A 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 America – a 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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 white. To benefit from oppression is to be responsible for changing it.”
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.
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.
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.’”
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 email@example.com. 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Erik 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.
 Jim Wallace, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, 5.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience,” In A Testament of Hope, 51.
 Jim Wallace, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, 35.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 20.