Protesting Like a Protestant

(Written in mid-January as my writing sample for this workshop: http://collegevilleinstitute.org/events/event/broader-public-2017/ )

I am relatively new to protesting. I’ve been to a few protests and rallies before, but I’m white, middle class, and under 40. I will always have more to unearth and examine, to fully understand my privilege. And so it is that the visceral need to act and the threats to take away hard-fought rights and protections of women and minority groups have only become personal for me this political season. What am I going to do about it? I will march in the Women’s March in my state capital this weekend. I will keep calling, e-mailing and writing snail-mail to my elected officials, including those who do not represent my state, but still represent me as a U.S. citizen. I will try to keep having one-on-one conversations with people on the other side of issues. Yet still I wonder, will my protests be effective? I do not intend to protest as personal therapy, although it may indeed be cathartic to do something. I want my protests to be heard and to have an impact. I want to listen to those who have been leading the fight against inequity for a long time, people of color especially. My means of protest need to be authentic to who I am, and relevant to others because of what we have in common. So as I try to shape my own outrage and hurt into some concrete actions, I find myself looking back 500 years to the protester Martin Luther. Since Luther’s core theological principles resonate so strongly with me, perhaps his methods of protesting could be mine as well.

1. Begin with a mindset of debate and dialogue

In 1517 when the monk Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, he was not trying to start a new church. He was posting his research for public debate. Debate is dialogue, and even in the most heated conversations, opposing sides have to listen to one another and run the risk of being changed. I’m struggling with this, but have tried to read and hear from those who voted for the President-Elect despite his inflammatory personality and hateful rhetoric, without dismissing these voters as bigots. If I cannot at least begin from a posture of listening, what hope do I have that my words will be heard?

2. Respond to the Word; do not just react to others

Luther studied the Bible, and protested because the Church was profiting from people’s fears, not delivering Good News to them. Faith-based protests are more powerful, I believe, the more we frame them with the powerful story of God’s action through Jesus. For example, we do not simply object to an assault on the dignity of people with disabilities or women or Muslim people because it is not “politically correct,” or even because it is not kind. We object because our creation stories describe every human being as being created in the image of God. We object because when we baptize, we echo the God-given identity of beloved children of God spoken to each of us, as at Jesus’ baptism. Of course we are appalled by hate speech. But how much stronger our protests are when we speak with an entire faith tradition behind us!

3. Reading, Writing, Translating

Luther spent a lot of time during those Reformation years reading the Bible, translating it into the vernacular, and writing commentary. The revolutionary thoughts that came from his pen shook the power structure and changed so many people’s lives. Reading life-giving sources allows the convictions I will express to not be about me. I know that I especially need to fill my reading list with authors from marginalized groups, to push my own self-understanding and my place in the continuing struggle for equality. I need to understand more about “intersectionality” from those who live it. Writing and re-reading will allow me the space to process, organize and clarify my reasons for protesting. Journaling or blogging can do the same for anyone. As for “translating,” that’s the work we all must do to make our protests accessible and understandable to others whose experience may be so different from ours it is as if we speak different languages.

4. Standing Firm

Doing the work above, repeatedly, is what I believe will strengthen progressive Protestants to take a stand in the face of threats. When Martin Luther was called before the Holy Roman Emperor and expected to recant his teachings, he could not. We must cultivate the absolute conviction that people of faith can do nothing other than to stand against bigotry and assaults on the most vulnerable among us. Ultimately we need the firm conviction that “my” protest isn’t about me, but about “us.”

 

Amplifying

A Facebook friend shared a post by a young woman of color, talking about her perspective on the women’s marches. My friend shared it just saying, “Amplifying”. She was putting a voice that was not her own in front of people who might not otherwise hear it, because she recognized it mattered. My friend’s witness was that her own words are not always what are needed, but her privilege can be used to amplify someone else’s voice within her sphere of influence. It’s a testimony to God at work in the world. I think that action, “amplifying,” could be the guiding principle for ministry with young adults on either a congregational or regional level.

