What We Are and Will Be – the Rev. Dr. Kathleen D. (Kadi) Billman, Sermon for the Memorial Service for Vítor Westhelle, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago May 17, 2018

Dr TA little over one week ago, my seminary community was deeply shaken by the death of esteemed and beloved faculty member, the Rev. Dr. Vitor Westhelle. As our community worked itself through this grief – precisely one week before this year’s seminary graduates would receive their diplomas and begin their calls – we gathered last Thursday to pay our respects, and to honor and celebrate Dr. Westhelle’s life. Vitor’s devoted friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Kadi Billman, was asked to preach the memorial’s sermon, and it was a poignant request. In addition demonstrating why one of her most well-appreciated classes is called “Caring for the Dying and Bereaved,” Dr. Billman herself has recently lost her own husband to the disease, giving all who heard her words that morning even greater weight. Using many of her late colleague’s own words, her sermon reminded those in attendance of the power of God’s promises, and how to ‘keep the faith’ in times of despair and loss. It was a truly kairos moment for our community and we are blessed that she has agreed to share the sermon here. 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.”

Rev. Dr. Vitor Westhelle (1952 – 2018)

Beloved, we are God’s children now. What we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when the Messiah is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. – John 3:2.


The first and last word in remembering the faithful life of Vítor Westhelle must be the opening sentence of this verse:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now.”


In all things, at all times—especially in times of suffering and grief. For that is what Vítor said over and over: God is especially to be found among the suffering ones, in the places God is most in danger of being unrecognized.

But the following sentence of the verse has been dwelling in my mind and heart these past days because it expresses something of the landscape families and communities so often must travel in the wake of a profound loss:

“What we will be has not yet been revealed.”  

So let’s dwell there as a starting place. When someone as beloved as Vítor has moved beyond our sight, sound, and touch—someone whose teaching and way of engaging the world has so profoundly shaped our life together—the world itself has changed, and what we will be has not yet been revealed.

When Vítor’s eldest son Carlos wrote of the many roles his father embodied well, he said that the “one thing that unified everything” his father ever did was that “he was a teacher to all of us.” Carlos wrote, “…even in his last hour he was the one comforting us and teaching us. As his three boys sat next to him talking about his last wishes we mentioned the majority choice about a particular topic but he paused and said, ‘I worry about the minority.’ Through the pain he was experiencing he still wanted to make sure we learned more and grew; an example of how amazing a father he was. Words cannot summarize or capture his impact, accomplishments, and his absence leaves a large hole.”

photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP

Yes, his absence leaves a very large hole—a Grand Canyon in the heart and among us, I think. We ache over this canyon of loss for Vítor’s beloved family, for the faculties of LSTC and EST, for the students he was still trying to write to when his body could not keep pace with the hopes of his heart, for the global Lutheran and ecumenical theological communities. 

What we will be, in each unique community, has not yet been revealed.

And we also remember that these “large holes” of life—the places and spaces where people groan in travail as they await an as-yet unrevealed future —are precisely the spaces where Vítor Westhelle made his pastoral and theological home. Our last faculty meeting took place the day after Ascension Day, and we read some quintessentially Vítor Westhelle words from a sermon he preached a few years ago on the ascension of Christ. Not surprisingly, the title of the sermon was “The Glory Down Below.”  Listen for the cadences of Vítor’s voice:

“Well my friends, it is a matter of where are we looking at. So let us remember the first lesson that the followers of Jesus had to learn after Jesus left them. The very first lesson was not for them to know when Jesus would return. After all, he said he would be always with them to the end of the ages. How could they know that, when in his ascension they were gazing up into the skies? The question was one of the gaze.

 So let us learn the first lesson that the disciples had to learn when the master they loved was lifted away from them. There they were standing in utter bewilderment, gazing at the clouds on high, gaping at the skies, probably wondering about his last words that said it was not their business to know about the time reconciliation would happen.

Now that the master was gone from their sight they had to learn where to turn their vision to. Not when but where does Jesus return was the point. Where should the gaze be fixed at? Two men stood by the disciples when they were staring up heavenwards. And they told the followers that theirs was the wrong quest. “Why do you stand looking into heaven?”

This is what is called a rhetorical question.

Those who were asking for the time of Jesus’ return were now being told that Jesus’ continuing presence, his parousia, his being-there was not a question of when, but of where. The text of Acts that tells us that Jesus’ ascension is …the very same way he comes to us: it is always from down below. The narrative of Jesus’ ascension is only a story to tell us about his descent. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Ascension – Eddie Calz

It is from down below that he comes. Don’t look into heaven. It is from down below that glory emerges. Don’t gaze up, look down. Look down where life is broken, where creation is tortured, where nature is abused. Down there in the troubles of our days lies the glory as much as it once was found in the womb of a poor peasant maid of Galilee, or lying in a manger in the midst of dung, animals, and flies.

 Consider then the homeless old woman in the city street and know that Christ is there and that NATO’s whole air force in all its glory is not armored as she is. So, do consider the lilies of the field, but consider as well the pollution, the waste, and the violence against which the blossoming of the most simple flower is already a triumph that beats the odds and tells a story of ascension.”[1]

Vítor pointed to where we might look to encounter the Messiah among us; the where always seemed more important than the when. We do not have to wait until some designated “end time” to experience what “eschaton” means; it is a matter of where we are gazing.  And so I hear Vitor’s voice pointing to the double meaning in “What we will be has not yet been revealed”:

anxiety and faith,

lament and hope,

ending and beginning

a kind of “crossing over” that can happen in the depths where these dwell together on a threshold that disappears when we try to finally “fix” it and pin it down.

to order, click here

In his book, Eschatology and Space, Vitor quotes a sentence from Luther’s commentary on the Magnificat, that “God dwells in the darkness of faith, where no light is,” and goes on to say:

 This darkness is the night that seizes us in the eschatological event that is at once a judgment and act of grace in breaking down our self-built defenses. And these are the two opposite and complementary sides of an eschatological event: lament and remembrance, condemnation and justification, grave and grace. The dividing line between these pairs, the threshold, cannot be defined, measured, or theoretically located. In the moment that is done, it is no longer there. It can only be lived through; experienced.[2]

It can only be lived through; experienced.”  Three days before he died, Vítor’s last message to his faculty colleague indicated that he was experiencing in his own body the mysteries to which his life’s work points:  “In the school of life,” he wrote, “the last lesson comes, of course, at the end. The last lesson is, of course, about life, its telos and goal, its closure and termination.  The content of this last class, I can tell you because I see from a privileged vantage point, concerns and executes the lesson in life that is most difficult to address: how to be receptive, how to receive a gift.”

 The lesson in life that is most difficult to address: how to be receptive, how to receive a gift.”  Carlos said that amid the pain of parting his father reminded them that he lives on through the memories of everyone he touched.  He said, “As we held his hands, he was surrounded by those he loved dearly. Just like the unifying power of water reaching across continents, his soul is now free, and will forever unite us all.”

How do we become receptive amid sorrow?  How do we receive a gift? 

Perhaps we already have been experiencing this mystery or faith and hope amid disorientation and sorrow as communities across continents have gathered this week to offer expressions of gratitude for all Vítor Westhelle has meant to us; to share stories and memories; to reconfigure his life and legacy…a practice that will continue after the service when we gather to share memories and stories at a meal that will be an extension of our Communion here, also holy, and on and on into the future as Vítor’s words and stories are remembered and repeated in other conversations and writings.


Barbara Rossing recently related Mark’s story of transfiguration to our life together with Vítor:  “Now I see transfiguration all around… in the gift of what Vítor gave and received from his students: transfiguration as boundary-crossing, opening up a glimpse of the future already in the present…Transfiguration in the care we embody…in how we abide in love, the transfiguring force that holds us together.”

Vitor was fond of a quote from Søren Kierkegaard that “the work of love in remembering one who is dead is a work of the most unselfish love,” because it “eliminates every possibility of repayment,” and added that the reverse is also implied: “The gift the dead receive in remembrance is a pure gift, because it cannot be repaid. Thus these, gift and death, are the eschata par excellence.”[3]

How do we receive a gift? 

