Don’t Put Off Love – Sarah Derrick, MDiv student / LSTC

thomas110_1027092James Baldwin once commented on the disconnect he often witnessed, confronting supposed white supporters of the Civil Rights Movement when they acted in ways that directly contradicted their verbal support of equality. His response was classic: “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.” It is precisely this disconnect between intent action that this week’s author, Sarah Derrick, so boldly admits and grapples with – how despite her passionate desire to help, often her privilege gets in the way of following through. Read, comment, and share.

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


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I’ve been able to put this off.

More than a year ago, I attended the Islamic Society of North America’s dynamic annual conference in Chicago. 

I was asked to write and reflect on my experience.

Sure, I thought, not even responding to the email, I will absolutely do that once I get home. 

Classes started, work began to pile up, suddenly the experience of ISNA seemed distant, lower on my list of priorities to address, it seemed less important to invite conversation around engaging our Muslim neighbors, more important to turn inward, and reflect on my own situation.  Then last November came, political rhetoric was even more charged with xenophobic, anti-Muslim, racial bigotry.  I was reminded once again that I had been invited to challenge this in some sort of written reflection.  I had every intention to do so.

Donald Trump was elected. I was angry at the country.

I wanted to speak up.

Yet, once again, I put it off.

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This tidal motion of my intentions, actions, and feelings are, I believe, reflective of my privilege as a white Christian in this country.  I can be bothered, invited into action, and choose whether or not it is convenient for me to engage in the moment.  I can choose to put off speaking on a topic, put off engaging with the brokenness we see around us.  My privilege allowed me to go one year without responding to an invitation to reflect on anti-Muslim bigotry and the church.  I say this to point out that I could have said something much sooner, to point out my choice to keep an arms distance.  In my complacency, I had contributed to the problem.  And to shift this out of a personal confessional into a corporate one, I invite all of us to think about how we as a collective people often times put off speaking up.  I wonder what that has looked like, I wonder what the implication of our inaction has been.

What has happened in the year plus since I was invited to write? 

Political tensions heightened, a leader many are frightened of is now president, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hate crimes have been on the rise, groups like ACT for America have organized anti-Muslim protests around the country, people have lost their lives for defending their Muslim neighbor. The election of Donald Trump has not only given permission for the incidents just listed, but I believe it has also given permission to white Christians to continue in their complacency.  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard family and friends say some variation of, “wait and see” or “give it a chance first”.

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I actually believe that most white Christians would not align themselves with extreme hate groups, that they do see anti-Muslim bigotry as a problem in this country.  But I also see the complacency of individuals and communities to take actions to address the brokenness to be the same as endorsing the hate.

A while ago I went to Washington, D.C. for Ecumenical Advocacy Days.  In one plenary session, we heard of the faith community’s silence in public witness.  We heard that where legislative offices are bombarded with 4,000 calls a day from organizations like the NRA, the same offices hear far less from faith communities.  So when it comes time for legislators to make a decision, they can say that they are voting on behalf of their constituents.

Our silence allows dangerous legislation to flourish.

While I was at the Islamic Society conference, I picked up a print of a quote from Rumi, “Love is the bridge between you and everything.”  When I went to pay for it, the woman running the stall asked if I was a new convert to Islam.  When I shared with her that I was there with other interfaith religious leaders, she gave me the print as a gift, saying she felt grateful that there were people who wanted to learn and show up.  I have this print hanging in my apartment, and it has been both a source of encouragement, but it has simultaneously been a reminder of the ways I have fallen short in showing up.

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The Center for Christian Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice at LSTC partners with is Shoulder-to-Shoulder, a non-profit that works to combat anti-Muslim bigotry.  The calls to action they release are always twofold: 1. Speak up—write letters to the editor, op-eds, blogs, and 2. Show up—join an iftar during Ramadan, visit the mosque in your neighborhood, build relationships with interfaith leaders in your area so that when tragedy strikes, you have a relationship that is allows you to work in response to the needs of your neighbor, not in response to your own needs.

I see this twofold invitation to be particularly challenging in my own context as a white Christian.  One of my professors in seminary always teaches that the people of the United States, and I think in this context we can say mainline, white US Christians, are great at playing host, but we are not great at being hosted.  We are used to being in charge, to calling the shots, to having people over on our terms, but we are much less inclined to give up some of that control in order to be a guest.  I was able to attend several iftars over Ramadan last year year, in those meals, learning the stories of my neighbors in Hyde Park, I was once again reminded of the invitation I ignored one year ago.  I think that reminder was the work of the Holy Spirit.  She often shows up among strangers, over meals, and She often makes us uncomfortable.

Amidst the ACT for America anti-Muslim protests, and now the Muslim travel ban, I finally responded to that invitation I received – though a year late.  I deeply regret that it I ignored the invitation, and that I could ignore the pain of my Abrahamic family when it wasn’t convenient to engage.  The both/and of showing up and speaking up means we are living into what it means to be a guest.  We are speaking up when our neighbors need it, not when we need it to feel better about ourselves.  We are showing up at the invitation of our neighbors.

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This is hard, and is something I have a hard time with holding in tension.  It seems that when I feel especially adept at speaking, I at times leave relationship behind, or when I am in relationship through interfaith gatherings or meals, I at times fail to follow up by speaking against narratives that demonize those I am in relationship with.

