God’s Work? Our Hands? – Rev. Tom Gaulke

Linda Thomas at CTS eventGoogle dictionary defines solidarity as “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.” It is something we talk about quite a bit at my seminary, with our Public Church curriculum. But it isn’t such an easy thing to teach – as what most folks consider solidarity is, in sad truth, nothing but activist tourism, and as such is not educational, let alone transformational. Weighing in on this is Rev. Tom Gaulke – the pastor of a scrappy Lutheran parish in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago – and some trenchant observations on the subject. It’s a good bit of reading for the first week in Easter, and we’re sure you’ll agree. Read, comment, and share!

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


51d17yMqhVL.jpgPhilosopher Slavoj Žižek once made a very interesting observation about the 90’s block-buster, Titanic.

In Titanic, the main character, Rose, is seated in the upper deck, wining and dining, but yawning in her boredom. She is missing something. Is it romance? Is it adventure? Is it a spiritual experience? She’s not sure. But she thinks the answer, for her, might be found in the exploration of another realm.

In her search for some kind of resurrection, Rose descends. She moves down through the floors of the ship. She finds, at bottom, the proletariat – the working people far removed from her life among the gilded elite. There they dance. There is joy. There is a movement of bodies and loudness of voices that would be deemed crass and transgressive in the upper echelons of the ship. She gives in, is swallowed up by the joy of the ecstasy. She finds a lover in a character named Jack, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

To her the world of the poor is a Paradise, and for some moments, she escapes the restrictive confines of her privilege and finds unbound pleasure and ecstasy.

But then something larger than the ship appears. An iceberg. Suddenly that which was covered by the walls of the ship is exposed: not only were there floors on the ship, but the floors were obvious markers. Classes were divided by them. First class… Second Class… Bottom… And there was more than division. Those passengers’ privilege (or lack thereof) would now determine their fate or their salvation. Aware, Rose returns to her caste, and thereby saves herself from a poor person’s fate, from death by being defined and confined in poverty. Though she was temporarily positioned with the poor, her geography, unlike theirs, was not confined by her economics—she was free to move.

As the movie concludes, Rose recalls the good times she had.  In her recollection, something again is exposed. It seems in her travels that she saw not people, but rather romanticized caricatures of The Poor. There was no real community or solidarity. She had really only used them – for dancing, for pleasure, for ecstasy. They were chattel to her, goods manipulated as means to her end, merely 3/5 human.

tumblr-mlle87hghf1soiv6eo1-500-jpg.jpg They were her triumphant articulation of a “meaningful experience,” pleasure, “good times,” recalled from a stage or a fireside room. And instead of seeing more family, more of God’s beloved, she saw only more possibilities for “use.” Žižek calls this “Hollywood Marxism.”

And we see this everywhere.

Think about mission trips in which, for example, churches from the tops of ships will come to churches in the city, often described as urban or poor (For the record, these are not always fun names to be called). Paint a wall! Plant some flowers! Take selfies! For these tasks, grandparents and football coaches and godparents give money—to make sure their youth have a “meaningful experience” among The Poor. A similar phenomenon happens at protests. Radical-minded church people and seminarians show up. This is fine, but what if we do not engage any of those we claim to love? What does it mean when we stay in a cluster and seem to avoid those who are different from our young, moisturized, [white] skin? Are we in the struggle or are we at a fun event like any other fun event, like going to see a comedian or a rock show?

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Hollywood Marxism emerges also in the classroom, as well. “I’ve got it!” students often exclaim after an afternoon of reading. That is, “I understand this,” or “I have got a hold on this.” “I possess this.” I own it. If our academic work, our reading, is only a project of reading so that we might “master” or “contain,” in order “to have a handle on it,” then our academic project ceases to be in line with the vision of the conspiring, companion-ing church.

But if our intent is only to master, we are Rose.

By ‘mastering’ we perpetuate a legacy of slavery and colonialism, whereby we use the writings of the poor and people of color as means for our own purposes. We appropriate. We steal. We hijack the weapons of the weak and melt them into glorious sparkling idols of the status quo.

Vitor Westhelle, in The Church Event, suggests that church happens in those spaces where and when we are at ease in the presence of the radically Other, where the truth is told in a revealing way, and captives are set free. Here we are transformed by one another, and shaped into companions and conspirators. Where is that space?

Is it possible to foster such a space? Can we help Church to take place? To happen? Or do we remain a bunch of Roses, without the salvation of metanoia?

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I very much love Westhelle’s image of our ministry—a tree. We can try! We can prepare—like Advent, like the women at the tomb. We can plant and nurture a tree. We can place it in the sunlight. And we can pray and hope that once our tree grows tall that maybe in it an orchid (the Church) will take root and bloom. Still, who knows what shape the blooming will take?

But we plant, we grow. We hope.

As we groom new trees for a new time, in the church and in the classroom, transforming Rose means intentionally exposing students, youth, and parishioners to the radically o/Other. In classrooms, this means even the non-academic other. This means song, poetry, stories of pain and struggle, putting voices in dialogue, and most importantly, real people, real flesh and blood, real experiences of pain—perhaps beginning with those in the room—with the aim of the student being transformed from the distant observer into the one who stands in solidarity, from understanding to standing with, moved to create spaces and communities for the sake of speaking the truth and setting captives free.

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Can my denomination make this motto a reality?

Hence if my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), is to be such a place there should be no room for snobbery. Insisting on only MDiv preachers or only academic authors in our pulpits and classrooms reinforces class divide.

Any serious conversation about liberation needs to include the non-sanitized, political bluntness of real communities who struggle. If the church, if the academy, does not allow the poor to speak, it is only pretending to be Christian.

If the ELCA continues only to reinforce the class divide that exists in the United States within our own churches – gaining “inspiration” from visits to poor communities, then returning to the suburbs, gaining joy from the struggle of the disadvantaged, putting the poor to “use,” then jumping ship, watching them try to swim – then the church is only pretending.

After Jesus was killed by the Powers who found him to be a threat, his disciples gathered together in fear. Jesus invited them out of their locked rooms into the presence of Others to tell their stories of pain, to break bread, and to testify: to dream out loud of a different world, a new Reign, God’s Banquet where all are beloved and free, where crucifixion is no more. Jesus sent them the Spirit so they would never stop dreaming together.

Let’s strive for such companionship and such conspiracy. Let’s keep one another afloat so that no one sinks.

Alleluia.


10313960_10156582589050532_5840765783004842230_n.jpgRev. Tom Gaulke is pastor at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago. He is a leader in The People’s Lobby and Moral Mondays Illinois. Tom enjoys scootering and is engaged to a wonderfully amazing human being named Daisy. Tom also studies Theology in the Ph.D. program at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. 

Becoming Diversity Mystics: The Wisdom of the Body to Dismantle Racism – Malina Keaton, Candidate for Ordained Ministry (ELCA)

Linda Thomas at CTS eventAs an academic, it often pains me how much of what we are taught about learning only concerns the mind and hardly ever the body. Malina Keaton, an M.Div. student at LSTC and one of my advisees, presents us with a rich, simple model of how – even in times of great turmoil –  even the most neglected parts of our very bodies are reservoirs of insight and wisdom. Her thoughts are as plaintive as they are jolting, and as my seminary continues to address the issue of institutional racism it provides a good compliment to last-week’s insight. 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.”


*Reflection on the body is drawn from my background in gender and sexuality studies, which has for me served to counteract the Christian tendency to be anti-body. While it has become a powerful tool for theological reflection, I realize that body language is not by any means universal in its impact. I hope that my context can inform others beyond myself, but I would like to acknowledge that my words are not all-encompassing in their application.

