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Vulnerability, Security, Empire, and Confronting Racism: Inspirations from the 2016 Lutheran Ethicists Gathering

 

[1] The 2016 Lutheran Ethicists’ Gathering convened in January around the theme “The Meaning of Vulnerability and Security Today in the Light of Global Realities: Living in the Shadow of Empire.” Taking place in Toronto, Canada, the gathering focused on the contextual realities of Canada on the theme of empire and vulnerability.  The main day of the Gathering was split into two sessions: “First Nations Peoples in the Shadow of Empire” and “Canada in the Shadow of U.S. Empire.” These two sessions investigated the power dynamics between the empire and the vulnerable, placing the conversation not in abstract terms, but grounded in contextual realities of national, global, and intercultural ethics.

 

[2] I am a doctoral student at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago studying systematic theology, and a lifelong ELCA Lutheran. During my past two years at LSTC, I have been involved with our student groups: the “Corazón” Latin@ student union, the “Seminarians for Justice” political activism group, and the “Thesis 96” LGBTQIA advocacy and support group. These groups represent different parts of my identity that are culturally non-normative in the ELCA. As a Lutheran, I delight in the opportunity to be part of the movement to ensure that the ELCA is representative of and relevant to the cultural diversity of our country and our world, instead of being culturally static or hegemonic.[1]

 

[3] One important movement that the ELCA has initiated to address its cultural hegemony is Bishop Eaton’s charge to address systemic racism in our church. The Pew Research Center reported in its 2014 Religious Landscape Study that membership in the ELCA is 96% white. “In addition to underrepresented ethnic groups, ELCA membership lags in a variety of other areas, such as diversity of age, income, education and immigration status,” writes Karris Golden this past February in The Lutheran magazine and Living Lutheran blog.[2] Cultural and economic power dynamics are extremely important issues right now for our country and for our church. At the 2016 Lutheran Ethicists’ Gathering, I experienced key moments of inspiration that relate to this work that the ELCA is undertaking.

 

[4] Two speakers from the conference spoke specifically to the need for the church to address intercultural and economic injustices in our society today. The first was the Right Reverend Mark MacDonald, the National Indigenous Bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, and a Vice President for the World Council of Churches. As plenary speaker, Bishop MacDonald spoke about his experiences and theological reflections as a pastor and bishop with First Nations peoples in the US and Canada. The second was Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat, professor of Biblical Studies at the Toronto School of Theology. Dr. Keesmaat co-authored the book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire with her husband Dr. Brian Walsh. Keesmaat and Walsh live at Russet House Farm, a sustainable farm project focused on regenerative and healing processes for the land and “dialogue with place.” These two presenters, within the context of the entire program, provided rich resources for the ELCA to continue addressing issues of culture and economics with courage.

 

[5] In his morning address, Bishop MacDonald spoke to the gathering about First Nations peoples' experiences living in the shadow of an expanding European domination. He highlighted First Peoples experiences in the residential school model, learned by Canada from the practice in the United States, but kept in practice longer. These schools were designed to obliterate indigenous identity and “train” aboriginal children and youth how to live according to the standards of white society. Sadly, people in power advocated this practice as (what was to them) a radically progressive and loving alternative to genocide. Between the 1880s – 1990s, the Canadian government maintained around eighty of these schools. Approximately 180,000 native people went through the school system, and there are about 80,000 survivors of the schools still alive today in Canada. The stories Bishop MacDonald told about the schools and the severe, layered, and horrific traumas experienced by the students were a sobering reminder of the history of the colonization and abuse that European settlers perpetrated against the people and land of the Americas in the founding of our two countries. These abuses remain today, in the continued poverty and racism experienced by the indigenous nations still living in this continent today, and the alarming suicide rates within their communities.[3]

 

[6] We in the church today can agree that the practice of residential schools, of removing children from their home communities and violently forcing them to live according to different cultural standards, is an evil that we would not condone. However, Bishop MacDonald stated that we usually explain away evil on the imperial level as “bad policies” or “bad institutional choices,” which doesn't address the full weight of the sin embodied in these actions. We must recognize the sin of systemic corporate evil, seen on our continent as atrocities against indigenous peoples, as injustice against Africans violently enslaved in order to build the economy of the United States, as discrimination against the immigrants who farm our lands. The connection between race and economics that intersects these forms of oppression is a dynamic that continues to be an evil in the power structures of Canada and the United States. We the church must name this evil and work against it.

 

[7] Bishop MacDonald reminded us that our biblical tradition speaks strongly against corporate imperial evil, especially in the stories of Rome, Babylon, and Egypt. As the United States asserts itself as a neo-imperial power in our globalized world, the church today needs to discern its rightful place in the narrative. Bishop MacDonald emphasized that the source of imperial evil is idolatry: a “competitive relationship with the creator.” He specified that the opposite of love is not hate, but false love – love of that other than God – and that the systemic embodiment of this false love is empire. We can reflect historically upon the rise of Christianity's power in collusion with the empire of Constantine, and the devastation of centuries of crusades to win power in the Holy Land. We must be bold to also see the problematic connections today between Christianity and the idolatrous empire of neoliberal capitalism. The church must resist being part of the hegemonic culture of today's empire, which privileges consumption and convenience over the wellbeing of the vulnerable.

