You Might Be a Political Theologian If… – Prof. Jan Rippentrop

thomaslinda-sitting.jpgNot long ago in a faculty setting I heard my colleague, Professor Jan Rippentrop, boldly state that she understood herself to be a political theologian. Being excited to hear her say this I asked for a post saying more. She responded to my request in a creative fashion, using a top 5 “You might be a political theologian if…” framework. In this post, she demonstrates her Lutheran bona fides by demonstrating one of the many possible models of public church leadership. In particular, her own model is as a Lutheran political theologian who strives to give theological grounding for public church leaders to both advocate for or protest against public policy, as well as to construct substantive policy substitutions when necessary. Be it the targeting of immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries, the rescinding of guidelines for the treatment of trans students in public schools, to the potential horror of 24 million people losing their health care – Christians of all stripes have been weighing in to the political situation in our country these days, and weighing in loudly. And here, Prof. Rippentrop herself gives a tutorial on the why and how of her own theological development, and how others might do the same. 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.”


  1. You might be a political theologian if…you understand the Bible as inherently political.

The, Bible in which one finds the story of God’s presence with God’s good creation, consistently shows God’s activity in and through the world. As will be more explicitly argued below, God’s activity in and through the world is already political. The Bible has a political premise: The Bible is about God’s life-giving relationship with creation. This is political because it is about God’s involvement in the polis. The Bible is also political in two other dimensions: in context and in content.

Biblical settings are repeatedly political contexts. The stories that occur throughout the Bible are regularly embedded within political systems that matter a great deal for one’s interpretation of a passage. Recall, for example, how extensively the political rule behind the Babylonian and Assyrian exiles affected the biblical literature produced and the Israelites articulation of God’s activity among them.

One can also view the political context of biblical literature by watching transitions within biblical prose. Transitions are frequently marked by settings that identify the political circumstances in which the story is embedded. While there are many simpler, yet equally political settings, these verses from the 3rd chapter of Luke highlight the point that the Bible embraces its political embeddedness: Luke writes,

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler* of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler* of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

This passage counts on expectations regarding political settings to make its point. Luke lists out all the rulers who would’ve made sense to receive the Word; then Luke subverts the expected system (subversion of an expected political system is not a-political, but is highly political) to deliver a great reversal: instead of going to the power brokers of the day in all the happenin’ places, the Word of God came to John (“who?” is the implied rhetorical response) in the wilderness!


The Bible consistently contains overtly political content. Pilate ordered a sign to be hung above Jesus on the cross. “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” (John 19:19) it plainly and provocatively proclaimed that the person and actions of Jesus had political significance; the ruling leader saw Jesus as a ruling leader.

Pilate and other contemporaries understood Jesus contemporaries as a political figure because of both his connections with groups of people and his civil engagement and commentary. He tended to speak about economics (second only to the amount of time in the Bible that Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God). For example, “We found this man subverting our nation, opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar, and calling himself the Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:2-3) Jesus does not avoid speaking about economics, criticizing oppressive political policies, or suggesting alternate plans. Rather, Jesus confronts oppressive political systems and claims his own political power.

In my formation, I have moved from experiencing the Bible as a book I contemplated in terms of my own relationship with God to encountering God through the Bible as one who consistently acts for the sake of the world. I have come to see the Bible itself is inherently political.

  1. You might be a political theologian if…you understand politics as more than partisan and governmental.

Here’s Merriam Webster’s narrow definition of politics:

“the art or science of government” especially as “concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy” or “concerned with winning and holding control.”

But that’s not the only meaning of politics. Here is a broader definition, from the same source:

“The total complex of relations between people living in society.”

Sure, the word “politics” is colloquially used most often to refer to partisan, governmental topics. However, politics signifies much more. Politics refers to the making and remaking of all relationships within society.

  1. You might be a political theologian if…you believe God cares about the whole world—that is, about the polis.

God is central to the making and remaking of the relational fabric of our societies. God breaks into the world accompanying creation in the midst of plight and causing hope to emerge in unprecedented ways. God draws creation into relationship with the divine. God’s concern is for the whole of creation. God cares for the polis, which means “a state of society especially when characterized by a sense of community.” (Merriam Webster) I repeatedly experience God working through societies characterized by a sense of community and accompanying creation where the sense of community has broken down.

  1. You might be a political theologian if…you notice that theology affects whole systems (not just individuals)

Theology affects whole systems. The communal grounding and communal effects of theology remain primary to theology’s personal effects. I affirm theology as communally grounded because God is known in the communal self-differentiation of the Trinity. I claim communal effects of theology as primary to personal effects because I notice that the trajectory of God’s action in the world, as seen in the Bible and my lived experience, advents new life for the whole world: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus addressed systems during his ministry. He challenged the Temple economic system; he challenged Caesar’s economic system; he challenged the disciples to address hunger issues for whole groups.


Claiming my orientation as a political theologian has been a circuitous journey—an evolving, non-linear process. In what follows, I articulate some broad strokes of my journey in order to present one person’s undulating process that resulted in becoming a political theologian. I suspect each person’s process will be different based on that person’s experiences, influences, theological conversation partners, etc.

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Gustavo Gutierrez and Elsa Tamez

Gustavo Gutiérrez’s theological method captivated me. He called on lived experience. He honored and privileged the dignity and wisdom of the people of Peru. This method struck me as a contrast to other proscriptive, book-knowledge based theologies I was reading (and also value). Gutiérrez led me more generally to Liberation Theology, which offered me necessary lenses to critique top-down processes of knowledge acquisition and power distribution.

Elsa Tamez got me to internalize what I had only thought about before reading her Bible for the Oppressed. She taught me that the Bible says different things to different people; there is not a “right” way to read and understand the Bible—there are many holy ways to encounter scripture.

My understanding of myself as a feminist grew out of my engagement with liberation theology. Liberation Theology instilled in me two lenses that catalyzed my entry into feminist thought. Liberation Theology had taught me to be more aware of power structures and to yearn for the active and influential presence of voices of those who have been marginalized. Feminism required these two lenses and focused them on power structures that marginalize the voices of women. I found so much resonance with my own lived experience—including ways I was complicit in supporting these power structures and limiting my own voice. For example, I realized that I had assumed throughout my life that males who interrupted me in class understood the “right answer” better than I. I was wrong.

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Screenshot (124).pngI needed to read more on gender theory; Judith Butler was a mind-blowing guide. Judith Butler’s ideas, especially in Undoing Gender and Gender Trouble, were significant gateways into political theology. She forever changed my lenses to see that identities are constituted by the world around them. One constructive thing this meant for me was that our active dissension regarding unjust systems also had the power to construct reality. The possibility that my work could aid in constructing realities not only for me but also for others who encountered or participated with the effort added resilience for facing systems of oppression.