Following our friend and teacher, let’s start with remembrance—a gift we can offer Vítor, a gift that cannot be repaid.  Yet, when offered in community, in shared gratitude and grief, perhaps we will be met by the Messiah who is not yet fully revealed but whose presence may be palpably present when the dividing line between lament and hope is, in unforgettable moments, dissolved, and we get a small foretaste of the feast to come. And in the very center of our sorrow we may hear Vítor say:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now. What we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when the Messiah is revealed we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

May it be so.

billmanRev. Dr. Kathleen Billman earned her B.A. degree from Muskingum College (now Muskingum University) and M.Div. degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.  Following seminary graduation and ordination (Billman is an ordained elder in the Greater New Jersey Conference of the United Methodist Church), Billman served as the pastor of an urban congregation in Trenton, New Jersey for eight years before returning to Princeton to complete the Th.M. and Ph.D. degrees.  After joining the faculty at LSTC in 1992, within a few years Billman was named dean of the seminary (in 1999) the first woman to serve in that position.  She then served as LSTC’s dean and vice president of academic affairs through June 30, 2009, when she returned to full-time teaching. Currently, she the John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Pastoral Theology and Director of the Master of Divinity Program.

[1]From the website “Westhelle Turf,” Ascension sermon, “The Glory Down Below,” http://www.vitorw.com/?s=ascension

[2] Vítor Westhelle, Eschatology and Space: The Lost Dimension in Theology Past and Present (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 137.

[3] Ibid, 104.


On Advent, Cancer, and Christmas – A Re-posting in Honor of the Rev. Dr. Vitor Westhelle

black and white dr thomasYesterday morning, LSTC Professor of Systematic Theology – the Rev. Dr. Vitor Westhelle – died after a battle with cancer.  In response to a previous blog post on the disease written by another one of my colleagues, Prof. Lea Schweitz, Dr. Westhelle generously accepted my invitation to have his own thoughts on actually living with cancer posted on Christmas Day last year. A reflection on patience and passivity before God, it is just as poignant now as it was then – and we have republished the entire post in homage to this great scholar and colleague. Please 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 the first result of the biopsy came, the doctor, knowing I was a professor, and suspecting that I did not know what stage IV meant (I did), looked at me, part concerned, part whimsical, and explained: “It is like an A+ grade.” I did not know how to react, except to say that I rarely give an A+ grade. But we are talking about cancer and it is less rare than my A+ grades.

I thank prof. Lea Schweitz for her inspiring, graceful and … grim advent meditation. And could it be otherwise? Proper! After all, advent is in the church year the opening but also the ending. It is the beginning of the church calendar that starts with an apocalyptic blow of the trumpet. The Messiah comes, the decisive moment is near, the ax is dangling over our heads, the judge will pronounce the verdict.

Indeed, an occasion to talk about cancer, this uninvited guest that some of our bodies host and announces loathsome tidings. And then just lingers on, feasting at the table of our flesh.

As Lea well noticed in her reflections, some of us are better hosts then others. The race and class divide swings the pendulum definitely to African-Americans, and the proletariat (remember this word to describe the working poor? … it will be back!). These have gold status as preferential hosts. And the divide is designed to keep on growing (at least that was the decision taken by the US Electoral College in November of 2016). Yet, no one is safe. Family history (DNA), cultural, acquired or nutritional habits, environmental conditions all help to qualify the host for the arrival of the, elegant as it is (to use Lea’s apt description), vile guest, who has no plan to move out. Life within life that is there as a suicidal bomber. Or, perhaps, the herald of a new stage in human evolution.

I was recently referred to a passage (thanks Carolyn!) of Ezekiel 20:49  in which the prophet complains to God that, in delivering the assigned message, the hearers sneered at him. Ezekiel protests: “Ah Lord God, they are saying of me, ‘Is he not a maker of allegories?’”

Yes, Ezekiel, own it. This is what we all are in communicating God’s message: shameful makers of allegories, and we can do no other.

The famous chess match between Death and the Knight – Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Without apology for my preference, one of the most remarkable movies I have seen in my life was the 1957 production of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The title comes from Revelation 8: 1 that tells about the half an hour silence in heaven upon the Lamb’s opening of the seventh seal. The movie’s director is a son of a Lutheran priest that worked as a chaplain in a sanatorium. Ingmar Bergman used to sign along his name after a production, à la Bach, S.D.G. (Soli Deo Gloria), but was at the same time a doubting Thomas. The movie is about God’s silence midst the tragedies of life.

Briefly this is the allegory. A knight comes back from an unsuccessful Crusade where he went searching for meaning in his life, but to no avail. Back, he lands in a plague-ridden Sweden of the 14th century, and is met by death personified. As a master chess player, he lures the Grim Reaper into a chess game, seeking to postpone his demise. In the midst of this game, which was already days long, and while traveling back home, the knight gets to a church and goes to the confessional where he shares with the attending monk his meaningless life and the struggle he is having with death. In confession he reveals that he has a strategy to win the game, not knowing that he was confessing to death itself, his adversary, impersonating a monk.

Death, the decisive enemy (1 Cor 15: 26) is very tricky indeed. It comes as life within life to win the match. In this allegory I, as a cancer patient, do not identify with the knight. The doctors that treat me are the knight in the story in a deadly match with cancer that they alone see. In the movie, only the knight sees the enemy, the others think that he is playing alone. The doctors have the strategy, the medicines, the trial drugs, the chemo, and radiation and not rarely are they deceived by smart cancer cells that are ahead of the game.


The reason for bringing this movie into this account is to say that cancer patients do not identify with any of the players, but with the chessboard and the pieces that keep on falling in moves being made on either side. We are the neutral ground over which a battle for life or death is being fought. This allegory of the chess game with death, a classic medieval motif, is quite depressing when one identifies oneself with an inert component of it, a chess board with its pieces.  But it is realistic. It is not about the drama and search for a meaningful life. And it is not even about death and its stratagems either. It is about us, patients. Patients that do not have a scheduled release date, let alone the very idea of a release. Elusive remission, perhaps.

Except for some moments in which we are presented with an option for treatment (happens only at critical moments in which the physician will not take full responsibility, and one has to sign a pile of documents that exempt everyone of responsibility if things turn out bad), we as patients, are not subjects, just chessboards over which the game of life and death is being played.

The word “patient” itself tells the tale. It comes from the Greek pathos, undergoing suffering, describing an utterly passive condition. This estate of passivity is proper to convey our surrendering to God, but it is a disturbing thought when you know that, in dealing with physicians and oncologists, there is ultimately no other option but to trust them and their expertise.

And no one can doubt the advances in the treatment of cancer from which we may benefit, and they administer. But in fact, we are paradoxically closer than we think to the native healers of our lands before colonization, with the difference that, for the healers, the connection with the divine was explicit, now it is not, but equally real, and, maybe, for that reason, comforting.

But allegories and analogies carry us only that far. There are many other actors at play. Friends and family are there with us, and often suffer more with the prospect of our passing than we can ever truly appreciate. Nurses, technicians, and assistants that administer drugs, take and measure vital signs, and an array of other things that they do,  are angels of mercy. They also carry the weight of our pain as the metabolism in our bodies keeps changing, while they undergo mutation.


However, today is Christmas.

The frightening time of advent’s apocalyptic expectations turns into a festive celebration, because God joins the human condition. Emmanuel, God with and in the world, meeting life precisely there were it is most fragile and abandoned. God is there as a fragile babe with and in the underside of the divide to be there with those who need. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Mark 2: 17). And this is not an allegory to describe a spiritual condition. It is the physician who takes upon herself the condition of those who need healing, soteria! This is what is meant by God taking our flesh, being incarnate: God’s got cancer. Or should we say “incancerated”?

westhelleDr. Westhelle (1952 – 2018) began his theological career as a journalist for the national church newspaper in São Leopoldo, RS, Brazil (1975-76). Ordained in 1988, he served for four years as parish pastor of a 13-point parish in Paróquia Evangélica de Matelândia, PR, Brazil. At that time he also was the Coordinator of the Ecumenical Commission on Land in Paraná where he was an enabler and a companion with those struggling for land and justice. In 1989 Westhelle was invited to be a member of the faculty of Escola Superior de Teologia, São Leopoldo as professor of systematic theology and ethics, where he continued until he joined the Lutheran School of Theology in 1993. He was visiting professor at the University of Natal, South Africa, and the University of Aarhus, Denmark.  He wrote widely on the theology of Luther, and on the themes of Liberation, Creation, the Apocalyptic and Eschatology. The cross-theme, in particular, theologia crucis, defined who Westhelle was as a theologian. A prolific writer and editor, with more than 130 scholarly publications, Westhelle was author or co-editor of nine books, as well as a highly-sought speaker throughout academic circles and the Church.

A Tribute to The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone – Rev. Dr. Richard Perry, Jr.

