My friend Francisco Herrera, over at his blog Love is a Revolution, asked a while ago, “Can the ELCA [Evangelical Lutheran Church in America] by Multicultural?”
It’s an interesting question. The ELCA is America’s whitest major church (though I’m guessing the scattered Christian Identity movement doesn’t count here), and roughly 96 percent of its membership is white. Long ago, the ELCA committed to becoming 10 percent non-white, a well-intended resolution that I’m not sure that can be accomplished short of a wholesale annexation of portions of the African Methodist Episcopal church.
Germans annexing things. Yeah, gives me shivers too.
Francisco answers his own question by noting — truthfully and enthusiastically — that the ELCA is already multicultural.
It’s true. Firstly, I know this because since beginning Th.M./Ph.D. studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in 2013 virtually all of my guides and mentors have been people of color. My advisor is from India, my “step advisor” is Puerto Rican, and my mentor-of-mentors is African American with roots in Jamaica.
What’s more, if you have two free days to attend the ELCA’s Glocal Musician Training in Chicago, you will marvel – with it’s more than 20 ethnic groups and languages singing and crying and laughing together – at the broad range of voices and harmonies and dissonances that echo under our church’s little roof.
But even more encouragingly, did you also know that of the 512 churches and synodically authorized worship communities that have joined the ELCA since 1988, 365 of them are either from communities of color or are racially mixed? In short, in our denomination’s short history 68% of all new growth is ethnically diverse while only 32% of it is exclusively white. Though most ELCA communities may have resisted the ever diversifying reality of the US, the new mission starts haven’t. For whatever reasons, ethnic diversity is in their ecclesial DNA from the get-go and it clearly shows. So while we may now be 95% white, the future of the ELCA is unquestionably multicultural and these statistics prove it. So when I say that that ELCA is already multicultural, this is why. And it’s pretty great.
And Francisco is right. The Jamaican pastor he speaks of as his mentor is also my pastor, and one of my mentors in ministry as well. I learned a great deal from Lutherans of color during my time at seminary, and worshiping at Bethel Evangelical in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood. The ELCA is changing, inexorably slowly. But, if the ELCA wishes to survive, it will have to embrace and manage that change somehow.
But something needs to be remembered. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is the product of a long series of mergers and consolidations of churches that began as immigrant confessions and rooted in migrant communities — Germans, Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, Finns, Slovaks, Lithuanians. You could argue that the ELCA is already multicultural not because of where it is going but because of where it came from.
And that’s true so far as it goes. But it has a couple of important limits. First, in the great melting pot that is America, all of the varied Europeans were eventually melted into American whiteness, which itself grew out of the mixed experience of English Protestants and the Scots-Irish who settled North America. Whatever hold the languages and traditions of Scandinavia and North Germany have on American Lutherans (lutefisk!), the bulk of Lutheran migrants arrived in an America of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow and assimilated to those cultural norms. (My great-grandmother probably never met a black person in her whole life and yet could say some of the most horrific things about them.) In the case of the German migrants, much of the anti-immigrant zeal of the late 19th and early 20th century was aimed squarely at them. Prohibition, for example, was as anti-German as it was anti-Catholic. It didn’t help that German Lutherans kept largely to themselves, speaking and worshiping and publishing in German (The magazine of the Walther League, the youth organization of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, featured an interview with Kaiser Wilhelm II about faith and religion in an early summer 1914 issue; by 1917, the cover was all eagles and the Statue of Liberty), and were brutally and forcefully assimilated as a result of the America’s entry into World War I.
(By brutal, I mean this. My great-grandfather Johann Schmidt and his wife Elsie emigrated to America in 1924, a few years after WWI, and yet his family spoke German exclusively at home all the years my grandmother Christine was growing up. Johann was one of the founders of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Cheney, Washington, where the family settled, “Because we need a church of our own.” The English my grandmother spoke was heavily accented, and once, when she was out in public — it was the very late 1920s, I think — she was speaking German in public when a stranger yelled at her and spat on her. “This is America, we speak English here!” My grandmother never made that mistake again. She learned to speak an accentless English, and except for a few phrases she taught me so I could speak to a young German friend at my school in Monterey, I never ever heard her speak German. I suspect most German Lutheran families have such stories, and enough such incidents make for a huge wound that has shaped and formed American Lutheranism, especially as that wound went unaddressed and untreated.)
So, it was an uneasy assimilation and integration, and it didn’t help that the mergers over the years left some of the smaller Lutheran communities — the Slovaks, the Finns — feeling run over, ignored, and left behind. By the early 1960s, Lutheranism in America had really ceased to have a significant ethnic component, and had become just another white, mainline, reasonable, bourgeois, protestant American faith.
Lutheranism’s second feature is even more problematic. The Lutheran churches of Europe are all monopoly state churches, in countries where religious dissent and non-conformity was not really allowed. (The LCMS sprung into existence because some Saxon Lutherans refused to play nice with Calvinists when Prussian King Frederick Wilhelm III made them do church together, and some LCMS church leaders today live like they are afraid he will rise from the tomb at any moment.) While a fair number of Lutherans migrated to North America specifically because they did not want to be Europeans, they did bring with them an expectation — even in American pluralism — of a uniformity of national values, culture, and language that such an experience entailed.
