Monday, August 31, 2015

Martin Luther, MLK Jr., and Worker Justice

by Alexia Salvatierra

Economic justice was not one of Martin Luther’s primary passions, nor has the Lutheran church been
consistently at the forefront of the fight for economic justice. However, the core beliefs of Lutheran theology clearly support the struggle for fair wages and benefits in the workplace. At the core of Lutheran theology is the call to faith in a God whose love is unimaginably great, broad, deep and full. God’s love embraces all aspects of our physical and emotional lives. God intends that we have “everything required to satisfy our bodily needs, such as food and clothing, house and home, fields and flocks, money and property.” Martin Luther saw the process of obtaining what we need, our labor, as a holy act when performed in faith and gratitude; “picking up a piece of straw” could be equal in God’s eyes to formal prayer and study (Treatise on Good Works).

While Luther emphasized the internal stance of the individual and the individual’s existential relationship with God as primary concerns, he unquestionably expected faith in God’s grace to result in righteous action. In his small and large catechisms, he painted a passionate picture of the kinds of behavior that would arise from faith – including the arena of labor relations. Luther’s exegesis of the seventh commandment (Thou shalt not steal) includes the following passage:

“For to steal is nothing else than to get possession of another’s property wrongfully, which briefly comprehends all kinds of advantage in all sorts of trade to the disadvantage of our neighbor. To steal is to signify not only to empty our neighbor’s coffer and pockets, but to be grasping in the market ... wherever there is trading or taking and giving of money for merchandise or labor. Therefore they are also called swivel-chair robbers, land- and highway-robbers, not pick-locks and sneak-thieves who snatch away the ready cash, but who sit on the chair [at home] and are styled great noblemen, and honorable, pious citizens, and yet rob and steal under a good pretext.
No more shall all the rest prosper who change the open free market into a carrion-pit of extortion and a den of robbery, where the poor are daily overcharged, new burdens and high prices are imposed, and every one uses the market according to his caprice, and is even defiant and brags as though it were his fair privilege and right to sell his goods for as high a price as he please, and no one had a right to say a word against it.”

Luther clearly sees from the perspective of an independent producer, a small businessman, whose experience of being robbed by the powerful is primarily connected to price gouging. However, the heart of his accusations would apply equally to the modern multinational corporations that seek profit at the expense of people not primarily by raising prices but rather by lowering wages. The core violation of “using the market according to his caprice as though it were his fair privilege and right” is as characteristic of WalMart as it was of the noblemen of Luther’s time.

Luther also believed it was clearly the job of political decision-makers to protect the rights of their constituency. His doctrine of “two kingdoms” recognized that even human beings who have faith do not always live in accordance with their faith and that most people do not automatically treat one another with the love and respect called for by the Gospel. We all live in two worlds, the emerging world in which the law is written on the heart and people treat each other well out of love, and the old order in which it is necessary to intentionally ensure respect for human rights through civil authority. As Luther continues in the commentary on the seventh commandment:

“... to check such open wantonness there is need of the princes and government, who themselves would have eyes and the courage to establish and maintain order in all manner of trade and commerce, lest the poor be burdened and oppressed nor they themselves be loaded with other men’s sins.”

While Luther could not have envisioned a world in which every citizen had the right and duty to participate actively in political decision-making, we can see that in a modern democracy, we all have power and authority in the political realm and we all need the “eyes and the courage to establish and maintain” correct order in the economic sphere. When we campaign for living wage legislation or conditions on Big Box development, we seek to ensure an economic order that does not allow the poor to be burdened and oppressed. Unions are another modern structure through which workers can exercise legitimate power and authority in the public sphere to ensure protection of their rights.

These modern structures and the responsibilities that accompany them are recognized in a Resolution of the ELCA Church-wide Assembly in 1991 that reads, “The ELCA commits itself to advocacy with corporations, businesses, congregations, and church-related institutions to protect the rights of workers, support the collective bargaining process and protect the right to strike.”

However, while Luther would have supported those with legitimate authority acting in the public realm to protect workers’ rights, he would have seen clergy as having a different role. Luther saw the work of clergy as belonging to the second realm, the kingdom of God. The heart of that work, for Luther, was proclamation – the speaking of the truth that transforms. When religious leaders in interfaith worker justice committees utilize their moral authority to call business and political leaders to accountability to the scriptural vision of economic justice, they are fulfilling Luther’s understanding of their calling to speak the Word of God.

Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, an ELCA pastor, is executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) in Los Angeles.

National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice •

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Six ways to love people who are really, really wrong

People around me do things or say things that are wrong. I know they're wrong. They're embarrassing, dangerous, hurtful, and if they keep it up, I'm going to have to move to Canada.

Some of them are politicians, and they're on television. Lots of them are on Facebook. It's like I can't escape. No matter where I turn, people are wrong.

How do I live with these people? Here are six possible moves.

Get a grip on the actual shape of forgiveness. There are a number of things forgiveness isn't. Forgiveness is not victims letting the offender off the hook. Forgiveness is not a hegemony of harmony. Forgiveness is not forgetting, regaining automatic trust, ignoring the offense, restoring the same relationship, or removal of consequences. Perhaps one reason we have trouble loving people who are wrong or have wronged us are false assumptions about how forgiveness and reconciliation work in our relationship with others.