Dr Thomas Smiling bigIt is impossible to over-estimate the impact that the writings of the Rev. Dr. James H. Cone had upon Black America – all the more so for those who entered the academy. My colleague of some years at LSTC, the Rev. Dr. Richard Perry, shares some of his own insights today – a reflection on not only what Cone meant to him in the 60s and 70s, but what Cone means to him today, and to the world. 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.”

march jobs freedom
Civil rights leader and clergyman Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (third from left) marches with other civil rights leaders in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. More than 200,000 activists took part in the march, which King described as “the greatest demonstration of freedom in the history of the United States.”

The late 1960s were pivotal years in the life of this country and the world. 

There were rebellions in Watts, Newark, Detroit and other cities across the nation.  There was the Vietnam War.  The Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum as evidenced by the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a year later the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Civil Rights activists were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi and peaceful demonstrators were viciously attacked as they attempted to march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  The Black Power Movement and the voice of Malcolm X became prominent in northern urban centers.  Four young African American women were murdered along with the murders of Malcolm X, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.  The 1960s was a time of racial upheaval in the country.

Black people were resisting, publicly, racism and racial prejudice in America.

The 1960s were signature years in my formation as an African American male, Christian, and Lutheran.  You see, I was the product of an integrated public educational system in Detroit.  My peers were Black and Jewish.  It appeared that we were “getting along” with each other.  Religiously, I was a member of an integrated church and predominantly white denomination.  Those educational and religious experiences led me to believe and accept the “goodness” of white people.  Galatians 3:28 was real to me.


Then, the 1967 Detroit Rebellion (some people call it a ‘riot’) erupted.  That event focused the attention of many residents of Detroit and the nation on the ravages of white racism and its impact on Black people.  The reality of police brutality and the virulent racism practiced by the Detroit Police Department drove African Americans into the streets.  My world, protected by its middle-class orientation, was shaken.

In 1968 I began formal ministry at a small Lutheran congregation on the Eastside of Detroit.  Paired with a white male pastor, my responsibility was to build a youth ministry.  This was one response the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) made to the “urban crisis.”  The LCA felt that if it hired African Americans from the community they could help build connections with the community.  I was a member of a group of young Black people employed, as “my soul looks back” to borrow the title of The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone’s book My Soul Looks Back (Orbis Books, 1986), by the LCA to be a hedge between it and the Black community.

Then it happened.  Black Theology and Black Power (Harper & Row, 1969) hit the public.  I did not know much about Black Theology or the Black Religious Tradition.  Although I was christened in my mother’s church, St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Ashland, Kentucky the Black Religious Tradition was foreign to me.  And, if the truth be told, I knew very little about the history of Black people in the United States of America.  I knew about “safe” Black people like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver! 


Cone’s book, however, shook my liberal middle-class African American slumber.  I read that book with eagerness.  I got angry because Cone had disturbed my world.  How dare he say that white people and the white church were racist!  I experienced something different.  It was possible for Black people and white people to live together and get along, especially in the church.

By the time I got to seminary I expected African American history and Black theology to be incorporated into the curriculum.

Well, they weren’t included.

After a coffee hour conversation with one of Cone’s severest critiques on the faculty, who thought some of us were interested in “Blackenizing” the curriculum, I decided to incorporate Cone’s theology in the papers I wrote.  Two white male professors appeared to have some social conscience and readily accepted what I did.  This was my way of resisting racism and the exclusion of what African Americans thought about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the church.

After completing graduate studies in ethics, I joined the faculty of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC).  Two books written by Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (J. B. Lippincott Company, 1970) and God of the Oppressed (Seabury Press, Inc., 1975), which I bought and read in seminary, were pivotal in my theological journey.  Cone’s argument was convincing and based on the ministry I already engaged in, I knew to be true.

A Lutheran parish confirmation class, ca. 1969.

White theology, more specifically white Lutheran theology, was not going to liberate oppressed Black people in the Lutheran church or in communities across the globe.  The voices of African Americans and African American Lutherans needed to be heard. 

Quite simply our understanding of God, Jesus, and what we are called to be and do was different.  The difference was our experience of being oppressed simply because we are black.  Liberation from white racism was important if Black people and Black Lutherans were going to be authentically free.

It was then that I determined to teach a course on the theology and ethics of James H. Cone.

My first course on Cone’s theology and ethics was quite an eye-opener.  There were five students, the course was in the evening, and there were no Lutheran seminarians in the course!  And, the course was only an elective course in Black Theology (students were free to take it or not).  Rather than succumb to anger, I turned to the organizer side of my ministry.  Since I had some freedom in what I taught and when I taught courses, I decided to offer only one course in ethics along with the urban ministry courses I taught.  And, I offered the Cone class during the day.  Attendance rose to where it was averaging between 15 and 20 mostly white Lutheran students.  I was determined that white students, whether they were Lutheran or members of other denominations, would be exposed and challenged by the thinking of Cone.

black everything

I was committed to students wrestling with what Cone meant when he said white people had to become black.  I wanted students to struggle with the concept of Jesus Christ being black.

Over the last twenty plus years Cone’s central question, “What has the Gospel to do with oppressed Black people?” has remained as the foundation of all of the courses I have taught.  Cone, albeit at a distance, has served as a theological mentor for me.  His declarations that God is Black, Jesus is Black, and that white people have to become Black have become central declarations of mine.  Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation provided me with the language, concepts, and analysis of the sources of Black Theology contributed to my resisting white racism.  Cone’s thought challenged me to look for those who are oppressed in any way in all communities because I believe that is where the liberating action of God is taking place.

The most important contribution of Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation was the courage to resist white supremacy within the institutions I am placed.

one snip
the Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone (2017)

Saturday, April 28, 2018, my colleague Dr. Linda Thomas, texted me that the Rev. Dr. James H. Cone had joined the ancestors.  I was shocked and saddened.  The theological world had just lost its most ardent voice of Black Liberation Theology.  I wanted to hear his voice so I searched for a lecture he may have recently given.  I found a lecture he gave at Yale Divinity School, “Black Theology and Black Power.”  In that lecture, Cone surveyed his works.  What caught my attention was his description of his theological works.  It was the first time I heard him describe them and the symbolism of the covers of the books.  But what really caught my attention was his passion and fire.  It was still there in that 2017 lecture!

He still had that central question which drove him to write his first book, Black Theology and Black Power.

Cone wrote in A Black Theology of Liberation, “The importance of the concept of the Black Christ is that it expresses the concreteness of Christ’s continued presence today” (219).  The concreteness of the Black Christ is evident wherever Black people are struggling for justice and human dignity.  Black people include African American women, men, our youth, and oppressed people in all cultures.  That is the legacy of Cone’s Black Liberation Theology I feel called to teach and to be taught by oppressed Black people today.  I am ever thankful for Cone’s courage and thinking about God from a Black Liberation perspective!

raj 2
Darkness and Sin – Solomon Raj

It is a legacy worthy of passing on with the assurance that the God of the Exodus is actively liberating the oppressed around the world.

perryThe Rev. Dr. Richard Perry received the Bachelor of Arts degree from Carthage College and his Master’s of Divinity degree from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. After his ordination in 1977, Perry served Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church, Gary, Ind., for three years. His experience in urban and multi-cultural ministries was honed as director of inclusive ministries for the North Carolina Synod of the Lutheran Church in America, and as director for Black ministries for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

He eventually returned to LSTC to pursue his PhD studies, eventually being made a professor in 1993.

In 1999, he co-chaired the International Planning Committee for the Conference of International Black Lutherans held in Wittenberg, Germany, where he presented the paper “Justification and Racial Justice.” He was also a presenter at the first consultation between African and African-American Lutheran Theologians in Harare, Zimbabwe; and chaired the working group on racism in the church and society at the Lutheran World Federation’s Seventh Assembly in Budapest, Hungary.

A published author, Perry contributed the chapter, “African American Lutheran Ethical Action,” to the book “The Promise of Lutheran Ethics” (Fortress Press 1998). His essay, “Justification by Grace and Its Social Implications,” was included in “Theology and the Black Experience” (Fortress 1988), and he co-authored with Albert Pero and Cheryl Stewart “Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters…,” a Black cultural awareness resource published by Augsburg Fortress.

Remembering Dr. James H. Cone, Professor, Prophet, Pastor, Mentor, and Friend – Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas, editor’s special

Linda Thomas & Dr. Cone--Graduation June 1981_let
Me and Dr. Cone at my graduation from Union Theological Seminary.

