Since the release of student/alumni and faculty/staff petitions to change the name of Capital University’s mascot, some questions arose in individual conversations that deserve more public attention. This post attemps to give attention to three general sets of questions.
Below is a message I sent to the Capital University community as we celebrate the holidays. Some in that community encourage me to share it more widely, and so, I now share it with you with tidings of comfort and joy in this season.
The holiday season is squarely upon us. Some holidays, like Diwali, Bodhi Day, and Hanukkah, have already come and gone with fanfare, food, and friendship in bloom. Others, like Christmas and Kwanzaa, are still budding before they blossom.
The Christmas season, which begins on December 25th and lasts for twelve days (you may know the song, after all), emanates from a spectacular story that tells of a moment in time when the fullness of the divine entered the ordinariness of birth. All that is supernatural becomes contained within the body of a baby. After all, Emmanuel, the stage name given to this child called Jesus, means “god with us.” That’s a story of transformative, incomparable power not just come close to us, but dwelling within us. Within our communities and our species, seeking the very best for our communities and our species.
Somehow, though, we’ve sanitized the revolutionary character of this tale. Like Robin Williams’ Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, this is “phenomenal cosmic power (in) itty, bitty living space.” Though the child is small, the potential impact is massive, and the results profound. Christmas reminds us, whatever our traditions, that transformative power lies within the apparently powerless among us. Why do we lose sight of that?
Perhaps we simply do not or cannot believe the miracle. That’s fair. It’s not, after all, logical.
Perhaps we’re raptured by the cuteness of the tale. Indeed, somewhere, at this very moment, someone just yelped, “Baby!” simply because they saw a newborn. That, too, is fair, for children contain an innocence and purity practically alien to our adult experiences.
What if the reason we resist the magic of this season is because we resist the possibility of a power outside of us? Perhaps the issue is not distraction with the external, but pride with the internal. Could our absence of humility prevent us from seeing the absolutely positive cosmic condescension contained within this tale?
Maybe that’s not it, either. Who knows. What I do know is that, annually on Christmas Eve, I hear this story somewhere, usually in a little Lutheran church in Orrville, with family and friends by my side, and we’re together prompted to recall that we are not alone in this universe. Not as a species. Not as communities. Not even as individuals. Somehow, some way, the power that preceded the Big Bang inhabits a child with purpose to transform the very cosmos, beginning with us. That’s a beautiful and powerful reminder these days. You are not alone and you are supported with power. Whatever your present circumstance is not the sum total of your value or your potential. It’s beyond mystical. It’s beyond cute. It’s definitely beyond us, and yet, absolutely within us.
Annually, this story heartens my soul because it offers this reminder: it is never too late to change our world. Not for you. Not for anyone else. That change begins with not just our own fortitude, but with the indwelling of supernatural significance in our midst and for our good. From our immediate spheres of influences to the grandest global contexts, transformation for the better is always possible. Change on any scale begins with change in each of us. And precisely because it is never too late to change the world, now is a divine time to start.
For whatever holidays you and your family celebrate this season, I wish you joy and wonder, happiness and wellness. I hope, in whatever spaces and communities you enter, you are reminded that you are not alone. In that reassurance, may you experience blessing upon blessing.
Grace and peace,
Rev. Drew Tucker | Capital University | 614.236.7737 | firstname.lastname@example.org
University Pastor | Director for the Center for Faith and Learning
Content Warning: This piece will discuss rape and sexual assault in the context of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”
Like many of you, I’m made quite uncomfortable by the lyrics to the song, “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Also like many of you, a deep affinity arises at the first few bars of the song as it plays. You see, my grandmothers would hum this tune every Christmas season, along with scores of others from the early and mid 20th century.
So, when a Cleveland radio station announced it would no longer play the song due to its lyrics that ring of rape for so many contemporary listeners, my reaction swirled. Though nostalgia was strong within my response, even stronger was simply this: if the song troubles survivors and victims of sexual assault, then we need not keep forcing it on the radio. Also, and not for nothing, but we’re also talking about a single outlet of a dying media. People can still find the song on iTunes, Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, and hundreds of other places. Those who still want the song can have access to it without demanding it be in the ears of everyone listening to a public broadcast.
Yet, something kept nagging my brain. Could we have really been listening to a song that celebrated date rape without consideration for over seventy years?
