God’s Work? Our Hands? – Rev. Tom Gaulke

Linda Thomas at CTS eventGoogle dictionary defines solidarity as “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.” It is something we talk about quite a bit at my seminary, with our Public Church curriculum. But it isn’t such an easy thing to teach – as what most folks consider solidarity is, in sad truth, nothing but activist tourism, and as such is not educational, let alone transformational. Weighing in on this is Rev. Tom Gaulke – the pastor of a scrappy Lutheran parish in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago – and some trenchant observations on the subject. It’s a good bit of reading for the first week in Easter, and we’re sure you’ll agree. 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.”


51d17yMqhVL.jpgPhilosopher Slavoj Žižek once made a very interesting observation about the 90’s block-buster, Titanic.

In Titanic, the main character, Rose, is seated in the upper deck, wining and dining, but yawning in her boredom. She is missing something. Is it romance? Is it adventure? Is it a spiritual experience? She’s not sure. But she thinks the answer, for her, might be found in the exploration of another realm.

In her search for some kind of resurrection, Rose descends. She moves down through the floors of the ship. She finds, at bottom, the proletariat – the working people far removed from her life among the gilded elite. There they dance. There is joy. There is a movement of bodies and loudness of voices that would be deemed crass and transgressive in the upper echelons of the ship. She gives in, is swallowed up by the joy of the ecstasy. She finds a lover in a character named Jack, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

To her the world of the poor is a Paradise, and for some moments, she escapes the restrictive confines of her privilege and finds unbound pleasure and ecstasy.

But then something larger than the ship appears. An iceberg. Suddenly that which was covered by the walls of the ship is exposed: not only were there floors on the ship, but the floors were obvious markers. Classes were divided by them. First class… Second Class… Bottom… And there was more than division. Those passengers’ privilege (or lack thereof) would now determine their fate or their salvation. Aware, Rose returns to her caste, and thereby saves herself from a poor person’s fate, from death by being defined and confined in poverty. Though she was temporarily positioned with the poor, her geography, unlike theirs, was not confined by her economics—she was free to move.

As the movie concludes, Rose recalls the good times she had.  In her recollection, something again is exposed. It seems in her travels that she saw not people, but rather romanticized caricatures of The Poor. There was no real community or solidarity. She had really only used them – for dancing, for pleasure, for ecstasy. They were chattel to her, goods manipulated as means to her end, merely 3/5 human.

tumblr-mlle87hghf1soiv6eo1-500-jpg.jpg They were her triumphant articulation of a “meaningful experience,” pleasure, “good times,” recalled from a stage or a fireside room. And instead of seeing more family, more of God’s beloved, she saw only more possibilities for “use.” Žižek calls this “Hollywood Marxism.”

And we see this everywhere.

Think about mission trips in which, for example, churches from the tops of ships will come to churches in the city, often described as urban or poor (For the record, these are not always fun names to be called). Paint a wall! Plant some flowers! Take selfies! For these tasks, grandparents and football coaches and godparents give money—to make sure their youth have a “meaningful experience” among The Poor. A similar phenomenon happens at protests. Radical-minded church people and seminarians show up. This is fine, but what if we do not engage any of those we claim to love? What does it mean when we stay in a cluster and seem to avoid those who are different from our young, moisturized, [white] skin? Are we in the struggle or are we at a fun event like any other fun event, like going to see a comedian or a rock show?

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Hollywood Marxism emerges also in the classroom, as well. “I’ve got it!” students often exclaim after an afternoon of reading. That is, “I understand this,” or “I have got a hold on this.” “I possess this.” I own it. If our academic work, our reading, is only a project of reading so that we might “master” or “contain,” in order “to have a handle on it,” then our academic project ceases to be in line with the vision of the conspiring, companion-ing church.

But if our intent is only to master, we are Rose.

By ‘mastering’ we perpetuate a legacy of slavery and colonialism, whereby we use the writings of the poor and people of color as means for our own purposes. We appropriate. We steal. We hijack the weapons of the weak and melt them into glorious sparkling idols of the status quo.

Vitor Westhelle, in The Church Event, suggests that church happens in those spaces where and when we are at ease in the presence of the radically Other, where the truth is told in a revealing way, and captives are set free. Here we are transformed by one another, and shaped into companions and conspirators. Where is that space?

Is it possible to foster such a space? Can we help Church to take place? To happen? Or do we remain a bunch of Roses, without the salvation of metanoia?

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I very much love Westhelle’s image of our ministry—a tree. We can try! We can prepare—like Advent, like the women at the tomb. We can plant and nurture a tree. We can place it in the sunlight. And we can pray and hope that once our tree grows tall that maybe in it an orchid (the Church) will take root and bloom. Still, who knows what shape the blooming will take?

