Pray and Work – Rev. Dr. Katrina Foster

fontTasked with the role of ministering in a church that is 96% white,  any pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who is a person of color other than white  has a special role to play. They have a two-fold job – to change the structures of the church and society that keep people of color at risk, as well as doing what they can to protect and defend people of color wherever they are at risk. The Rev. Dr. Katrina Foster – pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint, NY reflects on this reality with a mix of personal anecdote, riffs on the apostle Paul, and how combating white supremacy needs to be a top priority for all white Christians. This has been a crucial part of her ministry, and her observations are as poignant as they are jarring. So please, 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 honorary daughter called me from Chicago recently. My ringer was turned off. I was in a training for an anti-racism curriculum to be included in the Diakonia class I teach. She tried Whatsapp and texted me. When I turned my phone during our lunch break, I saw all the activity.

I called her back. Usually when we talk, it is very substantial, but also fun, funny and easy.

When she answered the phone, I knew she was scared.

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She told me about a disturbed man who came to the church where she works. She’s not yet ordained, but she was the closest thing to a pastor there that day.

So she met with him, listened as he described the storms in his mind and all that scared him. She listened as he said he had a gun in his car.

She got the gun away from him.

And now, she was calling because she was scared, not of the man or even the gun. She was terrified of what could happen if she, a young woman of color, called the police to ask them to come get it.

She called around and I did too, to find a white, male pastor who could call the police and facilitate the hand over of the gun. It felt like it took forever. I was ready to fly from New York to Chicago to do it myself.

Lest you think she had no reason to be afraid as a woman of color with a gun, please remember Philando Castile was in legal possession of a handgun and was shot and killed while sitting in a car with his girlfriend and her four year old daughter.

Remember, Amadou Diallo was shot at 41 times when he tried to pull his wallet out to show the police his identification when they mistook him for a rape suspect.

Remember, Stephon Clark who was killed in his grandparents backyard when police thought he had a weapon. He did not.

 

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In my nearly 24 years of ordained ministry, I have had many occasions to call the police, usually my local precinct, to come get a weapon or drugs I had taken from someone or that had been given to me. Not once did it occur to me that the police might think I was doing something illegal. Not once did it occur to me that I would be accused of breaking the law.

Not once did it occur to me that I could be seen as a threat. Not once.

That is the very definition of white privilege. As a little, white, middle aged woman, I am not seen as a threat. I am not assumed to be guilty of anything. I have never been afraid of the police. I enjoy all the benefits and privileges of citizenship.

My honorary daughter could not assume she would be safe. She could not assume she would be seen as innocent. She could not assume she would not be shot. She is a well educated, thoughtful, powerful, amazing law abiding American born citizen of this country. None of this would guarantee her safety. Long ago, she was convicted in the womb and must prove her innocence always.

In Jesus and the Disinherited, Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman draws out the primary contextual difference between Jesus and Paul. The difference was Paul was a Roman citizen, Jesus was not.  Paul “was of a minority but with majority privileges.”

I have often puzzled over Paul’s promotion of government as it is. His urging of people who were slaves to remain in that position and not rebel seemed out of character when set side by side with his radical theology of inclusion and recognition of women in leadership roles.

For most of my life I simply assumed Paul favored the status quo, government as it simply is, etc., because he expected Jesus to come back very soon. Why bother changing the world, systems of oppression, if Jesus was coming back any moment now?

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I think that mindset was probably true. His life as a Roman citizen and the privileges afforded him made him more comfortable under Roman rule. His fellow non-Roman citizen Jews chafed and rebelled under this oppression and had no expectations of benefits or blessings from the government.

I have been thinking about this difference between Paul and Jesus as I have been reflecting upon what happened to my kid. We are both American citizens, we are both baptized, we are both well educated, strong, and on and on.

The color of my skin affords me the full blessings and benefits that white citizens expect. The color of her skin puts her in danger first, makes her suspect, makes it less likely she will be afforded the blessings and benefits of citizenship.

I failed Greek the first time I took the class in seminary during the summer intensive. I barely passed my second attempt. But, I did fall in love with some Greek words, one in particular: metanoia, μετάνοια.

Metanoia is often translated “repent.” There is another meaning which is to change how one looks at things, to change one’s mind. When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.

When I studied sociology as an undergraduate student and took classes in subjects like Race and Ethnicity, Social Stratification and Criminology, I was able to begin questioning the lies I was raised with about white superiority and the inferiority of all others.

When in seminary and I learned about biblical criticism and sat through lectures that tore apart my simple faith and replaced it with a real relationship with Christ, I was equipped to question our role is systemic racism and misogyny and a social religion that kept god on our side over and against all that I was raised to fear.

