Whose Reformation is it, anyway? Next year, the Lutheran communion around the world will commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. In much of the discourse around the coming anniversary, 1517 is simply called the beginning of “The Reformation.” Ironically, the omission of the word “German” from that phrase tells you a lot about how much German identity is embedded into Lutheran culture. One could also speak of the English Reformation or the Genevan Reformation or even the French Reformation.
The assumed but unsaid “German” captures what some Lutherans are saying is a major problem in the Lutheran church, more specifically in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Under the hashtag #decolonizeLutheranism, a group of Lutheran pastors and laypeople have been curating conversations about what they see as the Lutheran church’s participation in or benefitting from exploitative systems of power. While the ELCA has begun to look more intentionally at its own relationship with racism since last year’s shooting in Charleston, #decolonizeLutheranism reflects a belief held by some that the church will seek to fight racism in society without addressing racism within the church itself. Moreover, they show a concern that focusing so narrowly on race obscures the ways racism affects people based on their gender expression, sex, socioeconomic class, religion, sexual orientation, or other identity markers. Some of these critiques center around hierarchical models of church leadership, selective theologies of justification, and outdated understandings of evangelism.
Another critique, called #decolonizeTheStory, to “seeks to raise-up alternative historical and theological narratives to take center stage in our church’s culture” so that Lutheranism “cannot be defined solely by northern European, cultural identity markers.” There’s no doubt that this is an accurate assessment. While the ELCA is predominantly white, the promotion of European identity markers often crowd out the experiences and tradition of Lutherans from non-European backgrounds. Yet coming up with a solution to this problem requires not only looking to new ways of thinking but also examining why this mindset is so pervasive. #decolonizeLutheranism has rightly noted that it grows out of systems of race and power in America that privilege European narratives. But another set of factors deserves closer examination: the success of the ecumenical movement and a desire for a unique identity.
The ecumenical movement, while bringing us into closer relationships with other denominations and church bodies, has also created something of a crisis in Lutheran identity. As we have come closer together, we have had a more difficult time discerning exactly what makes us unique. What does it mean when the Augsburg Confession, the central confessional statement of the Lutheran church, is affirmed by other denominations? Take, for example, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s claim that “Lutherans have a very particular way of understanding the Jesus story” insofar as we focus on “the story of God redeeming us from sin, death and the devil, setting us free from our bondage to sin so that, liberated and alive, we may serve God by serving the neighbor.” It’s an admirable distillation of the Lutheran message into a single sentence, but a focus on grace and service to others isn’t uniquely Lutheran. (To Eaton’s credit, I don’t think she was trying to come up with something unique, either.) Plenty of Christians from other denominations and church bodies would agree with this statement.
The problem comes when Lutherans, no longer able to hold onto certain theological ideas as unique, grab onto cultural markers, many of which come from or harken back to northern Europe. We should be grateful that fewer Lutherans think they are the only ones who talk about grace, but we should be equally careful to resist the temptation to reanchor Lutheran identity in a particular ethnic identity.
What is needed then is not only a critical reevaluation of European-centric understandings of Lutheranism and Lutheran identity but also the formation of an identity that emerges from conversation with, not opposition to, other denominations and church bodies. No doubt this means moving past ethnic stereotypes of what it means to be a Lutheran. But it also means moving past a kind of Lutheran exceptionalism that defines Lutheranism by what makes it different.
This is not to say that Lutherans should ignore the European influence in Lutheranism. Instead, it means saying the unspoken but assumed “German” and acknowledging how the Lutheran expression of the Christian faith did not arise in isolation from its surroundings. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with asking what makes Lutherans unique. But such questions become a problem when the answer becomes constitutive in describing what it means to be Lutheran.
As the German Reformation approaches its five hundredth anniversary, it is time to reevaluate what it means to be Lutheran, not only in the past but also in the future. To use a biblical image, it means living kenotically instead of grasping onto exploitative forms of power that shape community and identity. It means living open-handed, welcoming and embracing all.
Photo courtesy flickr user jasonwoodhead23