice was ignited at Luther College in Decorah, IA, and further fostered during her summer unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Sinai Health System in Chicago. Marissa lives with her husband Hans, who is also a seminarian completing his internship year in Chicago. She loves reading, playing the saxophone, and traveling.

 

Listening and Change – Michael Markwell

Linda Thomas at CTS eventDespite even our sincerest efforts to the contrary, bias easily bleeds into and warps our best intentions and actions. This is certainly true in today’s post, where Michael Markwell reflects on the difference between earlier efforts at Muslim/Christian dialogue that he’s done as opposed to a recent experience. Part of my class, “Identity and Difference: The Intersection of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Class and Sexuality,”  makes another wonderful addition to our recent conversations on intersectionality on the blog, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

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


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A few weeks ago I got the privilege of accompanying a group from my church to an Islamic Mosque. The visit to the mosque followed a multi-week study based on the book My Neighbor is Muslim. The first part of the study was a look in on what we as Lutherans believe, How can we understand our neighbors faith if we do not remind ourselves and make sure we are firm in what we believe.

This look at our own faith then allowed for us to look at the beliefs and teachings of Islam. The journey through this study was an important opportunity for our congregation. Mainly white middle-class in a south suburb of Chicago, the majority of the middle aged participants in the study have had little interaction with Muslims. The study was capped off with a trip to a local mosque. This was my first time to a mosque, we attended mid-day prayers, then following the prayers leaders of the mosque meet with us. They provided us with a space to ask questions, about them or about their faith.

Because how can we love our neighbors without knowing what they believe?

Every couple of weeks I see very similar posts on social media. The post typically involves a snapshot of a homework assignment and a letter that a parent wrote to the teacher/principal/school board. There is always a question on the homework assignment that ask something along the lines of “What are the five pillars of Islam.” The response from the parent is usually rage and anger:

“How dare you teach my kid about Islam and Jihad, stop trying to brainwash our kids, there are no assignments on Christianity?!”

How are we to love our neighbors if we refuse to even understand their beliefs? How can we serve our neighbors if we don’t know their needs?

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I can remember back to times when I was in school and studied world religion, including Islam. I was a junior in high school taking world history and we studied the basic principles and practices of all major religions. When I was in college, as part of my history degree, I took a class in the history of Christian and Muslim relations. Again we started the class by learning the basic beliefs and practices of each religion. Refusal to learn about the practices of another religion is not wanting to protect children from influences of other religions, it is a refusal to sit at the same table.

Yet it surprises me that at least on the two occasions I remember studying Islam neither time did we have a Muslim speaker or visit a mosque. Both previous times I learned about Islam the information was presented in a very informative matter, but it seems odd to me to not have had the opportunity to learn firsthand.

I got a serious lesson in hospitality when we visited the mosque. Before we left for the mosque we made sure our group had eaten. We visited the Mosque during Ramadan, and we were not expecting any refreshments as they were observing the fast. The last thing I would have expected was to be served a full meal during the day during a fasting holiday. But our gracious hosts did just this, serving us pizza, there in the mosque they served us pizza. The children of one of the leaders stood there no more than 10 years old and served us, despite them not being able to eat.

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Boy preparing evening meals during Ramadan.

We were thanked for our approach and our willingness to listen to their stories. The leader of the mosque was grateful that we were going beyond what we hear about through the news. I had the opportunity to talk to a leader in a private conversation.

He said his prayer every day when he wakes up is that he won’t turn on the TV and see another terrorist attack. Each time there is an attack in the news he worries for his family, especially his children.

What I took away from the whole experience is the importance in our congregations and communities to encourage opportunities to learn in ways that challenge and break down our pre-conceived notions. I had some concern when we first went to the mosque, concern that members of our congregation who may have come in with preconceived notions, even following our study would be rude or insensitive. But to my relief the experience of having the opportunity to meet a Muslim and hear their story, separated what they have been feed from Fox News. The power of stories continues to amaze me in the work that it does to educate and to break down walls.

We have the power to listen to stories. Unfortunately only one story of Muslims gets told in the news. That is the story of ‘radical Islamic terrorists.’ However if we took the time to listen to the stories of Muslims we would learn that they are professionals like us, they are parents like us, they go about life in similar ways. There are tons of ways to access stories of individuals from other religions, cultures, economic backgrounds, races, and genders.

