May 8, 2017

Deprivileging the White Church

I just returned from our synod assembly. It is an annual regional gathering in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America of leaders and lay persons chosen to be voting members for the assembly. We gather to worship, make decisions both perfunctory and profound, and build relationships across our expansive geographical synod.

At this year's assembly, the opening worship did not set the tone of an inclusive, welcoming gathering. It focused on the German heritage of the Lutheran immigrants who came here in the 19th century. It made use of a "Thanksgiving for Our Heritage" at the opening that quickly said: "us" is white, German Lutheranism. "Them" is those who came after. I do not think this was the intention of the writer or planners. But in a public liturgy, intention is not very important. The impression and the impact is what matters. While other parts of the assembly spoke to a more inclusive, less white-centric church, the opening set a tone that was hard to overcome.

I read this liturgy ahead of time and was surprised and offended. I chose not to attend the worship service so I would not be seen as supporting this exclusive message, and to show some kind of solidarity with those who felt left out. One particularly egregious problem with this opening liturgy was the lack of mention of the very old Latino Lutheran congregations in Rio Grande Valley, some of which are older than most of our majority white congregations. The worship gave the impression that German Lutherans have carried the tradition and then, when the Spirit decided it was time, they recently began to expand their vision to include others through the benevolence of whites.

I'm not looking to blame any particular individuals for this. I am curious how this came to be. All I can guess is that the planning team was not diverse enough to include persons with eyes and ears that would hear this liturgy from a different perspective than the historical, narrow, white experience.

We live with a problem in the Lutheran church, and in other historically white majority denominations, I suspect, one that has been discussed for decades, but with slow progress. We continue to think of the church from a white "us" perspective, and we continue to see the non-white parts of the church as "them," as some other that we benevolently choose to accept among us. We continue to privilege white culture in our decisions and evaluations about worship and church life, rarely even aware that we are doing this, and insensitive to how it continues to exclude and diminish the rich church traditions of many cultures.

It is time to deprivilege the white church. White folks have to do it, but we can't do it alone, because we would likely not get it. We have to deprivilege the white church in converstation with and relationship with all the parts of the church that comprise the body of Christ. We have to lose the sense that we, the white folks, are "us." We need to experience being one part of the body among many, neither privileged, nor rejected, just a part of the wonderful body that only has life when all its parts are honored.

How might we do this? A few ideas, but they are only mine and many others have excellent ideas:

  1. White folks need to be intentional about deprivileging their own culture in worship. That doesn't mean white culture is bad or should go away. It means opening up to the gifts that other cultures bring and understanding that we have much to learn from them. It means not evaluating everything through the lens of whiteness, but through the lens of the Gospel. Perhaps a majority white congregation or synod should at a minimum always worship with at least one piece of music that isn't Euro-American white, one text that isn't English, one visual that is from cultures of color.
  2. Planning for worship and other church events, especially at the regional level, should never be a whites-only group. White people are often not aware of the ways language, liturgy, and music can unintentionally exclude. Even well intended white people who are striving for inclusivity mess this up. White people trying to be inclusive just becomes another exclusive way of doing things.
  3. Avoid as much as possible any expression of the church that appears to tell a story that whites were first, and non-whites came later after we decided to let them in. It's a false, white-centered story that often serves merely to make whites feel better about centuries of racist exclusion, and does not tell the truth. It also perpetuates the notion that non-white groups are never the norm, never the center, always defined by how whites decided to accept them. With this, we must find more honest and horable ways to tell the Native American story even when it disrupts the comfortable white myth of this land and of the church's mission.
  4. Practice unending and non-defensive repentance when it comes to being the privileged, white majority. The church lives with the gift of forgiveness and mercy. Use them extravagantly so that we can be open to God's transforming Spirit.
  5. White liberals need to be careful about two things: Assuming we have all the right answers to these issues, and being self-righeous in judging other whites when they make mistakes.
  6. Be bold in pursuing justice together in the church and outside the church, and let every worship service and church gathering witness to this. Don't let the fear of making mistakes stop you. 
  7. Do not begrudge the loss of privilege. Rejoice in the ongoing work of the Spirit to overcome division and create unity within diversity, reconciliation out of division. If that requires letting go of a lot we white folks assumed was a given, then let it go freely and joyfully.

7 comments:

  1. Amen and thank you so much for this!

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  2. This is insane. Any white person that wants to maintain their culture, and doesn't want white people to go extinct will throw up when they read this. The ELCA is hemorrhaging members, especially white ones. Will there even be a church left for your grandkids?

    In your profile it says " I'm currently trying to figure out how to live without The Daily Show and The Colbert Report." Maybe if you stopped letting Christ-deniers influence your mind, you wouldn't hate yourself so much.

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    1. Thank you. There is a lot to think about here. Our blindness to unintentional exclusivity is dangerous, but not as dangerous as the tendency of so many to react with defensiveness.

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    2. Christ's Church will never die. The color/ethnicity of it is irrelevant. This article is about noticing where we (White) make assumptions based on our priveleged status and addressing it. Maintaining "our culture" usually means separating one group from another, which is something that Jesus fought against. All are one in Christ.

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  3. I hope you are familiar with Decolonize Lutheranism. If not, please look them up, they are doing vital work.

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  4. Thanks for your witness, Mike! As it has been said before, there is no such thing as race, but there is such a thing as racism. Racism helps people with privilege justify the moral burden of sin. But an even better way to justify the moral burden of sin is to surrender that sin to a God who loves us, trusting in eternal embrace. This is gift, and it remains for all beings, regardless of skin color or species. This pattern of repentance and forgiveness is what church is all about. What does it profit us to save our lives but lose our souls?

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