“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” – thus begins the writer of Psalm 133. My own school, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, in response to recent events both in the city and in the seminary, has recently ended an intensive week of lectures, panel discussions, and “Sacred Conversations about Institutional Racism.” All of these things were done with the hope of achieving this unity, this shalom. And my thoughts for this weeks post hope to fill you all in on what’s been going on. These have truly been momentous times for my school, and I have been heartened and strengthened by all of the responses. Please read, enjoy, and share. Let’s keep this conversation going!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
On January 15, 2015 African American Presidents and Deans of theological schools in the United States issued an open letter to their colleagues throughout theological education. The letter was a call to action for leaders of theological schools to “arise from the embers of silence” in the face of racial violence and injustice. Those who wrote this needed epistle – no different than Paul’s letter to the Romans or that sent by Martin Luther King from the floors of a Birmingham jail – exposed the murder of black and brown bodies by those sworn to serve and protect. It challenged Christians leading institutions of theology to step up to claim the sanctity of black and brown children of God – their own siblings.
These leaders put forth a series of questions, but most significantly, they ask:
“How can we continue with business as usual in our theological schools in the midst of so many egregious injustices?”
It is this last question, in particular, that pierces the souls of those who lead, teach in, and attend theological schools.
The New York Times then upped the ante on April 16, 2016 when they unambiguously proclaimed “Chicago Police Department is Plagued by Systemic Racism.” A task force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued its report, saying “Racism has contributed to a long pattern of institutional failures by the Chicago Police Department in which officers have mistreated people, operated without sufficient oversight, and lost the trust of residents . . .” Even the Chicago Police Department’s “own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”
Chicago’s population is almost evenly split between Whites (31.7%), African Americans (32.9), and Latinos (28.9%) – but violent confrontations between people of color and the police are horribly skewed. The report revealed that between 2008-2015 there were 404 shootings of which 74% were Black, 14% were Latino, and only 8% were White.
The final tipping point then came just three weeks ago – on April 19, 2016 – when Professor Richard Perry, read a statement of protest after the all-white panel for discussion on “Law and Gospel” had been introduced. Dr. Perry had recently treated this same subject in an article in the February issue of The Lutheran in an article titled “Multicultural Ministry: Is it a Matter of Faith or a Fad?” He mourned that “…the ELCA remains among the least racially and ethnically diverse denominations in the U.S. Many questions can be asked about this situation. Why is it that, more than a quarter century since we set lofty goals, only 3 to 4 percent of us are people of color?” Dismayed by this inability to change, Prof. Perry asks: “Is there something about the Lutheran ethos that is a barrier to incorporating how racially and ethnically diverse people understand God and Jesus Christ operating in their lives? Is multicultural ministry a matter of faith or following a fad?”
His protest statement from a few weeks ago echoed this sentiment:
“. . .once again, an event, in my area of expertise, fails to include me or another North American Lutheran of color theologian.” The panel “models and reinforces a view that North American people of color, who are Lutheran, have nothing of value, theologically, to contribute to a “conversation” on what “Lutherans” understand about “the law!” That is offensive and needs to be called out!”
So the question remains: What does a seminary in the United States of America and in the racist climate of the city of Chicago do in light of the open letter to the presidents and deans of theological schools in the USA? What do we do in light of the report from a task force of esteemed scholars about the racism in the Chicago police department? What do we do in light of Professor Perry’s statement?
On February 2, 2015 Presidents and Deans of ELCA theological schools committed themselves to give attention to racial injustice in the United States. The statement pledged that leaders of all eight ELCA seminaries would publicly challenge and oppose racial injustice “in vigorous and prophetic ways in our schools.”
Presidents and deans of ELCA theological schools admitted that those attending and working in theological education were predominantly white and, what’s more, fell dreadfully short of keeping concerns about racial and social injustice in the foreground of their work. Yet, even with that being the case the call for action from African American presidents and deans of theological schools across the nation meant “. . .[they] cannot be silent.” They continued, “We confess that the fear of being uncomfortable or making others uncomfortable has contributed to render some of our efforts inadequate.” However, they continued, “We are grateful for all those in our institutions and churches who have been and continue to be prophets for racial justice and freedom” while at the same time “recogniz[ing] that our efforts need to be more consistent among all that we do throughout all our theological education institutions” – and that remaining “silent when we should speak” is failure.
This is a stunning articulation of a commitment for social justice – especially since the President and Dean of my own seminary, The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, are also signatories on the statement – the Rev. Dr. James Nieman and the Rev. Dr. Esther Menn, respectively. It is no wonder that there was space for Dr. Perry to make his prophetic statement.
So what do we do in light of Professor Perry’s statement?
Dr. Perry’s statement is connected to the open letter African American Presidents and Deans. It was not simply a rhetorical manifesto or clarion call uniquely tied to the panel. It was a cry for humanity, his black humanity, to be recognized and valued. This cry resounded “Black Lives Matter” –an assertion of his existence. His words were deeply spiritual, linked to the history of a people who have experienced centuries of collective oppression representing the communal expression of a people insistent that it is a reasonable, right, and holy thing for them to have a nondiscriminatory existence.
LSTC graduate, Dr. Carlos Santos writing for the March 2015 issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, in response to the Open Letter of African American presidents and deans, pens:
“Historical amnesia, personal guilt and (un)conscious bias often get in the way of helpful conversations about the issue of race in the United States of America and elsewhere.” Consequently, he asserts, “we must dare to explore the past, we must be humble in understanding our own feelings of guilt or anger or self righteousness, and we must place it all under the cross of the One who died to redeem us from our own self-destructive ways and to open up a new way, a way of peace, reconciliation and true justice for all.” (Journal of Lutheran Ethics, October 2015).
In the weeks following Dr. Perry’s protest, LSTC then presented an embodied response to the questions asked in both the Open Letter as well as Dr. Perry’s article in The Lutheran. During the last week of classes we did not continue with business as usual in the midst of so many egregious injustices at our little seminary. We engaged in sacred conversations.
These took place in at least three ways. The last day of my Martin Luther King, Jr. class on April 29 was one response. I invited Dr. C. Vanessa White, of the Catholic Theological Seminary, to give a lecture titled, “Martin Luther King, Spiritual Formation, and Leadership.” The last hour of the class then featured a panel shared by Professors Jan Rippentrop and Richard Perry on the topic, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Theologian, Ethicist, and Preacher.” The seminary’s students themselves then our work concluded with a series of “Sacred Conversations about Institutional Racism” from Sunday, May 1 through Friday, May 6 – all lead by students, faculty, and staff. So, with the Spirit’s leading, things began to unfold and fall in place very easily.
Consequently, and with impressive thoroughness, these small group discussions, presentations, and panel discussions wrestled with racism in a way often made difficult by the two great, evil powers of greater US society: white privilege and white guilt. Yet in recent days at LSTC, these twin powers were acknowledged and shaken under the power of the cross.
I also wish to thank Bishop Wayne Miller, the President of LSTC the Rev. Dr. James Nieman, the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Thomas, and Rev. Kimberly Vaughn all the many LSTC graduates who prayed without ceasing during our sacred conversations. I also thank all the co-facilitators and participants who followed the Holy Spirit’s call to make this so memorable and effective. And lastly, I want to thank those unable to attend and I even thank those who had no desire to attend because all are beautifully made in the image of God and therefore are siblings in Christ.
All of you took your place at this table, and I thank you for it.
Dr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, scholars and communities as a scholar for almost twenty years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. With a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.