Tag Archives: racism

THOUGHTS ON “BLACK LIVES MATTER” By Nathan Wicks, Second Year M. Div.

A few Sundays ago, people gathered and marched for the Black Lives Matter movement in Dubuque, Iowa not far from the neighborhood of Wartburg Seminary. About 200 gathered and walked a mile down Grandview Avenue. The majority of the gathering was white, as is the community in which we marched, but there was a good number of African Americans and representatives of groups such as the NAACP, Dubuque Area Congregations United, and the Children of Abraham interfaith group. Several seminarians and faculty members from Wartburg Seminary were among those who marched.

The strong turnout was a sign of the importance of this issue in the community. This movement began in order to raise awareness of the killings of African Americans by police officers, but has come to represent more than this single issue. It is also raising awareness of implicit racism which is becoming more shamelessly expressed in this season after the election. This is not a “post-racial” world.

As the organization and announcements for the Black Lives Matter march gained momentum through Facebook, discussion of a counter protest–to include the open carrying of firearms—arose under the guise of saying All Lives Matter. For myself, after I got over the shock and fear of that armed threat as a counter to affirming the worth of Black lives, I thought, “At least we are recognizing that this is a matter of life and death.” Amidst the fog of negative rhetoric in this disturbing exchange, however, important issues were obscured. The result of this kind of interaction is that we are unable to clarify our own identities enough to actually speak to each other. Instead, we use code words to speak against each other. This is only made worse in that talking to each other as a “community” comes from behind the safety of the screen in our individualized echo chambers like Facebook.

In the conversation between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, we forget how much we lose ourselves in losing our connection to each other. The farther our words get from our neighbors, the less we are able to say who we are anymore. We are unable to recognize the community in which we live, the simple community of proximity, of neighborhood, the people next door. What vast chasms of difference between us have opened up since we last saw each other face to face? Who are you anymore? Who am I? What are we saying when we say Black Lives Matter, or All Lives Matter?  The drive to a clear language with which we can actually speak to another human being takes something like the surprising radicalism of walking in the context of what we say. Walking the talk. To claim an identity and to walk it, open to what actual conversation might occur is very different than accepting the rhetoric of elections into our own mouths. The drive to a clear identity which is differentiated and knows why and how and what for takes something like an actual human being walking on a sidewalk in a neighborhood in the community in which they live.

And that was the interesting part of this march. We gathered based on this issue of Black Lives Matter amidst a vague but announced threat of a counter protest of All Lives Matter. I confess I imagined there would be more of a confrontation, perhaps people on opposite sides of the street shouting passionately at each other. I didn’t bring my son out of fear of this. I really did want to see who these people were who consider openly carrying guns a major issue, because I don’t understand it. And then there wasn’t much of a counter protest at all. We didn’t get to see the people who say All Lives Matter and the confrontation didn’t happen. The cohesion of the group uniting on this issue was there; it was exciting to do this. One esteemed professor said she hadn’t done something like this since marching out of her seminary in protest in the 70’s. There was a striving for that exuberant hopefulness of a common cause and a real fight, but in the absence of the open conflict we were left with ourselves much as we were before the march. We stuck to our own little groups and didn’t talk too much. There were hesitant starts of chants like “White silence equals violence,” but none acquired the inertia and sustaining energy to last more than a minute or two. When I look back, there was an air of grief to the march. The community embodied itself as it is and instead of a fight there was sadness, a kind of election PTSD stumbling along, a husk of a former self. Or perhaps it was a steeling of oneself in expectation of the cold of winter to come. Or maybe it was more a funeral march than anything else.

For public conversations to happen a community needs a foothold on its identity. The act of walking is a powerful way that words can finally find purchase in bodies, in earthen vessels full of hope and disappointment, lament and praise. A march gives our hope a chance to become who we are in this place as we find a common ground. Walking shows a way that commonalities overcome differences in the same way that hopes live in the midst of disappointments, friendship happens in relation to the love mustered for enemies, and lives are lived in the fearful human reality of death. These commonalities worked through the political arenas of life rarely make it to the ground of conversation in the actual ground of neighborhood that the soles of our feet walk upon.

