Leaving Them in Their Tombs – Rev. Nate Sutton; Peace Lutheran Church, Puyallup, WA

Linda Thomas at CTS event

If you are a white person in this country with any amount of savvy about race and power, you understand that taking part in any and all efforts to advocate for people of color, with people of color, can be fraught. Rev. Nate Sutton speaks to something of that in this week’s blog post, not only as a pastor in a denomination that is 96% white, but also as some one who is seeing the racial violence continue apace – and who has moved his frustrations and anger into a call to action. 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.”


“When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.”  – Matthew 27:57-60

“Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people!” – Malcolm X


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I’m tired of hashtags.

#TrayvonMartin

#TamirRice

#MichaelBrown

#EricGarner

#SandraBland

#FreddieGray

#AltonSterling

#LaQuanMcDonald

#PhilandoCastile

#CharleenaLyles

I can’t even remember the right order.

And, I’m excluding countless names that should be on the list. Why? Because I haven’t heard them. Apparently, the vast majority of people of color killed by law enforcement do not warrant the dignity of our awareness.

As I reeled from the most recent news of an acquittal in a case involving state violence, all I could bring myself to do was publish a simple affirmation on Facebook and Twitter: “Philando Castile’s life mattered.” But as true as it is, the statement left me with a nagging question: Is this really the extent of my power?

Each time I type the name of another lost parent/child/sibling/friend/neighbor/citizen, I feel like a latter-day Joseph of Arimathea, nowhere to be seen prior to the crucifixion, but showing up just in time to tend to the body. Handling Jesus with care, Joseph ultimately seals him in his tomb and leaves him behind.

But I’m tired of hashtags. I don’t want to bury more crucified people with nothing more to remember them than a digital whisper of their names.

And, I suspect I’m not the only one who is dissatisfied with reactive outrage and grief. If discipleship means taking up a cross of my own in Jesus’ name, then I’m called to be right beside him at Golgotha. If Jesus is to be found in the pain of oppressed people, then that is where I should go to find him. The charge is clear: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

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Exodus – Marc Chagall

Faithfulness to a crucified Lord means proactive solidarity with those who are crucified. But for all my eagerness to stop leaving people in their tombs – to do something worthwhile to prevent crucifixion in the first place – as a white person I also acknowledge a number of potential pitfalls.

The first temptation is to opt out from time to time. White privilege affords me the freedom to periodically suspend my involvement in the movement for racial justice. News of yet another trauma is upsetting, so I close my browser and busy myself elsewhere. Since people of color do not have the choice to take a break from race, however, solidarity demands a reliable commitment on my part. So I am compelled to answer the question: How prepared am I to truly share the burdens of those whose lives are threatened in my community, in my nation, on account of the color of their skin? I’m willing to repeat a hashtag, sure, but what other commitments am I ready to make?

And just as importantly, what is the most respectful and effective means of my involvement?

One of the more insidious functions of racial privilege is the insistence that white allies be free to participate in the movement for racial justice on our terms. As soon as we become convicted of the need for change, we’re apt to dive in. We take charge because that’s what we’re conditioned to do. But when white people enter black-centered spaces uninvited, for instance, or impose preformed ideas about how the movement ought to proceed, or center our own feelings about the ways we are included or not, we exploit the very power we presume to dismantle.

We also risk becoming preoccupied with our own acceptance. We want to be perceived by people of color as allies. We want to prove that we’re woke. So, we attend closely to the voices of people of color and affirm them. Whereas such support is warranted, problems arise when we identify our participation exclusively with the efforts of people of color.

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First, we may become convinced that we have earned the right to our place at their side. If I like all your posts, then I am free to associate myself with you at any time. For a variety of reasons, however, some spaces are reserved for those who are directly affected by injustice. White people (or men, or cisgender or heterosexual folks) may simply not be invited into these spaces. And when we are invited, we are expected to enter with care, as guests.

Second, we may neglect our own responsibility to the movement, a responsibility that is independent from the work of people of color. Our black friends are not available to address racism in our families. Our teachers of color are not available to practice anti-racism with our colleagues and in our communities. In the all-white spaces in which I so often find myself, my voice may be the only one to ask hard questions and insist upon change.

With all this in mind, how should I be about the work?