But we plant, we grow. We hope.

As we groom new trees for a new time, in the church and in the classroom, transforming Rose means intentionally exposing students, youth, and parishioners to the radically o/Other. In classrooms, this means even the non-academic other. This means song, poetry, stories of pain and struggle, putting voices in dialogue, and most importantly, real people, real flesh and blood, real experiences of pain—perhaps beginning with those in the room—with the aim of the student being transformed from the distant observer into the one who stands in solidarity, from understanding to standing with, moved to create spaces and communities for the sake of speaking the truth and setting captives free.

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Can my denomination make this motto a reality?

Hence if my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), is to be such a place there should be no room for snobbery. Insisting on only MDiv preachers or only academic authors in our pulpits and classrooms reinforces class divide.

Any serious conversation about liberation needs to include the non-sanitized, political bluntness of real communities who struggle. If the church, if the academy, does not allow the poor to speak, it is only pretending to be Christian.

If the ELCA continues only to reinforce the class divide that exists in the United States within our own churches – gaining “inspiration” from visits to poor communities, then returning to the suburbs, gaining joy from the struggle of the disadvantaged, putting the poor to “use,” then jumping ship, watching them try to swim – then the church is only pretending.

After Jesus was killed by the Powers who found him to be a threat, his disciples gathered together in fear. Jesus invited them out of their locked rooms into the presence of Others to tell their stories of pain, to break bread, and to testify: to dream out loud of a different world, a new Reign, God’s Banquet where all are beloved and free, where crucifixion is no more. Jesus sent them the Spirit so they would never stop dreaming together.

Let’s strive for such companionship and such conspiracy. Let’s keep one another afloat so that no one sinks.

Alleluia.


10313960_10156582589050532_5840765783004842230_n.jpgRev. Tom Gaulke is pastor at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago. He is a leader in The People’s Lobby and Moral Mondays Illinois. Tom enjoys scootering and is engaged to a wonderfully amazing human being named Daisy. Tom also studies Theology in the Ph.D. program at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. 

The Road to 270 Was Through the ELCA – Vicar Lenny Duncan, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church; Conshohoken, PA

Picture 002To fulfill its duty as a way-station for theological discussion of current events, all this week “We Talk. We Listen” will be playing host to multiple perspectives of the recent election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency of the United States. Our first is from a student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelpia, Vicar Lenny Duncan – and he doesn’t pull punches. For presenting itself as a denomination that is welcome to all, many of the ELCA’s churches are thick in states that ultimately catapulted Trump to the presidency, harking to his campaigns use of misogyny, racism, Islamaphonbia, and ableism. As a black man who is formerly incarcerated, he writes unflinchingly of what this new political reality means to him, and many marginalized communities that now worry for their survival after last week’s tidal shift. Read, post, 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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Secretary Hillary Clinton making her concession speech on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 – after losing the Electoral College vote to Donald Trump 228 – 290.

I know many of you are still reeling from the results of Tuesdays election. Many of you reading this are still trying to deal with the seismic shift that you believed happened. You are trying to find a new north for your moral compass. A way forward.

I am not. I stand before you unafraid, unsurprised and unbowed. Not because I’m made of better stuff than you. But because I know white America. I have traveled all over this country as a homeless teen. I have hung with “friends” for months or years only to hear them say “nigger.” Then explain how they didn’t mean me, because I’m different.

I have been hungry. I’m talking real hunger, when you haven’t eaten for at least 3 days. You start out full of emotion, anger and desperation. But by day 3 your emotions deaden. They become flat. You start to shuffle through the day and your body starts to eat itself.

Spiritual hunger is no different, and the body of Christ reacts the same way.

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I have seen empire clearly since I was a child. Since the police dropped a firebomb in my neighborhood in West Philly to stamp out the M.O.V.E organization. As the flames rose and I asked my Dad what the smoke was from he looked me in the eye and said “That’s what happens when you call the police for help.”

I have worn leg and wrist shackles with the long chain dangling in between. Unable to take a step longer than 6 inches without it pulling on my ankles. Blood filling my county issued shoes. Sat in a room with 40 other people. Anger confusion and rage floating around like an unwelcome shadow. Sat and listened to a harried public defender get my name wrong three times as he explains the deal I must take. Or I could to stay in jail for a year while the courts figure it out. What’s another felony weighed against being stuck on the modern-day plantation?

I’m not surprised because as a Black man I have lived in Donald Trump’s America since I was a child. I have been preparing for Tuesday since I taught myself to read.

A mantra I often use in regards to my work with the #decolonizelutheranism movement is that “the problem is not sociological, it is theological.” I stand by that now.

Here is your wake-up call.

