The Power of the Gospel in Dismantling White Supremacy

Feb 3, 2020 9:46:00 AM / by Lenny Duncan

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Excerpt from Dear Church, Chapter 1

Dear Church: “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones” (Ezekiel 7:4–5): We must dismantle, destroy, and bury white supremacy. In this nation. In our pews. In our liturgies. As a church, as a people, and as Christians, this is our call in the twenty-first century. There is no way around it. We have lamented this call and drug our feet. We have run the opposite way of Nineveh for far too long. We have negotiated at church council meetings, trying to find a way not to face this. We have thrown sackcloth over our sanctuaries and thrown ashes over the heads of our leaders, crying out to God for another way.

But we are the whitest denomination in the United States; if not us, then who will enter this battle for freedom? If not now, then when? It is our duty and our joy that in this time and this place we join the angels and archangels, the witnesses of the resurrection in their never-ending hymn of justice. The banquet that is about to be laid out by the sovereign God is a feast of equity. But make no mistake: it will be like the night this same God was arrested. God will take this church, lift it up and give thanks, and then break it. He will turn and face us, saying to those we have oppressed, “This is my body, broken for you.” This same God, who carried his own lynching tree up Calvary on his back, will lift a cup full of the blood of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile. Jesus will lift up the cup and say, “This is the new covenant made in the blood of the innocent, spilt by our hands.”

We are the offering to end white supremacy in this nation and church. We can enter this new phase of American theology willingly, or we can fight it every step of the way. Either way, I am convinced the call of the church in the twenty-first century is to be the vanguard on this new battleground. We must enter this fray with wild abandon. We cannot pause to see if the ground will be firm or make sure that our entire confessional theology falls in line with every partner we make on the way. People are dying, and our secular leaders are more than OK with it. They have assumed the role of empire and could not care less about who gets hurt along the way.

We worship in a prison nation, where 90 percent of federal prisoners haven’t even seen a trial. The poor are offered deals in holding cells with forty other prisoners by a public defender who doesn’t even know their name. I myself signed away my life to these prosecutorial agreements multiple times, not because I was guilty of what I was accused of, but solely because I couldn’t afford bail. My choices were simple: languish in jail for twelve to nineteen months for a joint’s worth of pot or take the deal, accept a felony on my record, and get out that day. This was after waiting three to six months to get to preliminary trial—three to six months of subhuman conditions, violence, abuse by guards, lack of proper medical care. I spent years in jail over a period of a decade. Those lost years weren’t due to the severity of my crime but solely to socioeconomic conditions beyond my control.

By the time I looked up, I was a multiple-time felon. I repeated this cycle several times. I would be released on probation, put out on the street with little to no support systems, and instructed to do in twenty-eight days what I had never been able to pull off: get a job, get sober, stay out of trouble, and find a place to live. I couldn’t get a job with any upward mobility; whole neighborhoods wouldn’t rent to me. I couldn’t get financial aid to go to school. The prison extended far beyond the grounds of the jail itself. I saw people beaten within an inch of their lives by fellow prisoners, experienced dehumanization by the guards, and witnessed the profiteering by the “canteen” companies that sold us products on the inside. But the most insidious part of the system was how seamless it all was—a system that most of the public never bothered to examine.

White supremacy doesn’t need active racists to function. It is a demonic system with a life of its own. It is radical evil. It functions with interdependent systems like militarism and capitalism. They reinforce each other in cycles of death built on the backs of black and brown bodies, literally and historically. You don’t have to invest personally in companies, like payday loan companies, that take advantage of person-of-color communities. Wall Street is taking care of that for you. You don’t have to counter protest against Black Lives Matter. You don’t have to fly a Blue Lives Matter flag. You just have to be bemused or confused when you see the scenes of the QuikTrip going up in flames in Ferguson, Missouri, played on an endless loop on CNN. The blue wall of silence is really the blue wall of violence. Passivity is the new engine of systemic racism. You just have to believe that this is the way things are.

The enemy’s greatest illusion is the belief that radical evil doesn’t exist. If you’re reading this as a white person in this country, you probably believe you aren’t racist. You may be right (although years of research on the subject suggest otherwise—in fact, there’s a complete field of study dedicated to the ubiquity of racism, called critical whiteness studies). Most folks aren’t actively racist. But you are passively participating in the spiritual and economic enslavement of every person of color in this church. You have handed the keys to our executioners unknowingly. Systemic racism is embedded in nearly every fiber of church life—from liturgical colors to the way we discuss Advent. And the same is true for the fiber of the broader culture. You don’t have to look much further than the shows and music we consume for entertainment to see this is true. Black people are plot devices, criminals, sassy aunts, or hip-hop culture for you to emulate at home while clutching your purse when you pass us on the streets.

