Just a Few of Us: Being Black in the ELCA and SC Synod

I came back to the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in 2012 after having a conversation with a professor that would later become a mentor. At his prompting, along with many others, I made a decision to enter into the ordination process of the ELCA. For me that brought mass levels of trepidation because of the horror stories I heard about the process. It became another process in my life that would become a part of my redemptive story. I knew the commitment would be stringent and I decided to make that plunge.

My journey was completely different because I already had pastoral experience and two master degrees- one from Liberty University and the other from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (the seminary of Lenoir-Rhyne University). It was a step into a world that was foreign to my world – the “Black Church.” Yes, we serve the same God but my experience in life was vastly different than most of the Lutherans that I had met. Then on June 17, 2015 my life and work was flipped upside down as 9 black bodies were massacred while attending a Bible Study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church. Honestly, my quest to finish the ordination process almost came to a squelching halt as I debated becoming a pastor in the AME church. I wanted to show my solidarity with the good people of the AME and the black community in general, and being a part of the ELCA seemed counter-cultural.

Yes, I wrestled with how can I be a part of a denomination that would produce a murderer of beautiful black people? How would the ELCA respond to such a tragedy? How would the SC Synod respond to such an atrocity? These are the existential questions that pummeled my mind daily. The queries that stood as constant reminders that as much as I we try to ignore it…color does matter.

My being a part of the ELCA in the SC Synod heightened my awareness of the lack of cultural competency that we have in America. I watched as white Lutherans tried to make sense of this terrorist act and to find answers. I watched as black people mourned yet again, wrestling with the constant reminders that there are no safe spaces; tired of forgiving white folks for their senseless hate at the expense of their black bodies. And, here I was in the beginning stages of being a part of this denomination.

Reflecting on the past three months has brought me to strange places in my faith. I wish I could say that I have it all figured out and I am comfortable in all the confines of the ELCA and SC Synod but I can’t. I see the stares, not sure if they are disbelief, utter rejection or simply shock, but they are noticeable. I still feel the overcompensation because of the overtly racist atmosphere that is cultivated in the south. It is understandable, but it also resonates with my soul that we still have so much work to do. There are many beautiful people in the SC Synod of the ELCA that I have met in the last three months. We have talked and broke bread as well as visited with each other during a Sunday service, but, I state again, we have such a long road ahead.

I have been asked, “Why would a black man decide to become a part of the ELCA –the whitest denomination in America.” (according to Pew Research) Then on top of that become a part of a synod that has only ordained one black clergy member.

How does one really reconcile that in their mind?

God is up to something a lot bigger than me…

Racism: America’s Heresy — Learning to Choose Jesus

Just Another Day on Facebook

This past week I posted this on my Facebook page and got a really big response.

Bear in mind, when I say “big” what I mean is “big for me” — over 100 Likes, 15 Shares, 80+ comments — which is my version of something going viral. The KKK ChallengeScreenshot of my Facebook post.

My own comment was this, as you see in the picture:

Dear KKK, since you’re a group of Christians, I’d like to introduce you to 1 John 4:20-21.

“4:20 Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Pay particular attention to 4:20, that one is fairly important. I can’t wait to see your Christian response! 🙂

#racismisheresy

Now to be fair, I didn’t think I was going out on any big limbs here; and much to the credit of my friends and my own taste in friends, none of them said anything hateful, hurtful, or spiteful. I really just wanted to point out that it’s impossible for the KKK to be a Christian organization because their white supremacist program is antithetical to Christianity.

The thing I thought might draw some strange looks is the #racismisheresy hashtag.

The idea that racism isn’t just a bad idea or the usual sort of socially hateful thing, but that it’s actually a heresy, is one that I don’t think is terribly controversial when you really get down to it. But it is rare for us to brand something as heresy in today’s age because even in the orthodox Christian faith (those who confess the Trinity, believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that one day Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead), we’re a seriously diverse group of people. If there’s a belief, there’s a group out there who disagrees with it or thinks of it differently.

But when does diversity of opinion become heresy?

Racism isn’t listed in the classic Christological Heresies that we learn about in Sunday School — what, y’all didn’t talk about Arianism, Modalism, Apollinarism, or Monophysitism in Sunday School?

Okay, then you probably would learn about them in a college level religious studies course at any reputable institution, or in seminary at least. I guess not all of us read books about heresy in our spare time as high school students. At any rate, racism certainly isn’t a heresy that’s widely thought of as being one, even though at this point any rational person should be able to agree that it’s wrong; but wrong does not always equal heresy.

…heresy begins at the point that we must choose between Jesus and our own opinions. Christianity isn’t a faith rooted in who we hate together, but in the idea that the world hates us because we reject the notion that we can love God and exclude anyone.

The reason the Christological heresies are well-known is that they’re points of doctrine, and became important when Christianity was figuring out what it really meant to be Christian when it was no longer defined by being the whipping boy of Roman persecution. Disagreeing with the orthodox understanding of how God is Trinity is heretical because this understanding is at the center of our self-understanding. You can choose to believe God is Trinity — Three Persons, yet one God — or you are choosing to not be Christian. You can choose to believe the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that he will judge the living and the dead — or you are choosing to not be Christian.