It is hard to describe my relationship to the Rev. Dr. James H. Cone – it is hard for all of us who were marked by this great man. Yet, as someone who has carried his legacy, and who must carry this legacy even more boldly now that he has gone home, it is important for me to do what I can to share what this man has meant to me, and by extension, what he means to the Academy and the Church. May my offering be acceptable in your sights. 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.”

The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone in the late 60’s, early in his career.

On Saturday morning, 29 April 2018, I received a text from my BFF, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas that our beloved mentor, Dr. James Hal Cone had died. Although I’d anticipated this communiqué, my mind could not fully grasp the feelings my body held. Like a dam that had burst, memories flooded my mind. My long-term memory bank released a tsunami of images flooding my entire being.

I was exhausted in just a few moments.

The grieving process had begun and moves to a new junction as the Life of Dr. James Hal Cone is celebrating at his “Home Going” Service today at 11 a.m. at the Riverside Church in New York City. I am attending that service with my daughter, Dora.

This week I dedicate this blog post to Dr. James H. Cone.

The announcement of his passing went around the world in a matter of seconds. My Facebook page showed messages in a variety of languages, some unrecognizable to me. Dr. James Cone did two basic things that reshaped theological discourse throughout the globe. First, he re-imagined the image of God, positing that God is Black. Second, his book Black Theology and Black Power published 1969 presented the first systematic presentation of Black Theology bringing to light God presence in the struggle for freedom by black Americans centered in the gospel message of salvation. Written in light of the commencement of the Civil Rights Movement this book thundered to the world a theological anthropology that Black Lives Matter.

There are so many ways to write this post.

I will take the path of simplicity so that as many people as possible, including children can know this iconic person..

jim crw

Early Life, Faith Formation, and White Supremacy

James Cone was born in Fordyce, Arkansas in 1939 and grew up in the small town, Bearden. He lived with a diunital reality: the love and affirmation of the historic Black church realized through African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) he attended with his family and a normative death-dealing anti-black racism.

AME red-black-green Sheild

White culture of the south and elsewhere in the United States at that time actively displayed social norms that devalued Black people. Cone and his brother always stayed up late until they heard their father’s truck drive up, signaling that he was home from his day of work.

Cone’s mother comforted her sons by teaching them the power of God in history and in every present moment. She taught them that Jesus’ power was with them and that Jesus knew about suffering so he understood the plight of black people. She also taught that the Holy Spirit was actively present, giving them a kind of protection and freedom that transcended the worries of this world.

Their church taught them the same. And even though they were surrounded by dangers of white supremacy, and therefore always in danger, they were in God’s hands.

Education, Vocation, the persistence of racism and Cone’s Response

Cone went to Shorter College and Philander Smith College in Little Rock receiving his B.A. in 1958. Acknowledging his call to ordained ministry he entered divinity studies at Garrett Theological Seminary and graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1961. He received his M.A. from Northwestern University in 1963, and his Ph.D. from the same institution in 1965.

There, too, he experienced racism.

Upon finding out that James Cone was black, his initial scholarship was reneged and he had to take on janitorial duties to support himself. Despite everything, though, he persevered. He told his white student colleagues that he would eventually write about the God Human relationship for the perspective of black people and they retorted that black people were not worthy of being reflected upon theologically, but just as his classmates at Garrett discounted his scholarship so did the white theological academy. Even so, Cone’s critiqued white theologians and the white church because he believed that to be the task of the theologian. His writing radically criticized one of the US’s most beloved theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr – whose theological imagination thrilled white culture while telling Black folks who lives were mired by structural racism to “go slow” as they pushed for equality during the Civil Rights Movement.

angels rafters

Anyone who knew James Cone knew that he cared very little about what white folks thought of him or his theological commitments. He focused his entire life on the theological relationship between God and Black people. Moreover, his focus was not on “when we all get to heaven” but rather on “Thy Kingdom come on earth …” His entire vocation endlessly proclaimed that the “Kin-dom” of God – as evinced in the lives of Black people – was indeed an integral and powerful vision of what the Church needed to be – this was very different from the white theology espoused by most white theologians and the majority of white churches.

Systematic Theological Response: Black Theology and Black Power (1969)


When the dreams and frustrations of Black People erupted in protest and resistance in the 1960’s, James Cone put pen to paper and wrote, Black Theology and Black Power, declaring that God was in the midst of these eruptions, making these protests and demonstrations “good.”

Moreover, since the God of Black people loved Black people as much as White people, and since that same God died on the Cross for Black people as God had for White People, then as baptized Christians Black people had no choice, but to love themselves as they loved their neighbors. This meant rising up to defend themselves when White Christians participated in the oppression of Black people.

For Cone, institutions entrapment of black citizens in cycles of poverty, poor education, discriminatory laws, and a church unrepentant for its open racism was the deep and insipid sin that the nation needed to confront.  

But though white society and the white church would shout “Peace! Peace!” as dogs attacked beautifully, Sunday-church clad black folks and KKK members bombed churches and killed beautifully Sunday-church clad black children, people of African Descent across the nation shouted “There is no peace!”


Systematic Theological Response: The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011)

In 2011, Cone’s final book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree was published. Hear his words:

“What is invisible to white Christians and their theologians is inescapable to black people. The Cross is a reminder that the world is fraught with many contradictions–many lynching trees. We cannot forget the terror of the lynching tree no matter how hard we try. It is buried deep in the living memory and psychology of the black experience in America. We can go to churches and celebrate our religious heritage, but the tragic memory of the black holocaust in America’s history is still waiting to find theological meaning. When black people sing about Jesus’ cross, they often think of black lives lost to the lynching tree …to the gun of white police” (Cone 2012: 159-160).

Cone resilience came from the teachings of his early faith community, his faith was matched by a deliberate Christian ethics grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ for the salvation of humanity and as his scholarly record demonstrates he made consistent scholarly contributions throughout his life. These writing demonstrate his evolving self that adapted to  encounters with interfaith traditions, black women’s and women of color’s articulation of sexism and gender discrimination in their cultural context, ecological theology, and much, much more. 

His legacy includes nine books of which four have been translated into nine languages. He published  over 150 articles; was granted numerous awards distinguished awards and lectured at myriad universities and public societies and institutes throughout the United States, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

The power of Cone’s work is that calls the Church to connect the it collusion with if not direct participation in the oppression of black people in America to the cross and the lynching tree thereby linking the execution of Jesus by the Roman State with the murder of black people by lynching whether by mob or by gun.


Moreover, the resurrection represents God’s love for the marginalized to create movements like the Civil Rights movement, and Black Lives Matter, #MeToo – to mark resistance against “populist” thrusts to “Make America Great Again.” The Church must be the “head light rather then the tail light.” Cone’s work calls the entire church to that which non-black leaders who are part of the culturally dominant group to recall the marks of the church and to re-member the church.

Perhaps, in this time and place, the church for a public church is what is the church going to choose to be? Who is the church going to serve?

And that is what we must continue to do, friends.

That is what we must continue to do – to preach to the Church, to all people, to pay heed to the marginalized voices within it so that it might “re-member” or become whole flesh again. Cone pointed a way forward back in 1969 when he published “Black Theology and Black Power,” as a reminder for the church in the United States to get back into it’s body, to deal with it’s pain and injustices. And if there is one thing that he taught so many of us over the years – students, mentees, readers, all of us – was that it is only when we use our distinct theological voices can we be sure that we speak the most clearly.

So in memory of my teacher, mentor, and friend – keep on speaking!



black and white dr thomasDr. 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.

Good Theology Saves: A Reflection on the Marginalized and James Hal Cone – Rev. Erik Christensen

Dr TThese have been hard days for me, dear readers. This past Saturday, April 28, my mentor and guide of some years – the Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone – joined the great cloud of witnesses after a full life of writing, teaching, mentoring the next generation, and prophetic witness. As the first of several tributes to the lives of this great man, my seminary’s own pastor and Director of Worship Rev. Erik Christensen has allowed us to share the sermon (also posted on his blog “By Proclamation”) he presented in chapel yesterday, touching on Cone, good and bad theology, and the Gospel’s insistent call to the margins. 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 spent the summer after my first year of seminary doing street outreach with runaway, homeless, and street-dependent youth in Atlanta in neighborhoods like Little Five Points, Midtown, the Old Fourth Ward, and downtown; but this phone call that I got on my very first cell phone (a flip phone) from an anxious mother didn’t come until the summer was over and I was back in school the fall of my middler year. I was walking back to my car after a morning of classes when the phone rang. Those were the days when I still picked up for unknown numbers. I answered expecting it to be someone from school, instead it was a woman who immediately asked who I was.

