What can the “whitest denomination(s) in the US” do about institutional racism in this time of pandemic and racial reckoning? Quite a bit, actually. At least more than you’d think, according to the Rev. Lenny Duncan of Vancouver, Wash.
Mission development pastor at a Lutheran church in Vancouver, Duncan is the author of Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US. As the title suggests, his book is a critique of the “whitest denomination,” the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But it’s applicable to other churches as well.
Duncan says, in his bio on Goodreads, he’s been “everything from high school drop out, drug dealer, sex worker, street corner poet, hitchhiker, dharma bum, small town drifter, seminarian, political activist, father, pastor, lover, public theologian, and writer. … He is also a frequent voice at the intersection where the cries of the oppressed meet the Church. He pays special attention to Black Liberation movements in his work, but lifts up the many intersections with other marginalized peoples as well.”
We’re reading Dear Church for a book study group — one that meets on Zoom, hooray! — in my ELCA congregation, and we had quite a stimulating discussion the first night. I’m withholding judgment on the book. And I wouldn’t bet the farm that ELCA is the whitest denomination — what about gathered communities like the Old Order Amish? — but we’re 96 or 97 percent white, and I think Duncan is onto something important.
Maybe even transformational.
Some of the stars do seem to be lined up right, I’m beginning to hope, and Black Lives Matter seems to be getting the same kind of traction now the Civil Rights movement did 60 years ago.
So Duncan’s book is timed perfectly to coincide with that reckoning. His tone is informal, conversational — a love letter at times, and the kind of stern come-to-Jesus lecture I sometimes got from my parents at others. (Which is also an expression of love, of course.)
Duncan’s thesis, hardly a news flash, is that American society is shot through and through with the evil of systemic racism:
We can no longer as a church count on our country’s leaders; we must step into communities that are being squeezed by the twenty-first century and be a healing balm. This tapestry of discipleship can be weaved into any community where the people are dying for freedom. The gospel has always offered liberation. Jesus Christ of Nazareth was lynched for it.
And the antithesis, to borrow a term from philosophy that I think fits here, would be an intentional exercise of discipleship on the part of the churches — hearing the word of God, proclaiming the gospel, serving our neighbors and striving “for justice and peace in all the earth” — to combat this systemic racism. But Duncan asks if we’re up to the task:
So what about our congregations and the way we relate to the world has left us completely ill equipped to call out this sort of radical evil as it festers in our pews? What are we doing to equip our members to engage with their families and the broader community? How are we training them to start to talk these folks back from the edge of the abyss?
In classical philosophy, often associated with Kant and Hegel (not to mention Marx), out of the conflict between thesis and antithesis comes something new — a synthesis that combines the two and resolves the contradictions between them. I think Duncan offers at least the glimmering of a synthesis when he suggests greater diversity as a goal:
Diversity is not assimilation in the same way grace is not the law. In fact, diversity is God’s defense against empire.
There’s a lot to chew on here, and I don’t pretend to have it all resolved and tucked away in my mind. That’s what we have book discussion groups for — hooray again for Zoom!
When I started reading Dear Church, I decided right off the bat I was going to: (a) read it all the way through fast, because I literally couldn’t put it down; and (b) go back and read it again, slowly this time, for understanding. So what I’m saying here is based on a cursory first reading (and, in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m cheating and getting my quotes for this blog post from Goodreads instead of going back through the book).
But I also looked up some reviews and interviews online, and I think a couple of things stand out that I’m going to be looking for as we dive into the book.
Something else, too: For several years I’ve been doing historical research on the ethnic Lutheran synods from northern Europe that merged into ELCA (the proposal for a current project is linked HERE, and I post notes and ideas for possible further research HERE.). Duncan raises issues about the old Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Synod my father’s family grew up in and the Swedish-American culture I married into. So I expect I’ll be coming back to them repeatedly.
But one of my strongest takeaways is this — Dear Church isn’t just for the ELCA, or for Lutherans, Norwegians, Swedes or any other white ethnic group. In a book review for the National Catholic Reporter, Diana L. Hayes, professor emerita of systematic theology at Georgetown University, suggests Duncan’s tapestry of discipleship is for all churches that accept his mission of redemption from the sin of systemic racism.
“His emphasis is on dismantling, destroying and burying white supremacy in this nation, its schools, pews and liturgies,” says Hayes. “As a church, as a Christian people, he asserts, this is our call in the 21st century.” She continues:
There is no way around it. For Duncan, Luke 4:16-21 [“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,* because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor …”] is the foundational text for any and all Christian churches in today’s world. The church’s mission is to proclaim good news to the oppressed. It must actively lead if it is truly to be a viable witness for the future.
Too many churches, Hayes adds, “ignore the needs and wants of society today, a society largely made up of those who hunger for God’s love but are alienated from it by the harsh language and often cold and unwelcoming edifices that claim to proclaim the good news, that God is love.”
White Lutherans of northern European heritage (to wax a little bit redundant about who we are) have a special role to play, though.
Partly for tactical reasons, I gather. Interviewed by the public relations staff at Minnesota’s St. Olaf College when he spoke there in February, Duncan was asked what northern European, white institutions like St. Olaf, founded in 1874 by Norwegian immigrants, could do to revitalize and diversify the church. He answered:
St. Olaf has the challenge of raising good white Lutherans, and encouraging white folks to do white folk work. There are places that my voice will never be heard. There are people who will never come hear me speak. There are people who will immediately shut down when I open my mouth, and those are the places where you get to pick up the work, you get to say the thing, and you get to walk people forward. The biggest thing is to educate good white folks and send them out into the world to do good white folk work.