Then I encountered an article entitled, “Radio bans ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ because it is a ‘Rape Song’ but an English teacher sets the record straight.” First off, the clickbait title disheartened me. Only one station made this decision (or perhaps a few more have followed suit by now), so neither the entire radio industry nor the FCC banned the song. Secondly, giving such authority to a single English teacher seems, well, unwise.
Even so, this former English teacher and music enthusiast lifted up an fascinating point. Namely, the line “what’s in this drink” was a common trope at the time to joke about how weak a drink was, about how little alcohol was in the concoction at all. Rather than an accusatory statement about the use of GHB or Rohypnol to alter her mental state, the line suggests a strong mental acuity. This author goes on to suggest other lines, such as “at least I’m gonna say that I tried,” give context for a woman’s expression agency and authority over her own body in a time where social norms would shame her decision to engage in intimacy with this man. Given my concerns, I checked out this logic, which was confirmed in a other places and, interesting, by self-identified feminists here and here. More on it here and here.
This is important data to consider. What it does not do, however, is simply end the conversation. Rather, it exemplifies the evolving nature of language and its tie to cultural acceptance of various behaviors. Simply stated, language isn’t static. Over time, our definitions of words change. Or, how we use certain words and phrases changes. Consider this: the word queer was once an innocuous word that meant something was odd, then became derogatory slang for people in the LGTBQIA+ community, and now those people have reclaimed the word as a positive definition of identity, especially for nonbinary folx.
In other words, it can be entirely true that when Frank Loesser wrote Baby It’s Cold Outside in 1944, he intended to speak honestly about an intimate, consensual engagement between a man and a woman who were both in control of what they were doing. It can also be entirely true that, when played now, the juxtaposition of “what’s in this drink” combined with an apparent refusal to honor this woman’s desire to depart communicates a traumatic message to survivors of relationship violence.
What, then, are we to do? Let’s clarify a few things:
Given the evolutionary nature of language and how current listeners hear the words sung within Baby It’s Cold Outside, it is entirely appropriate for people to opt out of listening to or promoting the song. Though such meaning is likely alien to the creator’s intent, that does not necessarily affect the impact upon present-day listeners who have been shaped by rape culture and who are separated from the creator’s cultural context. It can be helpful to know the cultural origin of the song in order to speak meaningfully about the creator, and that should be noted; yet, just because Loesser couldn’t imagine a world where this would be inappropriate does not invalidate the offense people experience as they hear these lyrics in light of our contemporary context.
Similarly, when you use language, take care that you consider how listeners will hear what you say. We are responsible, as speakers and authors to attend to our audience as much as possible so our words resonate not just in their ears but with their lives. They may, eventually, go out of style, as it seems this song has for some. Yet, the more care with which we construct our language, the more potential we have to make an impact.
Similarly, as listeners, we should interpret with both authenticity and humility. In other words, if someone’s use of language hurts, offends, or triggers us. We should also understand that such words might have different meaning in another culture, or within another time period, or even another community. Just ask someone from rural Ohio whether dinner is supposed to be served at midday or in the evening and you’ll find a common confusion. Of course, the content and effects of Baby It’s Cold Outside are much more personal than proper reference to a meal, but again, it simply lifts up the fluidity of language. While indeed some people use language to intentionally hurt us, many other are ignorant to how their use of a certain word or phrase might meet our ears.
Grandma Doris and Grandma Jeanette, both of blessed memory, would have no clue that as they shuffled about their kitchens singing and baking, cooking and prepping for Christmas dinner, their words might communicate anything offensive to one of their guests. That doesn’t mean the words were harmless, but rather, they had no idea how they had caused harm. The only way we can make progress here is through recognizing the flexibility of language and explaining how words that seem innocent to them, or to Frank Loesser, or to so many others who defend them, cause discomfort at the least and perhaps great trauma.
So, despite a catchy melody and an appearance in one of my all time favorite Christmas movies Elf, I won’t be actively choosing or defending Baby It’s Cold Outside. It’s apparently innocent, and even progressive, origins deserve consideration, but there’s plenty of other excellent holiday music I can choose that won’t put loved ones at unnecessary risk. We need not condemn Frank Loesser, or even those who have loved the song before, but now, given the ways that the song rings in the ears of survivors and victims, we can see how language has evolved in ways that should lead us to leave our Baby It’s Cold Outside records on the shelves.
Recently, while perusing Facebook for no reason in particular, I noticed a comment on a friend and pastoral colleague’s post: “You’re such a pit stirrer!” As a theologian, I found the original post clarifying rather than controversial, but the inspiration for this writing is not the content of the original post. It is the accusation itself: a pot stirrer. Whether this particular commenter intended a more jovial or exasperated tone, I know not; yet all too often pot stirrers receive negative glances and condemnatory attitudes. I wonder why this is?
