Like many in our Church, I am deeply grateful to our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, for raising the challenge to re-engage on questions of race and privilege in our society. This is work in which I have been personally involved for many years , and frankly, one that continues to challenge and sometimes to frustrate me at every turn.
Let’s Talk has now risen to the challenge of highlighting this critical matter, and the editors have asked me to share some perspectives in this forum.
So I begin with a bit of brutal honesty in confessing that despite nearly 30 years of intentional effort and high profile discussion, the ELCA does not appear to be making much headway. We have done fairly well in diversifying leadership structures on a denominational level and in many of our schools, seminaries and social service agencies, where discretionary choices about employment allow us to be disciplined and intentional in creating leadership employment opportunities. Similarly our representational principles for governance structures have helped to diversify some formal leadership roles.
Nonetheless, the sociological profile of the ELCA is overwhelmingly white, middle class, and comparatively well-educated. And the Conference of Bishops (elected in general assemblies) reflects this demographic pattern in that the vast majority of us (including me) continue to be white, middle class, well educated, male and straight. So how might we respond now, to break free from this pattern and to make some difference that we have not been able to make in 30 years?
I will not be presumptuous enough to claim a clear answer to this question. But I think it worthwhile for us to begin by looking more deeply at a few of the theological and ethical considerations that are likely to provide the platform for a new conversation and a new approach.
There are at least three significantly different views of the human condition that provide starting points for the conversation about racism:
- Racism is a personal moral failure. This is certainly true to the extent that there are egregious individual expressions of racism. Stereotypes, racially based humor, acts of cruelty and violence, choices by those in power to discriminate or deny equal access to opportunity are all expressions of individual racism that must be unequivocally named as sin. Regardless of its cause, the continuation of this behavior is a personal choice that demands confession, contrition, and amendment of life. In its individual manifestation, racism calls the church to respond with all “three functions” of God’s law: constraint of the behavior, exhortation to repentance, and a call to the Godly (in this case, non-racist) life. But is this personal moral failure ALL that racism is?
- Racism is an arbitrary and artificial social construct established and enforced by members of a privileged dominant culture. This view is also grounded in the assumption of free choice. But in this case, the brokenness is collective, political, and systemic. It is not sufficient for individuals to repent and reform their personal attitudes and behaviors when they continue to live as beneficiaries of a system that maintains the social structures of racism. But this anthropology is also grounded in a humanistic optimism that imagines the possibility of progressive sanctification. Since wrong-thinking people created and chose the problem, right-thinking people can choose to solve the problem or, at least, to chart a path of continual self-improvement through intention and effort. The remedy, then, begins with a course of readings, workshops, retreats, or conversations to enlighten awareness and ends with political activism to legislate the solution.
- Racism is both an individual and socio-political expression of original sin. In this view racism, like many other patterns of sin, is more or less “hard-wired” into us. The problem cannot be solved by intentionality, effort, or discipline, but only by throwing ourselves into the arms of Jesus Christ through a daily process of dying to sin and rising with Christ. We will never be done. There is no clear pattern of progress to a resolution, because we continue throughout this existence, as both saints and sinners living under the sovereignty of both law and gospel. But there is new hope each day for those who trust Christ’s promise to live and work in those who live in him. The remedy becomes something more analogous to a life-long 12-step recovery that begins with an admission of powerlessness.
These three understandings of the fundamental relationship between God and humanity are not mutually exclusive, but my guess is that most readers will be strongly drawn to one, more than to the others. And these predispositions will suggest different approaches to the problem of race and racism.
Christ and Culture
One of the most reliable characteristics of a powerful dominant culture is the belief that their cultural worldview and value system is transcendent, universal and normative for everyone. All other worldviews and values are, therefore, judged as closer or farther from the truth based on their proximity to the worldview and values of the dominant group. The result is that the cultural constructs of the dominant group are insidiously and uncritically merged into the body of what is seen to be “revealed truth.”
But in recent years, Dr. Linda Thomas, of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago has offered a compelling challenge to the notion of a “Christ above culture.” In her view, even if there is such a thing as a pre-cultural or objective and universal body of truth, we cannot know that truth apart from the cultural matrix that mediates religious truth to us. Religion and culture are distinguishable but inseparable. The medium is the message. The form is the substance.
If this is, in fact, an accurate insight, the implications for our work on race and privilege are enormous. Even though the ELCA can in no way be considered “a culture,” in any monolithic sense, we are most definitely held together by certain value assumptions, languages, and behavior patterns which range from worship values to constitutional polity, to the way our boards and corporations are structured, to the application of GAAP accounting principles, to our attitudes about time, to our way of making decisions… all of which, are rooted in the conscious or unconscious framework of white, middle class, well-educated North American dominant culture.
These unchallenged cultural assumptions will necessarily stand as a barrier to belonging for many members of other cultural groups for whom they are not the primary cultural language. And they will prevent us from ever addressing the problem of race and racism creatively or effectively so long as we try to do this purely with the internal resources of the ELCA. We must force the conversation and the work outside of the Church Council or synod councils or seminary faculties or ELCA assemblies; in fact outside the ELCA altogether into active interfaith and ecumenical engagement on a local, relational level. Even though there is still an important role for structural leadership in driving that circle of engagement wider, in the end, it is in that local interfaith arena that “the other” is re-humanized into personhood, that the “I-It” relationship is transformed into an “I-Thou” relationship, and the struggle against systemic racism and social privilege becomes an expression of solidarity with someone I love from a different culture, rather than an ideological debate or a seminar topic in our own house or gated community.
Convergence and Interconnectedness
Racism is a distinctive social problem and stands as a root cause for many other social evils. But racism is not our only social justice problem. We are also dealing with vast, growing and catastrophic conditions of poverty and violence.
Poverty is not specific to any racial group. Income disparity, wealth disparity, educational disparity, unemployment, unequal access to health care, housing conditions, food and water purity and availability are all social problems that cut across racial and cultural boundaries.
Similarly, violence does not limit itself to questions of race. Domestic and family violence, community violence, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, gender-based violence, geo-political violence, gang warfare, criminal justice cruelty or inequity, religious hatred, and genocide are all rampant and cross-cultural issues.
Nonetheless, systemic racism, as it is manifested in daily life in North America, is inseparable from the spatial and socio-economic segregation that disproportionately concentrates poverty and violence in “communities of color.” Children growing up in these environments of concentrated racism, violence and poverty are then traumatized and permanently wounded in a way that limits access to choice and opportunity for their whole lives. And over time, all three problems are exponentially intensified.
Any future efforts to work constructively on racism must include interventions around the concerns of poverty and violence as well.
At the present time it is impossible to predict whether or not the ELCA will be able to overcome the limitations of its racial, socio-economic, and educational homogeneity. But it is certain that the future of our institutional health, as well as our faithfulness, are dependent upon our ability to do so. So we must set our hearts on trying again with an effort that is grounded in a thoughtful understanding of God’s love and the human condition, open to a world of experience and perception beyond our own, critically aware of the complexity of our broken world, but above all trusting in the Christ who is coming soon to make all things new.