I told her my name, Erik, and wondered if she might have the wrong number. She said she’d gotten this number off a business card she found in her son’s bedroom.

The card had my name and phone number and the name of my summer project, “Street Chaplains.” She wanted to know what it meant, street chaplain, and what I’d been speaking to her son about. I wish I could have taken a page from the recently terminated Congressional chaplain and replied, “hospital chaplains pray about health. Congressional chaplains pray about Congress. Street chaplains pray about the streets.”

But, the truth was, I had no idea what I’d said to her son. I’d spoken to hundreds of people over the course of the summer. I’d trained a handful of my classmates in the basics of safe, ethical outreach, work I’d done before going to seminary. Together we’d gone out in pairs, day after hot summer day, talking to every young person we found. We’d ask them if they had a safe place to sleep, or if they knew someone who didn’t. We handed out these business cards dozens of times every hour, and every once in a while we got to have a meaningful conversation with a young person experiencing homelessness. I didn’t always get people’s names, and I rarely remembered the ones I did get. So I really had no way of connecting this caller with a memory of her child.

The easier thing to do would have been to explain all this quickly and get off the phone. The summer was over, after all. The project was finished, the final report written and turned in. The subject of this conversation was in my past. To reopen the topic would be to make space for a detour on my way to the day I’d planned for myself. Except this woman had my number, and I still had the phone and this call.

I could hear something in her voice, a question she wanted to ask and an answer she didn’t want to hear. So I asked if her child was alright. She said, “I think he’s gay,” and I could tell from her voice that this thought brought her no joy.


I remember wondering what my duty was in that moment. Did she deserve to know that she was speaking to a gay man?

Should I make that clear so that she could decide how much she wanted to say, or not to say? But I didn’t. Instead I told her that I’d met lots of LGBTQIA+ (well, I probably said “gay and lesbian”) kids out on the streets, kids who’d run away from home or been kicked out. Youth who’d been humiliated. Youth who’d been denied justice. Youth led to the slaughter. I didn’t say that last part, that’s from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And, because the business card said “chaplain” on it, she felt free to ask me; more than that, she wanted to know what I thought the bible had to say on the topic of gay and lesbian people (though I’m sure she said “homosexuals”). So, like Philip, I was invited to help interpret scripture.

I do remember one of the people I met that summer. I’d been outreaching in the Little Five points neighborhood on a scorching hot day. I was wearing cargo shorts, a baby blue short-sleeved clerical shirt and collar, and carrying an over the shoulder bag in which I’d packed business cards, bottles of water, a social services referral guide, condoms, etc and I’d just purchased a soft serve ice cream cone to cool me down. Then I spotted this boy, almost a young man, no more than seventeen. He was tall, thin, white, all angles. I made it a practice to talk to anyone who looked twenty or younger, but he’d seen me scoping him out and he spoke first.

Spinning on his heel to confront me at a stoplight that had just turned red, he unleashed the kind of fierce fury that’s hard for anyone over twenty to sustain. He came at me hard.

“What are you looking at, preacher man?” I told him my name, explained what I was doing, and asked if he had a safe place to sleep. “People like you are the reason I don’t. ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner.’ That’s what the priest told my parents. So Dad showed me ‘tough love’ by kicking me out and telling me not to come home until I’d manned up. So excuse me if I don’t give a shit.”  By now the ice cream had melted and was dripping down over my fist, but I couldn’t find anything useful to say. The boy just kept going, delivering his final blow, “Is your church ready for this homosexual?” My next words were pathetic and inadequate to the wounds this child had just revealed. I’ve never forgotten him, or his question.

gay christian

As for this mother waiting on the phone for me to speak, I honestly don’t remember what I said next. I just know that the passages I might have quoted and the interpretations I would have given were not what she was expecting. I likely told the story from Acts 10 in which Cornelius calls for Peter, who then has the vision of the sheet being lowered from heaven, filled with unclean animals, and the divine voice that challenges Peter’s received theology and established practice, saying “What God has called clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15) Or maybe I quoted Romans 8:38, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We spoke for fifteen minutes, twenty at the most. When it was over, she didn’t ask to meet me or request to be baptized. I wouldn’t even say she left the conversation rejoicing over the good news I’d shared. All I know is that, like Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, I never heard from her again.

The Samaritan mission, under the leadership of Philip (whose saint day is observed tomorrow), signals the beginning of the spread of the gospel beyond the boundaries of traditional Judaism. For that reason, this story has served as an entry point for a number of communities that have historically been marginalized by the kinds of Christianity practiced by the dominant culture.

Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III

When the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss came here to preach last fall, to kick off our commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this was the passage he selected for preaching, reminding us that this African figure has been misrepresented and aspects of his history and identity erased down through the centuries; the presumption that he was an outsider on the basis of his African identity a willful forgetfulness that Israelite religion had made its way to Africa as far back as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and that this Ethiopian eunuch is not identified in the text as a Gentile God-fearer, but simply as one “who had come to Jerusalem to worship.”

He could just as easily have been a Jew attempting to worship at the temple. The very fact that later audiences, that White audiences, felt the need to imagine him as an outsider on the basis of his national identity, with its roots in Africa, speaks to modern racial ideas and not the worldview of the scripture itself.


This morning I can’t help but think that these insights owe a great debt to one of the most powerful theological voices of our generation, who died over the weekend. The Rev. Dr. James Cone, author of books that shaped a generation of teachers and leaders in the church and in society: Black Theology and Black Power, God of the Oppressed, The Cross and the Lynching Tree; teacher and mentor and guide. A man whose work reflected a holy anger at the disenfranchisement of black lives and disfigurement of black bodies, but will also be remembered for the warmth of his smile and the joy in his laughter.

A fully human being, who we can imagine might have heard the desperation in the Ethiopian eunuch’s voice when he read aloud, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” and then asked, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Because, at this point in the story, the Ethiopian eunuch does not know about Jesus, so we can only assume that he hears something in this account from Isaiah that reminds him of his own suffering, which reminds us of our own suffering, which is why this figure has remained central to the theological imaginations of all who suffer and therefore to liberation theology as well. I imagine Dr. Cone stepping into that chariot with Philip and the eunuch and teaching us once again that…

Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism … The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition. This is the essence of the biblical revelation. (This is the essence of the biblical revelation) By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering … Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity. (A Black Theology of Liberation, pp. 63-64)

What lesbian and gay, bi and trans, queer and intersex, non-binary folk and anyone else whose sexual or gender identity is not normalized by culture have seen in the Ethiopian eunuch is one who would have been excluded from the temple, Jewish or not, on the basis of his sexual or gender identity.

The Baptism – by Don Reason

As a castrated man, he was not allowed access to the temple under Deuteronomic law, he was a gender outlaw, scarred and defective, impure and subject to stereotypes. But the prophet Isaiah announces that God will “recover the remnant that is left of my people … from Ethiopia” (Isa. 11:11) and that “eunuchs who keep [the] sabbath” will be welcomed home and will receive “a name better than sons and daughters.” (Isa. 56:4-5) What is at stake for the Ethiopian eunuch, and for many queer exegetes, is not the authority of scripture but its interpretation. Is God the one who authorizes the exclusion from the temple, or the one who gathers the remnant and welcomes the despised and the rejected home?

That is the kind of question that requires a guide, an exegete, a theologian. That is the kind of question that, depending how it’s answered, can either end a life or save one.

Black liberation theology set the table for the ever-expanding host of liberation theologies that have followed. My ability to find myself in this text owes a debt of gratitude to the work of James Cone and others who have helped me to know at the core of my being that at the very place where the world turns its back on me, God is with me, God is for me, God is on my side because God sides with the oppressed. And that, likewise, at any place where I would use the name of God to contribute to or continue the oppression of others, that is not true Christianity.

It is White Christianity, it is straight Christianity, it is middle-class Christianity, it is respectability-politics Christianity, it is colonial Christianity, and therefore it is not Christianity.


You and I, who have been baptized, have drowned to those lies. We rise from these waters as the children of God and joint heirs with Christ of a freedom that cannot be taken away from us.

We are fully human.

We are alive.

As we prepare to take our leave of one another near the end of another rich, full and difficult school year, pay attention to those who share the road with you. Listen for the phone call that threatens to take you off the path you’d set for yourself. Be prepared to give an account of the faith that is in you, in you, knowing that the right word at the right time can save a life.