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As a white, cis-gender, anglo-saxon, protestant, married, heterosexual, male of middle-class upbringing, I feel that it is my responsibility to allow others to tell their stories, and when I cannot, to do the best I can to tell them on their behalf.

We cannot allow single narratives to continue to dominate our society and shape the way we view other cultures.


pic.jpgIn addition to being the Youth Ministry Coordinator at Shepherd of the Hill Lutheran Church in  Lockport, IL, Michael Markwell has just completed the first year of his M.Div. studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Prior to beginning his studies he was a school teacher, camp counselor, and dorm resident assistant.

What I Learned about Racism and White Guilt – Karen Katamy

thomas110_1027092In the coming weeks We Talk. We Listen. will be hosting a series of blog posts on intersectionality, defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” Our first post is by LSTC student Karen Katamy, and the insights that she gained upon reading lesbian black scholar Audre Lorde in my class “Identity and Difference: The Intersection of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Class and Sexuality.”  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.”


Recently I took a class at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on “Intersectionality” by Dr. Linda Thomas.  This was hands down the most powerful and emotional class I have ever taken. But at the end of the one week intensive class, I was struggling with the emotions that I felt and wondering, where do I go from here?  How do I, an older white, middle class, heterosexual female, make a difference in a world where I am privileged and many are marginalized? Are my emotions from guilt for being complicit in the suffering of others, or because God is calling me to make a difference and I don’t know where to begin?

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I felt I needed to explore these emotions a little bit more and went to the library and found a book published in 1997 on racism titled Race: An Anthology in the First Person, edited by Bart Schneider, and began reading some of the stories and lectures by various authors.  I finally found one that addressed what I was feeling and helped me to understand.

The entry was a speech given by Audre Lorde as a keynote presentation at a Women’s Studies Conference at the University of Connecticut in 1981.  Yet this speech could easily still apply today.  The anthology gives this background on her: “Audre Lorde was born in New York City in 1934 and died of cancer in Saint Croix, the Virgin Islands, in 1992. She was a poet and essayist who worked as a librarian and creative writing professor. Her books include Zani: A New Spelling of My Name, Use of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, The Cancer Journals, Sister Outsider, and The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. A powerful writer and speaker, Lorde articulated with a passionate anger, the reality of being a woman of color in America, and made clear the relationship between racism and sexism. She was an inspirational individual and social leader who wrote important essays on lesbian mothering, the erotic, and surviving cancer.”

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Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

Audre Lorde’s speech is titled “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.”  In her speech, she says this:

“My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of anger will teach you nothing, also.

Women responding to racism means women responding to anger – the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and cooptation.

My anger is a response to racists’ attitudes and to the actions and presumptions that arise out of those attitudes. If your dealings with other women reflect those attitudes, then my anger and your attendant fears are spotlights that can be used for growth in the same way I have used learning to express anger for my growth. But for corrective surgery, not guilt. Guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures.”

Ms. Lorde than lays out some examples of encounters that she has had with white women, which shows how clueless and insensitive white women can be sometimes (myself included – trigger the guilt and shame).  Then she pointed out another factor, which can still be true today:

“Mainstream communication does not want women, particularly white women, responding to racism. It wants racism to be accepted as an immutable given in the fabric of your existence like evening time or the common cold.

So we are working in a context of opposition and threat, the cause of which is certainly not the angers which lie between us, but rather that virulent hatred leveled against all women, people of Color, lesbians and gay men, poor people – against all of us who are seeking to examine the particulars of our lives as we resist our oppressions, moving toward coalition and effective action.”

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So, getting now back to that guilt and shame that I am feeling, where do I go with that?  Do I pull back into my white privilege bubble and ignore what I see happening around me?  Or can I use that constructively?  Here is Ms. Lorde’s response:

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness … Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees …

But the strength of women lies in recognizing differences between us as creative, and in standing to those distortions which we inherited without blame but which are now ours to alter. The angers of women can transform difference through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal but a sign of growth.”

Guilt then can be the beginning of knowledge.  And so my journey begins!


3696194Karen Katamay is a Master of Arts in Ministry student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, studying to be a deacon in the ELCA.