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For the longest time I thought I could combat racism with specific parts of my body. For me, the fight against racism meant bodily subversion, holding constructs and internalization within the realm of my intellect and only using my body as a vehicle  for conversation.  Ears were open receptacles, hearing the pain and experience of others. My mouth was closed, unless it cracked open a smile in an attempt to cheer someone up. My eyes were for tears, expressing sympathy and grief when experiences were told to me. Above and beyond all of this was my mind, the golden treasure trove I loved, which enabled me to retreat into the complicated emotions I felt, and the many nuances of oppression to consider.

This love of the mind has a long-standing relationship with my tradition. It is after all, the mind’s ability to carry two ideas in tension that formulated paradox, one of Lutheranism’s most beloved theological frameworks. As an unsurprising consequence, my tradition was also where I got the notion that my life as a Christian had little to do with my body.

I was taught by society a completely different message. That as a woman, it was in fact my body that could do the most. My smile was complimented and my thoughts criticized. My body even delivered messages I hadn’t even intended to send, seduced when I thought it was just existing.

But what does this experience have to say about diversity?

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“You Will Die of Comfort.”

For so long, diversity became for me a matter of the mind, and my privilege was the choice over it being such a matter. Yet, in the realm of my mind I still wondered why there continued to be a disconnect between my thoughts and my environment. Why was I saying I valued diversity, but from an outsider’s perspective nothing indicated I had actually sought it? Part of it was that I never considered my body, and hadn’t trained myself to embody my theoretical values.

So I began by looking at my body and letting it teach me.[1]

I start at the top of my head.

My hair is constantly growing, and when the ends are split and dead, I cut them off. In this, I wonder what practices I must cut out of my life that if not attended to will result in the fragmentation of my community.

I go to my ears, they are open to receive. I contemplate ways I have sometimes only heard what I want to hear, or have been unable to receive.

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My eyes, two witnesses that perceive things around me. I think about how intentionality has enabled me to see things I didn’t before.

My mouth speaks in conversation with others. I consider how in conversation silence is inadequate.

I go lower.

My neck turns my mind to receive another view. How beautiful it has been for me to turn when summoned by those around me when I thought I should be facing one way!

My chest moves up and down. I consider repetition and how sometimes I have done the same thing over and over without thinking about it. Perhaps I should make time for the benefit of deep breaths.

I begrudgingly go lower to consider my stomach…

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which bears evidence of the ways I have stretched and grown. I ponder the ways I may have not always appreciated stretching, wishing it had never happened and the marks of it would go away.

My clitoris. That beautiful part shows me that friction with the most sensitive part of my being can eventually bring ultimate peace. I wonder how I can be more comfortable with the friction that comes with vulnerability, and how that can take us to an existence we never thought possible.

I have forgotten the back of me! I look at my butt for a moment, that which perches itself in various spaces. I consider how I have taken spaces for granted, or taken a seat when others should have been at the table.

I continue down.

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My thighs show me that two separate things sometimes rub as I move forward but remain their own. I remember all the times I thought unity and progress meant blending two distinct things together.

My knees bend when necessary, and remain tall when they need to. I wonder when in my life I am supposed to do these different tasks.

I go to my feet, they use grounded presence to move everything forward. I consider all the times I failed to move forward out of fear.

I end by taking a step back, considering my whole self and the skin that envelops me.

Its fairness, its shape means that as much as it has taught me, my white woman’s body does not hold all the answers and I shouldn’t pretend that it does. There are other bodies in the world.

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I have heard many different thoughts on what occurred last week at our seminary. For an excellent summary and reflection, please read Erik’s thoughts,[2] but here are a few that I have. Last week we were invited to travel by a professor in our midst, but like a multitude of white liberal institutions pursuing diversity, we could not do it. Solidarity was not an embodied practice.

Some stomachs betrayed their feelings, and in tension they twisted and turned. For many, eyes could only show tears or look at the ground instead of seeing the larger institutional racism we had always been surrounded by. Some arms were used to hold others at a distance. We were asked to move but some feet could not travel. Bodies had not been taught to act. Some bodies in our fold were tired. Some voices were hoarse from always being asked to speak up. Some backs bent from perpetually carrying a weight beyond what they should be holding. Being in white institutions mean some have to suffer in mind and body everyday. It is not a choice to do so, and it is not just.

The pursuit of diversity does not mean purely intellectualization, it means we must train ourselves to embody it. Not in an ableist sense, but in contemplating the lived and not just intellectual journey of our values. If there is a disparity between your body and your mind, you. must. work. to. fix. it. We cannot leave the embodied task of diversity and full-inclusion to select few. We simply cannot.

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Are you using your ears to hear that a person’s experience and bravery was to condemn one person and not the system of racism? Are you using your mouth to critique and pursue nuance instead of conversing about the main point, institutional racism? Is your butt seated at a table everyday with people who look just like you? This means that you are not enabling your body to teach and inform.

Working towards a diverse community means training ourselves to rote memorization so that inclusion becomes muscle memory, and when our bodies falter we can continue on in the pursuit of the gospel promise. Will it be natural? It usually isn’t at first. It means retraining many things we thought we already learned.

And yet. It will mean we are trying to get there. When people in our midst offer a brave and embodied act, we respond with every part of us, and we commit to learning to embody what we say we believe. This will be difficult, but the key to dismantling the structural evil of racism will not come from the worship of our minds. The key will come from the power of a group of bodies that act together, speaking in confession, fighting for justice, working out reconciliation in our midst, and living out this gospel message of inclusion for all.


Malina.jpgMalina Keaton is a first year M.Div. student at LSTC, pursuing an emphasis in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Originally from Northern California, she is entranced as a candidate for ministry with the Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA. Malina is active at LSTC as a Public Church Fellow with the Night Ministry, and the Gender and Sexual Justice Organizer for Seminarians for Justice.


[1] Inspired by the writings of Hildegard of Bingen. Barbara Newman, trans. “Commentary on the Johannine Prologue: Hildegard of Bingen.” Theology Today 60 (2003): 16-33.

[2] https://wetalkwelisten.wordpress.com/2016/04/25/killing-lutefisk-lutheranism-erik-olaf-thone-candidate-for-elca-ordained-ministry/

 

 

Killing Lutefisk Lutheranism – Erik Olaf Thone, Candidate for ELCA Ordained Ministry

Picture 002A wise man once said “By the time that you think that evil might be around, it has actually already come inside and made itself at home.” This is true for the church as much as anywhere else, and we had a powerful reminder of this last week at my home seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. I’ll leave this week’s author, M.Div. student Erik Olaf Thone, to give you the details  – but rest assured these have been powerful days of late. The Holy Spirit is shaking my community but good. Hopefully, what Erik’s written will shake you good too. Please 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.”


My seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, is a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Americaa denomination where 96% of its members are white – and last week this reality became uncomfortably clear. On Wednesday, April 20, 2016 LSTC hosted a faculty panel to discuss preaching “Law and Gospel,” or how and when Christians should preach mercy, grace, and forgiveness as opposed to judgment and the necessity of action. It is an important subject for Lutherans.  The professors on the panel were all qualified to address the subject but the panel reflected a flaw often seen in the ELCA – despite there being a small number of faculty of color on campus – all of the participants were white.

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According to Pew Research, the ELCA is literally the whitest Christian denomination in the US – second from the bottom on this chart.

Protesting this persistent problem, the Rev. Dr. Richard Perry – African American ELCA pastor and Professor of Church and Society and Urban Ministry at LSTC – stood before approximately 70 LSTC students, staff, and faculty, and read a carefully prepared statement elucidating his disappointment that, as has happened in countless other ways and events in the ELCA, his perspective as an African American Lutheran (let alone any non-European perspective) is not really valued as “Lutheran.”

