The Fourth of July and Abjected Festivities: Some Graceful Parallels – Rev. Dr. Robert C. Saler, Christian Theological Seminary

ThomasLinda sittingThe 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.”


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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.”

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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.

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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?

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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.


RobTalkingRobert 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.

Zacchaeus and Turning from Complicity – Matthew Zemanick, M.Div. student, LSTC

thomas110_1027092“Zacchaeus was a wee little man / And a wee little man was he / He climbed up in a sycamore tree / For the Lord he wanted to see.”

Thus begins the popular children’s song, based on one of the most memorable stories in the Gospel of Luke, the conversion of Zacchaeus. But for its popularity, there is a great deal this story has to teach everyone, not just children. M.Div. senior at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Matthew Zemanick, delves into some of these layers in this post – explicating how Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus brings justice to the world by transforming those with power and privilege. 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.”


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‘Zacchaeus’ by Joel Whitehead. 

I believe the praxis of deconstructing the role of white supremacy in the life of white people is a doxological – a praise-filled – response to Jesus’ call for repentance. In the context of the ELCA, it is a faithful contextualization of Article XII of the Augsburg Confession, which understands repentance as a two-fold process. The first is the feeling of remorse (contrition) for violating God’s teaching.[1] The second is accepting, by faith the gospel, that through Christ sins are forgiven and out of this faithful consciousness of God’s grace, one’s repentance bears fruit in the form of good works.[2]

One of my favorite Bible Stories is demonstrative of repentance and salvation (healing) for those in positions of power – the salvation of Zacchaeus. As Jesus and his crowd of disciples were approaching Jericho, Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus better, and to hide from the crowd. He was scared of the people whom he had extorted as a tax-collector, and he knew Jesus had criticized the accumulation of wealth. But a part of him was curious because Jesus dined with the tax collectors too. Perhaps Zacchaeus thought that it would be the highest honor to dine with the Messiah, the one who would restore the Davidic Splendor of Israel.

As Jesus approached Jericho, he saw Zacchaeus hiding in the tree. Jesus hollered up to Zacchaeus, “Come down from that tree! I will be eating dinner with you tonight.”

 

The crowd was incensed that Jesus would dare eat with the man who had robbed them of their livelihood; a man who had taken even food from their children. They yelled, “Sinner! You have violated God’s command to love your neighbor, and blessings to the poor!”

Once, Zacchaeus had climbed down, and greeted Jesus, repented saying, “I have indeed defrauded my community. I will return four times the amount than I had taken. Moreover, I will take half of what I have left and give it to the poor.”

Jesus addressed Zacchaeus and the entire crowd, “Amen! Healing has indeed come to this community! I have come to seek out, heal, and save the lost.”[3]

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Interpreting this story from my multi-unal identity in the United States, I can see myself in the crowd and as Zacchaeus. However, if I am specifically speaking from my white identity within the white Christianity of the ELCA, I must see myself as Zacchaeus. My silence has affirmed disembodied, overly spiritualized, Christian discourses because I feared the consequence of challenging the theology of those in power. My silence has contributed to ELCA structures which economically, socially, and theologically marginalize people of color, and LGBTQ+ community operating outside of homonormativity. White complacency with the ELCA means continued divestment from economically depressed communities and a radical embrace of white supremacist corporate business models.

Repentance (literally ‘turning’ in Hebrew and ‘transformation’ in Greek) happens when one encounters the embodied Christ in the world, just as it happened with Zacchaeus once he listened to Jesus’ compassionate call, and responded despite his shame and the crowd’s heckling.

Zacchaeus had to give up living as a thief with Roman credentials, and restore the community’s abundance which he had privatized.

Through the lens of Article XII of the Augsburg Confession, Zacchaeus expressed contrition, the feeling of guilt, when he climbed up the tree. Zacchaeus sought the forgiveness of sins offered by the Messiah, but could not stand with his community. His sin (missing the mark, straying from the path) had damaged his connection with the people in the crowd. Climbing a tree to see the Messiah, Zacchaeus acknowledged he could not authentically stand with the crowd, but indicated his desire to encounter Jesus and his disciples.