 

[8] So what is the solution, if Christianity, including the ELCA, allows itself to continue entrenched in the imperial culture, vulnerable to the daily temptations of idolatry, of loving our comfort more than God, and our convenience more than our neighbor's wellbeing? The solution, said Bishop MacDonald, is seeing evangelism as freeing people from the addictions of their culture. The solution is practicing corporate repentance, something we Lutherans should know much about from our liturgical tradition. But applying corporate repentance to our institutional structures will have to look different than a two-minute prayer at the beginning of our worship hour. Bishop MacDonald urged us as the church to work toward repentance and right relationship in our societies – to confront and repent of this corporate evil of idolatry, of seeing God in wealth and success rather than in the poor. We must make community with the poor and with the earth, both of which we have impoverished through our abuse. We need a spiritual revolution, an alternative economy and governance. Fortunately for us in the church, we have the tools for this!

 

[9] During the afternoon panel on “Canada in the Shadow of the U.S. Empire,” Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat used the book of Romans to reshape our imagination of alternative community in the face of empire; a preview of the forthcoming book Romans Disarmed by Keesmaat and Walsh. Her language directly addressed Bishop MacDonald's challenge to the church to engage in the corporate repentance needed to absolve the sins of our participation in the empire.

 

[10] According to Keesmaat's reading of Romans, Paul is writing to the church in Rome about how to survive within and subvert imperial rule by living a life based on the gospel. Keesmaat demonstrated that in Romans 5-6 Paul contrasts the dominion of justice and life with the dominion of injustice and death. God's dikaiosune is on our side: God's righteousness, also translatable as justice, which is ours through baptism in Christ. Keesmaat emphasized that in Romans 8 Paul reveals that this is a letter of lament and comfort to the most vulnerable in the empire, reminding the church that there are no powers or principalities in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God. Today, in the context of the United States, Canada, neo-liberal capitalism, and systemic racism, in whose power do we trust? Do we serve the idolatry of the empire of death, or the love and justice of the reign of God? Paul argues that the church should be God's community of justice subverting the death-laden interests of the empire.

 

[11] Keesmaat explained that in Romans 12, Paul shows us what the community of justice looks like. In this community, status, honor, and systems of exclusion are overturned: “do not think more highly of yourself than you ought, outdo one another in showing honor, show generous hospitality to strangers.” These are radical economic and cultural reversals in an imperial setting. Furthermore, we are not to try to associate with those who are powerful, but to “walk with the oppressed,”—Keesmaat's translation from verse 16. Imagine what our faith communities would look like if we actually went out and walked with the oppressed, lived with the oppressed, ate with the oppressed, and sang with the oppressed, rather than waiting for them to come through our church doors. If your enemies are hungry, feed them – what if we took this to heart as a political strategy? Imagine how we the church could radically embody this anti-imperial ideology!       

 

[14] In Romans 13, Keesmaat interpreted Paul's tone as tongue-in-cheek, seeking to undermine the empire. Paul tells his readers of the dangers of the empire, when Rome was traditionally written about only as the paragon of rationality. But according to Paul, said Keesmaat, we should not be subject to Rome out of conscience or moral duty, but in order to avoid their wrath. This gets more complicated with commands such as “owe no one anything except love.” How can we operate with love toward a wrathful empire or act out of love for cultural and economic oppressors? This love subverts the violence and power of the state. This is the foundation of non-violence movements such as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And it is a supremely difficult path to take, when the empire constantly treats its defectors with wrath and violence. Paul was encouraging the church in Rome to be an alternative political community that challenges the rule of Rome, but in a radically loving and just way that models the empire of God.   

 

[15] Keesmaat presented this interpretation of Romans during a panel on Canada's relationship to the United States. Other presenters on the panel investigated the question of Canada's relationship with the powerful empire to its south, in terms of economic trade and national security. Should Canada seek favor with the United States, act in Canada's own interest, or seek more multilateral global interests? Similar questions can be applied to the Christian church, and therefore to the ELCA: Does our church act in the interest of the empire or in the interest of the most vulnerable? How have our actions shown that we rely on the security of appeasing the empire, whether culturally, economically, or patriotically? How instead could our actions show that we rely on the security of our faith in God, and create communities of justice that subvert the idolatry of the empire?

 

[16] My favorite parts of the Gathering were the opportunities to break-out into discussion groups to process the material presented to us, with the speakers coming around to the groups for more intimate conversation. In my breakout group following Bishop MacDonald's presentation, we had the opportunity to discuss questions regarding reparations: How can we use the church to create new alternative economic systems in partnership with impoverished communities? How can we take on the mission of extending reparations to the poor out of the sharing of our abundance of privilege that we gain in our unequal society, and build relationships of partnership and interdependence with marginalized communities?

