The Church for the World--Taking Responsibility
July 14th, 2016
In her book The Church for the World, Bonheoffer scholar Jennifer McBride reminds the church that it does its "redemptive work and becomes a vehicle of concrete redemption when its mode of being in the world is confession unto repentance." What does that mean? The church's task of confession is not to feel bad about itself, but to play an important role in our society toward the redemption that has seemed especially important as violence and racism rage. As a matter of faith, McBride notes that Christians who benefit from various degrees of social, economic, and political power should hold themselves accountable for the injustices that plague our society.
What did Jesus do in the end? We forget that the cross was his way of accepting guilt and taking responsibility for sin and evil. That's right, he chose to take the blame for everything that was wrong with the world, even as he spent his life preaching, teaching and healing. The church as the body of Christ in the world today still has the task of accepting guilt and taking responsibility for social sin. We often think of guilt in a narrow, individualistic way, but part of Dietrich Bonheoffer's legacy was to think of guilt in the broader sense of responsibility, along the lines of Abraham Joshua Heschel's idea that "few are guilty, but all are responsible." We live in a society of scapegoats. With so much blaming going around, always aimed at the other person, group, race, party, etc. What a moment for the church to stand up and say, "Blame me! Let us try to take some responsibility."
A focus on confession and repentance in the middle of summer? For the church, they are always in season. It is an ongoing defining element of the church's character and mission. In courage and hope we know that repentance is really the path to human wholeness and faithfulness to God.
Late last week I received a letter from the president of our seminary in Chicago, John Neiman, that is worth a wider reading. I admire his attempt to accept guilt and take responsibility. It is one example of some deeper truth-telling that I see happening after the events of last week. I find myself thinking and reading and reflecting on truths that have been out there, but my own comfort with the status quo or lack of interest kept me from them. Repentance comes in the form of some soul-searching, reading, finding a new openness to the experience of others, growing in deeper self-awareness and praying for lasting change in ourselves and the world. I commend this letter and his three suggested readings to you.
To the Lutheran Seminary community in Chicago,
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.
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 (PDF attached). 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, 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.
Signed, James Nieman, President
I pray for us to be the church in the world. May our confession lead to repentance, may some serious soul-searching lead to lasting change.