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This indication that Zacchaeus desired to see Jesus was a faithful response to the role of the Messiah – grace incarnate – to grant the forgiveness of sins. His faith that Jesus would forgive his sins (participation in the oppression of his community), and thereby reconcile his relationship with his community, allowed Zacchaeus to be “delivered from his terror”[4] of retribution and respond to Jesus’ call. By faith Zacchaeus did get down from that tree and encountered the Gospel embodied in Jesus the Christ. By faith the Gospel was materialized in the form of redistribution of communal property so that all may live in God’s abundance. By faith Zacchaeus’ repentance – contrite, faithful, turning to God’s embodied presence – bore fruit: restoration of privatized creation to abundant communal life. The souls of Jericho were not the saved at the expense of their bodies; the salvation of their souls was embodied in their community.

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So how can a white church like the ELCA repent?

What will the fruit of our repentance look like?

First we must ask ourselves, “are we terrified?” There is a lot of reason to be terrified. White supremacy led to the election of a man who ran on a xenophobic, overtly white supremacist campaign to the US Presidency.  The ELCA’s white supremacy produced Dylan Roof. The more we deny the terror of our own sin, the more we will produce terrorism.[5]

The oppressors have fear, hiding like Zacchaeus. They (I, speaking from my whiteness) wonder, “where will we meet Jesus, the Gospel?” It is not in theories or sophisticated theo-philosophy, where we risk the idolatry of our own ideas. Rather, Jesus meets us, embodied, in the suffering of the world. The Incarnate God calls us down from our fear and our encounter will change the way we live. For those of us whose privilege, wealth, and comfortability are reliant upon the exploitation of our neighbors, an embodied response to God’s call means giving it up for the sake of abundant community. The deconstruction of white supremacy may begin with understanding its history and becoming contrite. However, it ends, as James Cone puts it, with “repentance,” which bears “reparation,” in order that “there [can be] hope beyond tragedy.”


unnamed.jpgMatthew Zemanick is an approved candidate for ordination in the ELCA. His passion for social justice grounded in God’s grace is rooted in his experience of the Prison-Industrial complex as the son of a convict. He calls many places home, but the Patapsco River Valley will always be first in his heart. He likes swimming in the ocean, cooking, and adventures with friends.

[1] Here I have changed “law” to “teaching” to better honor Jesus’ tradition of understanding of Torah as a divine teaching rather than a divine legal (nomos) code.

[2] Article XII Augsburg Confession

[3] Credit is due to Dr. Westhelle for his exegetical work on the story of Zacchaeus, which he has imparted onto me and many in his lectures and writings.

[4] Augsburg Confession, Article XII.

[5] Vítor Westhelle, Transfiguring Luther: The Planetary Promise of Luther’s Theology (Eugene: Cascade, 2016), 56.

Becoming Human: My Confession and Response to the Mythologizing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Patrick Freund

Linda Thomas at CTS eventWhere I teach – the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago – we do a lot of talking about the Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A spy for the German Resistance, scholar and pastor, professor and widely-respected author and public commentator, there is much to admire about him. But Bonhoeffer was human, as seminarian Patrick Freund is eager to point out. Patrick wrote this piece upon my request, as a student in his final year of seminary,  and as a response to Dr. Williams’ lecture at LSTC earlier this semester. For Patrick felt that for all of his greatness, Bohoeffer’s faults, too, are particularly instructive for white Christians and seminarians coming to consciousness about race in the United States.  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.”


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Dr. Reggie Williams at the burial location for the human remains and ashes at the Flossenburg concentration camp, site of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution (video).