Words are powerful things. Words are promises which create worlds. To say “’Peace, peace’ when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14), is to use words carelessly in treating the wound in our public conversation. To say “All Lives Matter” is akin to saying “All men are created equal.” It partakes of the self-fulfilling prophetic language of the Constitution, the ideals upon which the United States was founded. To be plain, this prophetic utterance of “All Lives Matter” is a way of pointing out sin, as all prophets do. It partakes of the pervasiveness of this nation’s sin, a mirror on the ways all lives do not matter, the way the grand claim of a country founded on the belief that “all men are created equal” left out so many and in fact created this world in which persons are violently kept from being who they are created to be. It is a statement of the oppression and frustration of equality parading openly under its opposite. It is a cross-shaped word seeking redemption and reconciliation for what it says to be true.

We can come home to ourselves, to our communities and neighborhoods, only when we recognize the ways we are not at home, the ways we are exiled in this place we call home. To deny the exile from self, neighbor, and community is to ignore reality itself. The purpose of speech is to evoke a reality in which we would actually like to participate. Words, even words like “exile,” are for a community to talk to each other, not only to describe a reality in which no one is relatable any longer. Words create those relationships in the words themselves. Conversation is an act of faith which imagines a future together where exile is not the primary experience of reality.

If we read the words of Isaiah 55 in this place we can trust that a word which will “accomplish that for which (it is) purposed” (v. 11) is speaking. Perhaps the best thing that happened in the midst of our gathering and marching, our hope and disappointment graciously brought to earth in our walking, was the words shared between police officers and African Americans. Of all the failed conversation, the words left unspoken, the community unrealized yet united in unspoken grief, those most caricatured as enemies were the ones speaking to each other. The officers who helped us cross the street and kept off to the margins of the gathering, keeping a protective eye on us and what might come from outside were the ones to whom many African Americans went for a real conversation.

There are words spoken that cut through the illusion of the rhetoric and create new and transformed worlds in which we walk every day. There are words spoken plainly, promises in the midst of what seems like a reality which contradicts them. The Word is free in ways we are not and in fact freeing us is Its work among us. In the barrenness of words our emptiness was filled in this gathering as the words of conversation will continue to bear fruit in ways we cannot expect.

Students and faculty from Wartburg Theological Seminary attending the Black Lives Matter march in Dubuque, Iowa

Students and faculty from Wartburg Theological Seminary attending the Black Lives Matter march in Dubuque, Iowa

MY PROUD YANKEE HERITAGE By Jean E. Peterson, Volunteer Assistant, ELCA Region 5 Archives at WTS

As a New England Yankee (50% Connecticut Yankee and 25% “Downeasterner” [Maine]), whose roots were firmly planted in earliest English colonial days, I inherited 300+ years of “Yankee pride.”  Until two years ago when I first enrolled as an auditor in Prof. Craig Nessan’s seminar titled “American Genocide 1 – Native American,” I hadn’t given much thought to the people who inhabited these lands for many, many moons before my progenitors sailed across the ocean in the early 1600’s, and invaded, seized, and settled on land stolen from Native nations who already lived here. Our course readings pointed out the horrendous slaughter of thousands, perhaps even millions, of natives by the uninvited Europeans. They stole the land and its resources from those who had lived here for thousands of years before white people appeared on the shores of the North American continent.

Quickly, my Yankee pride turned into a deep sense of guilt and shame.

Prof. Nessan suggested that we don’t have collective guilt for sins committed by our predecessors before we were born, but we can experience collective shame for the actions of our forebears and our nation. Just as we cannot individually go back in time to undo the sins we’ve committed so also as a people collectively, we cannot undo what our nation or our personal forebears did throughout five centuries of genocide.  But we can take note of current situations, and of the residual suffering of people today.

I see a way of currently doing that by educating ourselves and by becoming aware and supportive of Native Americans who are trying to preserve what land and resources they still have.  We can refuse now to permit an oil pipeline to be buried across their existing reservations, desecrating traditional sacred places, and with the potential for polluting natural resources: clean drinking water, produce from the soil, or shade and fruit from whatever trees may be left.

My Yankee pride has turned into a deep sense of “collective shame,” but also of personal shame.  I am ashamed not simply of what generic white European colonists have done to North American Natives, and to captured and enslaved Africans, but for what was done by my own identifiable direct ancestors (including clergy).

