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.