At the beginning of his Lutheran Heritage lecture last month, Dr. Reggie Williams made two observations about Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s early life:

1) That the portion of his life which biographers term his “Academic Period” was spent in the predominantly racist context of the Weimar Republic, and…

2) That during this time he also travelled to the United States of America, where he “experienced developments in his understanding of himself as a white Christian.”[1]

Dr. Williams continued that when these observations are considered as correlated, two things become apparent:

“First, Bonhoeffer’s struggle was both external against Nazi racism as idealized conceptions of humanity and community and internal with a conflicted interpretation of himself as a western Christian. Second, the struggles he engaged in a racist society and with a conflicted self are as relevant today for his readers as they were for Bonhoeffer years ago. He engaged in both struggles for the remainder of his natural life, and we can learn from him for our own battles that we must wage today.”

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This impacted me in a major way. From my point of view, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been popularly sainted in the Lutheran cannon. In the popular imagination we have stripped him of his sinfulness so that we can see him as the pure and virtuous Lutheran Pastor who stood up to Hitler and the Nazis, and eventually died a martyr’s death. Bonhoeffer’s speech and action is a life of bearing witness to Christ; living into a daring trust and living out a bold faith. We cannot, however, forget that his struggle was not simply that of a virtuous person against an immoral, amoral, and devastating regime. His struggle was internal too. From early on, he was swimming in philosophical waters littered with flotsam and jetsam of racial pseudo-science. He saw the German people as being a superior people. He was familiar with concepts such as “Biologism,” which sought to explain human culture and behave as an aspect inextricably woven into race and biology. While he fought National Socialism externally, he wrestled with his own racism internally, and he died a racist.

This is painful to admit. But necessary.

Its necessary, because I know that I too have grown up in a racist society. I have grown up in a society that claims that all are equal in the eyes of the law but incarcerates Black and Brown men at a staggeringly higher rate than white men. I grew up in a society that ghettoized, stigmatized, and disenfranchised peoples of color while claiming to be the land of opportunity. I grew up in a society where I didn’t need to fear police brutality. I grew up white and middle class in the context of white middle class South Jersey. I spent my teens white and middle class in the context of white middle class Richmond, Virginia. It really wasn’t until I came to seminary that I realized that “America” doesn’t look like me, and Jesus doesn’t either. I think that this is what Bonhoeffer realized during his time in New York, which led to his internal and external struggles.

This has been my struggle too. I grew up in what was often called “post-racial America,” or “colorblind America.” And yet through the media and the cultural waters in which I was formed, I was conditioned to fear Black people.

I was conditioned to to equate drugs, poverty, and violence with Black people. I am racist because I living in and benefit from a racist system. What’s more, I’m racist because I was raised in a racist society. Racism is systemic. This must be affirmed. Racism is individual too. And this cannot be denied. I can relate to Bonhoeffer’s inner struggle. I struggle within myself everyday.

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Image via (medium.com)

I struggle against the thoughts and the feelings that arise within me, unsolicited and unwarranted, which bid me to deny the spark of God that has been implanted in every human. I struggle against the impulse to check “wallet, keys, cellphone” when approaching young Black men on the sidewalk. Especially the day after a “Security Alert” email is sent out. I struggle against the conflation of issues such poverty, drug use, and homelessness with my conception of the Black experience. I struggle.

When Bonhoeffer died, he was still struggling. And that struggle tells me that God wasn’t done with him until the day he died. I believe this because I know that I struggle, and I will continue to struggle all my life with the many and various ways that I seek to deny humanity to my siblings in Christ or my siblings in Noah. I am still human.

But, I also know that God isn’t done with me.

God isn’t done with us.

And the struggle cannot simply be internal.

God calls us to the external struggle for justice and humanity in many and varied ways. As I prepare to go on internship, I am looking to where God will be calling me to struggle externally in my new context. And leaving this place, I have regrets about the opportunities I did not take. I never went to a meeting of Seminarians for Justice, because my fear prevented me. I never marched, because my fear prevented me. I never preached, because my fear prevented me. I never took the Red Line to 95th, because me fear prevented me.