So the reasonable, bourgeois, protestant culture created in the ELCA through the long series of mergers and consolidations is a kind-of lowest common denominator culture, where educated American Lutheran elites met a very modest and sedate American middle class culture and Northern European concerns about probity and propriety. It is calm, measured, thoughtful, reasonable, unemotional, trusting of experts and authority, very liberal (ecumenical and international) in its nationalism, and waits for permission rather than seeking forgiveness. It takes seriously the in America part of the ELCA, still believing the church has a duty to act as social conscience and to form good citizens even in a pluralistic community.
That the church has a duty to the nation.
Which brings me to Deconolonize Lutheranism, a movement afoot on the edges of the ELCA led and organized by some people I know, respect, and love dearly. It is an effort by pastors, theologians, and lay people of color — as well as those who are queer — to change the culture of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As #decolonizelutheranism says in its Frequently Asked Questions:
To be colonized and to decolonized is ultimately about cultural power dynamics.
Colonization happens when one group of people wields power over another.
This group of people is called the dominant culture.
Colonization sometimes happens as part of an invasion of space, a taking over of land.
This may or may not be part of our narrative in the ELCA, depending on our local histories.
But the effect is currently the same — that people in power in our church are part of a dominant cultural group that wields the power to establish and maintain cultural norms. These cultural norms define what it means “to be Lutheran.” This dominant culture is one of European-American heritage, of Lutheranism brought over mostly from Germany and Scandinavia. But this is not the full picture of what Lutheranism is, locally and globally.
When we say “#decolonizeLutheranism”, we are seeking to point out:
– Who holds the power in the ELCA.
– Who limits the access to power.
– Which group of people has control over the norms that define Lutheranism in the United States.
If you do not feel this experience in the ELCA, it may be that you are part of the dominant culture, and so participating in our denomination feels normal and accepting. This experience is called “privilege.” What our movement is sharing with the ELCA is that those of us without this privilege are experiencing oppression.
What we are lifting up are the stories of people who are not part of the dominant culture, but who identify as Lutheran and who want full inclusion without forced assimilation. Lutheranism is a global phenomenon, not simply a tradition of European-American heritage. Lutheranism is a theological lens on the gospel that informs how we live out the life of the church together. This can take on many cultural forms and still remain Lutheran.
That last bit, about cultural difference, is important. This is a project I support fully and completely, largely because the ELCA has become an effective monoculture. I support it because even though I am no longer a part of the ELCA in any meaningful way, what happens in Lutheranism — small as it is — tends not to stay there. For example, that conservatives won the late 1960s fight in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod over biblical scholarship and the inerrancy of the Bible prompted conservative Southern Baptists in the mid–1970s to launch their own fight against modern Bible scholarship and in favor of inerrancy — a far more consequential battle with far greater reverberations socially and culturally than a simple walk-out of seminary professors in St. Louis would suggest.
So, any attempts to change protestant church culture, even among the fairly staid community that are ELCA Lutherans, matters.
It could matter a lot.
Given this, my greatest concern about #decolonizelutheranism is that it won’t aim high enough, and won’t go far enough, in challenging and changing the church culture.
My fear is it will be so focused on race, gender, and sexual identity, that it won’t focus on class, and won’t challenge that “calm, measured, thoughtful, reasonable, and unemotional” elite institutional culture that pretends to be an objective expression of well-adjusted humanity. In failing to do this, it will become just another tool of liberal assimilation, in which people of color and people who are queer are allowed to participate if they conform to that calm, measured, thoughtful, reasonable, and unemotional culture that was the lowest common denominator created as all these European migrant churches merged and their leadership was assimilated into mid-20th century bourgeois liberal America.
This will require more than mere inclusion. It will require the church to rethink who and what it is. Lutherans are, sadly, poorly placed for this, given their faith and practice is so completely reliant on the existence of sympathetic civil authority and a wider shared culture. Lutherans seek to conform, not challenge conformity. As it stands, while many profoundly gifted clergy of color preach and teach and preside in the ELCA, those who have succeeded institutionally are those who seem to conform closest to this Northern European ideal, who have assimilated cultural norms and expectations that allow them not just to belong but to flourish. I can’t do it. And I know queer clergy and clergy of color who can’t either, and because of that, they have been tossed out, or given to hostile congregations, or allowed to have their ministries atrophy because … they cannot fit. They are not allowed to fit. Because institutional culture still makes demands and still believes these demands to be universal, ungrounded in specific culture or history, something everyone can aspire to if they only work hard enough.
But … I trust the people behind #decolonizelutheranism. I know them. They are well placed. So, my hope is that at some point, #decolonizelutheranism will take a hard look at Lutheranism’s class and cultural expectations (such as what it means to succeed, or be well-adjusted, or even just belong), at the institutional use of sciences like psychology and sociology (all observational tools having solid, specific cultural foundations, outlooks, and biases, and not simply neutral tools), and at the role of church in a post-christendom world (does it behoove the church to still think in terms of society’s conscience and forming good citizens?). That it will challenge, and help reform, this expectation that Lutherans — but especially clergy and theologians — will be calm, measured, thoughtful, reasonable, unemotional, trusting of experts and authority, who wait for permission rather than seeking forgiveness.
Does much of this reflect my unfortunate experience with the ELCA? Yes, it does. (My future as a pastor does not lie with the ELCA.) But so does the experience of all those waging this struggle — straight, queer, black, brown, white — all committed to helping bring into being a different kind of church, one more focused on Gospel, on redemption, on resurrection, and not so concerned with Law, with conformity, and with compliance.
I hope they succeed. I pray for them, for their calling, and for #decolonizelutheranism. Because what they do will certainly affect the wider church.
Because all it takes to start a revolution, sometimes, is to nail some questions to a church door.