The Fourth of July and Abjected Festivities: Some Graceful Parallels – Rev. Dr. Robert C. Saler, Christian Theological Seminary

ThomasLinda sittingThe Fourth of July is always a contentious holiday for many African Americans. Though many of us have made a life – and often a good life – in the United States, the stench of white supremacy that under girds everything about our country and it can never be avoided. It is all the more poignant, then, that Lutheran pastor, professor, and researcher Rev. Dr. Robert C. Saler (Christian Theological Seminary) is giving his take on if it is possible – as Christians, let alone as Lutherans – to view the festivities of these days in a way that both celebrates our nation, while simultaneously holding it accountable to it’s past. 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.”


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My friend and colleague Linda Thomas asked me recently if I would use this Fourth of July holiday as a chance to make a comment on Frederick Douglass’ monumental 1852 speech in Rochester, NY: “The Meaning of July Fourth for a Negro.” To be honest, I had put off the request out of fear. There are some texts that are so fraught, so consequential, so viscerally encompassing of the pathologies that we find within and around us that for a white theologian such as myself to seek to encompass them in turn – especially in theological or literary criticism – threatens to expose much of our theologizing discourse about justice as the clanging gongs that it so often is. Better to keep silent and learn, I tend to think.

But, like many followers of this blog, I have also been sitting in silence thinking about Lenny Duncan’s recent blog entry, Dear Church: You Would Rather Hang Me from a Tree. A Reflection on the Execution of #PhilandoCastile. I won’t seek to gloss or summarize Vicar Duncan’s powerful words in the wake of the acquittal of the police officer who killed Philando Castile either; however, his post did give me the push I needed to think about how the ongoing sting of Douglass’ speech might be theologized in a way that prolongs the searing, purging effect of his prose rather than domesticates it – especially on this Fourth of July weekend. Duncan writes:

“Perhaps the grace is the fact that Black people still love this church. That people like me are willing to throw themselves into the breach. That I will not leave until I die. That I will stay in the church I love until the very end…

But you won’t experience me as grace…

You will experience me as the thing that makes you uncomfortable.”

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Duncan’s point is, among other things, definitively Lutheran.

What many scholars have called Luther’s “perspectivalism” is a more defensible gloss on the law/grace dichotomy than much of the easy appeals to grace that exonerate so much systemic injustice in ELCA circles. For Luther, God is constituted finally by grace, but the operations of God’s grace are – like God – as much concealed as revealed in the life of the world and the life of the church. When God is manifest as justice, then the cheap grace move is to domesticate this manifestation by rendering it  simply as a moment in a triumphalist law/grace overcoming. In this flawed schema, justice is linked to law, which is overcome by grace, which yields (often) a sort of optional benevolence on behalf of perceived marginal neighbors. The result is that grace itself becomes the justification for tepidness and self-righteousness in the face of some ostensible religious or sacramental affiliation.

However, for Luther, God’s hiddenness means that God’s grace cannot be experienced as a carefully measured inoculation against further divine disruption, but must instead come as the dislocation of prior certainties (the old Adam) in favor of new territory in which that which had been abject (the crucified criminal on the cross) becomes the site of cosmic redemption.

God is no less awe-ful in Luther’s understanding of grace; it is just that the mediation of salvation is stripped from the laws of merit comprehensible under sin and are mediated now through the mode of crucifixion and resurrection. The cross continues to disrupt the life of the church (and indeed, for Luther only churches possessing such a cross are worthy to be called church). Moreover, the only grace in which Luther was interested was grace that was, indeed, “the thing that makes us uncomfortable.” So, when Duncan speaks of the presence of his Blackness as being un-experienceable by the ELCA as grace, then the issue is how the idolatry of cheap grace blocks the discomfort of genuine dislocation of real grace as mediated by the presence of disruptively graced bodies.

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Law \ Gospel

This, too, was the genius of Douglas’ speech and of his embodied action in delivering it almost two centuries ago in America. Compare the words of Duncan – “You won’t experience me as grace” – to the pivotal turn in Douglass’ address as he moves from acknowledgment of how Fourth of July can be experienced as triumph for those who find their existential location in America’s racialized self-understanding and those who, like Douglass himself, found their bodies made abject within that very space:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.-The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people! 

To stand amidst the festivities as a body rendered abject and unrecognizable by the sins that continue not only to plague, but in deep senses to constitute, the deep operations of too much of the national and ecclesial status quo is the act of courage that I see reflected both in Douglass’ speech and Duncan’s writing.