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If you are a student who has more time here – especially if you are a white student, a cisgender student, a straight student, a male student, a middle class student, natural-born U.S. citizen student, or any combination of characteristics from which you benefit from being a part of the “majority,” do not leave seminary with the same regrets that I am. Explore the ways in which God may be calling you to struggle for justice internally and externally. This is a call that you received at baptism, a call that resounds your whole life long. God is calling you to struggle for justice internally and externally while you are here, in and out of the classroom. Take advantage of answering for the now, while you are here.

And answer the call in different ways.

Try answering the calls that put you out of your comfort zone. Not everyone is called to march, or organize, and that’s okay. Not everyone is called to write and teach, and that’s okay. But everyone is called to participate. If you march and organize, do not despise those who don’t. If you teach and write, do not despise those who don’t. But in whatever you do, strive for the justice that comes with faithful witness to Christ. We are paradoxical creatures. God calls us to affirm the humanity in each other. Our own humanness gives us the capacity to see God’s own loving image in others as well as attempts to prevent us from doing so.

But God is not done with us.


1175397_10202066809055372_1572783268_nPatrick Freund is a third-year M.Div. student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

[1]     Williams, Reggie. “Becoming Human: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Theological Confrontation with White Supremacy.” Lutheran Heritage Lecture, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Chicago, April 3, 2017. All quotations are transcribed from the lecture recording, and the author takes all responsibility for any mistakes in transcription herein.

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.

—–

“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.

 

What it’s All About – Francisco Herrera, Ph.D. student, LSTC

ThomasLinda sittingEvery so often the Church gets so stagnant, and human beings so ornery, that the Holy Spirit can’t help but step up and raise some mischief. Inspired by a series of internet memes and only six months old, the #decolonizeLutheranism movement is quickly becoming a national force in the efforts of countless Lutherans to make their churches truly accepting and loving of everyone. One of #decolonizeLutheranism’s early adopters, Francisco Herrera, shares not only a brief take on the theology of #decolonizeLutheranism, but even a simple overview of the movement’s first revival, ##decolonize16, completed this past Saturday. It is a simple, eloquent, and inspiring read. So take it in, comment, and share, friends.

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


“So what is this #decolonizeLutheranism thing about,  anyway?”

I get this a lot.

My first response is usually, “It’s about creating a Christian community where no one has to prove to anyone else that they’re a human being, let alone a child of God.” Because, really, at bottom, that is what this is about. So many of us are through with being “issues” or “problems” or “too much/too soon/too fast” and not Children of God.

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Because if you’re a seminarian of color who has heard things like…

 “You’re not a real Lutheran.” “You black people may clap in church, but not us!” “That wasn’t a Lutheran ordination. People were talking while the pastor was preaching!”

…When ethnocentric comments like these are made you are precisely being told that you’re not a human being, let alone a child of God.

Or if you’re a pastor or lay leader who is LGBTQ and you hear…

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 “How can a gay pastor marry a straight couple?” “They’re calling us ‘the gay church’!” “We didn’t have financial problems before our church accepted the gays.”

…at some point you start to believe the lies and the Devil rubs his hands with fiendish glee as cracks deepen and spread through your once-solid faith.

And women pastors and seminarians? Pshaw…

“All women pastors are just lesbians who want to be men.” “Your husband approves?!” “You can’t wear a dress like that – it’s too risque for a seminarian.” “What does your husband think?”

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@TrybalPastor, aka Rev. Kwame Pitts, welcoming in a capacity crowd of 203 people.

So in order to purge themselves of so much filth and ick, while all-the-same moved by the Holy Spirit and hopeful for the future of Lutheranism in the United Sates, 203 beautiful souls from all over the United States converged here in Chicago (on the campus of the Lutheran School for Theology at Chicago) for one glorious day of challenge and refreshment, sharing the theologies and melodies of Lutheran voices known by a precious few.

And they stayed in this familiar, but ever-modulating choir all day long.

All day long.