My having written this article doesn’t resolve my privilege to err into complacency.  I see this being something I continue to struggle with, as perhaps evident in what I have written.  My hope is that the next time, it won’t take a year for me to respond to an invitation to speak when my neighbors are suffering.  And my hope for the church is that we recognize that a “wait and see” attitude is fueling the hate we see around us.


unnamed.jpgSarah Derrick having finished her second year of Masters of Divinity studies at LSTC,  she began an internship in Seattle this past August, working in a parish as well as an interfaith advocacy organization.  Originally from South Carolina, Sarah enjoys being in the kitchen, exploring new places, and finding reasons to throw a themed party.

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A Queer Reformation – Josh Evans, candidate for ordination, ELCA

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Continuing on the theme of semper reformanda – always reforming – seminarian Josh Evans has prepared a post discussing the reality that what it means to be ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’ has changed radically in recent years. Intersectionality is a term that captures the change Evans writes about. It denotes the intricate and cumulative way different systems of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) coalesce, coincide, and interlock. As a result, some of God’s children– our siblings and neighbors are put at risk, discounted, and marginalized.  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.”


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It was a Friday, and I remember distinctly walking through the atrium of the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, OH, the hospital where I spending my summer as a chaplain intern completing my required unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. The next day would be the city’s annual Pride Parade, and several of us at the hospital were wearing t-shirts proudly bearing a photoshopped image of the hospital’s distinctive CARES Tower with its wave-like white stripes transformed into the pattern of a rainbow flag.

“Did you hear?” whispered one colleague, as three of us met in the busy atrium. “We won!” another blurted out, still hushed but with an unmistakable smile.

We had just heard the news the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled in a landmark case that same-sex couples had the fundamental, constitutional right to marry. The joy in the room was palpable. As more of us gathered, clad in our Cleveland VA Pride shirts, we posed on the staircase for a group photo. Clearly, I have not forgotten that day.

It is difficult to imagine, only a little more than two years later, how much has changed. On that happy Friday, never did I dream that we would soon have an administration in Washington with such a strong anti-LGBTQIA+ agenda. In his timely book Preaching in the Era of Trump, O. Wesley Allen Jr. writes:

In spite of Trump holding up a rainbow flag at one of his rallies and mentioning LGBTQ rights in a positive tone, his presidency is positioned to do damage to the rights gained by the LGBTQ community in recent years (85).

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Allen goes on to cite example after example that upholds his dangerous, fearful prediction, including administration members’ support for “conversion therapy,” opposition to marriage equality and nondiscrimination legislation, commitment to dismantling the Obamacare provisions for access to transgender health care, troubling language about LGBTQIA+ persons, and nearly four full pages more of the like.

More recently, when news broke of the historic United Nations vote to condemn the use of the death penalty worldwide for LGBTQIA+ persons who engage in consensual sexual relations, that good news was quickly tempered for those of us in the United States: our country cast its vote against that resolution. In favor of the death penalty for people like me.

Immediately, I thought of Pulse, and my feelings of extreme fear in its aftermath (that could’ve been me), which I wrote about in my last contribution to this blog on the one-year anniversary of that massacre. Rereading that post, I am reminded that its composition coincided with the acquittal of two police officers charged in the deaths of two unarmed black men. Still more: writing this piece comes on the heels of yet two more mass shootings – an outdoor concert in Las Vegas and a church outside of San Antonio, Texas. And even more: In one of the most devastating hurricane seasons in recent memory, we have witnessed a shockingly inadequate federal response to aid in Puerto Rico, one of the countries that was hit the hardest.

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For Emma Lazarus’ fascinating bio, click here.

All of this seems to suggest to me that we live in a culture of violence – a culture that devalues and demeans black and brown and queer and trans bodies. But we, as a church, particularly its Lutheran expression, in this time, also live in a season of reformation. Of course, in its broad sense, the church, at its best, is always about the business of reforming, but in this particular year, marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we have been hearing “All Reformation All the Time!” to borrow a recent line from our presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton.

It is against the backdrop of this culture of violence yet in the midst of the church’s season of reformation that I am compelled to ask: What does queer theology have to offer? To be sure, this musing comes from a deeply personal place: I myself identify as a queer, gay man, and this social location is always my starting place, explicitly or otherwise, for doing theology. I also ask this question from a place of deep fear. The narrative I hear coming from an administration in Washington that so devalues LGBTQIA+ lives scares me. And from an intersectional perspective, it scares me, too, that my black and brown siblings and those who are undocumented immigrants or political refugees are just as much in a precarious position when it comes to their very safety.

To suggest what queer theology has to offer in such a climate is more than just an exercise in academia. I suspect that what queer theology has to offer is of utmost value for those who, like me, are or are preparing to be full-time ministerial leaders in this church. What does queer theology have to say for the real people in our real pews with real problems and real fears to whom we minister and with whom we have to privilege to accompany in their joys and in their struggles?

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I would first like to make it clear that to take up queer theology in this context is itself to be about the business of reformation. While Luther himself is a time- and place-bound historical figure who was not perfect and whose theology was not exhaustive in addressing every possible issue the church would face ten, twenty, a hundred, or five hundred years into the future, the value of his theology cannot be dismissed. Indeed, as LSTC’s own Vítor Westhelle’s latest publication suggests, there remains the possibility of transfiguring Luther’s theology – to bring his theological vision of liberation alive in new and changing times and places for a new and changing people. This is the basis by which I suggest queer theology can enter into conversation with Lutheran theology in this season of reformation.