Why? First, because this is what we believe and espouse in all mission: God is already present and working in people’s lives, before the Church arrives on the scene. For example, in global mission, our church only sends people overseas at the invitation of local people, to bring specific needed skills, but always in a posture of “accompaniment.” That means we don’t come holding answers or demanding leadership. We don’t arrive to give incentives (bribe) people to participate in our church. We arrive as inter-dependent guests, with much to learn alongside what we have to offer. Why should our approach to ministry with young adults be different than this humble attitude of accompaniment?

Second, I believe the purpose of “amplifying” is most needed because there is such suspicion of the Church’s motivation for outreach. It is well-documented that mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. are declining in some significant ways. Are we interested in “young adults” or others joining so that they can perpetuate our churches? Or do we truly want to be in relationship, which means we will be changed? We can try any number of tactics to “bring people in” but if the object is always assimilation, they will smell the hypocrisy of that before they get in the door. Others have written thought-provokingly about this, such as this Evangelical young adult: http://faithit.com/12-reasons-millennials-over-church-sam-eaton/.

Instead of creating church programs (like an older version of youth group) we think might attract young adults then trying to recruit them, “amplifying” what Millenials are already doing in the world would be the opposite course of action. Here are some ways to do that:

  1. Acknowledge that young adults are passionate, just not particularly about church. Get into what they are passionate about in the community, because WE as a church want to be changed by them! This would take some detective work out in the community, a good exercise for all church folk, but if it is important enough to us, maybe even the dedicated time of a staff person. Then, we can use some practical theology when we explain to each other how we see God working through a group, project or individual whose words or actions we want to “amplify”.

An example: Eat for Equity! This movement within several satellite cities brings volunteers together to make a meal related to a grassroots non-profit that is working for good in the world. People show up, toss in $10-15, eat, socialize with others who care about such things, and at some point during the evening hear about the benefit organization. Actually, Eat for Equity is all about amplifying, but doing it in a nourishing, low-commitment, way: individual events. A church could do an E4E-like ministry on their own! eatforequity.org

2. Catalogue the assets we as a Church have to offer: network of churches, education, organizational skills, connections, money, public spaces. To empty ourselves like Christ, in order to be inhabited by God’s Holy Spirit, we can think about giving up our space for art exhibitions and performances and our lawns for community gardens. What organizations or community groups already do these things well, and how can we amplify and support them? If we are not trying to entice more members, but to be changed ourselves through an encounter with God working in our midst, then we need to actively invite active groups to use our space, then be present, involved and hospitable to the hilt!

3. Entrepreneurs and Creativity: What is anyone interested in/concerned about/trying to start up that exemplifies God working in the world, and how might we amplify that so that the thousands of people associated with our congregations and their networks might have contact with something/someone they might otherwise never encounter? Can we publish a list of businesses owned by people of color or immigrants, to be explicit about supporting those who are targets of hate crimes? What if we hosted regional “TED Talk” – like conferences, highlighting how God is working through all the contributions and thoughts of the people who live here, for the betterment of our community?

4. Talk about things that really matter. People’s minds only change in ways that really matter through relationships. Congregations are some of the few remaining inter-generational public associations where one common commitment (to Jesus) brings together people who have not much else in common. We have to become known as people who call out bigotry, declare war on poverty, salvage the earth and strive to live intentionally through even our daily choices. We are going to need guides and teachers in those honest conversations, because sometimes in the Church we have been more invested in being pleasant than being honest. We would have to leave behind the right to feel fragile or defensive about what we have “done and left undone,” but asking the generation that has grown up accepting diversity to make our churches honest about our own past and present might just be a way for us into the future.

I could see the same approach for reaching out to a community of color not already present in our churches…

I’m just getting the ball rolling here, and would love to see where this kind of thinking could lead!