Forgiveness is a choice, moving forward, dropping resentment and judgment, the removal of an emotional burden for the person forgiving, a step towards healing for the forgiver, and letting go of revenge. Moving forwards towards justice and repair is different from revenge. Justice more than getting even; it's the rebuilding of right relationship and community.

Realize that our moral commitments are like flavor sensors. If the current presidential campaign illustrates nothing else, it illustrates the extent to which different people can take the exact set of data and experiences and come to radically different conclusions. It's as if we live in two worlds, two Americas. At least in part, this may be because we literally sense the world morally in different ways. Although awareness of this will not change our tastes, it will raise our empathy, realizing that others are tasting the moral universe differently than we are. There are ways to disagree more constructively.

Practice rationality. This may seem overly trite or pedantic, but all of us could do better, constantly, at logic. Many of the conversations that fall apart in person or online fall apart as we increasingly resort to irrationality and logical fallacies. So, review some, and start avoiding them. You will be surprised how freeing this is. Oh, and remember, the best move is to avoid them yourself. It doesn't always go that well to point out specifically logical fallacies others are making while they make them.

Sometimes silos make good neighbors. You know that thing you do where you just look away, or block posts from that person, or decide you just aren't going to debate partisan politics with your zealous uncle? Sometimes, that's a good move. Talk about the weather instead. Read stuff that doesn't make steam come out of your ears. Focus on the good, and the positive you share in common with many.

Do it anyway. Everything inside you is screaming, "I can't forgive this person. I can't even love them, and that sign or flag they have in their front yard, I want to tear it down and burn it in a giant pyrrhic inferno. Well, that will feel satisfying for about ten minutes, until you're arrested. So instead, just do what seems impossible. Remember, God specializes in impossibilities, anyway. Christ encouraged things like praying for our enemies. So just go for it.

Anyway (from Zero Church by Suzy and Maggie Roche)

People are often unreasonable, illogical,
and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, People may accuse you
of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some
false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank,
people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building, someone
could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness,
they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today,
people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have,
and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you've got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis,
it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway

Author unknown, music by Maggie and Suzzy

Finally, just watch this movie. It's a documentary, I know, not quite as exciting as The Avengers. But I watched it a few years ago with my congregation, and plan to do so again, because it changed my life. The stories are powerful. Even more powerful than the stories, forgiveness is a psychological process that has a specific shape, and being intentional about practice forgiveness is powerful and healing, not just mentally, but physically and socially. Apparently Jesus was on to something when he put forgiveness at the center of his ministry of healing and shalom.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Human First, Then Christian

This past weekend during worship, I opened space in the sermon for a time of question and answer with the congregation. Although I don’t do this every week, I do find it fruitful, first because people arrive at church with questions, and this gives them a chance to hear a message that connects to their questions. Second because it teaches me more about the spiritual needs of those attending worship Sunday mornings.

The questions were diverse. How can I gain forgiveness from my neighbor? Why did people in Genesis live so long? In an inter-religious world, what does it mean to say that Jesus is the savior? 

A significant number of the questions, however, seemed to be chasing after a common theme. The theme was focus, of prioritizing the right things. In the modern world, how can I know that I’m focusing my religious energies in the right direction? In a complicated world, how do I know my political or social commitments are truly focused on love of neighbor?

Lots of us are chasing after these kinds of questions, and at certain moments in history, this kind of question has found particular poignancy. For example, you have that great question asked of Jesus: What is the greatest commandment? And his response: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. A simple and memorable answer, but one that takes a lifetime and more to live into.

Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and great Lutheran theologian, put it another way: Purity of heart is to will one thing. That’s easy to say, and difficult to live. Nevertheless, even if it is difficult, it is worth spending a lifetime pursuing, to invest a life in purifying the heart in order to will the one thing worth willing.

Another great Danish thinker, NFS Grundtvig, a pastor and educational reformer who I admire, had a motto: Human first, then Christian. As important as liturgy and sacraments and religious life were to Grundtvig, he believed as a person committed to the humanities and the good of all people, that the commitment to be human and humane together always took precedent over specific Christian commitments. 

I believe, in fact, that Grundtvig would have argued that anything we think is Christian that doesn’t treat the human as human is actually not Christian. These two cannot be at odds. Christian faith, if it is anything at all, is faith in the One who arrives as the fully human one Jesus Christ, in order to make humanity even more human. 

I believe this singularity of focus can assist all of us, at any time, as we go about our daily work, engage in political discourse, play games, make art, consume culture, raise families, act as neighbors. In every instance, we can test what we do, what we believe, how we vote, against the fundamental dictum: Human first, then…

As a Christian, I happen to think there is an aspect of discerning the truly human that has a religious component. Another famous Christian, Augustine, summarized the Great Commandment of Jesus Christ in even shorter fashion. Augustine said: Love God, and do what you will. Augustine believed that a person who rightly loves God will then automatically find themselves doing that which fulfills the rest of the great commandment, to love the neighbor. 

I think this is right. Inasmuch as we get our relationship right with the ultimate, with God, we are more likely to be rightly disposed towards our neighbors, and love them.

On the other hand, if your political or religious commitments have you dehumanizing someone, say by writing them off because they are an immigrant, then not only are your ethics distorted—your faith is distorted also. People are not first of all citizens of any particular nation, we are not separated by the countries in which we were born. These are rather arbitrary designations associated with the kinds of papers we received at our birth.