I don’t really wonder, though. I have something more than suspicions, though admittedly less than absolute knowledge. People fear pot stirrers because stirring the pot upsets the status quo. Stability, stasis, standards, staying put seem to be the ultimate pursuit for so many in our society. At least, so many with power and privilege. Indeed, one online dictionary refers to pot stirrers as those who "cause unrest." The logic goes something like this: We need no movement because the present context is sufficient. Why would we upset the relative calm we experience and live with unnecessary trouble? So it goes for those critics of pot stirrers.
What happened the last time you left a pot on the stove unstirred? Even on low heat, left unattended, an unstirred pot will eventually sear on bottom. Unstirred pasta clumps. Unstirred oatmeal burns. Even when the top looks normal (so to speak), whatever is at the bottom of an unstirred pot suffers the direst of consequences. What seems like unnecessary trouble for the top layers distorts and destroys those on the bottom. Without pot stirring, there’s always a loss. To vamp on the above definition, there's always unrest. The status quo causes unrest to those on the bottom, exposed constantly to the most extreme life situations. Pot stirrers ensure that such forces don't become destructive for anyone. Pot stirrers, then, don't cause unrest. They expose the disturbing realities of life to the entire pot, especially those at rest on top who do not, and perhaps refuse to, notice the disturbances below them.
As I see it, pot stirrers in the kitchen care about the entire meal. It will take longer to cook if you keep stirring but it will distribute the heat evenly to all the contents. Those who stir the pots of society care about more than the current status of the social pot because they understand the appearance of stability is not, in fact, peace. Pot stirrers attend to all the food in the pot, and as such, societal pot stirrers try to attend to all people in society.
I just spent three invigorating days on site with Concordia College and their team of people developing interreligious relationships, programming, and academics. They are, the lot of them, a blessed bunch of pot stirrers, because they’re attending to people who have not often received significant attention in the academy or in faith-based (read: Christian) college contexts. I was fortunate that two colleagues, Craig Burgdoff and Sally Stamper, accompanied me. Each brought a legacy of profound teaching and purposeful pot stirring with them. We learned much about the development of a minor in Interfaith Studies, the development of a program for undergraduate Interfaith Scholars, creation of student programming that accompanies people of diverse faith backgrounds and pursues equitable justice for all, and development of a President’s Interfaith Advisory Council, among many other things. I learned much from our hosts, including Dr. Jaqueline Bussie, who is the Director of the Forum on Faith and Life, as well as my Capital colleagues as we decompressed the data and explored new and renewed relationships.
What struck me most consistently, throughout the entire process, was this: changes happened, small and large, because people were willing to risk stirring the pot. One student, a wheelchair user, talked about her issues around religious life and accessibility. She stirred the pot and made positive changes for herself and her peers. We heard of an administration that allocated over a hundred thousand dollars in program funding to support diverse spiritual expression at Concordia, which stirred up new faith knowledge and religious practices in the community’s consciousness. We met with faculty who include religious diversity into their courses across the curriculum, from communication to psychology to business, upsetting the standard expectations for what’s necessary knowledge for success in those fields. None of this was status quo. It all required pot stirrers.
And the result of that pot stirring? Enriched community. Some people we met with felt more enfranchised, while others felt more willing to vocalize their disenfranchisement. Notice that both of these responses represent progress. The former has found safer space, while the latter finds confidence that their voice matters and can make a difference. Of course, we didn’t discover a perfect community; rather, we discovered a community more authentically acknowledging the spiritualities and religious practices brought by the people within, as we well as a cultural commitment to raising the profile of religion and spirituality in the priorities of university life.
I have to admit, I want to be a pot stirrer. We need to stir the pots of religion, faith, and spirituality to ensure all people are seen and known. We need to stir the pots of social justice to attend to the needs of people of color, of the LGBTQIA+ community, of women, of native populations, of immigrants, of ethnic minorities, and a whole of other marginalized folx. Though in my privilege I benefit from the relative calm of the status quo, I am not satisfied with the current status of the pot because the appearance of stability is not, in fact, peace.
If you feel this too, don’t be afraid to stir the pot. Find colleagues and friends who will take up a spoon and stir with you.
If you are afraid of stirring the pot, but want it to happen, find ways to support those willing to lead. Use your money, your time, and your voice to support their work.
