So perhaps you have become recently aware of the #decolonizelutheranism movement as it is receiving more and more attention. To be fair presiding Bishop Eaton has already been discussing this with the ELCA about unshackling ourselves from the “ethnic” identity that at one time served the Lutheran Church. We were mostly agrarian and rural and communities, in America’s more pioneering days, much more ethnic specific. Look at where LTSP is. A traditionally German settler area. This is exactly what the #decolonize movement is about, divorcing ourselves from this old model which in large part is murdering the ELCA. I repeat, this is murder.
When liturgical theologian, Gordon Lathrop, talks about the central symbols of worship and what they have mean for the church universal, I would say #decolonize fully agrees. If we don’t #decolonizetheliturgy we may not be able to get anyone to come to our church’s to experience word, bath, and meal. So I want to take a look at what the Decolonize movement is saying to the wider church, then what the ramifications may or may not be on our liturgical theology. What does it mean when a group of emerging leaders in the Church realize almost simultaneously that our theology has white supremacy embedded in it? In a wider context, what does it mean when “white” Lutherans are an anomaly compared to the rest of the world. Furthermore, how do we keep the liturgy the way in which we tell the story?
Others within this movement, of which I believe I am a part of, would say that the liturgy as we know it is part of the problem. I would contend that word, bath, and meal aren’t the problem. I would say the ways in which these symbols aren’t central anymore and Luther’s peculiarities are now being treated more central is the problem. So another question to ask ourselves, I believe, is how can we coopt some liturgical rites to fight systemic racism that exists within the Church? This is a long standing tradition in the Black Church experience. Examples are how Hymns the master would let us sing on the plantation and how they became messages for the underground railroad.
So I will lay out what I believe are the roots of the #decolonize movement in the ELCA. I will then describe how I think we can lead to another renewal of the central symbols of Christian worship.
What do I mean when I say decolonize Lutheranism? Well in the last few weeks since this movement as sparked on the scene in the ELCA I have realized a few things. First, what I mean by decolonize is very different than my peers who are involved. I have a peer who is a PHD student who is interested in what it means to untie our Church and by proxy our worship from the gender binary. One peer is particularly interested in indigenous peoples and their often troubling relationship with an institution that lead the way for the conquering of its homeland here on this continent, and what can only be called genocide. Another friend is interested in how this can be used to help other whites “get woke” as it is termed nowadays in the black liberation movement.
While my thoughts intersect with all of these important issues I have been concerned about two things. How do we untangle white supremacy in our theology from the cross? What I call the colonization of the spirit. How can we unwrap the gift that is the cross from all of this, while still using the liturgy to tell THE story? The only Story, about how a God loved us so much he came down into the muck and mire that is life here on earth, and got messy with us. How can we use the liturgy to combat what has essentially become the modern white washing of the Church? Can the liturgy even accomplish this with its mostly European washed roots, or is this solely a problem we don’t have the tools for? Was Luther’s accidental revolution and its desperate attempts to marry itself to power afterwards led to this rather schizophrenic relationship with the oppressed and heritage?
Basically, what does it mean to have a “Lutheran” liturgy? Is ethnicity, specifically European ethnicity and all the ways it has led to oppression in this country, so core to our identity that it will never be anyway else? These are some of the questions that the decolonize movement is attempting to answer in a very democratic manner. Public discussion, discourse and more.
For me the theological basis for such work is simply stated by James Cone. But Cone’s criticism is integral to why I believe we are seeing “decolonize” get traction in the ELCA. It’s a rather simple contention that speaks to the Reformers rather stunning silence when it came to standing with the oppressed. That the reformers in their quest for legitimacy and survival left them with the unenviable position of hardly every standing with the poor and oppressed. Almost always with princes and principalities and rulers. Cone states-
“We cannot say that Luther, Calvin, Wesley and other prominent representatives of the Churches tradition were limited by their time, as if their ethical judgments on oppression did not effect the essential truth of their theologies. They were wrong ethically because they were wrong theologically. They were wrong theologically because they failed to listen to the bible- with sufficient openness and through the eyes of the victims of political oppression.”
James Cone- God of the oppressed
While I have used this quote several times in post, it has become the centerpiece of several things I’m working on. Please excuse the oversharing of it.
Cone is stunning in his criticism. The ELCA has been content to discuss Luther’s ethical flaws. From his anti-Semitic writings, to his almost Machiavellian political maneuvering. They have even publicly apologized. These are issues of ethics and the application of the Gospel message. But Cone invites us to rethink all of that. He makes the proposition that the reformers theology was flawed because they didn’t listen to scripture with enough openness. That is an icepick to the heart of most Lutheran theologians, and brings to question the very foundation of our liturgy.
If our very theological foundation is flawed, we are telling the story “wrong.” In my opinion that also means we have to look at how we tell the story.
So I personally believe that there may be a fatal flaw in the reformation. That Luther and his contemporaries refused to stand with the oppressed. Over and over again they attempted to marry themselves to power. Now this was in part because of sheer survival. But if we are take Cone seriously, which I believe in light of the church’s bloody hands in the birth of this nation, we can’t just right off Luther as man of his time. This doesn’t excuse him from his actions just as we can’t right off Judas’s actions as a first century 2nd temple Jew who wanted revolution rather than a Rabbi.
