The Fourth of July is always a contentious holiday for many African Americans. Though many of us have made a life – and often a good life – in the United States, the stench of white supremacy that under girds everything about our country and it can never be avoided. It is all the more poignant, then, that Lutheran pastor, professor, and researcher Rev. Dr. Robert C. Saler (Christian Theological Seminary) is giving his take on if it is possible – as Christians, let alone as Lutherans – to view the festivities of these days in a way that both celebrates our nation, while simultaneously holding it accountable to it’s past. 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.”
My friend and colleague Linda Thomas asked me recently if I would use this Fourth of July holiday as a chance to make a comment on Frederick Douglass’ monumental 1852 speech in Rochester, NY: “The Meaning of July Fourth for a Negro.” To be honest, I had put off the request out of fear. There are some texts that are so fraught, so consequential, so viscerally encompassing of the pathologies that we find within and around us that for a white theologian such as myself to seek to encompass them in turn – especially in theological or literary criticism – threatens to expose much of our theologizing discourse about justice as the clanging gongs that it so often is. Better to keep silent and learn, I tend to think.
But, like many followers of this blog, I have also been sitting in silence thinking about Lenny Duncan’s recent blog entry, Dear Church: You Would Rather Hang Me from a Tree. A Reflection on the Execution of #PhilandoCastile. I won’t seek to gloss or summarize Vicar Duncan’s powerful words in the wake of the acquittal of the police officer who killed Philando Castile either; however, his post did give me the push I needed to think about how the ongoing sting of Douglass’ speech might be theologized in a way that prolongs the searing, purging effect of his prose rather than domesticates it – especially on this Fourth of July weekend. Duncan writes:
“Perhaps the grace is the fact that Black people still love this church. That people like me are willing to throw themselves into the breach. That I will not leave until I die. That I will stay in the church I love until the very end…
But you won’t experience me as grace…
You will experience me as the thing that makes you uncomfortable.”
Duncan’s point is, among other things, definitively Lutheran.
What many scholars have called Luther’s “perspectivalism” is a more defensible gloss on the law/grace dichotomy than much of the easy appeals to grace that exonerate so much systemic injustice in ELCA circles. For Luther, God is constituted finally by grace, but the operations of God’s grace are – like God – as much concealed as revealed in the life of the world and the life of the church. When God is manifest as justice, then the cheap grace move is to domesticate this manifestation by rendering it simply as a moment in a triumphalist law/grace overcoming. In this flawed schema, justice is linked to law, which is overcome by grace, which yields (often) a sort of optional benevolence on behalf of perceived marginal neighbors. The result is that grace itself becomes the justification for tepidness and self-righteousness in the face of some ostensible religious or sacramental affiliation.
However, for Luther, God’s hiddenness means that God’s grace cannot be experienced as a carefully measured inoculation against further divine disruption, but must instead come as the dislocation of prior certainties (the old Adam) in favor of new territory in which that which had been abject (the crucified criminal on the cross) becomes the site of cosmic redemption.
God is no less awe-ful in Luther’s understanding of grace; it is just that the mediation of salvation is stripped from the laws of merit comprehensible under sin and are mediated now through the mode of crucifixion and resurrection. The cross continues to disrupt the life of the church (and indeed, for Luther only churches possessing such a cross are worthy to be called church). Moreover, the only grace in which Luther was interested was grace that was, indeed, “the thing that makes us uncomfortable.” So, when Duncan speaks of the presence of his Blackness as being un-experienceable by the ELCA as grace, then the issue is how the idolatry of cheap grace blocks the discomfort of genuine dislocation of real grace as mediated by the presence of disruptively graced bodies.
This, too, was the genius of Douglas’ speech and of his embodied action in delivering it almost two centuries ago in America. Compare the words of Duncan – “You won’t experience me as grace” – to the pivotal turn in Douglass’ address as he moves from acknowledgment of how Fourth of July can be experienced as triumph for those who find their existential location in America’s racialized self-understanding and those who, like Douglass himself, found their bodies made abject within that very space:
I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.-The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!
To stand amidst the festivities as a body rendered abject and unrecognizable by the sins that continue not only to plague, but in deep senses to constitute, the deep operations of too much of the national and ecclesial status quo is the act of courage that I see reflected both in Douglass’ speech and Duncan’s writing.
So what might this mean for the festivities this weekend?
It is common for pastors to complain that nationalism – expressed, for instance, by flags in churches or even more intensely pro-American liturgical displays – functions as a kind of idol in churches. Perhaps, but that complaint ironically underscores a more fundamental dis-ease that plagues much worship and church life in ELCA settings: that the very spaces that bear witness to Luther’s insight about the need for God’s grace to be experienced as dislocation from domestication are often the sites that participate in the very sort of refusal to recognize any bodies that cannot be “thematized” (Judith Butler) into spaces formed by whiteness.
To put the matter as bluntly as possible: in spaces held captive by white supremacy, grace itself cannot be recognized because grace simply is the call out of captivity to structures that enforce sin. And what this means is that graced bodies, bodies saved by dislocation from the center that is demarcated by sin, not be recognized as grace without a more forcible shock to the system than many congregations might welcome. Douglass remains this shock to the US system even now; can the church welcome similar voices from within and without the bounds of its spaces of celebration?
My hope for this Fourth of July, then, would be for ELCA congregations to forego or at least mute the same tired complaints about nationalism – as if idolatry is only manifest once a year – and instead meditate on how the modern parallels to Douglass’ calling out America on its nationalist idolatry might be found in the ELCA’s ongoing failure to use grace as a means of inoculating itself against God’s justice.
We have little to no moral high ground to call out the blood-soaked idols of nationalism if our church spaces offer of the same structures of exclusion wrapped in crosses rather than flags. We gain no points for pointing out the splinter of idolatry in the nation’s eye when the log of baptized whiteness is in our own. Bless the voices and the bodies in our midst that do not stand around waiting to be thematized, or even recognized, but whose very presence testifies to the possibility that maybe grace in all its awful potential has not abandoned us yet.
Robert Saler is Research Professor of Lutheran Studies and Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN. He is the author of Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church and Theologia Crucis. He is currently co-editing a volume of essays on theology and sound.