“Get in where you fit in.”

This wisdom from a leader in the movement for black lives continues to frame my own commitment.

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Get in where you fit in, that is, make an effort to understand the way your identity positions you uniquely in the movement for justice. Recognize where and when your role is to listen. Own the power your identity affords you, and leverage it for the sake of a more equitable distribution of power.

I’m tired of hashtags.

I’m tired of leaving crucified people in their tombs.

So I’m vowing to take new steps in faith and love, and I’m ready to take direction.

Will you come with me?


Vestments 3.2017.jpgNate Sutton is an LSTC alumnus, graduating in 2013. He serves as pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in downtown Puyallup, Washington. A Pacific Northwesterner by upbringing and choice, he and his spouse, Bethany, call Chicago “their city,” the place where many of their fiercest friendships developed and their dearest memories reside. Their child, Alexandra, will be three years old at the end of August.

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One Week After the Women’s March: A White Mother’s Take on Next Steps for White Christians – Prof. Aana Marie Vigen, Loyola University – Chicago

Picture 002So much has happened in the last week it has been hard for We Talk. We Listen. to catch its breath, let alone find its bearings. Trump’s inauguration was followed by the Global Women’s Marches, which was then followed-up by Trump signing a flurry of executive orders that affected everything from women’s health services, health care, immigrants and refugees – not to mention his constant spats with the media.  Prof. Anna Marie Vigen’s contribution for this week, however, ties much of this together – reflecting on much of what has happened in the last 10 days as well as how Christians – especially white Chritians – might respond.

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


Step One: Take Stock of a Powerful Day

Memory is powerful; it can fuel imagination. So, let me begin by recollecting our Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. My family of three headed to downtown Chicago to join, what we hoped, would be a gathering of 50,000. My nine-year old son chatted happily with friends on the “L”. The excitement exponentially built as marchers filled the car – and every car—to the point of sardines.

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Leading up to the Women’s March, I worried: Would too few show up? Would there be paltry news coverage? Would no one notice? However, my biggest fear was this: Would only white women show up and for only a narrow set of issues? Too often, this shoe has fit our foot. Such tunnel vision played a significant role in giving this unqualified man the election as 54% of white women voted for Trump along with large majorities of white Christians (58% of white Protestants, 60% of white Catholics & 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for him).

The night before the march, I struggled with what to write on my sign. I wanted to be clear that I was not marching for white women or reproductive rights alone. I wanted my sign to send the message that white folk especially must see the connections and become allies for others even more at immediate risk.  I ended writing: “I March for: Black and Brown Lives; for the Planet; for My Child and YOURS!”

My concerns about size and media evaporated as soon as my face was met by the light of the morning. Our plans to meet others from our church and son’s school were impossible to realize.  We happily bobbed along in the middle of a rippling sea of people expressing both hope and conviction, numbering 250,000 or more. The spirit was ebullient—propelled by big smiles, camaraderie, laughter, singing, clever signs, and hundreds of babies and children whose mere presence was enough to showed us plainly why we had come and why it mattered.

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Indeed, what most amazed me was the vast constellation of people: youth, elders, students, parents, immigrants, pastors, teachers, healthcare professionals, scientists, etc.—of every color, gender, culture, religion, and sexual identity. Together, for a few shining hours of brilliant blue sky and balmy 60 degrees, we embodied the UNITED States of America. And we did this not only in Chicago, but across the country and even the globe. On this dazzling day, We the People showed up. We showed up to speak out for human rights, for black and brown lives, for healthcare, for immigrants, for reproductive justice, for equality, for the planet, for our children. And the world noticed. And, apparently, so did this new president.

It has been a head-spinning, wretched week of executive orders and bald lies. Each action has taken aim at hard-fought successes of the Obama administration. The targets, to date, include: women overseas in need of reproductive information and medical care; the 20 million Americans newly insured by Obamacare, including that of coal miners and other workers with no employer-based healthcare options; the independent reporting of proven, credible science; Obama’s efforts to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels and pipelines; the well-being and rights of Native peoples; new immigrants and refugees and the cities who have pledged to offer them sanctuary.

What are Christians, especially white Christians, to do?

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Step Two: Call Out Idolatry

White theologian Stanley Hauerwas named publically what many felt in our bones with each new pronouncement: This administration embodies a powerful, idolatrous faith.