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When I began serving my first call in the Bronx, I saw the transformative power of faith in the lives of everyday, kitchen table saints.  I experienced the renewing power of worship in our lives together. I came to understand I could not go back to old ways of thinking and believing. I could no longer have a pocket sized, MAGA Jesus. I needed this poor, Palestinian, iterent Jewish Rabbi whom I came to believe is the Messiah.

I needed this non-citizen of the Roman Empire who changed the world, created hope, healed, fed, led and called us to go and  make disciples of all nations.

I needed Paul at his best when he taught us to trust in the one “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

I needed to metanoia, to change the way I looked at the world and the way I thought.

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I must try to convince you and continue to convince myself, that we are called to speak, to work, to pray, to labor and to make justice.

I must convince you and continue to be convinced myself that the world can be different than what it is right now. I must convince you and continue to believe for myself that we are better together than apart. I must continue to convince you that my kid’s body matters because Black Lives Matter.

I must keep praying and working, and hoping and believing. “Not talking about race does not make the matter of race disappear. It only sustains the culture of race that continues to take the lives of our children.” (p. 227 Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God Kelly Brown Douglas)

After the white male pastor came and got the gun to the police, and I knew my kid was safer, I went to my church to do some more work. I sat at my desk to something, but I could not sit and read, or reflect.

I went and laid in front of the altar, staring up at the Crucifixion/Lynching scene, staring at the angels on the ceiling. Screamed and sobbed in rage at Jesus. Seethe prayed at God who knew what it was to have a child murdered by the state.

I have no happy ending to this essay, no answer to these omnipresent yet invisible reaches of systemic injustice and racism, no way to let us off the hook.

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This is what I have, clarity that God is still calling us to DO  JUSTICE, LOVE KINDNESS AND WALK HUMBLY. Clarity that when we pray THY WILL BE DONE, ON EARTH, that is a command we are called to follow. Clarity that the most frequent command in scripture, DO NOT BE AFRAID, is still spoken by angels to us in the midst of all that is too big.

I do not have certainty of how to fix all that is wrong, I have clarity that we, Jesus people, are called in the church and without, to not give up and to hold onto hope.

Friends, no matter what, be encouraged, pray and work.


20180802_115940.jpgKatrina D. Foster earned a B.A. in Religion/Philosophy and Sociology from Newberry College in Newberry, South Carolina. She earned  a Master’s of Divinity from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. She earned a Doctorate of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, May, 2008, focusing on Stewardship and Luther’s Theology of the Cross. Now in her third decade of ministry in both the parish and the street, she began serving St. John’s Lutheran Church, Greenpoint, Brooklyn –  where her work was the focus of an award-winning short documentary by The Front entitled “Working Women: The Urban Pastor.”  And since May of this year, Pastor Foster will be one of the presenters in the PBS series The Great American Read – presenting 1984 by George Orwell.

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Conversion, Ash Wednesday and #BlackHistoryMonth – Karl Anliker, Candidate for Ordination (ELCA)

lt-ny-eve-march-2016As we approach Lent, M.Div. student at LSTC – Karl Anliker – has a powerful reflection/confession to share with our readers. Grounded in a personal story of his theological development, Anliker shares a vulnerable and passionate self-critique, as well as the steps by which he came to his conclusions. And as the church gets ready for a 6 week season of repentance, Anliker’s thoughts will make good company. 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.”


I was recently working on a project for a class at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC). The project involved depicting a group of highly intersectional people as saints using traditional Eurocentric Mosaic depictions of saints. Samples below.

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I entitled the project For All the Saints in the hopes that my faith tradition would be able to see these beautiful people as saints, beloved by God. Furthermore, I hoped I could awaken the hearts and minds of folks who share my European Lutheran heritage to a new imagining of saints.

During this #BlackHistoryMonth in the rhythm of the repentance and renewal, I discovered a story I would like to share. The story has functioned as an eye opening, soul stimulating piece of reflection as well as a corrective for the prevailing narratives of my own white, cis, hetero, able, male world.

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Mosaic from St Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral by Sirio Tonelli. Image of Matthew Shepard is from Huffpost

Matthew Shepard is pictured in the image above. All of the people incorporated in the For All the Saints project were killed by acts of violence, fear, and hate. His murder played a pivotal role in awakening white communities, in particular, to the evils of homophobia. I learned his story in school and the horrors he experienced.

Under the leadership of President Barack Obama, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed in 2009. A quick google search reveals that this act is also known as the Matthew Shepard Act.

However, that is not the full name of the legislation.

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President Barack Obama greets Louvon Harris, left, Betty Byrd Boatner, right, both sisters of James Byrd, Jr., and Judy Shepard, center, mother of Matthew Shepard, following his remarks at a reception commemorating the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in the East Room of the White House, Oct. 28, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The full name of the legislation is the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

James Byrd Jr.?

Who was he and why did I not know his name?