If you don’t want the pot stirred at all, try two things: 1st, ask yourself honestly why you’re satisfied with the way things are, and then read the work of people like Austen Channing Brown, Drew Hart, Nadia Bolz Weber, James Cone, and Austen Hartke, who will present some arguments about why the pot needs stirred.
If nothing else, the next time you hear someone accuse another of being a pot stirrer, or you find an impetus within yourself to call someone a pot stirrer, ask yourself this question: What’s so bad about that, after all?
For most of the last six decades, we've known the Capital University athletic teams as Crusaders. Before that, we were known as the "Fighting Lutherans." A change was made, it seems, to provide a more appropriate nickname for an institution of higher education. For some, the Crusader name brings to mind successful seasons, team accomplishments, and a joyous shared identity. Some recall the dictionary definition of the word, which, depending on the origin, is something like "any vigorous, aggressive movement for the defense or advancement of an idea, cause, etc." or "a person who campaigns vigorously for political, social, or religious change." But the Crusades were a military operation, as evidenced by the present mascot’s military persona, and they included numerous instances of violent attacks against civilians, most notoriously Jewish villagers, but also Muslims and Orthodox Christians. Such a mascot, even in the cartoonish form taken by Cappy, also evokes memories of Christianity's prejudiced and violent treatment of people of color and people of other faiths. This post intends to walk us through some of the history behind the Crusader mascot, in order to explain why we should, as a University, take seriously the calls from students, alumni, faculty, and staff to change our mascot.
Part of my role as University Pastor at Capital University is to support the spiritual life of our entire community. Not just the Lutherans. Not even just the Christians. All people, from Hindus and Agnostics to Jains and Atheists to Sikhs and Buddhists. It also extends to our Jewish, Muslim, and Orthodox community members. These interfaith partners are uniquely important in this discussion because the Crusades furthered antisemitism and Islamophobia across Europe and the Mediterranean. The Crusades dehumanized Muslims and lied about both their rule of the Holy Land and the content of their faith. These Western European Christians Crusaders even sacked Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox Christian) Empire, killing innocents indiscriminately and stealing treasures to take back to Europe. In short, the legacy of the Crusader itself is not one of valor. Here, then, are some key conversation points to have an honest conversation about the Crusader nickname:
We should consider this history of the Crusader persona in light of Capital University’s recently approved strategic plan. If we are purposeful people, then the name Crusader must be purposeful. I cannot, in good conscience, identify with the purposes most commonly associated with this historical figure, as illustrated in the information I give here. If we desire to be an open community embracing hope, then that community must be metaphorically and actually open to all and pursue identities that are hopeful for all. The legacy of Crusaders, seeking colonial power over foreign lands, exploiting the people that they encountered, and murdering Jewish and Muslim civilians (as well as even their own Christian allies in Constantinople) is simply not consistent with our strategic plan. As ethical stewards, it is time for us to leave behind a mascot with, at the very minimum, an ethically ambivalent legacy. To support free inquiry for all members of the Capital community, we must release the bonds that restrict or prevent participation within our community. To effectively create an inclusive university for all people of faith, we must not glorify—or even appear to glorify—violence against people of color or people of other faiths, the expressed intention of the original Crusaders.
None of this means I do not support our athletes, coaches, or teams. I love our Capital community and give thanks for the hard work and dedication they put into their classwork, their practices, and their games. Advocating for a new mascot is not advocating against our student athletes. In fact, what I want is a mascot that truly reflects their courage, dedication, and perseverance, a mascot that holds high the ideals we share together as #CapFam.
We should identify as a campus that seeks hospitality for people of all faiths. We should not place the moniker of Crusader upon anyone, especially those members of the Capital community whose religious forebears were killed, murdered, and violated, whose wealth was stolen, and whose homes were ransacked by the Crusader armies of Europe. Nor should we expect that all Christians find the Crusader nickname appropriate, palatable, or honorable.
In sum, to claim the name Crusaders identifies us as exclusive rather than inclusive; as Euro-centered rather than globally committed; as comfortable with a history of violence against the other rather than devoted to peace with all people. We can be #CapFam or we can be Crusaders. We cannot be both, not with the legacy of a Crusader truly in view.
It is time for a new mascot, one that evokes bravery and honor, courage and integrity. We should choose such a mascot. We deserve such a mascot. The Crusader simply is not it.