With lightening speed and a shocking disregard for democratic principles and processes, it is feverishly erecting golden shrines to false idols that glorify: unchecked ego and concentrated power; the fear of strangers (whether Muslim or Mexican); a twisted (white) nationalism packaged as patriotism; unlimited corporate profits and gushing fossil fuels (over science and prudence). And this faith is reinforced by a glaringly-white inner circle of advisors and spinners of “alternate facts”.

My language is strong because Christianity has had a prophetic obligation and identity since Jesus started turning over tables and calling out the unjust treatment of women, slaves, gentiles, foreigners… Jesus was a refugee, prophet, and messiah. We are called to be his disciples. A German, Lutheran pastor and pacifist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer bore witness to the idolatry in Nazi fascism. His legacy reminds us that we need to be very clear about the faith and leaders to whom we pledge our allegiance.

Step 3: Become Authentic Allies & Take Concrete Action

As many on social media have proclaimed since last Saturday: “Marches are not Movements”.  There is much more, urgent work to do.

In recent weeks, prominent white theologians such as Jim Wallis, Jennifer Harvey, Christian Scharen, Todd Whitmore and Diana Butler Bass, among others, have put a sharp point on how the complacency and flawed assumptions white Christians have put the lives of black and brown people at great risk.

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We need to confess this failure. Starting now, we need to start grasping the complex intersections of injustice (race, socio-economic class, religion, geography, sex/gender). As just one example: It is black and brown women and children—in the U.S. and around the world— who are, and will, suffer the most immediate and worst effects of climate change. In Alaska and Louisiana, their families are losing land to encroaching seas. In Syria, China, and in the U.S., they are losing crops to drought. Women and children are among those most vulnerable to hunger and infectious diseases carried by polluted water and viruses carried by mosquitoes. Climate change is, as the World Health Organization (WHO) notes, the largest public health crisis of the 21st century. Women and children are the ones who are already disproportionately losing homes, opportunities for education, and livelihoods due to the disappearance of schools, farming, trades along with increasing civil strife and unstable governments and economies.

In short, those of us with religious, racial, socio-economic, and geographic assets need to become trustworthy and visible allies to those more vulnerable. And we need to do this both out of a moral duty, but also for the sake of our common future.  Indeed, how we act now will determine what kind of prospects any of us may have—in terms of pursuing any semblance of liberty, happiness, or life.

For our march, my nine-year old wrote on his sign: “I March for My Future.” Let’s join him. I will continue to act for the sake your children—Christian or Muslim; from a family of new or long-ago immigrants; affluent or impoverished; rural or urban black, brown, white. I ask you to act with my son’s future in mind. All of our children need to know we have their backs.

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At the Women’s March in DC.

We owe it to them. Now is the time to be prophetic together.

 


imgres.jpgAana Marie Vigen is an Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Loyola University Chicago. Dr. Vigen earned a BA in Spanish, Religion, and Hispanic Studies from St. Olaf College, an MA in Theology and Ethics jointly conferred by the Graduate Theological Union and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, and a PhD in Social and Theological Ethics from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She is a member of the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE) and the American Academy of Religion (AAR). Dr. Vigen is also an active lay member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and served on the national ELCA Genetics Taskforce from 2008–2011. She offers courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Christ-Centered Concreteness: The Christian Activism of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. – Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams, McCormick Theological Seminary

Picture 002The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer – two names which resound deeply among many Christians across the globe. Both were preachers, eager to bring their people into firmer alignment with God. Both were thinkers, always up-to-date on the ways that Christianity interacted with the social sciences, politics, and the day-to-day lives of their people. And both were martyrs – one for fighting tireless against the institutions and attitudes of white supremacy in the United States, the other for his effort to assassinate one of the greatest tyrants the world had ever known. Reggie Williams puts these two men side by side in this week’s post, and gives us a chance to see how we can learn from their powerful witness – a fitting way to begin this week, honoring Dr. King’s life, legacy, and work.

