The Emperor Has No Clothes On: Lutheranism towards a Multicultural Landscape


The following article was given as a graduation address to Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.

[1] In Hans Christian Andersen's fable, "The Emperor's New Clothes," a vain Emperor has a reputation for only caring about dressing in elegant clothes. Knowing of the emperor's vanity, two scoundrels come to the Emperor claiming to be good tailors, having invented a cloth so light and fine that it looks invisible.

[2] They contended that people who cannot see the fabric are stupid and incompetent. The emperor gave the two men a bag of gold coins, a loom, silk, gold thread and they pretended to begin working. The Emperor thought this a good investment: he would get a new extraordinary suit, and discover which of his subjects were ignorant and incompetent. At the emperor's request, the Prime Minister, known to be a wise man, went to view the progress. Afraid of being fired, he offered a stellar report. Finally, the two tailors came to take the emperor's measurements for his new suit.

[3] The two scoundrels in pretense of rolling out fabric said, "Here it is your Highness, . . . "We have worked night and day but, at last, the most beautiful fabric in the world is ready for you." The Emperor saw nothing and could not feel anything, but no one could find out he was stupid and incompetent. Moreover, the farce continued as the two scoundrels predicted. They took the measurements, and began cutting the air with scissors while sewing with their needles an invisible cloth. The bogus tailors then said, "Your Highness, you'll have to take off your clothes to try on your new ones." They draped the new clothes on him and then held up a mirror. The Emperor was embarrassed by his nakedness, but since none of his bystanders were, he felt relieved. The emperor raved about his beautiful, well made suit. The Prime minister requested that the Emperor show his constituencies his suit, as they were anxious to see it. Though doubtful about being naked before the people, he abandoned his fears. Dignitaries walked in front of the procession. All the people had gathered to get a good look, and applauded the regal procession. Everyone said, loudly so others could hear: "Look at the Emperor's new clothes. They're beautiful!" . . . a marvelous train!" [beautiful] colors! They tried to hide their disappointment. No one wanted to admit his or her own stupidity and incompetence. A child, with innocence and no job at stake, and who could only see as his eyes revealed things, said: "The Emperor is naked." His father reprimanded, and took his child away. Then everyone repeated: "The boy is right! The Emperor is naked! It's true!" The Emperor realized that the people were right but could not admit to that. He thought it better to continue the procession under the illusion, classic denial, determining that anyone who couldn't see his clothes was either stupid or incompetent. In addition, he stood stiffly on his carriage, while behind him a page held his imaginary mantle.

[4] In Hans Christian Andersen's fable, "The Emperor's New Clothes," an emperor seeks a new set of clothes, and processes in the nude, rather than admit he has been duped. Yet, he was naked before the world. The Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary stands at the brink of five decades toward its centennial year. Thus, in this time of appreciation for your great legacy and heritage, and as you ponder the future of this great school and your larger denomination, you stand naked. You have made yourself vulnerable by daring to inquire about "The Future of Lutheran Mission in the West." You have noted in your media materials that in California, for example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American, your denominational base, has about the same number of baptized members today that its predecessor churches had in 1965-despite the tremendous growth of this region. Second, you note that despite clear Lutheran commitments to multi-cultural ministry, you remain in the developmental stage regarding increasing diversity of peoples and languages in the modern West. While Lutherans engage in a great deal of national and global partnership, local conditions make a contextualized mission strategy for this region an urgent reality. My task is to be a prophetic voice, to help concretize the emperor's nakedness about multiculturalism and diversity in the Lutheran landscape, particularly in the United States.

[5] My presentation explores a prophetic response in answer to the Lutheran desire for, yet dilemma regarding, heightening the multicultural and diverse landscape of Lutheranism in America. I approach this complex catechetical, ethical, theological, cultural enigma by posing several questions: (1) Why would a racial/ethnic person want to be a Lutheran? (2) Why have some Lutherans decided to place multiculturalism on their agenda as an "urgent" matter? (3) Who are the current Lutherans in the 21st century? (4) What agenda can Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary set to accomplish a multicultural ethos and student body?

[6] I bring certain assumptions to this task. First, I am to provide answers to a hard question. Second, when people ask questions, usually they want a reliable, "truthful" answer, or they want assurance. I am not here to provide assurance, but to "trouble the waters." With the current regression in matters of civil rights and women's rights, with us punishing persons on welfare that make up 1% of the budget, but providing corporate America with sustained welfare and subsidies for airlines, etc., this is not the moment to make nice and placate. People are dying, within and outside of Lutheranism. My job then, is not to be the emperor, the prime minister, nor the waiting excited constituencies, but the voice of the child, of conscience that says, "the emperor has no clothes on."