And in June, during the first anguished wave of BLM demonstrations in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Duncan told Isabella Rosario of National Public Radio:
White denominations need to show up, share their wealth and let people of color and street activists lead. They need to get connected to leaders on the ground and pour all their resources into bail funds and providing food and water. The church has lost our place in society and given up our opportunity to be leaders. But we can be chaplains to the revolution. We can offer spiritual care and comfort to those who are going to change this country and who I truly believe are sent by God. We can show up as white churches to serve those people and get the hell out of their way.
That jibes with something I’ve long believed. If we are to ever get past our original sin of chattel slavery based on race and its legacy of Jim Crow, economic inequality and covert, often unintentional, always institutionalized racism, it will require the transformative power of the Black church to make us whole.
White churches can — and must — be part of this transformative process. But Duncan has one of those loving come-to-Jesus lectures for white allies in general and ELCA in particular. He told Rosario of NPR:
I believe that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America wants to be better. They just don’t know how. One of the things that we often underestimate with the power of white supremacy is that the people who are the sickest from it, often do not know that they are infected with it. They can’t recognize the cage around me as a black, queer person in this country, and they can’t see the gilded one around themselves. That’s why in the book, I diagnosed it as something that is demonic and otherworldly because of the way it seems to have malevolence and intelligence above and beyond some of the convenient fools. Our president is a convenient fool for white supremacy.
That said, Lutheran heritage is integral to Duncan’s tapestry of discipleship. Again I’m reminded of Kant, Hegel and the process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis that melds opposing forces into something new that brings the conflict into resolution.
“I’m coming to these conclusions,” Duncan said at St. Olaf, “based off of our confessions, based off of our theology, based off of our hermeneutic, based off of our best teachers, based off of our tradition.” Part of it is strictly theological:
I think the idea that you don’t have to earn your salvation is a really freeing thing, and that’s key to the Lutheran tradition — that we don’t earn our way into God’s good graces. That was already bought and paid for 2,000 years ago. So that frees me to actually care about the people around me.
And part of it, I think, goes back to Luther’s notion of adiaphora, that some things are “neither commanded nor forbidden in the Word of God” and don’t have to be nailed down. Although Duncan doesn’t mention it, I think that attitude, or something like it, can be especially important today. At St. Olaf Duncan said, for example, he’s “served charismatic Lutheran churches where people are more likely to fall out in tongues than they are to talk about Kierkegaard.” He added:
But yet we’re all Lutheran. So there’s something about the Lutheran tradition where we can disagree on a great variety of issues, yet still be in community together. I think that’s helpful for social justice. Right now, there is a push for progressive puritanism, where if you don’t know the right words or you don’t know the right things, if you don’t say things perfectly the way they’re supposed to be said, then you’re “canceled,” and we can’t move forward like that. I’m certainly not calling for a centrist position because I’m not a centrist, but I think everyone gets to start where they get to start. Everyone’s journey is holy. And we have to do the hard work of walking people to the places that we find ourselves already.
But at bottom, I think it goes back much farther than Luther.
I’d say it goes all the way back to law and gospel, to the Great Commandment — love God, love thy neighbor — and the Old Testament prophets. We know these things, I think, even when we fail to live up to them. Shortly after Duncan took up his new call at the height of BLM protests in the Pacific Northwest, he talked with Patty Hastings of the Vancouver Columbian about his hopes for mission development there, but also of the theological underpinnings of both. Hastings reported:
One challenge, he said, is there doesn’t seem to be a mainstream theological framework around systemic racism, at least not in the Lutheran tradition.”
“People aren’t naming that racism is a sin. Systemic racism is a sin,” Duncan said. “People who are public servants who sacrifice their safety need to be honored for that, but also something is wrong in policing in America. Jesus declares Black lives matter. There shouldn’t be any debate over this.”
That rang a bell with me. Twenty-five or 30 years ago in Springfield, I attended a meeting of an ad hoc community group discussing ways to counter a planned Ku Klux Klan rally at the Illinois Statehouse. And in the middle of our talk about logistics, parade permits, coalitions and messaging, one of the Franciscan sisters affiliated with a local hospital caught me up short with an off-hand reference to “the sin of racism.”
Why, yes, of course. Racism is a sin. I’d never thought of it that way before, and I’ve never thought of it any other way ever since.
Patty Hastings, “Jubilee Collective’s Mission: Anti-racist, inclusive space in Vancouver,” The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash., June 26, 2020 https://www.columbian.com/news/2020/jun/26/jubilee-collectives-mission-anti-racist-inclusive-space/.
Diana L. Hayes, “Lenny Duncan, Lutheran pastor, calls on Christianity to revolutionize,” National Catholic Reporter, Nov 20, 2019 https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/lenny-duncan-lutheran-pastor-calls-christianity-revolutionize.
“Reflections from Rev. Lenny Duncan,” St. Olaf College News, Northfield, Minn., Feb. 21, 2020 https://wp.stolaf.edu/news/reflections-from-rev-lenny-duncan.
Isabella Rosario, “Jesus Was Divisive: A Black Pastor’s Message To White Christians,” National Public Radio, June 12, 2020 https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2020/06/12/699611293/jesus-was-divisive-a-black-pastor-s-message-to-white-christians.