Secondly, I’m just going to name something that may ruffle your feathers and for that I apologize. In the United States Lutheran pride has become white pride. White pride is the language of black liberation taken by supremacist movements. The idea that European peoples, cultures, and history are supreme. This includes theologians. Seminaries. Our liturgies. This seems to be a phenomenon that is almost exclusively in the United States. “White Lutheranism” only exists in a few states in a very small area of one continent. The world Lutheran Church by far is persons of color and full of diversity and beauty. Why not here? This is the bare bones of why the #decolonize movement has started in the ELCA today.
So how does this speak to our liturgical theology in the the ELCA. In what ways can we use the existing structures like our liturgy and our ELW and invite the experiences of those who have been “othered” into the center of our liturgy.
#decolonize Our Liturgy
In George Tinker’s essay- Decolonizing the Language of Lutheran Theology: Confessions, Mission, Indians, and the Globalization of Hybridity we see the basis of what I’m calling for. While Tinker focuses on this mission to decolonize in a much more global sense, I believe this critical eye can be turned to the ELCA, its constant cries for diversity, and in turn our liturgical theology. In his abstract he cuts right to the heart.
“Christianity as we know it in the United States is essentially a european ethnic religious movement, one that has necessitated decolonizing processes as it has spread into the formerly eurocolonized global world. In many ways, lutheranism has been and continues to be even more discretely ethnocentric, based largely in the thinking, the cultures, and the languages of the germanic north. This essay challenges lutheran theologians to begin a dedicated process of decoding the narrowly ethnic and implicitly colonizing language of lutheran theology.”
As I have stated earlier, liturgy is just the Church’s expression of telling THE story. What does it mean when all the hymns and liturgies are written almost exclusively by white men? It means that we most assuredly come out with liturgical practices that create a “dobbie brother” Jesus who looks more like satire on Vietnam war protesters than an authentic representation of Jesus of Nazareth. I’m not claiming that to have the answers on how we would even start to untangle the mess that is the colonizing of Lutheranism. But if language is important, and Lutheranism is at times a liturgy of the word more than anything else then this is clearly vitally important.
I also don’t think Gordon Lanthrop, whom Lutherans worship like a golden calf, would disagree at all. When he talks about the central symbols of word, bath, meal I believe he is calling the liturgical movement back to its stripped and bare core. Think of decolonizing as the stripping of the altar at the end of a Maundy Thursday service. We do this in preparation for the tomb and resurrection. We are preparing for new life. But the stripping away makes the central symbols perhaps the clearest they have ever are throughout the year. The temporary absence is poignant.
“Christians meet for worship on Sunday. Christians pray, together or singly, on all days of the week at morning and evening, perhaps also at noon or night. They pray in praise and intercession. In their Sunday meetings Christians gather around the scriptures. They also hold a meal. They teach faith to those who would join community, then they bathe them. These are the root elements of an ordo, of a pattern of scheduled rituals. ”
Gordon Lanthrop “Holy Thing’s”
Gordon strips bare the entire Christian pattern of worship. The same way we strip the altar on Maundy Thursday. That’s what I’m calling for. To strip away everything that stands in the way of people of color, and by way of intersectionality, the LGBTQ community, from engaging in meaningful worship in the ELCA. To continue to believe that singing Eurocentric hymns, Eurocentric depictions of Christ, and the vast majority of ELCA liturgist also reflecting this context isn’t part of the diversity problem in the ELCA is foolish.
Tinker again touches on the entire problem and solution in regards to trying to changing one intersecting piece of the Eurocentric puzzle that creates the ELCA today.
“Today I would press further that the notions of salvation and healing must be culturally unpacked in an Indian context, that salvation in particular must give way to the much more traditional Indian ideal of personal, communal, and eventually cosmic balance. And instead of arguing over how we might articulate the euro-theological notion of salvation in some manner that might be more compatible with Indian cultures, I would press that the process needs to be turned around. ”
George Tinker -“Decolonizing the Language of Lutheran Theology: Confessions, Mission, Indians, and the Globalization of Hybridity
Here Tinker hits the nail on the head. We can’t remove one piece of the structure like liturgy without rethinking the whole process. We need not think about how we contextualize a liturgy first put together in Ducal Saxony. We need to figure out what the context is speaking into the liturgy. This will alleviate some of the anxiety that is sure to come in a process like this. To avoid the eventual heartbreak of the laity I wouldn’t suggest this process in an established congregation.
Amongst ELCA congregations that are showing signs of growth are new mission starts or church plants. We would start where life is. Each new mission developer as part of their training or preparation would actually have to take some advanced liturgical studies. Something one or two steps beyond this course. Most of the curriculum would be in line with Gordon’s reasoning. We would strip down and help the seminarian unlearn what they think they know about worship.
The next step would be to teaching them how to contextualize. Draw from the history, culture, gifts, and challenges of community they are serving or plan to serve. Practice like this could take place on internship. The third and boldest step is we would have to create a small army of liturgical theologians. Folks who are no longer satisfied to log on to sundayandseasons.com. The idea wouldn’t be for them to be stuck with one contextual liturgy but to train them to have a discerning heart and ear to hear the Holy Spirit wherever they serve.
This would require remarkably more intentionality around our liturgical theology. It would also require us to train leaders for a much more fluid “church” and would do away with rubricism.
I invite you all to start the process of….
Strip the altar bare …..
Strip the liturgy bare…..