In concluding his statement, he invited all assembled to attend a lecture on this exact subject – the conflation of white-ness with Lutheran identity – in his Contemporary Christian Ethics course. The panel then adjourned, and then they and the attendees then went to Dr. Perry’s class for the remainder of the afternoon period.

I’ve heard a variety of critiques of my professor’s actions, however, focusing on the circumstances surrounding this panel is to miss the point.  Whether or not the other members of the panel were qualified or if Dr. Perry could have been more tactful in his protest matters about as much as what Michael Brown may have said to police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri before – though unarmed and a considerable distance from Wilson’s vehicle – he was murdered.  As Jim Wallis writes in his new book (which I would highly recommend): The facts in specific cases are often in great dispute.  But the reality that young black men and women are treated differently than are young white men and women by our law enforcement system is beyond dispute.[1]

 

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Memorial for Mike Brown on the site of his shooting – Ferguson, MO 3/2015

At this very moment an unnerving shadow weighs heavy upon the conscience of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and I hope everyone feels it.  Not everyone present would agree with my interpretation of the words and actions of Dr. Richard Perry here on our campus last Wednesday.  Not everyone present experienced it as an inspiring prophetic display that we were privileged to witness. I did. Not everyone present heard hope in the midst of his anger, frustration, and hurt.

I did.

Some critics have lost themselves in debating the “facts” of his prophetic outpouring, but this avoidance of the real issue is an act of privilege available only to those of us who are white. This evasion is a passive acquiescence to injustice and the most damaging perpetuation of racism.  We must ask ourselves: will we focus on the prophetic message or the prophet’s means to convey the message?  Will we hear the prophet Isaiah’s good news or dismiss him because we’re uncomfortable with his naked dramatization (Isaiah 20:3)?   Will we commit to the Kingdom of God Jesus preached or conform to the unjust, unearned, comfort and good order of the status quo?

The prophets never brought the conflict and Dr. Perry did not bring the conflict to LSTC.  The shadow of racism has been an ever-present plague upon this nation since before its founding. This includes the LSTC campus – whose land used to be the home of many black families who didn’t want to leave.  It is a national and a global evil. This is a Church problem.  This is an LSTC problem. It is not a problem “out there”; it is a sin deeply embedded within each of us people who believe we are white – and to remind us Dr. Perry brought the sword of Matthew 10:34:

[Jesus was saying] I come not to bring an old negative peace, which makes for stagnant passivity and deadening complacency, I come to bring something different, and whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated, between the old and the new. Whenever I come a struggle takes place between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come not to bring a negative peace, but a positive peace, which is [community], which is justice, which is the Kingdom of God.[2]

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“Only whiteness has the right to determine what it means to be Lutheran in this church. This. Is. Not. Right!” Rev. Dr. Richard Perry, Jr., Wednesday, April 20, 2016.

Dr. Perry preached the Law because if you seek justice tension is good.  Conflict is good.  Struggle is good.  Be uncomfortable.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a peace beyond the absence of conflict.  Those of us with privilege, however, are generally unwilling to welcome the struggle that leads to this positive peace.

If anyone can claim the privilege of the ELCA’s Euro-centrism it is I. 

One of the “frozen chosen” of Minnesota, my home-congregation of Advent Lutheran Church hosts an annual lutefisk dinner.  I was born with a Lutheran Book of Worship in my hands.  As a child, I fell asleep to Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”  I attended an ELCA College named after the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus.  I never sit in the front row of pews.  My middle name is Olaf!  Scandinavian heritage should be celebrated, but if northern European descent is conflated with Lutheranism then there will never be a place for Dr. Perry or other people of color in the ELCA and all talk of diversity is a self-deluding facade.  Further, if any Christian denomination is exclusive, explicitly or implicitly, to a particular race or ethnicity it is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  That excluding church is no longer representing the Body of Christ where “there is no longer Jew or Greek” (Galatians 3:28).

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The Rev. Dr. Richard Perry, Jr.

It is a good and faithful thing to have webcasts on confronting racism, to host diversity workshops, and to post articles on Facebook and Twitter, but as Dr. Perry so boldly reminded us – we mustn’t imagine this means we have somehow moved beyond our own racial prejudice.  Indeed, I have talked about racial justice more in my last 8 months at LSTC than ever before in my life, but I’m coming to realize that some of this talk is merely consolation for people of white.  Worse, it can be a way to excuse ourselves from honest personal reflection on our own complicity with white privilege: “I attended a Black Lives Matter action, studied abroad in India, and did mission work in South Africa so I can’t possibly be racist.”  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?” (Matthew 7:3).

I am a racist.

It has been no easy journey for me to reach those four words, but I believe that if there is hope for our school, church, and country white people must move beyond our defensiveness to accept the difficult truth: “No matter who you are, where you live, how you have acted—and even if you have fought hard against racism—you can never escape white privilege in America if you are whiteTo benefit from oppression is to be responsible for changing it.[3]

I am a racist.

Being racist doesn’t mean you’re a bad person; it means you’re still becoming the person you’re called to be, purging yourself of the racism that is the inheritance of every white person born in this country.

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That afternoon I asked Dr. Perry to forgive us for our complicity in the racism he condemned; it isn’t that easy.  He responded by calling us all to close our closet doors, fall to our knees, search our hearts and minds and seek forgiveness from God alone.  This is not a moment for cheap grace.  We have in this moment an opportunity for transformative repentance.  This moment might change the course of our school, the Church, and the country.  In this moment we will be measured as prophets or passive servants of the status quo. 

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In the words of Dr. King: “We must make a choice.  Will we continue to march to the drumbeat of conformity and respectability, or will we, listening to the beat of a more distant drum, move to its echoing sounds?  Will we march only to the music of time, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soul saving music of eternity?  More than ever before we are today challenged by the words of yesterday, ‘Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.’”[4]


Resources

For anyone who would like a copy of Rev. Dr. Perry’s statement to the “Law and Gospel” panel, feel free to email him at rperry@lstc.edu. He is the oldest black professor teaching Christian Ethics in the ELCA, and after his retirement in July of this year he will be deeply missed by the seminary.

Got White Privilege? is a powerful video and resource website put together by our neighbors at Chicago Theological Seminary (UCC).

Teaching Tolerance – a new initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Judith Butler, also recently had a sit-down with the New York Times to explain the beauty behind #BlackLivesMatter as opposed to #AllLivesMatter.

The Rev. Joelle Colville-Hanson wrote a piece on current ELCA leaders creating memes with the hashtag #DecolonizeLutheranism, humorously and persistently challenging the Euro-centricity of Lutheran identity in the US…

…which has lead to the development of a conference on #DecolonizeLutheranism – taking place at LSTC in the fall of  2016. For more information, email fherrera@lstc.edu.

 


Erik at CLLCErik Thone is completing his first year at LSTC as part of the M.Div. program.  He’s entranced as a candidate for ministry with the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA.  Prior to coming to LSTC he spent four years serving as the Youth and Family Minister at People of Faith Lutheran Church in Winter Garden, FL.


 

[1] Jim Wallace, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, 5.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” In A Testament of Hope, 51.

[3] Jim Wallace, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, 35.

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 20.