Good theology saves lives.


headshot professional (large)Pastor Erik Christensen serves as Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship at LSTC. He joined the staff last fall after previously serving as the redevelopment pastor with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square (Chicago) for the past eleven years. He also regularly shares his reflections and sermons on his personal blog “By Proclamation.”

Base Communities: A Vessel for Healing and Decolonization – Francisco Herrera, M. Div., PhD student, LSTC

Alice Walker and me 🙂

My institution, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, hosted a truly new thing last weekend – the first base community training from the people at #decolonizeLutheranism, titled simply #decolonizeTheBase. I’ll let chief coordinator, and blog regular, Francisco Herrera give you the details – but suffice it to say, if the body of Christ is called to build a truly intersectional Church—a Shalom Church[1]—then with these souls working the land and watering it, God will the bring forth growth.[2] Please 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.”

Communion Of Saints by Elise Ritter

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9)

To give a brief overview of what a base community is, you have to go back all the way to 1956 in Rio de Janeiro – all the way between the ear and the soul of Roman Catholic Bishop Dom Agnelo Rossi, in the impoverished district of Barra do Pirai, as he listened to the frustrations of “a humble old woman.” Since her local parish couldn’t pay for a priest for Christmas services, it stayed “cold and dark,” whereas local Protestant parishes were “lit up and full of people” (Boff, 3). So these laments provoked the newly-minted bishop to action

With help from his deacons and some Jesuits, then, they created a lay-education program that soon took over all of Latin America. Grounded in the reading and interpretation of Scripture through each community’s context, that community’s joys and burdens, these new outposts for God’s kingdom were called comunidades eclesial de base or “base Christian communities.”

Quickly, however, they would evolve into something far more glorious.

Because the roots they sprouted went so deep into the soil, their first green shoots of growth were shelters to protect abused women and food banks to feed their children.

Because the love they inspired had such potency and flavor, their blossoms and fruit included legal aid societies, literacy programs, and labor unions.

And because their fragrance and seeds were so luscious  and fertile, they scattered through all of Latin America, bringing forth 30, 60, and 100-fold servants of Jesus, the community having such good soil.

Demonstration in favor of land reform in Brazil, ca. 1970’s – supported and lead by base communities.

And as the 1950’s and 1960’s became the 1970’s and 1980’s they were ruthlessly persecuted, as one oppressive regime after the other – often with full support from the government of the United States – brutally tore up as many of these communities as they could, grinding their leaves and petals into the earth and turning root beds into mass graves.

But in the end the love of the base communities won, sustaining a vital solidarity and hope among the persecuted as dictatorship after dictatorship stomped and burned and raged itself to ash.

When #decolonizeLutheranism had its first official face-to-face programming meeting after our inaugural revival in 2016 we agreed, then, that this would be the model for organizing and mission that we should try. Our would-be reforming partners all over the country were looking for solidarity and direction, and the base community model seemed a good beginning.

Because workshops hadn’t made our churches more welcoming, not many.

Because ‘hard conversations’ had cracked some doors open, but few had taken the next step and walked through.

So we decided to appeal directly to the Holy Spirit and the power of God and wait to see what She did.

But since we didn’t really know how to create a base community, and after a few failed attempts at doing so, the Spirit finally intervened, carrying me into a random house in south central Los Angeles (last March) to share a potluck and lecture with some-time hero, Pastor Alexia Salvatierra. And how did I know la pastora had been given to us by the Spirit to lead us?

Rev. Alexia Salvatierra (ELCA) at an immigration rally in Los Angeles.

Because sometime during her lesson, after mentioning that she had done her CPE among base communities, in the Philippines in the 1980’s (then under the thumb of another US-proxy dictator, Ferdinand Marcos), she said this:

“When we are very young, we usually receive some kind of curse – often it is said by someone very close to us, even family. What I want to do now is talk about what those curses are – and to share as you’re comfortable – as well as find a line of Scripture that we can use to counter them when we feel their power working on us.”

This made it clear that spiritual direction was crucial to her community organizing work.

Two weeks later I asked Alexia if she would teach #decolonizeLutheranism about forming base communities, and she said yes, but quickly added, “Call Elizabeth Conde-Frazier and ask if she could help out, too. You need someone who can truly lead someone to experience the Spirit and she does that better than anyone I know.”

After some conversation and email ping pong, (Rev. Dr.) Elizabeth agreed. Pastor Alexia wasn’t kidding when she said that Dr. Conde-Frazier was a master of bringing people into the Spirit’s presence. And how did I know, on top of Pastor Alexia’s recommendation, that the Spirit had roped her in too? When she said this:

“It’s a glorious moment when we get our liberation, but we have to be careful.  we carry a lot of anger after we get and if we’re not careful, it will spoil everything we touch.”

Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier – Dean of Esperanza College, Philadelphia.

And she was right to point this out – because thanks to the grace of God #decolonizeLutheranism had received a grant to pay the full cost of attendance to every person of color, every trans and non-binary attendee, and every person with a disability that qualified them for public benefits. And these leaders – beautiful and perfect and devoted to the Gospel – for all their power, likely would need healing before doing or talking about anything else.

And that’s how our base community training – #decolonizeTheBase – would begin.


So on the first night of the training Pastor Alexia and Dr. Conde-Frazier greeted every attendee with a flower, a piece of chocolate, a small bottle of water, and a choice of fruit – delivered from baskets on their arms – walking throughout the meeting space and giving blessing.

It was at that point then, that I realized that my heart’s image of this day (Revelation 7:9) was incomplete. For though a multitude did come – from every tribe and nation, of every gender and sexuality and ability and disability – as the weekend progressed, right there in the middle of Augustana Chapel, Tree of Life itself sprouted and bloomed before all of us (Revelation 22:1-3) “with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” – and the gifts of chocolate, water, flowers, and fruit – were the very first fruits of that tree.

But the Scripture of the weekend? John 10:10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (NRSV)

And it was upon this truth – not the colonizing lashes of racism, the colonizing echo of being mis-gendered, the ominous rumble of the colonizer’s institutions and apathy and violence – that we built a community and welcomed the Holy Spirit among us that weekend, both as liberator and healer. And all-together, with nothing but longing for the power of God in our lives to lead us, the Spirit grafted us all unto Jesus, the true Vine, the Liberator, and his promise of abundant life.

Helping hands – remembering a friend.

For me, as the chief coordinator of the weekend, this abundant life showed itself most powerfully in the way chapel staff (especially Morgan Gates, bless you friend) taught us how to run the sound-board along with printing, folding, and stapling bulletins – and the way random attendees would help fill in the holes in my planning. The music and worship team provided abundant life too – in the form of last minute changes and shifts, learning four new songs that weren’t in our original hymn booklet, and regularly meeting with the Pastor Alexia and Professor Conde-Frazier to make sure that every bit of information was shared in an atmosphere of constant intercessory prayer – like the smell of charcoal that always filigrees Frankincense. They, too, showed abundance in the fact that our leaders regularly met with attendees to make sure that each part of the training tailor-fit their needs – often shortening or lengthening, or even cutting out, entire parts of the day to make sure that no one left overwhelmed, confused, or lost.

And the gathered community, too, showed abundance to each other. In the way we loved each other, carried one another’s pain, challenged each other’s weaknesses, and prayed and sang and embraced each part of us into this abundant life.

“Your experience of this transformation, this change, will be what teaches you more than anything,” Dr. Conde-Frazier mentioned more than once that weekend, “and these are things you can’t put on paper and take away with you. And it is this that you take home with you, and this is how you will begin your communities and your ministries.”

Hermanas en la lucha – sisters in the struggle, Prof. Conde-Frazier and Pastor Salvatierra.

And from all of this a marvelously gentle and beautiful vine sprung forth, both connecting all assembled more completely to each other as well as to the world around us. For our teachers, our tias, knew that if we wanted to create community that could change the church – let alone the country, or our hearts – we had to do it right there and then, too, experience it right there and then. So much so that by the end of the day, it seemed that all we cared about doing – all we could do, was find more ways to love each other.

And that’s pretty much it.

And I know this post doesn’t give a lot of information about the training itself, because in the end, it wasn’t the most important lesson.

And yes, we did things – we made plans, shared visions, wrote things down and affirmed ourselves, but everything we did essentially had one main goal and everything orbited this goal: to teach each other how to heal and love each other.