Screenshot (126)Michel Foucault writes about the pervasiveness of power structures and the varieties of force these power structures level against people in order to maintain power. His biting analysis helped me look at the more subtle and psychological dissemination of power and to ask in what ways these tactics seek to control people. In The Chomsky, Foucault wrote “The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” Institutions are an assumed part of life and can therefore seem neutral even while the policies they perpetuate are in no way neutral. Foucault insists that scholars ask how institutions are reinscribing power systems and which of those systems is doing violence to populations.

Screenshot (127).pngJames Cone clearly communicates that indifference to liberation is at odds with Christian theology. He teaches that freedom (especially from racial oppression) is something we pray for and sing toward, but the pursuit of freedom does not stop there. Instead, those who pursue freedom must also analyze the world and actively work to change injustice in the world. He maintained a holistic approach that understood the dismantling of racism to occur both within worship and in the various publics in which we live. He wrote, “[I]n the act of worship itself, the experience of liberation becomes constituent of the community’s being…liberation is not exclusively a political event but also an eschatological happening. It is the power of God’s Spirit invading the lives of the people.” (in “Sanctificaiton and Liberation in the Black Religious Tradition, with Special Reference to Black Worship”)

These thought leaders and theologians, who are not necessarily themselves political theologians, have had a deep impact on my formation as a political theologian. These thinkers share a conviction: theology (or philosophy) affect whole systems. Political theology intentionally addresses the systems that support injustice. I have highlighted some of the steps in my journey in hopes that you will recall influential thought partners in your own formation.

  1. You might be a political theologian if…you know that theology and faith produce action (not only thoughts) and belong in the world (as opposed to in “ivory towers.”)

Theology and faith come into their fullness when put into action. Theology and faith have shape and substance in ways that impact the world, transforming the physical world as much as they transform thoughts and intentions. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Justice is a shape that love (or a theology of God’s love) takes in public spheres. Justice can take many forms in public. Archbishop Dom Helder Câmara names a couple: “When I give people food, the call me a saint. When I ask why there is no food, they call me a communist.” Political theology sees itself as explicitly asking the second question as a theological question: “Why is there no food?” The questions and insights of theology and faith belong in the world and are formed in the world far more than in libraries and studies.

In my journey, I experience political theology to resonate deeply with Lutheran theology and also to chafe against much of the Lutheran-ISM with which I was raised. I welcome both the resonance and chafing because they make for a stronger and more viable theology in the long run.

I am a political theologian because I…

  • understand the Bible as inherently political,
  • understand politics as broader than partisan, governmental work,
  • believe God cares about the whole world,
  • notice that theology affects whole systems, and
  • know that theology and faith produce action and belong in the world.

rippentropAn ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American,  Jan Rippentrop has served as pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, Iowa City, Iowa, from 2006 – 2011, and as interim pastor for two other congregations in Iowa. While a student at Wartburg Seminary, she served as assistant to the Center for Global Theologies and has done ethnographic field research in Bogota, Colombia, as well as studied in Germany and Israel/Palestine. Before becoming the Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria (Swanson) Carlson Chair in Homiletics  at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, she designed and taught homiletics courses for MA, TEEM, Distributed Learning, and MDiv students at Wartburg Theological Seminary. She also taught worship at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and served as a teaching assistant for two ecumenical and diverse homiletics courses at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Her research in homiletics and liturgical theology brings together eschatology and political theology.

Gender, Pleasure, and God – Rev. Lura Groen

ThomasLinda sittingIn many, many Christian circles enjoyment is suspect and “pleasure” is a dirty word. This quandary even more problematic when you’re a woman (let alone any other gender-oppressed group), as society is often perpetually finding ways to force itself upon everything in your life – let alone your sense of pleasure. In response to this, Rev. Lura Groen provides a rather eloquent and affirmation that bodily pleasures are part of what it means to be created by God – and by extension are holy. It makes a wonderful addition to this months entries and we hope you enjoy 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.”

Like an apple tree among the wild trees,
so is my lover among the young men.
In his shade I take pleasure in sitting,
and his fruit is sweet to my taste.
He has brought me to the house of wine;
his banner raised over me is love.

Sustain me with raisin cakes,
strengthen me with apples,
for I’m weak with love!

His left arm is beneath my head,
his right embraces me.

(Song of Solomon 2: 3-6)


God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,[b]
male and female God created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food.30 To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened. 31 God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.

(Genesis 1: 27-30)


Pleasure is good and holy and given to us by God.  Bodily pleasure, sexual and non sexual, food pleasure, touch pleasure, laughter and singing pleasure, they’re given to us.  

By God. 

And women, it’s given to US too.  Anyone who experiences gender oppression, (femme men, nonbinary people, gender nonconforming people, transgender men, etc) it’s given to us too.  Sometimes we forget.  Sometimes we affirm, theoretically, that pleasure is good, but forget to give it to our own bodies, feel guilty when we do, or judge the ways in which we do or don’t receive pleasure.

This isn’t surprising, because it’s how the world teaches us to think. The world teaches us that men get to joke about how much they love to eat bacon, but we don’t.  The world teaches us that sex is about the pleasure of the (presumed heterosexual, cisgender) man.  The world teaches us that comfortable clothing isn’t for us, that looking professional means having an uncomfortable body. We walk through the world bombarded by messages telling us that our bodies deserve to be starved, pinched, and hated.


But those messages are wrong, those messages are ungodly, those messages are demonic.  They are wrong when they come from the outside world, and then they are wrong when they make their homes inside our own heads, telling us we don’t deserve pleasure.

Other times the world commands us to have pleasure in ways we don’t want: the cool woman eats like a man, the desirable woman wants sex whenever her partner wants it, and the woman to emulate is always living life extravagantly.  This is a twisted way of telling us that even our own pleasure is for other people, not for us.  And it is another lie.  (Because the Song of Solomon also says “Don’t rouse, don’t arouse love, until it desires.”) Your pleasure is for you, and you feel it when and how and only when and how you want to.

And yes, of course there are caveats.  We don’t get to have pleasure in ways that harm someone else, or use pleasure for power over someone else, or break promises we’ve made, or live only for pleasure. 

But let’s be honest. 

Most of us aren’t doing that.

The Lovers – Rene Magritte, 1928.

We’re so busy caring for others that we feel guilty when we get enough sleep, think it’s luxurious to eat a healthy, delicious meal, and experience it as a radical position that our sexual pleasure is as important as our partners’.  Those caveats about enjoying pleasure have been used against us in ways they haven’t been used against gender conforming men, as a way to prevent us from having pleasure that is seen as theirs to have. We have been held to higher standards based on gender oppression, and therefore these standards have become weapons. We have been taught to deny ourselves in gendered ways, and therefore in unjust and ungodly ways.