But back down the ivory tower: What is the gift of queer theology for our time and place, infused at once in a culture of violence done to black and brown and queer and trans bodies and in this season where we claim ecclesia semper reformanda?

Of particular interest to me is the recent, impactful work of the Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey, Associate Dean for Community Life and Lifelong Learning at Boston University School of Theology (and friend and contributor to We Talk, We Listen). In her book Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, Lightsey’s own self-identification as a queer lesbian, who is also a person of color, informs her theology as she brings together for the first time (to my knowledge) queer and womanist theologies. From the latter she holds up Alice Walker’s now-classic definition: a womanist is one who loves “the folk” and is “committed to wholeness and survival of an entire people” (xix).

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The Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey

With a commitment to queer womanist theology, Lightsey speaks of the need to reclaim a liberative vision of the image dei for persons, namely queer and black, who have been consistently devalued and made victims of violence both by church and society:

We must recapture an understanding of the body as good and not evil… We must turn the tables, declare our bodies to be good, and encourage healthy self-love. We must do this with a sense of urgency because we have the propensity to express scapegoating in criminal activity specifically in hate crime attacks against transwomen of color. So, not only must we love ourselves but that love of self must also extend to loving thy neighbor as thyself. This is why the communal nature of womanism is so critical. We must love the folk, be with the folk, and not live our lives as separatists or staunch advocates of other-worldliness (83).

This, for me, strikes at the heart of the gift of queer theology for our time and place: We must love ourselves, our very bodies, but that love must also extend outward to loving our neighbor; we must love the folk, their bodies, and be with them. To borrow words from Karl Barth: “to tell [people] the message that God is not against them, but for them.” And to elaborate, through the lens of queer theology: that God is for them, as they are.

 

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In our work, whether as rostered ministers or in countless lay vocations, this is the task of theology and ministry, informed by the principles of queer theology, for a church of the reformation responding to a culture infused with violence: We invite our people’s stories, and we listen. We make safe space for vulnerability, and we create a sacred space where healing can begin.


Evans HeadshotJosh Evans is a seminary student from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he is in his last year of his Master of Divinity (MDiv) studies, as well as a candidate for ordained ministry in the ELCA. Last year, he served as the vicar at Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, where he shared his passion for liturgy and worship, reading, coffee, and ice cream. He’s also fond of spoiling his two cats, Oliver and Sophia.

On the 500: Semper Reformanda and the Dream Americana – Adam Braun, PhD

thomas110_1027092“So what’s next?” is a question that many Protestants are asking these days – as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation barrels down on the globe and its many people. Adam Braun returns to “We Talk. We Listen.” with another reflection on whiteness, reforming, and a reasonable “what’s next.” 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.”


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Those in Lutheran circles are now facing the fanfare of the 500th anniversary of the reformation.  It is safe to say it has not been 500 years of “always reforming” or even “always reforming the church.” Perhaps, we have reformed ourselves all the way to the American suburbs.  Here, we have no anxiety that God is judging us.  Here, we do not have to work for our salvation.

Here, we can read our Bibles on our own, as individuals, in our individual homes.

But as individuals we are embedded in a culture, fitted with an ideology, and both our cultures and ideologies are outside the bounds of reformation, external to the limits of our possible self-critique.  As I reflect on myself as a person of immense privilege, I am not surprised then that this sort of church produces narratives that are rarely self-critical.  Sure, our narratives are full of humility and admission about the essential sinfulness of our position, but that is not the same awareness of how our privileges interact with the world, nor does it show any understanding of how they negatively impact the world.  In order for us to claim the mantra of always reforming, we must collectively think critically about where are churches are and what they ought to do.

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I was once asked how to do Church in the American suburbs by a suburban pastor.  Behind the question is an admission of difficulty.  It is difficult to preach the prophets (including Jesus) who call for change in a space that is made for stability.  It is difficult to preach Paul in spaces that smooth over differences, when Paul pushes diasporic communities to face each other’s differences.  It is difficult to preach the Gospel, its servant-hood and sharing of resources, in the utopia of the American Dream.

In the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent memoir, Between the World and Me

“I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”

The reality we may not see is in fact the one we don’t want to see: that the invisible hand of the market is actually made of up of black, brown, and yellow hands.*  That cell phone that we hold everyday, was it put together by white European hands, harvested from the resources of white European lands?  How about the computers in our church, or the projectors, or the microphones?

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If Lutheranism no longer is Lutheranism and perhaps is no longer Gospel, then what shall we do with it?  Once Lutheranism has lost the antagonism of its Northern European identity against other forms of Europe in America**, it has no structural force for its own liberation, because it is drowning in its own suburban privilege.  So if its position needs no liberation and if its message never challenges the powers of Whiteness, Patriarchy, and Capital, why celebrate 500 years?  Shall we all move to the suburbs and celebrate 500 years of ourselves and Lutheranism’s place in the Pax Americana?

