In a sure and glorious sign of the Holy Spirit at work, #decolonizeLutheranism broke onto the scene just a few days before LSTC’s Sacred Conversations on Race. These two forces, thus combined, found their way into the mind of LSTC graduating senior, Drew Yoos – soon to sErving his very first call at Light of the Cross Lutheran Church in northwest Washington state. Coming from a rich, German American Lutheran heritage, he writes with poignant humility on Lutheran identity in the US, and gives a healthy reminder that the Lutheran confession is a global phenomena with global voices, and that if conversation between these many voices and tongues of Pentecost were good for the disciples, they will be good for us too. Please read, comment, and share!
“What does it really mean to be Lutheran?”
We know from the recent #DecolonizeLutheranism movement on social media that it is not about our food or cultural customs. But what about our theology? This question has been at the root of some of the recent struggles on the LSTC campus, in the ELCA, and even on social media. Today, at a discussion surrounding the institutional racism at LSTC, one student asked, “Is it even possible to be a church steeped in German and Scandinavian roots and still have room for contextual voices?”
It’s a valid question.
And one that for many, the answer might just be “No.” But I want to suggest that there is a more complex answer to this question and others like it. Because it seems at the heart of this, for many, is the fearful knowledge that letting other voices be heard means letting something go that I have held dear. Or even worse, letting something that is important to me die. So, is it necessary to “kill” Lutheranism as we have known it to make way for something different? After all, death and resurrection started this whole thing in the first place.
At the law/gospel panel at LSTC a couple weeks ago, Dr. Richard Perry made known his grievances with the institutional racism at LSTC and within the church at large. And I would never presume to speak for Dr. Perry, but I feel fairly certain that the combination of action and setting was more than coincidental. The Law/Gospel doctrine is central to what it means to be Lutheran, right alongside the doctrines of Justification by Grace through Faith and Theology of the Cross. And in his remarks that followed the cancelled panel, Dr. Perry made clear why that was the perfect place to make his voice heard. “Only whiteness has the right to determine what it means to be Lutheran,” he said. “That. Is. Not. Right.”
And this is where the shift occurs.
The answer to the student’s question earlier about reconciling a Northern European heritage with contextual theology is not to kill one and lift up the other (seen Erik Thone’s post from April 25). In fact, you’ll find very few voices at LSTC or anywhere in the Lutheran Church arguing that we should just scrap justification and start over with a new theology. We love being Lutheran! What Dr. Perry was expressing is that there is something fundamentally oppressive about who has the right to determine what an “orthodox” Lutheran interpretation is. And in him being left off of the panel, and in voices of color being consistently ignored on the topic of Lutheran theology, it is clear that the system that decides what it means to be Lutheran has no room for any views other than the orthodoxy we have always known.
And if you hear me as bashing classical, traditional interpretations of Luther, then we are still missing the full picture. No one in this conversation is claiming that Lutheran orthodoxy is incorrect. But what Dr. Perry is suggesting is that without other voices, it is incomplete. Without a diverse interpretation of law and gospel, we are only reflecting part of what it means to be Lutheran. Without people of color able to fully engage the theology of the cross (a doctrine which is especially applicable to oppressed populations), then our understanding of Christ’s death is not as full as it could be. Without international voices contributing to and challenging our “normative” interpretations of Justification by Grace, Sola Scriptura, or the Two Kingdoms, we are limiting ourselves to a white/German/Scandinavian understanding. This is like having a beautiful puzzle before us, but only allowing certain pieces to be put in their place.
The picture is not as full as it could be.
What it means to be a Lutheran is still intricately bound by adherence to the confessions of the church and all the doctrines therein. And hearing alternative interpretations of the confessions by people of color does not serve to undermine the traditional understanding of Lutheran doctrines, but bolster it. Think of the robust theology that would be the result of a world of voices added to Lutheran confessions classes in North American seminaries. Think of the diverse groups of people that would resonate deeply with these new understandings and therefore fill our churches with new life.
Insistence on a singular interpretation of the confessions is not a problem limited to seminaries. Across the country, candidacy committees (made up mostly of white people with German and Scandinavian roots) meet regularly to determine which voices are “Lutheran enough” to be pastors in the ELCA. And if a candidate for rostered ministry expresses a slightly different understanding of justification that comes from a lifetime in a context other than white/German/Scandinavian Lutheranism, they are often told to “hit the road.”
To be honest, from my multiple generation German Lutheran vantage point, this idea is something that I still struggle with. I love being Lutheran because all of our doctrines, as I have come to understand them, speak truths about God and the world to me. There is something comforting and unifying to hold not just the doctrines in common, but also to know that when we are talking about the sacraments or worship, we are speaking the familiar language of Lutheranism as we know it. But in accepting new voices into our doctrines, I don’t have to lose any of that. I don’t have to reject my German roots or my understanding of baptism. I simply have to shift all that from the “objective” center of what “Lutheran” means. And in that action, I’m allowing room for a more complete picture to emerge.
So maybe instead of trying to reform the views of the various voices that contribute to the Lutheran dialogue, we should let them reform us.
Instead of thinking that allowing other voices into the Lutheran conversation is a loss of tradition, think of it as a win for Lutheranism. I wholeheartedly believe that Luther and Melanchthon would welcome all kinds of conversations around their work. For them, the function of doctrine was not to build a wall, but to open a gate. And their work is so good, so strong, so Spirit-led, it can handle some new (also Spirit-led) understandings without it crumbling to the ground.
And even if the traditional Lutheran orthodoxy best suits your life and experience, don’t continue to perpetuate that as the exclusively correct interpretation of Luther. And if you encounter a Lutheran from a different context who holds a different understanding, don’t tell them that they aren’t really Lutheran because they aren’t orthodox. Don’t exclude their voices from the conversation.
Listen to them.
Who knows where the reforming Spirit may be leading us?
Drew Yoos graduated from LSTC with a Masters of Divinity on May 15, 2016. He grew up in South Carolina and has been called to serve as a pastor/mission developer in the Northwest Washington Synod with his wife, Sara. Prior to LSTC, he worked at Lutheridge Camp in Arden, NC and served as Director of Youth Ministry and Congregational Discipleship at Christus Victor Lutheran Church in Columbia, SC.