God gave us good food to eat. Maybe for you that’s bacon, but maybe its apples and raisin cakes. God loves it when food tastes good to us, gave us bodies that crave and taste buds that celebrate.   Yes, we have choices about the healthiest things to eat, and sometimes that choice means limiting certain pleasure, but that doesn’t make the pleasure bad.  The pleasure we get from eating good food is holy, and given to us by God.

God gave us bodies, and called them supremely good.  God created our bodies such that touching people we love gives us pleasure: snuggling babies, hugging a good friend, or kissing our lovers.  Yes, we need to take care to touch in ways that respect consent and the boundaries of all involved, and that honor the differences in how people like to be touched or not, but that doesn’t make the pleasure bad. The pleasure we get from touching each other (or our own bodies!) is holy, and given to us by God.


Pleasure from food is good and holy, pleasure from our bodies is good and holy, but also, if you don’t get pleasure from these things, for whatever reason, and get bodily pleasure from something else, that is good and holy too. 

It is a holy thing, a spiritual thing, to enjoy the gifts given to us by God, and give thanks to God for them.   And so, I make a modest proposal for Women’s History Month: explore pleasure for your body as a spiritual discipline.  If that makes us a little uncomfortable to think about, it might be exactly because we have been taught that pleasure isn’t for us.  But you still get to pick: the pleasures, and only the pleasures, that your body likes, that you want to enjoy, that you consent to.

I know Women’s History Month falls in Lent this year, as it often does.  And that we aren’t encouraged to embrace pleasure during Lent.  Perhaps you might decide you’ve been living Lent too many seasons of the year, and might skip it this time.  Or perhaps you might decide right now that we are encouraged to feast for the 50 days of Easter, (longer than the 40 days of Lent!) and that celebrating God-given bodily pleasures is your way of celebrating God’s love, God’s triumph over sin and death and judgment.

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Dear sisters, dear siblings, God gave us our bodies, and created them to feel pleasure.  You’re allowed to feel it when and how and in which ways you desire.

Thanks be to God. 


(Thanks to Dr. Irina Greenman for editing assistance)

16195119_10154258760571662_4424052491010862736_n.jpgRev. Lura N. Groen attended St. John’s College in Annapolis MD, studying the Great Books Program.  Prior to seminary, Pastor Lura was a two-year member of Lutheran Volunteer Corps, serving as a case manager to homeless people in Baltimore, MD and Washington D.C.  Lura continued her social service work as an employment coach before attending seminary at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and was admitted to the clergy roster of the ELCA in 2010. Currently based in Cumberland, MD with her husband Jess and pit-bull – Clara – she is also blogs at luragroen.blogspot.comand is a chaplain for #decolonizeLutheranism.

In the Midst of the Garden There Is a Snake – Rev. Katie Hines-Shah

Linda Thomas at CTS eventYesterday marked the First Sunday in Lent, and I was honored to be the lead presenter of an Adult Education Series at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Hinsdale, Illinois. Titled, ‘The Beloved Community: Christian Conversations on Race,’ LSTC Intern, Vicar Marcus Lohrmann, invited me to talk on the theme of ‘Womanist Perspectives on an Ever-Reforming Church’ and I was very excited by the opportunity. I offered some reflections that were followed by very engaging conversation among the members and pastoral staff at Redeemer. I stayed for the second morning worship service and heard an exceedingly engaging sermon by the Senior Pastor, Reverend Katie Hines-Shah. We share Reverend Hines-Shah’s sermon during Women’s History Month to celebrate the ministerial leadership of a woman pastor who lifts her voice, sermonizing upon each of the lectionary readings in an extraordinary way – demonstrating her Lutheran voice, and proudly reforming one at that. 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.”

I heard a story once about a professor on book tour trying to get congregations to understand the true meaning of Revelation – specifically the concept of the New Jerusalem.


As she went from church to seminary to synod gathering she would ask people to describe the New Jerusalem as depicted in Revelation.  Her audiences would respond with popular images of heaven – pearly gates, clouds, angels and the like.  They would reference Revelation itself – all tears would be wiped away, the gates would never be closed, no temple for Jesus would be in its midst.  After a time she would ask them to describe how their hometown would change with Jesus’ second coming.

Some would describe an end to crime, or a fair justice system, or housing and food for all.  Everyone could think of something until one fateful adult forum in an affluent suburb.

The adult forum was at a suburban church in a good school district where crime levels were low and quality of living was high.  People were polite. Folks seemed to get along just fine.  Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that they were mostly white, mostly wealthy, and mostly voted the same way (or at least didn’t talk about it.)

When the professor asked her question in that forum, she was shocked when someone responded, “Nothing would change.  Our town is perfect.”   Which, of course, isn’t true. 

Not even Eden was perfect.  Not even before the fall.


In today’s first reading from Genesis we heard the familiar story: that of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.

We skip some verses, but I think you can fill them in with your Sunday School memory.  How Adam and Eve were literally made for each other. How all the plants and animals are at their disposal.  How they are “naked and unashamed.” It doesn’t get better than this.

We fill in more details from popular imagination.  Eden is a second-heaven.  A leafy, green, perfection where it is always summer but never humid.  Where lion and lamb, wolf and kid, and even dogs and cats live in harmony.  Where the peaches and asparagus and strawberries are always at their peak.  As are the apples…

And there’s the rub. 

Because even in this perfect garden, even in this paradise, even in the greatest hometown ever there is a snake…

Did you see that?  In the midst of the garden there is a snake – the very personification of evil.  And what does the snake do?  How does the snake entrap Adam and Eve?  How does evil lay hold and mar paradise?

He lies. 

And these aren’t just any lies. The snake’s lies are beautiful lies.  Lies about knowledge. Lies about power.  Lies about privilege.  As the Devil’s lies always are.  (Just look at our Gospel reading.)  The Devil’s lies suggest that paradise is just within our grasp, but it isn’t the truth.  Not in Eden. 

And not in our hometowns either.


Don’t be fooled by the beautiful lies.  We would like to believe that here as in Lake Woebegone, “All the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”  Our hometown officials would like us to believe this too – because believing this is good for home values, it’s good for school ratings, it’s good for our community’s reputation.  But there’s this one problem – believing the lie isn’t good for the people.

It’s only a matter of time before we start wondering why our lives don’t measure up to the perfect hometown’s standards.  It might seem like you are the one who can’t keep the weight off.  Or the only one who isn’t getting a promotion.  Or the only one whose kids aren’t going to a good college.  Or the only one who has cancer.  These feelings can be so guilt-inducing that we turn to alcohol or drugs; we fall into depression; we seek relationships outside of our marital bonds.  We are so afraid to look behind the shiny façade of the beautiful lies.