My Gender, So Far… – Rev. Andrew Tobias Nelson

ThomasLinda sittingAs our conversation on gender continues, we’re going to make a marvelous twist in the road with our next author, Andrew Nelson. From the halls of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago to Holden Village to his call in New York state, Andrew is extravagant with his energy, sincerity, and enormous heart. Since coming out as trans a little over one year ago – barely one year into his first call – Andrew has spoken openly and playfully about everything that he’s been going through. Thankfully, Rev. Nelson is now, generously and joyously,  sharing some of those thoughts with us. Gender is a thing, people, so take a peek at what Pastor Andrew has to say about it and – of course – 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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A transmasculine person writing on why gender matters…
There’s a sentence, isn’t it?
Are we ready for a conversation about genders outside the binary, genders along the spectrum, genders that are fluid, genders for which we don’t have words in English?
To put myself in a gender category is easier some days than others. Growing up with a female body (that’s called my sex, different from my gender) there were expectations for my behavior which were only partially enforced. Grandma called me ‘young lady’ when I needed to calm down, my father adjusted my posture at the piano, and of course I had to go to prom in a dress. But when it came to climbing trees and playing music or sports, I was just a kid, and being a boy or girl didn’t come into it.
When I came out as Transgender about a year and a half ago, some of my friends who have known me awhile responded by nodding and telling me I make more sense male than I do female. While this was a great affirmation to hear, it does make me wonder what in the world we mean when we perceive people as either male or female, how we behave when we meet somebody who is androgynous, and why it matters so much.
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Everyone inhabits a multitude of spaces: age, gender, sexuality, class, race, mental health, physical ability, education, politics, family systems, culture, Star Trek or Star Wars… We are none of us only one thing, yet male/female seems to be one of the first things we give as primary identity. It’s already been noted that when a baby is born or expected one of the first ways we decide what gifts to get and what dreams to start dreaming is to unveil the birth sex (which we call gender, but these are not actually the same thing).
Gender plays into our power structures, culturally who is allowed to get how angry about what, who is allowed to grieve in what way, who is expected to take care of the household or be the breadwinner. Even when a heterosexual couple tries to live in an equal partnership, the pay gap and surrounding culture don’t support equality within marriage as much as reinforce unhealthy pressures for culturally gendered roles. We’re getting a little better, changing tables are gradually showing up in men’s restrooms so dad can change a diaper, Target recently stopped specific gender marketing toys for kids (though toy guns have an aisle that’s blue and dolls have an aisle that’s pink – and don’t even get me started on “Lego Friends”), and more hopeful stories are being told about folks who don’t buy into to the binary – but it’s slow going since so much of our expectations are internalized past the point of noticing them.
Gender is the water we swim in.
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So why do we still hold to gender? What does it matter that ‘real women have curves’ or ‘real men love Jesus’? What are ‘real’ men and women, and why do we perpetuate that conversation as though we need to prove our own validity as human people?
Can’t a ‘real’ person just be a person?
I remember an old movie I used to watch as a kid included the song “I enjoy being a girl,” which, coming from a family where sexuality was taboo and gender got all conflated with attractions and purity, was not something we ever really talked about. But then came the Disney movie Mulan and the song “I’ll make a man out of you” was both exciting because I connected with it, and problematic because it reinforced a very particular kind of masculinity. I mean, my father darns his socks and speaks quietly, but he’s no less a man for his gentle behavior.
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So how do I know how to behave to convince the people around me of who I am as a transmasculine person?
Does it even matter that they see my gender?
How do I have to hold myself in public to hear ‘sir’ instead of ‘ma’am’ (neither of which seems like I’m old enough for those labels, which speaks to cultural ageism)? (How) do I need to adjust my interactions with women and other men so as not to make anybody uncomfortable by my loud humor and big hugs, which could be received differently depending on if I’m wearing a suit or a dress? Navigating gendered space, like public bathrooms, is not something we should have to be afraid of. Yet because our brains learn categories as a way to make sense of the world around us, we need to know some basics, some boundaries, some common sense for keeping one another safe and providing for community flourishing the best we can.
Gender matters, in that we can fall back on it for generalities, for stories, for illustrations of ways of being, but it also doesn’t matter, in that there are so many ways to be male or female or both or neither, and every situation and relationship calls out different nuances, different varieties of strengths and weaknesses, as we support and connect with one another. Gender can be a game instead of a power play, it can be fun instead of rigid, but far too often machismo and homophobia relegate masculinity and femininity to small, tight spaces where there is no room to breathe or figure out who we actually are. We do not need to prove ourselves as ‘real’ men or women to celebrate and discover who we are individually and as part of God’s Beloved Community.
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I am a transmasculine person who looks forward to playing with gender expectations, to make the space around me safer for those who don’t fit the binary, to open up conversations about getting to know one another beyond the ‘types’ of our male/female expectations.
I am a transgender man because it is the most honest way I have to present myself to the world around me.
That’s what gender is about, how we relate to and through our presentation of self and our interactions with others, how we explore and share the selves God has created us to be, how we reflect the Image of a God who is so much bigger than our labels.

1234069_10100529137486034_1394595583769889368_n.jpgAndrew Tobias Joy Nelson is a 2012 graduate of LSTC, serving his first half-time call in Chatham, NY. He’s trying to be as visible as possible about being Trans for the sake of those for whom visibility is impossible because it would put their lives and livelihoods at risk. Andrew plays french horn and is always reading four or five books at a time, though he can’t pick a favorite between Star Wars and Star Trek because the musical scores are too good. He writes in tribute to his mother, who responded to his public gender transition with the assurance that she “always knew [she] was carrying a boy.”


A White Male’s Take on Why Gender Matters – Benjamin Taylor, PhD student at LSTC

ThomasLinda.jpgThis month, “We Talk. We Listen.” will be featuring multiple responses to Women’s History month written by male Christian leaders. ELCA Lutheran PhD student Benjamin Taylor is the first contributor, and his post does something quite wonderful: he gives 1) a good overview of common male-centered oversights in Christian theology while simultaneously 2) providing the reader with a wealth of information on feminist theologians and their works. It is worth a good, careful reading, even three or four readings. So dig in, and don’t forget to 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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My act of writing a piece for “We Talk. We Listen.” on feminist theology [1] must begin with a personal recounting of my own experience, a telling of how I journeyed into the present. I am a white man—more precisely, I am a white heterosexual man, and even more precisely I am a white, heterosexual man with relative privilege. Each of these qualifiers are important to who I am. Each of these qualifiers afford me a set of protections and advantages over against those who do not identify as male, or who is not white, heterosexual, or privileged.[2]

Although many women theologians self-identify as “feminist theologians,” it is crucially important to point out that the contexts, methodologies, insights, projects of feminist theologians vary from individual to individual. In this sense, we should be wary of the tendency to generalize “feminist theology,” or “feminist theologians.” Also, it is important here to problematize the identification of “feminist theology” or “feminist theologian” with “white women.” While myraid women of all races and ethnicities self-identify as “feminist,” in the USA context the term usually signals “white women.” That said, it is also important to note that “feminist theology” goes far beyond white woman. For example, some Latina theologians identify themselves as “Latina feminists,” while some self-identify as mujerista. This point is important for reasons of representation. To identify “feminist” as “white woman” is to deny the agency of and the voice of Latinas, black, queer, Third Word, etc. theologians and theorists who identify as feminist. Also, at the same time, it is important to note both intersectionality and the interdisciplinary nature of feminist and contextual theologians who are women. The incorporation of diverse voices and backgrounds as “feminist” allows for the diversity of voices, overlapping experiences and shared concerns to be heard.

A few weeks ago in her piece for “We Talk. We Listen,” Dr. Wenderoth wrote about how way that the language we use shapes the way we see the world. Likewise, MDiv student Allison Bengfort reflected on the ways in which society teaches both men and women to objectify women—men to objectify women sexually and women to objectify themselves for the benefit of men. Rev. Julie Ryan witnessed to the rich mosaic of work that is the ministry of clergywomen within the ELCA. And Marissa Tweed reminded us that even though women are ordained in the ELCA, clergywomen continue to face the struggles and challenges that come with being a clergywoman in a deeply partriachial culture, both within the church and in the society at large. These powerful and diverse reflections reveal both the interdisciplinary nature and intersectional approach within the study of feminist theology.