Playing Hopscotch: Why as a person of color, be a Lutheran?

[7] The eyes of healthy children and elders see in fascinating ways. Children, unscathed by disappointment and cynicism, reflect back what they see and often what their elders expect. When a child falls and hurts him or herself, s/he checks to see the adult's reaction. If the adult panics, the child cries and wails as if s/he is in terrific pain. If the adult accepts that it happened and merely inquires about the child's wellbeing, the child will get a hug, or get the wound cleaned, and then go back to playing. Elders, having lived long, usually are not caught up in a need to please, so they too, give us the gift of honesty. Being honest about responding to the question of multiculturalism requires that we first understand the definition of the term.

[8] Gleaning from several dictionaries, multicultural has the following definitions: Of, relating to, or including several cultures; (2) relating to a number of different cultures, esp. to the traditions of people of different religions and races. (3) Including people who have different customs and beliefs; (4) Of or relating to a social or educational theory that encourages interest in many cultures within a society rather than in only a mainstream culture. Many would argue that multiculturalism is a politically correct mask for not dealing with race, and by association, racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, and ableism. That we discuss multiculturalism today indicates that there has not been enough interest in and inclusion of persons and traditions of cultures other than that of the Anglo Saxon persuasion within Lutheranism. Playing hopscotch, we move quickly through some of the other indicators of this lack of interest and inclusion. Thandeka, a Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian, would suggest that part of the problem lies in the reality that to succeed, persons of European extraction must "learn to be white."

[9] Thandeka's quest to write about whites and race defined her research and her observations. She realized that not only is no one born white in the United States, but that the first victims of racism in the white community are white children. Further, the violence of racist sentiments are sometimes motivated by personal shame. When Thandeka interviewed and did workshops with Euro-Americans across the United States, she sought to note how matters of racial self-identity coalesced with religious attitudes and then determined social behavior. She wanted to find out why Euro-Americans who do not self-define themselves as racists have such trouble describing themselves and other Euro-Americans in racial terms; that is, what are the feelings and emotions behind a Euro-American calling him or herself white. She listened to Euro-American adults tell early memories of racial identity formation. The more complex the person's answer tothis question, the deeper the sense of failure, fear, loss of self-respect, guilt, and shame.1  From her research and interviews she concluded that:

1. For many Euro-Americans being white is a "matter of survival," a penalty, an "internal price," not a privilege.
2. Every Euro-American person she interviewed could talk about when and how he or she began to think of him or herself as white.
3. "White shame" is the combination of contradictory racial statements, emotions, and mental states; the unresolved conflicts, guilt, and negative exposure Euro-Americans experience as children and adults, when breaking unspoken rules about engaging with Blacks
4. "The Euro-American child defines itself by creating a white racial identity for itself. It begins to think and act like its community's ideal of a white self."2    

[10] Thandeka explored the shame and guilt by inviting her respondents to play the Race Game, where one Euro-American describes him or herself to another Euro-American using the label "white," as a racial category. Most interviewees did not think of themselves as white, but they readily gave racial categories to those deemed outside of their hidden white community. Thandeka focused not on racial categories and prejudice per se, but she wanted to flesh out the way in which the "Euro-American child is socialized into a system of values that holds in contempt differences from the white community's ideals."3  This experience revealed the following:

  • The Race Game for Euro-Americans was intolerable because it exposed their experience of becoming white, which involved feelings of self-alienation, futility, emptiness.

  • Euro-Americans learned to think of themselves as white to avoid adversity with caregivers, peers, or communal authorities; this caused the self-destruction of their own value system, which she names white racial abuse.

  • When Euro-Americans do not act white enough, matters of race often flow into matters of class: status, social and sexual mores, demeanor, and respectability out of a colonial American ethos.

  • To belong, Euro-Americans have to become white. If not, the Euro-American child cannot develop a healthy sense of self-esteem. S/he will not receive unconditional love and affirmation from most white adults, and shame results; learning to be white ultimately is complicit in racist pathologies, because non-whites have to be made other by definition. Interestingly, most cultures have someone within their racial/ethnic they identify as an inferior other.4 

[11] Thandeka's cultural construct has theological and religious implications that concern the subject at hand. Her work makes us wonder about Lutheran parochialism. That is, has your own ideology disguised as your own theology prevented you from being open to these different voices?