 

[17] Bishop MacDonald reminded us of St. Francis, founder of a monastic movement based on a lifestyle of reparation. Franciscans took on a mission of reconciliation and reparation for the atrocities committed by the imperial church. By recognizing the damage done by the Christian church in our time, especially in our current examination of systemic racism within the ELCA, we must find ways to proclaim the gospel through a new lifestyle, a new ethos of interacting with others. We can repent of the imbalance of privileges given to us by the empire and create a more just way of life with the people in our communities.

 

[18] We witnessed an excellent example of this in the stories from Waterloo Lutheran Seminary's principal-dean Rev. Dr. Mark Harris. This seminary is built on land that was given “forever” to the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy – how does a Lutheran school go about admitting it is benefitting from colonialization and involve indigenous peoples in the economic decision-making for this land? One practice the seminary has started is giving up time and space in chapel to indigenous leaders: one day a week in the seminary's chapel service a smudging ritual is led, and the community reads a section of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations, 2007). Learning through ritual is a way that the seminary community is addressing their lack of knowledge about indigenous peoples, and creating this partnership, hearing uncomfortable stories, and inviting indigenous leaders into their space as teachers is a way to provide healing so that both communities will not continue to be isolated, diminished, and damned[4].

 

[19] This conversation is extremely important to the context in the United States as well, with our own relationship with First Nations peoples. We must also examine our relationship with the descendants of African slaves who were uprooted from their indigenous lands and brutally forced to build the economic foundations of our new country, and with immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Europe who continue to be dehumanized while working in fields and factories to create the goods that fuel the American lifestyle. In our society, those without the privilege of white skin endure multiple layers of cultural and economic injustices. We must name these corporate evils and be a force of justice and love in our continent today.

 

[20] The question inside our institution is the same: how can we in the ELCA allow people from other cultural backgrounds to maintain their identity, their integrity with their past, while becoming an equal and respected part of the whole church's present and future? As our church remains 96% white, we are inadvertently siding with the empire, maintaining our church as a place where white privilege is culturally protected, upheld as tradition, and passed down from generation to generation. We need to be vulnerable to the idea of giving up our cultural European identity in order to reclaim our Christian identity. Our church must strive to represent the full cultural diversity of God's created people, and trust that the thing that makes our denomination​ Lutheran is our secure reliance on God's grace. Our theological tradition is based on Luther's theology of radical salvific faith and sacrificial love for the neighbor, which can be expressed in a variety of cultural ways.

 

[21] In my breakout group's conversation with Dr. Keesmaat, we discussed how the themes of vulnerability and security relate to the church. If the church is to take up Paul's challenge to become a community of justice, through radical hospitality, this involves a lot o​f vulnerability. Being called by God to open our doors to the unknown neighbor can put our sense of security in jeopardy. Like Abraham and Joseph, Jesus and the apostles, we must place our ultimate security in God when doing the risky work of faith. Another way to describe vulnerability is the state of allowing oneself to change. Becoming vulnerable as a nation could look like admitting past wrongs and opening ourselves to the possibility of change. It’s the same in the ELCA. Can we admit our concern for tradition, comfort, and convenience (“because we've always done it this way”) and repent of how we have feared reaching out to our neighbors who may change our vulnerable cultural expression of Christianity?

 

[22] This work may be discomforting, a sign of the Spirit transforming us into a church more resembling the whole Body of Christ, and not just one part of the body. The ELCA's motto is “God's work. Our hands.” We like being the hands. But what if we opened ourselves up to those who are the feet and the hips and the shoulders and the vocal chords of the body of Christ? How would our church change? It might look, sound, and smell different. This is where the Spirit is calling us. We must trust in the Spirit that we will still be Lutherans after boldly taking the risk to admit our vulnerability, forego our security, and welcome the “other” to our pulpits and board rooms.

 

[23] We have seen this modeled at this 2016 Lutheran Ethicists’ Gathering – inviting a person of color to be in a place of prominence as plenary speaker and share about the atrocities committed by the empire in collusion with the church. Let us continue to invite people of color into places of prominence in our local churches and the ELCA institution, repenting of our fears and trusting God in our vulnerability. Corporate repentance and radical hospitality are fundamental parts of the Christian tradition. Let us live boldly into these practices as we confess the sins of the church in colluding with the norms of the empire, praying to be opened to transformation through our faith in the gospel.

 

Iren Raye is a doctoral student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.



[1] Hegemony is a state of cultural dominance controlled non-overtly through systems of values and expectations of conformity.

[3] For more information, read the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports at http://nctr.ca/reports.php, resources on the civil rights abuses of Native Americans at http://www.civilrights.org/resources/civilrights101/native.html, and this Washington Post article at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/the-hard-lives--and-high-suicide-rate--of-native-american-children/2014/03/09/6e0ad9b2-9f03-11e3-b8d8-94577ff66b28_story.html.

[4] I intentionally retain the word “damned” here from our breakout conversation to remind us of the sinfulness of our actions of separation and oppression that harm both the oppressed and the oppressor, creating hellish realities on earth and warranting separation from Christ for not treating marginalized peoples as the embodiment of Jesus (Matthew 25).

 

© May 2016

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 16, Issue 5