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Feminist theologians,[2] by and large, start from the premise that men have maintained a monopoly on God-Talk throughout the history of Christianity. In other words, feminist theologians argue that men have exercised their power to tip the theological scales in their benefit as they shaped the Christian tradition. These androcentric (male-centered) theologies work hand in hand to create and sustain partriachial societies. In explaining the patriarchal nature of these societies, feminist theologians have looked at the way power has revealed itself in their own societies.

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As often as power is exercised explicitly, it is often exercised implicitly. In Feminist Theory and Christian Theology, feminist theologian Serene Jones writes about the experience of giving birth in a hospital.[3] Upon giving birth to her baby, the hospital staff placed a pink cap onto her newborn, thereby assigning her newborn the gender identity “female.” Jones uses this narrative as she explains the theological construct of original sin: “In the first ten seconds of her life, my daughter had been placed in a web of social meanings that shaped expectations about her. My daughter’s being ‘born into sin took form of a pink cap, a set of hospital rules, and the complex web of social interactions they initiated.”[4]

As we are born (“fallen”) into sin, we are also born into a set of sexual, cultural and political constructs that condition our lives and our self-expression.

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by Kimberly Peeler-Ringer

Jones’s example illustrates the perniciousness of power in our society. Power not only oppresses the one it deems to be Other, it also represses the one it considers to be Other. Power shows itself by hiding itself under the banner “this is the way things are and this is the way things must be.” Many feminist theologians argue that men have hijacked the symbols and narratives of the Christian faith to legitimize and exercise their patriarchal oppressive power over women. Some obvious examples within the Christian tradition are I Timothy 2, in which the male writer of the letter warns women to be silent in church, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s decision not to ordain women on the basis of their sex. Instead of viewing these examples apolitically through the lens of “tradition” or “custom,” it is important to name it for what it is: a manifestation of the patriarchal society in which these decisions were made.

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But it is also important for us to go beyond these common examples. Feminist theologians note that male theologians have long taken their particular experience of being male (and usually, white, heterosexual and privileged) to be the universal experience of all people. When this happens, the experience of being a woman in a partriachial society is negated. As a result, many feminist theologians have incorporated their own experience of being a woman in a partriachial society as a way of subverting this androcentric tradition. In addition, many feminist theologians look to other resources within the Christian tradition to subvert the sexist, racist and homophobic power structure in society.  A few examples, from both feminist theologians as well as from the wider field of contextual theologians, help to show the diversity and the wealth of voices that challenge androcentric theology.

I am the youngest member of my family. I have two older brothers, and when the family discussion (finally) gets to me and what I “actually do” with my time, I often utter the words “feminist theology” or “black theology.” When they ask further questions, they assume that the qualifier “feminist” or “black” means “other.”

In reading and engaging with contextual theologies (feminist, womanist, black, Dalit, queer, mujerista), it is crucial that we do not understand “contextual” to be “other,” which so often is interpreted to mean “less-than.”  We must remember that Western theology, from Augustine to Tillich, is just as contextual as the theologies that we live into and envision in our constructive theology classes. It is merely that constructive or contextual theologies are more honest about their identity and more open to the experience of difference than are other “traditional” theologies.

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Early, and often ignored, women leaders of the church.

At times, judging by our slate of courses, our community does not always acknowledge the bountiful gifts brought by diverse theological voices. It can be difficult. The acknowledgement of different voices is fraught with tension. In my own experience, I have struggled with this tension as I came to read these theologians very late in my academic journey. That is a tension I still carry within myself. The engagement with voices that differ from my own offers me a chance of reflection and of self-examination along the journey.

And in this, I invite you to come along.


beneditedBenjamin Taylor is a PhD student at LSTC, where he studies systematic theology and continental philosophy. He enjoys reading, traveling, writing, playing golf, and walking his playful—if, slightly misbehaved—dog, Riley. He also works as the Graduate Research Assistant in the JKM Library and serves as the Sittler Fellow in the Joseph Sittler Archive. Ben completed his qualifying examinations on feminist theology in March.


 

[1] Although many women theologians self-identify as “feminist theologians,” it is crucially important to point out that the contexts, methodologies, insights, projects of feminist theologians vary from individual to individual. In this sense, we should be wary of the tendency to generalize “feminist theology,” or “feminist theologians.” Also, it is important here to problematize the identification of “feminist theology” or “feminist theologian” with “white women.” While myraid women of all races and ethnicities self-identify as “feminist,” in the USA context the term usually signals “white women.” That said, it is also important to note that “feminist theology” goes far beyond white woman. For example, some Latina theologians identify themselves as “Latina feminists,” while some self-identify as mujerista. This point is important for reasons of representation. To identify “feminist” as “white woman” is to deny the agency of and the voice of Latinas, black, queer, Two-Thirds World, etc. theologians and theorists who identify as feminist. Also and at the same time, it is important to note both intersectionality and the interdisciplinary nature of feminist and contextual theologians who are women.

[2] My own experience living in Hyde Park is an experience of negotiating this privilege—realizing it, struggling with it, speaking to it, hiding behind it, coming to terms with it, being embarrassed about it—sometimes all within a matter of hours.

[3] In using the verbiage “feminist theology” or “feminist theologian(s),” I follow the crucial distinction between “gender” and “sex” that is largely assumed in feminist theological discussions. By this, I mean that sex refers to one’s own biological makeup, while gender refers to the set of cultural meanings and social designations that society ascribes to one’s performance in society. See Linda E. Thomas and Dwight N. Hopkins, “Womanist Theology and Black Theology: Conversational Envisioning of an Unfinished Dream” in A Dream Unfinished: Theological Reflections on America from the Margins, Eleazar S. Fernandez & Fernando F. Segovia, eds., (Marynoll, N.Y.: Orbis Press, 2001), 72-86. On “sex,” Thomas and Hopkins write, “By sex, we signify the biological designation that human beings receive at birth. Thus, sex is a biological construction based on genitalia (78).” On “gender,” Thomas and Hopkins write that “Gender is a socially constructed category. By this we mean that it is not a biological category…Gender is not formed overnight, nor even is it a finished product; it is dynamic and subject to the ongoing formation of human culture (77-78).”  Heteronormativity has long portrayed gender as a binary: either one is male or female. This binary needs to be problematized. Gender is a performance that does not need to fall into traditionalist determinations of what is male or what is female.

[4] Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 117.

We Journey Together: Pete Pero from the Classroom Seat – Abel Arroyo Traverso

Picture 002The next installment in our hommage to Dr. Pero is the following piece by Abel Arroyo Traverso, a student at the seminary where I teach – the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. A Candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Abel’s piece is both a moving tribute of one of Dr. Pero’s former students, as well as a potent addendum to the ELCA’s current conversations on race. Read, enjoy, 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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Here’s that smile I remember so well.

As I walked into the classroom two things were clear to me – I had a marginal idea of what this class was about, and I wasn’t doing it out of some kind of theological curiosity. I signed up for a class on “The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.” mainly because someone I liked was in that class.

As you can see, I would never claim to be a paragon of virtue.

As I waited for class to start and texted the person I had literally signed up this class for, in came Doctor Pero. I immediately dropped the conversation, primarily out of respect for this man I was seeing for the first time. But by virtue of his presence in the room I had an immediate realization. I had no idea there were scholars of color in the ELCA.

 

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Me getting ready to preach.