We had songs from Mexico and Pakistan and the United States and Germany. We had piñatas – decked in the fullest of Roy G. Bivs – to teach us that, though pleasant to the eye, that sin needs to be destroyed – and that sin’s destruction is sweet to the taste. There were drums – oh yes – there were lots of drums, and maracas, and a cajon – and a poet who mourned that her mocha-brown skin seemed only to be a magnet for bullets for many people.

Then there were stories.

My goodness were there stories! Each of the main presenters told their own stories – about how the church doesn’t really see them, how so many Lutherans revere the Augsburg Confession as if it is Scripture although they don’t do anything it really says or teaches. One of the presenters talked about the day he learned that he was black, another lead a conversation on the Doctrine of Justification accompanied by the song ‘Amazing Grace.’ There were over 30 small groups that shared their stories, talked about what Grace meant to them, what sins they wanted to smash upon the paper skin of that piñata, and an entire assembly sang songs in Urdu and Xhosa as they lamented the ways their own church, that each of them personally, were complicit in racism and violence.

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Because everyone has to pee.

And as I myself stood there – posing the self-same deceptively simple question “What is this?” – I began to realize something. As we came together to ask what this day was all about, with little surprise and boundless joy I realized that, as we were dreaming of what Lutheranism could be and could become, all of us assembled truly and surely became the very church for which we sought. We were a church where a queer woman of color had her call recognized by the community and wasn’t gas-lighted into oblivion. It was a place where a black man could talk about Black Lives Matter – accompanied by loud hoots of acclimation as his face streamed tears of relief. Gender Non-Conforming and Trans folkx had all the harassment-free bathrooms they needed and no one ever asked anyone if they were really Lutheran. No one. Not once. And in that wonderful, wonderful day a special clemency, a fresh conviction, and – yes – an amazing Grace – filled every space of the seminary.

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“I did not feel like preaching in an alb.” Rev. Tuhina Rasche

Because those of us that don’t fit the default white, cis-het, sexist, racist profile of greater Luther-dumb suffer much and suffer long – yes. But, too, we know about justification, Augsburg Confession Article IV, about Grace. Because many of us were forced to walk a different walk, to straighten our hair, our teeth, go on a diet, to swap-out Public Enemy for Vanilla Ice – to do the this, the that, and EVERYTHING in between – only to be reminded once again that being forced to change how and what we do – to believe that we must DO things before we can be loved – only makes us despise ourselves.

But God still loved us as we hated ourselves and strove to conform. God loved us when we loved our rolls, let our hair kink, smiled at the bounce in our step, and raised a black-gloved fist next to ours as we shouted “Fight the power!” because God loves us in our pain, in our us-ness, even when we don’t love us – and ESPECIALLY when others turn our self-love into self-hate. Because Jesus, well, his blood washed away the default settings that Satan is always so keen to sculpt and keep. And through this wond’rous love Christ lifted us all up to eternal life.

And lots of Lutherans seem to have forgotten that.

So the Holy Spirit called #decolonizeLutheranism to remind everyone of this love, yet again. And that’s what we did this past Saturday. All. Day. Long.

All day long.

And it was glorious.

And that’s what we’re all about.


red-fireBefore coming to Chicago Francisco Herrera studied classical music (viola and orchestra conducting) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and then Geneva, Switzerland. After feeling the call to ministry at his home church in Geneva, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva, he returned to the US to enter seminary in 2005. He completed his M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2012 and then began Ph.D studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in Fall of 2013 – his emphasis on World Christianity and Global Mission. A polymath and a scatterbrain, when he isn’t preparing for school stuff he blogs at www.loveasrevolution.blogspot.com tweets at @PolyglotEvangel, and relishes in his duties as the Convener of #decolonizeLutheranism.

 

White Mother – by Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Ph.D.

ThomasLindaThough it is impossible for white allies to completely relate to the suffering and fear of people of color, this does not mean that white people should not at least try to understand – on a personal level – what it means to be a person of color. The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda does so here, and with great power. A white mother struggling to understand what it means to be the womb and cradle for black children in our society, she reflects good and long on what it means to truly live and work against the white supremacy that saturates our society, and the full implications that it has in the lives of all white people, as well as people of color. 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.”