“Challenge Us” Pulpit Supply

Last summer I did a short-term pastor gig, bridging the time between an interim who had to leave on a specific date and the new called pastor. My first Sunday was the week after the Orlando night club shootings, followed too quickly by the police shooting of Philando Castile, in our own metro area on July 6th. I was temporary, and had a lot of vehemence built up from not preaching in awhile, so the congregation got everything I had in those sermons. I felt the freedom of being an outsider, and in a way representing my urban neighborhood in a very different context. After the first sermon, which I have posted on this blog (“Demonizing the Other”), I had a phone call just letting me know that they hadn’t ever really addressed what the caller referred to as “the homosexuality issue” at this congregation, but knew they needed to, so a few people were upset. Okay. On my final Sunday, the Council President included in her farewell: “Pastor Lee Ann, you have certainly challenged us! And we hope you will come back and do it again.” It felt like I was the right preacher for the right time.

On the one hand, we claim that with the trust of the congregation, pastors who care for their parishioners well will be best able to change their hearts and minds when necessary. On the other hand, there is a lot of safe preaching (I admit to it too) because you love your people, are tired of griping, or don’t want to start something when there is already enough conflict. Even if the Holy Spirit and/or the news are prompting you: “We must address this!” There must be Lutheran or Methodist or Presbyterian congregations where the preacher is expected to agitate and unsettle the congregation, and those are probably already branded in our area as “social justice” churches. But I’d wager a guess that the vast majority have some topics they know they should crack open, but haven’t.

So here’s an idea: All pastors get some Sundays off, and require substitutes (we call that “pulpit supply”). What if pastors in the metro area knew of a list of challenging preachers who could say what needs to be said, to open or support on-going conversations which the called pastor may not -for whatever reason – choose to do alone. What if such a list not only included preachers who can speak personally about the impact of ministry in the midst of said issue, but BY THEIR PRESENCE make a point. In some churches, this could be the first experience with an LGBTQ Lutheran preacher, or first theological conversation about racism with an African-American Lutheran preacher or only firsthand account by a preacher who has worked directly with refugees. A “Challenge Us Pulpit Supply” list could support pastors in congregations, and give a wider audience to preachers who might serve in specialized ministries (or are otherwise available during Sunday mornings). It should definitely be handled with consultation beforehand to understand the congregation’s limits and needs for challenge, but the freedom of preaching in the regular pastor’s absence could open a can of worms in a very good way!

Demonizing the other

I preached this sermon the week after the Orlando night club shootings, my first Sunday of 7 as a “bridge pastor”for the summer. It still seems painfully relevant. The Gospel was Luke 8: 26-39.

This is a strange story, especially for us, especially this week. We are tempted to dismiss it as having no relevance whatsoever to the year 2016 in the United States, because demons and casting them out (exorcisms) are not really part of our reality.

When my husband was in medical school he arranged an international rotation in Eastern Africa. We were married by then and the church where I was the associate pastor at the time gave me a mini-sabbatical to go with him, while learning for them and interpreting how well-meaning church people in the U.S. can do good or harm through various kinds of global mission. So it was I found myself after awhile in a gathering for worship among the Maasai people, led by a U.S. missionary of 40 years. A woman stumbled around the outside of the circle of the people gathered, finally falling to the ground in what seemed like a seizure. Two of the local evangelists moved over to help her. Pastor Herb finished the Benediction, then calmly walked over to the woman, took something off from around her neck, which one of the evangelists then burned on the ground. He spoke so very calmly, but firmly. The evangelists were repeating what he said, and one of them getting kind of loud. Pastor Herb just held up his hand (and later told us what he said in Swahili): “There’s no need to shout. Just speak the name of Jesus, and the demon will leave.” Later he explained everything to me and a college student who was also traveling with us, and I relayed the incident to my church. Now, I’m a Lutheran from Ohio. Demon possession is only in horror films, as far as I know. But I get the deep truth to be found in symbolism. The woman, like many in her culture, had gone to a shaman for a talisman or charm for fertility issues. Pastor Herb explained, in the absence of birth control or much access to medicine, this was what women did when they couldn’t have children, or wanted to stop having children – either end of the spectrum. And such talismans came with some kind of obligation to keep going back to the shaman, paying him, to keep the power going. Women’s primary value in this culture is bearing and raising children, so if there’s a problem with that, there is a great brokenness. Can you feel, in your gut, how necessary it would be to have a very public event to break that pattern of “you’re an outcast/you don’t value me” burden held between this woman and her community? Works for me.