No, first of all we are human. Human first, then Mexican, or Canadian, or a citizen of the United States. We share one planet, and are all part of a shared humanity. Human first.

This is also why I find something like the #sayhername Twitter hashtag campaign so compelling. In a world that has hyper-politicized our life together, it is a call from, in particular, women of color, to remind us, these are real people, real women, with real names, with families, human beings made in the image of God who have died, often in tragic situations, because of dehumanizing systems. 

Our shared work, if we are willing to accept it, is to live into the great humanist motto of Grundtvig: Human first, then… Easy to say, but a commitment of a lifetime.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

ELCA Pledges to Partner with African Methodist Episcopal Church

Dear sisters and brothers,

The bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church have issued a statement and call to action to recognize Sunday, Sept. 6, as “Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” The African Methodist Episcopal Church is a longtime ELCA dialogue and ecumenical coalition partner. I responded to them pledging our support and stating that I would invite our bishops, pastors and leaders to participate in this effort, especially by preaching on racism and racial justice in church and society. This is a way to accompany our sisters and brothers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and to continue in our own church the conversation about racism.

I believe we are experiencing a kairotic moment. Something is happening in our church and in our country. Many of us are hearing and seeing in ways we haven’t before, and we are motivated to take action. Participating in “Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday” is a start. This link connects you to ELCA worship resources under the litergy tab for Sunday, Sept. 6. You can also find more information and resources from the African Methodist Episcopal Church here. I encourage you to reach out to a nearby African Methodist Episcopal congregation to build relationships together.

ELCA members, congregations and groups are also warmly invited to participate in the events in Washington, D.C., Sept. 1-2 that will launch the “Liberty and Justice for All” movement. For more information, please click here. The link to RSVP is here.

The road to ending racism is long and hard, but we are not alone. Jesus walks with us. Let's take this step together.

Thank you for your ministry.

The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton
Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Anchor Babies

Anchor babies: Apparently this is now what some politicians call children of undocumented migrants. As if babies are a conspiracy. Truth is, all babies are anchor babies. Hopefully, the joy and beauty of children would anchor us in awareness of our shared humanity. I say we start calling every baby an anchor baby. Every one beloved of God.

Interested in reading more? Consider this essay on baptism and immigration

Friday, August 21, 2015

From the Turing Test to the Eunuch Test

The Turing Test famously set the bar for intelligent machine behavior. If their conversation was indistinguishable from human conversation, they pass. Humans judge whether they pass, so it is highly subjective, if also compelling in its simplicity. The test is played out in a recent and remarkably austere film this year, Ex Machina.

Most AI researchers believe the Turing Test works well as a thought experiment, but fails miserably as the guide for research programs actually developing thinking, reasoning, learning machines with a deep understanding of the world.

So if not the Turing Test, then what? In religious perspective, robots raise basic and important anthropological questions. What and who are human beings? So the contemporary quest to imagine AI serve as metonymy for the larger identity-quest that is a mark of human striving for self-understanding.

In this sense, films like Transcendence, or Chappie, or series like Battlestar Galactica or Agents of Shield, offer imaginative space to ask some of the basic question: Who are we? If we become more than us, or different than us, are we still us?

They also raise basic ethical questions. How should we treat robots when they arrive, if they are like us? What if they once were us, but have transitioned their neural map to a digital domain? And then they change? How should we treat them?

Eventually, though, people of faith end up asking religious questions about robots. One of the more intriguing might be, Can they be baptized? Can they receive communion? One of my favorite novels that explores this perspective, but in relation to aliens rather than robots, is The Book of Strange New Things.

In this novel, it is not a missionary who takes the gospel to another alien race, but rather the alien race requests and demands that somebody bring the gospel to them.

Which leads me to introduce what I am calling the Eunuch Test. If you remember, in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 8, one of the apostles, Philip, encounters an Ethiopian Eunuch on the road home from Jerusalem.
"As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:37-39)
The basic problem of the Turing Test--it puts the decision about the supposed "humanity" of the AI in the hands of humans. We get to be the judge. But wait for the day when an AI, an alien, any kind of stranger, approaches us, and asks to be received as human, and we are put in a completely different space. Rather than serving as judge and jury, we are invited to consider, "What is to keep me from accepting this being's own perspective and journey as valid and worthwhile?"

Notice it is the Eunuch, not Philip, who asks the question. What is to keep me? And Philip has no answer other than to drop everything and baptize the eunuch on the spot.

So this day may arrive, who knows, when an AI asks a similarly interesting question. And after all our hemming and hawing about what counts as human, and whether or not those created in the image of God, if they create something themselves that surprises them in its humanity, get to decide how human they are.

When the robots arrive, we'll have to take up our concerns directly with them. Don't come asking me my opinion. What is to keep them from...?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Speaking Out About Racism in the #ELCA

If you read just one article this week, let it be this one. Francisco Herrera​ takes as his inspiration Rozella White​'s blog from this summer about her experience of speaking out after Charleston. In addition to the power of this article simply on race & faith grounds, it is also a powerful meditation on Luther's Heidelberg Disputations. Please read. Here it is.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Liturgy

If I close my eyes and reminisce, the physical spaces I can best recollect, viscerally, are, of course, the rooms of our family home. After that, next on the list, are the places I regularly stood or sat for the liturgy.