I have felt a visceral sense of terror, a tightening in my guts, when I imagine how  I would feel if my two precious sons were Black and, therefore, in danger of their lives every day and night at the hands of police violence and other manifestations of institutionalized white supremacy.  

Wondering whether they would be shot for “walking while Black” down a street in  a white neighborhood, stopped for “driving while Black” and then shot while reaching for the car registration. Would some officer plant drugs on them in order to make a needed drug arrest?  How would I feel at night if they were ten minutes late and had not yet called?  What would be my fury and unbearable grief if one of them had been thrown into jail, accused of a crime that he did not commit, and I was powerless to get him out? What kind of treatment would a young Black man get while there? How would it damage his heart and soul?  What would it do to his belief in life’s goodness?  How could I survive knowing what was being done to him in a privately owned prison transport van if they moved him to another place, still in custody for something he had not done?

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I imagine teaching my sons all of the things that Black mothers teach their sons day in and day out – keep your hands at 2:00 and 10:00 on the steering wheel when they stop you for driving while Black.  Keep your driver’s license out of your pocket and your insurance card and car registration out of the glove compartment so that you don’t need to reach into your pocket or glove compartment when they stop you. Don’t question; comply.  Never walk together with more than one other young Black man if you are wearing jeans; they will suspect a Black threesome.  The litany goes on and on, as it has for centuries – Black mothers teaching their sons survival skills in a racist society.

Once many years ago, I was taking my sons to a demonstration. I think it was against the war in Iraq. One of them – then a little boy – was worried about his safety, but felt safer when he learned that the  police would be escorting the demonstration. I realized with a jolt that he would never have been able to say or feel that had he been Black.  What would I do if my little grandson were Black and, when he was 10 or 12, wanted to play with a toy gun in a park with friends who were white? How could I tell him that he could not join in that play? How would I talk to the white mothers asking them to prohibit gun play when my son was with them, because white people who saw him with a gun might call the police who might shoot him?

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I cannot fathom the pain of knowing my sons were being tormented in their young manhood by people who were likely to see them – even if on a subtle level or completely unconsciously – as demonic or dangerous or closer to an ape because they are Black. How would I feel when my white friends said things like: “But I don’t notice race” or “I see your son as just like all of the other boys” (that is, the white boys), knowing what these seemingly innocent words mean? The words would mean that white mothers did not get it that my sons’ lives were in danger, that my sons had to read the signs of danger when they walked into any situation and had to be aware of how police or shopkeepers were watching them,  that my sons – gentle and  good as they were – were less likely to survive because of what society does to Black  people.

But I am a white mother of white sons. Therefore, I have the option to ignore what it would mean to be the mother of black children in this country.  I could choose to not pay attention, to deny reality, to indulge white privilege.maxresdefault.jpg

I also am a theologian and have been thinking, writing, and speaking for some years about Jesus’ call to “love neighbor as self” (Matt. 22:37) or “to love as God loves” (John 13:34). Love as a biblical and theological norm is nothing like love in a Hallmark card. It is a steadfast commitment to serve the well-being of neighbor and that includes resisting systems of injustice (structural sin) where they damage neighbor.  Here is the discomfiting truth: my “neighbor” in the biblical sense includes all people whom my life touches. In a white supremacist society such as ours, white privilege and other manifestations of white racism touch all people, damage all people; in biblical terms, we are all neighbors.

What does it mean for a white person in a white racist society to heed Jesus’ call to love neighbor? 

That is the question. In all honesty, I would much rather flee from it.  Often I do; but not always. Here, I call upon all white people to raise the question and not hide from it under the comforting cloak of privatized morality. Privatized morality allows us to be good to the people with whom we interact personally while avoiding the profound impact that our lives have on others through the tendrils of systemic racism that form white psyches and shape the institutions that determine life chances – institutions of education, criminal (in)justice and law, health care, housing, electoral politics, and so much more.