In her book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, © 2014, published by the Beacon Press, Boston, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes, in Chapter Three, on page 51:  “The old stock against which they [later invited European immigrants] are judged inferior includes not only those who fought in the fifteen-year war for independence from Britain, but also, and more important, those who fought and shed (Indian) blood, before and after independence, in order to acquire the land.

Recently, I have been reading the stories of dozens of my own known ancestors in context of their negotiations for land or their relationships with the Native Nations. Clearly many of my direct ancestors fought them in the Pequot War of 1636-1638 and in King Philip’s War (1675-1678).  They bartered with the Natives for land.  They depended upon the Natives for provisions to get them through a very severe winter.  And at least one of my forebears apparently kept an Indian maiden as a slave, as his will provided that she should have her freedom when she reached the age of 26.  I have also learned that l have at least a few slave-holders of Africans among my ancestors.

Lord, I as a Yankee pray for forgiveness for racial arrogance. I pray for   remembrance and honor for the lives of the millions of Natives who were senselessly erased by my racially “privileged” white ancestors.

CONFRONTING RACISM: CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION By Derek Rosenstiel, 1st Year M.Div.

“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body” (Col. 3:14-15, NRSV).

The Wartburg community gathered together on campus as brothers and sisters March 4th in love and fellowship for the specific purpose of participating in God’s mission (mission Dei).  Individuals entered into conversation with their own past experiences of racism and the division that it causes.  Some entered desperately seeking ways in which to participate in God’s work of reconciliation and the healing of wounds caused by racism.  People were guided by the power of the Holy Spirit to struggle together with questions of what to do about racism within our Church, our communities, and even within our own selves.

Through the teaching, sharing, and practice of some skills on how to go about carrying out a conversation surrounding the topic of racism, the night progressed quite quickly.  As I observed the group with which I shared conversation and also looked around at other groups, I felt a strong sense of passion and emotion flowing among participants.  At the end, when the entire group gathered together for a sharing of final reflections, many ideas and emotions reverberated throughout the narthex: Heartache, Hope, Determination, Acceptance, Love, Pain, Resolve… These words along with the stories and shared experiences I heard that night will stay with me forever.

My hope is that others left that night with a sense of purpose and hope for the future just as I did. A strong mix of emotions flowed through my very being but one thought stuck with me:  the conversation continues because it must.  The Church has everything to lose if it does not continue to address racism through conversation and action.  We must realize that we, as the Body of Christ, are not whole when certain voices are being ignored or silenced.  My hope is that the Holy Spirit will continue to stir within us all, not only just in the Wartburg community, but in the whole world.  Let us not be content with the state of the Church right now.  Let the Word of God continue to unsettle us when we hear it and look around us at the walls that separate us.  Let the reconciling work of Christ work in and through us all, and let us come to the fullness of glory because of it. May almighty God give us God’s own peace.

 

CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION: CONFRONTING RACISM by Derek Rosenstiel, 1st Year MDiv Student and Angela Kutney, Final Year MDiv Student

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Ephesians 2:13-14

“Continuing the Conversation: Confronting Racism” was held at WTS Tuesday, November 10th as a response to Bishop Eaton’s call to address systemic and institutionalized racism in the church, the country, and the world. This gathering together in fellowship, conversation and worship was one step toward breaking down the walls that divide people from people. Facing the sin of racism brings us, once again, to the foot of the cross where Christ transforms hostility to peace.

In community we work to find a solution to this issue, ultimately trusting that God will bring about the justice and reconciliation desperately hoped for.  And so the conversation continues, because it must.

 

AN INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE CONVOCATION TALK by Denise Rector, 1st Year MDiv Student

One of the central points—truths—to consider when thinking about inclusive language, is our power to name things. It’s one of the things God gives humans right up front.

We can name for good, or for ill. From naming, to classifying, to including/excluding, to judging . . . it’s a slippery slope.

Lots of things about this next story make me cringe. I used to work with a group of friends who had an inside joke about the name “Target.” There was a nice, big, new, shiny (all of those words are important) Target in the rich suburb south of town. That was the Targét (pronounced Tar-jay). Not just Target— Targét. The other Target was in a mall that people thought was dying. Not as nice, big, new, or shiny. That was the Tar-ghetto.