I grew up worshipping from the third to last pew on the pulpit side of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. I often occupied this space with my parents, grandparents, and siblings. Other relatives were spread throughout the sanctuary. It was a big congregation, still is, so many others were, though not blood relatives, brothers and sisters in Christ, the extended family of the church.

Inhabiting that space week after week did something to me. I still carry the effects in my body, literally. I do not need to open a hymnal in order to chant any of the three liturgies included in the Lutheran Book of Worship. Just loft a few notes on the organ, and I'm in. My brain has been permanently inscribed by the the repeated exercise of that familiar liturgy.

By the time I was in high school, I often sub-vocalized the assisting minister and presider parts, one of many early signs I had that perhaps pastoral ministry was my calling.

St. Paul was also a choir church. I sang in a Sunday school choir, a middle school choir, and a high school choir. Our high school choir even toured the Midwest. We took our anthem preparations seriously. I was at church every Sunday morning for worship and Sunday school, every Sunday evening for youth group, and every Wednesday night for choir.

It was in that choir that I learned many of the songs our denomination has grown into, perhaps especially African hymnody that has come into the songbook of the global church via the ecumenical movement. I have Bishop Mike Rinehart to thank for the exposure to those fantastic songs of the church. He was my youth pastor, and choir director.

Why do I tell you all this? Well, lately I have been pondering liturgy. Of course I ponder liturgy all the time. I'm a pastor, after all. My current congregation, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, has a rich pattern for liturgical and contemporary worship, facilitated by an amazing set of volunteers (a band and tech support) at the contemporary service, and led by the multi-talented Dr. Robert Mueller with multiple ensembles and instrumentalists at the traditional.

This shift to hosting contemporary worship is something I did not even imagine when I was young. I saw it emerge at St. Paul some time in my seminary years. Now St. Paul has a contemporary service also, attended by a significant percentage of the congregation. My brother sings in the praise band.

Congregations haven't always known what to do with this development in the diversity of worship styles in their own congregations. Sometimes they have approached it as an either/or rather than a both/and.

Going back to my own formative years as a child, one reason I have never struggled at all with the diversity of styles of worship in the church is simple: I spent every summer at camp. So I learned the chant, high liturgy on Sundays during the year, and in the summer I learned the liturgy of guitar, campfire, and s'mores (and mosquitoes).

I still sing songs I learned at that campfire as part of our bedtime routine with our own children. Like the chant of the liturgy, those songs are written on the neurons of my plastic brain. I have the feeling that even if all my other capacities slip away, I'll probably still be able to pray the Lord's Prayer automatically, and sing Father, I Adore You.

Liturgy is a mysterious thing. I'm often reminded of those famous words of Annie Dillard in Holy the Firm:
The higher Christian churches - where, if anywhere, I belong - come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.
Yes, this is how we approach liturgy most Sundays. We enter that room, break that bread, wind up that organ, and safely assume God will not strike us down. Perhaps this is why liturgical church is, to some degree, intentionally boring. As another great essayist, James Alison, has it:
When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it's supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It's a long term education in becoming un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn't abstract from our present or our surroundings or our neighbour, but which increases our attention, our presence and our appreciation for what is around us. The build up to a sacrifice is exciting, the dwelling in gratitude that the sacrifice has already happened, and that we've been forgiven for and through it is, in terms of excitement, a long drawn-out let-down.
Liturgy is intentionally underwhelming so as not to be confused with the build-up of sacrifice. Perhaps here we might say that a sacrifice in contemporary idiom might be a college football game, or a presidential election, or...

All of that being said, there are more and less compelling ways to host liturgy. Although the beauty of structured liturgy is its rote, familiar repetition, there is a way to speak and sing the liturgy that teases out the sublimity of non-identical repetition. I hope to keep singing setting II of the LBW (which is now setting IV in the ELW) for decades to come, but my deepest hope for liturgy is to sing it so it is the same/not the same.

I think choirs and those who practice liturgical music get this. They rehearse specific refrains, lines, over and over, considering the nuance of the same lines sung not the same way. It's about tone, and breath, and pause.

This is why I often wonder what those who don't sing in worship get from the church's song. Like any other discipline, there's that stage where you simply don't know what you don't know. Our music director writes many of his own anthems for the choir to sing. I recognize the beauty of the music he writes. But since I haven't written much music, I'm sure there's quite a lot I don't notice as clearly as those who do write music.

They say there are health benefits to singing in a choir. This makes sense. The intentionality of being with others engaging in a shared task, breathing together, praising together, it is like communal meditation.

The congregation also benefits from a choir. We all sound better with a choir undergirding us. Like any art, the heights of what is possible are scaled by those who are intentional, persistent, long-suffering, and hearty. To scale such great heights, to approach the throne of God, requires a humility dressed in song.

I think worship has been made even more complex in these latter days by what I guess we might as well call globalization. I don't know if many congregations can keep doing what my home church did when I was growing up. The chant and style of worship at that time assumed a homogeneity of culture that no longer exists. With the decline of such homogeneity, there is a loss. The loss is the less frequent possibility of being able to travel from place to place and find pretty much the same thing you have back home.

But the gain is an experience of the breadth of culture the gospel can inhabit in its varied multiplicity. Although we will all, by nature of our brains, have particular styles of worship that are closer, literally, to our hearts, it is the nature of the global church that it is teaching our hearts to sing the tunes that others cherish in praise of the One God, in ways that resonate with our own.