You’re here! I’m so thankful you moved in and will soon start classes here at Capital University. We are a more complete community because you are here. I hope you discovered that appreciation today as we swarmed your cars to help you move everything, from futons and TVs to suitcases and shower caddies, up many flights of stairs into your new room. I hope you encountered that appreciation today at our Opening Convocation and at the #CapFam BBQ. I hope you experienced that community through the tireless work and constant companionship of your Resident Assistants and Orientation Leaders. You’re here, and that’s worth celebrating!
I’ve only been here a few months longer than you, so I’m still living that “new-to-campus” life. Let me share with you a few suggestions from my experience that I think will help you adjust to life at Capital.
Here’s my challenge to each of you. As you do that, if you see someone who isn’t connecting, if you hear someone indicate they’re not worth celebrating, remind them that they’re worth it too. If we’re to have abundant life, there’s got to be enough goodness to share. Thanks for choosing to be part of a community that shares abundant life with one another.
By today’s standards, Jesus is a terrible investor. I mean, the absolute WORST.
One of the most compelling books on charity in recent memory is Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity, which makes the case that the most common forms of charity aren’t effective or harm intended recipients. In a 2011 interview with HuffPost, Lupton claimed, “Typically, the giving is one-way: those of us with the resources give to those with a lack of resources. One-way giving tends to make the poor objects of pity, which harms their dignity. It also erodes their work ethic and produces a dependency that is unhealthy both for the giver and the recipient.”
Here’s where I’m with Lupton. I 100% agree that one-way charity isn’t actually helpful, precisely because it challenges human dignity. Charity without relationship is, at best, patronizing, which degrades recipients on behalf of the giver’s feelings or moral framework. Anytime giving doesn’t honor the humanity of the recipient and how the recipient too has gifts to offer, it is toxic indeed.
However, Lupton’s claims around work ethics and dependency depend entirely upon an 21st century American ideal. There’s still some wisdom in this, for we’re creatures bound not only our bodily experience but our social location. In other words, charity that helps disadvantaged people claim space and operate within the social norms provides the significant benefit of self stabilization. This typically comes by teaching people the habits, rituals, expectations, and norms of the dominant culture. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?
Well, it’s complicated. Such education in this American life centers particularly Western ideals like capitalism and individualism. If you don’t see any tension between those ideals and the teachings of Jesus, then we shouldn’t worry about Lupton’s definition of concepts like “work ethic” or “dependence.”
I, however, just can’t forget how awful Jesus was at this, not to mention the early church. Jesus says “give to those who ask,” fully aware of problems like greed, deception, and addiction at work in the world. Acts 2 reports that early Christians held everything in common and distributed to any who had a need. Such reckless giving and communal living certainly defy our contemporary political expectations. However, these aren’t presented as social norms in Jesus’s time to be equivocated with our own social setting. Instead, they are the countercultural action of Jesus followers convinced that eternally and temporally we cannot be self sufficient, that our work ethic will always fail us, that we are entirely dependent upon God and the images of God (read: other people) active in our lives. Jesus wasn’t concerned about making good Roman citizens. He was intent on supporting abundant life. He knew that the Roman way and the American dream are not synonymous with divine life. Ultimately, Jesus’s way was true charity, giving good gifts out of love to those who ask and honoring their personal integrity to decide what they would do with such gifts. It wasn’t an investment that would ever bring Jesus returns, except that it always entailed the possibility of furthering the physical life of another and inspiring abundant life within them.
Here’s a radical idea: dependence isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s healthy and holy, and the idol of self sufficiency is the sin.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Personal agency matters. When Jesus says, “give to those who ask,” we must recognize the agency that begins with the request. The internal contribution it takes to admit a need and seek assistance from the outside oozes integrity. Responding to that need does not eradicate dignity. Ignoring the request altogether or stereotyping what a person might do with the gift? That’s where integrity is attacked.
Yet, there’s also healthy caution here. We ought not assume everyone needs or wants charity. In fact, part of the Lupton’s wisdom from the same interview is that we’re called to “responsible charity, examined charity, rather than mindless charity.” Surely, that’s the case, and it begins with recognizing we are limited givers. Not only do we have limited resources. We’re limited in our understanding of others and their needs. We need to hear from others about what ways we may be able to help and in way ways we’re hurting, about how we’re not welcome to contribute and about where they have something to contribute to our relationship.
