Like many in our Church, I am deeply grateful to our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, for raising the challenge to re-engage on questions of race and privilege in our society. This is work in which I have been personally involved for many years now, and frankly, one that continues to challenge and sometimes to frustrate me at every turn. Dr. Linda Thomas has asked me to offer some reflections on how the ELCA might actually rise to the Presiding Bishop’s challenge and what resources the ELCA might bring to bear in this effort.
So I begin with a bit of brutal honesty in confessing that despite nearly 30 years of intentional effort and high profile discussion, the ELCA does not appear to be making much headway.
We have done fairly well in diversifying leadership structures on a denominational level and in many of our schools, seminaries and social service agencies, where discretionary choices about employment allow us to be disciplined and intentional in creating leadership employment opportunities. Similarly our representational principles for governance structures have helped to diversify some formal leadership roles.
Nonetheless, the sociological profile of the ELCA is overwhelmingly white, middle class, and comparatively well-educated. And the Conference of Bishops (elected in general assemblies) reflects this demographic pattern in that the vast majority of us (including me) continue to be white, middle class, well educated, male and straight. So how might we respond now, to make some difference that we have not been able to make in 30 years? It seems unlikely to me that doing the same thing we have always done, the same way we have always done it, is likely now to yield a different result.
And though I certainly would never claim to have a solution to this vexing, complex, and persistent problem, I will say that my thinking on the subject has been deeply influenced by Dr. Thomas herself. Several years ago I heard her, in a presentation at LSTC, voice the perspective that Faith and Culture are inseparably linked.
Since culture is the medium through which faith is received and shared, there is, in fact, no meaningful way to talk about religious truth independent of the cultural context that mediates that truth (I pray, Dr. Thomas, that I am grabbing the nub of your position accurately!).
When I heard it, this was a startling assertion to me. Like most people swimming in the aquarium of a dominant culture, I had been taught, and had come to accept, that we were proclaiming a religious truth that transcended cultural relativism. What would it mean for our whole concept of “the way, the truth, and the life,” to view it through the lens of, “the medium IS the message?”
I suspect that an idea like this will be challenged and debated in many ways in academic and non-academic circles alike. But I, for one, have been convinced of its alarming truth through the evidence of actual experience.
If it is, in fact, an accurate insight, the implications for our work on race and privilege are enormous. Even though the ELCA can in no way be considered “a culture,” in any monolithic sense, we are most definitely held together by certain value assumptions, languages, and behavior patterns, that range from worship values to our constitutions, to the way our boards and corporations are structured, to the application of GAAP accounting principles, to our attitudes about time, to our way of making decisions… all of which, are rooted in the conscious or unconscious framework of white, middle class, well-educated North American dominant culture.
Every organization, of course, must choose SOME rules as the glue that holds them together, and our cultural rules, in and of themselves, are not better or worse than other cultural rules. But if we only talk to each other inside the ELCA about race and privilege we are never going to make progress, because we will never be able to get past the cultural blinders of seeing our own values and patterns as universally normative. And because those cultural values and patterns are part of the general social structure of privilege, we will always have the choice of dropping the conversation and not troubling the waters by experiencing or engaging with the fresh air on the other side of our aquarium wall.
All of this has led me to the conviction that our thinking, our feeling, our speech and our action related to race and privilege are never going to appreciably change until we force the conversation and the work outside of the Church Council or synod councils or seminary faculties or ELCA assemblies; in fact outside the ELCA altogether into active interfaith and ecumenical engagement on a local, relational level. Even though there is still an important role for structural leadership in driving that circle of engagement wider, in the end, it is in that local interfaith arena that “the other” is re-humanized into personhood, that the “I-It” relationship is transformed into an “I-Thou” relationship, and the struggle against systemic racism and social privilege becomes an expression of solidarity with someone I love from a different culture, rather than an ideological debate or a seminar topic.
It may very well be that the best single resource that the ELCA brings to this work is our long history of interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural relationship building. And as one leader from our culture and tradition, I will, among other things, be looking for ways in my new role as President of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, to see if we can widen the circle of work in this way.
This past July, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and ELCA Church Council Member William B. Horne II held a special webcast/conversation on racism.
Readings, videos and other online materials from the racial justice ministries ELCA.
Born in Chicago in 1950, Bishop Miller and has lived most of his life in the Chicago-land area. He holds an undergraduate degree in music, and for a time was a professional member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. He has been married to Pamela Miller since 1980, and has two grown sons.
In addition to his previous parish duties, Miller was a member of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod Council. He has been an adjunct instructor of Christian Thought at Aurora University, a founding board member of Suicide Prevention Services of the Fox Valley, and a member and presenter for a special judicial commission on Domestic Violence in the Faith Community.
Prior to his election, Bishop Miller served as the Senior Pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Aurora, Illinois, from 1994-2007. During this time worship attendance grew from 250 to 550. In addition, he facilitated social outreach and community involvement. Since his installation in 2007 he preaches and teaches regularly in the synod’s congregations and shares his perspective and insight in his column in the synod supplement in The Lutheran. He is a member of the ELCA Conference of Bishops Task Force on Immigration Reform, and chair of the committee on Ministry Among People in Poverty.