Behind shiny façade there are hard truths.  There are hard questions we might ask about how this lie of perfection is maintained. 

We live with the illusion of the normalcy of a two-parent family.  Do we ever think of the cost? Our town librarian told me that single parents head only 3% of this village’s homes.  This is unusual based on national norms.  But in this hometown he cost of living and social stigma tend to push other kinds of families out.

We live with the illusion of healthy kids in our local schools.  Do we ever wonder how that comes to pass?  I have heard the experience of families here in our area.  I have heard of districts trying to force children with mental illness or depression to drop out, lest they mar the school’s good reputation.

We live with the illusion that we have no major crime in these suburbs.  But is this true? I know stories of arrests and incidents that somehow don’t make the police blotter in the local papers.

We live in communities where most people are mostly white, mostly wealthy, and mostly vote the same way (or at least don’t talk about it.)  Do we wonder why?

Maybe we should.

If anyone can do it, it is Christians.  And if there is any time to do it; it is Lent.

Jesus shows the way.


If ever anyone was perfect it was he God’s very self come do to live among us. Jesus had every right to claim power and privilege.  In fact we might even think that would have been the best way for God to enter the world.  And yet Jesus does not do this.  Instead Jesus empties himself, he humbles himself, he enters into our particular suffering.

In other words – Jesus does not go to Eden.  Jesus goes to the wilderness.

Maybe we should too.

For all the hardship, there is a clarity in the wilderness.  You don’t have to dig through the foliage to see the snakes.  They are right there; out in the open.  The ancient disciplines of Lent – fasting, almsgiving, prayer – are ways of getting rid of the trappings of paradise and discovering the truth.  We might also try modern disciplines – study, service, listening to those who differ from us. If it makes us feel uncomfortable, we might be getting close to something important.  I am told the tempter’s way is always easy.

Through these acts we discover something true, and maybe even more beautiful than the tempter’s lies.

The truth is God always stands with the marginalized and oppressed. The truth is God meets us not in power and privilege but in weakness.  This is good news for our hometowns.  Beyond the shiny façade, when we get to what’s real, God is there with is.  The truth is God overcomes our fears God enters our struggles bringing us new life, resurrection life, through the power of the cross.

Thanks be to God,


16427220_10154597911698445_4662945834727006080_nThe Rev. Katie Hines-Shah holds degrees from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota (Classical Languages) and the University of Chicago (Masters of Divinity) where she received the Elsa Marty Entering Ministry Fellowship, and completed her Lutheran studies at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkley, CA. In addition to being the senior pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Hinsdale, IL (since 2011) Rev. Hines-Shah also serves on the boards of HCS Family Services in Hinsdale and the Bishop Anderson House at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and was also recently elected dean of the Near West Conference of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the ELCA.

“Nevertheless, She Persisted”: Slow Burns, Quick Memes, and Wisdom for A Time of Chaos – Rev. Julie Eileen Ryan

Picture 002The Rev. Julie Ryan is a friend of our blog, and in dynamic and lyrical form, she returns to our forum during Woman’s History Month to talk a bit about the history of woman and their resilience and fortitude in the church. This reflection, takes it’s cue not only from her Irish heritage, but also current events – pulling in history, story, and wit to give a reminder to everyone that women are a part of the church, are a part of everything and that has never nor never will change. 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.”

Social Location and Invocation

My husband, Mark, and I live in the western suburbs, near the Morton Arboretum, the former estate of the Morton salt family.

March 1, 2017 is both Ash Wednesday and the start of Women’s History Month.  This is the season when the Arboretum conducts controlled burns to consume invasive species and dead wood, making room for new growth.  Normally it’s too cold for my taste to walk.  But this year, because of the record-breaking warmth, I’ve been encountering new sights and smells:  great swaths of charred earth.  In the woods, a carpet of shining black leaves.  Smoke from smoldering logs perfuming the air.  A clearer view of the land’s contours with the underbrush gone.

May our prayers rise as incense, and what’s dead and harmful burn away, that new life may spring forth.  May our listening and our talking assist in clearer sight and understanding.

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Controlled burn at the Morton Arboretum

Remote Sanctuary

On Epiphany 2016 we went to see Star Wars:  The Force Awakens.  The last couple of minutes of the movie, Rey was traveling to find Luke’s place of exile.  An island came into view.  “Hey!”  I elbowed Mark, with elated recognition:  “that’s Skellig Michael!”  It’s a holy place created by my people—my ancestors—a thousand years before the Reformation.  More on that, below.


“Nevertheless, She Persisted”:  Origin of a Meme

Unless you’ve been on Skellig Michael for the last month, you’ve heard that the Senate Judiciary Committee was debating the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General.  Back in 1986, when Mr. Sessions had been nominated for a federal judgeship, Coretta Scott King had written a letter in opposition, but the letter had never been entered into the congressional record.  On February 7, 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren had begun to read Mrs. King’s letter when Senator Mitch McConnell interrupted and silenced her on the grounds of Senate Rule XIX, which forbids the impugning of the conduct or motive of another senator.  When his action was challenged, he said…

 “She was warned.  She was given an explanation.  Nevertheless, she persisted.[1] 

clockwise – Massachusetts Senator  Elizabeth Warren, Shirley Chisholm, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, US Olympic Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Baton Rouge uprising protester Iesha Evans

Within minutes—literally, overnight—his patronizing words bounced back at him and all over the Internet as an ironic epigram illustrating women who showed courage across the centuries and across the globe (even, the galaxy):  Harriet Tubman.  Malala Yousafzai.  Princess Leia.  Countless others who, in Representative John Lewis’ terms, “got into good trouble” by talking when others didn’t want to listen.

It remains a great outpouring of humor and creativity, of mutual support and heart.[2]

From Shock to a Slow Burn

In 2017, Women’s History Month follows the ugliest presidential campaign of my lifetime.  People of good will can belong to different political parties and disagree over policy;  democracy is strengthened when we can argue well with each other in good faith.  But 2016 brought the utter trashing of norms that many have been working on for generations—of civility, decency, and the most basic respect.

After nearly a decade of race-based threats and unprecedented scorn directed at the Obamas, I dreaded a similar or worse degree of malevolence if a woman should run.  Even so, the reality shocked me:  guffaws over how “second amendment people” might act against her.  Crowds incited to chant “lock her up.”

My best friend from college once said her ambition was to be an old lady who can say to young women, “Oh, honey, you don’t know how bad it was.”  Does it “get better”?  It’s one thing to acknowledge in the abstract that progress zigs and zags—that that bending arc of history isn’t a straight line, but perhaps a series of waves.  It’s another thing to trust, and not give in to cynicism, when you’ve just had the wind knocked out of you.  To have faith that there can be progress, and women’s rights recognized as human rights. [3]

It is a time of purposely instigated fear-inducing chaos.  In such circumstances, where do we derive the strength and will to persist?  When we’re knocked down, how do we retrieve our breath, our spirit?  How do we do a slow burn of lovingly-channeled anger that can purify and make room for new life?