Always Reform.  Sure, reform our individual selves, but let us measure our reformations by how our churches face up to the privileged and under-privileged.  This is a two step, self-critical process:

1)  Consider what the hegemonic powers of the day are and our churches’ relationships to them.

2)  Ask directly how our churches are actively participating in resisting them.  Are we not a Church PROTESTant?

Let us not celebrate ourselves in the 500.  Let us celebrate that our church tradition provides a history in which we can participate in self-critique and reformation, allowing us to call ourselves to reforming the church’s relationship to black and brown bodies (and all bodies of color), to non-cis/non-masculine bodies, to reforming all the systems that smother us in the glory of Capital. 

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Because, reforming will give us opportunity to peel back the curtains on our own crises, an apocalypse of sorts, and see that our privilege is not a blessing, but an Empire built on the backs of those who deserve better.  A better world than the suburbs.  A better church than our community centers.  A better God than Capital.  A better Lutheranism than ours.


AdamSelfieAdam F. Braun is an aspiring feminist, anti-white supremacist, as well as a PhD student in New Testament Christology at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. A former facilitator at Boston Pub Church, he describes himself as a general radical who looks for radical potential in radical Christian gatherings – prefering darkness to light, and solidarity to love.

*Of course, I do not mean that black and brown hands are the organizing agency of the market.  Rather, it is the market orienting itself around the “secret” knowledge that it can pay black and brown hands less than it pays white hands.

**For literature on the early racial fluidity of European immigrants in the U.S. see Roediger’s Working towards Whiteness and Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color.

Ten Theses for 2017 – Prof. Caryn D. Riswold

Linda Thomas at CTS eventAs the blogosphere prepares to be utterly inundated by various and sundry celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the coordinators of “We Talk. We Listen” refuse to look backward – as is often the vogue – but rather desire to make a radical statement about the way forward. Prof. Caryn D. Riswold, hence, is proposing an addendum to Luther’s much-heralded 95 Theses – her own 10 theses addressing contemporary failings of the church. Proper and true Reformation will only happen when everyone is participating – and not solely those in positions of power that reinforce nomativity and enforce rules. So read, enjoy, debate, and share by nailing them to some doors!

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


As part of the professional leadership conference at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on October 10, I opened my keynote address with the following. Things in direct quotations are from the document whose posting at Wittenberg in 1517 serves as the pivot point for the Reformation commemorated this month.

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“Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed….”

1.The reformation to which the church is called today, to which we are called today, is one that casts off status quo comforts of racial category and gender binary.

2. The reformation of the church today must include a new reckoning with heritages of hate.

3. The evangelical mission of the church in a turbulent world is to live the gospel in public.

4. Christians are to be taught that they who stand – or kneel – with their neighbor does a greater service than one who aligns themselves with Power.

5. The true treasures of the church have been coopted by white nationalism and drawn too easily on de facto segregation among our congregations.

6. Those who believe they can be certain of personal triumphal truth will be brought low by the voices from the margins and the voice of the earth itself howling in the hurricane winds.

7. It does not seem proved, by reason or by Scripture, that the church has yet to fully live out its grace-infused promise.

8. “Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘Peace, peace,’ and there is no peace! (Jer 6:14)” (Thesis 92)

9. There will be peace when the prophetic voices of this day which are heard in the streets and the shopping mall, are included in policy-making and result in structural change.

10. This church is to be taught that we who claim a five-hundred year old Reformation, who hold fast to true treasures of grace, faith, and love, are called to more fully realize what Reformation might mean in our world today.


http://www.warmowskiphoto.comCaryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, as well as an M.A. at the Claremont School of Theology having earned the B.A. from Augustana University in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She teaches Religion and Gender & Women’s Studies at Illinois College, and is the author of three books, the most recent of which is Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave. You can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.

Stopping Gender-Violence: The Role of Narrative – Alexis Witt, Ordination Candidate, ELCA

thomas110_1027092#MeToo took the United States – and much of the world – by storm last week. Originally started by activist  Tarana Burke in 2006 in order to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem” of sexual assault, harassment, and rape – especially against poor women of color – the trend took off  in the wake of the recent Hollywood scandal around Harvey Weinstein. MDiv Senior Alexis Witt, then, gives her perspective of the #MeToo campaign, how it’s impacted her, and specifically around the power of stories to both heal wounds and shatter silence. 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.”


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With the current social media trend #MeToo and with October being Domestic Violence Awareness month, it is an important time to talk about the gender-based violence that is rampant in this culture. I write both as someone who says #MeToo and as a final year seminarian, seeking to be ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This is a topic that we, as individuals and as a larger church, must face. None of us are free from this; even if someone has not experienced this kind of violence themselves, everyone knows someone affected by gender-based violence.

The statistics are staggering. Looking at the following statistics, it is important to note that, while people of all genders experience gender-based violence, gender-based violence disproportionally affects women (including transgender women – transgender women are women!) and gender non-conforming people. That does not diminish the pain or the experience of men who have experienced sexual violence, but rather it points to the role of gender in gender-based violence.