For white people to “love neighbor as self” includes an on-going commitment to see beyond the blinders of white privilege. This means listening to and honoring Black articulations of reality, and grappling with what it really means to have been shaped as a white person in a white supremacist society. And surely loving neighbor includes figuring out how – collectively and individually – to repent of institutionalized racism, resist it, and be a part of dismantling its structures developed for five centuries on this continent. That will include promoting public and institutional policies that seek to repair the damage done.

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“Love they neighbor as thyself… means listening to Black articulations of reality, and grappling with what it really means to have been shaped as white person in a white supremacist society.”

God does not call people where God does not empower us to go. Therefore, along with the call to “love neighbor as self” comes empowerment for “doing” that love. In the tradition in which I live, progressive Christianity, that is the work of what we call the Holy Spirit (or the Spirit of the sacred Source known by many as “God”). Said differently, while we white people will make mountains of uncomfortable errors along the way as we seek actively to renounce the sin of racism, the Spirit of God accompanies us and  we join a marvelous band of justice-seeking people that spans the  centuries.

Resources:

Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation by Cynthia Moe-Lobeda http://resistingstructuralevil.com/

Dear White Christians by Jennifer Harvey  – http://www.eerdmans.com/Products/7207/dear-white-christians.aspx


moe-lobeda headshot .jpgDr. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, an ELCA Lutheran, has lectured or consulted in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and many parts of North America in theology; ethics; and matters of climate justice and climate racism, moral agency, economic justice, public church (and whose “Public Church” commencement speech at LSTC in 2013 directly influenced that seminary’s current public church curriculum), and eco-feminist theology. Her most recent book, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation (Fortress, 2013), won the Nautilus Award for social justice. She is author or co-author of four other volumes and numerous articles and chapters. Moe-Lobeda is Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. She holds a doctoral degree in Christian Ethics from Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

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For special information and materials for her most recent book visit: http://resistingstructuralevil.com/

Hope in the Wasteland – Prof. Roger Sneed, Religion Faculty – Furman University

 ThomasLinda sittingProf. Roger Sneed – has a serious word of law for us today, the kind of law that can only be given by someone who – in the words of Howard Thurman – “lives with their backs against the wall.” Though it is important to have hope in the midst of adversity so, too, is it important to look that adversity square in the eye and admit to yourself the enormity of the problem – sometimes, even, to admit to its hopelessness. He does so here, and it’s worth a good read and reflection. So 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.”


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Mother Emanuel AME.

It was a year ago last week that Dylan Roof entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and sat with the parishioners for an hour before murdering nine people, including the pastor, state senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Roof said that he committed the massacre in the hope of igniting a race war. On the morning of Sunday, June 12th, Omar Mateen entered Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and massacred fifty clubgoers. At least fifty-three other people were injured. From various reports, Mateen called 911 to declare his allegiance to ISIS. However, Mateen’s father said that he was very upset when he saw two men kissing. And we just learned that Mateen was a frequent patron at Pulse and was quite likely gay himself.  

In the aftermath, I see the same kinds of posts, comments, and so forth. Everyone wants to “pray” for the affected city, the victims, and the nation. Ribbons and changed Facebook pictures all show our “solidarity” with the massacred. I see President Obama saying that this nation isn’t built on hate. That we’re a diverse nation and we should be able to appreciate all kinds of diversity.

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our tattered flag

I see all these posts and meditations about how America isn’t built on hate…but it absolutely IS. 

It was built upon hatred of the indigenous peoples already here. You don’t have a Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee and Manifest Destiny and smallpox-infected blankets directed towards people you claim to love.

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Wounded Knee Massacre – December 29, 1890.

It was built upon the backs of Africans who had been condemned to perpetual servitude. You can try and say otherwise, but you don’t enslave anyone you claim to love. If you are loving, then you don’t enact the most brutal of tortures and deaths upon those who do not wish to be enslaved.