Looking at the Deep Contours of our Life and Faith

Part of the chaos is constant distraction from what is essential and true, and disruption from a sense of time and perspective.  Looking back upon our lives and our encounters with the holy we can reclaim our orientation.  As religious people, our fundamental strength is spiritual.  We rediscover it in relationship:  “we talk.  We listen.”  We discover what we hadn’t noticed before  as we trust one another with the stories of our journey.  Here is part of mine.

My parents each had the same last name, although she was a Catholic Ryan and he was a Protestant Ryan.  Some college classmate thought it would be hilarious to introduce them on a blind date.  Eventually they eloped, to the consternation of both families.  Though everyone’s roots were Irish, the class differences were dizzying.

My parents had three kids, and then, half a generation later, my mother became pregnant with me and my father became fatally ill.  He died before I started school.

Our family didn’t go to church.  Books, music, and art were vital consolation.  Once I read a children’s history of Rome and became enthralled with the vestal virgins:  girls doing ceremonies that kept alive the sacred flame of the city.  So I played “vestal virgin,” processing up the street, chanting, and waving a windstorm-scattered palm branch twice as tall as I was.[4]

Occasionally my sister would take me to mass.  I was fascinated.  It was a different world, a feast for the senses.  Around the same time that the liturgy was translated into English I took instruction and was baptized.  I started going to church on my own.  At home we never grieved, but pretended that everything was fine.  Church was the one place that spoke of death and resurrection—reality and hope.  The language of Scripture was inviting and compelling.  It offered a vision of grace, though I couldn’t have called it that at the time.

I bring all this up because it’s so easy to become preoccupied with internal church worries or arguments that we can forget our most profound experiences, or lose touch with the gift we already possess just by being part of the Body of Christ.  So we resist chaos and evil by grounding ourselves again in wonder.  How do we respond to the mystery that we’re alive at all?  To the mystery—for that matter—that we are capable of responding?  That within a complex creation we are able to love?  This is the sort of treasure that moths and rust can’t consume.  Beyond destruction and death it nevertheless persists.

Back to Sceilg Mhichíl (the Gaelic spelling)[5]


Over the last millennium “my people” certainly played their part in dysfunction, especially as targets of British starvation and contempt.  But let’s go back 1,500 years, to the Migration Period (AKA the “Barbarian Invasions”) in Western Europe.  Only one area was so remote that nobody really bothered with it.  Even the ancient Romans hadn’t reached Ireland and Scotland.

Thomas Cahill tells an engaging story of how Christianity first came to Ireland.[6]  St. Patrick,  taken captive by Irish raiders as a teenager, was a slave for years until he had a vision and escaped.  Eventually he returned with the gospel, and fought against the practice of slavery.[7]   Generally there was greater equality between the sexes in Celtic lands and churches than in Roman ones.  Shared leadership between women and men was lost when the Celtic churches eventually assimilated into conformity with Rome.[8]

Cahill contrasts Augustine of Hippo, surrounded by all hell breaking loose, with the early Irish Christians, who were discovering their first written vernacular and exulting in literature secular and sacred, creating fabulous colorful texts and images like those in the Book of Kells.  As libraries throughout the continent were being looted and burned, Irish nuns and monks were copying everything they could get their hands on.  Building staircases and beehive shaped cells out of nothing but rock.

Later, Irish missionaries traveled to the continent and shared their faith and learning across lands where so much had been destroyed.  Right now, EPA scientists are rushing to create a secure archive of climate data literally “for future reference”—a cyber equivalent of Skellig Michael.

When what we most need is to live to fight another day, persistence entails searching out places of refuge.  Skellig Michael reminds us to spell ourselves and one another in the long term struggle for justice so that we don’t burn out.  It reminds us to honor overlooked people and places, for they are of immense value.  A remote outpost can be a shelter, a center.

Persistent Women in the Gospels

Exorcising Canaanite daughter.jpg
“Exorcising the Canaanite Woman’s Daughter.” Peter Gorban, 1990.

If we look back still further—2,000 years or more—we find enduring refreshment in the word.  Any number of persistent women appear in the gospels, from the woman with the flow of blood to the women at the cross and empty tomb.[9]

But two especially stand out.  In Matthew 15:21 – 28, the Canaanite woman (parallel Mk 7:24 – 30) starts shouting at Jesus for the sake of her demon-tormented daughter.  Jesus is silent.  Then the disciples tell him, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting at us.”  (She was warned.)  He says he’s only sent to Israelites.  But she won’t take “no” for an answer.  He compares her and her daughter to dogs.  (She was given an explanation.)  Without missing a beat she counters his ethnic slur with a clever remark about dogs and crumbs.  (Nevertheless, she persisted.)  And Jesus himself is astonished at her faith, which calls forth her daughter’s healing.  Her persistence is rewarded.

In Luke 18:1 – 8, Jesus tells his friends a parable “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”   In a certain city a corrupt judge doesn’t care about anybody, even God.  A widow keeps coming back to petition him for justice, but he can’t be bothered.  Later he decides he might as well grant her request because her persistence is about to wear him out (literally, give him a black eye.  We can all but hear his crocodile tears).

A common interpretation tries to relate the widow to us, and the corrupt judge to God.  (If even a corrupt judge can be worn down, how much more can God?)  The assumption is that God is male.  The problems with seeing the judge as God’s counterpart are that it makes God’s help contingent upon how hard we press, and it isn’t consistent with God’s loving character.  LSTC adjunct professor Audrey West suggests that we human beings are more like the indifferent judge;  the widow in her vulnerable power is more like the infant Jesus in the manger or the crucified Christ on the cross.  All she has is her presence and her voice, but her tenacity and success in bringing about justice is divine.[10]  (Nevertheless, she persisted.)

The overlooked, underestimated, persistence of God outlasts empires, chaos, cruelty.  We are baptized in both water and the Spirit, who kindles in our hearts the fire of love, and keeps the smallest flame going when all else seems lost.

persistent widow.jpg
“A Friend in Need and the Widow and the Judge” – Nelly Bube, Kazakhstan.

And We Persist

How can we support one another in this surreal era?  (Women in ministry would still enjoy a spa.)