Being a first generation immigrant in the ELCA for me means that you are kind of stuck in – sorry, intrinsically belong – in certain circles and read certain books and hear about certain authors and last names. One KNOWS there’s people of color in the ELCA because, well, I’m here, and I’m not the first nor the only one. But thus far my experience with people of color in church was that we’re great for mission development and task forces. You know, we’re “voices” and “perspectives” – great to enrich the discourse of the larger church.

The man in front of me was loud and outspoken, loving and relatable, cheeky and truthful. With his laughter and constant challenge to not think about how we can love but to love, was probably the most revolutionary concept I have heard so far in my seminary career. It was hope for me.

Now please don’t get me wrong, we were not close. We never shared martinis and talked about his journey (Doctor Pero was fond of martinis). We never talked about his experience as a scholar of color. We never talked about any of that. Do I regret it? Yeah, but as I look forward in my own career, call, and ministry, as I look back and recognize the shoulders on which I stand, I feel honored to have meet him.

As the semester unfolded this man not once lectured. Rather, he shared his journey with the students, as if sharing the most precious thing he could offer, and I actually started paying attention. I poured through the Revered Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr’s sermons – and as I started to grasp his idea of the “Beloved Community” I found similarities to my understanding of comunidad.

When I speak of comunidad  (Spanish for “community”), I speak of a space where the common experience is one of liminality, not of ends. A space where people can embrace in the fluidity of their journey, and know that even if we distance one another – be it through moral or ethical stands, socio-economic realities or ideological discourse – one can still acknowledge that growth is possible and belonging is unquestioned.

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I believe this understanding of comunidad as a communal journey rather than an established end echoes the concept of “the Beloved Community” where transformation is key, and establishing new bonds between the ones who once only related as oppressed and oppressor is possible.

Through Doctor Pero’s stories in that classroom not only did I learn about African American theology, but also was inspired to articulate my own theological voice, not as an ELCA Lutheran, but as a Latino, an immigrant, and a Lutheran who is part of the ELCA. Doctor Pero’s example, examine one’s life as a completely valid resource of theological reflection, was a breath of fresh air for me – to look deep into one’s own story to recognize the Holy Spirit being active throughout the whole thing.

As a Latino, one of the stereotypes we are faced with is that we feel our feelings, and we feel them unabashedly. So I started to deal with my own story and my own feelings as resources for theological reflection.

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Mama, me, and papa.

I learned from Doctor Pero to recognize plurality within myself, and learned how every label I carried, self-imposed or otherwise, could not and should not exist in a vacuum. That one can’t separate feelings and thoughts, which closely shape one another, so that every experience we have has the potential to shape our understanding of the world and the divine.

Thanks to Doctor Pero now I know that I am not an asset to the church, I am the church.

That my story is not tangential to the church, but integral to it. That I hold within my journey both privilege and oppression. That my voice and the voice of every person of color in the church is necessary to grow, to upset the status quo, to reclaim and to lift what the dominant culture is not willing to engage or is blind to. 

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A baptism at one of the sites of my internship. Baptism was crucial to Doctor Pero.

My stepping into that classroom may have started as anecdotal, almost an afterthought, but as I keep going through my journey as a seminarian – and as a person of color called to the ministry of word and sacrament in the United States – Doctor Pero was the one who challenged me to look at my journey not only as my own, but as part of the journey of the communities of color and our faith journey in the United States.

I hope that as the years go by I don’t forget that my journey, as well as everyone else’s, is a God given gift that makes up the complex and multi-layered tapestry that is the church.

And if all else fails, I will at least know that a martini will not solve anything, but it will give you space to think.


 

Abel Arroyo is a student at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Originally from Perú, his journey has taken him to explore almost all of Central and North America (No love for Canada yet). He has spent parts of his journey in Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico as well as living in Washington state and California. A bona fide wanderer who struggles with linear time as an absolute, he is currently doing a pastoral internship in Phoenix, Arizona where he journeys with the Queer, Latino and Homeless communities of Central Phoenix – as well as the occasional suburbanite. All are welcome.

Toward the Liberation of White Middle-Class Churches – Rev. Dr. David Lowry

 

Picture 002The passing of the Rev. Dr. Albert “Pete” Pero threw a wrench into the works at LSTC. He challenged many, angered many, and inspired thousands of seminarians for the better part of 40 years. His challenge was simple – live into your baptismal identity in ways that deepen your love of God and undermines the evils of racism in our country.

So in tribute to Dr. Pero, as well as a compliment to the MLK Celebration and discussion at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago this  morning (sponsored by the center that bears his name – The Pero Multicultural Center) today’s post is the first of a series of reflections on Dr. Pero’s life and witness. We hope you enjoy, and as always – 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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Then-Pastor Pero in the 1960’s.

We have been giving thanks to God for the life of the Rev. Dr. Albert “Pete” Pero, Jr. who passed from this life, November 18, 2015. It is with grateful remembrance of his contributions to the life and mission of the church as a pastor and theologian and civil rights leader that I share these thoughts. One of the last times I had a conversation with Pete was at his house. He had several seminary students over (a regular occurrence), my daughter being one of them, and we all experienced his and Cheryl’s ready hospitality and his humor. At one point in the conversation we moved from politics to theology and he talked about the importance of context for worship and theology. If we take away the concrete experience of who and where we are, theology and even worship is an abstraction removed from human reality.

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Dr. Pero with his wife, Rev. Dr. Cheryl Pero in 2014.

I was called to be pastor of St. Thomas Lutheran Church on Chicago’s southside in 1986, a white pastor serving an African American Lutheran Church, shortly before Dr. Pero’s essay, “Worship and Theology in the Black Context” was published. This essay spoke to issues of the time and still speaks. Among other things, he wrote of “whitenized” black churches that must “immerse themselves in a black theology and a black worship” before they can “perform their critical and reformatory role in relationship to the total culture”  including the white church. With these words, he was describing the situation of St. Thomas and other Lutheran churches on the southside at that time. In those first years at St. Thomas, a number of young African American pastors took calls to churches on the southside, some who had been mentored by Dr. Pero. For me, these pastors were a God-send (along with pastors of other denominations in the community); they guided and helped me with the kinds of changes that our churches needed to undergo. They were actively engaged in “immersing themselves (and their churches) in a black theology and a black worship.”

 

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Crucial Text: Theology and the Black Experience

Dr. Pero’s essay has implications for white mainline churches, as well, as he briefly considers the “critical and reformatory” relationship of black churches to white churches in predominantly white denominations. When Dr. Pero writes of “whitenized black churches,” he is referring to churches that have come into a white middle-class denomination that offers a white middle-class Christianity that provides little for dealing with the realities of daily life in an oppressive society. This kind of Christianity also has little to offer whites in the way of taking up their cross and following Jesus, becoming salt, light and yeast. Pero writes of the “suburban captivity of the white church” which suggests to me a church that seeks to isolate itself from the world’s troubles, values its security and that of its property and possessions, its comfort and convenience.
In contrast to (white or black) churches captive to middle-class values, Pero writes of the roots of the black church in a faith and hope that, while still enslaved, was able to sing, “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” He sees such a church as a “contemporary theological model” of first century churches in Rome—“urban, hidden, scorned, persecuted.” Such churches are sustained by the good news of the deliverance of God and the power of the Spirit and therefore by praise and thanksgiving in the midst of all kinds of circumstances. It is this kind of church that is a critique of the middle-class (think values, not income) captivity of the church.

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In white “suburbanized” churches, it is often personal crisis that opens individuals to the power of the gospel: the death of a child, the breakup of a marriage, addiction and the twelve steps. Life itself often speaks a word to us, and we may begin steps outward. But the problem is that our white middle-class church may not be able to support additional steps into an ever widening freedom to serve, to hear the cries, to enter into the suffering of others, to be change agents at a societal level. We may find that we do not even have a theology that supports us. In the theology we receive, grace may mean God’s acceptance but not necessarily our transformation.