May we too be terrible investors, at least by today's standards, not focused on fostering a stable way of life in the American status quo, but instead living the kind of charity that honors the requests of others, that invites relationship in which we too are transformed, that creates a healthy interdependency upon God and one another. Our job is not to create more cogs in the machine of Western capitalism, nor socialism, nor anarchism. Our call is to foster Christ-like formation where dependance upon God is celebrated, where dependance on one another is encouraged, and where our work ethic is defined by the ultimate selflessness rather than any kind of return on our charitable investment.
I'm convinced that we need an ACTIVE theology as our sole theology, both in the academy and in congregations. Forgive the all caps, but I mean it. I want to scream it from the mountaintops, or at least like Leo from the front of the Titanic. Theology needs to be active. Fully stop.
In the academy - universities and seminaries, to whom I owe both my training and my current employment - often separate theologies into various categories: biblical theology, historical theology, systematic theology, practical theology, homiletics (the theology preaching), liturgics (theology of worship), theological anthropology (theology of who we are as human creatures), and so many, many more. In other words, certain divisions focused on theological theory, while others focused on practical matters of ministry.
For a time, I railed against the artificial divisions between the theoretical theologies and theologies of practice. It seemed, and stills seems, that an unpracticed theology is no use at all. As Delores S. Williams, brilliant Womanist author of Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, reminds us, theology is nothing more and nothing less than God-talk, talking about God. Here's my thesis, then. If the way we talk about God doesn't inspire and in fact necessitate action, then it is not talk worthy of God. I wanted all theology to be weighed against the plumb line of practical theology. Yet, as a person whose research time is spent almost exclusively in matters of practical theology, I have noticed that just the opposite has happened. The tendency toward theory, with no need for practice, has infiltrated the fields focused on practice as a debilitating virus.
Faith without works is dead.
Many Christians, Lutherans chief among them, remain desperately wary of such proclamations on at least two grounds. The first? A theology of glory. Any focus on what we've done, are doing, or should do brings the concurrent danger of pride in that work. It can make us believe we deserve praise that's rightly reserved for God alone. Somewhere, a Lutheran reading this just hummed "soli Deo gloria." Demands for action - and make no mistake, this is a demand on my part - often sound like appeals to works righteousness. Rather than a focus on deserving praise for the work that we do, works righteousness assumes that we're made holy by our actions, that we earn salvation via our activity. Of course, this denies the completeness of grace, that God's grace is enough for us, that it is by grace alone that we've been saved. Somewhere else, a Lutheran confirmand just recited the other three solae. Well done, friend.
Luther, Bonhoeffer, and a host of others in the tradition rightly develop the theology of the cross to counter theologies of glory and works righteousness. Yet, they also insisted upon faithful action as well. They simply made a clear demarcation between how we are saved - by grace through faith for Christ's sake, not by our works so that none may boast - and what kind of living is required of us in light of that truth. See Luther's "Freedom of a Christian" and Bonhoeffer's "Discipleship" for more in depth looks at how they expected behavior to follow from experience of salvation.
Be doers of the word.
Yet, appealing to authorities within my tradition or cleverly punctuating a blog post with references to the Epistle of James doesn't make my case. Why should should all theology be active theology? The few theses below suggest a starting point, albeit a compelling one in my view, to further a discussion on the need for active theology to operate as the central foci of theological education and Christian communities writ large.
To begin, I said we need an active theology. That's not precisely right. More accurately, the only proper theology, the only theology true to God in Christ, is active theology. Theoretical theology, theology that doesn't intersect with humanity, reveals a disinterested God disconnected with the plights and pleasures of humanity. Whatever that is, it is not Jesus.
We, the United States of America, are now charged with human rights violations by the United Nations. Apparently, deservedly so. Jeff Sessions, whose actively racist behavior previously prevented him from serving as a federal judge, now acts as Attorney General and charges people of color who migrate to our country with a federal crime under the name of an America First law enforcement initiative. This led to the active separation of family units with no declared intent or specified method of ever reuniting children with parents. Make no mistake: this is legalized, state-sanctioned terrorism against migrants. Though now stayed by an executive order, it leads instead to a different practice: indefinite detainment of migrants, practically exclusively people of color, in camps. Internment camps for Japanese Americans and concentration camps from WWII Germany to present day North Korea should ring loudly in our ears. Indefinite detention is a different type of human rights violation, one for which countries like China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran have been consistently critiqued. That is our company.