Demons are a way -even today, even here – of talking about evil that is so real it is almost a living being, but certainly something that takes on a life of its own, against what we want our lives to be. It feels different than illness, mental or physical, because demons are a threat not just to the person afflicted, but to those around them, to the social order, to the community. Demons don’t just cause one person to do evil things. They draw out of all of us vitriole, hateful responses we normally wouldn’t believe we had in us.

So, what have you to do with me, Gospel reading from Luke 8?

The people in this Gospel story are not afraid of the man possessed by demons. They are afraid once he is freed from them. Why are they so afraid of the demoniac man being in his right mind again? Why was this healing such a threat? They are afraid of having to acknowledge that he is just like them . I’m going to psychologize the crowd, instead of the possessed man for a moment, and suggest that perhaps it works for them – for us – to have demons contained in people “other” than me. They chain him up, complain about how he’s broken out again and he’s so crazy, but it’s always him with the problem. He and his demons are the threat to our public safety. He makes us suspicious, on edge, paranoid, even. But I’m OK. As long as I keep my actions under control, the evil will always be located outside of me and I don’t need to hold any responsibility for it. But once the scapegoat, the one who embodies the legion of demons is going to be back among us, blending in? I can’t sort him out by his actions or beliefs or lifestyle and say, “That is why he and I are different. He’s got the demons and I don’t!” And if we’re cut from the same cloth, and truly do belong in community together, then I have to look at myself, instead of just staring and pointing at the Other.

Jesus not only heals the man with a legion of demons, but sends him back into our neighborhood, and we’re supposed to relate to him, forgive him, and live with him in community. To do that we must confess and ask for forgiveness for how we’ve treated him as less than a human being deserving dignity. The healed man doesn’t want to go home. He wants to stay with Jesus. And maybe that is partially awe or gratitude, but gosh, it must also be at least some fear! How could he expect that anyone would love him, after he’s been shamed and dehumanized and well, demonized, for so long?

The society that experiences rape with minimal punishment, racial violence without accountability and the worst mass shooting yet in the already marginalized LGBTQ community, needs to sort through how we all own these demons and the havoc they reek. We must admit that we have been too comfortable thinking and acting as if all the demons are contained outside of ourselves and inside others. Our lives must be examined too, because this is our community. We need Jesus, because what he does scares us. He declares that every person is beloved by God and family together, regardless of the demons we are each harboring. Something we are doing, or NOT doing, is letting these demons run wild among us. And I bet it has to do with our pretending they are all ONLY harbored by “those people,” not ourselves. Our Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote a public letter this week that gets directly to the heart of the matter. She wrote, on Monday, one day after the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub:

We are killing ourselves. We believe that all people are created in God’s image. All of humanity bears a family resemblance. Those murdered in Orlando were not abstract “others,” they are us. But somehow, in the mind of a deeply disturbed gunman, the LGBTQ community was severed from our common humanity. This separation led to the death of 49 and the wounding of 54 of us.

We live in an increasingly divided and polarized society. Too often we sort ourselves into like-minded groups and sort others out. It is a short distance from division to demonization. Yesterday, we witnessed the tragic consequences of this.

There is another way. In Christ God has reconciled the world to God’s self. Jesus lived among us sharing our humanity. Jesus died for us to restore our humanity. God invites us into this reconciling work. This must be our witness as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The perpetrator of this hate crime did not come out of nowhere. He was shaped by our culture of division, which itself has been misshapen by the manipulation of our fears. That is not who we are. St. Paul wrote, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ” (II Corinthians 5:17-20).

