Saturday, October 22, 2016

Radical Lutheran Spin Doctor #DecolonizeLutheranism

When I went to seminary in 1995, the Internet was not much of a thing. E-mail was just becoming a thing. People still left voice messages. I had to go to the library to look something up.

At seminary, I was trained how to be the right kind of Lutheran. There were basically two dominant options. You could be a "radical Lutheran," a follower of Nestingen and Forde, with a radical focus on justification by faith alone apart from the works of the law. Or you could go the somewhat more evangelical catholic route, with an emphasis on the ecumenical liturgical move towards "catholic" convergence.

Hovering around were a few whiffs of process theology, some other movements that were kind and pietistic and grounded in ethnic Lutheran histories. And then the seminary sent students on cultural immersion experiences. The basic model (although I don't think this was intentional) was that you studied your Lutheran stuff most of the time, and then you got "exposure" to stuff outside that tradition in the cross-cultural context.

I spent my cross-cultural month in Milwaukee. It snowed a ton. You could drive for miles in neighborhoods boxed in and away from opportunity, with all kinds of racial and economic oppressions criss-crossing the city and controlling lives, and it was there for the first time that I read (at the recommendation of my host, the first African-American Lutheran pastor I had ever met) James Cone, and womanist theologians. And I walked with clergy who were community organizers.

But then I went back to seminary, to "white normal," have found myself quite comfortably trying to do theology and pastoral ministry in the white, middle class framework for most of my career.

At that time, I don't think I was much aware of any larger movements, ways to organize and change the dominant paradigm. I think at that time I was learning the "spin" rather than the "take" (that's some Charles Taylor right there, "spin" is a construal that does not recognize itself as a construal--a take is a construal that is appreciative of the viability of other "takes"). I learned to be a radical Lutheran spin doctor. I also dabbled in evangelical catholicism. Frankly, it was confusing, and energizing, sometimes self-righteous, sometimes profoundly true. There's good stuff even in the "spin."

I knew there were other seminaries. I knew there were various movements within our church. But I never really had a sense that there was a lever that might change things. I certainly didn't think it could emerge from the seminaries. Most seminarians were vulnerable, just hoping for a call, and focused primarily on loving people in parishes once they got ordained (that itself is a beautiful thing--I had a lot of classmates that thought and acted like social workers).

Over time, in my career, those of us closer to the margins (I'm a missionary) started finding ways to hear from each other. Social media increased the proximity of religious leaders in our church. You could find your people. When we launched a couple of Facebook groups a few years ago for ELCA Clergy, and for ELCA people, the energy around that formation was immense. We were so glad to finally spend time with each other. I think some of us didn't know how lonely we had been.

But we also weren't sure what would emerge from all this networking. There was a lot of chatter. A lot of our conversations reinforced the "spin" of Lutheranism narrowly construed. Some people really care about Paschal Candles and paraments. Some clergy really have trouble thinking outside their specific belief system. Their commitments have been largely excarnated (another Taylor term, when religion is disembodied and becomes mostly noetic). Early in that process, the forming of these larger networks, we were discovering who we were, and who was around. We weren't aware who we were excluding, we weren't that aware of what kinds of religion, what definitions of Lutheranism, were being reified among us.

But then people on the margins started finding each other. One by one, slowly but surely, like any community organizing movement, those who knew that there was something off about the "spin" kept talk, then later acting, then forming movements, pushing up against systems in the wider church and in local parishes that pushed towards capitalist, cishet patriarchal white normativity under the guise of "just being Lutheran."

That's the thing. So many definitions of Lutheran are really just definitions of cultural religion, the holy water with which the priests sprinkled the bad conscience of the bourgeoisie.

And so was born #decolonizeLutheranism ( I remember when people started posting memes reminding us that not all Lutherans are white, and many eat injera instead of lefse, and that connecting Lutheran to specific ethnicity, or power structures, or modes of worship, ends up causing huge problems for our movement of faith, because it means the freedom of the gospel proclaimed by our movement gets stuck and colonized by race, culture, caste, and more.

This weekend, some of the people who lead this movement will gather in Chicago, at one of our seminaries, for the first #decolonizeLutheranism conference. I can't be there, and I am really sad, because these are my people. Many I call great friends. I am so impressed by the myriad ways this group has found their voice, are collectively organizing, and are fighting for our denomination to become decolonized.

So this is my one contribution. It's kind of just a history as I see it. But I will add one more thing. Kind of a fair warning, and it's something I think the group already knows. The church is going to listen to you this weekend, and mostly because we're liberals now we'll nod our heads in agreement. "This church" is largely sympathetic to the cause, in the abstract. But "this church" doesn't know how to decolonize itself. It's only just discovering that it itself is the master of spin. The leaders at the very top of "this church" are so caught up in their spin they can't even see how spun out they are, and even getting to the point of having them recognize it as a "take" is going to be a stretch. They're not going to like the cross-pressure, we're going to act all fragile, and there's a good chance walls will go up or we'll break.

So God bless you. And I'm with you. And I wish I could be there. And I love you. Let's keep finding each other. We're on the inside of the outside together, as it were. I'm somewhat curious whether it will lead to transformation, or an exodus. I'm good with either one. Jesus liked to walk. So do I. Let's go.

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