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


Years ago, I attended a large two-day evangelical men’s conference in Oakland, California. One particular conference speaker left a strong impression as he enthusiastically argued a point about the obvious correlation between Christian men and virtue. He told us to imagine walking through a dimly lit alley late at night, to see “a group of guys” approaching us at a distance. “Would it make a difference for your peace of mind,” he said, “if you knew that the men approaching you at night in that dark alley were coming from a bar, or from a Bible study?” The answer was apparently obvious,  “Of course it would make a difference!” the speaker said. “You’d certainly feel better if you knew they were coming from a Bible Study!” According to the conference speaker, it’s self-evident that Christians aren’t dangerous; they are virtuous, caring people.

The speaker framed a picture of Christian men that conference attendees were certain was real. He stoked their zeal to believe that Christian men were a better brand of human being. The story inspired attendees to feel great about themselves, and to claim their divinely ordained leadership roles. But it was a story that was swimming in rhetoric, and it was hiding something. Who was this “we” he was referring to, who would feel safe as non-descript, ubiquitous Christian men approached?

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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther king Jr. were Christian pastors and theologians who expose the lie within the rhetoric of intrinsic Christian virtue. They were pastors who advocated a Christian life that privileged justice as the way of Jesus, not individual virtue or morality. Within their social contexts they faced violent opposition from “virtuous” people who identified chiefly as Christian. Bonhoeffer’s major opponents were members of the German Christians movement who engaged in violence towards people who were not idealized Aryan, hetero, Germans. His opponents sought to make Germany great again by enabling Adolf Hitler as head of the church and the country.[1] In America, Martin Luther King Jr. was spokesperson for the modern civil right’s movement that was operationalized by black churches. Participants in the civil rights movement practiced non-cooperation with the political, economic, and social structures that have historically been organized and maintained by white supremacy. The resistance that Bonhoeffer and King met from Christians illustrates that the mere label “Christian” does not indicate that one is, or intends to be, virtuous, or concerned about the well being of others. Nor does it identify that one is following the way of Jesus. What matter’s most is our actual understanding of the way of Jesus.

The influence that Bonhoeffer and King placed on the Sermon on the Mount helped both of them to see justice as core to the way of Jesus. King’s advocacy of social justice drew directly from it, connecting what he admired of Gandhi, with  “love ethic” he saw in the Sermon on the Mount, to provide the necessary guidance to confront evil in society.[2] Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Hitler’s evil and his brave opposition against him was influenced by his read of the Sermon. In Discipleship, Bonhoeffer argued that the Sermon on the Mount represents concrete commandments that Jesus expects followers to follow, concretely.

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Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

He argued that the Sermon is not a set of high ideals meant to demonstrate how impossible it is to please God, which often leads to a form of “cheap grace” that enables Christians to practice a confident defiance of God. Bonhoeffer interpreted the incarnation as a moment that fundamentally changed reality, and helped guide faithfulness. In the incarnation Christ took “the world up into himself … [thus] establish[ing] an ontological coherence”[3] of God’s reality with the reality of the world and the reunion of God with the world.[4] The reunion that occurred between God and creation in the incarnate One was accomplished in Christ, and became the new reality. Thus to behave responsibly is to act in accordance with the Christ-centered reality brought about by the incarnation. Responsible action is “the entire response, in accord with reality, to the claim of God and my neighbor” as demonstrated by the reunion of God and creation in the incarnation. [5]

With Bonhoeffer, Christianity is not described by a personal relationship with God, evidenced by adherence to a lifestyle of family values or virtues: responsible Christian action is active acceptance of “the responsibility which has been established in Christ.”[6] Bonhoeffer’s use of Stellvertretung translated as vicarious representative action, or, empathetic incarnational representative, describes Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on Christ’s acting in solidarity with others. Stellvertretung is who Jesus is and what Jesus does; Jesus’ vicarious representative action “restores communion between God and [humanity] and Christ becomes God’s sacrifice in my place.[7] Stellvertretung also describes what Jesus expects of us. We recognize and interact with Jesus in social encounters with others. Indeed, we always, only interact with others through Christ, since Christ has become vicarious representation for all of humanity before God, and before one another. Without Christ, the only freedom we know is no freedom at all. It is freedom from one another, with our heart turned inward on itself. Christ, who is for us, enables our release from the bondage of the heart turned inwards, to be free for God and one another.  This understanding of the person and work of God establishes our understanding of the person and work of Jesus, not in abstract doctrine, but in social interaction with one another.