[12] Before we can answer the question of why should a racial ethnic person be a Lutheran, one must first know the history of Lutherans in the world, and particularly in this country. In 1660, there were 4 Lutheran churches in colonial America, seven by 1700, 95 by 1740, and 240 churches by 1780. Clergy and laypersons of all colonial churches, including Lutherans, were slaveholders and slave traders. Waves of Lutheran immigration occurred in 1638 in the Delaware Valley. In the eighteenth century, 60,000 Germans arrived in Pennsylvania; and in the latenineteenth century, a large Scandinavian settlement arrived in the northern tier farmlands.5  From the revolution to the Civil War, strong ethnic loyalties helped to prevent assimilation, and thus inclusiveness, insuring the preservation of certain traditions. For example, established as a Lutheran Zion on the Mississippi, in 1847, the Missouri Synod Lutherans became the largest Lutheran synod in America by World War I due to several reasons. There was the leadership of those like Carl F. W. Walther; the critical blend of confessionalism and piety offered to German immigrants; and the way ethnic traditions were preserved. Note that well into the twentieth century, the Missouri Synod retained German language in seminary education. By 1930, Lutherans made up about 5.4% of the population, with 2.7% of that Lutheran population of 122 million U.S. residents being active Lutheran members. During the early twentieth century, there was a great deal of Protestant immigration from northern Europe, especially German, Scandinavian, and Dutch. Churches helped immigrants deal with the challenges of living in a new land and wrestling with the conflicts between old customs and becoming mainstream in the United States. Immigrants tended to be conservative; Catholic immigrants usually gravitated toward cities, and most northern European Protestants moved to the farmlands of the Midwest, the largest group of the latter being Lutheran. There were twenty-four separate Lutheran church organizations in American by 1900. By 1910, Lutherans were the fourth largest religious grouping, with dozens of Lutheran denominations and lots of change and mergers taking place. Despite the differences with languages, ethnic differences, degrees of Americanization, and geographical separation, most Lutherans had deep commitments to the Augsburg Confession and preserved their identity through separate school systems. By the 1960s, many of the formerly more isolated Christian bodies, moved toward fuller participation in the larger American landscape. Movement from inner-city enclaves to more affluent suburbs, and less and less use of European languages nurtured the forming of large unified denominations, as theAmerican Lutheran church in 1960 and the Lutheran Church in American, in 1962.6  In 1976, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches was formed at a meeting of Lutheran moderates in Chicago, who had broken with the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod over the body's insistence on a literal interpretation of the Bible. Like most denominations, Lutherans cover the spectrum and continuum regarding belief and practice. Lutherans have increased in numbers, diversified in specific tenets of belief, and have had strongholds in the Midwest. Let us now address some of these geographical realities, as "geography and scenery create a sense of place that pervades our perception of religion."7

[13] When exploring the geography of (U.S.) American religion, we study the social scenery, noting that particular locations and habitats attract certain types of people, which affects religion as an activity practiced by those particular groups. In early periods, Lutherans lived in the Upper Midwest farm belt, Baptists in the South, Roman Catholics in the Northeast, and Mormons in Utah and the other Rocky Mountain states. Today, the main strands of Lutheranism, based on theological and ideological differences, are the ECLA and Missouri Synod. Lutheranism remains predominantly, an ethnic or community church, and remains geographically concentrated. Based on the National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI), more than one third of the population of Minnesota and the Dakotas is Lutheran, with Wisconsin at 26%. Iowa, Nebraska, and Montana each have three times the national proportion of Lutherans, which is 5.2%, though migration during the late 20th century changed some of the overall distribution. According to Kosmin and Lachman, "Lutheranism is a moderate, formalistic Christian denomination not given to religious innovation or demonstrativeness. Lutheranism produces a sober, serious, industrious people, relatively tolerant but supportive of the political status quo. . . Lutherans take pride in their civic virtues and their strong sense of community, which their religion promotes."8  Interestingly, the geographical distribution of religious groups in California unfolds thus: Roman Catholic (13.29%), Lutheran (8.57%), Methodist (6.02%), Presbyterians (12.05%), Jewish (15.39%), Mennonite (8.07%), Buddhist (38.04%), Baptist (6.21%). What do these percentages tell us? Do these 1990 numbers indicate how one must orchestrate a program regarding multiculturalism? Kosmin and Lachman remind us that the differences between the truth and stereotypes regarding religion and ethnic origin are mammoth.