 

It was built upon enslaving Chinese immigrants. That transatlantic railroad wasn’t built on lovingkindness. That railroad was built on the backs of Chinese people and for the greed of white men.

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Chinese railroad workers, (1858-1885).

It was built on terrorizing African Americans. The Tulsa Massacre, Rosewood, Omaha and so forth didn’t happen because white Americans loved their black brothers and sisters.

It was built upon ostracizing and terrorizing women. What is rape culture OTHER than terrorism against women? What is the ongoing attack upon women’s access to health care OTHER than terrorism against women?

It was built upon legislating discrimination against ANYONE who wasn’t a white, landowning, heterosexual, allegedly Christian male.
It was built upon turning the “law” against the oppressed.
It was built upon maintaining structures that decimate black, brown, female, trans, lesbian, poor bodies and souls.

And if that ain’t hate, I don’t know what is.

A few days ago, a friend asked me if I had any hope, presumably for the future of this society. Normally, I would have responded to that kind of question with a “yes.” I am a lifelong Trekkie; I subscribe to the optimistic vision of humanity that Gene Roddenberry put forward.

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The cast of Star Trek, the original series.

I teach religion out of a hope that the knowledge I have received and hope to pass on can be part of creating a more just society.

However, after Emanuel, after Orlando, and after each and every instance of human bigotry, violence, and inhumanity, I am not so certain that I have hope anymore. I think that what we call “hope,” what we mean when we’re asking other people to have it, is a desire to maintain the current structures and systems with only minor to moderate modifications. When I say that I no longer have hope, I mean that I no longer have any faith in the perfectability of societal structures in the United States—how can I, when I see just how steeped they are in white supremacy? How can I have faith in electoral and educational processes that are subordinated to neoliberalism and corporate interests? How can I have hope in these systems that perpetuate massive inequality. I cannot disconnect the atrocities in Charleston and Orlando from the rhetorical and systemic violence employed against vulnerable people in almost every institution in American life.

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I have no hope that our societal structures can be redeemed or even should be redeemed. They must be destroyed. The homophobia and toxic masculinity at the heart of Mateen’s attack can be found in every aspect of American life. Our society is built upon creating and feeding fear. Toxic masculinity and homophobia is steeped in fear. As a byproduct of white supremacy, toxic masculinity and homophobia must maintain an illusion of masculinity as dominant. This must be maintained at all costs—we really shouldn’t be surprised that Mateen decided to massacre gay people; we may tell ourselves that Mateen acted out of some “radical Islamic fundamentalism,” but his rage at gays and lesbians is the same kind of entitled, toxic rage that led Seung-Hui Cho to massacre 32 people at Virginia Tech and led Dylan Roof to murder nine people at Emanuel AME Church. That toxic rage is part and parcel of the heterosexism and fragile masculinity at the heart of American life. While only one of these perpetrators was white, I submit that they bought into a masculinist logic that is part and parcel of white supremacy in this nation.

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I have no hope in prayer. After atrocities like Charleston and Orlando, I see people saying “pray for the victims. Pray for our nation.” Pray, pray, pray. Pray to whom? And for what? We’ve been on our knees for hundreds of years, praying to a god that isn’t ours, asking it for a freedom that it seems disinclined to grant. To me, prayer in the American context is little more than a useless tool given to us by the oppressors. There’s a quote that says “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.” Today, when a misogynistic racist murders people, we’re yet again implored to pray. Meanwhile, the NRA continues to donate millions to politicians, and candidates for high office continue to dissemble or scapegoat. White supremacists continue to block meaningful change at almost every turn, and in the meantime, we are now in a holding pattern, waiting for the next massacre to happen.

Prayer never seems to save the innocent.


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Prof. Roger Sneed is on the Religious faculty of Furman University in South Carolina. His expertise in the areas in Christian Ethics, Gay and Queer theologies, Religion and Sexuality, and African American History and Theology – he is also greatly interested in Afro-futurism, comic books, science fiction, and atheism/humanism as religious discourse.