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.


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. 

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.

On Whiteness – Adam Braun

We Talk. We Listen. is now moving to arguably the implacable foe of diversity advocates: white privilege. White privilege is often the most sinister root of all that plagues United States. The student uprisings taking place at the University of Missouri, Yale University, and many other institutions of higher learning, not to mention the recent protests of Moral Mondays in Illinois and the way that white privilege relentlessly skews  public policy to the detriment of people of color – all of these point to the fact that if we are to truly build a more just and beautiful society white privilege is something that we must understand – lives are at stake.

The massacre at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston on June 17 of this year made this need as clear as it ever was. There was also a tragic poignancy to the shootings – as not only were both Mother Emanuel’s senior pastor and assistant pastor alumni of the Lutheran Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, but even the shooter was a baptized and confirmed ELCA member as well. The ELCA’s Presiding Bishop – Elizabeth Eaton – issued a candid epistle in response to the revelations, as well as sponsored a special web-cast (#ELCAConfrontRacism) calling upon parishioners in the ELCA to be a catalyst for the hard conversations about race that are so desperately needed in our country. This then culminated in a special initiative, “Commitment to End Racism,” an effort by both the ELCA and AME churches to worship, pray, and discuss the legacy and effects of racism in churches across the country.

At We Talk. We Listen, we have then decided to take the initiative and contribute PhD student Adam Braun’s trenchant commentary and observations on white privilege. We hope you enjoy his reflection, and share it with friends and colleagues.

We are also presenting his reflection to “prime the pump”, so to speak, for an important public conversation taking place at LSTC in the coming days – 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 having an open conversation on how the public church can and must address this most crucial issue. 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.

Picture 002And, as always, thanks again for reading.

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


Baby Suggs…. the afternoon of the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but whitepeople. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever.Toni Morrison, Beloved.

The white man has enjoyed, the privilege of seeing without being seen; he was only a look…. The white man—white because he was man, white like daylight, white like truth, white like virtue—lighted up creation like a torch and unveiled the secret white essence of beings. – Jean-Paul Sartre, Black Orpheus

I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave not of the “idea” that others have of me but of my own appearance. I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am, fixed.Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks

When I began my time in seminary, I did not know that I was white. Even after three years in Korea. Even having been in an embrace with my (Korean) wife, and she said, “I never understood why white people said I was yellow. But when my skin is next to yours I can see it.” Sure I knew my skin tone was different. But whiteness is not skin tone. “Whiteness is a chosen (though socially conditioned) way of being-in-the-world.” (Birt, 55)* It is a set of cultural values, often invisible to those who possess these values. In this post, I aim to explain my new critical awareness of my whiteness and the whiteness of LSTC/the ELCA.

Me and my son, Desmond Wonjae Lee Braun
Me and my son, Desmond Wonjae Lee Braun

The world is not made up of diverse races. The world is made up of diversity. Period. Race only becomes a category in the moment of exclusion. But the most important thing to notice historically is that the race-concept is developed by its relation to whiteness. Think particularly about the history of the accumulation of resources through Western colonization, industrialization, and neo-liberal globalization. The white center is essential to the concept of race. And anytime the concept of race is used, it invokes the privileged, powerful position of whiteness. For this reason, some scholars recently prefer to name racism as “white supremacy.” Therefore, any white institution that wishes to fight racism/white-supremacy must divest itself of its power and resources that are gained through its whiteness and invest in that which has been deemed non-white** by whiteness.

Privilege

Below are some of the critical steps that have helped me develop a counter-whiteness logic:

  1. In much the same way the category of religion developed to describe social phenomena that was other-than-Christian, the category of race developed to describe peoples who were other-than-white.
  1. As such, it is possible to say that “white-skinned” is not a race, but the feature whose absence defines all other races.
  1. The world’s wealth and resources are mostly in the hands of those who are considered white. Even if spaces (land, nations, etc.) are not predominantly white, many of their resources have been acquired and/or exploited by lands that are predominantly white through colonialism, industrialization, and global capitalism.
  1. These attributes of whiteness, make white the center, and non-white the margins.
  1. White-centeredness creates a power dynamic where whites can more easily hold positions of power over non-whites. This results in White Supremacy.
  1. It is incomplete (and incorrect) to think that race is the color of one’s skin and racism is personal bigotry against people who have a different skin tone than one’s own. All races do not start off on equal footing. All races are always already beholden to whiteness. Personal bigotry related to skin tone is a symptom of racism. Institutional racism and systemic racism are RACISM, that is why it ends in an “-ism.” Other racially charged individual thoughts and actions are the products of racism.
  1. There is no line where one starts or stops being white, pink, yellow, brown, black, et al. But these terms are socially configured around whiteness and its relationship to the allocation of resources.
  1. Characteristic: Whiteness is privileged. Privilege is often blind to itself. Therefore, whiteness is blind to its own whiteness. For this reason, it is always easier to point out characteristics of non-white groups than it is to locate a cultural attribute of whiteness, particularly for those who are white. In addition, the people who most often say (altruistically), “I don’t see race,” are white.
  1. Characteristic: Since whiteness is often unaware of itself and its privilege, white culture is often thought of as that which is universal to humanity. We can find this readily within the discipline of Theology. There is Systematic Theology. And then there is that which is not Systematic Theology: Contextual, Postcolonial, (Feminist) Womanist, Black, Liberation, Muerjista, Ajuma, (etc.) theologies. As such, theology done by whites is Systematic and comprehensive. The implied meaning is that the other Theologies are not.

privilege

Takeaway: Whiteness is socially constructed, not an essence based on skin tone. Whiteness is the privileged center of the category of race. Whiteness expresses itself through the accumulation and hoarding of material resources and through the universalization of its human experience, eliminating the differences of non-white experiences.

Critical questions for reflection and discussion:

  1. When did you first realize you were culturally white?
  2. What are the cultural attributes of your own whiteness?

* Robert E. Birt, “The Bad Faith of Whiteness,” from Yancy, George. What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question. New York, N.Y. ; London: Routledge, 2004.

** “Non-white, Non-whiteness”: Dear White People, in our context it would be inappropriate to use this term normatively in conversation. I use it here, in particular for us whites, that we may be unsettled by an awareness of the marginalizations that are caused by the very presence of our skin in coalition with our white-centered culture. In addition, there is no “reverse” racism against whites, since racism is always determined by whiteness. In conversations, it may be more appropriate to use “People of color,” but more accurately, to describe others the way they wish to be described.

Resources

A animated short that vividly illustrates the systems and processes that create white supremacy, “The Unequal Opportunity Race.”

A simple web comic by Jamie Kapp explaining what white privilege is and the ways we can actually measure its impact.

“Calling a Thing What it Is: A Lutheran Approach to Whiteness” – a powerful paper by Deanna A. Thompson, a professor at the Religion Department
Hamline University.

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

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.