White supremacy is the system that separates us. Take, for example, our readings of the parable of the Good Samaritan. I read it from the perspective of the one lying in the road, who has been waylaid by bandits. You see yourself as the good Samaritan. Or, best-case scenario, you wonder why you keep passing me by on the road. Our neighborhoods are being colonized by well-meaning hipsters, and our deaths are on display on social media for all of Jerusalem to see. We carry our lynching tree up the hill like our savior before us.

Church, I don’t say any of this lightly. I realize I am talking to the ELCA, a majority-white church. The inherent danger of asking the perpetrators of a crime to now participate in restorative justice are clear to me. But there will be no recognizable Lutheran witness in this country in fifty years if we don’t participate in this work. Period.

My death doesn’t seem to move you. My blood being liberally poured out on the streets of America hasn’t moved you to organize or advocate for systemic change. So I offer your own death to you as an alternative. Because the truth is, this church is dying, and I don’t want to see it die without the hope of resurrection.

The reason the ELCA is so white is theological, not sociological. It is not our German, Scandinavian, or Norwegian roots. Black peoples have been a part of the Lutheran tradition on this continent since the 1600s. The face of world Lutheranism is one of color. Church, lefse, and hot dishes aren’t the problem. Liturgical worship isn’t the problem. In fact, most seekers respond well to a liturgy that is rooted in ancient tradition and contextually applied. But we have abandoned the inherent justice and equity that the gospel is rooted in. We need justice to be the heart of our work and life, not just something we do for “God’s Work Our Hands Sunday.” (To be clear, I’m not criticizing this important initiative. It just isn’t enough.)

Our theology needs to change if we want our polity to change—if we want more people of color in our church. We need to actively do what is called “white folk” work. I have started a new organization called Emmaus Collective to give definitive action steps for churches and to map those churches that are already deemed safer for persons of color. The map is an online directory of churches that are on the way to, or working on, dismantling white supremacy in their church culture. No church is ever done with this work or totally safe, but these are churches who are naming and claiming their mission to dismantle white supremacy. They are doing the work. I’m trying to offer Christian communities a starting point and accountability for creating and sustaining anti-racist spaces. Dismantling white supremacy and the constructs of whiteness is a lifelong journey, so we offer accompaniment on that road. On the road to Emmaus, the disciples broke bread with their new companion and suddenly realized that the resurrected Jesus was among them. He was revealed after walking a long road with them. That’s exactly what dismantling white supremacy is all about. If we do this work in our congregations, we find that Jesus has been among us all along. We can move the planks from our eyes and truly see the beauty, diversity, and full majesty of creation. Until we embrace this work, our congregations will remain whitewashed tombs with merely the ghost of Christianity haunting them.

Resurrection is possible, but it will take all of us rising up. I’m talking about how not one rostered leader from the ELCA showed up recently at a Starbucks in Philadelphia where two black businessmen were arrested for simply sitting there. Dozens of clergy from an interfaith coalition showed up, but I was the only Lutheran presence. Two peers from the seminary came with me, and I was several weeks from ordination. So not one rostered leader from the ELCA. This direct action was a low-cost, high-reward action; the idea was to stage a sit-in and sing hymns. The action garnered national attention. My video was used by CNN and several news outlets. This was a chance for us to make our Lutheran theology of grace a public witness, but despite the hundreds of rostered leaders in the synod, only three seminarians showed up.

I know some of you readers can name dozens of times you have showed up to a protest, but I’m not only talking about rallies or protests. I’m talking about front-line direct actions that are responsive to the cries of the oppressed. There is a difference. One is a movement of the Holy Spirit; the other is a selfie opportunity with time to drag out the church banner and announce it in worship for several weeks. One is in the moment—a call by the community in which we are embedded. The other is theologically safe and allows time to calm nerves and handwringing of edgy members. Both are important, but one gains credibility as a viable force for change in this country, while the other is simply easy and safe.

Church, we need to be calling for the abolition of prisons. This is a system created solely to oppress black and brown bodies, built on a false gospel of law and capitalism.

