We Talk, We Listen – Taking Part in the Conversation

Picture 002Dr. Linda E. Thomas
, Professor of Theology and Anthropology Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

This blog, We Talk, We Listen: Conversations about Diversity is launched with two intentions: first, to extend a hearty welcome to new students coming to LSTC this Fall, and second to begin a conversation about diversity that will continue on Wednesday, September 2 from 8:30 a.m. -12 noon, when we have a conversation about diversity as a community inclusive of new and returning students as well as staff, faculty, and administration.

The term “diversity” is often thought to be a code word for people in the US context who have been historically marginalized. Is that what we mean by this term? At LSTC, where we have a Diversity Committee, this term certainly includes people of color, LGBTQI, gender, economic status, religion, physical abilities, age, nationality, ethnicity, neurology (brain function) and learning styles. This mix is understood to be the richness of God’s creation both human and non-human. Scott E. Page, Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics, at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor claims that diversity is an asset. His book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies employs mathematical formulations and case studies to demonstrate the way variety in staffing generates organizational strength. For Page, it is not whether we can all get along but rather are we willing to participate in the messy, chaotic, and difficult, yet, creative, inspired, and innovative life ways that emerge when people from very different backgrounds and experience come together.

When we bring theology into this understanding of diversity then we must consider the complexity with which God fashioned all beingsIn Genesis 1, God forms different creatures, inclusive of humans, thus, diversity is present from the very beginning. The imagery in Genesis 1 Garden of Edenpoints to a creation swarming and teeming with diversity: day and night, birds of the sky and fish of the seas, wild animals and humans. Human diversity crafted by God and made in God’s image is wonderfully good. God’s complex design of variety among living and non-living things is often a challenge for humans. Yet, even with its challenge people who are followers of Jesus, Christians who are baptized by the body of Christ, the Church are called to participate in the messy, chaotic, and yes, difficult task of living together and of valuing human diversity with all of its complexities and cultures.

Over the last several months we have witnessed that the lives of some of God’s children are not highly regarded, and are in fact, disregarded, if not discarded. Just as Jesus’ body was broken on the Cross, so the body of Christ is broken in places such as Ferguson, Missouri; Madison, Wisconsin; Staten Island, NY; Cleveland, Ohio; Charleston, South Carolina; and Waller County, Texas.  In March 2015, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton penned a letter stating “recent events . . . prove we are not living in a post- racial society.” She continues, “I know it’s difficult to talk about race because too many Americans do not want to believe racism still exists in our country. Yet, as always, Christ promises to be alongside us, even in the most difficult of times, working for our reconciliation. Because of God’s promise, we can and must have a deep, honest and even painful conversation about racism.”

Yet, again on June 18, 2015, Presiding Bishop Eaton wrote another letter following the murder of nine African American Christians who were shot in their church during Bible study. While all of the senseless deaths were difficult this incident hit close to home because the person committing the act of terror is a member of the ELCA – St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Bishop Eaton pens these words: It has been a long season of disquiet in our country. From Ferguson to Baltimore, simmering racial tensions have boiled over into violence. But this … the fatal shooting of nine African Americans in a church is a stark, raw manifestation of the sin that is racism. The church was desecrated. The people of that congregation were desecrated. The aspiration voiced in the Pledge of Allegiance that we are “one nation under God” was desecrated. Both the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons, who were pastor and associate pastor, respectively, of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were graduates of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. The person killing both pastors (and seven others) is a member of an ELCA congregation. In the words of Eaton, “All of a sudden and for all of us, this is an intensely personal tragedy. One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.” The elephant in the room is visible for all to see.

Although God created diversity among all living things, Gods diverse children have not been and are not equally valued resulting in hatred, discrimination, and oppression. Christians know this to be sin. This blog, We Talk-We Listen: Conversations about Diversity is the space to have a sacred conversation about race/racism. We will have conversation about other pressing issues, but we begin with race/racism. This blog is especially timely because Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and William B. Horne II, an ELCA member from Clearwater, Fla., held a live webcast on conversation on the complexity and implications of racism on Aug. 6. Presiding Bishop Eaton wants the ELCA to Confront Racism (Twitter hashtag #ELCAConfrontRacism). To view the webcast click here.

Are you willing to participate in this sacred conversation?

This blog, appearing at least once a week, if not twice, will host a variety of people who will engage the topic of diversity and race. Our first guest is the Rev. Dr. Joan R. Harrell, public theologian, womanist scholar and founder of the online forum Racism Contradicts Christianity, who will co-facilitate the Conversation about Diversity with me at LSTC on September 2. We invite you to join us to intentionally talk and listen to each other.


MSNBC Telejournalist Melissa Harris-Perry speaks about defining racism in America.

Two unidentified white men place Confederate flags near MLK’s home church. Video footage here.

Video where Janet Mock at MSNBC talks about how Black Lives Matter is a movement, not a slogan.


6 thoughts on “We Talk, We Listen – Taking Part in the Conversation

  1. Cheryl Hoth

    I’m so glad to see that this Blog will be a part of the LSTC community and a part of the ongoing effort to battle against racism, which I believe to be one of the biggest struggles in our nation. Thank you for your insightful words, Dr. Thomas — I’m looking forward to helping to lead the Conversation About Diversity during orientation and am also eagerly anticipating reading/hearing the voices expressing views in upcoming blog entries. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Yet, even with its challenge people who are followers of Jesus, Christians who are baptized by the body of Christ, the Church are called to participate in the messy, chaotic, and yes, difficult task of living together and of valuing human diversity with all of its complexities and cultures.”