[14] In contemporary America, one must be cautious in assigning connections between religious preferences and ethnicity. While diversity and multiculturalism are desirable goals, this leads to stronger affirmation of ancestry and sometimes an overemphasis of the differences between groups of people without equal attention to the common denominators of being part of the human race. For example, in the 1990 NSRI poll, most Americans who claim French or Irish descent are not Catholic; most Asian Americans are Christian, most Arab Americans are not Muslim, and most American Muslims are not Arabs. Approximately 97% of the Lutherans are non-Hispanic whites. Among the larger churches, only the Jehovah's Witnesses have a racial ethic majority with 48% of their population identifying themselves as non-Hispanic whites. While the tendency to practice the religion of one's parents continues, this practice is less and less the tendency, though many still hold to the tradition. Immigrants of earlier generations embraced religion as a social factor of helping to decide "who one was," which means religion often sustained immigrant communities. Since an ethnic group designation is in flux, some Americans without strong ethnic ties increasingly tend to shift where religious identity is concerned, since they have fewer ties to cultural traditions.9  One must also be aware of historical religious traditions.

[15] For example, the reality of slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow, and the partially successful Civil Rights Movement affected the religious development of African Americans. While other venues of social expression were closed, the church became, and remains the most important Black community institution. Conversely, the 22 million plus Hispanic or Latino populations have no tradition of separatist or autonomous Hispanic church, about 2/3 identifying as Catholic. Many of the 1.8 million Native American people are re-embracing ancestral tribal religions. Apparently one in four or five Asian Americans is Catholic. Including traditionally eastern religions and other new age movements, there is much diversity around religion linked with ethnicity in the United States. "Ethnicity tends to take a historical, backward-looking view, whereas religion deals more with the future and the promise of individual salvation. Concern for ethnicity is essentially a concern about the point of origin, whereas religion is essentially about the point of destination."10

[16] Understanding points of origin and destination, one then needs to ask about Lutheran history regarding social, civil activism related to matters of race. For example, how visible were Lutherans in the American landscape of the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, the civil rights movement, and Japanese interment camps? Who were the targets of Lutheran mission work; that is, in particular, how did they address the immigration of non-European peoples?

[17] Richard Perry notes that when persons of color, particularly African Americans join European American denominations, all kinds of questions emerge: Are they Lutheran, or Methodist, or Baptist? Such questions become a personal affront when they assume that the theological perspectives African Americans bring with them are second-class. Perry notes one connection between these two populations, that of the two kingdoms for example, of law and gospel. This duality corresponds with the African American understanding of this world where freedom is worked out. The kingdom on the right refers to God's justification of the sinner while the gospel rules the other world in some African American thought. Given the African American experience of oppression, the other world is considered a time when slavery will not rule. Where the Lutheran focus on Romans 13 regarding submission to human authorities led to the public practice of quietism and social conservatism, African Americans have taken a stance of prophetic activism, focusing on building a world of freedom and transforming the structures of evil. Notably, among European American Lutherans, the Franckean Evangelical Lutheran Synod response was similar to that of African American prophetic response. The Franckean Synod's stance, both in its constitution and in a pamphlet called the "Fraternal Appeal" prohibits slavery, as a contaminator of Christian community.11  What then is critical in wrestling with the racism that is embedded in the very fiber of these United States, and why the Lutheran interest in multiculturalism?

On the playing field: Rationale for a Lutheran interest in Multiculturalism

[18] "Playing field" is a metaphor of exclusion or inclusion. Systemic, legislated oppression has made it possible for certain peoples to be called other, or scapegoated in the Girardian sense. After the 1960s, one of the outcries was that of reverse discrimination in response to Affirmative Action. The Franckean Synod's stance of universal brotherhood (and hopefully today universal sisterhood) gives warrant for Lutheran interest in diversity and equality for all people.

[19] For Lutherans, there is biblical, theological, and doctrinal warrant or justification for interest. Genesis 1:26, and the First Article of the Apostle's Creed laid the groundwork for the Fraternal Appeal. Since slavery was and racism is unjust, the Fraternal Appeal invoked Acts 5, obedience to God as further support. The theological and ethical imperatives of obedience to God and respecting the imago Dei in all persons calls one to remember the Emmaus Road experience, Luke 24, with questions of context and ethical witness, and the responsibility of being a Christian, like Cornelius (Acts 10). Cornelius could remain Roman or become Christian. To embrace other cultures within a landscape that reads exclusive, one must become acquainted with diverse ways of thinking, doing, and being: the epistemological, ontological, and existential, withoutneeding to participate in hegemonic discourse. Much soul searching needs to be done.12  Much learning needs to occur, particularly being aware of incidents that would indicate other wise. Here I cite two examples. First, the Rev. David Benke ignited great controversy in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for praying at a Yankee Stadiums' interfaith event after the terrorist attacks of the city. Not all persons will know the difference between ELCA and Missouri Synod.