Why did the legislation not commonly include his name?

James Byrd Jr. was murdered by white supremacists in 1998. He was lynched by being drug behind a vehicle for miles. The three men, whom court proceedings revealed had deep connections to white supremacist groups, offered him a ride and he, weary from work and without his own transportation, accepted the invitation.

Erasing James Byrd Jr. and his family who advocated for the legislation only furthers the atrocities committed.

The For All the Saints project was sure to honor both men and their loss of life, seeking to honor their personhood and not engage in the details of their horrific death.

James Byrd Jr.

This is his name.

This is his face.

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Byrd Photo from face to face Africa.
Mosaic from St. Eudoxia, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia

Now and forever a Saint.

Hate Crimes prevention must begin and end honoring him and his family. I have to sit with his picture and the words from his family.

Byrd’s sister Betty said, “He (President Obama) had told him that one day my name is going to be all over the world and if he was here today I would say James Junior, we called him son, your name is all over the world.”[1]

Knowing that the loss his family faced is unimaginable, I cannot help but remain committed to what James Byrd Jr.’s sister proclaimed. His name must be known all over the world. In my church. In my family.

LSTC is in the midst of a curriculum focused on “public church.” Although I continue to explore what this might mean for my own exploration of call, I have to tell a different story. I have to disrupt the corruption of the white supremacist cis-hetero patriarchy by finding the story that is not told, or is not received.

My role in public church is amplification and correction with a constant awareness that my own voice will dominate and must be minimized.

Public Church is being, standing, listening.

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My call must include exploring how our images and depictions of the saints and icons in worship is not inclusive. I must engage with the story of James Byrd Jr. alongside the parable of the Good Samaritan to make it clear where I have failed to recognize my neighbor.

I must be careful to not overemphasize or erase the tragedy of theft and destruction women into the story of the African diaspora. I must honor beauty, rich cultural heritage and black excellence. Holding tragedy and beauty together.

I must be ready to hear that I have messed up.

Knowing that the narrative illuminated by Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas in Stand Your Ground is my own. When I’m corrected or challenged I stand my ground. I refuse to acknowledge my own participation in systems of death dealing evil. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas speaks of how the Trump presidency is standing its ground and attempting to erase the reality of the Obama presidency. I know that in my heart I also stand my ground erasing people of color from places and spaces.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me writes to his son and describes my story this way:

“But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed in prisons and ghettos.”[2]

Knowing my complicity in creating the deathbed for us all, I find myself approaching Ash Wednesday. Acknowledging mortality and the reality of death. I find myself in need of repentance, conversion and the kind of transformation only God can bring to my heart and community to bring about a world where he is known all over the world. James Byrd Jr., in life and death, a saint.

[1] http://www.ktre.com/story/15519578/james-byrd-jrs-family-speaks-out-as-his-killer-is-executed

[2] Coates, Ta-Nehisi Between the World and Me, 151.


head-shot1Karl Anliker (he/him/his) is a second-year student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in the Master of Divinity program. Karl most recently served with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps at All Peoples Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was at All Peoples Church that Karl first proclaimed #BlackLivesMatter and his determination to resist white supremacy, more fully understand his privilege, and move white communities to real solidarity began. Karl lives with his wife Charlotte in Hyde Park, Chicago where they find joy in walking around the neighborhood and a sun room garden.

Don’t Put Off Love – Sarah Derrick, MDiv student / LSTC

thomas110_1027092James Baldwin once commented on the disconnect he often witnessed, confronting supposed white supporters of the Civil Rights Movement when they acted in ways that directly contradicted their verbal support of equality. His response was classic: “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.” It is precisely this disconnect between intent action that this week’s author, Sarah Derrick, so boldly admits and grapples with – how despite her passionate desire to help, often her privilege gets in the way of following through. 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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I’ve been able to put this off.

More than a year ago, I attended the Islamic Society of North America’s dynamic annual conference in Chicago. 

I was asked to write and reflect on my experience.

Sure, I thought, not even responding to the email, I will absolutely do that once I get home. 

Classes started, work began to pile up, suddenly the experience of ISNA seemed distant, lower on my list of priorities to address, it seemed less important to invite conversation around engaging our Muslim neighbors, more important to turn inward, and reflect on my own situation.  Then last November came, political rhetoric was even more charged with xenophobic, anti-Muslim, racial bigotry.  I was reminded once again that I had been invited to challenge this in some sort of written reflection.  I had every intention to do so.

Donald Trump was elected. I was angry at the country.

I wanted to speak up.

Yet, once again, I put it off.