Per Sessions, this practice of separation began under the decree of Donald Trump, whose heart cannot be known but whose actions have declared, among other things: (1) a preference for consolidated power and wealth at the top social strata, the product of the most recent tax reform, (2) a disdain for peaceful protest, whether among millionaire professional athletes or common people in movements like Black Lives Matter, (3) an affinity for dictatorial modes of government where the masses sit up straight at the presence of a strong man, rather than provide critique as coequal members of society, (4) a confession of committing sexual assault, and (5) an erosion of support from the rights of LGTBQ+ people and communities, among many others.
The current practices of the United States government endanger the lives and threaten the integrity of people of color, people who lack access to financial resources, people who migrate here, people of all sexual and gender identities, and people who resist the dominant narrative of the administration. Fundamentally, this government’s practices are a threat to people, period.
I resist this government's oppressive behavior and policies entirely of my own volition, not claiming to stand for any other person or organization; yet, I do so in the legacy of Jesus, a person of color who came to proclaim good news to the poor, who survived as an undocumented migrant, who actively supported the rights and responded to the protests of racial and ethnic minorities, who supported women, who was conceived by an unwed mother and who gave us a new law, to love one another as he loves us. I stand in the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, disciple of Jesus, who refused to submit to the authority of a corrupt government and died as an active resistor. I follow the leaders of #blacklivesmatter (cofounded by women of color Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi) and Pride, the guidance of womanists and feminists, the convictions of liberation theology, the witness of Ghandi and Sojourner Truth, the organizational resistance of Nelson Mandela, William Wilberforce, and Martin Luther King, Jr.. It is a matter of both human dignity and Christian integrity that compels me to condemn the behavior
It is time for more than electing a different party in power or a different leader to run the system. The system is down, and the only feasible solution is a new way of life that constructs a new community. While a sort of new age Amish option sounds attractive, going off the grid is not an option, not if we’re called to love our neighbors. To love someone involves not only our liberation, but theirs as well. We must become like a virus, infecting the cells around us with the DNA of love that transforms our immigration policy, our concepts of black and brown bodies, our relationships with people who express intimacy, gender, and sexuality different from ours, our economic policies and our obsession with money.
Honestly, I’m not sure what this looks like. Dr. King and other leaders from the Civil Rights Movement developed particular trainings and utilized particular strategies to accomplish particular goals. That’s admirable and informative for how we accomplish change; yet, it also concedes much power to the system at hand, which will ty typically seek appeasement rather than transformation. Those with power and privilege rarely want to accomplish equality because, for them (and in many ways, as a straight, white, cisgenedered middle class male, I am one of "them") loss of privilege feels like active oppression. Incremental change is good, and specific accomplishments make progress tangible, but we need to ensure that this change is stemmed by the authoritarian gaze that declares, “Good enough for now.” A question that still haunts me is this: can we truly make the progress we need working within the system as currently constructed? I hope it is possible. I fear it is not. If we can't build the plane while we fly it, a phoenix must rise from the ashes of the crash.
I admit that this is not brave speech. This is delayed realization and response. I’m way behind siblings in Christ like Kwame Pitts, Elle Dowd, Lenny Duncan, Elizabeth Rawlings, and others at Disrupt Worship and #decolonizeLutheranism. Many are already organizing, demonstrating, speaking up and and acting out in ways that seek this change. I’m now, perhaps for the first time, overwhelmed with the need of it in light of the children who suffer without parents - parents who risked their own lives to provide a better chance at life for this children - because of the silent complicity of myself and so many others like me. Moreover, brave speech is only known by accompanied action of bravery. We must speak and must act, not to earn our salvation, but to share the abundant life God opens to all people.
We must speak up and act out. We must say clearly that God’s word does not condone oppression or terrorism, but instead, in the grand arc of scripture, calls us to redemptive, inclusive love. We must speak up that both in the Bible’s Eden and in the Bible’s eternity, there are no boundaries that prevent people from migrating toward one another. We must speak up that, in Jesus, we see the fullness of God’s intent for humanity: grace with a preferential option for those who’ve known mostly oppression and poverty, abuse and hatred, fear and want.
We must also act in ways that foster substantial change. Don't just settle for the other party when you vote when their platform still ultimately supports practices that restrict wealth at the top and refuse to release power to more people. Don't just settle for fair trade when you can instead purchase items from cooperatives owned by farmers and artisans in the Global South. We must admit the roles we have played in furthering systems of oppression and the prejudice that still festers in our own hearts while simultaneously using that privilege to lift up others rather than ourselves and choosing to act in ways contra to the prejudicial dispositions formed deep within each of us. We will only transform the world when we create equitable relationships with the people of the world, of all races and genders, ethnicities and financial means, of all sizes and abilities.