So what might this mean for the festivities this weekend?

It is common for pastors to complain that nationalism – expressed, for instance, by flags in churches or even more intensely pro-American liturgical displays – functions as a kind of idol in churches. Perhaps, but that complaint ironically underscores a more fundamental dis-ease that plagues much worship and church life in ELCA settings: that the very spaces that bear witness to Luther’s insight about the need for God’s grace to be experienced as dislocation from domestication are often the sites that participate in the very sort of refusal to recognize any bodies that cannot be “thematized” (Judith Butler) into spaces formed by whiteness.

To put the matter as bluntly as possible: in spaces held captive by white supremacy, grace itself cannot be recognized because grace simply is the call out of captivity to structures that enforce sin. And what this means is that graced bodies, bodies saved by dislocation from the center that is demarcated by sin, not be recognized as grace without a more forcible shock to the system than many congregations might welcome. Douglass remains this shock to the US system even now; can the church welcome similar voices from within and without the bounds of its spaces of celebration?

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My hope for this Fourth of July, then, would be for ELCA congregations to forego or at least mute the same tired complaints about nationalism – as if idolatry is only manifest once a year – and instead meditate on how the modern parallels to Douglass’ calling out America on its nationalist idolatry might be found in the ELCA’s ongoing failure to use grace as a means of inoculating itself against God’s justice.

We have little to no moral high ground to call out the blood-soaked idols of nationalism if our church spaces offer of the same structures of exclusion wrapped in crosses rather than flags. We gain no points for pointing out the splinter of idolatry in the nation’s eye when the log of baptized whiteness is in our own. Bless the voices and the bodies in our midst that do not stand around waiting to be thematized, or even recognized, but whose very presence testifies to the possibility that maybe grace in all its awful potential has not abandoned us yet.


RobTalkingRobert Saler is Research Professor of Lutheran Studies and Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN. He is the author of Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church and Theologia Crucis. He is currently co-editing a volume of essays on theology and sound.

Leaving Them in Their Tombs – Rev. Nate Sutton; Peace Lutheran Church, Puyallup, WA

Linda Thomas at CTS event

If you are a white person in this country with any amount of savvy about race and power, you understand that taking part in any and all efforts to advocate for people of color, with people of color, can be fraught. Rev. Nate Sutton speaks to something of that in this week’s blog post, not only as a pastor in a denomination that is 96% white, but also as some one who is seeing the racial violence continue apace – and who has moved his frustrations and anger into a call to action. 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.”


“When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.”  – Matthew 27:57-60

“Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people!” – Malcolm X


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I’m tired of hashtags.

#TrayvonMartin

#TamirRice

#MichaelBrown

#EricGarner

#SandraBland

#FreddieGray

#AltonSterling

#LaQuanMcDonald

#PhilandoCastile

#CharleenaLyles

I can’t even remember the right order.

And, I’m excluding countless names that should be on the list. Why? Because I haven’t heard them. Apparently, the vast majority of people of color killed by law enforcement do not warrant the dignity of our awareness.

As I reeled from the most recent news of an acquittal in a case involving state violence, all I could bring myself to do was publish a simple affirmation on Facebook and Twitter: “Philando Castile’s life mattered.” But as true as it is, the statement left me with a nagging question: Is this really the extent of my power?

Each time I type the name of another lost parent/child/sibling/friend/neighbor/citizen, I feel like a latter-day Joseph of Arimathea, nowhere to be seen prior to the crucifixion, but showing up just in time to tend to the body. Handling Jesus with care, Joseph ultimately seals him in his tomb and leaves him behind.

But I’m tired of hashtags. I don’t want to bury more crucified people with nothing more to remember them than a digital whisper of their names.

And, I suspect I’m not the only one who is dissatisfied with reactive outrage and grief. If discipleship means taking up a cross of my own in Jesus’ name, then I’m called to be right beside him at Golgotha. If Jesus is to be found in the pain of oppressed people, then that is where I should go to find him. The charge is clear: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

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Exodus – Marc Chagall

Faithfulness to a crucified Lord means proactive solidarity with those who are crucified. But for all my eagerness to stop leaving people in their tombs – to do something worthwhile to prevent crucifixion in the first place – as a white person I also acknowledge a number of potential pitfalls.