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This tidal motion of my intentions, actions, and feelings are, I believe, reflective of my privilege as a white Christian in this country.  I can be bothered, invited into action, and choose whether or not it is convenient for me to engage in the moment.  I can choose to put off speaking on a topic, put off engaging with the brokenness we see around us.  My privilege allowed me to go one year without responding to an invitation to reflect on anti-Muslim bigotry and the church.  I say this to point out that I could have said something much sooner, to point out my choice to keep an arms distance.  In my complacency, I had contributed to the problem.  And to shift this out of a personal confessional into a corporate one, I invite all of us to think about how we as a collective people often times put off speaking up.  I wonder what that has looked like, I wonder what the implication of our inaction has been.

What has happened in the year plus since I was invited to write? 

Political tensions heightened, a leader many are frightened of is now president, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hate crimes have been on the rise, groups like ACT for America have organized anti-Muslim protests around the country, people have lost their lives for defending their Muslim neighbor. The election of Donald Trump has not only given permission for the incidents just listed, but I believe it has also given permission to white Christians to continue in their complacency.  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard family and friends say some variation of, “wait and see” or “give it a chance first”.

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I actually believe that most white Christians would not align themselves with extreme hate groups, that they do see anti-Muslim bigotry as a problem in this country.  But I also see the complacency of individuals and communities to take actions to address the brokenness to be the same as endorsing the hate.

A while ago I went to Washington, D.C. for Ecumenical Advocacy Days.  In one plenary session, we heard of the faith community’s silence in public witness.  We heard that where legislative offices are bombarded with 4,000 calls a day from organizations like the NRA, the same offices hear far less from faith communities.  So when it comes time for legislators to make a decision, they can say that they are voting on behalf of their constituents.

Our silence allows dangerous legislation to flourish.

While I was at the Islamic Society conference, I picked up a print of a quote from Rumi, “Love is the bridge between you and everything.”  When I went to pay for it, the woman running the stall asked if I was a new convert to Islam.  When I shared with her that I was there with other interfaith religious leaders, she gave me the print as a gift, saying she felt grateful that there were people who wanted to learn and show up.  I have this print hanging in my apartment, and it has been both a source of encouragement, but it has simultaneously been a reminder of the ways I have fallen short in showing up.

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The Center for Christian Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice at LSTC partners with is Shoulder-to-Shoulder, a non-profit that works to combat anti-Muslim bigotry.  The calls to action they release are always twofold: 1. Speak up—write letters to the editor, op-eds, blogs, and 2. Show up—join an iftar during Ramadan, visit the mosque in your neighborhood, build relationships with interfaith leaders in your area so that when tragedy strikes, you have a relationship that is allows you to work in response to the needs of your neighbor, not in response to your own needs.

I see this twofold invitation to be particularly challenging in my own context as a white Christian.  One of my professors in seminary always teaches that the people of the United States, and I think in this context we can say mainline, white US Christians, are great at playing host, but we are not great at being hosted.  We are used to being in charge, to calling the shots, to having people over on our terms, but we are much less inclined to give up some of that control in order to be a guest.  I was able to attend several iftars over Ramadan last year year, in those meals, learning the stories of my neighbors in Hyde Park, I was once again reminded of the invitation I ignored one year ago.  I think that reminder was the work of the Holy Spirit.  She often shows up among strangers, over meals, and She often makes us uncomfortable.

Amidst the ACT for America anti-Muslim protests, and now the Muslim travel ban, I finally responded to that invitation I received – though a year late.  I deeply regret that it I ignored the invitation, and that I could ignore the pain of my Abrahamic family when it wasn’t convenient to engage.  The both/and of showing up and speaking up means we are living into what it means to be a guest.  We are speaking up when our neighbors need it, not when we need it to feel better about ourselves.  We are showing up at the invitation of our neighbors.

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This is hard, and is something I have a hard time with holding in tension.  It seems that when I feel especially adept at speaking, I at times leave relationship behind, or when I am in relationship through interfaith gatherings or meals, I at times fail to follow up by speaking against narratives that demonize those I am in relationship with.

My having written this article doesn’t resolve my privilege to err into complacency.  I see this being something I continue to struggle with, as perhaps evident in what I have written.  My hope is that the next time, it won’t take a year for me to respond to an invitation to speak when my neighbors are suffering.  And my hope for the church is that we recognize that a “wait and see” attitude is fueling the hate we see around us.


unnamed.jpgSarah Derrick having finished her second year of Masters of Divinity studies at LSTC,  she began an internship in Seattle this past August, working in a parish as well as an interfaith advocacy organization.  Originally from South Carolina, Sarah enjoys being in the kitchen, exploring new places, and finding reasons to throw a themed party.

On the 500: Semper Reformanda and the Dream Americana – Adam Braun, PhD

thomas110_1027092“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.”


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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.

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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?

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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. 

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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.


AdamSelfieAdam 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.

**For literature on the early racial fluidity of European immigrants in the U.S. see Roediger’s Working towards Whiteness and Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color.

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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Law \ Gospel

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.