This is why racism is heresy. As 1 John 4 says, if you say you love God but hate your brother or sister, you’re a liar. You can choose to hate people based on their race, but you’re also choosing to not be Christian.

Simply put, heresy begins at the point that we must choose between Jesus and our own opinions. Christianity isn’t a faith rooted in who we hate together, but in the idea that the world hates us because we reject the notion that we can love God and exclude anyone.


Jesus Stares Down Prejudice

This heresy is actually one that has a name, and it’s Phyletism, from the Greek root phyli- meaning race or tribe. This type of decision against God is an old one, even though it’s fallen out of favor for us to name as such. How old is this, you might ask?

If you look at the ministry of Jesus, he never really excludes a single person. Even the Pharisees, Chief Priests, and scribes are people he continually urges toward repentance — even with Pilate, Jesus pushes him in an attempt to make him choose a side. Jesus is someone who opens doors that are closed by his culture. Because he’s someone who obeys the will of God above all else, he opens doors that he would prefer closed — he’s a First Century Palestinian Jew, with his own cultural predispositions after all.

[Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. — Mark 7:24-30

What we see here is Jesus wrestling with his own racism. The meaning of Jesus calling her a dog (kynos in Greek, translated as harmlessly as “little dog” or as offensively as “little bitch” depending on the commentator) is obviously that Jesus meant to be insulting and dismissive toward her to get her out of his way. He was tired, he was ready to be alone, and then this woman who his people despised was there to ask him to help her? Of course he would send her packing.

Her response was much kinder than his in this case — she reminded him of who God is, and because Jesus always chooses the will of God when his will is in conflict with God’s will, Jesus repents and cleanses her daughter of the spirits.

This is really important: perfection doesn’t mean that Jesus would be the best baseball player ever if he played baseball. Perfection means that Jesus always chooses the will of God, and God’s will is love for God’s people. Jesus hears her response and changes his mind because hating the Syrophoenician woman would be counter to the will of God.

Jesus recognized that he can’t choose God and his own cultural racism.

We can’t choose Jesus and racism.

We can’t choose Jesus and hatred.

We’re either Christians or we embrace the bigotry of our culture.

You cannot love God and hate your neighbor.

If you say you do, you’re a liar.

I didn’t say that, the author of 1 John said that. But along with everyone else, I have to face that this is true about me, too.

Yes, this is an uncomfortable truth. It’s uncomfortable because we’re all trapped in the bonds of prejudice and cannot free ourselves. If you heard some of the stupid things that go through my brain you’d be ashamed of me and for me. But racism goes deeper than simple impulsive prejudice, because racism is the act of intentionally showing favor toward one group and malice toward another. It’s the result of choosing to live into those impulses intentionally — it’s intentionally choosing my brokenness over Jesus. It’s intentionally choosing to do evil to someone when we have an opportunity to do good, and it’s choosing what’s good for me

Racism is America’s heresy because it’s forged into the very fabric of our culture from the very earliest times in our history — white people are “normal” and catered to; everyone else, especially black people, are different, other, and expendable. We who enjoy the privilege of being white, male, straight, and comfortable in our own gender enjoy just about every advantage our nation has to offer — privilege and power combined to give us the easiest possible start and grease the wheels the whole way.

It’s America’s heresy because it’s so engrained in the fabric of our nation’s culture that many of us don’t even notice it when it happens, because our “normal” is permeated by it. It’s so normal to us and we’re so blinded to it, that when we hear about it we believe that it can’t be true, even if we know it is.

It’s time to step out of the comfortable lie and face the truth that our culture nurses and embraces this heresy.

Let’s learn to choose Jesus.

Love Sees Color

Following the shooting in Charleston at Mother Emmanuel AME Church,I kept seeing hashtag after hashtag, one of the most common being #loveseesnocolor. The fact is that this is a lie. We’re a society in which color matters. Even putting together this webpage, I pondered the best color scheme for what it was going to say about us.

The fact is, color matters.  B470_LoveSeesNoColor

My color determines my experience of the world, and color determines the way Thomas, my partner in this project, experiences the world, too.

When we talk about learning to love each other, we’re talking about a relationship in which we learn to see each other clearly and fully. To see me outside of the context of my white skin is to see only a portion of who I am. To see Thomas outside of the context of his brown skin is to see only a part of who he is.

Love is something that we do with eyes wide open. If we ignore color, we ignore a large part of someone’s identity. If we really want to love someone, we have to accept that the notion of colorblindness can’t be part of love because love is the act of learning to value the whole person, all of their experiences, in the context of their full identity.

These blogs, videos, podcasts, and other projects are our attempt to get to know each other and become intimate with the issues surrounding prejudice, privilege, and racism. We’re going in with both eyes open because we know that we can’t buy into the notion of a colorblind love because at the end of the day, love sees it all — our glory and our faults, our joys and our wounds, in three dimensional reality. Love doesn’t see in black and white, making us a dim parody of our true selves.

Love sees color.