In the fall of 1989, The Persistent Voice was a newsletter on a single piece of legal-size goldenrod paper.  It was started at Wartburg Seminary by Rhonda Hanisch, a woman graduate awaiting call, to encourage others.  Today it contines as a blog, “Addressing with Compassion and Courage Issues of Equality, Power, and Justice Across the Globe”:

The morning after the silencing of Senator Warren, a New York Times article described how women in the White House during the former administration—still a predominantly male environment—used a technique of “amplifying” to make sure that their ideas and voices were heard:

In an environment of deliberate attempts to divide us from one another, how can we stretch to reach out to others who don’t seem to share our presuppositions, and wouldn’t use that word?  How might we expand our community and deepen our communion?  Our ancestral stories about Jesus show him appealing to the imagination of people from every walk of life, and even allowing himself—as in the story of the Canaanite woman—to be surprised and changed by them.

In Thinking Points, George Lakoff writes of the importance of communicating our values in metaphors and deep frames that can persuade “biconceptual” (or, let’s say, “multiconceptual”) people.  The idea is that the majority isn’t an undifferentiated blob of “moderates,” but people capable of holding various positions on different issues.[11]

In They Used to Call Me Snow White…But I Drifted:  Women’s Strategic Use of Humor,[12] Regina Barreca writes that making someone laugh is an act of power.  Things  happen—tables turn—when women tell jokes (think crumbs for the “dogs”).  Humor can shame others or lift them up.  We can tell the difference.

“But she persisted” transformed an act of mansplaining into a joke.  It didn’t harm the mansplainer, but of course paid him the sincerest possible flattery by quoting his very words.  Creatively.  Everywhere, and forever and ever.  May we persist likewise—and “nevertheless”!

The Book of Kells


IMG_0040.JPGJulie Eileen Ryan is one of the rare Irish Lutherans.  In 2017 she looks forward to celebrating her 30th anniversary of ordination, and working on a Reformation 500th anniversary-related “vocation” oral history project at St. Luke’s on Belmont.  She is married to Mark Van Scharrel.  She is making friends with her backbone, and waiting to see what comes next.


The next day, male senators read from the same letter without interruption.  It’s the double standard that’s galling.

[2] Just search “nevertheless, she persisted” and scads of images appear.

[3]’s_rights_are_human_rights  First articulated by the abolitionist/suffragist Grimké sisters in the 1830s, then echoed on a worldwide stage in 1995 by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.  The Invention of Wings (Sue Monk Kidd, 2014), is a novel that unfolds over 35 years in the intertwined lives and voices of Sarah and Hetty (“Handful”) Grimké, the enslaved child given as an eleventh birthday present to Sarah.

[4] It didn’t occur to me to light a fire….

[5] Unesco Heritage Site

[6] How the Irish Saved CivilizationThe Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill (Anchor Doubleday, 1995).  Mostly true.  Thoroughly fun.

[7] Ibid.  See especially pages 109 – 115.

[8] Ibid.  See especially 172 – 179, 200 – 204

[9] Woman with the flow of blood:  Mk 5:25 – 34 and parallels.  Women at cross and empty tomb:  Mt 27:55 – 61,  28:1 – 10.  Mk 15:40 – 16:8.  Lk 23:49 – 24:11.  Jn 19:25b – 27, 20:1 – 2, 11 – 18.


[11] Thinking Points:  Communicating Our American Values and Vision.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

[12] Viking, 1991.

Christianity in the Era of Alternative Facts – Rev. Ronald Bonner


This week’s author in African American History month, Pastor Ronald Bonner – who published this time last year as well, knows a thing or two about racism, United States society, and the church. However in addition to talking about the evils of racism, he has used the occasion of our country’s political situation to write boldly about how the recent upsurge in white supremacist rhetoric since the election of our new president has heightened not only the racism, but also the homophobia, queerphobia, transphobia, Islamaphobia – all the ways that evil tries to divide and conquer God’s children, intersect. And specifically, he talks about the “alternative facts” of white supremacy continue to divide and enrage. 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.”


Chief White House council, Kellyanne Conway, in the interview where she created the term “alternative facts.”

Calling “alternative facts” the truth is like calling arsenic “alternative salt.”

The Bible is clear lying breeds contempt and must be avoided yet we allow it from our politicians, pundits and media sources.  Much of America’s woes and divisions are due to lies.  Racism, sexism, classism, hetero-sexism, are examples of lies or alternative facts that led our culture to accept hate, superiority, and unnatural division as normative.  The use of alternative facts by political and religious leaders serves as a superficial surrogate for the depression and hopelessness that many Americans feel.  Not knowing who to blame, external enemies are created to serve as scapegoats. Alternative facts and hateful speech creates pundits out of persons who have found this fracture in our society and have rushed to fill this void with the venom of blame.



For 60 million Americans Donald Trump is the new messiah.

For the millions of white Americans and others who have felt displaced or devalued in this society Donald Trump is the personification of their hope.  Many average and below average income white Americans and some others have felt that their rights and prestige has been taken away. They feel that they are the ones whose ancestors built this country on a bedrock of gritty determination.  Only to now passively witness their privileges and rights being compromised and redistributed to, in their estimation, blacks, immigrants, and other less deserving groups of people.

The obviously coded and racially biased message of “make America great again” resonates with their primal fear of an end to the notion of white supremacy. Donald Trump supporters are fearful of losing their self-esteem in society and the world.  Further, these supporters are also fearful of losing their place in history.  They have been taught that the “white race” is the superior race. Yet, for eight years they have had that notion of white superiority undermined by the presence of Barak Obama a man of African descent as the President of the United States of America and his Black family living in the White House.  What these hurting supporters see in the 45th President that they could not see in Barak Obama the 44th President of the United States is a messianic hope for the restoration of white supremacy and the calming of their fear of its annihilation.

Anti-Obama protest in 2010 – accusing President Obama of not having been born in the US, the same line of attack that started Donald Trumps political career.

The sad truth is alternative facts are not new, they are recorded in the Hebrew and Christian Bible.  The primary form of alternative facts that is admonished in the Bible is lying or bearing false witness against one’s neighbor.   The writers of the Hebrew text took this notion of false witness very seriously and devoted scores of references throughout their work to condemn it and those who practiced it.  However, for those who use lying as a source for personal gain they know that if they can lie enough, they will find an audience ready to listen by creating false fear and attacking the core emotional values of honest hardworking people.

One cannot honor God by lying and engaging in lying.

In early Judaism one could not proclaim devotion to God while violating God’s rules.  To do so would be a violation of God’s Will and declaring that they were in charge and not God.   This was seen by the elders during nascent Judaism as a direct assault against God.  This assault against God had another name, idolatry.

no other gods.png

We see this today with blind right-wing evangelical support for the current presidential administration. It has been reported that one iconic right-wing evangelical leader shamed former First Lady Michelle Obama for having bare-arms while praising the current First Lady for baring it all. In Ephesians 5 the Apostle Paul calls on Christians to be imitators of God.  As imitators, we are required to be critical thinkers and repudiate alternative facts and hateful speech.  It is what Jesus did and it is what is required of us.  The Bible calls on us to heed sound advice and discipline, Proverbs states and restates that requirement of us.  The Bible states that we are to dismiss foolishness, empty acts and coarse joking.  We are compelled by God not to be deceived by vain or empty words.  Lies, which is another name for hate speech and alternative facts, are used in the political arena to distract from the true and important issues facing the general population.