1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men have been victims of intimate partner violence.[1] Nearly half of all female murder victims were killed by a spouse, an intimate partner, or a former spouse/ partner, compared to 5% of male homicide victims.[2] 1 in 3 US adolescents are victims of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from an intimate partner.[3] 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have been victims of sexual violence in their lifetimes.[4] 75% of stalking victims are women; and roughly 67% of people who stalk women are men.[5] 21% of transgender, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming college students have been sexually assaulted.[6] As the recent #MeToo social media trend hoped to show, most (if not all) women have experienced sexual abuse or sexual harassment. As Pamela Cooper-White writes, “while not nearly all men harass women, nearly all women have been sexually harassed in some setting in their lifetimes.”[7]

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These statistics represent millions of stories, stories of violence – with the wide range of accompanying stories of being heard and being silenced, of belief and of doubt, of self-blame and of victim-blaming, of hurt and of healing, of surviving and of dying, and of everything else in-between and beyond. The #MeToo trend provided an opportunity for women who have experienced sexual violence, harassment, and abuse to tell a piece of their story – some for the first time – and to put faces to these statistics.

(As we reflect on this trend, it is important to note that not all people who experienced sexual assault and harassment posted #MeToo, for any number of reasons, all of which are valid and should be respected. Victims and survivors of assault and abuse do not owe anyone their stories.)

Thus, the #MeToo trend has brought to the surface not only the pervasive nature of sexual assault and harassment, but it has also pointed back toward the importance of narrative and of stories. As I scrolled through my Facebook feed and through various Facebook groups, I read countless stories from friends, from co-workers, from family members, from complete strangers. I posted some of my own stories in certain places – from the pastor who during my field education experience, when I raised my discomfort with having my back toward the congregation for long periods of time, responded “well, the congregation wants to see your backside more” to the former classmate who openly and publicly mocked me on Facebook for *still* being single to men sending unsolicited nude photos or unsolicited sexual messages on dating websites.

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Google Books Link.

Cooper-White rightly argues that the first step in stopping gender-based violence is “to hear the stories from [the victim’s] own viewpoint insofar as it is possible.”[8]

The power of story – when truly heard – is multi-faceted. Story can empower others to tell their stories (as the chapter I reference below empowered me to tell mine). Story can heal, externalizing what was kept silent and internal; it can liberate us from the pains that we have kept hidden deep within ourselves. Story can disrupt the power that keeps violence in place.

During my first year of seminary, I read a chapter from Proverbs of Ashes entitled “Tiamat’s Tears: Rebecca’s Story.” The author of the chapter, Rebecca Ann Parker, wrote, “Violence, I was beginning to understand is assisted by silences, to stop violence, the silences have to be broken”[9] Violence – whether it is domestic violence, in particular, or gender-based violence, in general – is about maintaining power, specifically about maintaining power over another person. People who use violence seek to control another person, to dominate them, to use them for their own benefit, seeing the other person as an object, an “it,” rather than as a full, equal human being.[10] Violence seeks to keep power in the hands of the powerful, or privilege in the hands of the privileged, while seeking to keep power out of the hands of the powerless and keep oppressed people in the bonds of their oppression.

Yet when those who have experienced violence have space to tell their stories – in their own time and in whatever way is safe and healing for them – and when the stories are heard and accepted, power is reclaimed and the perpetrators’ hold on power is disrupted. Narrative demands that we are not objects or “its” but we are a fellow human being, claiming that our voices matter and that we have power. Narrative forges connections between people with similar or shared experiences giving them power flowing from relationship and solidarity with each other. Listening to the narratives and believing them is an act of love that opposes violence and can bring about healing.

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Thinking about the power of story as it relates to Christianity, we must see and acknowledge the ways which story can also be used to harm and to inflict violence. Christ’s story has been misused to silence women, transgender, and non-binary people and to uphold the patriarchal system that perpetuates violence. The church has pointed to the cross and told those who experience domestic violence that this is their “cross to bear.” The church has pointed to Jesus, seeing Christ’s maleness as evidence for God prioritizing the male over the female. The creation story of Genesis has been used to claim that one is either male or female and all other gender identities and expressions are against God. The false narrative that the church is full of saints leads to the false notion that sexual abuse and violence doesn’t happen here.

How can we, as individuals and as members of the church, claim Christ’s narrative in ways that it may be liberating to those who experience gender-based violence (and to all others who are oppressed)?

We can relate “a personal story of death and destruction to the story of the violent death and liberating resurrection of Jesus.”[11] We claim that, in Christ, we see that we have a God that not only suffers with and stands in solidarity with those who suffer violence.

We claim that in Christ reveals that God is emphatically and radically opposed to the kinds of power that promote violence to keep control and dominion over people. Christ died at the hands of an Empire that sought to keep the power in the hands of the powerful and to keep power out of the hands of the powerless. Christ’s work aims to upend the systems of power that currently rule this world. The power of the Kindom of God is a power based not in dominion or control over another but rather power based in humility and love overflowing for the other and for a broken humanity, made manifest in Christ’s incarnation into real-human flesh, Christ’s ministry, Christ’s death and resurrection. It is a love that seeks to lift up those who are on the margins, giving power to those society deems as powerless.

We claim that, in Christ, we have a God that sees all people, especially the people who are used, abused, and on the margins, as beloved children of God – worthy of love, worthy of respect, worthy of grace, worthy of healing, worthy of wholeness. God sees us and claims us as God’s own. Gender-based violence, which sees the other as an object, thus tramples on God’s vision for humanity.

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Women at the Tomb – He Qi.