Our work begins now. We need to examine ourselves, individually and as a church, to acknowledge the ways we have divided and have been divided. We must stand with people who have been “othered”. We must speak peace and reconciliation into the cacophony of hatred and division. We must live the truth that all people are created in God’s image.

So, two practical things, action items, if you will: We who have privilege due to race, gender, or sexual orientation, must use our privilege to speak up for those who have no such privilege. Whether it’s on behalf of our LGBTQ kindred, women and girls, black & brown brothers and sisters, any vulnerable group whose pain has been all over the media headlines, use your privilege effectively. It’s not about being kind or not rude when you’re around those who are different from yourself. (We excuse ourselves from that by saying, “Well, I don’t even know any of such-and-such people.”) Use your privilege of having a voice that your peers will hear, when you are among all heterosexual friends or all white neighbors or all co-workers of the same social class, to call people out on “jokes” that are slurs, or interpretations of events that sow hatred instead of love or anything that implies that victims of violence in any way “had it coming”. Those are the demons speaking, trying to hurt our brothers and sisters. Cast them out. At the risk to yourself of being put on the spot or even offending friends, use your privilege to speak for those who have no voice in those places. Jesus speaks, and the demons are cast out, so that community can heal. We must at least be willing to speak, or the headlines will only escalate. A second super-practical action related directly to the Orlando shooting is: give blood. If you can, do. Because folks in the LGBTQ community are often banned from giving blood, and mass numbers of people were shot, and that may be something you can give of yourself, that literally gives new life. The symbolism there is pretty powerful too.

There’s one more healing story that this one reminds me of, and it is a man laying by the pool of Siloam for years. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” Instead of a resounding “Yes!” he responds with, “but I have no one to lift me into the waters when the healing properties are stirred up.” He has no community. Our whole society, not just those specifically affected, needs to want to be healed, to participate in getting in there and doing the work necessary to mend what evil forces have ripped apart: our belonging to one another. Healing doesn’t happen by locking away the person who forces us to confront the problem. It only comes through the painfully hard work of confession and self-examination, slogging through our own sin to ask for forgiveness, and vowing to live differently, then doing it, for all of our sake.

Lutheran “Constituents”

We share our name, theology, support of social agencies,  and perhaps most convicting: history.

The U.S. Senators and Congresswoman who represent me have been representing my views fairly consistently thus far during the Trump administration. But I am also a Lutheran, so the members of the U.S. House and Senate who share that affiliation are representing me – us – to the country and the world too. I have decided to claim that constituent identity, and encourage others to do the same. Just as we can communicate and apply pressure to those in whose district we reside, we can speak with moral obligation and out of a shared theology to our fellow brothers and sisters in our faith group. We do not want to be members of a church that knew what was happening was wrong, but colluded with authority despite that knowledge. We remember Martin Luther’s homeland in the 1930s and 40s, and want to believe that like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others who led the Confessing Church there, we too would speak out against evil visited upon our neighbors, whatever the risk.

American Lutherans are diverse in our commitments, but the Executive Order declaring a travel ban from 7 countries made our common work (ELCA + LCMS at least) through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service an obvious place to start the conversation. I even joined Twitter so I could tweet @ them without a return address. All the feedback adds up. And they are carrying my Christian “family” name out there, so I want us siblings to be in conversation!

Practicalities: This 2017 Pew Forum article told me that there are 26 Lutherans between the House and Senate, but did not list specific names: http://www.pewforum.org/2017/01/03/faith-on-the-hill-115/

The 2015 article did, though: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/01/05/members-of-congress-religious-affiliations/

By checking up on every Lutheran listed in the 2015 article, I found that 2 had left office since, so my list of contacts only includes 24. There are 2 mystery Lutherans in our legislature!

 

Late to the Field

Now I see. We are the laborers going to work almost at the end of the day.