[20] Second, according to A.L. Barry, President of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the denomination sought to respect the desires of African American members by having worship resources that would celebrate their particular cultural experiences and would be faithful to Lutheran theology and doctrine. In 1993, representatives from both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA) and The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod formed a committee to work on such a project. The committee, including two African Americans, found parts of the new hymnal, This Far By Faith, totally acceptable, and others not. Between the review committee and the Synod's Board for Black Ministry Services, This Far By Faith was not approved doctrinally for use in the congregations of the Missouri Lutheran Synod. The joint hymnal committee decided to hand the entire project over to the ELCA and the Augsburg Fortress Publishing House, Minneapolis, Minnesota. The denomination strongly encourages the exclusive use of doctrinally sound worship resources, but recognizes that other hymns may be viable for a particular congregation's worship, though the preference is that such hymnbooks not be the primary worship resource. The Synod does include a variety of cultural voices in its Hymnal Supplement, and will give high priority to cultural sensibilities in the new synodical hymnal that is being developed. Some of the misunderstandings relate to the sensibilities as in the spiritual "Oh, Freedom," and the notion of "before I'd be a slave, I'd be buried in my grave," over against the Lutheran understanding of being a slave for the Gospel.

[21] Other serious conversations need to involve the hidden and open agendas around political expedience, genuine desire, or guilt as motives for wanting to be more inclusive.

Pull out the Checkerboard: A Lutheran "Prototype" in the 21st Century

[22] Game boards are places of challenge, intrigue, camaraderie, and win/lose mentality. Such games, like new church programming involves strategies, patience, and much tenacity. Today's Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a membership of just under 5 million people and 11,000 churches. What is important to Lutherans must be determined by the body and introduced to the community of faith. Conversations need to be held with racial ethnic persons who are already Lutheran to seek their advice: to learn what they like and dislike about their church and why they joined in the first place. Other interrogation can then occur at the level of seminaries and denominational institutions, so that everyone is clear about who are the typical Lutherans, who might be interested in becoming Lutheran, and how those kinds of interchanges can occur. This includes everything from social and political affiliations, educational, socio-economic and cultural realities, and political interests. A good place to begin is to see PLTS as a place of vision and opportunity.

Gameboys and Chess: Charting and Strategizing PLTS agenda for a 21st Century Quest

[23] These games refer to manual and mental agility and dexterity: the stuff of change and transformation. If PLTS is serious about diversity, then the first thing that needs to happen is to tell the truth. Look at the success or lack thereof of the former multicultural institute at PLTS. This institute was closed by 2002. Who supported it? Who did not? And why? Do you really want to see significant changes in the color scheme of PLTS and ultimately the related churches, or do you really only want to do window dressing?

[24] Second, are you willing to make the hard commitments, and face possibly losing funding from those who really want to maintain a Scandinavian Zion? Are you prepared to update liturgy, ritual, and ways of being and doing at the seminary and in the Lutheran church that would change substantively if you had more persons of color who are most often seen around the Equator, who are more festive and energetic? Do you want this?

[25] If so, these are some of the questions that must be asked: Are you willing to recruit racial ethnic students and pay for them to get PhDs so that they can help recruit others, to insure that you have persons of color in denominational leadership? Are you willing to analyze how you engage in enculturation and what is the Lutheran mindset? Are you willing to deal with internal matters of oppression? Are you willing to garner the support to make a difference? What if you fail? What if you succeed? The emperor's new clothes were nil. What is the state of your new clothes?


End Notes

1  Thandeka, Learning to Be White: Money, Race, and God in America (New York: Continuum, 2000), 1-7, 13.

2  Ibid., 11-13.

3  Ibid., 17.

4  Ibid., 15-40, 102-112, 242-262.

5  Barry A. Kosmin and Seymour P. Lachman, One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society (New York: Harmony Books, 1993), 58.

6  Mark A. Noll, et. al, Christianity in America: A Handbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1983), 91, 97, 242, 355, 365-366).

7  Kosmin and Lachman, 48.

8  Ibid., 60.

9  Ibid., 114-116.

10  Ibid., 156.

11  Richard J. Perry, Jr., "African American Lutheran Ethical Action: The Will to Build," pp. 82, 90-92, in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, eds. Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme (Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress Press, 1998).

12  Ibid., 92-94.



© September 2004
Journal of Lutheran Ethics 
Volume 4, Issue 9