We need to be leading the discussions on reparations, studying which of our churches in the ELCA have historically benefited from slavery—the amount of money it made, how much that is with inflation—and attempting to pay back the descendants of those victims. The effects of slavery and the lack of generational wealth are still felt in every black community today. Gentrification, lack of black-owned businesses in our own neighborhoods, disparity in higher-education rates, the unraveling of the black family, and much more can all be traced back to slavery. Entire civilizations were destroyed to build this country on our backs. Black people never received the forty acres and a mule we were promised in the Emancipation Proclamation. If we did today, that would change the entire American landscape. It would be $6.4 trillion with inflation today.

We can lead the way, Church, showing America the power of the gospel. If the whitest church body in America stood up and said the results of slavery are the continued generational oppression of black peoples everywhere here in this country; if we admitted our complicity in that system, how we have benefited not just from that system but from blithely ignoring its continued economic effect on black peoples; if we committed our financial resources to providing reparations—that witness could change the world and recapture the gospel in a way that is visceral and repentant and will lead to reconciliation.

Church, the proper cycle is simple: repentance, reparations, reconciliation. Reparations will be discussed in detail in chapter 3, but the first step in dismantling white supremacy in our church is a public admittance—a national confession wherein we admit that systemic racism is woven into the fabric of our structures, our hymnals, our liturgies, and our ecclesial polity. Our congregational polity too often silences the voices, unique contextual embeddedness in the gospel, history, and struggles of those on the margins. The voices of the minority are silenced or so quiet in comparison to the orchestra of whiteness that is the ELCA that they are never heard. Much like all great social change, theological change happens because God’s people say enough is enough. Support for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the height of his ministry to this nation’s soul hovered in the low thirtieth percentile. The exact same percentage of people support Black Lives Matter today. We like to imagine ourselves as people who would have heard the call back then and stepped up as people of God. But the truth is, we can’t even hear the call today.

What makes us think we would have responded as “church together” to Dr. King? Jesus is Trayvon Martin, armed only with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea against an entire world that would rather hang him from a tree than love him. Until we see this, we are lost.

We must take the lead, Church. Us. There is no one else. We have been waiting for this nation to awaken from its slumber, to be aroused by the death and destruction that seem to be every notification on our phones for the last decade. But if you are reading this book, I have bad news. You are the leader you have been waiting for. We are called through baptism to teach the Holy Scriptures, to teach the world about the power of prayer. We have confessed the Apostles’ Creed, and now it’s time to renounce the devil. Now is the time to renounce the forces that oppose God and defy grace. We need to stand up.

This may mean public repentance. This may mean that straight white men remove themselves from ecclesial ballots for bishop. This may mean that we divert funds to support black churches and leaders indefinitely. This may mean our seminaries offer free tuition to any African-descent leader who wants to serve in any rostered or non-rostered position in the church. This may mean that we make sure black voices are at the table for our next Evangelical Lutheran Worship and aren’t relegated to a separate book. This may mean that Advent is no longer about a journey from “darkness to light.” This may mean that white paraments no longer represent resurrection. This may mean that your next capital campaign is to remove white Jesus from your stained glass. This may mean that our seminaries have to guarantee at least 30 percent faculty of color. This may mean you should join the African Descent Lutheran Association. This may mean that you go to your pastor and say you want to hear about slain unarmed black men in the sermon. This may mean that you are going to be really uncomfortable. But white discomfort is not worse than experiencing racism as a black person. This may mean that you will have to hold this church accountable to its own belief that racism is a sin.

I am a part of the ELCA. So is Dylann Roof. We have to lean into that tension. We may have to throw our very bodies on the road and break the wheels of oppression. We may be broken in the process. We may have to look America in the eye and say, “This is my body—broken for you.”

We can do this. I know we can. I have gambled my families’ future and my own on you, dear Church. I believe in you. I have seen you at your best. I have been hurt by you at your worst. I am still hopelessly in love with you. The way of the cross in the twenty-first century is to gather our best leaders and our best minds for one purpose: to dismantle white supremacy. For the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the great liberator and our savior. Amen.

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Lenny Duncan

Written by Lenny Duncan

Lenny Duncan is pastor of Jehu's Table, a church in the heart of Brooklyn. Formerly incarcerated, formerly homeless, and formerly unchurched, Duncan is now a sought-after speaker and writer on topics of racial justice and the role of the church in the twenty-first century. His documentary film, Do Black Churches Matter in the ELCA, was released in 2017.

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