Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Can "Lutheran" Be a #BlackLivesMatter Denomination?

LSTC president James Nieman
I've been heartened to see a #decolonizelutheranism movement coinciding with #BlackLivesMatter and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Now the head of Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) has chimed in.

Below, I'm reproducing in full the open letter from LSTC president James Nieman.

For myself, I particularly notice three things:

(1) I like what President Nieman says about stopping to think . . . and confess. (See On Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates (A Confession))

(2) OVERALL: It's a reminder that, in the Lutheran denomination at least, seminaries are in the thick of the conflict of the times --  not an escapist ivory tower. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and try to get in touch with what we're all about, it's good to remember this.

(3) Most important, he zeroes in those words that are so difficult for white people to swallow: "white privilege" and "racism" and "denial." A lot of work is going to have to be done to pry "Lutheranism" apart from "white privilege" . . . and guess who's going to have to do that work?

I'd love comments from others on what they notice in this letter

From President James Nieman:

The events of the past week in this country have culminated an escalating, sickening cycle of violence. This cycle has been inflicted predominantly upon African Americans and became more visible and acute since Ferguson, but in fact stretches back for decades, let alone centuries. Recently, others have been subjected to hate crimes (at Pulse in Orlando) or targeted for killing (the police in Dallas), and these atrocities also deserve our sober reflection and mourning. Consistent about a topic I have raised many times before, though, my focus in this letter is specifically about the role of white privilege and racism in creating the heinous harm consuming us these days, and how our school can play a part in dismantling it.

In particular, I am writing this mainly to white people like me at our seminary. I am convinced that we are in denial about the racism that saturates our society and from which we directly benefit. That denial produces predictable twin reactions from white people: either silence about the racism that plainly reinforces our way of living or surprise at the frustration and outrage African Americans and others express at how they are treated. I believe this denial, with its attendant silence and surprise, is nothing other than a refusal to acknowledge the privilege we hold and the degradation it inflicts on others. If we as white people have any conscience left, if we at this moment feel any distress at all with recent events, then we should at least have the moral courage in a seminary to admit that how we live is destructive for other people and ultimately unsustainable for ourselves. As white people, we must acknowledge our racism. [yellow highlighting added]

From various quarters there are calls for religious communities to pray or speak or march, and of course there is a place for all these actions. I am proposing, though, that white people like me must first engage the more basic, disturbing work of thinking and confessing. These practices are not at all neat and tidy, for taken seriously they are actually agonizing. But without first thinking about who we are and then confessing how we have benefitted, all of our praying and speaking and even marching become an insubstantial, self-serving charade. My point, then, is to share with white people at our seminary three resources toward a more disciplined kind of thinking and confessing. I assure you than none of these readings is easy to absorb.

First, I urge you to read “Death in Black and White,” an opinion column by Michael Eric Dyson appearing in The New York Times (click here). Second, I urge you to review recent postings on the seminary’s “We Talk. We Listen.” diversity blog hosted by Linda Thomas, including Dr. Thomas’s own excellent, poignant essay from this morning (click here). Third, I urge you to consider “White Fragility,” a scholarly article by Robin DiAngelo published in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy .... All three readings are like a relentless mirror reflecting back to us the white privilege and racism in which we are embedded. May these be aids to your thinking and confessing about racism.

I realize some readers may find this letter harsh and uncomfortable, while others may think it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Isn’t reading articles just another kind of intellectual escapism? Can thinking and confessing ever be potent practices that make a difference? My aim, though, is theological – and theology in the name of the Crucified begins with telling the truth (cf. article 21 of the Heidelberg Disputation), both about ourselves and the evil that envelops us. As white people within the LSTC community, let us (as Luther put it in 1518) “call the thing what it is,” honestly name our complicity in racism, and commit to meaningful repentance. Only then will all our other words and deeds – and yes, even prayers – hold any promise for those whom our white privilege has persistently destroyed.

James Nieman

Related posts

Maybe a good next step is to read Coates' book and sit with it . . . listening to what comes up . . . but not jumping immediately into "solving."

(See On Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates (A Confession))

It suddenly occurs to me that everyone in the US should be studying the behavior of England toward India, and asking ourselves, "What might this tell people in the US about coming to our senses?"

(See PROBLEM: How does an entire country exorcise a national delusion?)

To be sitting in Berkeley and seeing in front of my eyes the spreading of this idea that started in Texas and was nurtured in Philadelphia and got agitated in Chicago felt like a real Pentecost moment.

(See Decolonize Lutheranism -- A Northern California Installment)

KAIROS: that moment of clarity, in which it is no longer "business as usual"; that moment in which you feel an earthquake impending.

(See KAIROS: The Moment You've Been Waiting For?

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