Killing Lutefisk Lutheranism – Erik Olaf Thone, Candidate for ELCA Ordained Ministry

Picture 002A wise man once said “By the time that you think that evil might be around, it has actually already come inside and made itself at home.” This is true for the church as much as anywhere else, and we had a powerful reminder of this last week at my home seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. I’ll leave this week’s author, M.Div. student Erik Olaf Thone, to give you the details  – but rest assured these have been powerful days of late. The Holy Spirit is shaking my community but good. Hopefully, what Erik’s written will shake you good too. Please read, comment, and share!

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


My seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, is a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Americaa denomination where 96% of its members are white – and last week this reality became uncomfortably clear. On Wednesday, April 20, 2016 LSTC hosted a faculty panel to discuss preaching “Law and Gospel,” or how and when Christians should preach mercy, grace, and forgiveness as opposed to judgment and the necessity of action. It is an important subject for Lutherans.  The professors on the panel were all qualified to address the subject but the panel reflected a flaw often seen in the ELCA – despite there being a small number of faculty of color on campus – all of the participants were white.

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According to Pew Research, the ELCA is literally the whitest Christian denomination in the US – second from the bottom on this chart.

Protesting this persistent problem, the Rev. Dr. Richard Perry – African American ELCA pastor and Professor of Church and Society and Urban Ministry at LSTC – stood before approximately 70 LSTC students, staff, and faculty, and read a carefully prepared statement elucidating his disappointment that, as has happened in countless other ways and events in the ELCA, his perspective as an African American Lutheran (let alone any non-European perspective) is not really valued as “Lutheran.”

In concluding his statement, he invited all assembled to attend a lecture on this exact subject – the conflation of white-ness with Lutheran identity – in his Contemporary Christian Ethics course. The panel then adjourned, and then they and the attendees then went to Dr. Perry’s class for the remainder of the afternoon period.

I’ve heard a variety of critiques of my professor’s actions, however, focusing on the circumstances surrounding this panel is to miss the point.  Whether or not the other members of the panel were qualified or if Dr. Perry could have been more tactful in his protest matters about as much as what Michael Brown may have said to police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri before – though unarmed and a considerable distance from Wilson’s vehicle – he was murdered.  As Jim Wallis writes in his new book (which I would highly recommend): The facts in specific cases are often in great dispute.  But the reality that young black men and women are treated differently than are young white men and women by our law enforcement system is beyond dispute.[1]

 

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Memorial for Mike Brown on the site of his shooting – Ferguson, MO 3/2015

At this very moment an unnerving shadow weighs heavy upon the conscience of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and I hope everyone feels it.  Not everyone present would agree with my interpretation of the words and actions of Dr. Richard Perry here on our campus last Wednesday.  Not everyone present experienced it as an inspiring prophetic display that we were privileged to witness. I did. Not everyone present heard hope in the midst of his anger, frustration, and hurt.

I did.

Some critics have lost themselves in debating the “facts” of his prophetic outpouring, but this avoidance of the real issue is an act of privilege available only to those of us who are white. This evasion is a passive acquiescence to injustice and the most damaging perpetuation of racism.  We must ask ourselves: will we focus on the prophetic message or the prophet’s means to convey the message?  Will we hear the prophet Isaiah’s good news or dismiss him because we’re uncomfortable with his naked dramatization (Isaiah 20:3)?   Will we commit to the Kingdom of God Jesus preached or conform to the unjust, unearned, comfort and good order of the status quo?

The prophets never brought the conflict and Dr. Perry did not bring the conflict to LSTC.  The shadow of racism has been an ever-present plague upon this nation since before its founding. This includes the LSTC campus – whose land used to be the home of many black families who didn’t want to leave.  It is a national and a global evil. This is a Church problem.  This is an LSTC problem. It is not a problem “out there”; it is a sin deeply embedded within each of us people who believe we are white – and to remind us Dr. Perry brought the sword of Matthew 10:34:

[Jesus was saying] I come not to bring an old negative peace, which makes for stagnant passivity and deadening complacency, I come to bring something different, and whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated, between the old and the new. Whenever I come a struggle takes place between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come not to bring a negative peace, but a positive peace, which is [community], which is justice, which is the Kingdom of God.[2]

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“Only whiteness has the right to determine what it means to be Lutheran in this church. This. Is. Not. Right!” Rev. Dr. Richard Perry, Jr., Wednesday, April 20, 2016.

Dr. Perry preached the Law because if you seek justice tension is good.  Conflict is good.  Struggle is good.  Be uncomfortable.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a peace beyond the absence of conflict.  Those of us with privilege, however, are generally unwilling to welcome the struggle that leads to this positive peace.

If anyone can claim the privilege of the ELCA’s Euro-centrism it is I. 