Hearing the stories – including the laments and the cries – of those who have experienced violence and dwelling in Christ’s narrative are just the beginning.

From there, it is my hope the church and all within it may, with the help of God, become active forces in dismantling gender-based violence, along with all forms of power that seek to oppress, control, and diminish others.


19366272_10211351941091470_8631562276451804097_nAlex Witt (she/ her/ hers) has a BA in religious studies from the University of Richmond. She is a senior MDiv student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a candidate for the Ministry of Word at Sacrament through the Virginia Synod. She served as the Intern Pastor at United Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. Alex has a passion for pastoral care, biblical studies, and gender studies. In her free time, Alex enjoys tennis, cheering for the Richmond Spiders and the St. Louis Cardinals, social ballroom dancing, and spoiling her beloved pup, Ginger.

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Facts Everyone Should Know About Intimate Partner Violence, Sexual Violence, & Stalking,” The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010-2012 State Report (Atlanta, GA), https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/nisvs/infographic.html.

[2] Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence against Women and the Church’s Response, 2nd Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 126.

[3] Love Is Respect, “Dating Abuse Statistics,” LoveIsRespect.org. http://www.loveisrespect.org/resources/dating-violence-statistics/.

[4] CDC, “Facts Everyone Should Know about Intimate Partner Violence, Sexual Violence, and Stalking.”

[5] Cooper-White, Cry of Tamar, 92.

[6] RAINN, “Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics,” https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence.

[7] Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar, 87.

[8] Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar, 38.

[9] Rebecca Ann Parker, “Tiamat’s Tears: Rebecca’s Story.” In Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, eds. Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 108.

[10] Cooper-White, Cry of Tamar, 43.

[11] Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals: Weaving Together the Human and the Divine (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 172.

White Christianity and the New Reformation – Rev. Kenneth Wheeler

thomaslinda-sittingTo be black and Christian can be a hard proposition these days – especially when you’re a black pastor in a denomination that is not only 96% percent white, but living in a country where 81% of some of the most devoted white Christians in this country voted for a presidential candidate that consistently mocks your community. Rev. Kenneth Wheeler, an august and respected pastor in the ELCA, shares some thoughts on how the confrontation of racism within the church may well be the task of the next Reformation in our communities. 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.”


“Fear takes away a person’s humanity. This is not what the creature made by God looks like. The Bible, The Gospel, Christ, The Church, The Faith- All are one great Battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings. We who believe in Jesus must no fear, because we have heard the good tidings of the Arrival of a new political regime: The Kingdom of God. We are all patriots of a different homeland.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1933

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Slave auction block – Greenhill Plantation, Virginia

102 years after the Reformation the first slaves were brought to America. And every institution in America, including the Church, was impacted by this scandal.

A New Reformation

A few months ago I spoke at an event in Milwaukee in commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It began as a theological movement by a young monk whose name was Martin Luther. He would speak to his Church, the Roman Catholic Church, that had shackled the Gospel in the trappings of tradition and “works righteousness” – making the claim that one’s good works could earn salvation.

Specifically the selling of indulgences, a corruption of the sacrament of penance, was a manifestation of the claim of good works. But Luther saw this not only as a perversion of the Gospel, it was in effect another Gospel and  he would come to realize that the Roman Church was wrong.

Then in 1517 Luther would nail his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg -hoping to engage the Church in a theological discussion about the meaning of scripture, the authority of scripture, and the meaning of faith. But instead of a conversation Luther’s actions would stir up a firestorm and the Church that he loved rejected his arguments, saw them as undermining the Church’s authority. So he was labeled  a heretic and in 1521 he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X.

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I’ve been thinking a great deal in these last several months about the Church and specifically about the ELCA – a Church that I have been a part of for most of my life, a Church that I know better than any other. A Church that I love and that I served in for 30 years as an ordained Pastor and yet a Church that is still 96 percent white – in part because in the words of Paul Kivel, “Racism is still a central constituent of American life.” The ELCA this predominantly white Church body is a part of this American life.

As we celebrate the 500 year Anniversary of the Reformation I believe that our great work as Evangelical Lutherans  is to reclaim the truth and the freedom that is rooted in the Gospel – truth that calls us to put to death any other claim that we might choose to hold up including the claim of race. We need a new Reformation that calls us to strip away the idolatry of race not just with nice sounding words, but with a commitment to live into the inclusiveness that the Gospel calls us to, even if it means that we lose membership in our current congregations and denominations because they are simply unable to give themselves fully to what the Gospel is demanding.

It was troubling to me and it continues to be troubling that 81 percent of white evangelical Christians voted in the last election for a man who rose in the polls offending women, disparaging Immigrants, and spouting racist and vitriolic language. Perhaps, more than anything else, it highlighted the bondage of white Christians and the bondage of the white Christian Church to the idolatry of racism – a bondage that had wrapped Jesus in the white skin of privilege.

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Black preacher in the 19th century south

African slaves brought to our land resisted the Christ of the white slave master because they knew deep down within that the Christ of the slave master was false. The slave masters had co-opted Christ and co-opted God to support their position of racial superiority and of all things white, and this God was silent in the face of the savagery and the cruelty of slavery and the nightmare of Jim Crow segregation.