This, at least in part, is liturgy.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Multiple Consciousness: Challenging the Sloth of White Theology

Early in his book The Politics of Jesús: A Hispanic Political Theology, Miguel A. De La Torre, Cuban professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology, tells the story of of being pulled over on a drive to New York City for being "under the influence" of being Hispanic. Similarly, when he was younger, a teen working at Burger King, he was stopped and frisked while walking home after his night shift. Both were examples of ethnic profiling.

Neither encounter ended badly, and De La Torre remembers having a rather complex reaction to the events, puzzled to have been stopped but also thankful to the police for keeping his community and streets safe. It was only much later in his life that he realized his own perspective on those encounters, and therefore his self-understanding, were deeply shaped by forces outside of him. "My mind was so colonized that I did not, I could not, see how my identity was being constructed through the gaze of those in authority" (22).

All members of oppressed communities share this in common, to some degree or another: they know how to think out of their own cultural consciousness, and they have learned, been taught, have had forced upon them, the consciousness of the dominant culture also. They exercise at the very least a double consciousness.

De La Torre offers this example: "Religion scholars of color are required to master the theological and ethical analysis of Euroamericans in order to be awarded a coveted PhD, while no one from the dominant culture needs to learn anything about the Hispanic margins to earn that same degree. One can argue therefore that Latino/as (along with all who are marginalized) hold an epistemological privilege over and against Euroamericans. This does not mean they are smarter or holier, just that they master the world of the dominant culture and their own marginalized spaces. Hence, their understanding of Jesus is much broader, richer, thicker, and more complex than those who only master the official Eurocentric canon. The multiple consciousness possessed by the disenfranchised generally makes their perspectives closer to any type of 'truth' that the opinions and views of those who benefit from how society is structured" (17)

I remember vividly sitting in the seminary library memorizing Hebrew vocabulary with classmates from places like Madagascar and India. Not only had these students learned at the very least two languages in addition to their heart language (such as their regional dialect, plus the national language and English to study in the United States); they also needed to learn all the languages required by the Eurocentric canon, which in almost all cases includes German and French. Plus the biblical languages.

The other languages they had already learned did not "count." But more significantly, I as a white student born in the United States was not required to learn any of the languages my international student classmates had learned to earn the degrees they were earning.

This is an example of the extent to which our culture still quietly but surely oppresses those on the margins.

Noticing this teaches me something, if I will listen. Nobody will require me to do anything about it. This is the leisure and freedom inherent to being born into the dominant culture. Significantly, I was not required to read anything at all from the liberation theology canon while in seminary, though I was required to read 'white' systematic theology and the Lutheran confessional documents. But it would be the height of dominant culture privilege to blame my own seminary for not getting the academic training and personal experience I need to overcome my own white fragility. I mean seriously, I have libraries and can travel.

I can take responsibility to do something about any lacunae in my training myself. And I should. I have no excuse not to. I can avoid what I might call white sloth, the sin most endemic to white supremacy.

The form of this responsibility is straightforward--seek multiple consciousness. Listen long and hard enough to inhabit, inasmuch as possible, the perspective of the disenfranchised from their own perspective. Not to colonize it. Not to change it. But instead to learn, as best I can, how to accompany disenfranchised communities in their shared life living in the way of Jesús.

This is why I'm reading De La Torre's book right now. It's why I try to read lots of theologians, be they Palestinian, or African-American, or women, or gender queer. Because as a white male, it will take lots of work, even more work than the disenfranchised, who gain multiple consciousness as a matter of course in their regular lives, for me to be able to think from the perspective of those who are not white and male.

Of course, the more typical way white males attempt to buttress their consciousness is by doubling down on what they already know. The dominant culture enjoys nothing more than attempting to make their single consciousness so thick that they can assume it is the perspective of the whole world. If you want proof, look no further than Donald Trump.

But those on the margins can see this for what it really is--a kind of weak-minded timidity, so thin as to be almost transparent. All the bluster is a flimsy facade.

What I love about De La Torre's new book is its focus on Jesús as Hispanic. Nothing can prepare a white reader for an awareness of how white their Jesus is than reading this book. By the time you finish the book, you are exposed to a Jesús who was colonized, lived the migrant experience, grew up in the barrio, was poor, and, in my favorite new term from the book, an ajiaco. This term, a kind of soup, which ethnographer Fernando Ortiz first used to describe the Cuban diverse experience, will stay with me.

Notice that in the gospels, Jesús frequently speaks in a language outside the dominant language of empire. The gospels quote this often. He speaks Aramaic most frequently, and in a way similar to Spanglish or other bilingual communities, the gospels periodically quote this Aramaic mixed with the Greek.

Here's a funny thing. When lectors read these texts in worship, these short phrases, the Aramaic, are the terms most frequently dropped or avoided by readers. I doubt anyone does this maliciously, they're probably just uncomfortable with pronunciation, but it does illustrate the point. Those who speak the dominant language, those who have ever only learned one language, are deeply uncomfortable allowing their tongues to speak "not their language."

And yet Jesús does. As the living word, his words cannot be contained by Greek, or Latin, or English. Jesús will always sound like the people he is.

