Saturday, January 21, 2012

The White, Middle Class Captivity of our Denomination

Two books I've read this week have changed me, permanently. Emily Dickinson said of poetry,

"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"

Much the same can be said of theology. So imagine me with the top of my head off right now.

I've always known that are our denomination was too white, and too middle class. There's something about Christian faith in the United States that seems to reinforce race categories rather than reduce them. This is a tragedy of immense proportions precisely because central to the gospel is the reconciliation of races and ethnicities.

Sports, businesses, schools, you name it, all of them are more racially integrated than the churches, especially mainline Protestant churches, of which general class our denomination is a member.

So I read with fear and trembling James Cone's new book, The Cross the Lynching Tree. Really if you read only one piece of theologically informed non-fiction this year, make it this one. Among other things, Cone draws our attention to the fact that no one, not one single theologian of note in the last century, has ever drawn a sustained comparison between the innocent suffering of those lynched in the United States, and the cross/lynching of Jesus Christ.

Even at the height of the lynching era, when liberal Protestant theologians could have and should have made it at least one part of their theologies of the cross, they did not. It was and remains a glaring oversight, and example of how wide the racial divisions are and continue to be.

I do not intend to point any fingers here. I live in a predominately white and middle class neighborhood, have served churches that include the same constituency, and went to schools that were also predominately filled with this race and class. I have failed on so many levels, the best I can do is simply note this issue and pray that the Spirit will change me, and change us as a church.

As a church, we keep lamenting that we are a shrinking denomination, and we think this is because we've lost our identity and missional impulse. But what if in fact we are shrinking because we are in captivity to white middle-classness?

Stephanie Spellers, in a short essay in another new book recently out (The Hyphenateds: How Emerging Christianity Is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices) asks the very hard question, "Is the emerging church movement a white church movement?" She herself leads an Angli-mergent community in Boston, and is a black woman priest.

Here's the paragraph that took the top of my head off:

"Looking back, mainline churches can boast a historic commitment to social justice, reconciliation, and even antiracism, at times standing in the vanguard of cultural and social change. Those days of leading change have passed, and now we are scrambling to catch up. The irony is that, as I have interviewed and consulted with church leaders about the systemic decline of the mainline churches, many say we are suffering because we forgot who we are, chasing trends and watering down our traditions so much that there was nothing left for anyone to believe in or connect with. Research shows we've shrunk because we make up a mostly white, upper-middle-class church [Episcopalian, but Lutherans are close to this, if a little more solidly middle class], and that particular slice of America stopped growing at the very same time that other racial and cultural groups blossomed. The problem isn't that we let go of our identity. It's that we clung to it too tightly. As our neighborhoods changed, and hybridity became the rule, we came to look like cultural dinosaurs; suspicious of change, judgmental of emerging cultures, and incapable of venturing out to build relationships in the transformed cultures around us" (13).

Read that again three times and memorize it. It's one of the truest things I've ever read about us as mainline Protestants.

And the only way to bust out of captivity is to break the chains that bind us and leave our prison cells. Which means openness to change, loving engagement with emerging cultures, and venturing out to build relationships with people of other ethnic, racial, economic, and religious status.

Where is the top of your head now?


  1. Anonymous6:20 PM

    The call IS to "follow me," and we are all going to hear it tomorrow morning if we follow the RCL. There's Jonah running away and then angry because those Ninevites… he knew they'd repent. And there's Jesus saying 'I'm going to cause you to become fishers of a new kind…" It's a leap to make to follow that invitation. Surely in every age, the body of Christ has failed. What do we expect? We're Lutherans! We know sin. Cone is right, of course. The church is or ought to be forever "emerging." Nothing new there. Pray for wisdom. –– Melinda Quivik (I'm not really anonymous, but I don't understand the other profile options)

  2. Thank you for raising some vitals concerns...even if they are not absotootly ULTIMATE ones. They still have the sense of power of the Cross and our call to serve!

  3. Thanks, Melinda, for tying this in to lectionary. One person who responded to this blog post said that Lutherans are great at confession of sin, but not so great at actual repentance, change. I'm calling us to the second part of that, and myself as well.

    Dave, I've been convinced by recent theologians on race (especially J. Kameron Carter's Race: A Theological Account) that this IS an ultimate concern.

  4. thank you thank you thank you. this is the best thing you have done in a long time. I have been "dry" on blogging, and hoping to get back to it. I've been thinking a lot about this. especially since today I listened to 17 candidates for bishop in the Minneapolis Area Synod.

  5. Diane, I'm glad it is helpful. Of course the low self-esteem part of me thought, "Wait, what was wrong with the stuff that came before...?" :)

  6. Anonymous9:41 PM

    I guess I only get part of it. According to the US Census we have 312Million people in the US and they are 72% White, 12% Black, 5% Asian. So 72% of 300 Million is still a whole heck of a lot of people that could be in church that are not.

  7. Well, you've left out the large Latino community, but the point is quite different than just getting a lot of people in church. It's about reconciliation in Christ, which should look like various races, ethnicities, and social classes being in worship together, not in separate places.

  8. Anonymous1:52 PM

    By clinging, instead of preserving, we end up strangling. And the fact we continue to make over Jesus as white and middle class, watering down who he was and what he said so that it fits in our comfort zone and we keep him in chains!

  9. Anonymous11:17 PM

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I read it three times and am thus thrice headless. We know where Jesus would be and it would not be in the Lutheran nor Episcopal Church pews, maybe rather in the community meals kitchen, or in the tent city preaching love for the poor. The gospel message is never quaint or calming, it should always push us out of the pew into serving the least of these. Our social circles must expand their boundaries, obliterate them really, if we are to live our faith. You go, pastor Clint!


    1. jim c3:08 PM


      I must ask: "What, exactly, is "the Gospel message"? I have a hunch that you are talking more about Law than Gospel, but I'll wait until I see your response before deciding for sure.

      We Lutherans believe that Jesus tells us where he will be, it is in church, but on the altar, rather than in the pews, at least on Sunday morning. He is filling our "empty bags" with the "Gospel message" of grace, forgiveness and mercy for us to pass out during the week as we tell others about Jesus and what He has done for us.

    2. Anonymous12:38 PM

      Ah yes, Christ is on the altar, in my faith too, present in the bread and the wine, the body and the blood. What I was referring to was the portion of the blog that Clint said knocked his head off. It is the social gospel lesson. Jesus states follow me, so my sense of following Jesus is that yes we receive grace, forgiveness, mercy at the altar, but we follow Jesus in serving the least of these. I do believe there is also communion when following Jesus, outside of the church. Expanding the social circle will allow the least of these to experience the grace, forgiveness, mercy that you find at the altar in their lives and circumstances, simply where they are. Often times you don't even have to tell others about Jesus. Your presence reflecting that stance of love, compassion, gentleness, will teach them volumes about Jesus.


  10. Anonymous6:37 PM

    The unforigiveable sins in our white middle class churches are the cultural "no-nos" of middle class life - lack of success, unpaid debt, alcoholism or addiction. The sins that are easily forgiven and overlooked are part of white middle class life: racism, greed, adultery, and divorce. Even among clergy, the ordained get away with middle class sins but are shunned if they don't keep their finances in order or suffer from addiction.