We have the power to name. And I am not proud of how I used that power. How I used that power not just to name, but to judge. Reflecting on that story, one of the most important things, scary things, to me is that it was an inside joke. It was something I shared with some people, and not others. So that shows me personally what exclusive language (as opposed to inclusive) is: “Can I say it to anyone?” Is it appropriate everywhere?

That was a socioeconomic example. Here is a race/ethnicity based example: I have heard very well-meaning people, kind people, friends ask me what I would like to be called, “African-American?” “Black?” I’m sure people who have lived through the decades of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, etc have wondered about African –Americans: “Well, what do they want to be called now?”

There is so much packed into that question. The “they” is a separation, designating an ‘us’ from a ‘them’, whether the question is asked sincerely, faithfully, with concern, with annoyance, or with a sense of insecurity. All of those things are present.

Also present is the idea that the many names for African-Americans, from the slurs (n-word/darkie/ coon) to the ones that are socially acceptable and progressive for their time (black/negro/Afro-American/African-American) have all been reactions. They are all reactions of one person looking at another and thinking, “You, your skin, your culture – you are not like me. What are you?” In other words, African-Americans have never had a way of naming themselves that isn’t a reaction to a normative culture from outside classifying, judging, naming, including/excluding. That slippery slope again.

Those groups that have been named from the outside have often taken those names on internally as a defining characteristic and point of identity. Consider the pink triangle, or the n-word with a gangsta ending. Why would a group do this? Because naming is powerful. Inclusion and exclusion are powerful.

The ability to name is the possession of power, God-given power. As leaders in the church, let’s work to change the balance of power.

“CONFRONTING RACISM” CONVERSATION HELD ON WARTBURG SEMINARY CAMPUS by Carina Schiltz, Final Year MDiv

Wartburg Seminary held a community-wide conversation on “Confronting Racism” during the first week of fall semester classes. Faculty, staff, and students were invited to attend this conversation to further engage in the complexity and implications of racism, to share stories, and to continue in this dialogue for the sake of change.

The community viewed the ELCA webinar featuring Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton in conversation with ELCA church wide council member William B. Horne II about racial justice in the United States. This webinar was created in response to the massacre of nine people, including two pastors, at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, as well as in response to other racially-motivated violence that has been taking place all through the history of the United States, but particularly over the past year.

After viewing the webinar, members of the Wartburg community shared stories of witnessing and experiencing racism first-hand, even within the walls of Wartburg Seminary.

How will we, as a seminary, as a gathering of faithful people who worship the God who breaks down barriers, continue to contemplate and take action when it comes to the evil of racism in our world and in our midst? This conversation must be continued, and this conversation must result in change.

Click here to view the webcast, or for resources to assist in beginning conversations about confronting racism on the ELCA website.

FAILURE AS AN UNDERLYING NARRATIVE by Christa Fisher, 3rd year M.Div. Student

“Your son is at a high risk for failure.” The school principal’s words settled on my chest like a leaden mantle. Unprepared for this phone call, I stammered a confused response. “What? Why? You must be mistaken.” My three-year old son was sitting at the kitchen island coloring, his small fingers gripping a fat red crayon. The principal assured me the call was not an error – she was speaking about my son, about Jacob. A week prior Jacob had participated in a 60-minute early-childhood education readiness assessment and according to the principal, Jacob’s test results warranted the phone call.

In the days following the call I was consumed with the need to understand how Jacob could be at a “high-risk for failure.” After Jacob was born I left my career to stay home and care for him. Needing order and predictability in my life, I created a schedule of activities to fill our days. We attended play groups, visited museums, hiked in the woods, baked cookies, made blanket forts, painted self-portraits, learned the alphabet, numbers, shapes and colors, and spent hours upon hours reading. As Jacob became older and craved more time with other children I enrolled him in a highly respected preschool program. His preschool teachers were perplexed by the school district’s assessment. Not only was Jacob doing fine in preschool, they assured me his skills were age appropriate, he came from a safe, loving home, with two devoted parents, who were both college educated. I shared my confusion with a neighbor, a professor of early childhood education. According to her, there was nothing about Jacob which suggested he was at a “high risk for failure.” My husband and I did not enroll Jacob in the specialized program the school district had created for “kids like him.” Instead, we continued to do what we were already doing and hoped this label would not follow him into kindergarten.

