Embodied Stereotypes Instead of Theology

“Keep Minnesota passive-aggressive! (Or not, whatever you think is best.)”

I laughed out loud when I read that t-shirt slogan, and told my husband about it when I got home. Minnesotans have a set of character traits that we – and others – claim define us, and they tend to be synonymous with Lutherans, a Christian denomination that is still predominates here. Or I should have said, white Minnesotan Lutherans. Of Scandinavian descent. Sometimes those things are just assumed when you are in the majority. “This is who we are,” we say sometimes jokingly, sometimes not. But it’s killing us, or the people we don’t yet recognize are part of us.

Justine Damond was the 3rd person to die at the hands of police in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul in under 2 years. The culture within a police department may be toxic, but the culture we propagate in the community they serve has to be complicit for it to continue. Living into the stereotypes about ourselves costs lives; maybe this time we’ll do something about it. An op-ed by a former Hennepin County assistant defender in the Star Tribune underlined that it is the citizens who run these cities, and to whom the police departments are accountable when we insist on reforms. I wonder if black or brown citizens have ever thought that is true, though? This time, however, Police Chief Harteau was asked to resign.

How did our communities get here? Lutherans (again white, Scandinavian Lutherans) stereotypically don’t want to make a fuss. Stereotypes always misrepresent some, but they can also be internalized and become self-fulfilling prophesies. Our type stops participating rather than facing conflict. Church leaders worry, if we offend people and they leave, then we have no more chances to influence their prejudices, to change their hearts. Meanwhile, those who have been excluded or shamed disappear, never to return. We settle further into our homogeneity and justify not rocking the boat because “we don’t have any of those people here anyway.” Or we slip it in, little bits at a time, stories here or there, guest speakers, one pick in the book club, to open people’s eyes to discrimination. Maybe it builds up to a critical point of realization for some people. Or maybe the Council calls a special session because the complaints have become too numerous that the pastor is “too political,” although she has been fastidious about not mentioning any politicians or political parties. Except for a few side illustrations, living as if people of color (or any other group of people who might make us examine our complicity in discrimination) do not exist, bleeds outside of our churches into our communities. It shows up most starkly in what we do NOT do.

Lutherans can back up the pace of our incremental change with theology! An impetus for the Reformation touched off by Martin Luther 500 years ago this year was his assertion that there is absolutely nothing we can do (like buying indulgences or being a good person) to earn salvation. Luther claims that since there’s nothing we need to do, we are freed from selfish obsession about the fate of our souls, to serve our neighbor. But somehow being free to serve does not motivate us as much as fear or doing good works under threat. Taken only in part, the emphasis on “nothing we can do” leads to doing nothing as an act of faithfulness.

Although there are Lutherans who are African-American, African, Asian, Latinx, and Native American in the Twin Cities, I bet you didn’t know that. The image we project – not helped by Garrison Keillor’s long-time sagas on the fictional Lake Wobegone – of Lutheranism in Minnesota is monolithic: white Scandinavian. And because we’re all white and Scandinavian (in our mind’s eye), we are like a homogeneous family. Families unfortunately can be insular, and not motivated to take a stand unless we perceive one of our own is being threatened. But by failing to identify with people of color, LGBTQ folk or others we have marginalized, we deny what should be the definition of our faith: We are all one in Christ, so we are family.

The false self-image of the homogeneous family is corroding us from within, yet true to our reformation heritage, people are calling out the harmful practices. The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is the largest Lutheran church body and the most engaged in the public sphere, so that marginalized people could stay within it and actually try to change things. They are trying. The #decolonizelutheranism movement ) is a testament to the birth pangs and groaning of that process. But it is not just for the sake of the Church that we need to stop living into our stereotypes. It is explicitly for the sake of our neighbor, our brothers and sisters and our communities. The culture once established by a plethora of Scandinavian Lutherans in this area could be changed again, by a mass movement of the same owning the fullness of our theology and demanding change for all of our siblings: Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and Justine Damond included.

The particular is universal, as a friend reminded me recently. So likely we are not just talking about Lutherans in Minnesota, but also Presbyterians in California or Southern Baptists in Georgia. Living our stereotypes instead of our theology leaves our family members crying out for justice alone.

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