We are commanded by God to dismiss this speech for it is the substance of empty acts and deception.  We are not to listen to it and certainly we are not to follow or act on this negative output.  Because, it is based on lies or a false witness we are required to keep our wits about us and not join them in their wickedness or oppressions. Their sins will eventually ensnare those involved and hold them tight.  Their own evil devices will be their source of ruin.  Consider the gallows that Haman built for Mordecai.

As stated before, in the political arena alternative facts creates division because it is designed to exacerbate negative emotions especially the fear of loss and greed.  Alternative facts serve as an anemic substitute for useful activity and only serves to divide and distract from the truth. Amid dire circumstances, it inflames human ire until it boils over the top and creates unneeded panic, mistrust, and of course hate.  This practice festers because of fear in the unknown based on uneasy current circumstances, creating a sense of instability that only the speaker or their cohorts can resolve.  In most cases the profiteers are proven wrong yet they continue to thrive creating hateful divisions between voters and the general population.  Jesus stated when he was accused of bearing false witness that a house divided cannot stand.

We cannot allow politicians and those in their administrations to divide the nation by lies, alternative facts, and deception.

During this political climate, the stakes are too high for us to rally around fairy tales from false messiahs.  We must hold political figures to a higher standard than in past elections. They must engage in the truth and not political spin that is full of vain and empty promises.  We must see clearly and not be fooled by words that are designed to distract from the truth.  Beloved, when we live in the illuminating light of Christ we can clearly see the stealth of empty promises and alternative facts as the lies that they are.  As the body of Christ, we must take a stand to keep the integrity of and demand the truth. We can no longer accept that politicians bear false witness as par for the course. We need a reformed normal where truth is not diluted or poisoned with the arsenic of alternative facts. Those who want our votes must come to us not spinning the truth to distract us but, speaking the truth to lead us. We as Christians are called to have nothing to do with fruitless deeds or behaviors.

Former Trump National Security adviser, Michael Flint – before his recent firing after having been caught giving “incomplete” information about conversations with representatives of the Russian government while working on Trump’s presidential campaign.

When politicians come to us with alternative facts, to support their malignant words of fruitless endeavors that lead to higher gas and food prices, lack of health insurance for working class people, increased unrest and injustice God requires we reject them.

When Jesus was confronted by the father of lies in the wilderness Jesus dismissed Satan, we in this political season must be imitators of Christ!

pastorfoto.jpgRonald Bonner, is the pastor of Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Atlanta, GA, author of No Bigotry Allow Losing the Spirit of Fear: Towards the Conversation about Race and The Seat. And has recently been called as a Director of Evangelical Mission/ Assistant to the Bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA

A Psalm to my Ancestors – Rev. Kwame Pitts; Pastor, Redeemer Lutheran Church, South Holland, IL

ThomasLinda sittingInvariably, in the lives of virtually every Christian of African descent, there comes a time where you have to reflect upon the ways that white supremacy have made their mark on you – all the more so if you are a pastor. In our second post celebrating African Descent History month, this week’s author, Rev. Kwame Pitts (LSTC, 2015), shares some of her own powerful journey in her inimitable poetic style – and how she mines the richness and vitality of her African spiritual roots in her work as a Christian and Lutheran pastor. 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.”

“By re-recognizing a pagan understanding of our origins and the dynamics of culture, cultivation and worship and by returning to a connection with our roots and origins, we might begin to reestablish a sacred immediacy as the foundation for an equitable, universal, and human global society, one with its feet on the ground and its head challengingly but no less compassionately in the heavens.” (York, 2003).

Olofi – Creator-God

This, more or less is confessional,

This is not your typical,

“Let me share with you,

Why I am proud to be Black.”

This, is not your typical theological insightful blog post,

More confessional,

Because for the life of me,

Not sure why,

The Creator has me simultaneously

Dancing down dual pathways

Last January, as a part of African Descent Month, Chicago Theological Seminary hosted a lecture, film showing, and worship surrounding the Yoruba culture and religion. The highlight for me personally was the lecture given by Dr. Tracey Hucks on the subject of Yoruba Religion and its intersectionality with African American culture and experience. In her book Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism, she states “The religious nationalism of African American Yoruba would proclaim a new epistemology of the sacred and provide an important reflection upon the past.” (Hucks, 2012)


As people of African Descent

Are willing

And eager

To claim

Who We Are

To claim


Her Culture

Her Resources

Her Resiliency

Her Power

But we shy away at how She connects

Welcomes in

The Divine!

Yoruba women.


As African Americans

Have had to be creative,

Fashioning from the unmalleable life we were handed

Something new here

Born from the ashes of violence,

Occupying our sacred bodies

From the erasure of our sacred tongue

From the silencing

Of our Rites,

Our rituals

Our communing in the midst

Of spiritual mysteries


A maligned


Subjugated people




Began to transform

Our narrative

In hostile lands

To try to siphon off the poison of the status quo

The dominant white culture

The oppressor,

So we,

As African Americans

Could reclaim our humanity.


The lies remained.

“This has become a battle between good and evil; Satan has a question.” from “X” , directed by Spike Lee – click here to watch.


The questions that Malcolm X addresses in this scene is whether the original disciples were Black

Whether Jesus was Black.

How often have we,

As people of Color,

Been surrounded with portraits



Seeing God as white,

And coming to the conclusion

That is why God has not heard our cries

Our pain

And has abandoned us

Because God obviously did not look like us.

These are Lies.

Fed through the lens of Christianity,


In the hands

Of the


Mama Dantor

But the Creator has not abandoned us,

Never has.

Because we are Children of Nature,

Children of the Light

The Creator of All

Has given us…


This is where many of you will disagree with me.

I am not asking you to abandon the faith of those beloved mothers and fathers

I am asking you to dig into your roots



The Creator by Ancient Names




I am asking you to listen to the drums…

And when you hear them

Will you respond?

“The African understanding of the supreme deity as Creator and preserve of all that is implies divine order and harmony both in and among the realms of spirit, nature and history. In the realm of spirit that hierarchical relationship among the supreme deity, the subdivinities, and the ancestral spirits is the paramount exemplar order and harmony, and African peoples seek to emulate it in their familial and tribal communities.” (Douglas, 2005).

And yet, our ancient ways of celebrating and worshiping God have been demonized.

If we are to celebrate African Descent History month, we must lift up all

Because the institutionalization

Of white American Christianity

Has unfortunately




Attempting to snuff out the LIGHT

Of a People.