Yet the slave knew that this vision of God was incongruent and inconsistent with the God they knew to be the God of love, a God who so loved the world that God allowed His Son Jesus to suffer death. Black liberation theologian James Cone writes about this god most eloquently in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, worshiped by Christians who would leave their Sunday service to watch the lynching of a black mana god co-opted by racist fears.

This God came to the aid of Donald Trump, who won the presidency because he exploited the racial fears of whites. It’s also the god of hundreds of once all-white inner city congregations abandoned by their original members as soon as other racial minorities moved into those neighborhoods. To illustrate, an African-American female pastor serving an all white Lutheran congregation in the mid-west, recently shared what happened she invoked the names of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin in her sermon. The congregation’s response…?

“We don’t want to hear any of this Pastor. We just want to remain white and Lutheran.”

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There are many within our Church who share that sentiment but where such sentiment exists Jesus is absent. I don’t mean the Jesus who has been Americanized but the Jesus who is black and who suffers with those who are black and who are rejected because they are despised. This is the Jesus who welcomes all and who makes room for all especially those who have been the outsiders

This is the Jesus who is able to set all of us free.

This is the Jesus who is able to renew His Church

This is the Church that I and so many of us long for.

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wheelerBorn in 1952 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Rev. Kenneth Wheeler later moved to and grew up in Jackson. After graduating from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN in 1974 he would eventually pursue his M.Div Trinity Lutheran Seminary, receiving it in 1982. He has served parishes in Florida, California, and eventually and Milwaukee, Wisconsin – where he served 18 years as Assistant to the Bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA. The last seven 7 years of his career he served as the Senior Pastor of Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, then retired in 2013. He considers himself a student of the theology and ethics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even spending time at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, learning about non-violent approaches to conflict resolution. He’s made multiple trips to Tanzania since 2000, learning about evangelism and church growth, and even co-lead a trip to Israel for 12 days. He is additionally a sought-after speaker an preacher, has had reflections published by Living Lutheran, and Working Preacher, and has received Distinguished Alumni awards from both Concordia College (1995) and Trinity Lutheran Seminary (2012). He and his wife of 42 years, Cloria, are blessed with three sons, two daughter in-laws, and five wonderful grandchildren.

500 Years of Lutheranism – Rev. Ronald Bonner

thomas110_1027092In recent years, this day – the second Monday in October, traditionally used to Celebrate Christopher Columbus’ so-called “discovery of the Americas” – is being more-and-more directed towards giving voice and attention to plight of indigenous people across the globe. However, since the colonialism that lead to the demise of countless indigenous culture on virtually every continent, discussion about confronting white supremacy invariably figure into many of these conversations as well – virtually beckoning the long ignored stories of millions across the globe to finally come forward. The Rev. Ronald Bonner, welcomes us into a similar discussion – reflecting on the presence of racism in the church, the season of Advent, and Lutheran theology. 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.”


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As a person who was ordained in another tradition I have come to embrace my identity as a Lutheran pastor.  It was Martin Luther, the German monk who began a non-violent conversation that became the first of a series of reformation movements that changed the Catholic Church and the world.  Martin Luther became incensed with the misuse of biblical text and practices by the Catholic Church.  He was appalled at the selling of indulgences to poor people to ensure their afterlife and the afterlife of their dearly departed. This practice that he considered fraudulent served as a fund raiser for the Catholic Church in Rome.  He saw this practice of selling indulgences as a major breach of Christian values and practice. 

About this Luther observed: “They have obscured the teaching concerning sin and have invented a tradition concerning the enumeration of sins which has produced many errors and introduced despair. They have also invented satisfactions, by means of which they have further obscured the benefit of Christ. Out of these arose indulgences, which are nothing but lies devised for the sake of gain.” [i]

In response to his displeasure, Martin Luther wrote an inspired argument that became known as the 95 theses. In this document, Martin Luther pointed out errors in church practices that were supported by the Catholic Church and the Pope.  He argues that these practices and beliefs went against the bible and what it teaches about love, liberty, and salvation.  It is widely believed that on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the main door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, Germany, a sort of bulletin board for discussion.  Some also believe that a sermon or lecture in 1518 at Heidelberg may have been the actual spark that led to the acceptance of the 95 theses that created the impetus for the Reformation.  Regardless, there is little debate regarding the importance of the newly invented printing press, the internet of its day, allowing Martin Luther’s ideas to spread and gain momentum for church reform.

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Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers

The story of Martin Luther is one that speaks to the power of one, and when a timely idea becomes a demand it can change the world.  The story of the Protestant reformation honors the story of Jesus and his revolution or reformation of Jewish religious tradition.  It speaks that the power of truth can weaken the stranglehold of orthodoxy and bring liberty and freedom to those who were bound.  It is this part of the story that a young Baptist minister traveling in Germany in 1934 became enamored with and fully embraced.  He was captured by the power of Martin Luther’s commitment to God and liberty, to the point that upon his return to the South he changed his name from Michael King to Martin Luther King and his son’s name to Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am glad to be part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) a young arm of the Lutheran family that was formed in 1988. This Communion was developed with a vision of inclusion and diversity.  However, it is not just my personal experience, but a shared experience with a growing number of persons of color within the ELCA, that unfortunately this vision of inclusion was not fully embraced by many of its membership.

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Graphic from Pew Research on racial diversity among religious communities in the US – the ELCA is second from the bottom, marking it as the whitest religious community in the United States.