Here's a subtle distinction: if you are troubled by the loud protestations of minority communities about their plight under the structures of empire... and notice that even "loud" as an adjective there serves notice of an assumed bias... let me suggest this. You don't have to immediately jump across the aisle and agree with them. But if you are a member of, enjoy the privileges of, the dominant culture, in order to stand on the same ground as the disenfranchised, to be able to speak with any kind of comparable epistemic integrity, you at least have to try and learn one more language. Just one more. Stop wasting breath attempting to inflate the one language you speak into a balloon large enough to dupe you into thinking its the language of the whole world.

Instead, join that great One Jesús in the beauty of bilingüe. Because stubborn shouting in the silos of fortified dominance is a trap, bondage, in comparison to the freedom of many languages, crossing borders, accompañamiento.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

A great Reformation scholar died prematurely. He left an unfinished Luther biography. Then this happened.

A new portrait of Luther by acclaimed painter Brad Holland
Although much has been written about the "resilient reformer" and great man of history, it is still difficult to recommend one definitive biography of Martin Luther in English. In part, this is because Luther is distant enough from us historically as to be strange when presented in all his idiosyncrasy. Until the arrival of Timothy Lull and Derek Nelson's new biography, my go-to recommendation was typically Heiko Obermann's Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Obermann's biography stands out and succeeds as a biography by making Luther distant from our own time and place, especially our peculiar forms of heroism, and is sufficient to allow Luther to stand on his own terms.

The great danger of Luther biographies is the Erik Erikson problem. Erikson attempted to use "young man Luther" as a foil for his developmental psychology and psychoanalytic thought. The result has been an unfortunate cottage industry of biographies and monographs all attempting to explain Luther's life, theology, and culture in light of his psychological makeup. In part, this new biography is a successful attempt to dig out of the morass of this psychologizing.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Lull's analysis of Luther's end of life. Luther was not well for approximately the last quarter of his, having suffered from kidney stones, among other ailments. Much of Luther's preaching and theological output of this period is read in light of the supposed effects of this illness.

So Lull begins the biography with a story from the end. Luther left Wittenberg briefly about six months before his death, and wrote a letter to his wife, Katharina von Bora, promising never to return. This behavior could have been explained away in terms of psychology. But Lull reads it differently. First, he notices that Luther preached a sermon during this trip that was clearly still fresh and humorous and theologically rich. Clearly not the product of a declining mind. Furthermore, Luther is finishing up his major work on Genesis through this period, a portion of Luther's authorship that has become, over time, one of the lodestones for understanding his reading of Scripture.

After this opening end of life chapter, Lull and Nelson proceed chronologically through Luther's life, with an intense focus on Luther as public theologian and Wittenberg pastor. For those who have read other Luther biographies, or seen Luther movies, or are familiar with the significant touchstones for Luther's significant life, this book will not disappoint. It covers familiar territory, but frequently with a refreshing spin.

A couple of examples. First, early in the book Lull notes that perhaps Luther's commitment to his promise--to become a monk if he survived a terrible thunder storm that caught him on his way home to Erfurt--is not unlike his own understanding theologically of God as one who makes and keeps promises. It's a simple insight, but profound. Promise is a leitmotif both in Luther's vocational call and in his theological worldview.

Or consider this quote on Luther's experience of Anfechtungen:
Luther continued to have these attacks all his life with irregular frequency and intensity. His 'breakthrough' on justification by faith did not mean an end to Anfechtungen. Rather, it meant that he had something, or rather someone--the person of Christ--to hold over against these shattering and life-dissolving experiences. And because many in his time had experienced a measure of the doubts and fears that Luther experienced, he was soon regarded as a great soul doctor, a spiritual director to a generation that had trouble believing the formal church teaching on the grace of God, given their own doubts and the church's far from grace-centered practiced (38).
There is a particular poignancy to this biography even beyond its subject matter. The first author, Timothy Lull, beloved seminary president and Luther scholar, died tragically and prematurely in 2003, leaving behind him many unfinished projects. One of those, this Luther biography, has now been taken up and completed by the very able Derek Nelson. Lull assembled a number of popular works on Luther, including the incredibly popular Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings.

The team of Reformers in Wittenberg, among them Melanchthon, Bugenhagen (whose sermons have also recently been published by Augsburg Fortress), George Major, Amsdorf, Jonas, and many others, regularly had each other's backs, assisted one another in their work. In this sense, Derek Nelson is continuing a pattern he and Lull and many of us have learned from the Reformers--to lean on one another and continue each other's projects.