One of the “frozen chosen” of Minnesota, my home-congregation of Advent Lutheran Church hosts an annual lutefisk dinner.  I was born with a Lutheran Book of Worship in my hands.  As a child, I fell asleep to Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”  I attended an ELCA College named after the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus.  I never sit in the front row of pews.  My middle name is Olaf!  Scandinavian heritage should be celebrated, but if northern European descent is conflated with Lutheranism then there will never be a place for Dr. Perry or other people of color in the ELCA and all talk of diversity is a self-deluding facade.  Further, if any Christian denomination is exclusive, explicitly or implicitly, to a particular race or ethnicity it is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  That excluding church is no longer representing the Body of Christ where “there is no longer Jew or Greek” (Galatians 3:28).

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The Rev. Dr. Richard Perry, Jr.

It is a good and faithful thing to have webcasts on confronting racism, to host diversity workshops, and to post articles on Facebook and Twitter, but as Dr. Perry so boldly reminded us – we mustn’t imagine this means we have somehow moved beyond our own racial prejudice.  Indeed, I have talked about racial justice more in my last 8 months at LSTC than ever before in my life, but I’m coming to realize that some of this talk is merely consolation for people of white.  Worse, it can be a way to excuse ourselves from honest personal reflection on our own complicity with white privilege: “I attended a Black Lives Matter action, studied abroad in India, and did mission work in South Africa so I can’t possibly be racist.”  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?” (Matthew 7:3).

I am a racist.

It has been no easy journey for me to reach those four words, but I believe that if there is hope for our school, church, and country white people must move beyond our defensiveness to accept the difficult truth: “No matter who you are, where you live, how you have acted—and even if you have fought hard against racism—you can never escape white privilege in America if you are whiteTo benefit from oppression is to be responsible for changing it.[3]

I am a racist.

Being racist doesn’t mean you’re a bad person; it means you’re still becoming the person you’re called to be, purging yourself of the racism that is the inheritance of every white person born in this country.

Privilege

That afternoon I asked Dr. Perry to forgive us for our complicity in the racism he condemned; it isn’t that easy.  He responded by calling us all to close our closet doors, fall to our knees, search our hearts and minds and seek forgiveness from God alone.  This is not a moment for cheap grace.  We have in this moment an opportunity for transformative repentance.  This moment might change the course of our school, the Church, and the country.  In this moment we will be measured as prophets or passive servants of the status quo. 

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In the words of Dr. King: “We must make a choice.  Will we continue to march to the drumbeat of conformity and respectability, or will we, listening to the beat of a more distant drum, move to its echoing sounds?  Will we march only to the music of time, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soul saving music of eternity?  More than ever before we are today challenged by the words of yesterday, ‘Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.’”[4]


Resources

For anyone who would like a copy of Rev. Dr. Perry’s statement to the “Law and Gospel” panel, feel free to email him at rperry@lstc.edu. He is the oldest black professor teaching Christian Ethics in the ELCA, and after his retirement in July of this year he will be deeply missed by the seminary.

Got White Privilege? is a powerful video and resource website put together by our neighbors at Chicago Theological Seminary (UCC).

Teaching Tolerance – a new initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Judith Butler, also recently had a sit-down with the New York Times to explain the beauty behind #BlackLivesMatter as opposed to #AllLivesMatter.

The Rev. Joelle Colville-Hanson wrote a piece on current ELCA leaders creating memes with the hashtag #DecolonizeLutheranism, humorously and persistently challenging the Euro-centricity of Lutheran identity in the US…

…which has lead to the development of a conference on #DecolonizeLutheranism – taking place at LSTC in the fall of  2016. For more information, email fherrera@lstc.edu.

 


Erik at CLLCErik Thone is completing his first year at LSTC as part of the M.Div. program.  He’s entranced as a candidate for ministry with the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA.  Prior to coming to LSTC he spent four years serving as the Youth and Family Minister at People of Faith Lutheran Church in Winter Garden, FL.


 

[1] Jim Wallace, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, 5.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” In A Testament of Hope, 51.

[3] Jim Wallace, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, 35.

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 20.


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18 thoughts on “Killing Lutefisk Lutheranism – Erik Olaf Thone, Candidate for ELCA Ordained Ministry

  1. The European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice is one of the ELCA’s six ethnic associations. We are a network of partners working on de-whitifying church and society. We welcome the conversation. Repentance is critical reflection that leads to heretofore unimagined actions of grace and justice. Let us repent.

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  2. James C Sorensen

    In our ELCA Synod (SW Texas), we have formed a “Racism Justice Task Force.” We have had two meetings, and had to cancel the third because of some leaders not being able to attend. I am so afraid that we come together to just make ourselves feel better about our knowledge of the subject, and not the cleansing of our souls. Pray for us.

    Jim Sorensen

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  3. Steve Flower

    A special note to Erik – thank you for the courage to write this. It takes special work to see past the vast white ship of privilege on which you and I sail, and become aware of the wider, stormy sea around us. You have written what I have felt for many, many years.

    My prayers rise for the seminary I called home for two years, and for the wider Church, in their struggles.