The evidence is seen on Sundays and a recent PEW report that claims that the ELCA has not really moved the needle in terms of increasing the number or percentage of persons of color who gather in worship. However, during my nine years as a local parish pastor and increasingly within the past five years, I have become blessed to meet and interact with those who seek to truly reform this Reformation denomination with commitment and not just lip service.  It is these reformers that give me hope that this church will not continue to embrace behavior and attitudes that deter the full participation of persons of color and others.

It is these reformers who do not just embrace diversity or inclusion but stand against the tide of white supremacy and patriarchy that still flows through the veins of many within this denomination.  Of course, there are those who will decry being called white supremacist or racist, or heterosexist, or sexist but the truth is there are many within this denomination that hold fast to their normative sense of racial, gender, class, and orientation superiority.

From the book No Bigotry Allowed: “Thus, the inability to admit past wrongs, the inability to see how one has benefited from past injustices of racism, and the inability to see “I got there on my own” as myth are all by products of racism supported by the pedagogy and language of white supremacy. These are attempts to deflect the reality that racism is normative and that the vast majority of white people still benefit from its use and existence on a daily basis.”  [ii]

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I have seen on the ELCA Clergy page the comments that police brutality is sparked because black people do not know how to behave and deserve whatever treatment they get.  This comment long since removed or deleted was posted on the same day that a young white male Lutheran decided to kill 9 African Americans in an AME church in Charleston, SC.  I know of stories of how persons of color were devalued by different expressions of this church.  One such example is the nearly five-year wait between seminary completion and ordination for women of color.

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This church is not without spot or blemish, but there is a growing segment of committed persons who seek equality and not superiority based on any human characteristic.  These reformers are the ones who will tear down dividing walls within our church and will be the reformers who will embrace the changes needed to continue to grow the global Lutheran church.  These people are the ones who truly live in the tradition of Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr.  These people continue to breathe new life into this church and understand the promise of ecclesia reformata semper reformanda.  They are not seeking change for the sake of change but for the realization of the beloved community, for the realm of God.  Paulo Freire reminds us, that we must have reflection before we act.  It is important for the church to examine itself, to reflect, and then adjust the rudder and sails of belief to make sure that we are going in the right direction.

The reformers of our church who seek to end hatred and bigotry within our church understand that the gospel message of Jesus was never intended to create economic elitism based on skin tone, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic background.  Yet, somehow the departure from the gospel message of “love your neighbor” was witnessed in countless segregated white Lutheran congregations where persons of color were not allowed in or not welcomed if they came in.  These modern-day reformers have seen the malignant bigotry that causes the cancer of racism and the dementia of white supremacy and it makes them ill, ill enough to take a stand within the church against this evil.  They see how the church has normalized white supremacy and seek to expose it, name it, and dismantle it.

Again, from the book No Bigotry Allowed: “There are white people who are well intended who can grasp the horrors of enslavement intellectually. There are some white people who consciously endeavor to understand the full impact of racism in our culture, society, the world, and people of color. They are the ones who historically have given their lives in support of freedom and equality for all people. In the 60’s they were among the Freedom Riders and other supporters of justice, whose blood also spilled on the landscape of hope as they gave the ultimate sacrifice to bring humanity back into harmony.” [iii]

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Jean and Robert Graetz

Two such reformers within the Lutheran church are Robert and Jean Graetz.  I know that there have been thousands of persons who have fought and continue to fight for racial justice and equality. But, these two stand out because of their involvement as a white Lutheran pastor and his wife and their role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement during the 1950’s.  They took to heart that this church could not simply be a repository of 16th century values and aesthetics and that it must share the gospel message as one of hope and not simply of following traditions. The Graetzs, whose home was bombed on two occasions, were willing to risk their lives to live out their understanding of the theology of the cross.  They witnessed, that like Christ who stands with those who suffer we too must stand with them.  We must stand with those in the margins of our society, the victims of predatory public policies. We stand with our siblings not to offer charity that keeps people at the margins, but in a manner, that liberates, empowers and encourages them to become part of the center as equals.  Today the legacy of the Graetzs is institutionalized and serves as a reminder of what love in action looks like.  My prayer is that justice will also become fully institutionalized within the ELCA and not remain in the margins of polite talk, toothless resolutions, and well-meaning social statements.

The new reformers must continue to fully embrace what it means to dismantle a world organized around the elite status of materialism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy and fight the power that is designed to protect it. As the Lutheran church and specifically the ELCA, we must move our world to understand and embrace Jesus’ teachings on love, liberty, and salvation as the cornerstones of biblical teaching and Lutheran practice.  And when we do, then we will be the ones and those who follow us to keep the Reformation alive for another 500 years.

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pastorfotoRonald Bonner, is the pastor of Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Atlanta, GA, author of No Bigotry Allow Losing the Spirit of Fear: Towards the Conversation about Race and The Seat. And has recently been called as a Director of Evangelical Mission/ Assistant to the Bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA

 

[i] Theodore G. Tappert, The Book of Concord: Confessions of the Evangelical Church, Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1959, 328

 

[ii] Ronald Bonner, No Bigotry Allowed: Losing the Spirit of Fear, Towards the Conversation About Race, North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Publishing, 2015, 49

 

[iii] Ibid., 48