To grow those roots like our kin in Latin America in the darkest days of the last century’s tyranny, living water bursting forth from the baptismal fonts in all of our hearts, with richly green leaves for the healing of the nations, with fruit fertile and fragrant as to feed the soul and bring forth a rich harvest, with shade to provide rest and strength for the weary and determined.

one last time.jpg
Getting ready for the Eucharist, Jaffa Castañeda Carrera working his pipes and Putting a Praise On It (Tasha Cobbs).

Because when you’ve been healed by the love of God, well, the devil might tempt and try you, but he’ll be hard pressed to stop you – and this is what we need if we’re going to decolonize our church.

And this may sound naïve and sentimental, even foolish, but it isn’t.

For didn’t someone say something about fools for Christ and what that entails (1 Corinthians 4:10-13) – how those most despised by the world were the key to its salvation? Because when you spend your whole life fighting the church you’ve been called to serve, you need all the love you can get. And therefore, praise be praise be for this, God will GIVE you all the love that you need and more.

And if you’re curious to see what it’s all about? Come next year.

Come and see what it is like to have a heart where “nothing accursed will be found… anymore,” to be so filled with the love of God that you “need no light of lamp or sun” since “the Lord God [is your] light” (Revelation 22:3, 5) – and then to be blessed to go forth in service of the body of Christ, knowing that you have just that many new friends praying for you, working with you, helping you to solidify and guide your call and your mission.

“Because they say that communion is perfect and eternal, but we know communion to be messy and awesome.” Rev. Joseph Castañeda Carrera, from Los Angeles mission start ADORE-LA.

Come see what that multitude of every tribe and nation, gender and sexuality, ability and disability, height and size and woof and warp looks like.

From their bounty, come and take some of their healing leaves for your soul, your body…

…and taste the sweet fruit that is the love of God, given to you from their loving, faithful hands.


If you’d like more info about future base community trainings, are interested in donating to our work, or just want to chat with #decolonizeLutheranism and see what we’re about, email us at decolonizelutheranism@gmail.com and let’s start talking!

The Gospel in Solentiname – Ernesto Cardenal “In Solentiname, a remote archipelago in Lake Nicaragua, the people gathered each Sunday to reflect together on the gospel reading. From recordings of their dialogue, this extraordinary document of faith in the midst of struggle was composed.” An excellent read into the inner workings of a base community in Nicaragua during some of the darkest days of their struggles in the 1970s.

Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World – Rev. Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel A wonderful mix of reflection and praxis, much of what Pastor Salvatierra talked about during the training was also mentioned in this book. So if you want to get a bit more insight into how she leads base community trainings, and the kinds of things base communities do, this text is a good place to begin.

A Many Colored Kingdom: Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation – Elizabeth Conde-Frazier and S. Steve Kang A popular work co-authored by Dr. Conde-Frazier’s, it mixes research and data with personal stories about working in and creating multicultural spaces. Both her and S. Steve Kang have much to share.


[1] Dr. Angela Cowser, professor of sociology of religion at Garrett Evangelical Theological School in Evanston, IL lectured on congregationally-based community organizing in the Methods for a Public Church l course on Tuesday afternoon and introduced this concept using Nehemiah, 1-8.

[2] I Cor 3:6.


11062145_10152973497325213_4921417369076653093_nBefore 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 www.loveasrevolution.blogspot.com, tweets at @PolyglotEvangel, and travels the country as one of the central leaders of #decolonizeLutheranism.

Taxation Past and Present: Jesus, Rome, and the Trump Tax Cuts – Thomas R. Blanton IV, Ph. D.

fontIt’s April 15 – the traditional date/deadline when the Internal Revenue Service of the United States says that every citizen’s taxes must be filed. Saying that, did you know that discussion of taxation is one of the most pertinent – and often biblical – discussions that anyone can ever have? That’s why we’ve asked  Thomas R. Blanton IV to share his rather piercing observations on taxation, and the disturbing analogs that now exist between Jesus’ time and our own. 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.”


In a famous episode in the Bible, Jesus addresses a topic that is as relevant in twenty-first century America as it was in Judea in the first century CE: taxation.

According to the narrative in the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the gospels in which the story is told, Jesus is questioned by Pharisees and Herodians; that is, political partisans of Herod Antipas.[1] For as long as he enjoyed the support of the Roman emperor, Antipas ruled as tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (regions north and east of Roman Judea).[2] According to Mark’s narrative, the Pharisees and Herodians asked, “Is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar or not?” Jesus responded: “Bring me a denarius so that I can look at it,” and, after they had produced one for his examination, he asked, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” The reply was short: “Caesar’s.” This in turn elicited Jesus’s pithy response: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:13–17).[3]

At issue in the story is whether Jesus would, in an unguarded moment, confess some revolutionary, anti-Roman sentiment in the presence of partisans of Antipas, and thus partisans of Rome. The Romans had taken control of Judea in 64 BCE and retained it until the Byzantine Period, beginning in 324 CE. Although Jesus’s proclamation that the apocalyptic “kingdom of God” would soon arrive implied an end to Roman rule in Judea, his reply to the Herodians seems strikingly nonrevolutionary.

Perhaps, like Paul of Tarsus, he viewed the arrival of the new kingdom as act of God rather than the result of human effort, and understood Roman authority as something that was to be respected—or at least tolerated—until the kingdom arrived.[4] His question and answer indicate Jesus’s reasoning: since the image and name of the emperor Tiberius (“Caesar”) appeared on Roman denarii minted during his reign (14–37 CE), the denarius in question therefore “belonged” to Caesar and ought to be returned to Rome in payment of the tax.[5]

In other words, if it has your name on it, it’s yours.

Denarius of the Emperor Tiberius, commonly referred to as the “tribute penny.”

Although New Testament scholars, pastors, and economic theorists who discuss the relationship between the Bible and the contemporary economy often wish to draw direct analogies between the biblical text and contemporary contexts, a wide gulf separates the two, and analogies ought not be drawn too hastily. The most notable difference between the Roman tax referred to in the Gospel of Mark and taxation in the United States today is that the Roman version operated according to the logic of expropriation, whereas in the United States it operates according to the logic of redistribution.

Let me explain.

In the Roman Empire, taxation was imposed by the imperial power on its provinces; it involved the transmission of surplus in the form of money and goods from one geographic region and ethnic group to another (from Judea to Rome, for example). The payment of taxes was enforced by the threat of violence by means of military force. Economists in the tradition of Karl Marx use the term expropriation to refer to the extraction of currency and/or goods that are possessed by another for one’s own use.[6] By way of contrast, taxation in the United States operates according to the logic of redistribution, which involves collecting, dividing up and assigning or reassigning goods, currency, and/or services to those within the nation or state from which taxes are collected.[7] Because the two systems operate according to two different schemes—expropriation and redistribution—direct analogies between the systems are difficult to draw.

Donald Trump,Paul Ryan,Kevin Brady
President Donald Trump holds an example of what a new tax form may look like during a meeting on tax policy with Republican lawmakers in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, in Washington. From left, Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Trump, and Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Proponents of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Donald J. Trump on December 22, 2017, claimed that—as the name implies—tax cuts, primarily for corporations, would result in a net economic benefit for all Americans in the form of job and wage growth.

Actually, the benefits of the new tax law do not flow to all Americans; instead they disproportionately benefit the wealthiest, while resulting in net loss to the poorest and to many others in between, after reductions in social safety net benefits are factored in. The tax act lowered the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent; this is the single largest reduction in corporate taxes in U.S. history, and will result in an estimated $1 trillion tax break for corporations over the next ten years.[8]

Although some companies like Apple, Walmart, and Home Depot took the passage of the bill as an opportunity to announce worker bonuses or wage increases,[9] a Morgan Stanley survey indicates that 43% of the money saved by the tax cut will be spent on stock buybacks and to pay dividends to shareholders, while only 13% will be distributed to workers in the form of pay raises, bonuses, and benefits.[10] A related study reported in February 2018 that S&P 500 companies planned to devote $5.6 billion to wage hikes and bonuses, while a whopping $171 billion were slated for stock buybacks.[11] Stock buybacks increase the value of each share of stock by removing shares from the market; each remaining share subsequently represents a claim to ownership of a slightly larger fraction of a business.


While all of this is great news for shareholders, it hardly benefits the majority of Americans. A 2014 study found that “the top one percent of households classified by wealth owned 38 percent of all stocks in 2013, the top 10 percent [owned] 81 percent, and the top quintile [= top 20 percent] 92 percent.”[12] That is worth repeating: the top 10% of the wealthiest households in the country controlled over 80% of stocks.