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  4. Noah Hepler

    I am deeply sympathetic to the point of this article. And I am thankful for the author’s courage to write it. What is written here is something that we need to hear. I am somewhat hesitant to ask this, as a stranger to both the school and to the author; but, I am having trouble getting past the language of the headline. It seems to me that “Killing ____” is something gaining momentum in our parlance as a church. Just as much as we need to stop colonialism in the Church, we need to stop using the language of killing things, whether it’s Sunday School or Lutefisk Lutheranism. We are, after all, commanded not to kill. Appealing to murder for the sake of getting attention for a new program or a headline will only undermine the efforts to reform the church when it is in error. I’d rather our language be shaped by the Resurrection than the sons of Mars.

    In this particular case, “Lutefisk Lutherans” represents a group of people, who are also our siblings in Christ. While we need to reform our colonial ways, I am uncomfortable with language that suggests, even metaphorically, offing another set of sisters and brothers in Christ in order to do so.

    Again, I am all for the message, but I humbly ask that we use a non-violent language in order to communicate it.

    Peace

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As an ally of American Indians ever since the 1970’s days of National Indian Lutheran Board I am always aware of the lack of inclusion on graphs and in history of the original people of this land. Who wants to be always the other? Note the graph and the land LSTC is on. Otherwise I appreciate this article.

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  6. I have only read your article once but I will share it and take it to my prayer corner. Thank you for your prophetic voice and witness to the voices of others. Pastor Both Spitzner Neubauer, Emmanuel Lutheran Church, Vienna, VA

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  8. Said Ailabouni

    The ELCA needs a new reformation by leaders who are not glued to Luther’s language and time. Who will lead? I hope each one of us.
    Those of us who come from non-European backgrounds have a gift to offer, a different perspective, that can bring life into the church.

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  9. Erik – Thanks for your comments. In organizing, we speak of bringing the crisis that afflicts the people to the doors of the people in power, so that, for them too, the crisis is exposed and felt, and so that those in power are presented with a chance to respond–to repent or to carry on ignoring and enabling the crisis that afflicts the people everyday. Dr. Perry exposed the crisis at our own institution, the crisis of institutional racism, the crisis white people have the luxury of ignoring, but people of color experience every day. So the opportunity is presented: will we change? To be clear, change is more than a diverse panel (though a diverse panel is a start, and points toward where we aspire to be). At the same time, diversity is not the same as justice. Nowhere near. Having everyone at the table means nothing if everyone is not able to eat. Real justice is a share in power–decision making, seats among the board of directors, a voice in the decision making, direction, and reformation of the institution, and so on. How diverse are we behind the scenes? What will we do to become the diverse institution we aspire to be? Which communities are not represented at all? How will we become an institution that that represents the diversity of Pentecost, where everyone is able to speak, and everyone is heard? Thanks for your thoughts, and your heart for the gospel and mission of the church.

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  10. Karen Read

    I married into a Lutheran family, after growing up in another mainstream Protestant denomination. I was aware almost immediately of feeling like an “outsider”, even as a white working class Christian. The ethnicity is pervasive. I can’t begin to imagine how people of color feel! I am on a journey I began as a public school teacher decades ago. (It feels as though I have a million miles ahead of me.) It was once called Human Relations, then Affirming Diversity, then Tolerance, but until it was called anti-racism, I could only perceive the issues from my white perspective. I interrupted my readings literally in the middle of a book about why the black students all eat together in the cafeteria. The author, Beverly Daniel Tatum, suggested that white people learn about white allies and how they have been of help to the struggle. This was the first of many eye-opening books/videos/conversations/ which have taught me that I don’t even know what I don’t know. In other words, as I read the above comments, it occurs to me that creating task forces, committees, etc. is operating from a position of white privilege. It is not until we listen to what people of color have been saying about what they want/need and respond to those needs, can we begin to listen to their truth. Until the Church is willing to take radical steps to work against the institutional system of white supremacy, as the Abolitionists did 2 centuries ago, will the realm of God appear in our communities of faith.

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  12. As a person, I grow tired of the constant “hate” rhetoric within communities in which there is no diversity. This hate rhetoric is contained in the disruption created by Dr. Perry. If my community has 15,000 people, of which 1 percent sees themselves as African American, then how is it “wrong” or disproportionate that not one person who sees themselves as African American is not chosen for a panel. Now, if the panel is chosen because of ability, experience, recognized excellence in the field being discussed, then that person, regardless of race should be chosen. But, I am not a racist. The ELCA is far from being racist in anything it does or represents. Other than Christian non-denominational churches, we are the most inclusionary religion in the United States. Now, if one in 4 members are of a certain race or ethnicity and a panel contains more than 3 people, the panel should represent its community. I do not know what is going on up there where my Norwegian Lutheran and Czech Bohemian Lutheran ancestors immigrated to. Most are still there. Others of us like Florida better. But I feel no “white” guilt as I am not a racist but have been beaten because I was white by other ethnicities. I have been promoted and hired because I was a white male by African American women in authority because human resources said “we didn’t have any” (their words, not mine) and yes, they took advantage of their authority over me. I am going to skip to the chase: I dream of the day when I am judged by the quality of my character and not the color of my skin. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I feel sometimes as though talking perpetuates but our actions navigate everyone’s future. Don’t interrupt a panel to “teach” a lesson when I could teach you one as well. Make it known in a different way so that the next time, if applicable, it will not happen again, by conscience.

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