As we enter the last month of summer before classes resume at my school, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, we begin this month with a reflection on a reflection. In the wake of the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and attacks upon police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, my seminary’s President – the Rev. Dr. James Nieman – asked how a white institution such as our school could effectively address white privilege and racism. Rob Saler, Lutheran Heritage Researcher for the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, then expounds on this letter – warning that if we don’t make our faith practice more embodied and visceral, we are at risk of continuing to play into systems of oppression and violence against black and brown bodies. 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.”
As an alum and former visiting faculty at LSTC, I was pleased to see President Jim Nieman’s July 9th letter to the LSTC community in which he denounces the lethal effects of white supremacy with admirable candor. My former professor and colleague Dr. Linda Thomas has asked me to expand upon the letter in light of President Nieman’s call to think theologically about white privilege, white supremacy, and leveraging white privilege.
I want to be clear about the position from which I would seek to honor that request. While I have become aware that genetic factors (known and unknown) have occasionally led people to experience me as racially ambiguous, for the most part I have been identified (and have always self-identified) as white; thus, I am intimately familiar with the benefits conferred by white privilege. There are multiple ways to “know” about white privilege and white supremacy, and following the adage of liberation theology that those oppressed by a given systemic evil have a kind of epistemological advantage over the oppressors, it seems clear that the first mandate is to prioritize the insights of people of color into the workings of such evil.
However, my training in Lutheran theology has, among other things, been an exercise in seeking to understand what aspects of our theological heritage can facilitate the dismantling of structures of oppression, and which aspects conversely serve as barriers to this work. It’s in this light, and in hopes of making a small contribution to what we might call a “critical Lutheran spirituality” against white supremacy, that I seek to meditate on one specific question posed by President Nieman:
“Can thinking and confessing ever be potent practices that make a difference?”
The answer to this question is, I believe, yes, but with a massive caveat.
The caveat is that, as with a number of potentially powerful Lutheran themes, the move to remove an ancient Christian practice (in this case, confession) from the realm of ecclesiastical control and into the existential life of the individual believer during the Reformation has often had the (perhaps unintended) effect of dis-embodying the practice.
While the medieval sacramental economy of sin, confession, penance, absolution, etc. was indeed tied in with some of the worst excesses of corruption and superstition that plagued medieval Christendom, we should at least notice that the system tended to be fairly visceral in expression: bodies humbling themselves, ascetic pangs, actual exchange of currency, direct communication between priest and penitent, etc. When confession moved to a mode of prayer without a human intermediary and “stripped” (Eamon Duffy) of its penitential economy, then it was easy for the practice itself to become more disembodied – a kind of spiritual/mental transaction between God and the believer.
The existential disembodiment of confessional practices thus fueled the broader Lutheran tendency to render salvation as a kind of private possession of the individual believer, an assumption that produced both a hermeneutic and a praxis of self-containment. This tendency represents, I believe, a degeneration of Luther’s own best insights about justification; indeed, the entire ethical thrust of Luther’s Freedom of a Christian is that justification is a gift that frees us, not to be curved inward, but to be shaped entirely by the horizon of the neighbor’s need. This shaping, to the extent that is has any purchase at all in the realities of suffering people, necessarily needs to be embodied in risky and vulnerable fashion; justification by grace through faith and not works is, for Luther, precisely the condition that makes such vulnerability to the horizon of the neighbor’s need possible.
When this insight is lost in the fog of privatized Protestant disembodiment, though, then the sort of self-enclosure for which white supremacy (and white theology more generally) is an almost exact analog is the result. Bonhoeffer already saw the dangers of this when he pointed out that the Protestant need to bring back private confession and forgiveness was due to the fact that it is so much easier to delude ourselves about our openness to repentance when we are conducting an interior existential contract with God rather than speaking actual words to a fellow embodied human being.
If Lutheran practices of confession, then, are going to be tools in a critical spirituality dismantling white supremacy, it is imperative that we first recognize the dangers of the drift into disembodiment. For those of us who “think we are white,” (Coates), such recognition should be followed by the courage to allow the horizons of our own conceptions of what forgiveness means to be disrupted by risky and vulnerability-producing confession to and with people of color, those whose broken bodies cry out with a need for which non-chastened white theology is simply inadequate.
Moreover, given that those of us possessed with white bodies possess a concomitant level of privilege to be leveraged, that privilege must also be leveraged bodily – placed in the path of billy clubs less likely to damage white skin than brown skin, placed in courtrooms where white mouths are heard more clearly, placed in all the spaces where reparations for the ill-gotten treasure of white privilege merits that we have accrued might begin to be disbursed through reparations (material and otherwise).
If – and the “if” is genuine – Lutheran thinking and confessing in our various contexts can move our bodies to this sort of action, then it is needed more than ever.