The system is down. We must speak up and act out to change it from the inside out.
I recently finished speaking at the Lutheran Outdoor Ministries Ohio Staff Training Conference. I was invited to speak about how to communicate faith to youth with different approaches to faith. In other words, if we have a group of campers who come from (1) no religious or spiritual background at all, (2) spiritual but not religious contexts, (3) nominally religious homes, and (4) families that embodied religion as a daily lived commitment, then how do we communicate to all those different people? It was no small task!
Even so, it gave me a chance to compile some of my learnings from campus ministry and congregational life. Throughout that time, I've seen plenty of things fail. Fortunately, what's proven reliable is effective for people from all backgrounds. Of course, these things won't necessarily make them believe the content - that's the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts - but they will make it more likely for people to remember the stories, theologies, and practices you teach to them.
1. Before you teach it, you have to know it. This is true of Scripture, because before you tell the story, you have to know the story. Before you describe the theology the incarnation, you have to recall the details. Before you teach someone how to lead worship, you have to have command of the practices yourself. On campus, the most effective formation of faith I see in college students directly reflect the knowledge that I know the best.
Notice, though, that this should be an encouragement to learn more, not to simply teach the stuff with which you're comfortable. Church leaders should always be deepening their knowledge of scripture, of church history, of theology, of practical ministry concerns, and especially how these things relate to issues that affect the daily lives of congregants. The more you know, the better you can teach, so commit to learning yourself.
2. Acknowledge your limitations. None of us are experts on everything. Humans are necessarily limited creatures, so enter these situations with humility and a willingness to learn from others as well. If you don't know it well enough to teach it extensively, admit that to yourself and invite other leaders with more expertise to lead in those areas. This isn't weakness. It is wisdom.
You can also utilize a plethora of other teaching resources, like The Work of the People, Why Christian, or SparkHouse. Some of the best leadership is curating resources that fill in the gaps within your knowledge, even as you develop further knowledge and additional skills.
3. Repetition is the mother of mastery. I learned this phrase from Jim Duxbury, my high school Environmental Geology teacher. Rather than cram before a test, Mr. Duxbury taught us to take five minutes at the start of every class to review all of our notes from the semester. The repeated engagement with the material familiarized us with the words, the concepts, and their relationship to other important pieces of the course.
We employ similar practices in the church. Memorizing biblical verses engrains not just the words, but the associated emotions, into our beings. Reading the same lectionary scriptures every three years centers us on a particular set of biblical content. When I was in confirmation classes, I learned the books of the Bible by repeating a silly song over and again, and I learned Martin Luther's explanation of the 10 Commandments by first repeating the commandments and then repeating the explanations.
No matter how well we know something, repetition helps us to better know it and to ingrain it more deeply within our hearts and minds.
4. Apply and reapply. This is where you can get specific and address on the person's personal background. It's not exactly rinse and repeat, because it's going to be a different application depending on the person(s) with whom you're working, When you are sharing faith content, generic stories and general ideas don't make the same depth of impact as incarnated theology. After all, it was God becoming human that made all the difference in the world. The best theologies we have are the ones that come alive in the lives of our people, and in so doing, promote God's abundant life within them.
Teaching, say, the story of Jonah will different not only based on age groups - for instance, seven year olds likely won't understand how genre magnifies the meaning of the text, but seventeen year olds will - but on familial context. A child with no introduction to religion might hear this story as something like Aesop's Fables, while a young person raised in an evangelical home might argue the historical veracity of the events. In so doing, both may miss the content arc of God's radical grace and narrative plays that suggest Jonah is some of the earliest recorded satire available. Yet, you can help them see those markers and how big God's truth can be within the myth, regardless of the story's historicity.
5. Find and utilize the common ground and goals. Much effective teaching begins from the same level as learners. Common ground, simply the reliability of the teacher, helps your content become more palatable and approachable. Discovering or developing shared goals can help to overcome some obstacles in the educational process. The way that we often structure classrooms, with a single authority at the front of auditorium-style seats, suggests a strong division between teacher and student. Destroy that barrier. Instead, find ways to flip the learning experience, where you exist among the learners, as a learner. Mutual education provides an opportunity for you to be heard as a trusted source and allows you access to the lives of students that enhances your understanding of how information may impact their lives. Commonality breeds common understandings, so establishing common ground and goals will help the information at hand take root in the soil of the entire community.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.