Not only is stock ownership unequally distributed by economic class, however, it is also unequally distributed along racial lines. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 60% of non-Hispanic whites reported owning stock (including stock held through retirement accounts), while 37% of Hispanics and 36% of non-Hispanic black Americans reported holdings.[13]

It is important to remember that the tax cut is only one side of a coin; on the other side is government spending. Since taxes provide the basis of the government’s revenue, tax cuts involve revenue loss. The administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 included big cuts to spending in the areas of education, health and human services (including cuts to “Obamacare” health insurance subsidies), housing and urban development, the Department of the Interior (which manages federally owned lands, including national parks), the Department of Labor, and the Environmental Protection Agency—cuts to be passed on to Americans through increased costs, decreases in public services, and a reduction of the social safety net.[14]

It is for this reason that Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times, “Donald Trump and his allies pretended to give you a gift, but they gave themselves and their wealthy patrons much bigger gifts—and they’re going to stick you with the bill. You’ve been scammed.”[15]


Fortunately for most Americans, some of the biggest cuts proposed by the administration were not accepted in the omnibus spending bill that the president reluctantly signed on March 23, 2018.[16] At a time when income inequality is increasing,[17] 44% of children in the United States lived in low-income families as of 2015. According to a recent study, “Black, American Indian, and Hispanic children are disproportionately low income and poor.”[18] In addition, over 12% of households (15.6 million) report being food insecure—not having access at all times to sufficient food to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle. Here, too, we find differences by race: 22.5% of black, non-Hispanic households are food insecure; compared with 18.5% of Hispanic households, and approximately 9% of white, non-Hispanic households.[19] Moreover, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that “on a single night in 2017, 553,742 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States.”[20]

College and university students, too, increasingly face both food and housing insecurity. A study released in April 2018 reported that “36% of university students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey” and “36% of university students were housing insecure in the last year.”[21] The study reports disparities along lines of race and sexual orientation: in four-year colleges and universities, black students reported the highest levels of food (47%) and housing (43%) insecurity, followed by native Americans (food: 30%; housing: 58%) and Hispanics (food: 42%; housing: 39%). Along lines of sexual orientation, bisexuals in 4-year institutions experienced food (47%) and housing (47%) insecurity at higher rates than homosexuals (food: 43%; housing: 44%) and heterosexuals (food: 33%; housing: 35%). Those identified as gender nonbinary experienced greater insecurities (food: 46%; housing: 50%) than did those identified either as females (food: 37%; housing: 39%) or as males (food: 28%; housing: 31%).[22]


In light of these disparities in the distribution of resources, which affect groups differently based on class, race, sexual orientation, and gender, we must ask ourselves whether it is appropriate to put huge amounts of money back into the pockets of the wealthiest Americans when too many others struggle under the weight of preventable economic problems.

Unlike Jesus and Paul, who expected the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God to turn the tables politically, the majority of Americans literally cannot afford to wait to exert an influence over our tax policies. And unlike Jesus, who had no influence over what Rome did with the taxes that were expropriated from him, Americans retain the power to determine how our pooled resources will be allocated and distributed: we can speak out, we can vote; we can educate, organize, and protest to hold our elected officials accountable.

This ought not be construed as a blue issue or a red issue; it is rather an issue involving intersections between class, race, sexual orientation, and gender. It is an issue that affects us all, and it concerns the questionable ethic behind policies that enrich the wealthiest even as many others struggle to afford housing, adequate food, and health care.

Despite the major differences between the economic structures governing first century Judea and twenty-first century America, however, some things remain the same: “To those who have, more will be given; and to those who do not have, even what [little] they have will be taken away from them” (Mark 4:25). The logic of wealth accumulation by the few at the expense of the many aggravates income inequality today just as it fueled the unequal distribution of resources in Roman antiquity, and it is the same logic that guided the recent tax cuts.


If you are interested in advocating for change in the wake of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, “Repeal the Trump Tax” marches are scheduled to be held in cities across the country on April 15. You can find out more by following this link

71VwLkmH04L._UY200_Thomas R. Blanton IV is the author of A Spiritual Economy: Gift Exchange in the Letters of Paul of Tarsus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017) and coeditor of Paul and Economics: A Handbook (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017). He currently teaches as auxiliary professor of New Testament studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

[1] Comparable versions of the story appear in Matthew 22:15–22 and Luke 20:20–26.

[2] Specifically, from 4 BCE until 39 CE.

[3] The translations of the original Greek of the Gospel of Mark are my own.

[4] See Paul’s accommodationist advice in Romans 13:1–7; contrast his futuristic view in Philippians 2:9–11.

[5] A denarius was worth about a day’s wage for a laborer; see Matthew 20:10; Revelation 6:6.

[6] The terminology is drawn from Roland Boer, The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 2.

[7] See Boer, Sacred Economy, 25.

[8] Heather Long, “The final GOP Tax Bill Is Complete: Here’s What Is in It,” Washington Post, Dec. 15, 2017; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/15/the-final-gop-tax-bill-is-complete-heres-what-is-in-it/?utm_term=.5f265b592f90.

[9] Alex Webb and Mark Gurman, “Apple, Returning Overseas Cash, to Pay $38 Billion Tax Bill,” Bloomberg News, January 17, 2018; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-17/apple-expects-38-billion-tax-bill-on-overseas-repatriated-cash; Arthur Delaney, “New Tax Law Benefiting Shareholders More Than Workers So Far,” Huffington Post, Mar. 2, 2018; https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/tax-law-stock-buybacks_us_5a9990ade4b089ec3539d869.

[10] David Goldman and Jeanne Sahadi, “Only 13% of Business’ Tax Cuts Are Going to Workers, Survey Says,” CNN Money, February 9, 2018; http://money.cnn.com/2018/02/09/news/companies/tax-cut-bonuses-buybacks/index.html.

[11] Matt Egan, “Tax Cut Scoreboard: Workers $6 billion; Shareholders $171 billion,” CNN Money, Feb. 16, 2018; http://money.cnn.com/2018/02/16/investing/stock-buybacks-tax-law-bonuses/index.html.

[12] Edward Wolff, “Household Wealth Trends in the United States, 1962–2013: What Happened over the Great Recession?” working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (2014), 42.

[13] Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Stock Ownership Down among All but Older, Higher-Income,” Gallup News, May 24, 2017; http://news.gallup.com/poll/211052/stock-ownership-down-among-older-higher-income.aspx.

[14] See also the administration’s wish list of cuts outlined in “An American Budget: Efficient, Effective, Accountable,” Office of Management and Budget, [n.d.], https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/budget-fy2019.pdf.

[15] Paul Krugman, “Taxpayers, You’ve Been Scammed,” New York Times, Opinion, Mar. 1, 2018; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/01/opinion/taxpayers-scammed-republicans.html.

[16] John Wagner and Mike DeBonis, “Trump Signs $1.3 Trillion Spending Bill Despite Veto Threat on Twitter,” Washington Post, Mar. 3, 2018; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2018/03/23/trump-threatens-to-veto-omnibus-bill-because-it-does-not-address-daca-recipients/?utm_term=.f0643d8b2025. For a detailed summary of the omnibus spending bill, see Mary Lee, Hugh T. Ferguson, and Caitlin Oprysko, “Pro Bill Analysis: H.R. 1625 Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018; Politico Pro: Policy Intelligence for Pros, Mar. 23, 2018; https://www.politico.com/pro/blog/pro-bill-analysis-h.r.-1625-consolidated-appropriations-act-2018.

[17] “Income inequality in the United States,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_inequality_in_the_United_States; see also Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[18] Yang Jiang, Mercedes Ekono, and Curtis Skinner, “Basic Facts About Low-Income Children: Children under 18 Years, 2013,” National Center for Children in Poverty, Fact Sheet, January, 2015: http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_1100.html.

[19] “Food Security in the U.S.: Key Statistics and Graphics,” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service; https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx.

[20] Meghan Henry, Rian Watt, Lily Rosenthal, Azim Shivji, and Abt Associates, “The 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress,” The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Planning and Development, 1.

[21] Sara Goldrick-Rab, Jed Richardson, Joel Schneider, Anthony Hernandez, and Clare Cady, “Still Hungry and Homeless in College,” Wisconsin Hope Lab, April 2018; http://wihopelab.com/publications/Wisconsin-HOPE-Lab-Still-Hungry-and-Homeless.pdf, 1.

[22] Goldrick-Rab et al., “Still Hungry and Homeless,” 15.