For many the word “salvation” may itself be a hindrance. It has become a religious word that for some means little more than going to heaven when I die; for others, God’s forgiveness and love, but often without repentance, and therefore often leaving the middle-class captivity of the church intact. We might find ourselves understanding New Testament texts differently, if every time we came to the word salvation, we read deliverance or liberation, fitting translations of the Greek. We would then have to ask what we need to be delivered from. We might comLooking up to Him.jpge to see that the deliverance of God has to do with every aspect and dimension of our lives—personal, social, global. We might begin like all addicts (and idolaters) to acknowledge that we are powerless in and of ourselves. We might rediscover how much our Scriptures talk about power—social power dynamics and the power of God. In white Lutheran churches, we often hear much of God’s grace and acceptance, in black churches, God’s power—“the gospel; it is the power of God for liberation to everyone who has faith (Romans 1:16).” By God’s power, we are liberated to take up our cross and follow Jesus daily; by God’s power we are set free from values that do not come from God and that bind us, keeping us from being the people of God for others—especially for the poor, the outcast, the marginalized. The gospel of liberation is a gospel of transformation, not only of ourselves and our personal relationships but of our society and its institutions, as we become light, salt, yeast.
I will speak personally here. I often tell others that the two earthly realities that have most contributed to my becoming and growth have been my marriage to Elly (almost four decades) and St. Thomas (almost three decades). St. Thomas and the black church have formed and reformed me, my wife, and my children who grew up in a black church and community. We were members of a body of Christ where those who gathered for worship often included professionals and homeless, people in the corporate world and those living financially on the edge, people juggling multiple part-time jobs, working poor, abused, addicted, pressed down, people who had lost children to gun violence, children in crisis.

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The man in his element – teaching “The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.” – The Rev. Dr. Albert “Pete” Pero, 1936-2015)

We experienced together the joy of praising God in the midst of the struggle, ministry to each other in prayer, rejoicing in God’s work among us and through us in providing spiritual and material nurture and sustenance. We were moved outward to share the gospel in word and action in our neighborhood with other broken people in a variety of ministries including joining others in actions addressing systemic racism and oppression in governmental and corporate institutions.

At the heart of our life was worship; it was the Word and Spirit without which there would be no body of Christ, no abiding support, no change, no sense of call, no sending with power, no witness.

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We were, at one time, not so economically and socially inclusive. We had to acknowledge our classism, or using Dr. Pero’s word, our “whitenized” Christianity and by the grace of God and the power of the gospel of liberation be delivered from this bondage and continue to be delivered. That same gospel of liberation must address the captivity of the white church to middle-class values and self-satisfaction and comfort. There are witnesses to that liberation in the black church who will help us if we humble ourselves, turn from our complacent ways and be open to the voices God provides.

Dr. Pero was one of those witnesses. What he has said about the importance of context for worship and theology remains.


 

3ab8092.jpgThe Rev. Dr. David Lowry most recently served as pastor of St. Thomas Lutheran Church on Chicago’s South Side (over 28 years), a church with a strong outreach to children in crisis and a ministry to recovering addicts. He has been involved in lay
leadership training, faith-based community organizing and served as a revivalist in the ELCA. Pastor Lowry received a Ph.D. in theology from the Lutheran School of Theology
at Chicago in 1986. His doctoral dissertation, entitled, The Prophetic Element in the Church As Conceived in the Theology of Karl Rahner, was published in a revised version by University Press of America (1990) and focuses on the timely word of God.

Marginalize Yourself: Against ‘Widening the Circle’ of the ELCA – Adam Braun

Picture 002Last week Adam Braun presented some very thoughtful commentary on the nature of whiteness and the way it impacts society. In this next reflection Braun now proposes a rather simple but revolutionary way to offset the hegemony of institutional white privilege – specifically within the ELCA. His thoughts are timely and inspiringly shocking. So as usual, please read, continue the conversation, enjoy, and share.

And also, don’t forget that the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago will be hosting an open conversation on how the public church can and must address this most crucial issue: “Facing White Privilege as a Challenge and Opportunity for the Public Church.” The presidents of both Chicago Theological Seminary (Alice Hunt) and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (James Nieman) will be joining us. The discussion will be held Tuesday November 17, 2015 between 2 and 4 p.m. in the East Conference Room at LSTC (click here for map/directions). Admission is free and open to the public.

We hope to see you there.

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


Riffing off of Bishop Miller’s earlier post  I would like to share his skepticism that racial issues can be dealt with from within the ELCA.  Yet, I would also like to offer a starting point for those who wish to try. 

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Bishop Wayne Miller

The image Bishop Miller uses, the widening of the circle, is part of the problem of institutional diversification.  There is a center.  Diversification, then, involves bringing those on the margins into the circle, a circle created by the center.  By its culture, privilege, and universalisms.  By contrast, would it not be better to stand on the outside of a circle, a doughnut perhaps (to keep the circle metaphor), and engage with others as if they were the source of wisdom and knowledge, as if they were the insiders who we hope will let us in?

Therefore, we can begin with this counter-intuitive staement:

The ELCA does not need to become more diverse.

Instead, the ELCA needs to recognize the world is diverse and the ELCA is part of that diversity.  In doing so, it must recognize and come to terms with its whiteness.  It can do this in two ways: First disperse its members, existing in the non-ELCA diaspora, being itself marginalized in non-white communities, essentially not existing as the ELCA anymore.  When hell freezes over, perhaps.  Or, second (more likely), to recognize itself as racially, and therefore culturally, white, and recognizing its very whiteness is a hindrance to the gospel it proclaims.

[I anticipate push-back at this point against my claim that the ELCA is a white denomination.  Rather than deal with the complexities of this assertion, I’d like to deal with this in the comments, or perhaps a separate post, and move forward with the assumption that, at the least, I am addressing whites in the ELCA.]

The next step is to recognize how its whiteness weakens its gospel message and challenges its own humanity.  While holding on to a critical awareness of its privilege, the ELCA must also recognize that its own liberation has been bound up and is tied to the liberation of other far more marginalized than itself.  A recent t-shirt by the Lutheran Volunteer Corps has this quote on the back:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Aboriginal Activist Group, Queensland, 1970’s

multicolor-hands-leadershipThis quote is as good as any as a place to start, if for the very reason, that an ELCA organization has already begun here.

Just as one’s sexuality does not determine all of a person, neither does one’s race.  Even in the whiteness of the ELCA, traditions and stories of liberation abound.  Luther’s resistance to Rome.  Thomas Müntzer’s resistance to the princes. German and Scandinavian Lutheran churches’ resistance to the Anglican/Puritan hegemony found in the U.S.  White feminist liberation from white patriarchy.  White poor liberation from exploitative capitalist practices.  But no white in the ELCA can simply claim a liberation apart from understanding that non-whites must be liberated from my whiteness.  And that as long as my white privilege is oppressive, my liberation and non-white liberation will be tied together in my divestment of my white resources.

Furthermore, Lutheranism has the possibility for recognizing diverse voices in interpreting its tradition.  One could argue the founding event of Lutheranism contains a rejection of the hegemonic hermeneutic of its day, opening up the possibilities of reassessing one’s own tradition, by letting the Text speak for itself.  While Luther believed Scripture must be interpreted on its own terms, and that the nature of Scripture must be determined by Scripture, we may want to push luther-nailing-theses-560x538him further.  Still, this initial hermeneutical move by Luther can be seen as a democratization of the text, a democratization that can be extended, not simply essentialized.  Thus, the ELCA, in its whiteness, must listen to the other non-white interpreters of the Gospel, and we must let their interpretations unsettle our whiteness.