“The West’s progressive turning away from functioning spiritual values; its total disregard for the environment and the protection of natural resources; the violence of inner citites with their problems of poverty, drugs, and crime; spiraling unemployment and economic disarray; and growing intolerance towards people of color and the values of other cultures…will eventually bring about a terrible self-destruction.” (Somé , 1994).


There is the confession

Of fear.

I fear for us,

The Children of Light,

Children of Nature

Whom they

Are trying to erase our presence

And therefore I am at this crossroads,


I am dancing along two paths.

There are t-shirts being sold on the internet that say-

“I am my Ancestor’s dream”

Let’s not allow these dreams to fade,

And die.


13938421_10208977974099545_5282319197550592525_n.jpgThe Rev. Kwame Pitts, a LSTC alum (M.Div, 2015) dances with the both/and: Serving her Call to be a prophetic Witness of the Gospel as a Rostered and Ordained Pastor in the ELCA; causing chaos whether it is through voting rights (#ELCAVOTES) or contemplating how everyone should be visible in the institution of the Church, especially as the status quo attempts to quell the presence of many voices (#decolonizeLutheranism). When not challenging the institution of Christianity, she has entered the fray of theology/academica once more (S.T.M) in the fertile ground of Chicago Theological Seminary as well as deepening her ties to her Ancestors and exploring the empowering life found in Ifa and Vodoun as resource and a source of liberation theology for the here and now.

A Legacy Too Long Ignored – Prof. Mark Granquist, Luther Seminary

Linda Thomas at CTS eventWe begin African American Heritage Month, noting that at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, the lack of US-based racial and ethnic diversity among our student body is a common subject. Hence, it is all the more heartening to have voices like those of Prof. Mark Granquist who come to the table with this important reminder: “African-American Lutherans have been in this country for more than 350 years, longer than many European immigrants whom we generally think of as being Lutheran.” So take a minute, and enjoy something that one doesn’t read about too often – the history of Black Lutherans in the US. Read, comment, and share!

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

Colonial New York – the first African American Lutheran was baptized in Albany in 1669.

On Palm Sunday, 1669, a Lutheran pastor in Albany, New York, baptized into his congregation an African-American man, who was given the name, Emmanuel. In subsequent years other African Americans, enslaved or free, became members of the Lutheran congregations in New York and New Jersey. African-American Lutherans have been in this country for more than 350 years, longer than many European immigrants whom we generally think of as being Lutheran.

African Americans became Lutherans in many places in the colonial period. In addition to New York, they were found in the Carolinas and Georgia, on the Danish Virgin Islands, and in British and Dutch Guiana in South America.

Though not always, they often were slaves of Lutheran masters; initially, Lutherans were against slavery, but some quickly adapted to it in this country. By the time of the Civil War, there were several thousand African American Lutheran members in the South, and many more (probably 8,000-10,000) who had been baptized Lutheran.

Rev. Jehu Jones

In 1832 an African-American Lutheran preacher named Jehu Jones formed St. Paul’s Colored Lutheran Church in Philadelphia which lasted until 1849. Another African-American Lutheran, Daniel Payne, graduated from Gettysburg Seminary in 1837. After some years as a Lutheran pastor he became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

After the Civil War, most of the African-American Lutherans in the South left the white congregations, where they had generally been second-class citizens. In response, various Southern Lutheran synods began sporadic efforts to evangelize the newly-freed African Americans, and to establish separate Lutheran congregations. Starting in 1868, the Lutheran synods in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia began to license African-American preachers to preach the gospel and gather in congregations.

These efforts were poorly funded at best, and in 1889 (out of desperation) African-American preachers in the North Carolina Synod formed the Alpha Synod, the first African-American Lutheran church organization. This little synod, and the other African- American Lutheran congregations in the South, struggled for survival through the end of the 19th century.

African-American Lutherans move North and West

As national Lutheran denominations formed in the 19th century, they began to do mission work outside their own ethnic boundaries. Many times this meant foreign missions, but it also meant, to some, evangelism among minority groups in the United States. In 1877 the Synodical Conference (dominated by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) began mission work among African Americans — first in Little Rock, Arkansas, and then more successfully in New Orleans.


(the logo of Concordia College, Alabama)

Subsequently, the Synodical Conference also incorporated the preachers and congregations of the Alpha Synod, and began a very successful mission work among African Americans in Alabama. (They were joined here by the Joint Synod of Ohio.) In the South these African-American Lutherans opened schools, academies, and teacher-training institutions, one of which grew into Concordia College, Selma, Alabama, the only historically-black Lutheran college in the country.

Beginning around World War I, the “Great Migration” of African Americans to the cities of the North and West brought new African-American Lutheran congregations in these cities, 38 of them founded between 1923 and 1950. Some of these congregations were formed by migrants from the American South, while others were comprised of immigrants from the Virgin Islands and South America. By 1950, there were nearly 11,000 African-American Lutherans, primarily in urban areas.


(African American Lutheran pastors from the last Cenetury: Rev. Will Herzfeld, the Rev. Nelson Trout and the Rev. Rudolph Featherstone)

With the Civil Rights movement, beginning in the 1950s, the old era of African-American Lutheranism began to change. Prior to this time, most Lutheran congregations were segregated. Beginning in the 1960s, the three largest American Lutheran denominations began to push for integrated congregations, and increased outreach to African Americans. In the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the number of African-American members jumped from 5,000 in 1962 to 49,000 (with 111 African-American pastors) in 1989, when the LCA became a part of the ELCA. In all the American Lutheran bodies in 1991, there were 132,000 African-American Lutherans (about two percent of all Lutherans). In the last 20 years, new Lutheran immigrants from Africa have formed a number of congregations around the country.

How should these numbers be seen? The numbers are, in part, a success story, but they also indicate that, had white Lutherans been more consistently supportive of African-American Lutherans, these numbers could have been much higher. African-American Lutherans have often heroically struggled to build and maintain their congregations, only occasionally assisted by white Lutherans.

Their accomplishments must be honored, and their 350 year legacy lifted up.

granquist_mark_2015_220x240Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, a position he has held since 2007. Prior to this he taught in the Religion Department at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota (1992-2000) and at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota (2000-2007). A 1979 graduate of St Olaf College, Granquist received his M.Div. from Yale University Divinity School in 1984, and his Ph.D. degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1992. His publications include “Lutherans in America: A New History” (Fortress, 2014), “Scandinavian Pietists: Spiritual Writings from 19th-century Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland” (Classics of Western Spirituality, 2015), and “The Augustana Story: Shaping Lutheran Identity in North America” (Fortress, 2008). He is one of the editors of the “Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions” (Baker Academic), which will be published in 2016, and the author of many book chapters, articles and essays, especially on the history of Lutherans in North America.