To 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
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.
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.
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.”
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.