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.

Privilege

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.


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. 

Bishop Wayne Miller
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.