    This part really jumped out at me, particularly the words, “messy,” “chaotic,” and “difficult.” I think so much of our society’s inability to truly embrace diversity comes from how diversity is first presented to us. As early as elementary school, we see these images of happy people, people of all shapes, sizes, and colors, holding hands, probably encircling the globe. This, we are told, is the world as it should be. What this vision ignores, though, is all the messy, chaotic, and difficult work that is required to ever reach that point. It ignores the reality that this work is ongoing. Even when we reach that happy moment, there will still be messy, chaotic, and difficult conversations. It’s actually pretty easy and simple to say, “Black Lives Matter.” It’s just messy, chaotic, and difficult to confront white privilege, dismantle white supremacy, and admit to our own biases. But those actions are essential and I think considering those actions in the context of our personal theologies is really important as well.

    I attended a panel discussion in Ferguson called, “Breaking into History: The Black Church in the Era of Ferguson.” It was an incredibly powerful experience and inspired me to more closely examine how my faith informs my commitment to social justice. Bree Newsome was on the panel and she said, “The first apostles, they went TO the people!” Rev. Michael McBride asked if we will be “chaplains of the American Empire” or if we will be “prophets of the Kingdom of God.” These statements, and really the entire discussion, reminded me that God calls us to engage in this challenging work and to bring these conversations to the people.

    I think using words like “messy,” “chaotic,” and “difficult” is a really useful and powerful way to introduce this conversation to new students and, really, anyone. I’m excited to have authentic conversations about diversity in which we can be honest about the world as it is, bold about the world as it should be, and realistic about all the work it will take to move from “is” to “should be.” I’d be interested to know how other people were first exposed to diversity and to hear about their experiences with the messy, chaotic, and difficult work of building and strengthening diverse communities.


  3. mial2000

    I feel that diversity is the rule and not the exception when it comes to creation. We all have different talents, gifts and interests, and any one of these isn’t better than another one. This also applies to race, sexuality, gender, and any other dimension of being human.


  4. Malina Keaton

    I just concluded a summer of outdoor ministry at a camp- maybe others coming to LSTC have as well. At camp, one of the most rewarding weeks of the summer always ends up being when we invite adults with developmental disabilities to take part in a week of our programming. Though it can be rewarding, many times I’ve witnessed counselors become extremely anxious in anticipation of the week, some even to the point of panic attacks. They don’t seem to know what to expect and are beyond scared of working with these individuals. It isn’t until they are actually in their presence that they are able to see beyond a characteristic that distinguishes them from the “norm” and recognize not only a thriving humanity within them but just how much can be gained in their presence. What seemed to assist this was proximity, recognizing a tension that must be reconciled, and love for another in Christian community.

    It reminds me of how often we miss these things in many of our interactions with each other- but particularly in conversations regarding race that need to take place in the church. First, they sometimes neglect to happen at all. But second, there are so many ways we remove humanity from each other and make this about theory rather than people. My Facebook is currently flooded with debate on the #blacklivesmatter vs. #alllivesmatter and every thread I see seems to go in circles. I think that is the very problem, that it is occurring over social media. On the other hand I see a post from one of my friends citing in detail a time when she experienced racism at her place of work and I am positive that had I not had a Facebook, our next interaction would have been small talk about her job rather than a profound conversation that incited me to contemplate systemic racism and its impact on those I know.

    Sometimes I am incredibly thankful for the intersection of advocacy and social media, and other times I consider it an ineffective tool for change that encourages an unfollow rather than an opportunity to legitimately listen to someone who wants to be heard. I would be interested to hear thoughts on the efficacy of social media when it comes to issues of race. Is there is a way to practice effective reconciliation of the body using such a medium? Does it help or hurt a movement?


  5. tephor

    Thank you, Dr. Thomas, for pushing the discussion, and for the already insightful comments. This is exactly what I hoped to experience at LSTC. This discussion is important because 1) conversation leads to illumination and 2) church = change. We have the capacity, as the body of Christ, to work from the inside out to change the tone as our complex world creates new and more horrifying discrimination, especially at the intersection of oppressions (queer of color/gender and poverty). We have the ability, through deep listening, to see the impact of privilege in our lives. I see my own privilege, as a white male who was raised in a home with two parents, finished high school, went to college, and can choose which neighborhood I live in. This has absolutely contributed to my point of view, but I believe that as we identify our social location we can more clearly see our relationship to, and impact on, those different from us.

    Having grown up in an almost-exclusively white neighborhood, and now living in one that is almost 50-50 mixed race, my experience has definitely been shaped by this conversation. People who know where my partner and I live (an older Victorian neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky) inevitable ask: Isn’t there a lot of crime? I would never live there—I wouldn’t feel safe! Meanwhile, the neighborhood I grew up in (about 20 minutes from where I now reside) is certainly still predominately (if not exclusively) white—and is considered a better place to live! Here is a message that is perpetuated by our good friend the Media: color = bad, white = good. Peaceful, non-violent African American demonstrators gathered in solidarity to protest the corrupt actions of law enforcement are violent thugs out of control and require police in riot gear: while white, University of Kentucky students who take to the streets of Lexington and burn couches—that’s right, BURN COUCHES—are considered stupid kids that are a little out of control because it is hard to lose out to another basketball team!

    It is a real human tragedy that the mark has not seemed to move very far when it comes to respect within diversity. This generation’s heated debate over the Confederate flag harken back to my own experience as a child of the second wave of school desegregation in the seventies. Where do we go from here? I think the journey must happen together, in community, as informed by Trinity—interdependent and mutually indwelling.


  6. Pingback: I am Pulse – Vicki Pedersen Ph.D. student at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago – We Talk. We Listen.

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