The first temptation is to opt out from time to time. White privilege affords me the freedom to periodically suspend my involvement in the movement for racial justice. News of yet another trauma is upsetting, so I close my browser and busy myself elsewhere. Since people of color do not have the choice to take a break from race, however, solidarity demands a reliable commitment on my part. So I am compelled to answer the question: How prepared am I to truly share the burdens of those whose lives are threatened in my community, in my nation, on account of the color of their skin? I’m willing to repeat a hashtag, sure, but what other commitments am I ready to make?

And just as importantly, what is the most respectful and effective means of my involvement?

One of the more insidious functions of racial privilege is the insistence that white allies be free to participate in the movement for racial justice on our terms. As soon as we become convicted of the need for change, we’re apt to dive in. We take charge because that’s what we’re conditioned to do. But when white people enter black-centered spaces uninvited, for instance, or impose preformed ideas about how the movement ought to proceed, or center our own feelings about the ways we are included or not, we exploit the very power we presume to dismantle.

We also risk becoming preoccupied with our own acceptance. We want to be perceived by people of color as allies. We want to prove that we’re woke. So, we attend closely to the voices of people of color and affirm them. Whereas such support is warranted, problems arise when we identify our participation exclusively with the efforts of people of color.

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First, we may become convinced that we have earned the right to our place at their side. If I like all your posts, then I am free to associate myself with you at any time. For a variety of reasons, however, some spaces are reserved for those who are directly affected by injustice. White people (or men, or cisgender or heterosexual folks) may simply not be invited into these spaces. And when we are invited, we are expected to enter with care, as guests.

Second, we may neglect our own responsibility to the movement, a responsibility that is independent from the work of people of color. Our black friends are not available to address racism in our families. Our teachers of color are not available to practice anti-racism with our colleagues and in our communities. In the all-white spaces in which I so often find myself, my voice may be the only one to ask hard questions and insist upon change.

With all this in mind, how should I be about the work?

“Get in where you fit in.”

This wisdom from a leader in the movement for black lives continues to frame my own commitment.

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Get in where you fit in, that is, make an effort to understand the way your identity positions you uniquely in the movement for justice. Recognize where and when your role is to listen. Own the power your identity affords you, and leverage it for the sake of a more equitable distribution of power.

I’m tired of hashtags.

I’m tired of leaving crucified people in their tombs.

So I’m vowing to take new steps in faith and love, and I’m ready to take direction.

Will you come with me?


Vestments 3.2017.jpgNate Sutton is an LSTC alumnus, graduating in 2013. He serves as pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in downtown Puyallup, Washington. A Pacific Northwesterner by upbringing and choice, he and his spouse, Bethany, call Chicago “their city,” the place where many of their fiercest friendships developed and their dearest memories reside. Their child, Alexandra, will be three years old at the end of August.

Pulse, One Year Later: Some Reflections -Vicar Josh Evans, Augustana Lutheran Church / Omaha, Nebraska

thomas110_1027092Last week was a quartet of pain. The first anniversary of the Pulse massacre, the second anniversary of the Mother Emanuel Massacre, and then the police officers who shot and killed Philado Castile in the Twin Cities and Syville Smith in Milwaukee were were found ‘not guilty’ on all charges. Vicar Josh Evans, then, reflects on all of these things as we prepare for Pride Weekend – asking vital questions about intersectionality, violence, and the role of the church. Read, comment, and share, friends.

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


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Latinx Pride

When I was asked to contribute a post to this blog to say something about the one-year anniversary of the Pulse massacre, my first thought was that I simply did not have time — or at least not time to do this task any justice. My second thought then turned to how daunting it would feel to be the voice of LSTC on this commemoration, especially since those killed in this attack were predominantly queer Latinx persons. Even as a gay man, I retain a great deal of privilege being a white, cisgender male. So with that in mind, I offer these words.

Nearly a year ago today on this blog, my friend and fellow student Vicki Pedersen wrote in the immediate wake of the Pulse massacre: “I heard a word identifying Pulse further — it was a gay nightclub. My body froze. This is my family. Suddenly I was in Orlando and at Pulse. This could have been me, my wife, or anyone I know in my community — the LGBTQ community — in whatever city or state we call home.”

