For this writer, both the Black church and the global church have demonstrated how to navigate a vocational path that addresses human injustices, rights, and needs in a free but imperfect nation.
As I write this essay, the country prepares for the inauguration of the first African American president of the United States of America. This narration has helped me to understand more clearly my personal and professional orientation about the interdependent co-existence of church and state.1 This is the story of how I have come to be able to love both God and my country. Love to me means loyalty. My love is formed and informed by 1 John 4:13-21, summed up in verse 19: "We love because he first loved us." My love for God leads me to love all God's people, whether colleagues, congregational members, students, community members, law enforcement officials, church elites, or international citizens.
My younger brother, our three cousins, and I are all first generation United States citizens. We were born in New York City to Jamaican émigré parents. Our elders, including our grandmother, immigrated to the United States because of the potential and promise of opportunity, for both themselves and their future generations. From our generation, I was the only one who, on returning to Jamaica for several years, was able to attend primary school where I was immersed in the Jamaican and British cultures and weaned on the stories of Jamaican heroes who led resistance movements.2 During that time, I was also nurtured in Jamaican Christian traditions.3
We loved and obeyed God and, in obedience to God, we loved our adopted country. But what happens when government acts unjustly?
In the Bronx, my brother and parents found that becoming active in the local Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation was a comfortable and convenient transition from Episcopalianism. When I returned from Jamaica to the United States in 1962, my brother and I were enrolled at an LCMS school. Between these two Lutheran institutions, I developed not only a greater understanding of the Christian faith, but also a healthy respect for government. The church and state had never been separated in my formation; and, in the LCMS, the two-kingdom doctrine was taught with rigor.4
We loved and obeyed God and, in obedience to God, we loved our adopted country. But what happens when government acts unjustly?
During the early '70s, the latter part of my Wellesley College years, I vacillated about my postcollege vocation. Our chaplain, a Lutheran Church in America (LCA) pastor, asked me if I had ever considered the ministry. My LCMS background caused me to quickly say no. However, Paul Santmire, the chaplain, had planted a seed that, by the grace of God, took root and grew. Pastor Santmire's ministry acquainted me with international human-rights struggles; he exposed us to social justice programs of the World Council of Churches.5Betrayals and Injustices
By the time I graduated from college, I had enrolled in Andover Newton Theological School6
because seminary seemed like a good place to bombard God with questions about the injustices in the U.S. social context. I self-identified as a Black American by then and began to probe the moral and ethical international positioning of the United States. Compelled to participate in the Boston Public School desegregation struggles by my awareness of the injustice at stake, my personal sense of betrayal, disappointment, and frustration with the United States grew.
Why are African Americans so patriotic? Why would my uncle leave Jamaica and enlist in the U.S. armed services, becoming a Tuskegee Airman and helping the United States and the Allied Forces win World War II, when our country was guilty of human and social injustices itself at home?7
He could not even get a job as a short-hop airline pilot after the war! How can patriotism emerge and grow in a social and political environment of oppression? What is it about African Americans that motivates us to be patriotic in a country that practices racism? Is this a religious question? A social question? Even though confused and conflicted by these questions, I ironically found myself celebrating the arrival of the tall ships into Boston Harbor with friends. I even took my parents to Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops' Bicentennial Fourth of July concert in one of the parks near Boston Harbor.
My early exposure to resistance fighters8
lent itself to further molding by the social and religious context in Boston and in the historic Black church during those turbulent years. The unsolicited counsel of my professors for patience until my seminary education was completed did nothing to alleviate my sense of outrage and anger.A Troubled Spirit
Taking a semester's leave of absence, I spent 1977 at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC). I joined the LCA that May and graduated from seminary in June. I had begun a master's degree program in ethics at LSTC; my spirit was deeply troubled, and I found no clear answers during the 30 months I spent working for the LCA national office in New York and completing my internship in Gary, Indiana. I was ordained an LCA pastor on May 18, 1980, and received my Th.M. in Church and Society from LSTC in 1981. I was committed to pastoring among people who functioned with church and country intertwined, who brought their faith into their vocational marketplaces. My dissatisfaction regarding social rights abuses within the United States had not abated, but I grew in my knowledge and understanding because of my ongoing international interest and exposure.
During my first two calls to congregational ministry, I continued to wrestle with issues of justice in church and society. My third ministry, with the City Colleges of Chicago,9
was the time when issues around loving God and loving one's country most clearly came into focus. As the recognized religious presence on campus, I welcomed representatives from other faiths and Christian denominations to campus. I hosted Bible studies, bag-lunch and other discussion groups, as well as advocated for the affirmation of other expressions of faith on campus.10
But in order to do ministry, I had to be very alert to issues surrounding the separation of church and state.
One of the times the separation between loving God and loving one's country came into the spotlight in Chicago was when Mayor Harold Washington died. Should I organize a memorial service on campus? Should I invite the students to a memorial service at a local Lutheran congregation? Should we even have a memorial service? What was my role? He had been a frequent visitor to Loop College11
and was sympathetic to the presence of campus ministry. We ended up having a memorial service on campus, planned by the students in collaboration with me, in order to comply with all the rules for separation of church and state.
In my last parish, a particularly heinous murder of a family, including the family dog, occurred one New Year's Eve on the block in which the church was located. There was no evidence of a break-in. The community was beset with fear, distrust and paranoia. Rightfully so. Our church building posed an immediate solution to the question of where the community might gather to discuss the situation with one another and with law enforcement representatives.