Finally, a longer quote from the close of the book, that gives a sense of Lull and Nelson's approach to Luther as a whole.
As Luther's heart grew cold about Wittenberg and all that the small city represented to hm, the achievements and failures of his years there weighed heavily on his mind. Morals were low; morale was lower. And yet Luther found the means to work through this crisis as well. Because he was unusually silent about his thoughts, we cannot piece together his sources of resilience. As this book has argued, however, the likeliest place to turn is not Luther's psychology, but his theology. His doctrine of sin led him to low expectations for communities. In this respect, he was the furthest thing from naive. And yet his doctrine of grace led him to high hopes for what God might do through such imperfect people. These were the binoculars through which Luther saw the world, and resolving the two lenses into one image was difficult. Or, to alter the metaphor slightly, perhaps just before his death Luther's view of the world came through a kaleidoscope, which, when just a quarter turn off, shows a mess. With a slight adjustment, beauty comes through again. As a reformer, Luther was a man without a plan. As a theologian, Luther trusted in God's plan, no matter the detours and apparent dead-ends.  
A thesis of this book has been that the best way to understand Luther is by grasping his resilience. Luther's genius comes from the fact that, rather than seeing crises that came upon him as interruptions distracting him from his real calling, he saw these crises--imprisonments, facing death, the lose of Magdalena, and so on--as opportunities. Luther used those very setbacks as occasions for revising his work. Each of these very negative experiences motivated him to a high level of achievement, especially given that he feared he had little time left to work. In each case, these staggering interruptions were the inspiration for some of his most remarkable work rather than a distraction from brilliant work already underway.
There is a reason scholars pay as much attention to Luther's life as Luther's thought. As much as any person of any time, his teaching (his sermons, his lectures, his letters) are of apiece with his life. Who he is is what he says, and what he says is who he is, to a remarkable degree. We will always needs new Luther biographies. For the time-being, this is the the biography to read. And it is more than enough.
Let me add one more thing. An infamous aspect of Luther's authorship are his screeds against his opponents, most notably against the Jews, for which Lutherans work to apologize, but also against the Pope and church leaders, some of which were appropriate if overly inflammatory by today's academic standards.

One thing I encourage readers to do if they ever pick up Luther is to attempt to insert in place of "the pope" whatever thing is in power that needs addressing in our current system. In today's world, when we read Luther, perhaps what we should do is insert "white supremacy and fragility" in place of "the pope." That or "the market." These are two targets that need more of Luther's style of humorous and pointed deflation.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Essential Resources for Moving the Racial Justice Conversation Forward

Race Forward
A conversation on race and faith leading to advocacy and action
Sundays, 10 a.m., beginning September 13th

As our nation and culture struggles mightily with issues of race relations, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church hosts a year-long congregational and community conversation on race and faith, leading to advocacy and action.

The Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, has invited everyone in our denomination to participate in a live web-cast conversation on the complexity and implications of racism on August 6th at 8 p.m. (CDT): (

The Pew Forum recently released a study on racial diversity in religious denominations, and our own denomination is listed at the very bottom, as perhaps the most predominately white denomination in the country. This fact alone illustrates the importance of an intentional conversation on race and faith in our church (

Prior to the beginning of the class, consider reading some of the works in the included bibliography. During the year, consider reading one or more of the books (from which we will be reading brief excerpts) with your small group or book group.  Attend a community event on race, such as the Nightbird Books discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates' book (

Finally, if you can't attend on Sunday mornings (perhaps you are graciously volunteering to teach Sunday school or have another conflict), we will be recording each of the Sunday morning events and streaming them for folks to listen to later. If there is sufficient interest, people can also organize their own small group gatherings to discuss these resources on their own at a time that works for them.

The fall schedule:

September 13th: The ELCA Race, Ethnicity and Culture social statement
September 20th: Guest panel from the Cisneros Foundation
September 27th:  Discuss  excerpts from On the Run by Elizabeth Goffman or Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me
October 4th: How can we do more than just talk? (individually)
October 11th: Guest panel with multicultural leaders in Fayetteville
October 18th: The ELCA Criminal Justice social statement
October 25th: Discuss excerpts from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
November 1st: How can we do more than just talk? (congregationally)
November 8th: ELCA Social Message on Community Violence
November 15th: Guest panel with police officers/prosecuting attorneys
November 22nd: Discuss excerpts from Redeeming a Prison Society by Amy Levad
November 29th: How can we do more than just talk? (communally)
December 4-6th: Focus weekend with Jennifer Harvey, author of Dear White Christians
December 13th: Summary conversation reviewing what we have learned
December 20th: Christmas break

Schedule will resume in the winter, spring with new topics such as Islamophobia, Latino ministries, and more.


Race: A Theological Account by J. Kameron Carter

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone

Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance by Reggie Williams

Name Your Link

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Elizabeth Goffman

Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Reconciliation by Jennifer Harvey

Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration  by Amy Levad

Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas

Sister Citizen, Melissa V Harris Perry

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

What do we have here?

Sometimes I think the particular post-modernity I inhabit comes after a specific modernity, both of which can be summarized in this way. Modernity asked the question, 

What does this mean?

Post-modernity asks, What is here?

Here's what I mean (see what I did there?). Quite a lot of the way we think about the world, at least those of us shaped by the trajectory of modernity, has to do with belief. Although as I have just said, this is on the way out, the echoes of the modern project are resonant among us, perhaps especially in the church. 

So we have, for example, creeds and confessions and statements of belief. My own upbringing in the faith included study of Luther's Small catechism, which famously begins each section with the question, "What does this mean?"

But Luther's catechism, in German, asks a much more basic question, not specific to epistemology or semantics. The question Luther asks is this: Was ist das? What is this/that?

This is a question of there-ness, that-ness, quiddity, thing-ness. Colloquially, after a portion of the creed or the Lord's Prayer or the 10 commandments is quoted, what Luther asks is basically, What do we have here?

Why does this matter? Well, for those who have fully made the shift to a post-modern mentality--and there are by all reckonings increasing numbers of them in Western society--it simply doesn't cut it anymore to assert what one believes dogmatically. Pure acceptance, assent to a set of propositions, if it ever was a "thing," is less and less a thing. 

Instead, what we have are growing numbers of us who are interested in the world, what presents itself to us, but we aren't interested in playing any kinds of propositional language games divorced from reality. Instead, we are quite a bit more interested in stating what actually gives itself to us, whatever is right around us.