Both Lutheran forms of liberation and democratization give ample examples and opportunity for the ELCA to critique its whiteness.  If the ELCA is to use diversity as a tool, and not an end in-itself, then it must use these forms and structures as a basis for self-critique, and not as a way of widening the ELCA’s circle.  Even if that circle is a “circle of engagement” rather than a “circle of influence.”  For, if the ELCA is a perpetuator of whiteness, then its circle of engagement is always a circle of influence.  The ELCA must marginalize itself while recognizing its very whiteness is still the hegemonic center of power.  Here are some questions to consider along these lines:

  • Does your congregation charge rent to non-white congregations/organizations that use its space?
  • Does your congregation spend more money to send white missionaries to non-white locations than it does to bring non-whites into its congregation to teach them about their own whiteness?
  • Do ELCA institutions fully fund all non-whites that make up their so-called desired “diversity?”

How this happens is up to the congregations and administration of the ELCA.  But until it happens, the ELCA cannot claim it is committed to ending white supremacy in the U.S.A.

Resources:

A recent article focusing on diversity among mainline protestant churches in the United States, of which the ELCA is the least diverse.

An intimate reflection on the experience of racism, in both seminary and the parish, of African-American Mission Development Pastor Rev. Tiffany C. Chaney.

An essay on the connection between Luther’s theology of the cross and anti-racism, written by LSTC PhD student and “We Talk. We Listen.” blog manager Francisco Herrera.

A lecture given by ELCA pastor and Assistant Professor of Church and Society at Union Theological Seminary, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cruz, on how white privilege injects racism into interfaith dialogue and cultural/religious cross-understanding.


Adam with his son, Desmond Wonjae Lee Braun
Adam with his son, Desmond Wonjae Lee Braun

Adam F. Braun is an aspiring feminist, anti-white supremacist, as well as a PhD student in New Testament Christology at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. A former facilitator at Boston Pub Church, he describes himself as a general radical who looks for radical potential in radical Christian gatherings – prefering darkness to light, and solidarity to love.

Widening the Circle – by Bishop Wayne Miller Metropolitan Chicago Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Like many in our Church, I am deeply grateful to our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, for raising the challenge to re-engage on questions of race and privilege in our society.  This is work in which I have been personally involved for many years now, and frankly, one that continues to challenge and sometimes to frustrate me at every turn. Dr. Linda Thomas has asked me to offer some reflections on how the ELCA might actually rise to the Presiding Bishop’s challenge and what resources the ELCA might bring to bear in this effort.

So I begin with a bit of brutal honesty in confessing that despite nearly 30 years of intentional effort and high profile discussion, the ELCA does not appear to be making much headway. FT_15.07.23_religionDiversityIndex-1

We have done fairly well in diversifying leadership structures on a denominational level and in many of our schools, seminaries and social service agencies, where discretionary choices about employment allow us to be disciplined and intentional in creating leadership employment opportunities.  Similarly our representational principles for governance structures have helped to diversify some formal leadership roles.

Nonetheless, the sociological profile of the ELCA is overwhelmingly white, middle class, and comparatively well-educated.  And the Conference of Bishops (elected in general assemblies) reflects this demographic pattern in that the vast majority of us (including me) continue to be white, middle class, well educated, male and straight.  So how might we respond now, to make some difference that we have not been able to make in 30 years?  It seems unlikely to me that doing the same thing we have always done, the same way we have always done it, is likely now to yield a different result.

Dr. Linda Thomas - Professor of Theology and Anthropology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
Dr. Linda Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

And though I certainly would never claim to have a solution to this vexing, complex, and persistent problem, I will say that my thinking on the subject has been deeply influenced by Dr. Thomas herself.  Several years ago I heard her, in a presentation at LSTC, voice the perspective that Faith and Culture are inseparably linked.

Since culture is the medium through which faith is received and shared, there is, in fact, no meaningful way to talk about religious truth independent of the cultural context that mediates that truth (I pray, Dr. Thomas, that I am grabbing the nub of your position accurately!). 

When I heard it, this was a startling assertion to me.  Like most people swimming in the aquarium of a dominant culture, I had been taught, and had come to accept, that we were proclaiming a religious truth that transcended cultural relativism.  What would it mean for our whole concept of “the way, the truth, and the life,” to view it through the lens of, “the medium IS the message?”

I suspect that an idea like this will be challenged and debated in many ways in academic and non-academic circles alike.  But I, for one, have been convinced of its alarming truth through the evidence of actual experience.

If it is, in fact, an accurate insight, the implications for our work on race and privilege are enormous.  Even though the ELCA can in no way be considered “a culture,” in any monolithic sense, we are most definitely held together by certain value assumptions, languages, and behavior patterns, that range from worship values to our constitutions, to the way our boards and corporations are structured, to the application of GAAP accounting principles, to our attitudes about time, to our way of making decisions… all of which, are rooted in the conscious or unconscious framework of white, middle class, well-educated North American dominant culture.

Every organization, of course, must choose SOME rules as the glue that holds them together, and our cultural rules, in and of themselves, are not better or worse than other cultural rules.  But if we only talk to each other inside the ELCA about race and privilege we are never going to make progress, because we will never be able to get past the cultural blinders of seeing our own values and patterns as universally normative.  And because those cultural values and patterns are part of the general social structure of privilege, we will always have the choice of dropping the conversation and not troubling the waters by experiencing or engaging with the fresh air on the other side of our aquarium wall.

All of this has led me to the conviction that our thinking, our feeling, our speech and our action related to race and privilege are never going to appreciably change until we force the conversation and the work outside of the Church Council or synod councils or seminary faculties or ELCA assemblies; in fact outside the ELCA altogether into active interfaith and ecumenical engagement on a local, relational level.  Even though there is still an important role for structural leadership in driving that circle of engagement wider, in the end, it is in that local interfaith arena that “the other” is re-humanized into personhood, that the “I-It” relationship is transformed into an “I-Thou” relationship, and the struggle against systemic racism and social privilege becomes an expression of solidarity with someone I love from a different culture, rather than an ideological debate or a seminar topic.

Many People, One World --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
Many People, One World — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

It may very well be that the best single resource that the ELCA brings to this work is our long history of interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural relationship building. And as one leader from our culture and tradition, I will, among other things, be looking for ways in my new role as President of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, to see if we can widen the circle of work in this way.

Resources

This past July, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and ELCA Church Council Member William B. Horne II held a special webcast/conversation on racism.

Readings, videos and other online materials from the racial justice ministries ELCA.

6a00d8341c60fd53ef0120a68c68a9970cBorn in Chicago in 1950, Bishop Miller and has lived most of his life in the Chicago-land area. He holds an undergraduate degree in music, and for a time was a professional member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. He has been married to Pamela Miller since 1980, and has two grown sons.

In addition to his previous parish duties, Miller was a member of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod Council. He has been an adjunct instructor of Christian Thought at Aurora University, a founding board member of Suicide Prevention Services of the Fox Valley, and a member and presenter for a special judicial commission on Domestic Violence in the Faith Community. 

Prior to his election, Bishop Miller served as the Senior Pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Aurora, Illinois, from 1994-2007. During this time worship attendance grew from 250 to 550. In addition, he facilitated social outreach and community involvement. Since his installation in 2007 he preaches and teaches regularly in the synod’s congregations and shares his perspective and insight in his column in the synod supplement in The Lutheran. He is a member of the ELCA Conference of Bishops Task Force on Immigration Reform, and chair of the committee on Ministry Among People in Poverty.