I immediately planned a community gathering in conjunction with local police, a retired judge, the alderwoman, and community organizations. The response was overwhelming, surprising even members of the congregation — there was standing room only. We were able to allay residents' fears and restore confidence in law enforcement. Reestablishing trust in the local community for representatives of the country was a need that I never questioned or doubted. The murder was solved a few weeks later and the perpetrator took his own life.Empire
My recent graduate study and dissertation writing in New Testament has led me to see that both Mark and Paul wrote from anti-imperialist points of view, although neither spoke directly to abuses by the state. Mark is very subtle, never mentioning Rome directly, but mimicking imperial language, even in his introduction to the Gospel (Mark 1:1): "the beginning of the good news12
of Jesus Christ13
the son of God."
In Paul's counsel to respect and obey civil authority, he acknowledges the presence of an empire (Romans 13:1-7), but encourages first-century Christians to focus not on the abuses of Rome, but on the promises made manifest in the risen Christ (Romans 14:8-9). The authors of James14
and 1 Peter15
do however address the presence of evil in terms of the devil, incarnated in Satan. I understand their counsel to resist the devil as encompassing both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world.
As I reflect on the inauguration of the first African American president, I have come to some conclusions. Twenty-first-century globalization has a twin: imperialism. The United States is now perceived as the last imperialistic power, spreading its agenda of democracy through military, economic, and media interests. But, from a global perspective, the democracy agenda is seen as morally bankrupt. The recent presidential campaign has exposed the idea that people in the United States comprehend loving one's country in a variety of ways: what seems to be patriotism to some is nationalism to others, for example, similar to the Old Testament difference between Jeremiah and the Jerusalem elites.
The separation of church and state lends itself to an unnecessary dichotomy between loving God and loving one's country. African Americans understand that there is no separation between church and state. The political leaders of the Black community have historically emerged from the Black church, the institution that delivers social programs: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the incarcerated, advocating justice — programs that minister to the people's situation and condition and that soothe their soul.Call to Faithfulness
The genius of the Black church emerges most clearly in Martin Luther King Jr. He understood the biblical call to faithfulness to God as inclusive both of church and society, and God and country. He understood the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as giving citizens the right and the responsibility to challenge the government when it is acting contrary to its covenant with the people, as was also the case with Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church.
As a Christian, I live in a socio-religio-political world created and ruled by God. I recognize that we have freedoms in the United States that are not allowed in many other countries. My forebears most likely immigrated to the United States for economic reasons, as did most others who came to the United States during the 1930s and '40s. In spite of the ways in which our government has disappointed us, our country offers the hope that we can live up to our potential in times like these, when the world has witnessed the inauguration of the first African American president of the United States of America.Cheryl Pero, an ELCA pastor, is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
- In my understanding, there is a difference between government and country. The government is the entity that is elected to administer the country. The country is the entity that is defined by its ideals, values, standards, and morals.
- Some examples are Ananci, the fictional Ghanian spider man, who always outsmarted and outmaneuvered oppressive opponents; Nanny, the only female warrior in Jamaican history, who became a leader of the Maroon Indians in the Asante pattern; Paul Bogle, who led a historic rebellion against the British in my ancestors' hometown, Morant Bay; George Gordon, Bogle's confederate in the Morant Bay Rebellion; Marcus Garvey, who became an international leader of the Black unification movement in the United States, and last, but by no means least, the mostly misunderstood and feared Rastafarians.
- These were primarily Pentecostal and Anglican / Episcopalian.
- For excellent discussions about the two-kingdom doctrine see Peter Paris's The Social Teaching of the Black Churches (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), especially chapter 3, "Autonomy in Dilemma," 27-48. See also the articles by Simon Maimela and James Kenneth Echols (pages 97-132) in Albert Pero and Ambrose Moyo, eds, Theology and the Black Experience: The Lutheran Heritage Interpreted by African and African-American Theologians (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1988). Fortress is in the process of doing a third press run in the near future. See also my article on the "Priesthood of all Believers," chapter 11, 170-193. See also Luther's "A Treatise on Christian Liberty" in Luther's Works, Volume 2, 225-54.
- For example, the World Council of Churches' Program to Combat Racism.
- Denominational support for Andover Newton comes through the American Baptist Church and the United Church of Christ.
- My uncle, although underweight and underage in 1941 when the Tuskegee "experiment" to train black pilots was championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, was determined to enlist in the U.S. armed services by any means necessary. He overcame the obstacles of weight and age, as well as education, to become one of the original Tuskegee Airmen. He now holds the rank of Major (Ret.) and recently was one of the awardees who received the very belated Congressional Medal of Honor. For more of his story, go to www.jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20081013/news/news2.html and http://www.jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20081014/news/news4.html.
- See endnote 1. The church had provided the crucible for many who later became freedom and resistance fighters in society.
- A community-college-ministry context is unique. The campus itself is usually one (or more) large urban building(s) to which students commute by bus, train, or car. There is no set apart "religious" space on campus where students can be invited to gather; space allocations (classrooms or lounges) are based on the beneficence of the current administrator. Any ministry programming must be requested by students, particularly the local student government. The student population in Chicago has an international flavor, but was comprised of mostly older, poorer, less well-educated people of color. Prayer with students often happened on the fly in hallways between classes. Administrators of color, many faculty, and most students had no problem with the goals and guidelines of Lutheran Campus Ministry, but European American administrators often interpreted my presence as divisive.
- For example, I affirmed the Palestinian students' request for a prayer room for Muslims. That request was granted by the college administration.
- Loop College was later renamed Harold Washington College in honor of the late mayor.
- "Good news" was associated with Roman military victories and the emperors of Rome, beginning with Caesar Augustus, in the first century BCE.
- Jesus' ministry and proclamation was establishing the kingdom of God as a counter to the kingdom of Rome which in this Gospel equaled the kingdom of Satan.
- James 4:7: "Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you."
- 1 Peter 5:8-9: "Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering."
This article appeared in the May / June 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 3).