After much thought I deduced the school district’s assessment was colored by racism. You see, Jacob is biracial. My husband is black and I am white.

I should not have been surprised by the school district’s assumptions about Jacob. I grew up in a community of people who showcased their racism with pride and am therefore keenly aware of the assumptions we white people make about people of color. As a young mother I worked hard to ensure people had no reason to make such assumptions about our family.  As I focused on maintaining our image, however, I worried my efforts to shield my children from racism were actually depriving them the opportunity to claim their true character. I also worried that my actions were born, at some level, out of my own racism.

My mother-in-law once told me that by marrying her son I was black by association. At the time I didn’t take her seriously. Andre, my soon to be husband, and I were in our early 20’s and living in Berkeley, California. As a biracial couple in the San Francisco Bay Area we were in the norm. Surrounded by the appearance of racial unity I speculated within a generation or two racism would cease to exist. It was easy for me to be so hopeful. I had not yet experienced racism.

When Andre and I moved to Wisconsin I became acutely aware of the differences between the ways people treated us as compared to my previous relationships with white men. When the waitress escorted Andre to one table and me to another, we pitied her for her ignorance. When the mechanic refused to service our vehicle, we moved our business elsewhere. When Andre was defamed at work and offered no recourse, we swallowed our anger and bemoaned small town life. But when our children were born we could no longer simply joke about ignorant behaviors or tolerate inequality at work. Our precious children deserve better than that.

Shortly after Jacob started kindergarten we began receiving notes from his teacher, all assuming parental incompetence. In addition to urging us to read to Jacob for “just 5 minutes each night,” we were also cautioned to limit Jacob’s exposure to television, and to provide him a healthy diet, among other things. Though she did not know us, the teacher assumed our parenting skills were inadequate.

I met with the school principal to discuss the notes, which she quickly dismissed. The teacher was acting out of concern, the principal insisted, and I was over-reacting. In retrospect I should not have expected her to understand – she was the one who informed us Jacob was at a “high risk for failure.” Unprepared to fight this battle, we chose to ignore the teacher’s notes and continue parenting Jacob as we always had.

Andre and I are now more proactive regarding our children’s educations. At the start of the year we meet each of our children’s teachers to tell our story, beginning in the Bay Area where we received our educations and continuing to our present situation in Madison, Wisconsin. By the time we finish, the teachers know us well enough to refrain from applying stereotypical ideologies to our children or making uninformed assumptions about us as parents. Thankfully, both of our children are thriving in school – academically and socially.

Though I am concerned our children will suffer for having a white mother, I recognize that my race can work to their advantage. We are welcomed into places and conversations and afforded greater choices and opportunities due to my whiteness. Teachers and doctors, people who hold critical information, are generally more comfortable communicating with me than with my black husband. I am the primary driver in our family and do not fear racial profiling on the road. As long as our children are with me, I do not worry they will be attacked, physically or verbally.

Yet my whiteness will only benefit our children as long as they are dependent upon and near me. Eventually they will be functionally independent. Then when people look at Jacob with suspicion, whether a police officer, a college professor, or a vigilante citizen, Jacob will have to fend for himself. Under great pressure and amidst intense emotions, Jacob will be responsible for diffusing their anger by demonstrating that he does not warrant fear and is someone worth befriending rather than attacking.

While I still disagree with the school district’s assessment of Jacob, I now recognize a truth in their conclusion. Jacob is at a “high risk for failure” though not for anything he or we have done or failed to do. Jacob will likely experience failure in his life – we all do. Unlike Jacob’s white peers, however, his failure will be inseparable from an underlying narrative of antagonistic racial bias. This insidious evil, which began sabotaging Jacob’s potential before he could even write his entire name, will never just disappear. It is embedded in our institutions and communities, increasing peoples’ risk of failure by limiting their opportunities and choices. Racism, the underlying cause of racial disparities in incarceration, unemployment, poverty, and serious health conditions, justifies racial profiling and minimizes hate crimes. Whether or not Jacob recognizes it, he is in an abusive relationship with racism, from which there is no escape. Unprepared to battle this exhausting, humiliating, and dangerous intruder, we can only hope we are providing him the skills he needs to manage this relationship, so it is unable to consume his life, robbing him his true character and potential and ultimately rendering him a failure.