Beyond My Own Understanding
I grew up in a nice, middle-class suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I went to a Lutheran church and attended a little Lutheran church school. I did not go to school with students who recognized themselves as people of color until switching to a public school at the age of seventeen. Growing up, none of my friends had any disabilities of which I was aware. We were healthy, All-american boys. I only had brothers and worked for 15 years at a boys summer camp. I never played a co-ed sport, was on all white teams, and never thought twice about playing my youth football games on the field of Menomonee Falls High School, Home of the Indians.
If you asked me growing up if I was racist or sexist or prejudiced in any way, I would have quickly and adamantly said, “NO!” I didn’t hate any group of people. However, throughout college and my adult life, I have learned a great deal about topics like white privilege, male privilege, homophobia, systemic racism, and disability discrimination. I have intentionally worked to raise my awareness of these systems that have been established to benefit some, while oppressing others. Although difficult to face and accept, the realities of these systems have worked in my favor, and so I was content to remain unaware of their influence.
In becoming a teacher, I actively worked to break down some of these systems in smalls way within the scope of my power as a middle school teacher. I made an effort to recognized all of my students cultural backgrounds and practices, allowing creative project changes by my students; like writing an American Indian creation story, teaching the class a Korean new year’s dance, or performing a Middle Eastern childhood fable. I worked to eliminate gender specific generalization, like “When your mom washes your uniform” or “I need some strong boys to help me move these tables.” I addressed students use of phrases like “That’s gay” or “That’s retarded,” helping them find a more respectful way to express their frustration. I helped plan meaningful MLK Day assemblies for our primarily white school, I was a faculty mentor for our LGBTQ student club, and I was part of our diversity planning team. I was not able to stand against the large systemic problems of our whole society, but within my direct community, I worked to change the accepted cultural norms.
With all of my efforts in the classroom, it never occurred to me to look at my Lutheran faith with the same critical eye. There was nothing really to change. I was raised Lutheran, the Lutherans I knew did good out in the community, and I was called to “go out and make disciples.” Before attending seminary, I never really questioned what it meant to be Lutheran, as opposed to Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Episcopal. I never really questioned what it meant to be Christian, as opposed to Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist. I was a Christian, which was good. Within my Christian faith, I was Lutheran, which was right.
It never crossed my mind that my understanding of my faith was guided by my very specific context. As a white, middle-class, college-educated, American man, I have a specific way in which I have read the Bible. I have a specific way in which I have heard the Gospel. I know Christ in a very specific way in relation to who I am, how I was raised, and the context in which I live.
Now I am talking about more than simply realizing that Jesus wasn’t white (if that is a shock to you, process the rest of this post slowly, because it’s only going to get more real). I can understand that, I see the problem with portraying Jesus as white, and I agree with changes within the church to show Jesus as he would have more accurately appeared. I am talking about realizing that how I read the Bible is different, how I know Jesus is different, how I think about the cross is different, and how I am affected by the Gospel is different than other people. I am talking about eliminating the limitation I have put of God and God’s promise, by opening myself to who God is beyond my own understanding, beyond my own context. David Yeago reminds us in his article, “A Christian, Holy People” that Martin Luther was a "late medieval theologian who spoke out of late medieval assumptions to late medieval issues.” My theology has been spoken by white male pastors, in Midwest suburban churches, in relation to my middle-class ideology and concerns.
In my Contemporary Lutheran Theology class, we have had a number of readings and discussions dealing with Liberation Theology. Reading these articles and books have offered me a new perspective in which to view my faith and the Gospel promise. The Gospel transcends time and space. All people encounter the Gospel in the context of a specific culture, society, environment, and moment in time. Understanding that the black community, women, the Native American people, and people with disabilities may have unique perspective on the Christian faith has been eye opening, challenging, and renewing. The truth is that there is a whole concrete reality for individuals when experiencing the Gospel and understanding God's promise.
In the posts below, I seek to share my understanding of the articles I have read. I am at the beginning of this process, and claim no expertise or experience as part of these communities. The authors of the articles and books that I reference have their own voice, and I simply hope to support their call to action with my own humble voice. If in my desire to share my learning, I misunderstand the author’s intent, I express misinformation, or I mistakenly speak for, instead of with the community, I ask for constructive feedback that can further my understanding. If you disagree with the readings, then I encourage respectful discussions in the comment section. I hope that my posts can contribute to challenging and growing your faith life as these authors and my class has contributed to challenging and growing mine as a person of faith!
Yeago, David S. “‘A Christian, Holy People’: Martin Luther on Salvation and the Church.” Modern Theology 13, no. 1 (1997): 101-120.