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King’s Christology also emphasized Jesus’ being in relationship.[8] King advocated nonviolent resistance to social evil, emphasizing the value of redemptive suffering for changing the hearts of both victim and perpetrator.[9] He saw the power of God in the universe actively siding with justice—on the side of love and restoration, not hate and destruction. He often claimed, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[10] King understood God to be just and loving: “I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power.”[11] The “benign power” has advocates and opponents: those who actively participate in the Christ-informed drama of neighbor love, or those who ultimately fail as they oppose it.

Thus for both men, Christ-liken-ess did not consist of intangible high ideals, but of our active faithfulness to God demonstrated by our pursuit of justice.

 

There is an interesting correlation between their interpretations of the incarnate One, and the structure of the moral and loving universe. With both of them, Christians are meant to obey the call of God on our lives in daily praxis, pushing back against social evil, and guided by Christ-centered claims that promote community. Those claims may require us to contradict what may be accepted as popular moral norms, possibly defying political structures that have legalized injustice. Following Christ makes the moral arc of the universe more than an ideal; it is not a what, but a “who.” He is the incarnate Stellvertretung (for Bonhoeffer), and he is “love-correcting-what-would-work-against-love (for MLK).”[12] Christian discipleship is oriented towards praxis, becomes the moral standard in the universe, and the incarnate One determines good and bad, right and wrong incarnationally, in concrete daily social encounters, as we collectively participate with God in Christ, in the concreteness of daily life.

christian-service-100When disciples observed Christ’s behavior in context, law-breaking and norm-defying behavior is not sin; he who is performing the work of delivering love is the standard and the norm. He does the things that seem to the onlooker to be sin, yet he is consistently enacting neighbor love; he is Word and concomitantly the standard of judgment and the final judge. He is the lawbreaker, judging our social standards, disrupting practices of injustice and political oppression for the sake of justice, restoration, and a new relationship between God, humanity, and the Beloved Community. It is humiliated and sinful flesh that he carries, but it is he, the standard by which all standards are measured, and the one who is the final judge who carries it. [13] The incarnate One is the en-fleshed moral arc of the universe that is bent towards justice, when we take both arguments into account.

Christian obedience is not determined by the appearance of a moral or virtuous individual life, but by embodied faithfulness to the incarnate One. The Word made flesh is the concrete guidance that mediates our social interaction and inspiration for resistance to injustice.  His “way” as articulated in scripture and mediated in community, will always be in favor of neighbor love demonstrated as justice, sometimes in opposition to popular norms, but always in favor of the oppressed. Hence, in that dimly lit alleyway, we should not be so comforted by the label of Christian, or that they read their Bible. What we’d want to know is do they know the One who embodies love and justice?

 


ReggieWilliams-Crop.jpegThe Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams before becoming Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary in 2012, he received his Ph.D. in Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2011. He earned a Master’s degree in Theology from Fuller in 2006 and a Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies from Westmont College in 1995. Dr. Williams’ research interests are primarily focused on Christological hermeneutics, and Christian morality. He has a particular interest in how the Western-world understanding of Christianity has been calibrated to a false ideal that corresponds with racialized interpretations of humanity, morality, and Jesus. His current projects include an analysis of the developments within Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics, as a result of his experience in the Harlem Renaissance, 1930-31. Reggie lives in Flossmoor, Illinois with his wife Stacy. They are the proud parents of a son, Darion, and a daughter, Simone.

Citations:

[1] See Reggie L. Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Waco, Tx: Baylor University Press, forthcoming)

[2] Martin Luther King and Clayborne Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr (New York: Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books, 1998), p. 23.

[3] See quote from Eberhard Bethge in Larry L. Rasmussen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), p. 16.

[4] See Bonhoeffer and Bethge p. 222 in Rasmussen p. 37

[5] DBWE 6:280

[6] Ibid

[7] Rasmussen, p. 38.

[8] Roberts.

[9] Martin Luther King and James Melvin Washington, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr, 1st ed. ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 41.

[10] King and Washington, p. 252.

[11] Martin Luther King, Strength to Love, 1st Fortress Press ed. ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), p. 153.

[12] Cone, p. 62.

[13] Bonhoeffer, p. 106.