The “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” (Matthew 20) sounds different now that I’ve been protesting personally. I used to preach on it in a congregation with the assumption that the parable was about being part of the Body of Christ that is the Church. I assumed that regular church-goers would identify with those who went to work at the beginning of the day. That they needed to be encouraged not to look down on people who didn’t share their commitment to regular worship or church involvement. The attitude felt magnanimous; privileged but generous. We could identify ourselves with the righteous ones who put in a full day’s work, but we also ought not be jealous that in the end God will welcome those who came late with just as much love and belonging as those who’ve been inside the Church circle since birth.

I see now that we are the late-comers. Or, I’ll just speak for myself but maybe it will resonate with others. I am a white woman, mainline Protestant, who grew up in the 80s and 90s. I went to the January 21, 2017 Women’s March as my first major public protest. Now, I had been to some rallies and marches, knocked doors for a few candidates and written to legislators before. But I’d still consider this my first action that was personal, in response to a personal affront.

As a pastor of a congregation that was not unified in its response to some of the marginalized groups or struggles of our time, (for example LGBTQ rights), or even identifying with the African-American population within our neighborhood, I preached in too broad of terms for effective protest. Sometimes when I thought I was taking a stance in a sermon, people heard it through their own filters and interpreted it quite differently than I intended. And probably I let them, out of a mixture of fatigue with conflict or feeling like it was pointless because people don’t change, or maybe, out of some idea of “pastoral care” and respect for their own consciences. People do not primarily join mainline Protestant churches for their social stances, but more for tradition, familiarity or friendship. So we’re a mixed bunch, falling on either side of many issues. There is probably way more “safe” preaching out of love and care for those who are inside, when what we could be doing is turning to the movements going on outside of our walls for examples of Christ-like hunger for justice. We are the late-comers to many of these struggles for justice in our time.

When the Black Lives Matter protests were happening specifically in my state over the police shootings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, I had two young kids, one of whom did not travel well at all, and no childcare alternatives. I chose not to be at those protests because I had a choice. By then I was no longer in leadership in a congregation setting an example for anyone. I knew colleagues and friends who were there, not as outsiders, but as those who are embedded in the communities that were responding. So, it felt like it was not my fight, and I could opt out. African-American mothers, whose children are at the same risk as those young men who died at the hands of police may feel like they have no choice but to protest. These are my brothers and sisters in Christ, but there was enough of a line between us for me to justify my way out of it. Not so, with the Women’s March. With the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, and all of the misogynist and racist rhetoric and actions during his campaign, for the first time it felt personal. The most convicting sign I saw from the marches across the world on that day said, “I’ll see all you nice white ladies at the next #BlackLivesMatter protest, right?” Right. I am the late-comer, not going to work in the vineyard until I am promised a paycheck. I need to own that, ask for forgiveness for that, and let that shape my involvement.

As several long-time activists shared after the Women’s March, those of us who are just now coming along, newly invested in this age of protest, need to look for leadership from those who have been committed to it for much longer. That humility is a form of the “servant leadership” we like to talk about in the church. Also, we could turn to Jesus more as we head out to march. Christ makes the struggle against injustice personal by becoming one of us, making us all his siblings. I want to be personally affected by being a follower of Jesus, whether or not a specific incident of injustice seems like “my” fight.

I anticipate The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” or “The Parable of the Generous Landowner” rolling around in my head for quite awhile.

Space for Creativity

Washing dishes and reading the same children’s books over and over: these daily tasks give my mind such space to wander.  So now that I at last have adequate sleep again (our youngest is 2 years old) my imagination is churning. I still hear stories or quotes and think: “That’ll preach!” but I am not preaching regularly in a congregation, just the occasional filling-in. I have ideas for new ministries or projects or events that get me really excited, but only a place to implement some of them, since I am not in formal leadership. So here is where I will put them, all the thoughts, interpretations of Scripture and current events, and my ideas for ministries or projects. Please feel free to use, share, and improve upon these ideas, citing me when appropriate.