Rev. Dr. Harvard Stephens, Jr., the Dean of the Augustana Chapel and Pastor to the Community of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, has produced a most thoughtful piece for this week. A homage to Transfiguration Sunday (Sunday, February 7, 2016) as well as to the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Albert “Pete” Pero – Pastor Stephen’s reflection on the nature of cultural appropriation and the power of liturgy have powerful resonance as the church seeks ways to both respect diversity and advocate for creating a new and better world. Please read, enjoy, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
The TEXT AND CONTEXT segment of our weekly chapel series at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago began on February 4, 2016 with an intriguing look at the notion of cultural appropriation – which is what happens when a dominant group borrows, mimics, and exploits elements of another group’s culture while diminishing the significance of how and why these cultural expressions have emerged. We began by considering Luke’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration as it probes the hiddenness of Jesus full identity. Other questions were then raised about what identity means in our religious, political, and social interactions.
Here are some of the questions we considered:
What does it mean to hide one’s true self?
How do oppressive systems conspire to distort the image and voice of people who have limited access to power and status?
What does it mean to discern more clearly our own cultural, social, and political identities?
As people of faith, how are we impacted by the broader society’s mad rush to appropriate new faces – memes, avatars, persona, and masks?
Is this about branding, or something deeper?
Finally, how does Dr. Pete Pero’s affirmation of cultural transcendence inform our reflections on Jesus’ transfiguration?
As we grow into the likeness of our Lord and live in the manner he so graciously modeled for us, what do we discover about ourselves and the seductive and elusive ways we may participate in the perpetuation of stereotypes and mischaracterizations that devalue and diminish the dignity of people who are culturally different?
Gordon Lathrop reminds us in his book, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology: “To turn the symbols and rites toward the crucified Jesus is necessarily to turn them toward suffering humanity outside of the assembly’s circle… It also requires human suffering to be juxtaposed to ritual beauty.” That’s the reason that our liturgical traditions have the capacity to challenge the negative implications of cultural appropriation. There are many faces of Christ revealed in scripture, in church history, and in the cultural milieu of our contemporary world. How we see him in our midst has everything to do with how we recognize how he is present in the lives of strangers and the outcast as well as the dearest of friends and our most beloved companions. There is beauty all around us because Christ is with us, and his love fills the whole creation.
Cultural exchange, cultural understanding, cross-cultural and intercultural exploration, and the innovative experiences of cultural renewal and cultural transformation can be tremendously inspiring and life-giving. The cultural appropriation-model we examined is none of these things. That is why discussions like this need to continue. In Christ, we are called to embody a new creation. That is the amazing core of our life together as God’s people. Jesus’ transfiguration announces something mysterious and wonderful. It always has; it always will.
During our gathering we viewed a video (Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows) produced by Amandla Stenberg, the actress who portrayed Rue in the original Hunger Games movie. We closed our session with a powerful poem written by the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1896. He wrote: “we wear the mask that grins and lies; it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes… why should the world be over–wise, in counting all our tears and sighs? nay, let them only see us, while we wear the mask.”
Let us pray and work for the day when all of God’s children can celebrate the fullness of who they are in this world Christ came to redeem.
Harvard Stephens, Jr., is the Dean of the Chapel and Pastor to the Community at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He is the former Senior Pastor of Frederick Evangelical Lutheran Church on the island of St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands. He also served for eight years as the first dean of Siebert Chapel at Carthage College. Harvard is a graduate of Harvard College and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. He is a talented saxophonist who performs jazz, classical, and other forms of sacred music. Harvard has studied tai chi chuan for many years, and this ancient martial art has become integral to his personal expression of contemplative spirituality. He wants the world to know: this is no time to live an uninspired life.