“So what’s next?” is a question that many Protestants are asking these days – as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation barrels down on the globe and its many people. Adam Braun returns to “We Talk. We Listen.” with another reflection on whiteness, reforming, and a reasonable “what’s next.” 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.”
Those in Lutheran circles are now facing the fanfare of the 500th anniversary of the reformation. It is safe to say it has not been 500 years of “always reforming” or even “always reforming the church.” Perhaps, we have reformed ourselves all the way to the American suburbs. Here, we have no anxiety that God is judging us. Here, we do not have to work for our salvation.
Here, we can read our Bibles on our own, as individuals, in our individual homes.
But as individuals we are embedded in a culture, fitted with an ideology, and both our cultures and ideologies are outside the bounds of reformation, external to the limits of our possible self-critique. As I reflect on myself as a person of immense privilege, I am not surprised then that this sort of church produces narratives that are rarely self-critical. Sure, our narratives are full of humility and admission about the essential sinfulness of our position, but that is not the same awareness of how our privileges interact with the world, nor does it show any understanding of how they negatively impact the world. In order for us to claim the mantra of always reforming, we must collectively think critically about where are churches are and what they ought to do.
I was once asked how to do Church in the American suburbs by a suburban pastor. Behind the question is an admission of difficulty. It is difficult to preach the prophets (including Jesus) who call for change in a space that is made for stability. It is difficult to preach Paul in spaces that smooth over differences, when Paul pushes diasporic communities to face each other’s differences. It is difficult to preach the Gospel, its servant-hood and sharing of resources, in the utopia of the American Dream.
In the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent memoir, Between the World and Me
“I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”
The reality we may not see is in fact the one we don’t want to see: that the invisible hand of the market is actually made of up of black, brown, and yellow hands.* That cell phone that we hold everyday, was it put together by white European hands, harvested from the resources of white European lands? How about the computers in our church, or the projectors, or the microphones?
If Lutheranism no longer is Lutheranism and perhaps is no longer Gospel, then what shall we do with it? Once Lutheranism has lost the antagonism of its Northern European identity against other forms of Europe in America**, it has no structural force for its own liberation, because it is drowning in its own suburban privilege. So if its position needs no liberation and if its message never challenges the powers of Whiteness, Patriarchy, and Capital, why celebrate 500 years? Shall we all move to the suburbs and celebrate 500 years of ourselves and Lutheranism’s place in the Pax Americana?
Always Reform. Sure, reform our individual selves, but let us measure our reformations by how our churches face up to the privileged and under-privileged. This is a two step, self-critical process:
1) Consider what the hegemonic powers of the day are and our churches’ relationships to them.
2) Ask directly how our churches are actively participating in resisting them. Are we not a Church PROTESTant?
Let us not celebrate ourselves in the 500. Let us celebrate that our church tradition provides a history in which we can participate in self-critique and reformation, allowing us to call ourselves to reforming the church’s relationship to black and brown bodies (and all bodies of color), to non-cis/non-masculine bodies, to reforming all the systems that smother us in the glory of Capital.
Because, reforming will give us opportunity to peel back the curtains on our own crises, an apocalypse of sorts, and see that our privilege is not a blessing, but an Empire built on the backs of those who deserve better. A better world than the suburbs. A better church than our community centers. A better God than Capital. A better Lutheranism than ours.
Adam F. Braun is an aspiring feminist, anti-white supremacist, as well as a PhD student in New Testament Christology at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. A former facilitator at Boston Pub Church, he describes himself as a general radical who looks for radical potential in radical Christian gatherings – prefering darkness to light, and solidarity to love.
*Of course, I do not mean that black and brown hands are the organizing agency of the market. Rather, it is the market orienting itself around the “secret” knowledge that it can pay black and brown hands less than it pays white hands.