The area’s that won this demagogue the day were overwhelmingly ELCA Lutheran strongholds. The path to 270 and beyond marched right through the heart of the Augsburg Confessions and wore the red cover of an ELW as it marched up to the voting booth. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the crumbled “blue firewall.”

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Many states that propelled Donald J. Trump to the presidency – North and South Dakota, North and South Carolina, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia – have significant numbers of congregations in the ELCA.

Many failed to see it coming. Why? Because they thought they were having a political discourse, when they were actually facing systemic evil and its consequences. A theological battle was raging across our pews and we depended on polite society to win the day. They underestimated the power of white supremacy and evil. White supremacy doesn’t need its unwitting participants to be consciously racist.  In fact it relies on you not believing you are. The pundits refuse to call it what it is. The conversation has already shifted.

“We need a reset”

“We need to give him a chance”

“Unity should be our main focus”

This call rings hollow to me because it is always what the oppressor always says to the oppressed. It tells you that the boot on your neck is actually a deep massage. That your dying children are actually your own fault. That the continued state of poverty and emptiness you find yourself is your fault. It relies on the deeply embedded mythology of the American dream.

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps”

People talk about gas lighting, but Black peoples have been getting gas-lighted in America since the first whip beat us close to death, and we were told it was our behavior that caused it.  

They will tell us in the next coming weeks it was a DNC collapse that caused this. They will point out that neo liberalism is a failed experiment. They will talk about the lack of dialogue between urban society and middle America. Someone will write a New York Times bestseller about this like Nero playing violin as Rome burns.

But the problem isn’t political. It isn’t sociological.

It is theological.

The path to 270 was through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We failed. The magic number was 107,000. That was how many votes decided the Trump Presidency.

We only had to point out to 107,000 people that the Gospel is good news to the oppressed, never to the oppressor. That the Gospel is liberation here and now. But we as leaders of this church refused to because we were concerned about portico benefits. The next council meeting. Someone said my sermon was too political. To treat Jesus as someone who was incarnate in time and space, and then to believe he was unaware of the political ramifications of his ministry is heresy. Period.  

Resurrection has political ramifications because the structures we have as government are imbued with deep evil that runs down to its DNA.

This happened because many of us quiver with fear at the prospect of declaring from the pulpit that Jesus was a brown man, in a colonized land, railroaded in court, and killed by state sanctioned execution. Because we are heretical. We have taken Jesus from time and space and reduced him to an intellectual exercise that has far less impact than the hymns we choose every week.

We are all guilty.

We have entered a 2nd Reconstruction.

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A a post-election protest rally in downtown Chicago, one of many such protests around the country.

Black codes will become Muslim codes. Or LGBTQ codes. The prison industrial complex is going to have an orgy of pain and merciless hunting in the coming weeks and days. Law and Order the new twin gods that we will sacrifice our children too. The economy the new golden calf that we will make love too. My life is on the line, but you never mentioned that. You sat in pastoral care meetings and let your parishioners talk about health care. Meanwhile on Tuesday I became an endangered species.

The hope. Where is the hope for us than?

The church has always flourished when it was counter cultural. When it was in resistance to the empire.

The hope is that you are seeing America clearly for the first time in a long time. The hope is that same brown man who was executed stood up three days later and shifted the entire universe.

The hope is you were anointed, called to a time such as this. Republics have fallen. Kings pass away.

Empires crumble. The church has stood throughout it all. The first step is we need to challenge what it means to be a Christian and a Christian leader. The next is we organize, we resist. Lastly we need each other so desperately right now. People gather in community because when we gather in the name of God something deep down inside each and every one of us gets fixed. Set right and renewed.

I leave you with this as we contemplate what we each will be doing in response to all this last week.

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“All people need power, whether black or white. We regard it sheer hypocrisy or as blind and dangerous illusion the view that opposes love to power. Love must be the controlling element in power, not power itself. So long as white church men continue to moralize and misinterpret Christian love, so long will justice continue to be subverted in this land.” 

National Committee of Negro Churchmen, “Black Power Statement” July 31st, 1966


 

14718881_10206240696451273_7297790714910039448_n.jpgLenny the vicar at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Conshoshoken, PA and Candidate for Ordination to the office of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA. He is also the Evangelist for the #decolonizelutheranism movement, as well as a frequent voice on the intersection of the Church and the cries of the oppressed. He pays special attention to the #blacklivesmovement in his work, but lifts up the frequent intersection with other marginalized peoples.  He believes that the reason the ELCA has remained so white, is a theological problem, not sociological one. He is currently an M.Div Coop student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and holds a Bachelors of Biblical Studies from Lancaster Bible College, with an emphasis in New Testament Theology and Ministry.