There is good reason for Christians who like creeds and such to consider this shift. One good reason is its avoidance of the ditch modernity falls into of minding the god of the gaps. Pure articulations of belief detached from descriptions of what is, what is there, tend to restrict and contract over time. Belief in the modern era got down to the level where something as big as salvation could be assured through a statement of assent to a very narrow dogmatic assertion, such as: "I have accepted Christ as my personal savior." 

I have very little against a brief claim such as this spoken by individual believers. It's not a bad thing to say. But when assent to a specific and very narrow proposition takes on soteriological significance, we can be fairly sure the god of that particular gap has been squeezed into a rather small crevasse indeed, with the rest of the universe capaciously resonating around the expansive edge.

But if we make a shift from epistemological claims--this means...--to ways of speaking that open us up to examination of what is here, what is there, we end up with a very different way of speaking, one I find more consonant with how I understand Christian faith in post-modernity to operate.

First of all, it allows language to become generative. Consider this quote from Mario Livio, interviewed by Krista Tippett in On Being:
I mean, there is another aspect of it, which people found always fascinating, and I find fascinating, which is — you know, mathematicians — really pure mathematicians they like to do things with absolutely no application whatsoever in mind. You know they develop all kinds of mathematical theories and they don't think that this will ever have any application. Sometimes they are even proud of the fact that it has no applications. And yet, you know, decades or sometime centuries later, it is found that those mathematical theories provide precisely the explanations needed for some physical phenomena, you know, and so on. How, how is this possible?
It is my sense that most of us who are theologians, and so many Christians, tend to think of theological reflection, or faithful confession, more along the lines of Livio's understanding of the work of mathematicians. It isn't that we use language to get a solid grasp on what we believe. The early church didn't write the creeds in order to be able to say, "There, that settles it." Rather, the creeds have some kind of proleptic sense to them, they articulate, often in ways we can't see clearly now, things that come clear centuries or even millennia later. So that even today creeds written 2000 years ago have power not because they demand precise assent by those who confess them, but rather because they bring to light something new in the phenomena of faith in this living present of which even those who wrote the creeds were at that time unaware.

I also like to think that theologians of a variety of stripes invest quite a lot of time, like mathematicians, doing things with absolutely no application, simply because the play of such work is its own reward. It is its own kind of joy. It does not need to "drive results."

Livio also remarks, in the same interview:
Until 1998 we didn't know that this dark energy exists. And now, you know, we know it's the dominant form of energy of our universe [as much as 70%]. So whenever you think that you've reached some sort of a — that you cannot go beyond, OK, this is all that there is to know, and so on, somehow we discover that there is yet something even more mysterious that hides behind all of that.
In this sense, then, scientists and theologians share quite a lot more than we often assume, because both operate along these lines, that whenever you've reached some sort of a--that you cannot go beyond... somehow we discover that there is yet something even more mysterious that hides behind all of that. If God is the god of this particular gap, it is a rather large gap indeed, a gap that makes up a majority of what is. 

Recently, I was at a dissertation defense by a philosophy student. During the course of the defense, one of the readers and the student got into a kind of debate around the definition of idolatry. Basically, the professor thought idolatry had a somewhat narrow definition. It was the worship of false gods, like idols or the like. The student tended towards a more complex view of idolatry, one I share, which is that basically everything is idolatry that is not worship of the One God.

During the course of this discussion, it became clear that no one in the room had thought through as clearly as possible what exactly idolatry is. We needed a pause, a chance to ask, "What do we have here? What is this?"

I walked away from the defense considering my own definition of idolatry, one that has gained a certain level of complexity over the years precisely because my view of God has become more complex. I would say today that God is beyond God, God hides behind God, because most of the time our use of the word God, our assumptions of who God is, are themselves not yet who God really is. So they are ever and always idolatrous. I tend to think this is why many of the monotheistic faiths include warnings away from idolatry. So the Muslim prayer, "There is no god but God," or the Jewish-Christian, "You shall have no other gods before you..."

Easy enough to say. Fairly narrow if we are simply talking about propositional assent. But actually a complex enough assertion that it has required every living monotheistic faith centuries of reflection simply to clear away some of the cloudiness around what this actually means, and we haven't landed with anything like complete clarity.

In that same dissertation discussion, two self-professed non-Christians in the group asked the student really interesting questions. First, they asked, "What's so bad about creeds?" Second, they asked, "I'm not a Christian, but what do I need to do to become one?" To my mind, this indicated the extent to which, once we move beyond modernist assumptions about the function of creeds and beliefs, in a post-modern context, one option is to re-open questions and ways of proclaiming that seemed to have died in the drift away from modernism. It's as if old language games breathe new life.

That is just about the best way to describe how Luther's fundamental question works. Scientists, faculty, non-believers, believers, Christians, atheists, all ask, over and over, "Was ist das?" What is this? We share this question in common with the whole world. What is this right in front of our face.

And in the mutual discovery of this, it becomes necessary to share whatever we have at our disposal that might assist in answering such questions, even if those resources seem less than immediately applicable. For my money, for example, the doctrine of the Incarnation may have quite a lot more to offer us concerning dark matter than is currently discernible. It may take a few more centuries to line that out. In the meantime, I've got this theological game I'd like to play. Want to join?