This could have been me. This could have been me or any of my friends at Roscoe’s, Sidetrack, or any of the bars in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood. (As a friend reminded me last week, we were actually in Boystown the night before the shooting at Pulse took place. So yeah, it really could have been us.) This could have happened anywhere that my community — the LGBTQ+ community — gathers to dance, to have fun, to seek sanctuary. Pulse was more than just another mass shooting.

Pulse got personal.

In the aftermath of the shooting at Pulse, I received and sent texts of support from and to many of my LGBTQ+ friends, checking in with one another to make sure we were holding up okay. My Facebook feed was filled with many like-minded sentiments, and yet, as horrific and shocking as what happened was, it also brought us together as a community. In the days and weeks that followed, I attended a vigil held in a crowded 7/11 parking lot in the heart of Boystown, and I gathered with members of Holy Trinity, my home congregation on Chicago’s north side, for a prayer service. As my pastor read aloud the names of those killed and we lit candles in their memory, we cried. If Pulse immobilized us in fear in its immediate aftermath, it wasn’t going to stop us — indeed, it couldn’t stop us — from turning to the collective strength of our community and the resources of our faith.

But perhaps what was most frightening about Pulse was the matter of sanctuary lost. Gay bars and clubs across the country, and indeed the world, are sacred places of refuge for the LGBTQ+ community, places where we can be ourselves, among our own people, free from the hatred and ridicule and discrimination and bullying that we so often encounter in our “secular” spaces, the church included. What happened that night at Pulse was an invasion of that refuge.

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Sanctuary lost. A concept not unknown to a community whose history includes the Stonewall Riots and the fierce, bold witness of Marsha P. Johnson and other trans women of color. A history most recently memorialized in the ABC mini-series When We Rise, chronicling the early history of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement in San Francisco that included other raids into places of sanctuary.

Sanctuary lost. A term I borrowed in the year prior to Pulse to describe another senseless act of hate that claimed the lives of nine beloved children of God at bible study (!) in the basement of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.

Then, this past Friday, the unthinkable and yet simultaneously inevitable happened: the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile was acquitted of all charges. And then, just two days ago, moments after I submitted this piece for publication, the news alerts began to creep across my phone: former Milwaukee police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown found not guilty of fatally shooting Sylville Smith, a 23-year-old black man. Police body camera footage showed Officer Heaggan-Brown fired the second fatal shot when Smith no longer had a gun and was on the ground — “hands up, with no place to go,” to quote prosecutor John Chisolm.

Which makes me wonder: What happens when there is no sanctuary left to be lost?

What happens when there is, quite literally, “no place to go” for safety as a person of color in this country? It is painful enough for me as an out gay man to experience a tragedy like Pulse, but I have the privilege of seeking refuge in other places, like my home congregation. I have the privilege, as a white person, of not having to fear for my life when I see a police officer. But what happens when that’s not a possibility?

What happens when all sanctuary, it seems, has been lost?

On Sunday, June 11, I gathered with a crowd of at least a couple hundred others in Lincoln, Nebraska, for one of many local extensions of the National Pride March happening that day in Washington, D.C. I was grateful to be in solidarity with my own people and our allies, but I was especially grateful for the witness of local #BlackLivesMatter activist Dominique Morgan.

Dominique Morgan.jpgAs one living at the intersection of queer and black identities, Morgan’s is an experience I will never know but whose words spoken intentionally to queer youth of color that day on the steps of the capitol must be heard, especially among the often white-washed LGBTQ+ community. While I fail to remember Morgan’s exact words, he spoke poignantly of the reality of living each day under multiple levels of oppression, in which physical survival occupies much of his consciousness.

I find myself returning to Morgan’s words in light of this one-year anniversary of the Pulse massacre and the miscarriage of justice in the Castile and Smith verdicts, which compels me to ask, again: What happens when there is no sanctuary left to be lost? What happens when a queer black person finds no refuge in the black church for their sexuality or gender identity, as Episcopal priest and womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes, and encounters only greater rejection in a gay bar, as my friend Maddix Vickers, a recent graduate of the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, witnessed just this past weekend:

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Still, for Philando Castile, perhaps one of the places he should have been safest — in his own car with his own family — was violated when Officer Yanez opened fire, only to be later acquitted. Not even those who claim to “serve and protect” or the courts which purport to uphold “justice” can offer any semblance of sanctuary for our siblings of color.

Not even in our own churches, ELCA, can we claim to offer unflinching support and refuge, as Lenny Duncan reminded us on Monday, for those at the intersection of oppressed identities. What happens indeed when there is no sanctuary left to be lost?

I’m not sure I have an answer for that, but I can say this: In the aftermath of the tragedies at Pulse and Mother Emanuel, what the respective communities represented by those locales experienced was indeed sanctuary lost, yes, but also sanctuary reclaimed in the vigils that followed and the community that coalesced.

Not one month after Pulse, I moved to Omaha for my year-long internship at Augustana Lutheran Church — one of only two Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregations in the wider Nebraska Synod. In March, I had the opportunity to preach at our annual RIC Sunday service, in which we welcomed members of the River City Mixed Chorus and celebrated diversity and inclusion, particularly for members of the LGBTQ+ community. In what was definitively my most personal sermon to date, I shared my story as a gay man, coming out of a conservative, fundamentalist faction of the Lutheran church and finding my way to two very important faith communities that welcomed and affirmed me for all of who I am and, ultimately, reawakened and encouraged my call to ministry. At Augustana, too, I have felt that same welcome and affirmation of my gifts for ministry as a gay man, and in the comments I received following the service, it would seem my sermon, somehow, offered a sliver of that same message to many in the pews that day.

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Between the vigils in the aftermath of Pulse and during the years of my own re-formation in those faith communities, I discovered — and continue to discover — again and again the importance of the community. The community takes seriously intersectionality — the queer Latinx victims of Pulse, the queer women of color behind the Black Lives Matter movement, the trans women of color whose holy anger sparked Stonewall, the members of Holy Trinity that gathered in communal lament to pray and light candles, an inner-city congregation in Omaha that stands in near-isolation as an RIC congregation in its synod and intentionally welcomes a gay vicar, the thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets of St. Paul in these last days to decry injustice.

I am also indebted to the insights and witness of my womanist mentors, among whom I count LSTC’s own Dr. Linda Thomas as well as Dr. Pamela Lightsey of Boston University School of Theology. It is womanist theology that reminds us of its commitment to “survival and wholeness of an entire people” (to use Alice Walker’s own definition, emphasis mine), and out of that commitment, Lightsey, herself a queer black woman, reminds us of the importance of intersectionality:

“In any movement for social justice we must take care that we do not quiet the voices of the oppressed within our community for the sake of lifting up the oppressed de jure… Anyone who adds the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to their Twitter or Facebook post is reminded that the Black lives that matter include Black LGBTQ lives.” (Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, p. 66).

And:

“Combatting racism is a necessary action for all LGBTQ persons who believe in freedom. Where racism affects Black people, it affects all LGBTQ persons not only because of Black LGBTQ persons but because justice is not really won until there is justice for all. If we really believe in one race, the human race, the crisis of #BlackLivesMatter is a crisis for all lives.” (Ibid., p. 98-99).

All of these, and more, are members of my community, and that community makes up a bold, brave, and fiercely defiant cloud of witnesses on whose shoulders I stand and from whom I take inspiration and gather strength. Now, more than ever, when the lives of queer and black and brown persons are given little regard or respect, the gospel of a God who comes to us as a first-century, Middle Eastern, Jewish peasant living under oppressive foreign occupation demands that we be about the work of justice and reconciliation. For those of us who are called to ordained ministry in the ELCA, the expectations placed on us demand nothing less than “speak[ing] publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world” (ELCA Constitution, 7.31.02.a, emphasis mine). It’s a tall order, but it’s a task we never have to take up alone, so surrounded by such a cloud of living and sainted witnesses. Deo gratias.


Evans Headshot.jpgVicar Josh Evans is a seminary student from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he is pursuing his Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree, and a candidate for ordained ministry in the ELCA. He is excited to be serving his internship year among the people of God at Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska. Vicar Josh has a passion for liturgy and worship, reading, coffee, ice cream, and spoiling his two cats, Oliver and Sophia.

Dear Church: You Would Rather Hang Me from a Tree. A Reflection on the Execution of #PhilandoCastile – Vicar Lenny Duncan, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church; Conshohoken, PA

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St. Anthony, Minnesota Police Officer Geronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges in the shooting death of Philado Castile last week. And since everything from the shooting to the trial took place in Ramsey County, Minnesota – in the heart of US Lutheranism – “We Talk. We Listen.” knew we had to get the conversation going, and powerfully. Vicar Lenny Duncan, currently entering his second year of internship at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Conshohoken, PA, gets us started. 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.”

 


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Freeze.

Don’t move.

Let me see your ID.

Don’t move.

Freeze.

What are you doing around here?

Anything in the car I should know about?

Freeze.

Don’t move.

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This is how death is pronounced over hundreds of black bodies every day. This may or may not result in death. This interaction I’m describing to you is haunting when heard by black bodies. This may very well cost a black person their life. These may be the last words I ever hear. I was asked to write this piece about #PhilandoCastile on Saturday night, before I preached yesterday. I agreed. I always agree, because what am I to do? How else am I supposed to relate to my church at times like this?

I’m tired y’all.

I’m tired of pleading with you for my life, ELCA.

There I said it.

If you valued my life even a little bit this would stop. Philando was executed in the Land of the Lutheran. The Twin Cities. One of the most segregated areas of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

But I understand. It’s not you.

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The Charleston 9, top/bottom, left-to-right: Susie Jackson, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, DePayne Doctor, Ethel Lance; Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Clementa Pickney, Daniel Simmons Sr. Their killer, Dylann Roof, was baptized and confirmed in the ELCA and the senior pastoral staff of Mother Emanuel had studied at the ELCA seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.

This acquittal happened the same week that we remember the second anniversary of Charleston and the first anniversary of Pulse. I hear the same words that are like a clarion call to all of Black America. It is the sound of the seal being broken.

The final trumpet blows.

It is like ashes on my tongue.

Not. Guilty.

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Link to this summer’s tributes to the #Pulse victims.

How hard was it for you to feign surprise and shock? That you thought things would be different this time? What evidence did you have that it would be?

I knew from the first day of the trial the officer would be acquitted.  I knew from the day I saw the Facebook live video. I watched within the first hour it was posted. I knew as I watched the life drain from Philando’s eyes, as I heard the cry of his child, as I watched the anger of his girlfriend rise, this officer wouldn’t see any consequences.

If you are honest with yourself, you knew too.

We watched the lynching of a black man by law enforcement in almost real time.

It changed nothing.

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If you are Lutheran and reading this, or have read me before, you are probably waiting for me to dig deep and find the grace. To offer the hope and resurrection.  If you are ordained clergy you might even feel justified to tell me it’s my duty as an emerging leader in this church.

I offer you none.

The law in this country offers me death. Why should the law be any different for you?

I am obligated by God to tell you the truth.

The truth is there is no grace in this anymore.

We are watching as the moral fiber of this country is being shredded. We are casting our souls into the pit. We have made a conscious decision to walk with the enemy of all life. In the name of law and order, safety and prosperity we have become everything we tell the rest of the world we are not.

The truth that is self-evident is that Black bodies will continue to be the sacrifice on the altar of America.

Since my ancestors were thrown into a hold of a ship.

Since our leaders were murdered one by one a generation ago.

We are to be the lamb you sacrifice, for your original sin.

How can I sing a song in a strange land? 

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Church we are doubly as guilty. We are supposed to be better. We have in turn become white washed tombs.

The silence is deafening. Your inaction telling.

My heart is bled dry, perhaps yours is too.

Perhaps the grace is the fact that Black people still love this church. That people like me are willing to throw themselves into the breach. That I will not leave until I die. That I will stay in the church I love until the very end.

But you won’t experience me as grace. You will experience me as the thing that makes you uncomfortable.

Many of you would rather see me hung from a tree, with my side pierced.

You did it to Philando.

Well in this country, you just might get your wish.


16195868_10206838983808083_6435496150445692170_nLenny Duncan is the vicar at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Conshoshoken, PA and Candidate for Ordination to the office of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA. He is also the Evangelist for the #decolonizelutheranism movement, as well as a frequent voice on the intersection of the Church and the cries of the oppressed. He pays special attention to the #blacklivesmovement in his work, but lifts up the frequent intersection with other marginalized peoples.  He believes that the reason the ELCA has remained so white, is a theological problem, not sociological one. He is currently an M.Div Coop student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and holds a Bachelors of Biblical Studies from Lancaster Bible College, with an emphasis in New Testament Theology and Ministry.